Posts Tagged ‘John Jacob Astor’

New York is dazzled by its first luxury hotel

October 19, 2015

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).

Astorhouserotunda1899“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.

Astorhouseharpersweekly2With 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]

John Jacob Astor: New York’s first drug dealer

May 4, 2011

German immigrant John Jacob Astor, who arrived in Manhattan dirt poor in 1784, made his first fortune (about $5 million) trading furs with native tribes, eventually shipping the pelts all over the world.

But in 1816, opportunistic, ruthless salesman Astor got into another lucrative new business: smuggling opium.

He had already been selling furs to China, bringing skins from the Pacific Northwest to warehouses in New York, where they were then shipped to Canton.

So it was easy for Astor to join the booming worldwide narcotics trade.

He purchasing thousands of pounds of Turkish opium and shipped it to China—illegally, as China had banned opium in 1799, according to this PBS/Frontline opium timeline.

Astor snagged a lucrative slice of the drug biz before quitting after a few years and putting his millions in another sometimes slimy venture: New York real estate. Astor Place, Astoria, and Astor Row in Harlem all bear his name.

John Jacob Astor IV: the richest Titanic casualty

April 13, 2009

Of all the insanely wealthy passengers booked in first class on the Titanic in April 1912, John Jacob Astor IV, 48, was at the top of the financial heap.

johnjacobastorwifeGreat-grandson of the John Jacob Astor who came to New York in the 18th century and made a fortune in beaver pelts and opium, Astor IV was accomplished in his own right: He was an inventor, builder of the Astoria (later Waldorf-Astoria) Hotel, and author of a sci-fi novel set in the year 2000.

He had also knocked up his 18-year-old second wife, Madeleine Force, and the scandal of divorce and remarriage forced the couple to bide their time in Europe and Egypt. But with a baby due later that year, the Astors decided to return to New York City.

They settled in to a first-class room (reportedly costing about $4,000 a night, more like $50,000 today) with a manservant, maid, nurse, and their dog, Kitty.

After the ship hit the iceberg and women and children began getting into lifeboats, Astor supposedly asked a crew member if he could sit with his wife in one of the empty lifeboat seats, citing her pregnancy. He was refused but reportedly took it like a man.

Days later his crushed body was found in the Atlantic; he’s buried in Trinity Cemetery. His son, John Jacob Astor VI, was born in August 1912.


Astor, at left, waiting for the train that would take him to the Titanic for boarding.

One busy little beaver

August 8, 2008

This little guy gnaws away at the Astor Place 6 station, a reminder of how John Jacob Astor made his fortune: beaver pelts.

There’s another beaver in New York City: Jose, the slick furry dude spotted swimming in the Bronx River last year. Take a look at a photo and fairly recent update of Jose’s whereabouts.