Posts Tagged ‘GIlded Age NYC’

A lethal hotel fire at the St. Patrick’s Day parade

March 8, 2021

When the Windsor Hotel was going up in the early 1870s, it was one of the modern new buildings transforming sleepy Fifth Avenue above 42nd Street into the “storied splendor of the future of New York City,” as the New York Times excitedly wrote at the time.

“The Windsor is to be a first class hotel in every respect, and not to be excelled in general arrangements, size of rooms, attendance and completeness by any establishment of the kind,” stated the Times in May 1872, in a glowing review of the plans for the 500-room, seven-story hotel, which was set to open a year later at Fifth and 47th Street.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the Windsor. Not only was Fifth Avenue all the way up to 59th Street at Central Park booming during the Gilded Age, but hotel living was becoming a popular alternative to owning a single-family mansion for many wealthy New Yorkers.

Yet 26 years later, a carelessly tossed cigarette would reduce to hotel to smoldering rubble—and crowds lining Fifth Avenue to watch the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade (below, in 1904) found themselves witnesses to desperate hotel guests jumping to their deaths to escape the flames.

The fire started around 3 in the afternoon on March 17, 1899. A hotel guest reportedly lit his cigarette or cigar with a match in the second-floor parlor, then tossed the match out the window. But instead of falling to the street, the lit match was blown into a curtain. Almost instantly, the fire spread across the drapes and to the wall, according to the Times the day after the blaze.

The fire moved fast inside the hotel. But outside was a festive scene, with paraders “marching gayly up Fifth Avenue in front of the hotel, and thousands of people keeping time to the lilt of Irish tunes, while hundreds watched from the windows of the hotel the passing troops and waving flags,” the Times reported.

The head waiter at the Windsor, John Foy—who tried to stamp out the flames when they were still confined to the drapes—raced outside to the street yelling fire, but his cries were “drowned out by the music.” He tried to alert a policeman but was told to get back.

Finally the flames engulfed the second-floor parlor, and the smoke began to attract the attention of parade watchers before the fire exploded upward.

“Women turned pale and screamed, little ones shrank back sobbing, and men felt the sweat break upon their brows, as the heads of panic-stricken people protruded from the hotel windows…calling for help in tones that made the hearers sick,” the Times reported.

Guests trapped in their rooms had one escape route: they could climb out the window via the safety rope installed in every room—this is what passed for a fire safety exit at the time. But many people who started down the ropes ended up letting go because of the friction of the rough rope against their hands—and they subsequently plunged to the sidewalk, the Times wrote.

Firemen came to the scene quickly, but “milling thousands” of parade watchers prevented the firemen from getting inside the building easily. By the time they did, the Windsor ‘was blazing like an oil-soaked rag in a pitch barrel,” according to a Popular Science article that reexamined the fire in 1928.

The final death toll was estimated to be 86. Many of the bodies suffered so much trauma, they went unidentified and buried in an unmarked mass grave in Kensico cemetery in Westchester.

“The Windsor, although it was the most fashionable residence hotel in the city, was a veritable tinder box, ‘built to be burned,’ fire chief John Kenyon said, per Popular Science. “It has no fire escapes, no standpipes, no fire buckets. In short, it represented the worst type of the old-style ‘quick burner.'” Kenyon was a lieutenant at the time of the fire, but as FDNY chief in 1907 he was responsible for the first high-pressure hydrant system in the city.

This terrible tragedy loomed large for decades. It was even turned into a song—dedicated to Helen Gould, widow of financier/robber baron Jay Gould, who lived near the hotel and turned her “double house” mansion into a makeshift hospital to treat the injured. But over time, the Windsor receded in the city’s collective memory.

Yet there is a recent poignant twist to the story: In 2014, the unidentified victims who perished in the fire and were interred in Valhalla finally got a black granite monument to mark the mass grave. “They’re all unidentified and cemeteries are about memorialization,” Chet Day, Kensico’s president, told local paper lohud in 2014. “I felt something had to be done.”

[Top image: MCNY 91.69.15; second image: New-York Historical Society; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY X2010.11.9345; fifth image: MCNY X2010.11.9340; sixth image: MCNYX2010.11.9354; seventh image: MCNY X2010.11.9350; eighth image: Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins University]

The street where the rich parked their carriages

July 31, 2017

If you’ve ever found yourself walking down the quiet, low-key East 73rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenue, you may have noticed all the carriage houses—each one reflecting a different architectural style.

This conglomeration of carriage house gorgeousness was no accident, of course.

In the Gilded Age, the wealthiest New Yorkers used their new money riches to build mansions on the newly fashionable Upper East Side streets between Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue.

And even though new elevated railways offered access to the rest of the East Side, these nouveau riche New Yorkers weren’t the type to take public transportation. They needed a place to keep their carriages and buggies, not to mention the horses who powered them and their equine caretakers.

So this stretch of East 73rd Street, once lined with modest row houses built in the 1860s, became a block of private carriage houses where the rich parked their vehicles.

“Stables were a necessity during the period when urban transportation was limited to horses and carriages, but only the very wealthy could afford to build and maintain a private carriage house,” notes this 1980 Neighborhood Preservation Center report.

“The carriage houses were built on streets that were convenient to the East Side mansions, but were not so close that their noises and smells would mar the exclusive character of the residential streets.”

One of the first to go up in the early 1880s was 166 East 73rd Street (third photo), designed by premier architect Richard Morris Hunt for Henry Marquand, a millionaire banker who was a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After Hunt designed Marquand’s showstopper of a mansion around the corner at Madison Avenue and 68th Street, he put this 3-story carriage house together.

The $25,000 stable housed three carriages and six horse stalls; the second floor was a hayloft, and the third floor consisted of apartments for coachmen, grooms, and their families, according to a 2007 New York Times article.

The neo-Flemish Renaissance carriage house (fourth photo today, and fifth photo at right in 1905) was built for banker William Bayless.

At number 170 (fourth photo, left side) is the carriage house for merchant Henry Sloane, and then other titans of business after Sloane sold his mansion at 9 East 72nd Street.

Number 178 is a Beaux-Arts beauty built for a man named John Connors, who sold it to Charles Hudson, head of a brokerage firm who resided at One East 76th Street.

(Interestingly, a lot of these carriage houses changed hands early on; perhaps an indication that fortunes frequently rose and fell in the Gilded Age.)

One building built for vehicles in 1906 was actually intended not for horses but cars. Foreseeing that the future would belong to the automobile, one businessman put up this 5-story “automobile garage” at 177-179 (above left, today, and right, soon after it was built). It still serves that function today.

All of the carriage houses on East 73rd Street have long since been converted to homes.

Take a peek inside the combined residence of 165 and 167 (second photo), completed in 1904 for the president of the Remington Typewriter Company. It was going for a cool $14.5 million back in 2007!

[Fifth photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.647; Last photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.527]