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The Terminal Hotel at 11th Avenue and 23rd Street

 This weekend I had the pleasure of going to the Brooklyn Beefsteak at the Bell House in Gowanus. It was an awesome event, and I probably ate more meat than any sane human being has a right to eat. Beefsteaks have been a tradition in New York since the late 1800s, when they served as fundraisers for civic and political organizations. Men (and they were always men; beefsteaks remained stag until 1920) would rent out meeting halls or cellars, stretch planks of wood over barrels, and then start cooking slices of steak tenderloin in butter and drippings.
The details differ from event to event, but the general outlines have remained the same: unlimited steak, unlimited beer, and no utensils. If your hands got too greasy from the meat, you’d wash them in a little beer and wipe them on your personalized apron. Steak would be served on slices of bread, though the bread is typically not eaten. Instead, a beefsteaker would eat the steak, then stack the bread next to him to keep track of how much he’s eaten. (I’m not ashamed to say I had a good 40 slices of bread sitting next to me before I stopped counting.)  “If you’re able to hold a little more when you start home,” said butcher William Wertheimer, “you haven’t been to a beefsteak, you’ve been to a banquet they call a beefsteak.”
The best history of this New York tradition comes from Joseph Mitchell’s “All You Can Hold For Five Bucks.” Though written after the heyday of beefsteaking, it’s nonetheless an engrossing read. In 1939, there were two schools of beefsteaking. The East Side school was centered on Wertheimer & Sons at 1st Avenue and 19th Street. The rules were no appetizers, no fish, just beef tenderloin, hamburger steaks, and kidneys served on day-old bread. Toast was considered uncouth; you wanted to taste the meat, not the bread underneath. The West Side school was of a different mind. Appetizers were served (radishes, potatoes, and crabcakes), with steak served on toast. The home of the West Side school is today’s entry, the Terminal Hotel on the northeast corner of 11th Avenue and 23rd Street.
The Terminal Hotel has had plenty of shifting names and businesses in its 150-year-old history. There are even two addresses for essentially the same building: 184 11th Avenue and 565 West 23rd Street. In the earliest days of colonial Manhattan, this intersection would never have been possible. Thomas Clarke, one of the first landowners in Chelsea, owned a plot of waterfront property that stopped at today’s 10th Avenue. His property would be split into rental parcels by his grandson Clement Clarke Moore, better known to us as the author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas.”
As landfilling gradually expanded the western border of Manhattan into the Hudson, 10th Avenue came to be a dividing line between the charming townhouses to the east and the industrialized warehouses and factories to the west. Lumber yards, breweries, and pulping mills had easy access to transport their goods by land or sea. Freight could be loaded onto clippers and steamboats on the Hudson River, or on the trains that ran up and down 11th Avenue. These ground level tracks were built by the Hudson River Railroad in 1846. While the tracks may have been convenient for industry, they were a menace to pedestrians. With no railings or signals, hundreds of people were killed and thousands more injured, earning 11th Avenue the nickname “Death Avenue.” To combat the rising number of train-related deaths, the city employed riders on horseback to gallop in front of the trains, ringing a bell and warning pedestrians to get out of the way. The ground-level trains were moved to elevated tracks on 10th Avenue in the 1930s, the same elevated tracks that now make up the High Line.

In 1860, John Holling erected the four-story Terminal Hotel at the intersection of 23rd Street and “Death Avenue,” directly across from the Hoboken ferry terminal. By the 1890s, ownership had passed from Holling to Herman Van Twistern, who also owned John Holling’s Pub on the ground floor and Holling’s Beefsteak Keller in the basement. (A sign above the entrance: “WHEN YOU ENTER THIS KELLER YOU FIND A GOOD FELLER.”) The king of the West Side beefsteak was the black chef Bob Ellis. Ellis was in high demand for West Side beefsteaks, grilling his steaks over hickory embers and amusing customers with snatches of Japanese phrases or purposely spilling beer on patrons. Some guests apparently didn’t get the joke, which is why he walked with a perpetual limp. One of the Terminal Hotel’s most frequent beefsteak groups was the Old Hoboken Turtle Club, which claimed both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr as members. To become a member, you had to drink at least ten cocktails before breakfast, and that’s not even considering the veteran membership. In the early 1900s, they made Bob Ellis an honorary member to their society.

In the 20th century, the history of the Terminal Hotel becomes fractured, as certain floors of the hotel started splitting off into different entities. John Holling’s Pub became McFeeley’s Victorian Saloon, popular with commuters and longshoremen. The bar may have lost the name, but it retained the beautiful decor of the 1890s. This included a 70-foot-long polished oak bar, leaded stained glass windows, and etched glass ceiling panels. James Schuyler describes the scene in his poem “Dining Out with Doug and Frank:”

“…The food
is good and reasonable (for these
days) but he point is McFeely’s
itself – the owner’s name or
was it always called that? It’s
the bar of the old Terminal Hotel
and someone (McFeely?) has had
the wit to restore it to what
it was: all was there, under
layers of paint and abuse, neglect.
You, perhaps, could put a date
on it: I’ll vote for 1881
or the 70’s. The ceiling
is florid glass, like the cabbage-rose
runners in the grand old hotels
at Saratoga: when were they built?
The bar is thick and long and
sinuous, virile. Mirrors: are
the decorations on them cut
or etched? I do remember that
above the men’s room door the
word Toilet is etched
on a transom. Beautiful lettering,
but nothing to what lurks
within: the three most
splendid urinals I’ve ever
seen…”

McFeeley’s closed in 1982, though the bar was sold in its entirety to Demolition Depot in Harlem. During that time, the Terminal Hotel went downhill from a cheap but comfortable inn to an $18-a-week flophouse in the 1960s. In fact, most of Chelsea west of 10th Avenue had gone into decline. Factories had packed up and moved to cheaper locations as waterfronts became less essential for transporting goods, and the new PATH train meant commuters no longer needed to travel by ferry to get from Manhattan to Hoboken. Urban blight swept in, bringing with it an uptick in drug use and prostitution.

By the 1980s, the Terminal Hotel was operating as a welfare hotel. New York, suffering from an exploding homeless population and sharp cuts to social services, were placing homeless families in rundown hotels across the city. These hotels were incredibly dangerous and unsanitary. Families were crammed into poorly-ventilated single-occupancy rooms with no kitchen or bathroom. A judge found 100 people sharing three toilets, which were regularly clogged with feces. Rats and cockroaches ran rampant, and lead paint peeled off the walls. In 1988, State Social Services found conditions at the Terminal Hotel to be so bad that they removed the Terminal Hotel from their referral list, though it did little to help the hotel’s residents. Many residents were offered a transfer to another welfare hotel but chose not to move, figuring the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. This was not the first time the Terminal had a run-in with the law. In 1986, the operating company was charged with welfare fraud, receiving checks for residents who didn’t live at the Terminal at $96 per “resident.” Even as recently as 2009, the Lucchese crime family was sending their connecting in the the New York City Buildings Department to inspect the hotel. The inspectors would readily accept bribes in exchange for turning the other way in the face of building violations.

The Terminal Hotel must have felt schizophrenic in the 80s and 90s. While the 11th Avenue entrance led to a decrepit welfare hotel, the entrance at 23rd Street led to a shifting set of bars and clubs. In the mid-80s, it was Jerry’s Bar and Mesquite Grill, owned and operated by Carly Simon’s first agent. In 1990, it was a club called Spodee Odee. In 1996, it was Club Vertigo.

This doesn’t even cover the upper floors that were not operating as a hotel. In 1992, a portion of the 2nd floor was an S&M club called the Vault, with a gay nightclub one floor above called the Cell Block. Anthony Marini had been running the Vault for over a decade at various locations across Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. In the late 90s, the Vault was subject to one of the funniest audits to take place in New York City history. Marini had moved again, but the state soon took over the land to widen the West Side highway. Under New York State law, Marini would have to be reimbursed for both land and inventory, putting New York in the awkward position of auditing, then paying for, all of Marini’s equipment. A 178-page itemized list detailed the state’s purchase of every sawhorse, bondage chair, and X-frame. Just one example: “One custom-built ‘Iron Maiden” type punishment unit, constructed of plywood and wooden plank, 34 W x 18 D x 68 H, having two doors on front with hook and eye lock, 4-tier interior form structure with ‘stock-type’ partial opening on top, ¾” plywood and plank, painted black.”

From farm to factory, Death Avenue to Skid Row, beefsteaks to bullwhips, the Terminal Hotel retains its split personality. The 23rd Street entrance leads to a strip club called Privilege, while the 11th Avenue entrance leads to a revamped Terminal Hotel, this time acting as a youth hostel.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

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