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New York, New York

The Knickerbocker

Of all the classic New York hotels, one of its finest, the Knickerbocker, has fallen into almost-total obscurity.


On November 9, 1918—Armistice Day—opera superstar Enrico Caruso stood on a balcony of the Knickerbocker Hotel, looking out over the intersection of 42nd Street and Broadway. Throngs of people had gathered below to celebrate the end of the first World War, and Caruso, the world’s most famous tenor, wanted to add to the excitement. He decided to do what he did best: Sing. He led the crowd in the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and followed it with the French and Italian national anthems.

Though Caruso is long gone—he died just a year and a half later—the Knickerbocker lives on. Late last month it emerged from two and a half years under scaffolding, having undergone an estimated $10-million renovation. Reviewing the results, the New York Times called it the ‘Beaux Arts tiara of Times Square,’ and not without cause. In a city dotted with amazing turn-of-the-century landmarks, the Knickerbocker stands out from the crowd. Its red-brick, French renaissance façade capped by a copper mansard roof is studded with railings and terracotta detailing, a sharp contrast with the gleaming Condé Nast Building across the street.

And yet the most fascinating thing about the Knickerbocker isn’t its design, but its history. Indeed, it’s one of those New York buildings whose story is as surprising as its anonymity. Tens of thousands of people pass by there every day—and yet probably only a mere handful know anything about it.

Today the hotel is simply called 6 Times Square, and it holds not hotel guests, but apparel showroom—a 25,000-square-foot Gap occupies the first floor. But when it opened in 1905, the Knickerbocker was one of midtown’s premier hotels, and one of the tallest buildings on Times Square.

Construction began in 1903, underwritten by an investment group led by developers J.E. and A.L. Pennock. But work on the building halted a year later when the group collapsed, and John Jacob Astor IV, who owned the property, stepped in to complete it. He redesigned the interiors, and when it opened the Knickerbocker boasted 556 rooms, original art by Frederick Remington and Maxfield Parrish, and an immense dining room. Lore holds that on its second night the hotel turned away 500 people from its restaurant.

The Knickerbocker even had its own subway entrance, which can still be seen today. It’s at the eastern end of Track 1 at the Times Square shuttle platform. (At the time, the shuttle was actually part of an IRT track that ran south along the 4/5/6 line and continued north along the 1/3/9 tracks.) There you’ll find a grimy, nondescript door, the lintel of which reads ‘KNICKERBOCKER.’ The door is locked, but it once gave way to a cozy basement lobby and bar.

Celebrities and the city’s elite flocked to the hotel, drawn both by its luxurious rooms and its world-class restaurant bar. That bar is where, in 1912, an immigrant bartender named Martini di Arma di Taggia allegedly mixed gin and dry vermouth, perfecting the martini. One of his first tasters was John D. Rockefeller, who liked it so much that he recommended it to all his Wall Street buddies, and the drink quickly became a national favorite.

The Knickerbocker’s most famous guest, however, wasn’t, in strict terms, a ‘guest’ at all, but rather a resident. In order to be near the Metropolitan Opera, which at the time was located just three blocks away, Caruso and his family lived in the hotel from its opening until his death in 1921. Caruso’s wife gave birth to their daughter, Gloria, in their suite; Caruso is said to have examined her mouth and declared, ‘Ah, she has the vocal cords, just like her daddy!’ According to one newspaper report Caruso ate virtually all his meals in the hotel restaurant, always using the same utensils, and one time when he encountered an unemployed man lined up at the bread line at the back of the hotel, Caruso gave him his coat and shoes.


Its interior was sacrificed to the vicissitudes of contemporary fashion, its lobby’s barrel-vaulted ceiling had been covered in illuminated plastic, a look that was, according to one observer, ‘vintage ’70s.’


Vincent Astor, the son of John Jacob Astor IV (who went down with the Titanic in 1912), announced he would close the hotel in 1921. There’s no clear story on exactly why he shuttered the Knickerbocker a mere 15 years after opening, though some speculate that Prohibition and its impact on the hotel’s bar business could have played a role. Or maybe it was simply that, at a time when the world was just coming off a major war, not enough people were in the mood for luxury suites and a gold dinner service.

Whatever the case, the Knickerbocker was quietly converted into office space, and though its exterior remained the same, its interior was sacrificed to the vicissitudes of contemporary fashion—before it underwent its most recent renovation, its lobby’s barrel-vaulted ceiling had been covered in illuminated plastic, a look that was, according to one observer, ‘vintage ’70s.’ The paintings hanging in the restaurant were sold off—the Parrish, ‘Old King Cole,’ now hangs in the St. Regis—and the hotel sank into anonymity.

Between 1940 and 1959 it was the home of Newsweek, thanks to which the Knickerbocker is still often called the Newsweek Building. It was converted into residential lofts in 1980, because at the time the office-space market was in the dumps; as Frank Farinella, the architect who oversaw the conversion, told the Times, ‘You couldn’t give away office space at the time.’ In 1988 New York’s preservation commission made it a city landmark.

Times have changed, of course, and office space in New York is in high demand. Which is unfortunate, because it means there’s little chance of the Knickerbocker being converted back to a hotel anytime soon. In fact, while the exterior renovations are amazing, the building’s current owners missed a great opportunity to put the interior to a use other than apparel showrooms. For now, the Knickerbocker is just one more quiet, storied building, in a city full of them.
 

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen