The Astor House, New York’s First Great—Yet Forgotten—Hotel

The Astor House, shortly after it was built in 1836. St. Paul's Chapel and its steeple can be seen to the south. Museum of the City of New York

Mar. 22, 2016

Two grand new hotels will soon open downtown.  If you prefer vintage, there is The Beekman, in the landmark Temple Court Building (1883) on Beekman Street, centered in what reputedly was New York’s first skyscraper.  For those who prefer modern luxe, there is the Four Seasons New York Downtown, located in a Robert A.M. Stern-designed tower nearing completion on Church Street.

These newcomers arrive more than a century after the closing in 1913 of New York’s first great downtown hotel, The Astor House, which opened in 1836 and occupied a full block of Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets.  Conceived and built by John Jacob Astor, the fur trader who became New York’s first real estate baron, on the site where he once had his own home, it was hailed in a tour guide of the era as “an ornament to the city, and as a house of elegant entertainment for the travelling community.”  

Constructed of bluish Quincy granite by Boston architect Isaiah Rogers in a subdued Greek Revival style with two massive Doric columns at its main entrance, this opulently furnished hotel contained more than 300 guest rooms surrounding an interior tree-shaded courtyard.  As many as 800, including 120 staff, could be accommodated.  It had baths and toilets on each of its six floors, an unheard-of luxury at the time and an astonishing engineering feat pulled off by the hotel’s own steam engine plant, necessary because pressurized water from the Croton Aqueduct (1842) system was still a few years off. Water was drawn from two large cisterns in the hotel’s basement, which also is where the hotel had its own printing press, for printing of its daily menus.

In 1852, the interior courtyard was covered over by an elliptical vaulted cast-iron-and-glass rotunda designed by James Bogardus, the cast-iron architecture pioneer. First called the Rotunda Saloon, it became known as The Astor House Exchange and featured a large central mahogany bar with private dining rooms to the sides and two long, curved counters where businessmen could lunch. For decades, The Astor House Exchange was a favored meeting place and dining room for New York businessmen, professionals, and politicians.

The Astor House was from the start favored by New York’s wealthy and powerful. According to Burrows and Wallace in their book “Gotham,” the Astor House was the nation’s “most prestigious hostelry” for decades.  It was centrally located across from City Hall and in New York’s flourishing newspaper and entertainment district on Park Row. Astor’s own Park Theatre (1798 – 1848) and P.T. Barnum’s “American Museum” (1841 – 1865), an emporium of exotic animals and curiosities on Broadway at Ann Street, were nearby.  In 1869, the City’s new central post office and federal courthouse was built across the street in what is now the southern tip of City Hall Park.

For years before the New York Times in 1904 left Park Row and moved uptown to Longacre (soon to be Times) Square and began the tradition of celebrating New Year’s Eve with a countdown, the city celebrated on Broadway in front of The Astor House.

The Astor House was for many years the headquarters for the Whig Party, the party of powerful Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, which dominated American politics in the decades leading up to the Civil War.  Webster even told the Times “he would stay at no other hotel.” Thurlow Weed, the legendary New York political boss and a confidant of Governor (and almost President) William Seward, lived at the hotel for 30 years.  Photographer Matthew Brady, whose first studio was on Broadway near The Astor House, also lived there.  A very young Thomas Edison favored Astor House on weekend trips into the city from his rural Menlo Park, N.J., laboratories.

President-elect Lincoln, on his way to Washington for his first inauguration, in 1861, stayed overnight and made an impromptu speech from the top of the entrance portico to a crowd of 40,000, according to a report from Walt Whitman himself. Records indicate that no less than 18 U.S. presidents, spanning from Andrew Jackson to Theodore Roosevelt, stayed at The Astor House, probably the most of any hotel in U.S. history.

During the Civil War, The Astor House was one of 13 major hotels in New York set afire by Confederate spies on Nov. 25, 1864, following Lincoln’s re-election.  There was only slight damage.

As the city expanded north, The Astor House’s prominence slowly faded over the later part of the 19th century.  It was eclipsed by, among others, the Fifth Avenue Hotel (1859), the original Waldorf (named for the town in Germany where John Jacob Astor was born) and the Astoria hotels on 34th Street (1893), also developed by members of the Astor family. The Astor House had become decidedly old-fashioned in a now unfashionable part of town.

The end came in in early 20th century in two awful blows, apparently because the two Astor heirs who then owned it did not get along. The incredible result was the physical partition of the building.  First, in 1913, the southern half (including the Rotunda and its famous bar) was demolished in connection with the construction of the BMT subway line (today’s R train) through the site.  Vincent Astor, who controlled that part of the property, then built the “Astor House Building,” a modest office structure, in 1916, which remains there to this day (Staples is the main retail tenant). The northerly part of the now-gored hotel survived forlorn for a few more years before it too was demolished in 1926 to make room for the “Transportation Building,” today’s 225 Broadway.

New York can be cruel to old hotels, but The Astor House did have a very long and good run.  It is telling that the oldest hotels in the city date only from the turn of the last century, such as the Algonquin (1902) and the Iroquois (1900), both on 44th Street.  New York’s oldest continuously operated hotel is Tribeca’s own Cosmopolitan (1845), at West Broadway and Chambers.

What became of The Astor House’s furniture and its famous bar and other architectural remnants, including its granite cornerstone, is a mystery.  As a Times article from June 1913 indicates, there was a multi-day auction (where items were “knocked down at ridiculously low prices”) so they must be out there somewhere.