Hotel Breslin, or how the web makes detectives of us all


I’m in New York, staying at The Ace Hotel just off Broadway on 29th Street. This city is so overwhelmingly huge that I’ve felt a need for context way beyond anything I’ve experienced before. Unfortunately, The Ace’s welcoming bumph details very little of the building’s history, mentioning only that it started life as Hotel Breslin in 1904 (shown above) and that the current owners attempted to retain as many original fixtures as possible, namely the lobby’s ‘ornate coffered ceilings and mosaic tile floors’. But the web reveals more.

The name Hotel Breslin evokes pre-Jazz Age Manhattan, a city forging upwards and outwards at breakneck speed. Buildings like The Breslin became the bones of the city, enduring structures on which we drape temporary furnishings. Their survival, or otherwise, is governed by chance – the confluence of opinion, influence and relative disrepair. The building once known as Hotel Breslin remains, even as what it once was disappears. But some of its stories persist, helping to shape the present, providing a little of its form even.

Here are some of those stories:

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Much like The Ace today, Hotel Breslin was initally painfully hip. In a fascinating piece documenting the protracted dispute between long-term tenants and the developers, the NYT notes the following:

Soon after opening, it became one of New York’s best known hotels. Notables like Diamond Jim Brady frequented the Dixie Room, its fashionable dancing and dining spot. The Breslin also catered to visiting foreign businessmen; in 1907, for instance, executives of Fiat, Renault and other foreign carmakers gathered there to discuss their coming exhibition at Madison Square Garden.

As the years passed, in part owing to the Breslin’s proximity to Tin Pan Alley on West 28th Street, the hotel also acquired a reputation as an artists’ hangout. It housed characters like Patrick Roche, a cafe proprietor and fight promoter, who used to sit in his favorite chair in the lobby, now painted the same faded pink as the hotel exterior, and receive actors and fighters who were down on their luck and needed his help.

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In its declining years, the hotel also hosted one Harry Everett Smith, American archivist, ethnomusicologist, student of anthropology, record collector, experimental filmmaker, artist, bohemian and mystic. The blog Celestial Monochord has more, including the following from Allan Ginsberg, an acquaintance of Mr Smith’s:

Then Harry went into a funny kind of amphetamine tailspin.  He got really paranoid and got moved out of the Chelsea, I think, or expelled or something.  He couldn’t pay his rent, and wound up in a series of other hotels, including the Breslin Hotel, by 1984.  But he wouldn’t talk to anybody, wouldn’t talk to me, maybe because I didn’t supply him with money, because I was broke at the time …

I didn’t see Harry for a long while and began visiting him again at the Breslin Hotel, on 28th Street and Broadway.  Same problem, still wanting money …

In that room at the Breslin, the whole room was taken up with shelves of books and records, then a movie editing table, and a tiny bed.  I have some photographs of that, of him pouring milk, The Alchemist Transforming Milk into Milk.

In that bathroom he had a little birdie that he fed and talked to, and let out of his cage all the time.  When his little birds died, he put their bodies in the freezer.  He’d keep them for various alchemical purposes, along with a bottle, which he said was several years’ deposits of his semen, which he was also using for whatever magic structures.

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The New York Observer, reporting on the difficulties in getting The Ace up and running, tells how hotelier Alex Calderwood struck a deal with another of the building’s former tenants:

For example, there’s this woman: She actually lived here for a long time, then decided to move, but she still lives in the neighborhood. She owns a glove factory across the street. It’s been in her family for years and years and years; I think it’s the oldest glove factory in Manhattan. We met her and she’s great. … So we’ve put together a program where we’re going to have a bespoke glove service for the guests. We’ll do the fitting here and the next day the gloves are waiting in your room.

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I don’t know if the glove service ever made it off the ground. I hope so. I like the idea of owning a bespoke pair of gloves made in Manhattan’s oldest glove factory that I bought in a hotel that was once a different hotel.