Waldorf-Astoria – Progress Comes To Fifth Avenue

When William Waldorf Astor decided to leave New York and make his home permanently in England, the newspapers were filled with more than a discussion of the future expatriate. There was excited conjecture as to what would happen to his big brick town house that sprawled at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-third Street.

Society was particularly agitated because even in the late eighties, Fifth Avenue was being forced to make a determined stand against progress, which has no mercy on tradition. It was the residential street of the city and of the nation. Those who were fortunate enough to have their town houses on the Avenue were openly suspicious, jealous, and fearful of any move that would challenge its supremacy as a thoroughfare of homes. The Fifth Avenue residents had fought off successfully attempts to run a street railroad through, and at first had frowned even in the direction of hotel men who were looking for choice sites.

Yet hotels, and splendid ones for their day, had established themselves on the Avenue. These included the Fifth Avenue Hotel, erected even before the Civil War, the Brunswick, the Holland House, and the famous Windsor Hotel, which was badly burned during a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, resulting in the deaths of many people, guests and employees.

As for the Astor home, no one at first even guessed that Mr. Astor would replace it with a hotel. Some believed he might build a church on the spot, or a museum or a library. That was, they thought, the classic thing for him to do, the final gesture of a man who was leaving his native land forever. Some even hoped that he would insist upon the old house standing—for there really were a few New Yorkers who believed in traditions and who wanted to cherish them.

William’s father, old John Jacob Astor, had put up that house in 1870. The lapse of twenty years had given it the dignity of an old landmark. People said that if the Astor home went down and made way for some non-residential structure it would be the beginning of the end of Fifth Avenue as a street of homes. It was the beginning of the end. For, as the years went by, other great homes on the Avenue were to succumb to the wrecker’s touch and all the charm, the redolence, and the splendor of the past was to vanish, to be succeeded by a cold, impatient, and unrelenting progress.

Yet the regret that New Yorkers felt at the passing of the old Astor home was superseded by wonder and admiration. For upon the site rose, as Mr. Barnum might have said, the grandest, most stupendous edifice of its kind that ever had presented itself to the human eye.

The Waldorf, in fact, assumed the proportions of a modern wonder of the world. In New York it was the most important topic of general conversation. Even the panic seemed a little trivial beside it. The newspapers, commenting upon the hotel, had some overpowering statistics for public digestion. There were 530 rooms, of these 450 were sleeping-rooms. There were 350 private bathrooms and the cost was estimated at nearly four millions of dollars. Another staggering statistic was its height of thirteen stories. Surrounded by the comparatively low dwellings in the residential area, the Waldorf loomed as an architectural giant. Neither Europe nor the United States had seen anything like it before.

All other hotels in the city seemed insignificant in comparison. The exclusive Windsor and Murray Hill managements were ruffled by the opening of the new and scintillating upstart. The important hotels near and about Madison Square-the Fifth Avenue, the Brunswick, and the Hoffman House—were like neglected children who discover that a new child is in their midst and is being given most of the attention.

The news of the Waldorf and its magnificence spread, not only through New York, but throughout the United States and across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. It had brought a new concept of the word “hotel” into being. Luxury and magnificence in living, in dining and even in lolling were personified there. Today, it is true, we are all a little indifferent about new buildings that boast magnificence. No longer do we stand in open-mouthed awe at super-hotels, super-apartment houses, or even that most indescribably super-institution—the motion-picture palace. The latter has so gorged the American senses with overwhelming splendor that we can take it in our stride without any undue shock to our nervous system. The chief appeal to our satiated ocular senses now happily lies in simple beauty.

But the early ‘nineties was another age: an age of over-stuffed furniture. In many respects it was no less magnificent than our own. Indeed, there are observers of our social evolution who insist that New York society, as it is connoted in the social columns of the newspapers, has deteriorated greatly since the ‘nineties. They say that in the decade just before the nineteenth century vanished into history and the scrapbooks, the peak—as the statisticians would put it—the peak of social grandeur in the metropolis was reached.

This may have been so. But society then was limited and American wealth was just as limited. The great American fortunes were comparatively few and were confined mostly to the old families.

These factors may have helped to establish what then amounted to a real social aristocracy, such as New York does not know today. But they did not hide the fact that living in general, particularly among the middle class and the poor, had a sorry taint of drabness about it. That is to say, comparatively few people ever came in contact with what we here conveniently call splendor.

In the matter of hotels, for instance, one found them excellent, efficient, tidy-some of them even boasted of a certain luxuriousness. But to stay at a hotel was not to taste something in the way of living usually reserved only for the rich. Hotel men simply didn’t consider themselves called upon to provide anything more than the necessities and the luxuries of life in as attractive—but not as magnificent–a way as was possible.

There was a reason for this, of course. The hotels of the day catered usually to the transient trade. They were more accurately “commercial inns.” The only feature that attracted local interest and trade was the bar. The bar, indeed, was the one ornate place in the old hotel. But the hotel did not consider itself a part of the city, nor did it attempt to contribute to the city’s social or-recreational life. The old hotel was epitomized in a stranger sitting before a big window looking out upon a strange town.

The Waldorf, coming along with its dazzling luxury, its social attractions, its beauty, took its place definitely as a New York institution from the beginning. It provided an appropriate stage for colorful balls, public dinners and gatherings. In time even concerts were provided there regularly. The dining-rooms enticed the public with meals that could be obtained nowhere else.

In other words, the Waldorf came as a bid for local patronage as well as for transient trade. New Yorkers before then seldom had gone in for the custom, now so prevalent, of “dining out.” Hotel cuisine was something that bore a significance only for travelers. But the Waldorf soon was to become the gathering-place for society at teatime, and during the lunch and dinner hours.

But when the hotel first opened, its management was by no means certain that these things would come to pass. The most important question was whether society would accept the new institution. The answer to that question was given most emphatically—and brilliantly—on the night of March 14, 1893, at what was formally called “the opening concert.” Although the hotel actually opened on the 13th, it was the following night that it faced its important social test.

The concert was for the benefit of St. Mary’s Free Hospital for Children, to which, upon instructions from the management, the entire hotel was to be given over that evening. Each guest paid the astonishing price, for that time, of five dollars.

Although rain drenched the city for hours, a large crowd stood outside the hotel entrances, waiting for a glimpse of the social celebrities who had been invited to attend—and every one of social prominence had been given a bid to attend the concert. They came—not only from New York, but from Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore.

If you look into the society columns of the old, yellow newspapers on file in the New York Public Library you will find there the triumphant picture of that social gathering. You will read that in the receiving line were the social leaders of New York; that Mrs. Paul Dana wore rich, black satin; Mrs. Richard Irvin was dressed in silver-gray satin, trimmed with old point-de-Venise lace and diamond and pearl ornaments; that the handsome figure of Mrs. James Harriman was draped with black satin and gauze, studded with turquoise, and that Mrs. John A. Lowery was resplendent in black satin.

If you are one who glories in famous social names you will read on through those columns and find other interesting bits of social intelligence. For instance: Mrs. William jay wore a mauve satin Empire gown; ropes of pearls shone on the black satin and velvet dress of Mrs. Henry Barbey; a mauve satin “1830” gown, with flounces and full skirts, worn by Mrs. Charles Oelrichs, attracted much attention, as did a turquoise-blue brocade Empire gown worn by Mrs. J. J. Wysong.

These were only a few of the guests and gowns to be seen at that opening concert night. There were about 1,500 guests in all, and among them were to be found still other famous names, some forgotten, some remembered. Mrs. Gouverneur Morris, Mrs. Reginald de Koven, Mrs. Chauncey M. Depew, Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, Mrs. Joseph H. Choate, Mrs. George Peabody Wetmore, Mrs. W. Bayard Cutting, and Mrs. James S. Frick. Another was Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, who donated the orchestra for the concert it was the New York Symphony Orchestra, by the way, and its director was Walter Damrosch.

The concert was followed by a supper in the Palm Garden, the main cafe, and the various private dining-rooms. One of these, incidentally, was a reproduction of the William Waldorf Astor dining-room. Let’s see what they served and let us pass over, with pious indifference or perhaps a sigh, the last items on the list:

CHAUD

Bouillon en tasse Huitres, bechamel Bouches a la Reine Cotellettes de ris de veau Terrapin, Philadelphia

FROID

Salade de volaille Gelatine de dinde Pate de gibier Rillettes

Glace a l’orange Glace fantaisie Pieces montes Gateaux assortia

Champagne {ahh!} Claret punch {ah!} Lemonade [hmmm]

This was the opening night. Society had turned out en masse. They had been given an opportunity to taste the life the new Waldorf had to offer and the Waldorf was not found wanting. They knew that American enter-prise, as the Sun rightly put it next day, had not dreamed of such splendors as those through which the fashionable throngs moved that night. The hotel had been provided with costly and artistic accouterments worthy of an Old World palace. All the refinements of the Old World civilization had been drawn upon. There were magnificent tapestries, paintings, frescoings, wood-carvings, marble and onyx mosaics, quaint and rich pieces of furniture, rare and costly tableware. There were beautiful chandeliers, palms and ferns, roses and violets heaped loosely on the tables or banked upon the mantels.

“Louis XIV,” said the (breathless) Sun, in commenting upon the wonders of the hotel, “could not have got the like of the first suite of apartments set apart for the most distinguished guests of the hotel. There is a canopied bed upon a dais, such as a king’s should be. Upon this couch shall repose the greatnesses and, looking about them, see many thousands of dollars’ worth of fineries. Think of the joy of being great!”

Throughout the hotel there was a mingling of foreign and American customs. There were baths, elevators, and electric lights—new American improvements on the best of the European hotels. There was a men’s cafe–but without the famous four-sided bar of the Waldorf-Astoria. The early cafe of the Waldorf had no bar and those who drank had to sit at tables.

The Waldorf was placed before the eyes of New York’s socially finest as a place of fashion and wealth, and its restaurants were presented as rivals of the most exclusive restaurants in town—Delmonico’s and, later, Sherry’s. Throughout the corridors of the hotel that night could be heard polite exclamations of amazement from the guests. They were impressed, they were conquered. The social future of the Waldorf was assured.

And over near the main entrance, standing in the door-way, one man, surveying the pleasure and surprise written on the faces of his guests, smiled happily. He had staked everything on this night and his highest hopes had been realized.

This man was George C. Boldt.