The 197-room Hotel Belleclaire, built in 1903 by Albert Saxe, was one of architect Emery Roth’s first buildings. Roth would go on to design well over two hundred buildings in New York City, many of which helped to shape the Manhattan skyline.
Christopher Gray, the architectural historian for the New York Times wrote (on December 27, 1992):
Completed in 1903, the 10-story Hotel Belleclaire had nonhousekeeping apartments of one to four bedrooms. Tenants took their meals in a Moorish dining room or a Louis XVI ladies dining room or a Flemish café…. What set it apart was the outside: the fullest example yet of the Art Nouveau and Secession styles, related movements sweeping Europe. Characteristic elements of that style as seen in the Belleclaire’s exterior include the pendant panel decorations on the tall limestone pilasters, the stone spandrel and lintel ornament on the fourth floor and the asymmetrical window panes, 12 in the top sash, 3 in the bottom. As originally built, the Belleclaire also had elaborate sidewalk railings that could have come from Hector Guinard’s Metro stations in Paris. There was also similar iron work at the roof and the ninth-floor balcony and a long bay of sinuous Art Nouveau windows lighting a dining room on 77th Street.
During the 1880s, apartment hotels catering to those who maintained residences outside the city began to be constructed in New York City. These hotels provided suites of rooms that were serviced by the hotel staff; thus, guests did not need servants. By 1905, it was estimated that there were almost one hundred such hotels in midtown Manhattan. Apartment hotels were designed to house both transient guests and permanent tenants in suites and single rooms, furnished or unfurnished. All were without kitchen facilities; instead, the hotel employed full-service staffs and provided ground floor breakfast rooms and restaurants.
The first wave of these apartment hotels occurred between 1889 and 1895. A second wave of construction followed the passage of the new building code in 1899 and the Tenement House Law in 1901. The Belleclaire was built during this period. Since apartment hotels were classified as hotels rather than tenements (i.e. regular apartment buildings), they were exempt from the stringent tenement house law and regulated only by the more flexible building code as applied to commercial buildings. As a consequence, apartment hotels could be less fireproof, taller, cover a larger portion of the lot and contain more units than apartment houses, giving builders a larger financial return.
The third wave of apartment hotel construction during the economic prosperity of the 1920s ended with the Great Depression. The passage of the Multiple Dwelling Act of 1929 altered height and bulk restrictions and permitted high-rise apartment buildings for the first time, which eliminated the advantages of apartment hotels. This law, combined with the Great Depression, effectively ended the development of apartment hotels.
Some apartment hotels introduced “bootleg kitchens”- a true kitchenette - into their suites, which were intended to warm up food provided by room service. Under the law, which was not strictly enforced, stoves were still not allowed in living units of apartment hotels. Many apartment hotels were illegally retrofitted in this manner.
Architect Emery Roth’s design for the Belleclaire, supported by a skeleton frame of ten stories, was considered a skyscraper. The styling of the Belleclaire also departed dramatically from the formal rigidity of its predecessors. The Belleclaire’s stylistic influences were provided by the Modern French classical tradition, French Art Nouveau and the Viennese Secessionist Movement.
It is not generally known that when 13-year-old Emery Roth arrived in America in 1884, he was a penniless Hungarian immigrant. His on-the- job training and unlikely experiences led to his becoming the consummate designer of extraordinary buildings in New York between 1898 and 1948. Emery’s parents owned and managed an inn in the town of Galszecs, Hungary. It was the only two-story building in town and it housed the family’s living quarters, guest rooms, a coffee house, a gentlemen’s casino and a semi-private club. An adjacent building contained a ballroom, banquet hall, theater and a dancing school.
Emery’s first few years in America were difficult. But with his positive attitude and willingness to work hard, Emery learned to be a draftsman, construction supervisor and architectural illustrator. Emery got a job as a draftsman in the Chicago office of Burnham & Root, the designated architectural firm of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Because it was determined that all the major buildings were to be uniformly designed in Greek and Roman classical styles, Roth was given access to an extensive library containing all the standard treatises on classical design. Roth later stated, “Certainly no technical or art school could have offered me greater opportunities for advancement in design than the two years I spent on that job.” In later years, he called the Exposition his “beneficent Alma Mater”.
There’s a wonderfully apocryphal story told about the Hotel Belleclaire. In 1906, Maxim Gorky, the famous Russian novelist, came to the United States for a lecture tour. He stayed at the Belleclaire with his wife until, after a few days, it was discovered that his supposed spouse was actually the Russian actress Madame Andrieva. Gorky’s legal wife, from whom he was separated, was in Russia. The general manager of the Belleclaire, Milton Robles, said, “My hotel is a family hotel” and ejected the Gorky party. After being rejected by two other hotels, Gorky was indignant and said, “For us it remains the human right to overlook the gossip of others.” The New York Times reported that Gorky found a sympathetic household with the John Martin family on Staten Island, described as “less scrupulous than their neighbors.”
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