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Part 1: The Redbury Hotel — Formerly the Martha Washington

The Redbury Hotel
29th East 29th Street

 

Experience NoMad discusses the history and rich legacy of The Martha Washington Hotel and examines the hotel's vintage memorabilia and postcards

A postcard of the Martha Washington in 1904.

 

The First Hotel for Professional Women

The Redbury Hotel opened as the Martha Washington Hotel on March 2, 1903 at 29 East 29th Street and was the first hotel built in New York to provide housing for professional women.  Astoundingly, no man was to stay at the hotel until 1998, 95 years after the opening.

In 1903, the centennial of America’s Independence was in recent memory, and there were “Martha Washington” balls each season.  At the time, “Martha Washington” was also used in the names of countless women’s groups and DAR chapters, and many fashionable women were given “Martha Washington” as their first and middle names.  It is easy to see why the first hotel exclusively for women would be named after the first First Lady.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, mores and social conventions were changing quickly and the number of women on the work rolls was swelling.  “Between 1870 and 1902, the number of women in the workforce increased by almost 64%.” 2 However, there were few housing alternatives open to these newly independent women. Indeed, it was difficult for a woman to check into a hotel when traveling alone and impossible after certain hours. Long-term residences were either very expensive, provided rudimentary services, or oppressed women with extensive regulations. The city needed an alternative where women would be treated equally.

It was in response to these conditions that the Martha Washington was built by the Women’s Hotel Company, a for-profit corporation promising a 5% profit.  The company sold shares not only to businessmen like John D. Rockefeller, and people of wealth, like John Gould’s daughter Helen, but also to bookkeepers, stenographers and other self-supporting professional women. 3  All of these people knew that the Martha Washington would be a tremendous stepping stone in women’s equality, but even they had no idea that it would become the headquarters of the  suffragette movement in the United States.

The hotel opened with 500 permanent guest apartments and accommodations for 150 transient guests. (There is some variance in the reported number of guests that could be accommodated in the hotel on opening. We have used the numbers reported by The Times on February 3, 1903.) 4  The land and building cost $800,000 and rooms ranged from $3 to $17 a week, all a far cry from today’s prices.

So huge was the demand for the hotel, that upon opening it was fully booked and there were 200 women on the waiting list.  Typical occupants ranged from teachers, musicians, artists, stenographers and bookkeepers to nurses and physicians.  Fitted out as a fine hotel, it is not surprising that the Martha Washington also welcomed celebrities, including the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sara Teasdale, the Duchess of Marlborough, the actress Louis Brooks, editor Louise E. Dew, and bad girl Veronica Lake. 5

In keeping with its goal of being a “sanctuary” for women, no men were allowed above the ground floor, including priests and doctors. 6 Wherever possible the staff was comprised of women, with only front desk and bellhop positions being held by men, due to the physical strength required. 7

In 1932, Arthur Gutterman distilled the wholesomeness promised by the hotel in his poem that appeared in The New Yorker.

Moral Reflections

The Martha Washington Hotel,
Where estimable ladies dwell,
Spells out its name against the night
In naughty, red electric lights.

While many a gilded haunt of sin,
Inured to revelry and gin,
Displays an incandescent lure
Of lamps white and pure.

For Guilt ever hoped it could
Deceive the world by seeming good,
And Innocence has always had
A haunting wish to pose as bad.
 1

 

A young woman works as an elevator girl in the iconic Martha Washington Hotel

An elevator girl at the Martha Washington.

 

Amenities that Would Make Today’s Hotel Guest Envious

When the Martha Washington opened, it had an unusual range of amenities that were described in one of its original brochures, including a drug store, ladies’ tailor shop, millinery store, manicurist, chiropodist, ladies’ shoe polishing parlor, and a newspaper stand.

It also had all comforts one would expect in a fine hotel of the day. There was a telephone in every room and a reception room on every floor.  There was also a library, private parlors, a rooftop promenade, and a private dining room for lady guests as well as one open to the general public.  It also had all the latest conveniences, including electric lights, elevators, steam heat and mail chutes. 8

 

Experience NoMad explores the rich legacy of the iconic Martha Washington Hotel

The lobby of the Martha Washington, a hundred years before it became The Redbury. 

 

Architecture

The original building that now houses The Redbury was designed by Robert W. Gibson, one of the most prolific architects of his day.  Known primarily for his commercial and ecclesiastical works in New York City and State, he is still represented in the city by several notable buildings, the most recognizable are the Cartier Building (at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street) and the Protestant Welfare Agencies building at (Park Avenue South and 22nd Street).   The hotel exterior, in Renaissance Revival style, is 12-stories and runs through the block from 29th to 30th Streets.  It uses organizing elements such as cornices to divide the building horizontally and projecting or grouped bays to give a vertical emphasis.  Ornamental details such as Palladian windows, quoins, lintels detailed with keystone or pediments, rustication, brackets and dentils are used throughout the façade. 9  The building was landmarked on June 19, 2012 for its architectural and historical importance. 10

 

Explore the history of The Martha Washington Hotel and the Protestant Welfare Agency buildings in NoMad

Protestant Welfare Agencies.

 

Explore the legacy of The Cartier Building and Martha Washington Hotel

The Cartier Building.

 

For more of the The Redbury’s fascinating history, see Part 2Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of our series.


 

Footnotes

  1. The New Yorker, April 2, 1932, Page 44.
  2. Margaret Gibbons Wilson, The American Woman in Transition:  The Global Influence, 1870-1920, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1979, Page 7.
  3. Report of the Landmarks Preservation Committee on the Martha Washington Hotel, June 12, 2012 [http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/reports/2428.pdf], Page 5.
  4. The New York Times,  “Hotel for Women Only,” February 3, 1903.
  5. ”Martha Washington Hotel.” Wikipedia, downloaded 6.13.2014
  6. Turkel, Stanley, Built to Last: 100+ Year-old Hotels in New York, AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana, 2011.
  7. The New York Times,  “Hotel for Women Only,” February 3, 1903.
  8. Report of the Landmarks Preservation Committee on the Martha Washington Hotel, June 12, 2012 [http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/reports/2428.pdf], Page 6.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.

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