The Fifth Avenue Hotel: opulence, glamor and power in Madison Square

The double-breasted gentlemen who chew cigars gathered in the lavish rooms of the Fifth Avenue Hotel were casual connoisseurs of New York City history, and in particular, these amateur historians talked about the corner where their hotel was located.

Prior to Madison Square, when the area was a barren parade ground, a Corporal Thompson opened a roadhouse and stagecoach station in the area that would become 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue.

Many have spoken fondly of the establishment in Thompson, called Madison Cottage, because they remembered the place as young boys. They echoed the rural quality of the area, with sculpted rectangular blocks carved into the ground and a Broadway dirt road winding north.

But that was the 1840s.

Madison Cottage, Hitchcock, Darling & Co.

Forty years later, Madison Square Park was the center of New York, a hotbed of class, business and luxury that stretched south to Union Squarethrough this attractive collection of fine stores known as Ladies Mileand up Fifth Avenue to the fabulous mansions of the wealthy.

And the dead center of all this activity was the Fifth Avenue Hotelnot only the “better [hotel] in this metropolisthe “first hotel in the world,” but quite simply one of the most startling scenes in American politics of the mid-to-late 19th century.

New York’s hotel revolution

Hotels were rapidly becoming the center of New York life from at least the days of the House of Astorlocated near City Hall, in the 1830s. Within two decades, new trendy hotels (such as the St. Nicholas and the Metropolitan) spread along Broadway and eventually coalesced around Union Square.

By the Civil War, the thrust of New York society was so defined by them that Confederate conspirators tried to set many of them on fire.

The Fifth Avenue hotel opened in 1859, the business of a wealthy merchant Amos Richards Eno, who correctly bet that the center of commerce in the city would soon settle on 23rd Street. Eno was such a confident speculator that he quit his brownstone at 74 Broadway (the first New York brownstone, he claimed) to a massive house near the hotel.

Some thought it unwise to build so far north, and when workers dug up dozens of skeletons during construction – the area was once a potter’s field – the corner was even deemed cursed. Eno defied the naysayers, pouring his wealth into the hotel to make it the most modern and luxurious accommodation of the day.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel, 1879. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A confectionery from the golden age

The Italian exterior was awash with five stories of imported marble, while the austere, carpeted interiors of French design drew comparisons to European palaces.

Guests were able to enjoy reading rooms, a luxurious bar, a hair salon, a dedicated telegraph office and a variety of dining rooms and lounges, not to mention the first passenger elevator ever built in the United States, a steam-powered monstrosity that ferries passengers to their floor.

The private quarters were soundproofed, equipped with modern innovations in plumbing and richly decorated, becoming for many “The safest, healthiest and most comfortable hotel in the world.

The Fifth Avenue hotel reading room, busy every weekend. (Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co.,)
Roll and bargain

As the best hotel in town in the years following the Civil War, it naturally became a magnet for politicians and financiers. Of all the “behind the scenes” of American politics, none was as bright as Fifth Avenue.

Bankers huddled in the mythical ‘living room D.R.’ during the tense days of the financial panic of 1873. In particular, the hotel has become a de facto headquarters of the New York Republicans.

Although often secondary to the Democrats in the city – it was the era of Tammany RoomThe growing power of – the Republicans frequently controlled the state government, and the Fifth Avenue hotel became a smoky center of political unrest and dealings.

During the 1870s, New York Republicans became national power brokers and frequently sparked crises here on Fifth Avenue.

In the years before the Waldorf-Astoria, presidents and dignitaries all stayed there while visiting. More devious political maneuverings have taken place in the chambers of prominent politicians who have sat here, including the inimitable Roscoe Conkling (to the left), senator from New York and leader of the Republican faction known as the the faithful.

National influence

When the fractured Republicans at their convention in 1880 were named non-Stalwart James Garfield for president, the candidate had to crawl for their support by symbolically ‘kissing the ring’ of the Stalwarts during a visit to the Fifth Avenue Hotel, partially accepting their system of patronage and taking Conkling’s ally Levi Morton as a member of his cabinet. (Garfield later backed out of that arrangement.)

Another frequent guest here was Chester A. Arthur, Garfield’s eventual vice president. When Arthur became president after Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau (who himself had wandered the corridors of the hotel deliriously), he would set up his entire administration there during visits to his adopted city.

In the 1890s, a hotel hallway known as ‘Amen Corner‘ was a famous gathering place for Republican political leaders and journalists. As they frequently had powwows here on Sundays, the pickers caustically shouted “Amen!” in heated discussions.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel from the Flatiron Building

The hotel has become a magnet for shenanigans of all kinds. In 1893, a few hundred supporters of an American silver monetary standard broke out in riot which included two U.S. senators.

The bank robber Robert Montague was arrested here in 1896 thanks to a tip from a maid. An early remnant of National Baseball League gathered here every year and the national billiard competitions were held in the hotel’s billiard room.

In the new century, of course, the locus of New York activity was hastily moving downtown, and the Fifth Avenue hotel was considered a relic, even as a brand new structure in the city. across the street – the Flatiron Building – was proclaimed the most beautiful building in the city.

In 1908, the Fifth Avenue hotel was demolished and replaced by the 16-story toy center (called the Fifth Avenue Building at the time), the epicenter of toy manufacturing for much of the 20th century.