The story of the Hotel St. George starts not with the building of New York City’s largest hotel, but with the dreams of a young lad who thought he had found his calling sailing the seas, and an early life that reads like a boy’s adventure story. He was English, born in 1845 to parents living at the Cape of Good Hope, in Cape Town.
At the age of four, William Tumbridge’s father died, and his mother took him back to London, on that long voyage from Southern Africa back to Great Britain, where the child learned to love the sea. By the time young Tumbridge was thirteen, he was apprenticed on a brig, called the Satellite, which in 1858, wrecked on a voyage between the Black Sea and Glasgow.
The crew was picked up by a fishing boat and left in Malta, where they worked their way back to England. That experience might have finished the seaworthy ambitions of most, but not William Tumbridge. He passed his officer’s examinations at seventeen, and became the second mate on a ship bound for Brazil. From Brazil, he made his way, at last, to America, arriving just in time for the Civil War.
The Union needed experienced sailors, so William Tumbridge enlisted in the American Navy. After a stint at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he ended up on a vessel called the Tacomy, which was to be part of the northern blockade of southern ports.
The trip south was far from comfortable, with too many men crammed onto the ship; so that many had to sleep on the exposed upper decks, and the men were fed by being tossed biscuits into the crowd, like a farmer feeds chickens. When the ship reached Fort Fisher, in North Carolina, Tumbridge was one of a group of volunteers who landed further along the shore to stage a diversion for the main attacking force on the fort.
Tumbridge would later relate that he had several close calls during this battle, once getting so close to the Confederate lines that he and his companions could hear the enemy commanders shouting orders to their men, orders to “blow the Yankee devils back to hell.”
He barely escaped capture, and as they crept back to the Union lines, he was wounded, and spent the rest of his war days in the hospital. He was discharged just as the war ended, and his military career was over. William Tumbridge was now twenty years old.
Upon returning to New York, Tumbridge once again took to the sea. He signed on as a mate on the Seabreeze, and after the voyage, became a member of the American Shipmasters’ Association, at the ripe old age of twenty-one. On his second trip, his ship ran aground off Sandy Hook, so he came back to the city, put his kit and belongings in storage, and went back to salvage his ship.
It had been severely wrecked, and lay beached in the bay, a total loss. He went back to New York to find that the warehouse where he had placed his stuff had burned to the ground, leaving him with nothing but the clothes on his back and a few dollars in his pockets.
Without his kit, he found it impossible to get another berth on another ship. He thought his sea faring career was over.
Disappointed, but undaunted, William Tumbridge took a landlubber’s job, working at an advertising firm on Wall Street. He found he was good at it, and soon had a large number of clients. He had original ideas, and was popular, with great charisma, and was soon out-performing everyone else in the company.
In 1869, he married Miss Lucinda Finck, and they would go on to have four children. He stayed in the advertising business for ten years, putting away a tidy nest egg, and living frugally, so that when opportunity called in 1876, he was ready.
Even though he was now a successful businessman, husband and father, William Tumbridge hadn’t lost his love of the sea. In 1876, he became part owner of a clipper ship called the Spartan, and as its new captain, took her out on a New York to Havre run, setting a record of eighteen days, a first for that kind of vessel at that time.
He then commanded the steamship Barrowdale, which was the first vessel of its kind to reach the head of the Gulf of Bothnia, in the Baltic Sea, the cold body of water which separates Finland and Sweden.
That adventure must have satisfied him for a while, because he spent the next four years on land again, running a building operation in Brooklyn. He wanted to go into the ship building business, but abandoned the idea due to high tariffs imposed to prevent competition. So what should William Tumbridge do next?
Perhaps his memories of living frugally on $1.50 a day, in his adman days inspired him, or those horrible days aboard the Navy vessel during the war, when men slept on the deck rather than crowd in the darkness below, or maybe it was just a career spent in places other than home, but in 1885, William Tumbridge got into the hotel business.
Brooklyn was a growing city, Brooklyn Heights was the center of that city, and it didn’t have any large hotels. Tumbridge would change that. He bought a plot of land on Pineapple Street, between Hicks and Henry Streets.
Between 1776 and 1783, this had been the site of an inn called the St. George’s Tavern. He took that name, and in 1885, built a ten story hotel, at the time, one of Brooklyn’s tallest buildings.
The Hotel St. George, designed by architect Augustus Hatfield, was in red brick, and had 130 rooms and bathrooms. It was an immediate success, and a year later, in 1886, another building was erected on Clark Street, which had 360 rooms and bathrooms.
The two buildings were joined by a passageway. No sooner than 1889, another addition was needed, this one adding 100 rooms to the back end of the Pineapple Street building. And in 1891, yet another building on Pineapple was built, this one adding 210 rooms, giving the St. George almost 800 rooms, which included 200 bathrooms.
Tumbridge set about buying more property on the block bordered by Pineapple, Clark, Hicks and Henry, and in 1890, and again in 1892, hired Montrose W. Morris to design a very large new ten story building and subsequent annex, facing Clark Street, that would bring the hotel up to a grand total of over 1,000 rooms.
Morris’ building is still the most beautiful of the 19th century buildings in the complex. It was built of white brick with white glazed terra-cotta, a Renaissance Revival confection festooned with a roof deck with flagpoles flying flags and banners, easily visible anywhere in the Heights.
The hotel was now larger than any other in Brooklyn, and most of the hotels in Manhattan, and Tumbridge was determined to out-do anything Manhattan had to offer its guests. The St. George was one of the first hotels to be lighted by electricity, and had its own dynamos and power plant.
The dining room was cooled by an air conditioning device invented by Tumbridge himself, and he boasted that his hotel “compares favorably with the best hotels in the world.” GMAP
So what was life like in the Hotel St. George, during the Tumbridge years? It certainly wasn’t boring, that’s for sure. We’ll hit the highlights, and the low points, next time.