A Path to Steam
The middle building is 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 purchased the full block in the heart of the city’s most fashionable residential district. The hotel opened in June 1836 as the Park Hotel. It was located on the west side of Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets, across from New York City Hall Park and diagonally across from the offices of the New York Herald. The building was designed by Isaiah Rogers, who had designed the first luxury hotel in the United States, the Tremont House, in Boston (1829). The large four-square block was detailed in the Greek Revival style, faced with pale granite ashlar with quoined corners treated as at Tremont House, as embedded Doric pillars, and a central entrance flanked by Greek Doric columns supporting a short length of entablature. Astor House contained 309 rooms in its 6 stories with the new gaslights and bathing/toilet facilities on each floor. Its tree-shaded central courtyard was covered over in 1852 by the elliptical vaulted cast-iron and glass “rotunda” by James Bogardus, that under the direction of its proprietor “Col.” Charles A. Stetson (1837–1877) was the city’s most stylish luncheon place for gentlemen at its curving bar, with legendary side dining rooms entered from Vesey Street or Barclay Street, where even upper-class New Yorkers discovered that it was possible to dine stylishly in public.
Mathew Brady lived there in the 1840s and William James was born there in 1842. In 1843, the Astor House hosted the recently married Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his wife. The couple, who renewed their friendship with fellow patron Fanny Kemble, also dined there with Nathaniel Parker Willis and his wife during their stay. The Norwegian violinist Ole Bull was a returning patron at the hotel on his American tours in the 1840s, 50s and 60s. Abraham Lincoln stayed there in February 1861 on his way to his inauguration.
The success of the Astor House invited competition. The St Nicholas Hotel on Broadway at Broome Street was built for a million dollars and offered the innovation of central heating that circulated warmed air through registers to every room. The Metropolitan Hotel opened in 1852 just north of it, at Prince Street, was equally luxurious. But the new hotel to put all others in the shade was the Fifth Avenue Hotel facing Madison Square. By the early 1870s the Astor House was considered old-fashioned and unappealing and principally used by businessmen.