August 17, 2015
History of Holland House
Holland House is a quintessential example of life in NoMad at the turn of 19th/20th Centuries. One of the world’s most majestic hotels, Holland House at 30th Street and Fifth, ranked with The Fifth Avenue Hotel at 23rd Street and the Waldorf Astoria at 34th as a premiere Gilded Age hostelry. Lavishly decorated and with the latest in amenities, it hosted Presidents Cleveland and Taft, ambassadors, special emissaries, and stage stars. It also saw its share of history, becoming the central meeting place for some of the period’s highest profile projects such as the Chicago World’s Fair and the planning of Grant’s Tomb.
The design of the 11-story hotel maintained the reserved dignity of Fifth Avenue with restrained ornamentation. The façade was of limestone with grand portico at street level, shallow bay windows at the third through fifth floors articulating the façade, and a frieze at the ninth floor.
The hotel closed in 1920 and the grand interiors were demolished when the building was converted into an office building. However, we can glean a sense of the hotel’s grandeur from the exterior, which except for the loss of its beautifully carved portico facing Fifth Avenue, looks as it did when the hotel was first built.
When it opened on December 7, 1891, Holland House cost $3 million to build and furnish — the equivalent of about $79 million in today’s currency. However, the description of furniture and fittings makes it unlikely that the hotel could be replicated today for less than $400 or $500 million. On opening, it was reputed to have a wine collection in the basement worth $350,000 or about $9 million in today’s currency, directly converting only for inflation.
Holland House was owned by Mrs. J. Van Doren, a wealthy widow, who leased the entire operation to Kinsley and Baumann for an unbelievable $145,000 for the first five years of the 15-year lease. That’s $29,000 a year for an entirely furnished hotel, which is pretty inexpensive, when one considers that today a month’s rental of a single retail space is far more expensive
For all of the grandeur of its public and private rooms, its huge service staff, and innovations, Holland House charged guests a mere $2.00 and up for a night’s stay.
The Design and Furnishings
In its December 12th, 1891 edition, The New York Times started its article on the newly opened Holland House, this way: “The most striking feature of the new Holland House, in this city, is the beauty of its interior decorations.” From all accounts, the elegance of the hotel’s interiors is something we can barely imagine today. The hotel provided guests with a souvenir book describing the hotel’s interiors. The following text in italics is a sampling of what the brochure had to say. We have interspersed comments from journals of the day, which indicate that the brochure wasn’t merely marketing hyperbole.
“All of the corridor floors are laid in specially designed marble mosaic, and as you pass, you are immediately attracted by the superb marble stair-case. This grand stair-case is built of Sienna marble throughout: the ornamental balustrades are of peculiar beauty in the art of marble work, while over head the bronze and Vermont marble rails and supports of the upper stair-case ascend in exquisite harmony from the monotone of the marble below.”
The New York Tribune praised, “The magnificence of the hallway at the Fifth-ave. entrance is a good illustration of the furnishings in other parts of the building. The walls are of Sienna marble. The main staircase, which ascends from the center of the main hallway to the parlors above, is also of richly carved Sienna marble. The ceiling near the staircase is decorated in silver.”
30th Street Corridor
“. . . we reach the Thirtieth Street corridor. The decorations of this arched hallway are strict reproductions of the Italian Renaissance style, and the mosaic floor is of an unique and special design.” “The screens or windows which separate it (the Café) from the corridor are marvels of bronze, marble and glass work.”
“The Restaurant is also on this floor (ground floor). It is one of the most ornate rooms in this country. The decorations are perhaps the best reproductions of the Louis Quinze period. The panels of tapestry, and mirrors and relivevo decorations are masterpieces.
“The furniture in this room is unexcelled. The style is picturesquely redolent of the antique. Exactly such furniture and decoration were common in Old Holland House, in London.”
According to The New York Times on December 6, 1891, The café was decorated “in Louis Quinze style.” The salmon-and-gold painted ceiling was supported by a long row of columns and “In spite of its size — 25 by 50 feet —the dining hall seems delightfully cozy.”
The Drawing Room
“The Drawing –room is a study in decorative arts. It is of the Adams treatment. It is furnished in strict accordance with that style. The walls are covered in a Satin Damask: the portieres of an especially beautiful fabric, made to order and embroidered in designs of the period, and the carpet is a superb axminster, designed and manufactured for this room. The ground work is fawn: the floral devices are worked elaborately in cream and dull pink: but the entire upholstering is of a character that defies comparison in the Louis Seize and Adam’s style.”
This may seem like an overly florid description, until one reads The New York Times review of the hotel on December 12, 1891.
“The Ladies Parlor, done in the style of Louis XVI had a carpet of a soft cream shade. The walls are in a soft rose color. The window draperies fall from cornices of ivory and gold composition. The draperies are satin damask, with overdraperies of satin plus, paille and cream. The laces, Brussels point, were made especially for the windows.”
The Gilt Room
Holland House Brochure: “. . . a veritable reproduction of the Gilt Room in historic Holland House, London. The style is Elizabethan . . . the floor is of English parquet — the first of its kind ever laid in the United States.”
Bridal Suites and Guest Rooms
There were two bridal suites, one in Rococo Syle of the Louis XV period and one in Old Empire. The bridal suite included a small closet in the corner where clothes and shoes could be placed for brushing and cleaning. This closet could be accessed from outside of the room by the staff without intruding on the guests.
Each of the other 330 bedrooms “are furnished with equal excellence and elegance . . .” and all had an instrument on which “a guest may call for upwards of sixty different articles” to be delivered to their rooms.
W. & J. Sloane had provided the furnishing for 350 guest rooms, which The New York Times said “are all beautifully furnished and decorated.”
There was a staff of 180 “below stairs.” Employees who worked “above stairs” wore simple dark blue uniforms, while the footmen wore full livery and the hallboys and elevator operators wore bright blue with red and white cord. For the privilege to work at the Holland House a new employee paid for his own uniform — about three weeks worth of wages.
Noteworthy Events at Holland House
The list of Holland House guests was a veritable who’s who of society, business, and politics from here and abroad. U.S. presidents, lords and ladies of England, ambassadors, governors, senators, congressmen, famous authors and artists, archbishops and cardinals, members of the House of Commons, actors and actresses
The list of society wedding parties, exclusive club dinners, and historically important meetings at Holland House would require a separate article, there were so many. Let’s look at just a few of the most unusual events.
Invention of the Widow’s Kiss Cocktail
George Kappeler, head bartender at Holland House introduced the Widow’s Kiss to the world. A hundred years later and less than three blocks from where it was first created, The NoMad Bar is still serving the Widow’s Kiss, a concoction of Apple Brandy, Benedictine and Yellow Chartreuse.
Tally-ho Parties Starting at Holland House
The hotel was the starting point for an eagerly awaited annual event. Each Spring, four-horse coaching outings, called tally-ho parties, would leave the hotel and head northward up Fifth Avenue to Central Park in what The New York Tribune deemed “grand style.” Wealthy New Yorkers, dressed in their finest, crowded into large coaches for the outings, as less fortunate residents and tourists watched from the sidewalks.
1903 — Cross-country to Holland House
On July 16, 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson pulled up in front of the Holland House, completing the first ever cross-country automobile trip, 63 days after he began his drive in San Francisco. You can read more details about Jackson’s pioneering ride in one of our early posts.
1912 —Presidential Taft’s Security at Holland House
In October 1912, the hotel was a hive of security as President Taft stayed here, shortly after the assassination attempt on Teddy Roosevelt in Milwaukee. On the morning of October 16, the President’s party—his wife and his daughter—had breakfast in the Holland House dining room then headed for Grand Central Terminal.
The Evening World reported, “The President and his wife, on their way from the door of the hotel to the automobile passed through a guard of half a dozen policemen. Secret Service men and detectives watchfully weaved among the persons standing near. Two Secret Service men got into the car with the President and his wife. Seven other members of the Secret Service and Detective Bureau boarded another car. Ten motorcycle policemen were on hand to act as an escort.” In a scenario that foreshadowed today’s Presidential security, Fifth Avenue was shut down as the motorcade passed up Fifth Avenue. The Evening World noted that “the police officials heaved sighs of relief when he was gone.”
Holland House Closes
In 1919, Congress passed prohibition. While the new law appeased the temperance movement, it had unexpected ramifications. Thousands lost their jobs in New York City alone—bartenders, tavern owners, brewery workers, and others. Restaurants and hotels, unable to survive were forced to close. Already hurting from the movement of the city’s wealthy northward and the opening of newer more conveniently uptown, Holland House became was of these unfortunate businesses and closed its doors in 1920.
Holland House: Fifth Avenue and Thirtieth Street, New York, H. M. Kinsley & Baumann, 1891
Daytonian in Manhattan, “The 1891 Holland House — 5th Avenue at 30th Street,” posted October 9th, 2012.
The New York Times, Articles from 1891 through 1920.
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