Past and Present: The St. Marks Avenue Hotel

St Marks Hotel, composite

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Bedford Avenue stretches from Williamsburg to Gravesend. Rogers Avenue, almost as long, begins at Farragut Road, near Brooklyn College, and intersects Bedford at Dean Street. A trapezoid; almost a triangle, is formed at the meeting of these two important streets, St. Marks Avenue, and Bergen Street. Today, there are six buildings in that space, but in the late 1800’s, there were only three, and all of them may have been a part of the St. Marks Avenue Hotel, which faced St. Marks Avenue. An article in the 1918 Brooklyn Eagle says that the building was sixty years old, at that time, but that puts the date at 1858, and there is no record of any building there at that time. The paper exaggerated by about 30 years. The earliest record of the hotel dates back to the mid-1890s, when an ad appeared in the Eagle, which is the photograph to the left.

It advertised the services of the St. Marks Avenue Hotel, a family hotel, where guests had “all the comforts and conveniences of home.” This type of establishment was more of a residential hotel than a transient one, although overnight and short term guests were welcomed. There are no descriptions of the private rooms, but the hotel did have a lot of public rooms, including a grand dining room, a reception room, and a concert room for the many professional and community concerts that took place there.

Beginning in 1901, there are many articles in the Brooklyn papers that chronicle events that took place in the St. Marks. Musical events were frequent, including recitals, concerts; one by the wonderfully named organist J. Treadwell Bollwinkel, and singing club get-togethers. There were card parties, especially the game of the day; euchre, as well as wedding receptions, ladies club meetings, and all sorts of birthday events, organization meetings and the like. One night, all of the “colored waiters” in the dining room put on a minstrel show and cakewalk for the guests. It must have been quite the show, as it got a mention in the paper.

By 1909, rooms were $2.50 and night and up. You could rent a room, or suite of rooms nightly, weekly, monthly, or even take out a year’s lease. The papers were also full of announcements that “Mrs. X had taken rooms for the season at the St. Marks Avenue Hotel.” It also seemed to be the place to go when divorced or having problems, which seemed to be the case for several gentlemen who moved there from their homes only a couple of blocks away.

The St. Marks was right at the beginning of the St. Marks District, one of Brooklyn’s swankier neighborhoods at the beginning of the 20th century. Stretched out beyond her doors were the mansions of some of Brooklyn’s richest citizens, and the hotel was just around the corner from Grant Square, where events took place at the Union League Club, the restaurants around the Square, as well as at the 23rd Regiment Armory. It was quite the place to be. The hotel is listed among Brooklyn’s hotels in the Brooklyn Eagle Almanac from 1903 up until 1913, the last year I have before the big fire that destroyed this neighborhood institution.

On December 28, 1916, fire raged through the building, sending 60 guests into the street. The fire started on the top floor. A car salesman, with an office across the street, saw the flames shooting out, and called the fire department. They responded quickly, but their hoses were stretched thin getting to the top floor, and several burst in the intense cold, and by the time they got new hoses up there, the conflagration had spread. In the end, between the fire damage, smoke and the water, the hotel was heavily damaged. The buildings just behind it, which look to have been part of the hotel, but separate buildings, perhaps additional rooms, were not destroyed. They still stand today.

There were several heroes in the disaster, including thirteen year old Peter Schneller, the son of the janitress, who was in his basement apartment when the smoke engulfed the hotel. He carried his three year old sister to a fire escape to the waiting arms of a fireman. Other firemen rescued several guests who were overcome by smoke. Miraculously, no one died, and the injuries suffered by rescuers and guests were relatively minimal. But the hotel was finished and boarded it up, and that was the end of the St. Marks Avenue Hotel. A newer and much larger hotel called the Chatelaine was just across the street, and no doubt, took up many of the St. Marks’ guests and business.

Two years later, in 1918, the remains of the main hotel building were torn down, and plans were made for a new building to rise. In keeping with Bedford Avenue’s growing reputation as Automobile Row, this new two story building, designed by Manhattan architect Henry J. Nurick, would have an automobile showroom on the ground floor with and office floor above. Even before the building was finished, the upper floor was leased by the John Hancock Life Insurance Company. The rendering of the building in the paper showed a square two story brick building with large showroom windows, and an overhanging Mediterranean tile roof projecting like a cornice around the upper story, supported by large wooden brackets. The roofline was typical for the period. That building, its shell anyway, still stands.

The building was an automobile showroom until 1930, when the NY Times announced that it would become a branch of the Motor Vehicle Department, issuing licenses and plates. It was unclear if that was the whole building, or just upstairs. But in 1944, the showroom space was a grocery store called the Banner Dairy Store. During World War II, they collected recycled paper and metal for the war effort.

There are holes in the timeline, but by 1969, this building was a club and event space called the Bellrose Ballroom. Shirley Chisholm held fundraising events here during her run for Congress and for the presidential race in both 1969 and 1972. There are also newspaper accounts of the space being rented out for union events and other gatherings, as well as it being a popular night spot. But by 1983, the Ballroom had lost the building to the City for taxes, and it was bricked up.

In 1986, the Washington Temple Church of God In Christ, which is just up the block, bought the building, intending to tear it down to build housing, but that never happened. Today, the site of the bustling St. Marks Avenue Hotel sits desolate, looking for a purpose. Personally, as hot as Crown Heights is right now, I don’t think it will be desolate much longer. I hope the building is saved and repurposed for restaurant/retail/office space. It could be part of the renaissance of Grant Square, an area of great potential. GMAP

Advertisement in the Brooklyn Eagle. 1890s

Advertisement in the Brooklyn Eagle. 1890s

Site today

Site today

1907-08 map. New York Public Library.

1907-08 map. New York Public Library.

Rendering of new showroom and office building, Brooklyn Eagle, 1918.

Rendering of new showroom and office building, Brooklyn Eagle, 1918.

21 Comment

  • I have long wondered about the pros and cons of renovating this building versus replacing it with housing. I thought the ground floor could make a great event space. The high ceilings would allow a stage and great lighting. Housing would also work, with good light and views in various directions. I look forward to the development of this property. It has been vacant for too long.

  • The 1990′s date in the first paragraph should be revised. But thanks for the thorough history!

  • Jimmy Legs

    that would be so cool if they brought the building back to its 1918 design.

    also, were ‘cakewalks’ somehow different back then than the musical-chairs-meets-raffle thing i associate with the word? it’s hard for me to picture people getting all dressed up to go out for a fun night out of minstrelsy (yikes) and cakewalking.

  • Jimmy, a cakewalk was a dance, a promenade, more accurately, with individuals doing dance steps while the whole group paraded around. Think New Orleans jazz funeral or a line dance kind of thing. The original cakewalks were done by slaves in the Southern plantations. They would imitate the whites dancing at waltzes, etc. It evolved from there to a very stately promenade from which couples or individuals would break out into intricate dance steps, or basically, “voguing” as done in clubs today. The winners would get a cake as a prize. It became a staple of minstrel shows, and its great-great-great grandchild literally is voguing.

    I’m a fount of useless information. : )

  • East New York

    “its great-great-great grandchild literally is voguing.”

    Or the “Soul Train” dance line.

    Great post.

  • hairyone

    While we’re nitpicking, Bedford Avenue stretches from Williamsburg to Sheepshead Bay, not Gravesend. It ends, unceremoniously, at an Applebee’s on Emmons Avenue. Now admittedly, the neighborhood we call called Sheepshead Bay was once part of the town of Gravesend. But I don’t think anybody eating at Applebee’s on Emmons today would consider themselves to be in Gravesend.

  • “Besides which, it has nothing to do with the story!!!!!”

    Then why did you plather on about it???

  • NeoGrec

    Good grief, that hotel was a pretty impressive building! Although I’m usually much in favor of repurposing/restoring old buildings, I’m not sure the old auto showroom has enough going for it to make that worthwhile. Still, whatever happens at the site, I hope it’s something a) handsome, and b) useful to the whole community.

  • sweet action

    Montrose you have enough of these fantastic posts for a fascinating book. I’d buy it!

  • sweet action

    Montrose, you also should start a business where you research and write up the history for researching brownstone buildings for their owners. I’d bet many of the owners reading this site would pay for that service. Slogging through the Daily Eagle archives, and understanding the time in which these buildings were constructed is a unique expertise. I’ve uncovered some interesting tidbits about the original owners of my house (from the daily eagle and U.S. Census documents), but I’m sure you have a broader knowledge of where to look for more.

    • Sweet, I have done this for clients, but I guess no one would know, since you can’t see my business card over the internet. But anyone interested can write me at montrosemorris at yahoo dot com.

      A caveat – sometimes you can find great stuff, like in this story, sometimes there’s nothing at all, so that aside from names in the census, there is no information left behind. Often, it’s somewhere in between.

  • That photo of the St. Marks Hotel with banks of awnings is great! I just came across a similar photo from the Ridgewood South district report with rows and rows of awnings. Any info on when these started to fall out of fashion and were removed from buildings? Perhaps mid-century with the rise of air conditioning?