In the whole time that I have been passing through Times Square and its environs, I had never taken notice of The Knickerbocker Hotel till yesterday, when I had a few minutes to kill before a show on 42nd Street. Between the plaque at ground level, and what I saw looming above me there on 42nd Street, I was intrigued enough not only to take this photo, but also to look into this site’s past history.
When I got back home, however, I was thrown for a loop. My well-worn, weather-bitten architectural reference, BlueGuide New York, referred to the Knickerbocker as having been “converted to an office tower.” But the site I saw—also on 42nd Street—was, I could have sworn, a hotel. What was going on?
I forgot that the copyright of that book was 1983 and that, in the last two decades particularly, the landscape of the city had changed markedly—even if it meant, as in this case, reverting to something like its original form.
In 2015, after a two-year, $240 million renovation, this space reopened as a hotel—and, in a sign that it wanted to reclaim its old glamour, under its original name. Its heyday under that name was less than 20 years, but it would enter the Gotham legend.
In May 1905, John Jacob Astor IV took over control of a shell of a building (left unfinished by the prior owner’s financial collapse) and hired architects Trowbridge and Livingston to finish the job. Over the next 14 years, the Knickerbocker would enjoy a number of distinctions:
* Opera singer Enrico Caruso lived in the hotel from 1909 until his death, always using the same set of cutlery in the hotel restaurant;
* Another musical giant, theater jack-of-all-trades George M. Cohan, was another long-term resident;
*Woodrow Wilson spoke here while still president of Princeton University;
*Another person associated with Princeton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, visited and set a scene from his debut novel This Side of Paradise here;
*House bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia is said to have invented—what else?—the martini.
Prohibition spelled the end of the first incarnation of the Knickerbocker. Astor’s son Vincent, sensing that little good would come of a hospitality enterprise under such adverse conditions, converted the hotel to other uses in 1921. Thankfully, he left the hotel’s distinctive façade unchanged, but he transformed the bottom floor to retail and the upper ones to office space. (In the 1940s and 1950s, the structure became the Newsweek Building, after its most important occupant.)
In the 1980s, the building housed residential lofts for a short while before being rented as showrooms and studios for companies in the Garment District. After the turn of the millennium, it passed through several more hands before the real estate investment trust FelCor Lodging Trust acquired the building and transformed it back into a hotel a few years ago.