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The Astor House

Foundations of America

QU201 Prof. Scott Leone

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The Astor House

The Astor House was originally built by John Jacob Astor, who assembled the building lots around his former house until he had procured the full block. The hotel opened in June 1836, formerly known as the Park Hotel, located in New York, New York, on the west side of Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets, across from New York City Hall Park and close by to the New York Herald. This building was designed by Isaiah Rogers, who had also designed the Tremont House, in Boston, Massachusetts in 1829. That Astor House was 6 stories high, containing 309 rooms. It also had a tree-shaded central courtyard which was covered over in 1852 by the elliptical vaulted cast-iron and glass “rotunda” by James Bogardus. This was said to be the city’s most best luncheon place for gentlemen to dine stylishly in public. The Astor house, with all of its success, had many competitors, a few of which were: The St. Nicholas Hotel on Broadway at Broome Street, The Metropolitan Hotel, owned by Stephen Van Rensselaer and designed by the architects Joseph Trench and John Butler Snook, and the Fifth Avenue Hotel, owned by Amos Richards Eno and designed by architect Griffith Thomas. The St. Nicholas Hotel was built for a million dollars and offered the innovation of central heating that circulated warmed air through every room. The St. Nicholas also contained stony granite around the front steps of the hotel. The Metropolitan Hotel opened in 1852 and was just as luxurious as The St. Nicholas Hotel, but the new hotel that put all the others to shame was The Fifth Avenue Hotel, which faced Madison Square Garden. After some time, by the early 1870s, the Astor House was considered old-fashioned and unappealing and principally used by businessmen. However, it remained such a seeming permanent fixture of New York. In 1864 the Astor House was one of several hotels set on fire by Confederate sympathizers, yet was not destroyed. The southern half of the hotel was to be torn down to accommodate construction of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company subway, which is now the N and R line. Two years later, 217 Broadway, a seven-story office building, was built and was named the Astor Building. For years the hotel was memorialized on its 1915 replacement, the Astor House Building, but currently it no longer receives much recognition in New York.

John Jacob Astor, who built the Astor House, was born in 1763 as Johann Jacob Astor, and was the first multi-millionaire in the United States. He was the creator of the first trust in America. Through this trust he made his fortune in fur trading, real estate and opium in trading with China. His career began with working in Germany as a flute maker. Later he immigrated to the United States following the American Revolutionary War and built a fur-trading empire there. In the early 19th century he expanded to New York City real estate and later became a famed patron of the arts. Astor’s fur trading was disrupted when the British captured his trading posts during the War of 1812. The American Fur Company came to dominate trading in the area around the Great Lakes in 1822. Astor established the Astor House as headquarters for the reorganized American Fur Company. Astor’s commercial connections extended over the entire globe and his ships were found in every sea.

The architect of the Astor House was Isaiah Rogers, also known as the father of the American hotel, a prominent American architect who practiced in Alabama, Boston, Massachusetts, New York City and Cincinnati, Ohio. Rogers was a student of Solomon Williard and became one of the country’s most popular hotel architects and was known for Boston’s Tremont House, which was the first hotel with indoor plumbing. He is also known for his work in the Exchange Hotel in Richmond, Virginia as well as known for designing the Burnett House in Cincinnati, along with the Astor House. Although he was given high accolades for these hotels, one of his greatest accomplishments was the Astor House. As the records show, he put great effort into creating this magnificent building. He built it in a Greek Revival style with gaslights and bathing/toilet facilities on each floor. It was almost as if it were a “doughnut” shape, as there was a small courtyard in the middle where everyone could enjoy their leisurely time throughout their stay. The large four-square block was faced with pale pink Stony Creek granite with quoined corner, with embedded Doric pillars and a central entrance flanked by Greek Doric columns supporting a short length of entablature. It held 120 employees living at the hotel, including 30 laundresses, 11 cooks and 10 pastry chefs. The central courtyard was originally open, but in the 1850s was covered by a cast-iron and glass roof designed by James Bogardus. The modesty of the hotel did not matter to The Hartford Courant, which in 1839 called it “No. 1 among the hotels of the world.”

Many exceptional icons stayed at the Astor House over the years. Mathew Brady, one of the most celebrated 19th century American photographers, best known for his portraits of celebrities and the documentation of the American Civil War and is credited with being the father of photojournalism, lived there in the 1840s and William James was born there in 1842. William James was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher, who was trained as a medical doctor. In 1843, the Astor House hosted the newlyweds Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his wife. Abraham Lincoln chose to stay there in February 1860 for his speech at Cooper Union. At that time, the Astor was at its peak as a business hotel and the logical choice for where Lincoln should stay. Elected president in 1860, Lincoln stayed at the Astor House again en route to his inauguration in 1861, but stood on the Greek revival portico to give his address as opposed to at the Cooper Union. Henry Clay, Jefferson Davis and other prominent politicians are said to have stayed there; in 1913 the New York Times reported that Daniel Webster “would stay at no other hotel”. This outstanding hotel also served as a safe haven during the Great Blizzard of 1888.

A little background on the magnificent Stony Creek Granite used to help build The Astor House traces its qualities back 600 million years to a unique progression of dynamic Earth processes operating at intense pressures and temperatures of over 1300°F within ancient mountain belts. This rock was formed by the gradual cooling and solidification of magma into a mass underlying what was once the Connecticut River basin. The “long water” river shifted eastward since the last ice age, exposing the unique pink granite throughout the remaining Stony Creek and Thimble Islands region. Whole streets, in the upper part of New York, are lined with stony creek granite, but the most of these are ashlar fronts, of a thin veneering of brownstone, backed with brick. It works easily into the most ornamental forms; but weathering and the frost sometimes causes the brownstone to scale and crumble.

The idea that this granite has made its way internationally wide, linking different significant places together, is truly something to be valued. However, many forget that there were many people who put the effort into actually creating these places and marvelous structures that are not appreciated today as much as they surely should be. The Astor House is only one example of the high quality productions, made by those who have long passed and are now unrecognized because our history has hidden them. Instead of remembering those who contribute to our societies, no matter how long ago they have, it is easier to simply utilize whatever it is they had helped create and forget their significance. On a much brighter note, it is accurate to say that the finding of this unique Stony Creek Granite has led the way to building solid foundations of America. In other words, having this granite as a common denominator, America and all of her wonders are brought together, even though the rock is placed all around the nation.

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Last Updated on Friday, 10 December 2010 12:07  


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