Friday, March 2, 2018

The 1902 Hotel Brayton - 62 Madison Avenue

By the end of the 19th century the concept of residence hotels--a hybrid of hotel and apartment living--had gained favor.  Management-provided services allowed residents to significantly reduce their domestic staffs and hotel dining rooms did away with the bother of in-home cooking.

In the fall of 1901 developer Joseph Wolf  commissioned the architectural firm of Charles Brendon & Co. to design an 11-story residence hotel on the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and 27th Street.  The oddly-shaped plot was a mere 24 feet wide on Madison Avenue, the width of the mansion that had stood there, and stretched 100 feet down 27th Street.

For some reason, Wolf dropped the project, passing title to the property to another developer, Charles Buek, in November.  A proficient architect, Buek most often designed his own structures; but the plans had already been filed.  It was possibly a situation he lamented.

Even before ground was broken Buek had leased what would be named the Hotel Brayton to Margaret B. Tucker.  The 15-year lease called for yearly rent of $16,500--around $475,000 today.

The placement of the entrance on the Madison Avenue end served to emphasis the building's narrow proportions.   The short stoop was flanked by handsome Beaux Arts style lampposts; but the glass-and-iron canopy over the entrance and the fussy balcony directly above battled for attention.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, April 18, 1903 (copyright expired)
Incised bands created a striped effect in the two-story limestone base.  The architects used restrained decoration for the brick-faced upper stories--brick quoins and stone cornices on scrolled brackets over the windows.   Had the design ended at the projecting cornice of the eighth floor, its proportions would have been ideal.   But the top three floors looked like an awkward afterthought.   The two-story, nearly vertical mansard included a brick-and-stone section topped by a triangular gable.  It made the over-all design top heavy and inelegant.

While the Brayton was relatively upscale, it was not lavish like many of the residence hotels being built further north.   Its apartments were "arranged in one, two and three room suites, each with bath," according to an advertisement.  Buek marketed the modern conveniences:  "All rooms are light and sunny.  Private halls, handsome entrance hall, reception and dining rooms, electric elevator, mail chute, long distance telephone in each apartment."

The proprietress, Margaret Tucker, boasted in her own advertisements that tenants could choose furnished or unfurnished suites.  Residents' meals were included in their rents.  She noted "This hotel is adjacent to all street car lines and all the best shops."

Buek did not retain ownership of his new hotel for long.  In December 1903 he sold it to Mrs. E. J. Smith for a quarter of a million dollars.   Despite Margaret Tucker's 15-year lease, Mrs. Smith made a change of proprietors before long, putting George Heywood in charge.   Heywood was notable not only for his managerial abilities, but for his substantial size.

The relatively small apartments and the upscale accommodations seem to have been a good fit for well-to-do bachelors, widows, and still-unmarried women.   Cornelia Beckwith was among the first residents.  Her family, had been in American since the 17th century and "has long occupied eminent social position in the United States," according to Bosworth Clifton Beckwith in a biographical treatise on Cornelia's father, Dr. John Bailey Beckwith.

She died "suddenly" in her apartment in The Brayton on December 18, 1907, where her funeral was held the following day.  She was buried in the colonial cemetery of the Old Blandford Church in Petersburg, Virginia.

Another single woman in the building at the time was Katherine Edith Sharp Cheesman.  Unfortunately, her fortune was larger than her business acumen was sharp.  Using the gender-neutral name of E. S. Cheesman, she invested heavily in the Western Ice Company, operated by brothers E. R. and O. F. Thomas, in 1906.   The following year things looked bad when the firm failed "to make good the promises of the promoters," as described by The New York Times.  Then disaster struck.  The Western Ice Company failed, and so did Katherine, who declared bankruptcy on June 23, 1908.

The Times put the blame on her, saying she "conducted the financial transactions" which "brought disaster to a number of their [i.e., the Thomas brothers'] close friends."  A domino effect resulted in the failure of another firm with money invested, Robert Maclay & Co.

Residents of The Brayton, like everyone else, suffered the stifling summer heat in decades before air conditioning.   On July 30, 1909 an elevator boy, Charles Beresford, entered a bathroom to find George Heywood dead on the floor.   Dr. Ross McPherson, who pronounced the 55-year old dead, "was inclined to think that the heat was the cause," reported the New-York Tribune.  The newspaper noted "Heywood was a stout man and had suffered from the heat."

The quiet lives of residents was briefly upset when Kitty Brady Harris and her 18-year old daughter, Katherine Corey Harris, checked in on August 3, 1910.   The two had just arrived from Europe.  Kitty had divorced the wealthy lawyer Sidney Harris in 1901.   She had her own fortune, having inherited $500,000 from her the estate of her father, Chief Justice Charles Brady.  Her parents' combined wealth prompted The Washington Herald to describe the teen-aged Katherine as "an heiress."

Reporters began milling around outside The Brayton after August 7 when Kitty announced the engagement of her daughter to famed actor John Barrymore.  Not everyone was pleased with the situation.  The Washington Herald noted "Mr. Harris is speeding across the Atlantic for the purpose, it  is said, of preventing the marriage.  It is understood that his only objection to the marriage is the youthfulness of his daughter."  The article explained she "has not yet been formally presented to the smart set of New York, in which she is eligible to a position of prominence."   Barrymore was ten years older than his intended bride.

When asked about her former husband's objections, Kitty "preferred to observe a discreet silence."  Barrymore, who was appearing in the leading role of The Fortune Hunter, "also sealed his lips as to the objection of Mr. Harris."  Nevertheless, the parties forged on with plans.

Reporters camped out in front of the Brayton.  On August 11 Katherine and John went to City Hall and obtained their marriage license.  The New York Times reported "Mr. Barrymore was with Miss Harris in her apartments at the Brayton, 62 Madison Avenue, yesterday.  About 4:30 o'clock Mrs. Harris returned to the hotel to learn for the first time that her daughter had a license to be married."

Wherever they went, they were dogged by journalists.  "Later Miss Harris, with Mr. Barrymore, walked toward Fifth Avenue, followed at a respectful distance by a group of eager reporters."  The stress was too much for Katherine, who left for Canada that evening.  When questioned at the theater, Barrymore said "I'd rather not say where she has gone because she has had a great deal of bother since this engagement was announce,d and she wants some rest.  However, it is planned that she shall return in three or four weeks, and then we are to be married."

Sidney Harris's arrival in New York was fruitless.  The Sale Lake City newspaper the Deseret Evening News said "His opposition took a decided turn in Paris recently, but it was of no avail, as Mrs. Harris and her daughter formed an effective coalition against him."  The couple avoided a throng of reporters by secretly marrying in the Church of St. Francis Xavier on September 1.

The Deseret Evening News said "only a few knew of the marriage last night.  In fact, the audience which witnessed the play in which Mr. Barrymore was the central figure, had no inkling of the fact that he had already become a benedict."

In 1912 the Brayton was purchased by William R. D'Ascoli, who renamed it the Hotel Ascot.  By now transient guests were accepted, like Col. Henry Watterson, the editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and his wife, who were here for a few weeks in September that year.

But D'Ascoli's venture was extremely short-lived.  On September 26, 1913 the courts ordered it to be sold at auction.  In reporting on the action, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide described the it as a "tall, slenderly built" structure and, getting the age of the building woefully wrong, saying it "has been well patronized for about twenty years."

The house to the right was similar to the one that the hotel replaced, and which dictated its narrow width.  Real Estate Record & Guide, September 27, 1913 (copyright expired)

The new owner, Irving T. Smith, wasted no time in updating and improving the building.  He hired the architectural firm of Horenburger & Bardes which filed plans for alterations in December.   The changes, costing a quarter of a million in today's dollars, included moving the entrance to 27th Street.  Like his predecessor, Smith changed the name.

Now called the Madison Hotel, it continued to offer apartments to permanent residents and transient guests.  Soap manufacturer George L. Danner lived here in 1913 when he was chosen to sit on the jury of a salacious murder case.  Father Hans Schmidt, a priest in St. Joseph's Church on West 125th Street, was charged with murdering Anna Aumuller, dismembering her body, and tossing the parts in the Hudson River.

Another resident, inventor and manufacturer William Kleinberg, was a partner in the Simplex Ray Company.  In 1917 the Medical Department of the U. S. Army was highly interested in his "portable high frequently X-ray apparatus."   But a confrontation with his business partner, William Dubelier, was about to land Kleinberg in court and in potential danger.

While Kleinberg worked on his X-ray machine, Dubelier was perfecting a military anti-surveillance device which blocked outsiders from picking up wireless messages.  After the two had an argument, Dubelier seized on the anti-German wartime climate to accuse Kleinberg of being a German spy.

Police arrested Kleinberg at the Madison Hotel and on February 14, 1917, he appeared in the Tombs Court to answer Dubelier's charges of "feloniously assaulting him while attempting to learn the secret of an invention which he said was the property of the Federal Government."

Dubelier testified "The defendant seized a chair and beat me over the head until I was almost unconscious, and then he choked me insensible.  As soon as my employees revived me I had Kleinberg arrested."  He told the court that he had been watched by spies for weeks.

Kleinberg admitted to an argument, but said he had never touched his partner.  Dubelier's attorney wanted Kleinberg held without bail and painted a menacing picture.  "These secrets are invaluable in view of the present situation, and I believe that the interests of the Government are at stake.  It was a felonious assault, approaching a homicide."

Kleinberg sat in jail for ten days before being exonerated.  A citizen for 26 years, he produced proof of his close working relationship with the United States military.   Several of the patents filed under Dubelier's name were, in fact, Kleinberg's inventions, "but which the two men decided, for business reasons, might better stand in the name of Dubelier, since they then were co-operating as partners."

Following his partner's release and the dismissal of charges, it was Dubelier who faced legal problems.  Kleinberg filed action against him the reestablish his own reputation and to "show that he was maligned in the charge brought against him," according to The Times on February 27.

By the end of the war fashionable hotels had moved north.  The first hints of the decline of the Madison Hotel came in 1919 when Samuel Gipps and Abe Berkowitz were arrested for what today would be termed ticket scalping.  It started when customers attempted to buy tickets to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Madison Square Garden.   The box office agent told them the tickets were sold out, but they could be purchased at the Madison Hotel.

Two of the would-be circus goers were C. P. Conway and Edward W. Thompson, who worked for The Associated Press.   At the hotel they were told that the $1 tickets were selling for $3, and the $1.50 tickets for $4.40.    The men notified police who arrested the two men for violating a city ordinance regulating the sale of amusement tickets.

By now the hotel was owned by John J. Dempsey.  He and a clerk, Patrick Saracomo, were arrested by Prohibition agents following a raid on September 2, 1922.   The New-York Tribune reported that three quarts of "alleged whisky" and a quart of gin were seized.

Things only deteriorated for the once fashionable hotel.  Rooms rented for $7 a week in 1937 when Claude H. Kendall was found dead here.  The 46-year old had once been employed by the investment firm of C. R. White & Co., but struck out on his own as a publisher in association with writer Willoughby Sharp.  He had published at least one mystery thriller; but eventually gave up the business.

At around 11:00 on the morning of November 25, 1937 a maid entered his locked room to find him dead on the floor.  The bedclothes were also piled on the floor.  An investigation revealed that he had been drinking the night before and was assisted to his room just before midnight by two friends.  One told detectives that he was uninjured when they dropped him off and had taken his shoes off after placing him on the bed.  His shoes were on when he was found.   The tenant in the room directly above reported hearing thumping noises around 4:30 a.m. which continued at intervals for about a half hour.

Although the medical examiner, Thomas A. Gonzales, noted a "black eye, a laceration on the inside of the lip, a swollen jaw" and hemorrhages of the right cheek, it appears that investigators were unwilling to look into the possibility of murder.  Michael F. McDermott, in charge of the case, said there "were no signs of a struggle" and offered that he "might have received his injuries in falling against the furniture."

In the last decades of the 20th century the Madison Hotel was essentially a flop-house.  On February 15, 1981 The Times reported that "A 40-year-old man identified as Walter Montgomery was found shot and stabbed to death yesterday in a room at the Madison Hotel...The police said they had found a gun and a knife in the man's room.  They said they did not have a motive for the slaying."

And in December 1983 the State Commissioner of Social Services demanded that the City remove homeless families from the Hotel Madison because it did "not meet minimum living standards."

In October 1995 a 21-year old prostitute barely escaped the clutches of a serial killer in the hotel.  The killing spree had started on February 17 with the strangling of a 38-year old prostitute in the East Village.  It was followed by another in a midtown hotel in June, then another in September.

The woman in this incident was approached on the corner of 28th Street and Ninth Avenue at about 2 a.m.  She described him as a black man about 5 feet, 8 inches tall, who said he had a room in the Madison Hotel.  Once in the room, he put a rope around her neck and strangled her until she lost consciousness.  She was tied up and left for dead in the bathroom,   The culprit escaped with her pocketbook and earrings.

A renovation to convert the now-decrepit structure into a boutique hotel was completed in July 2009.  The limestone base was partially clad in sleek metal panels and the entrance was moved back to Madison Avenue.  The expense of updating did not go so far as to eliminate the air conditions poking out of each window or to restore the upper sections.  The MAve Hotel received less than rave reviews from The New York Times's travel reporter Stephen Heyman about a year later.

"The MAve looks great on the outside," he began.  Then things went downhill.  "I snagged a $159 rate for what the MAve charitably calls an 'urban room'.  At 165 square feet, it conveyed that special feeling of living in New York City: claustrophobia."   He went on to say "There's a barracks feel in the hallways, with an open staircase covered in that heavy-duty metal you sometimes see on truck beds."

In August 2016 the City began housing homeless families in the MAve Hotel, effectively ending the owners' original hopes for a trendy boutique hideaway.  The upper cornices and dormer ornamentation have been removed; giving Charles Brendon & Co.'s quirky 1903 hotel a somewhat beleaguered look.

photographs by the author

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