The Bing & Bing years for the Hotel St. George coincided with some of the best and worst years of the 20th century. The large Manhattan-based real estate development company bought the hotel in 1922, taking over from the Tumbridge family, the original owners of the hotel. Captain William Tumbridge had created a luxury hotel that attracted some of the crème de la crème of Brooklyn and visiting society, and catered to a wealthy clientele that wanted the convenience of a luxury apartment close to Manhattan. The hotel also advertised itself as a “family hotel”, where families could stay a few days, or board for months, or a season, if necessary. By the time the Bing brothers came along, the image of the hotel was slowly changing. They would preside over the hotel’s most storied years, when it became the quintessential middle class retreat; home to vacationing out of towners, conventioneers, wedding guests, and an occasional celebrity. It was also a destination in of itself, with ballrooms, restaurants, nightclubs, bars, and lounges, and oh yeah, that world famous salt water swimming pool.
In order to accommodate the masses, the Bing’s needed more room. The 1924 Emery Roth addition over the subway stop at Clark Street was a masterful engineering feat. It was imperative that the construction of this new 12 story Renaissance Revival building not interfere with the elevators leading to the subway, or the subway tunnels beneath. Roth solved the problem by running his elevators, stairways and mechanics in the adjoining laundry building, running along Henry Street. The added 370 rooms were but the first step, as Roth was now working on the centerpiece of the entire complex, the massive 32 story St. George Tower. This would add another 1,200 rooms to the hotel, making it, at 2,632 rooms, the largest hotel in New York City.
Contrary to popular belief, the rooms in the tower were meant for people of modest means, low cost living quarters for men and women who worked on Wall Street and Lower Manhattan, only one subway stop away. Each of the rooms in the tower had only a closet and a sink. There were no separate baths, but shared toilet rooms and separate bathrooms, like a dorm. And like a dormitory, some floors were only men’s apartments; other floors were only rented to women.
The tower also contained public ballrooms, restaurants, and the famous pool. The swimming pool was covered in gold mirrors, the columns enclosed in gold and green tiles. The room was lit by underwater and overhead lighting that made the room appear green. A waterfall gushed over a wall on the shallow end, and diving boards dominated the deep end of the pool. The entire thing was designed by Willy Pogany, the famous Hungarian artist, children’s book illustrator and set designer.
All of the other public rooms in the vast hotel were designed in Art Deco splendor by WInold Reiss, one of New York’s premier interior designers, whose work could be found in the interior of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Rumplemayer’s at the Hotel St. Moritz and in murals for the Cincinnati Union Terminal. Reiss designed the hotel’s main ballroom, and it was a thing of wonder, with all of the drama coming not from ornamental architectural excesses, but from light. The walls of the huge ballroom were painted white, the floors jet black. On all of the walls, balconies, columns and ceiling were saw tooth reflectors with colored lights installed behind them. The lights were controlled by a color organ, called a Colorama. The colorama could be played like a symphony, with the range of all of the colors of the spectrum available, enabling the controller to produce an ever changing parade of lights for hours, never repeating a pattern. It was genius. The Colorama Ballroom was the hit of the hotel, the room hosting everything from weddings to political dinners, awards ceremonies and debutante balls, with the mood of the room changing by only controlling the lights.
In 1932, an entry in a book called New York, the Wonder City, by W. Parker Chase, listed some of the attributes and statistics of The Largest Hotel in Eastern America. The Hotel St. George had: “the largest private incinerator in the world – capacity 26 tons daily, 73 ventilating fans – circulating 8 million cubic feet per minute, over 6,000 windows, 7 1/2 miles of corridors and 21 elevators, over 66,000 electric bulbs, 20,000 chairs, 61,000 sheets, 560,000 pillowcases and 655,000 pieces of table linen. The silverware alone in the St. George cost over $450,000. The St. George is a good sized city in itself. It can seat and serve food in its cafes and eating places to 10,000 at one time.”
Along with the bragging rights came some notoriety, too. In 1926, a gang of young, brazen jewel robbers called the Whittemore Gang held up several diamond merchants in the Diamond District, as well as the jewelry business of a man named Folmer Pripp (really?) whose establishment was on Nassau Street, in Lower Manhattan. After making a getaway, the gang checked into the St. George for a bit, before being caught. The two most notorious members of the gang of seven were Richard (The Killer) Whittemore and his best friend, Milton (Shuffles) Goldberg, who was only 22 when he was on trial for his crimes. The entire gang was sent away to Dannemora Prison for a long time.
In the summer of 1929, the St. George was being plagued by a number of small fires, thirteen, to be exact. They were very small, usually paper fires in closets. The staff of the hotel would rush and put them out even before guests were aware of them, but the problem was not letting up. Some nights there would be several fires in the course of a couple of hours, and police and fire officials were called to the hotel. One of the hotel employees, Joseph Berlew, who was employed as a house detective, seemed to be Johnny on the Spot, finding these fires quickly and putting them out. He seemed to be the hero of the hour, but the police weren’t buying it. One night, as they were investigating in the hotel, seven more fires were discovered and rapidly put out. After questioning, Berlew admitted that he was the arsonist.
It was the fault of alcohol, he said. He had had too much to drink, before the first fires, and got the idea to start the fires, and then put them out, “rescuing” the hotel, and winning the admiration of his co-workers and the hotel administration. The rush he got from the experience was too good to not capture again, so he had kept on setting fires, fueled by a few stiff drinks beforehand. Further investigation into his background showed the Berlew had been a store detective in a Manhattan store, but had been let go for, you got it, drinking on the job. Needless to say, he was arraigned and charged with attempted arson, and was no longer employed by the St. George.
Although the hotel was host to thousands of guests, and the location for hundreds of special events, the Great Depression was killing business, as it settled into New York and the country in the 1930’s. By 1933, the great hotel was in foreclosure. It limped by until the beginning of World War II, when many of the rooms were taken by military men and their families. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was in close proximity, and personnel from other branches of the service also found the St. George to be a convenient home away from home. World War II helped save the St. George, taking its books back into the black, and profitability.
Many people today still remember the St. George’s many restaurants and cafes. Members of groups who reminisce about those days have vivid memories of all of the amenities the hotel had to offer. Sometimes the memories are a little fuzzy, but that’s still understandable, as the hotel had a lot of different venues, and they changed over the years. Like any restaurant row in the city, new fads or food choices caused establishments to come and go. Themed international establishments seemed to be very popular, with ersatz ethnic décor for that authentic “feel”. The hotel was home, at various times between the 30s and late 50s, to four main venues: the Café Bar, Fountain Room, Coffee Shop, and Stardust Ballroom. There were nightclub lounges in the Tower Room, the Egyptian Roof, and the Tower Roof Ballroom. The Italian Village, Fish Grill and Oyster Bar, and Bermuda Terrace were also popular themed restaurants on the premises. If you were staying at the St. George, you didn’t have to leave the hotel for a variety of cuisines, price points and fare.
Next time: the post-war years. Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster drop in, as does the airline industry. The balconies drop off, not good at all, and debutantes are introduced to Brooklyn’s upper crust at the St. George. But mostly, it’s about the everyday folks; the union members, the Dragon Swim Team, kids from the Bronx, and…like in a movie, the grand dame of a hotel becomes a seedy old derelict, holding on, just barely, while the city declines with it. The story of the Hotel St. George continues.