In 1836 Manhattan, houses were lit by candles. Floors were generally made out of wood. Private bathrooms? Decades away.
Yet all of these things could be had at the Astor House (above, in 1874), the city’s first luxury hotel, at Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets.
Built by multimillionaire John Jacob Astor, this 360-room granite palace dazzled New Yorkers, few of whom had the means to spend a night there or dine in the hotel’s for-men-only restaurant, enclosed under a rotunda in a center courtyard (below, in 1899).
“It can never be a success—it is altogether too far uptown,” Astor’s associates warned him, forgetting the he was a real estate pro who foresaw the northward march of the city.
The hotel wasn’t just a huge success, it became an emblem of the growing Empire City.
And what amenities! An in-house gas plant provided gas lighting. A plumbing system offered hot and cold running water to each floor. Rooms had private water closets. A car ferried guests to Madison Square Garden.
President Lincoln stayed there twice: first when he came to New York to deliver his famous speech as a presidential candidate at Cooper Union in 1860, then in 1861, on the way to his inauguration. He made an impromptu speech at the hotel during his second stay, as memorialized in the Harper’s Weekly cover below.
With City Hall and Barnum’s American Museum across the street, the Astor House booked plenty of politicians. artists, and entertainers, such as Jenny Lind, Mathew Brady, Daniel Webster, Jefferson Davis, and Henry Clay.
Even as the city inched uptown and sumptuous hotels threatened the Astor’s status, it remained a beloved fixture—until John Jacob Astor’s descendants fought over the property and the subway arrived.
In 1913, the Greek Revival beauty, with its Doric columns and pink granite, was torn down because subway construction threatened its foundation.
It was replaced by—what else?—office space aptly called the Astor House Building.
[Photos: NYPL Digital Gallery]