February 19, 2020
Old-World Grandeur Remains Alive at the Wolcott Hotel
The Wolcott Hotel on West 31st Street has been the site of many iconic moments in New York City’s history since it opened its doors in 1904. It was here that savvy businessmen Col. Jake Ruppert and Col. Tillinghast Huston bought the New York Yankees in 1914, and the city’s 99th mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, held his inaugural ball in the hotel’s stunning ballroom in 1938.
The Wolcott has also housed a number of musical, theatrical, and literary greats. Renowned American novelist Edith Wharton wrote her lesser-known work, The Fruit of the Tree, while staying there in 1907; mother of modern dance Isadora Duncan was a permanent resident of the hotel for a time, along with tobacco heiress Doris Duke; musical legends such as Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and Miles Davis enjoyed the Walcott’s hospitality in the ’50s and ’60s while recording at the Beltone Studios located in the same building.
With such a star-studded collection of tenants, it is little wonder the hotel was landmarked in December 2011 to preserve its place in local history.
Beyond the people it housed, the Wolcott is also famed for what has been called its elaborate “Modern French” architecture, blending elements of Beaux Arts with French Neo Classicism. It was designed by acclaimed American architect John H. Duncan, who is remembered for designing Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb, Brooklyn’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, and a number of townhouses for New York’s elite, including investment banker and philanthropist Otto Hermann Kahn, musician Arthur Lehman, and the Straus family (co-owners of Macy’s at the turn of the nineteenth century).
The hotel’s ornate limestone and pink brick exterior boasts intricately sculpted stonework and steel grates that speak to the building’s century-old history, as they have turned lime-green through the decades. The interior is equally impressive, with a carefully restored lobby that features multiple grandiose crystal chandeliers, marble columns, golden cherubs, and finely decorated ceilings coordinated to match the carpet. It is notable that the original mosaic floors, crown moldings, stained glass, and ornamental iron have all been preserved since the building’s creation.
Long before such amenities were commonplace, the building also possessed the most cutting-edge technologies and luxurious creature comforts of the time, such as having its own laundry, power plant, ice making machines, and telephone systems. Unsurprisingly, its meals were equally high-class, with a menu that featured oysters from Cape Cod, little chickens sourced from local Jersey farms, and rolls slathered with country butter, all starting at $1.50 a plate. If the price is both shocking and adorably quaint, note that prices for a room began at $3, or up to $8 for a bath and drawing room included.
Yet its modern conveniences were far from the only reasons for its appeal. As the Wolcott itself said in its original 1904 brochure, the hotel’s central location was a plus for guests, who were within walking distance of the old theater district and opera house, multiple subway lines, Grand Central Station, and Penn Station — referred to as the “new Pennsylvania Station” in the brochure, which boggles the mind of any present-day reader who can’t imagine the city without it.
For lovers of the supernatural, the Wolcott has also accumulated any number of eerie ghost stories. Guests have reported seeing two boys in pajamas playing games in the lobby stairwell and an old man tottering through the hallways with a cane, making it quite the attraction for anyone looking to liven up their stay with a touch of the uncanny.
As was said in the centennial anniversary of the hotel’s founding, the Wolcott remains a living testament to the city and our neighborhood’s prominent place in American architecture and culture, and its grandeur “still befits the New York of today.”