Monday, May 1, 2017

The Lost Hotel Beresford - CPW and 81st Street


Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, September 21, 1889 (copyright expired)
In 1889 Alva S. Walker pioneered a new concept in multi-family living on the Upper West Side.  On September 21 the Real Estate Record and Guide said his Hotel Beresford, which was nearing completion at the northwest corner of Central Park West and 81st Street, marked "the new mode of living due to the desire to avoid the cares of housekeeping."

This would be Alva Walker's second "apartment hotel."  His recently-built Hotel Winthrop on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, was reportedly "remarkably successful."

In December 1888 he purchased the four Central Park West plots from former Park Commissioner John D. Crimmins for $110,000--more than $2.8 million today.  At the time the Record & Guide reported "Mr. Walker will at once commence the erection of first-class dwellings or an elegant apartment house."

The term "at once" was accurate.  Walker commissioned architect Theodore E. Thomson (who was most often known professionally as Theo E. Thomson) to design his six-story structure which rose with blinding speed.  Less than six months after Walker purchased the plot, the roof of the $200,000 building had been completed.  By September 1889, carpenters and plasterers were working on the finishing touches.

The Record & Guide explained the concept of the Beresford as it prepared to open.  "It is what is in the future to be known as an 'apartment hotel.'  That is, it is comprised of a number of suites for families and bachelors, which they occupy just as though they lived in an apartment house like the Dakota, the Osborne, the Rutland, or any other first-class flat.  But it differs from them in this respect, that no cooking is done in any of the suites, as everyone eats in a large dining-room, the meals in which are cooked, served and supplied by the owner and manager of the building."

That dining room was on the top floor.  "It is delightfully located, as it places the guests, while they are taking their meals, in full view of Central and Manhattan Parks, the Museums of Art and Natural History and other objects.  To dine under such conditions must surely aid both appetite and digestion," opined the Guide.  Residents paid $7 each per week for their meals--a little over $185 today.

But it was not merely the cook's job that was eliminated at the Hotel Beresford.  The building supplied "chamber and waiting service" that would otherwise have been the duties of private maids. 

"All one requires to do is to eat, drink, sleep and pay one's check when it becomes due, the cares of house-keeping being shouldered upon the proprietor of the hotel," said the Guide's writer.  "Ladies who have for years been breaking their hearts over their troubles with servants will no doubt welcome with open arms the new era of apartment hotels which has just dawned upon us."

There were 34 apartments in the Hotel Beresford with rents ranging from $1,200 to $1,800 per year, or around $4,000 per month today for the largest apartments.  New Yorkers lined up to sign leases.  In September 1889 Alva Walker told a reporter "The Beresford is now half rented, though the building will not be finished till October 1."  And seven weeks after the opening he announced that all apartments had been rented "and there is a reserve list of applicants."

The Hotel Beresford's residents were white collar professionals--doctors, brokers, bankers, and lawyers, for instance.   Their new apartment was an outward sign of the prosperity of Johnson Blakeley Creighton and his wife, the former Sarah Tracy, who had been married around 1882.  Creighton came from a respected naval family.  His grandfather was Rear Admiral Silas H. Stringham, and his father was Commodore J. Blakeley Creighton.

At the age of just 16 Creighton, known popularly as Jack, took a job as a clerk on Wall Street with the brokerage firm of J. T. Bates & Co.  Before long he had risen to cashier and seven years later was a partner in W. P. Wright & Co.  The same month that the Creightons moved into the Hotel Beresford, he formed his own brokerage firm, J. B. Creighton & Co.

The Creightons' lifestyle was typical of the Beresford's residents.  They summered in Larchmont, New York, and Creighton was a member of the exclusive New-York Athletic Club and the Manhattan Club.  But the 30-year old was hiding deep secrets; most likely even from his wife.

Almost a year after moving in, on October 23, 1890, Creighton did not come home.  Earlier that day he had spent time talking with the clerk in the drugstore at No. 82 Broadway about the relative strengths of different kinds of poison.  About an hour and a half later he returned and sauntered casually around the store before being noticed behind the drug case in the back.  When he left there was a bottle of morphine hidden in his pocket.

He had dinner at Rodman's restaurant that evening, then started to leave without paying.  The cashier reminded him and Creighton reportedly replied "Money! Take all you want.  I have no further use for it."

When the janitor opened Creighton's office door to clean up at 5:30 in the morning, he found the broker dead on a lounge.  He had left four letters, one of which, addressed "To whom it may concern," read

I have been through a good square business fight, have lost the battle, and now, when my poor brain is aching with pain, and so badly that it has taken poor Jack's best efforts to hold his head above water, I give way to the word of God and end a life that in the future would no doubt be useless."

After his signature he added the line "Be careful and notify my wife kindly."


It was discovered that Creighton had been playing the stock market for several years, almost always being on the losing end.  Creditors were closing in now, and he was unable to pay.  His funeral was held in the Beresford apartment.

The success of the Hotel Beresford was such that in April 1892 Walker purchased the plot behind the building, running to the 82nd Street corner, for $150,000.  He announced his intentions to build a ten-story extension and told reporters that "Every improvement will be placed in the building, and when it is finished it will be connected with the Hotel Beresford."

The annex would have 64 apartments--nearly double that of the original building.  In August, as the structure took form, the Real Estate Record & Guide took note of the design.  "The front is plain and unpretentious, being of brick, with brownstone trimmings, and corresponds in design to the main building, which was the pioneer apartment hotel built west of Central Park."

The dining room in the original building was remodeled into apartments, and the new dining room was located in the ninth floor of the addition.  The tenth floor contained small apartments for residents' servants.  The plans estimated the construction cost at $350,000--nearly $9.5 million today.

Thompson's rending of the addition was in harmony with the original building.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The architect, C. A. Thompson, had indeed closely mimicked Theo E. Thomson's original design.  The severe angles of the bays--intended not only for dimension but for added ventilation--were carried out on both the Central Park West and 82nd Street elevations.  Rather interestingly, neither of the entrances faced the park, but the side streets.  The architects' purpose in the placement may have been simply to provide more park views to the residences.

Another of the Hotel Beresford's original tenants in 1889 were millionaire John J. Morris, his wife, and their adult son.  He came from the colonial Morris family "of Revolutionary fame," according to on newspaper.  His father, Jacob, was a Federal Lieutenant in the War of 1812.

After a varied career--he had served as Alderman and Excise Commissioner, and headed a highly successful grocery business--Morris contented himself with retired life.  He remained a member of the West Presbyterian Church, known as "Dr. Paxton's Church," on West 42nd Street.  Each Sunday he would stroll across Central Park to catch the streetcar south.  But he never made it to services on May 14, 1893.

He walked down Central Park West to the 72nd Street entrance to the park.  But rain had fallen the night before and, according to The New York Times, "the road was ankle deep in mud."  Rather than sully his fine shoes he walked along the stone-paved gutter alongside the roadway.  A Central Park policeman took exception to his walking outside the designated path.

Morris explained why he was not walking on the pathway, but the policeman said it was against the park rules.  The former alderman refused to step into the mud and was arrested.  If Morris expected to deal with a more logical mind at the police station, he was disappointed.  The Times wrote "The Sergeant in charge at the police station administered a sharp rebuke to the prisoner and ordered the officer to take him to court."

The astonished judge dismissed the case and Morris hurried to church.  But he entered just in time to hear the closing hymn.  Later The Times reported "Much indignation was expressed by friends of Mr. Morris over the occurrence, but Mr. Morris declined to prosecute the policeman who arrested him."

Less than a year later, in April 1894, Morris became ill.  He was taken to the Chambers Street Hospital where he died two months later.  His widow and son, W. H. Morris, remained on in the Hotel Beresford.

The original structure's entrance opened onto 81st Street.  The taller annex opened onto 82nd.  A nanny pushes a baby tram along a very quiet Central Park West.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Directly below the Morris apartment was that of the Olin D. Gray family.  Gray was president of the Gray Lithographing Company  His wife, Lydia Blossom Gray, was active socially.  In February 1895, for instance, society columns noted that "Mrs. Olin D. Gray of the Hotel Beresford has sent out cards for Tuesdays in February."

Following Lydia's February "at homes," she and their daughter, Laura, went to St. Louis.  On the night of April 27 Olin left their apartment, headed to the theater.  But on the way there he was passed by galloping fire trucks headed north.  Concerned, he decided to go back home, where he found the flames erupting from his fifth floor apartment.

The building's alarm system had worked perfectly.  It was W. H. Morris who discovered the fire.  "He ran down to the hotel office, and an alarm was rung in.  The electric bells in all the rooms in the building were set ringing," reported The Times.  Olin Gray was not so fortunate.

"Every article of furniture in his rooms was destroyed, as well as some valuable oil paintings.  His loss is estimated at $10,000," said the newspaper.  The damage would be nearly $300,000 in today's dollars.  The Grays left the Hotel Beresford, moving into a rowhouse across the park at No. 40 East 80th Street.

Another couple highly visible in social circles were James M. Drake, a partner in the banking firm of Drake, Masten & Co., and his wife.  Like the Morrises, their apartment was on the fifth floor.  The Drakes were patrons of music and literature and their apartment was regularly the scene of musical entertainments and readings.   Their golden wedding anniversary in 1901 was deemed by The Times as "one of the great events in the history of the hotel."

Despite their advanced ages and having reared four children, the Drakes remained sweethearts.  The New York Times later recalled "It had been a habit of Mr. Drake every morning on his way to business, rain or shine, to walk over to the park wall, where he would lift his silk hat and bow good-bye to Mrs. Drake, who would watch him from the window."

Residents said that when Drake returned home, he would not pause to chat in the corridors until he had gone to the apartment to greet his wife.  The romance did not end with Mrs. Drake's death in the spring of 1906.  Every morning he would pause at the Central Park wall, turn and tip his hat to the empty fifth floor window.

Soon, though, the broken-hearted old man said that he could not stand the loneliness of the Beresford apartment and he moved out in October that year.  A month later he died at the age of 82.

Alva S. Walker and his family, naturally, lived in the Hotel Beresford.  He had been faced with a difficult decision in 1903 when an employee embezzled a large amount from him.  Walker had hired him around 1893 and said he had implicitly trusted him and put him in charge of large sums of cash.

Walker discovered the skillfully-conducted thefts "largely by accident."  While one report set the amount at $50,000, Walker called that an exaggeration; although he would not say how much was stolen.  His troubling conflict was whether or not to prosecute.  "He hesitated about performing what he thought was a public duty, because of his pity for the man's innocent wife and six children," explained The Times.  Walker told reporters "The employee had squandered the money on the races, and there was no possible way of recovery."

photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

Five years later Walker's name would again be in the papers, but this time for a scandalous reason.  On August 20, 1908 The Sun received a wire from Worchester, Massachusetts informing "Alva Walker, a wealthy New York City septuagenarian, owner of the Hotel Beresford at Eighty-first street and Central Park West, was arrested yesterday with a party of ladies for endangering his life and the lives of others by climbing Mount Wachusett in an automobile over a closed route."

Despite admitting owning the car and knowing that he was violating State laws by trespassing on the closed road, The Sun said "Walker threatens suit for false arrest."

Alva Walker died in his Hotel Beresford apartment on February 15, 1911 at the age of 74.  in 1919 his estate sold the building to real estate operators Bing & Bing.

Years earlier, in 1900, retired merchant and Civil War veteran Seth W. Johnson and his wife Ella, moved into a seventh floor apartment.   They maintained a country home in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Their son, John A. Topping, was chairman of the board of Republic Iron and Steel Corporation.

Ella was 69 years old in 1918 when she developed heart trouble.  It became serious enough that for a time she had nurses day and night in the apartment.   But by the summer of 1920 she seemed to have greatly improved.

On the morning of June 13 she, her nurse Effie Swanson, and her husband began packing trunks in preparation to leave for Greenwich.  At one point Ella felt tired and said she would go into an adjoining room for fresh air.  Johnson and the nurse heard the window being raised, and went on with the packing.

A few minutes later the sounds of shouting from the street reached the apartment.  The Times reported "Mr. Johnson, who is nearly 80 years old, called to his wife, asking what the shouting was about.  When he got no answer, he hurried into the room.  It was empty."

The New-York Tribune added "He rushed to the window and saw her body lying in the court below.  She had been killed instantly."  Effe Swanson, who had been Ella's nurse for about five years, thought perhaps she had suffered an attack of vertigo and lost her balance on opening the window.

By 1928 the Hotel Beresford was decidedly out of date.  The Active Properties Company purchased the property in March that year and in August demolition began.  A worker on the project, James Blancett, was checking the cellar when he heard cries.  Checking further, he found a mother cat with four kittens, about a week old.

Blancett notified the S.P.C.A.  An agent arrived and took the mother away, inexplicably leaving the kittens behind, "worse off than they were before," according to the demolition worker.  Working against time, Blancett tried to coax the feral kittens out; but they scurried away whenever he approached.

"He tried leaving milk and appetizing bits of liver where they could find it," reported The Times.  "This proved satisfactory to all concerned...Blancett improvised a comfortable nest for them out of an old pillow stuffed into a bushel basket."  Meanwhile, the razing of the building continued overhead.

Finally two kittens became trusting enough that Blancett was able to remove them and they were quickly adopted by families in the neighborhood.  The others, however, remained suspicious.  Blancett said on August 22 that he had only about two weeks to tame the kittens before the building came down around them.

The Upper West Side neighborhood rallied.  On weekends when Blancett was off, women brought the milk and food.  And everyone nervously watched the progress of the demolition.

Finally, almost at the two-week deadline, Blancett was able to remove the kittens.  More than 60 persons had sought to provide homes for them.  The story newspaper readers had been following for weeks had a happy ending.

In place of the Hotel Beresford, Emery Roth's massive The Beresford apartment house rose.

In 1931, before air conditioning, Emory Roth's The Beresford is studded with canvas awnings. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

1 comment:

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