Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Stewart's Hotel for Working Women

Stewart's Hotel for Working Women (c. 1877)
Stewart's Hotel for Working Women

Location: Fourth Avenue and 32nd Street, New York, New York, USA

Opened: April 2, 1878

Closed: May 26, 1878

This is a prime example of a very short-lived womyn's space. The paint was hardly dry (actually it was less than two months!) before it became a "regular" (i.e male-oriented) hotel. But for a place that lasted only two months, it sure generated a lot of artwork! From the CUNY library site:

Stewart's Hotel for Working Women was commissioned by the wealthy merchant, A.T. Stewart. The hotel opened in 1877 to provide safe housing for the influx of working women into the city. It was soon reopened as a regular hotel in 1878 and renamed the Park Avenue Hotel. The building was demolished in 1927.

The 1877 is actually in error.

Bag of Bones: the Sensational Grave Robbery of the Merchant Prince of Manhattan gives us the inside story. It seems that the Hotel was a major philanthropic gesture by Alexander Stewart, who started construction in January 1869. It took nine years to complete at a cost of $3.7 million. Stewart spared no luxuries, as he was apparently really committed to the idea of providing unmarried working women with a low-cost but beautiful home. And the project was certainly eagerly anticipated by working women and their feminist allies. Here is Stewart's rather interesting (if curious) commentary on the project:

That hotel will make a 1,000 working women happy and independent. If it succeeds the example will be imitated. It will be a woman's kingdom, where those of them that wish to be alone can do so. It will prove whether or not the sexes can live apart, and whether or not it will be better for them to do so, whether or not they will choose too.

Unfortunately, Stewart died in 1876 before the hotel was completed. And then Henry Hilton got his claws into it, seeing a grand opportunity to cash in. It's a fascinating history, but difficult to summarize here. Needless to say, ending the hotel's brief function as a womyn's space was justified by all kinds of lies about how women didn't want a hotel just for women, how women didn't apply for the rooms, blah blah.

And none of it was true. For example, Hilton claimed that the hotel never had more than 50 registered residents, when in fact they received over a 1,000 applications with 75 women moving in the very first day. And then there were the smug misogynist statements issued to justify his decision:

A hotel on an extensive scale for women for women is an impossibility. Women want to associate with the other sex and the restrictions imposed upon them in this house were so severe that many who would have gladly have taken advantage of its benefits declined for that reason.

In reality, none of the restrictions at Stewart's Hotel were considered real "deal breakers" for the time. 

Then there was this outrageous blathering:

Women will not be kept from the other sex. You can run a hotel for men exclusively--but for women you can't. I am not greatly surprised at the failure. But I have done my full duty in the face of a conviction of inevitable failure.

Translation: Hilton NEEDED to present the Stewart's Hotel for Working Women as a financial "failure" so he could strip it of its status as a non-profit venture and turn it into highly profitable commercial property that would benefit HIM. It's a pattern that's frequently seen in places like New York where desirable real estate is highly coveted.

There were storms of protests when Hilton closed down the Hotel, but he did it anyway. By June, the place had reopened as the (for profit) Park Avenue Hotel.

Do read some of the book, because it provides many instructive lessons in how to destroy a womyn's space.

But while the Hotel lasted, it certainly appeared to be a lovely place, judging by the illustrations. The bedrooms (one is illustrated below) appeared rather nice and cozy. But not terribly practical for full-time residents, as many lacked closets (Hilton apparently had something to do with this).  The Reception Room (also illustrated below) is where women residents were allowed to meet male visitors. And notice all the men in the foreground of the print showing off the Grand Dining Room. By contrast, the Court appearts to be all women.

Grand Dining Room, Stewart's Hotel
for Working Women (1878)

The Court, Stewart's Hotel
for Working Women (1878)

Main Entrance, Stewart's Hotel
for Working Women (1878)

Reception Room, Stewart's Hotel
for Working Women (1878)

Bedroom, Stewart's Hotel
for Working Women (1878)

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