Fifth Avenue Hotel – a Vertical Railroad and Prince of Wales in Madison Square

Most New York visionaries gambled on the fact that the City of New York would be growing north and they were always right! One of them was a wealthy merchant by the name of Amos Richards Eno who conceived the idea of a super-luxury hotel at 5th Ave and 23rd street way before the area became fashionable. Built in 1859, the Fifth Avenue Hotel was referred to as “Eno’s folly.” However, due to New York’s north-growing development pattern, the Hotel found itself surrounded by spectacular mansions of 5th Avenue as well as the finest stores in the city by the 1880s.

Fifth Avenue Hotel and Madison Square, 1898

The Fifth Avenue hotel was a marvel: the exterior was awash with imported white marble, while the interiors drew comparisons to European palaces. Hailed as the “leading hotel of the world” it featured, according to the Times, “8 public and 120 private parlors, 4 dining and tea rooms, 450 chambers, and 90 other rooms for servants. The suites of apartments are arranged to suit the size and requirements of families or single persons. These rooms are all furnished with wardrobes, bureaus, lounges, an easy chair, and a table.”

Besides, the hotel was the first building in the world to have a passenger elevator. In fact, it had an elevator before the term “elevator” was even adopted. The contraption was referred to as a vertical railroad or perpendicular railway. Most people associate the invention of the “elevator” with the name Otis. As it turns out, there was more than one Otis in the elevator business. Elisha Otis, the founder of the elevator company still in the business of making elevators to this day, was not the first one. The first person who came up with the idea was someone by the name of Otis Tufts. It was his elevator, the first passenger elevator in the world, that was installed in the Fifth Avenue Hotel.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel boasted a list of guests that no other hotel in the world has ever entertained. It started in 1860 with the visit of the young Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, future King Edward VII, known at the time as the fun-loving playboy Bertie. According to the 1895 publication King’s Photographic Views of New York, “a never-ending procession of the great men of this and other countries has marched through its corridors. Presidents of the United States, United States senators, congressmen, governors, judges, generals, emperors, princes, foreign ambassadors, untitled men and women of renown; the list would fill a volume… The Emperor Dom Pedro, of Brazil, held court there. Prince Nareo, Crown Prince of Siam, was entertained in 1884; and in 1881 Prince Napoleon, son of ‘Plon Plon,’ and heir-apparent to the throne of France.”

After the end of the Civil War, a reception for General Ulysses S. Grant was hosted in the Fifth Avenue Hotel.

Illustration of the Fifth Avenue Hotel dining room, Harper's Weekly (1859)
Illustration of the Fifth Avenue Hotel dining room, Harper’s Weekly (1859)

The Fifth Avenue Hotel became a stronghold of the Republican party providing office and meeting spaces for prominent politicians like Roscoe Conkling, 20th American President James Garfield, and 21st American President Chester A. Arthur, among others.

By the 20th century, as the city relentlessly marched north, the Fifth Avenue Hotel was losing its footing. It was torn down to be replaced by the 16-story Toy Center, the epicenter of American toy manufacturing for much of the 20th century.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel closed at midnight, 4 April 1908, and was demolished. It was reported that patrons of the hotel’s bar spent $7,000 (about $200,000 today!) in drinks during its last day of operation.


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