Walkabout: Brooklyn’s St. George Hotel, Part 7

Main dining room, in tower, 1942 Photo: St. George Tower Yahoo

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    Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6 of this story.

    Find a middle class native New Yorker, especially a Brooklynite, over the age of sixty, and you’ll probably find that they’d been to the St. George at least once. They could have been an adult, or a child with their parents.

    Perhaps it was a special night in one of the restaurants, or ballrooms, or more than likely, it was a trip to the swimming pool. The famous St. George salt water pool was a draw for many in the city, both young and old, as well as for the famous who still flocked to the hotel in the late 1940s and 50s.

    The St. George was still THE place to stay in Brooklyn, during the post-war years, and the list of the famous is pretty impressive. Frank Sinatra and his entourage stayed here, as did the following actors and entertainers: Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, who was a regular, Shelly Winters, Angela Lansbury, Duke Ellington and his orchestra, Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, and authors Thomas Wolfe and Norman Mailer.

    Lena Horne, Veronica Lake, Cary Grant and Norma Shearer all had photographs taken at the pool arcade. So too did aquatic actors Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe and Esther Williams. Leonard Bernstein recorded Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet fantasy overture with the New York Philharmonic, for Columbia Records, here in the hotel on January 28, 1957. Also that year, Burt Lancaster starred in the movie version of “Sweet Smell of Success”, and one of the scenes took place at the Egyptian Roof Club, in the St. George Tower.

    As time went on, the hotel began to open itself up to new sources of revenue. Making the pool available to the public for a nominal price was one successful venture, and has generated fond memories all around. In addition to individual swimming by children and adults, several swim clubs practiced there, the most famous of which was the Dragon Swim Club.

    They had been swimming at the St. George for years, and one of their members, Henry Myers, is credited with inventing the butterfly stroke, first used in competition in 1933. Former members of the club still remember those days fondly.

    Swimming in the pool was a popular activity, one shared by young and old. At a time when a subway ride cost a nickel, the St. George Pool cost ten cents, and you could stay and swim all day, and even use the gym equipment next door. It must have been the most fabulous treat for a city kid, and they came from every part of Brooklyn, Manhattan, even the hour subway ride from the Bronx, to swim in the salt water.

    I’ve often wondered if the pool was segregated, or off-limits to minorities, but I haven’t read anything that suggests either way, although all of the reminiscences I’ve read have been from white people. I’d love to know, so if anyone has any info, please share.

    In 1947, Brooklyn joined the friendly skies. There were no airline terminals in Brooklyn, either before or after the war. If you wanted a ticket, you had to go to a ticket office in Manhattan or the airport, itself.

    The airline industry saw a huge potential market not being filled, and in 1947, opened the first Brooklyn Airlines Terminal at the St. George. It served eight American based airlines: United, American, Eastern, National, Northeastern, Northwestern, Colonial, and Capital.

    The terminal was opened with much press coverage and hoopla. It was a great business opportunity, and a great indicator of the growing popularity of air travel in the US. One could not only book a ticket here, or get travel information, but could also book limousine service to the airports.

    Unfortunately, Brooklyn turned out to be too much of a niche market, and while the location at the hotel was convenient for some, it was not easy to find for those not familiar with the Heights. The front desk of the hotel also got endless calls from people trying to book tickets or cars, even though the terminal was a separate entity with its own phone number.

    The office stayed at the St. George until 1950, when it moved to Livingston Street, across from Abraham & Straus, and was known as the A&S Brooklyn Airlines Terminal. It’s unclear how long it stayed open.

    In 1953, the Manhattan based developers, Bing & Bing, sold the hotel. They had bought the St. George in 1922 from the family of its founder, Captain William Tumbridge. Bing & Bing had taken this upscale collection of buildings that sprawled across the city block bordered by Henry, Clark, Hicks and Pineapple Streets, and built and expanded the hotel until it covered every inch of that square block.

    They had commissioned Emery Roth to build first, the Clark and Henry Street corner addition, and then the St. George Tower, adding thousands of new rooms, making the St. George the largest hotel complex in the entire city of New York.

    They made the St. George’s ballrooms, restaurants and lounges the talk of the town, and the St. George salt water swimming pool a destination for the city. But now they were done, and the hotel was passed on to the Kennard Hospitality Hotel Corporation.

    The rest of the 1950’s passed quickly. Life in Brooklyn continued, as the good life for America’s middle class brought business to the hotel, and the old St. George was still an elegant place to have a wedding, bar mitzvah, convention, or an elegant formal dress ball.

    An old Brooklyn Heights blueblood event was the annual Yuletide Ball, a charity event that also coincided with the presentation of Brooklyn’s debutantes to Society. It was sponsored by the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, a charitable organization founded in 1891, in Brooklyn Heights, which raised money for kindergarten programs in poor neighborhoods.

    The Yuletide Ball was an annual event that included members opening up their homes on the day of the Ball for informal lunches and visitations. Members would go from house to house, sampling the goodies, sharing holiday cheer, and making ready for the formal ball, where the daughters of Brooklyn’s elite families could be seen, and introduced to potential spouses, and Society in general.

    The balls sometimes took place at the Casino Club on Montague Street, or at the Bossert Hotel, but more often than not, from between the mid 1940’s until 1967, the Yuletide Ball was at the St. George, the largest venue in the Heights.

    The Society still exists, as does the charity, but they stopped presenting debutantes in 1968. The age of debutantes was over in much of America, during this time of social change, the women’s movement, and general rebellion.

    The late 1960’s was also the beginning of the end for the grand old St. George. The Kennard Hospitality Hotel group was being accused of neglecting the property, and taking the profits from the hotel and using them elsewhere.

    Maintenance issues started to rise and the hotel was beginning the long road downhill into seediness. It didn’t happen overnight, but ever so slowly, it did happen. Like Brooklyn and the rest of New York City, the 1970’s saw everything going downhill, as New York sank into the financial pits, in actuality and in public perception.

    At the St. George, the biggest indication of this was the closing of the famous swimming pool, which was drained in 1974. Although there is today a pool at the St. George, they only use a portion of the original space. The grand Art Deco, over the top, sparkling St. George pool was gone. The hotel was sure to follow.

    It would be negligent to not include a mention of the feedback this series has generated. Thanks especially to reader Andrew Porter for his contributions and photographs. The St. George Tower Yahoo group is a wonderful source of photos and memories, especially of the time period covered today. And lastly, through Andrew Porter, I received a note from the great science fiction author Frederick Pohl, who roamed the halls of the St. George as a boy. What an honor, and more on that later.

    We’re going to leave the story here for a while, and come back to tell the end of the tale of the fabulous St. George Hotel in a couple of weeks. The hotel still has some dramatic stories in her. The last forty years have seen decrepitude, neglect, the homeless and down and out, a horrific fire, destruction and dramatic rebirth. The story continues….

    Main dining room, in tower, 1942 Photo: St. George Tower Yahoo

    St. George Airline Terminal. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

    1940’s Matchbook. Photo: Andrew Porter

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