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Historical Randomness

The picture above caught my eye because I had never heard of the United States Hotel and it is shown here to be a quite large building. The accompanying text at the New York Public Library website suggests that the woodcut is from 1830, which is very early for a real hotel in New York, as opposed to a boarding house or a flophouse. So I went looking around a little bit. Since this kind of thing is not real historical research, I’m perfectly happy to find that someone else has done the research, and in this case it’s Daytonian In Manhattan: here.

In short, the hotel opened around 1830 – Daytonian says 1833, I’ve also seen 1830 and 1828 as opening dates – as a high-end competitor to the City Hotel on Broadway, and gradually dropped down the social scale but kept operating through the rest of the century, and was finally replaced in 1903 by an office building. That office building has since been replaced by a much bigger tower. Here it is on the 1857 Perris map, with Pearl Street to the west (up), Water Street to the east, and Fulton Street to the north:

The pink color marks it as a brick residential building. The short lines within are interior bearing walls. The yellow tangle in the middle may be a wood exterior stair or a first-floor wood extension, possibly for the dining hall. Pearl Street follows the pre-colonization shore of the East River, so the hotel was built on some of the oldest landfill in the city.

A lot changed during the 70 or so years that the hotel existed. In 1878, the Third Avenue elevated opened on this part of Pearl Street, with a station immediately adjacent to the hotel. This must have made the already noisy neighborhood quite a bit louder. The center of the port moved from the East to the Hudson River, leaving the nearby piers for coastal trade rather than transatlantic ships. The Croton water system opened in 1842, although it took a while to reach everywhere because new water mains and sewers had to be built. This last raises an interesting question about the both the longevity and demise of the hotel.

Most nineteenth-century hotels in New York were demolished because they were functionally obsolete. The most common reason was a lack of adequate indoor plumbing combined with the difficulty of retrofitting the buildings. Prior to 1882, pretty much every hotel was built of flammable construction, and by the end of the century there had been enough serious fires in such buildings that they were starting to be discussed as inherently unsafe. The late-1800s generation of hotel was generally of some form of fire-protected construction and had more toilets per capita. By the early 1900s, new hotels were pretty much all fire-protected steel-frame with a toilet for each room. The United States Hotel survived for a very long time as a flammable building that had been built with the limited sanitary provisions in effect before the Croton system opened. It may have been retrofitted with more toilets and baths – I certainly hope it was – but its survival is still amazing. The City Hotel didn’t even make to to 1850; its replacement as New York’s fashionable hotel, the Astor House, opened in 1836 and survived to 1913 on the basis of a thorough renovation of the plumbing.