A Pictorial History of the site where MTV’s 1515 B’way now stands
Before MTV’s 1515 Broadway was built on One Astor Plaza, the Astor Hotel stood on the site, built in 1904. The land was leased from John Jacob Astor IV, as it is from his estate today.
Above is a topographical map on Manhattan from 1880. It’s quite easy to find the lot which became 1 Astor Plaza. It is where 44th and 45th streets meet Broadway. There are little streams and embankments surrounding the lot. At the time, this area was known as Longacre Square. The blocks still reflect this name, as they are very short from north to south, and very long from east to west.
Longacre Square was the former name of Times Square in Manhattan. It was renamed Times Square in 1904 in honor of the New York Times raising the first tall building in the neighborhood. The subway reached 42nd street in 1905.
The New York Times building was constructed at One Times Square in 1904. It was the first tall building in Times Square. Its opening coincided with the arrival of the subway system. Recently, The New York Times has constructed a new building, completed in 2007, on 8th Avenue, between 40th and 41st streets.
One Times Square, 2010. The ball drops on New Years Eve at this site.
Plans for the Astor Hotel in Times Square were conceived in 1900 by William C. Muschenheim and his brother, Frederick A. Muschenheim. The Astor Hotel was completed in 1904.
The hotel was built in a fashion similar to the ocean liners of its day. No expense was spared in the construction. There are other sites that have photos similar to those that your are about to see, but they lack linear context. I have been collecting images of the space over a three year-span, from every source available on-line. I know my way around the Astor Hotel from the mixture of sources that I have found, and of 1515 Broadway as a result of working at MTV as a free-lance P.A. in 1988, an Associate Producer in 1989, a free-lance producer from 1990 to 1992 and the Senior Producer of On-Air Promos from 1993 to 1998.
The following is a tour through the Astor Hotel, and through time, from 1900 to 1966 when it was torn down to make room for 1515 Broadway, and the irony of what the space has become in recent times.
One of the best sources for NYC History photos is the Museum of the City of NY. Many of the older photos you are about to see are from that collection. The museum has a collection of photos taken by the Astor Hotel’s contracting companies when the building was completed. My account differs in background and context from that of MCNY. It is unique in its arrangement, which actually creates a tour through the hotel, starting in the basement, taking you through the marble entrances of massive ballrooms, elaborate entrances to specialty theme-rooms such as the Ladies’ Writing Room, the American Indian Room, the Polynesian Billiard room and the Hunting Room working up to the rooftop, proceeding into the Hotel’s demise and the use of the space as an office building for Grant’s, Viacom and MTV in present times. It is a trip through the history of the lot, with a ghost story at the end. Let’s start in the sub-basement.
The Engine Room:
Engine Room, on tour to guests,1906. There was no public electricity available in 1904. A coal-powered steam-driven plant in the sub-basement supplied the entire building with DC current. The Engine Room employed 150 people. The plant had a coal furnace, a gigantic boiler, four large dynamos and a massive storage battery that powered the kitchen, elevators and 14000 electric lights, via 30 miles of copper cable.
Engine Room 1904, kitchens and mechanical dept. The It made practical sense to locate the kitchens next to the power plant. Direct current (DC) looses much of its energy in a very short distance when traveling through lines, which is why alternating current (AC) was needed to make the formation of a public utility grid a practical reality.
Direct Current Electric Generator,1904: One of four steam-driven, coal-fired dynamos powering the building. The commutation brushes can be seen around the drum. The noise and heat generated by the steam flowing through the pipes is incomprehensible. Many people had not even seen electric lighting anywhere before. The Astor Hotel was the first building in Times Square to have electric lighting. Other buildings followed the trend. Broadway became known as “the great white way” due to the brilliance of electric lighting in its hotels and theaters.
The engine room was adjacent to the world’s largest kitchen. It must have been an extremely hot and noisy space. The ventilation hoses over the dynamo and stove made it physically possible for people to work in such an extreme atmosphere.
The operation of the switches and levers may well have been Fritz Lang’s inspiration for the Switch Operator (above) and the Machine Man character, who routed the electricity from a basement in the film Metropolis, (1927), as seen at 37:52.
Steam-powered dynamo from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, very similar to that pictured above in the Astor Hotel’s basement.
The Machine Man from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
A still from Metropolis depicting the immense, monstrous scale that modern architectural industry was aspiring to in 1927. The Astor Hotel’s engine room was on display to the guests. Lang visited Manhattan and was influenced by his impressions of the Astor Hotel and the Chrysler Building, among others,prior to the production of the film.
Engine Room 1907. The machinery was very well ventilated. The photos depict a ventilation system of nautical specifications. The area was called Kitchens and Mechanical department. It was efficient to locate the kitchens next to the power-plant.
Kitchen 1904, Ventilated Stoves. The ventilation system that cooled the dynamos also served the electric stove and ovens by drawing heat away through the use of vacuum ducts, similar to those found in the workings of an ocean-liner.
Kitchen. 1906: Roasting a Black Bear. The Hunting Room restaurant would have served this meal. The hotel was comprised of many banquet halls and restaurants, each with a different theme.
Kitchen 1904: The waiter is using a specially designed egg-cooking machine.
Cook Mixing Doe, Circa 1905. Source for many of these early photos is the Museum of the City of New York.
An interesting feature of the sub-basement was the wine cellar.
Wine Cask, 1904
Fortified entrance to the Rathskellar wine cellar, 1904.
A elaborate New York Times article, July 10, 1904 to publicize the opening of its proud new neighbor, the Astor Hotel: Contrasting greatly with a conspicuously brief Wall Street Journal article about the decision to demolish the Astor Hotel, January 1966.
Upon opening, The Astor Hotel published a really good color brochure that gives a tour through the different rooms of the hotel when it opened. Each ballroom, restaurant and public space of the hotel had a different name and theme. The brochure is served up by Virginia.edu’s Art Museum. It’s definitely worth a browse.
Every banquet room and public space had a theme. The brochure depicts images of the main lobby, the reading and writing room, the ladies reception room, the Gentleman’s Club or Elizabethan room, the Ladies Lounging room, the Flemish Bar room, the Pompellan Billiard room, Ladies and Gentleman’s restaurant, Gentleman’s dining room or Hunting room, East Indian Alcove, Japanese Corridor, the Chinese Alcove, Lady’s Parlor, Louis XVI Parlor, Louis XVI Bedroom, the Francis Suite, the Colonial Suite, the Dutch Suite, and the Marie Antoinette Suite. On the top floor, the L’Orangerie (under the middle wing of the building) the Promeriade, College Hall, the Small Ballroom, and the Large Ballroom and Banquet Hall could all become one open floor by retracting the walls. The tour proceeds to the L’Art Nouveau room, the Nimrod room, the Yacht rooms, The American Indian room, the Roof Garden, the wine vaults (containing the finest collection of rare vintages in America) the Engine Room (Electric Generators) and the Kitchen, “Without question the largest kitchen in the world” are all in the brochure.
It’s a really good brochure and Virginia.edu’s Art Museum has done a wonderful job of providing it in full. The resource took me a few years to find. It’s an excellent snap-shot of how the hotel chose to present itself to the public upon opening.
Sample image from the Astor Hotel Brochure: Please click the image to see whole brochure from Virginia.edu’s Art Museum.The theater, ballrooms, and banquet halls covered the entire 9th floor. Although each had a separate theme, the walls could be retracted to form one immense room, covering a square block. More photos from the top floor halls are to be followed by exterior shots and an account of the progression which led to the office building that replaced the Astor Hotel and lead One Astor Plaza to become what it is today: 1515 Broadway.
L’orangerie, 9th Floor:
The elevator took passangers up to the 9th floor, at the L’Orangerie, in the central wing of the building. At the entrance, blue electric lights shined upwards toward the ceiling, creating a sky-like effect. It was the first time that many had seen electric lighting.
The Great Ballroom Organ was the biggest and best organ available.
The history and specs of the Great Ballroom Organ are served on-line by nycago.org
Auto Show in the Great Ballroom!
In 1914, an auto show was actually held on the 10th floor, in the Grand Ballroom. Times Square was the center of the automobile industry in Manhattan, resulting from it formerly being near the horse stalls and carriage houses. The Studebaker building was right up the street at 1600 Broadway. It’s a testament to the elevators in both buildings that automobiles could be lifted up to the 10th floor.
The Banquet Halls:
The Rose Room:
Banquet Hall 1907: The large table set for a dinner in honor of the Japanese General Kuroki.
Many bands got their start playing on the rooftop of the Astor Hotel. Frank Sinatra got his start as a singing waiter. Among others was Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra. Nancy Sinatra performed there as well; it is rumored that she put on a full preformance of the original (Scopitone) music video, with dancers, for “These Boots”. I’ve got a question in to her on NancySinatra.com to verify. The original video was quite a performance, definitely worth watching.
Below is an edit taken from Gene Krupert‘s performance on the roof of the Astor Hotel on VJ Day, 1945:
You can hear the entire recording on Youtube
Below is an edit taken from Fred Rich and his Hotel Astor Orchestra, Clap Yo’ Hands, recorded Nov 5, 1926:
If you want to hear the whole recording, it’s here on Youtube.
Here is another edit from Fred Rich and his Hotel Astor Orchestra in 1926, entitled “Do-Do-Do”:
The whole song can be heard on Youtube.
Here is the most haunting: Alvino Rey and his Singing Guitar. It was recorded on the rooftop of the Astor Hotel on June 4, 1946. I didn’t know that the electronics existed to make a guitar sound like a synthesized human voice in 1946. The first time I heard that sound was thirty years later.
I thought Peter Frampton was the first to make a guitar sing lyrics like a human voice. The intro made my hair stand up. The whole song can be heard on Youtube.
Themed Rooms which served as Restaurants, Bars and dedicated Suites:
The American Indian Room:
Article from The New York Times, extolling the themed restaurants within their symbiotic neighbor, the Astor Hotel:
The Hunting Room:
The Ladies’ Writing Room:
The Bar, main entrance from street level:
Renovated Art-Deco Bar, 1934: The Bar was at ground-level. It received a renovation, as did much of the hotel during the 1930’s. In 1968 it was used as a location for the film “Midnight Cowboy” , while the hotel was being demolished.
The Conservatory, 1910 Photo 1
The Conservatory, 1910 Photo 2
There was quite a difference in accommodations according to price range
Interior Room S, 1928
Very similar to cruise ships of the day, there was a significant class distinction when it came to the fee for one’s quarters, as there is today.
The Street-Level Lobby and Entrance:
Lobby South Corridor 1927: Beautifully renovated in step with the times. Many tons finely crafted marble were crafted with care. Nothing was salvaged; it was all smashed and dumped into New York Harbor only forty years later.
Signs of an art-deco influenced renovation are becoming apparent. The management of the Astor Hotel wanted to change with the times.
Astor Hotel Lobby Interior ca 1930
Cloak room and corridor, 1931
Art-Deco renovation gave it a more minimal, modern look. This photo makes it apparent that the hotel management was willing to adjust to modern times, at great expense. The end of the gilded age was not responsible for the demolition of this architectural treasure. It had more to do with the deterioration of Times Square, and a desire to generate maximum income from the building lot. In 1900, William Mushenheim leased the lot from William Waldorf Astor. The lot was still rented from Astor Associates in 1966, as it is to this day. As time passed, the hotel could not generate enough income to pay the rent and turn a healthy profit. The trend became obvious in the 1950’s, when Sheraton bought the hotel, and continued into the ’60’s when it became the burden of William Zekendorf and his real-estate empire, Webb & Knapps. The company’s over-extended financial obligations forced it into bankruptcy in 1966. Astor Associates took over operation of the hotel. No-one was at the helm. The hotel was completely out of control. Prostitution became normal. Mr. Zekendorf, having left Webb & Knapp, unsuccessfully tried to re-acquire the Astor. Instead, Astor Associates rented the lot to the builders of 1515 Broadway. It made better financial sense for Astor Associates to tear the hotel down and lease the lot to Miniskoff, who originally planned to build a 40-story office building. He raised it to 53 stories by building a hollow, insulated stairway which the fire marshal showed our department in 1996. The rent that the building lot could generate as an office building was more than the hotel could earn. There were also liability issues. The police were called in constantly. Countless numbers of people were injured or killed in the bedrooms. Newspaper articles from 1930 and 1967 will explain the details that I’ve paraphrased. I had to tell the reader what was about to go wrong while the Astor Hotel was still thriving.. It’s clear that the management in the 1930’s had every intention of keeping the hotel viable and contemporary
Entry Way Remodeled 1935
A movie theater on the ground floor premiered the most prestigious, high-profile first-run films in the country. The marquis was normally filled with big-band names and film titles.
Modernized Entry Way 1946. During the 1940’s the Astor Hotel was still evolving to meet current architectural trends. The owners were still putting money into the structure, with no thought of it ever becoming unprofitable as a hotel. The hotel’s decline was very sudden and rapid, beginning in 1955.
Originally, the Astor Hotel and the New York Times Buildings were the tallest in Times Square. They reigned supreme. The Astor was surrounded by five-story brownstones, but that was about to change. In the next few fields, the Astor will become engulfed by the rapid growth of Times Square.
The Astor at it’s Peak, 1909
Here the Astor Hotel and its neighbor are decked out in their very finest for the Hudson Fulton Celebration in September of 1909.
In 1909 The Astor still dominated the skyline looking north from the Times building. The brick building behind it to the right is the Studebaker Building, 1600 Broadway, became the National Screen Service Building a few years later. It served as the promos department of the film industry and home to Max Fleisher’s animation studios. It was the MTV of its day.
By the 1920’s, Times Square was growing at a fantastic rate. There are six hotels in this photo which have since been torn down to make way for larger buildings. The Astor Hotel still dwarfs its neighbor, but not for long. The smaller building was about to be torn down to make way for the Paramount Building, now known as 1501 Broadway. The Paramount was build from 1926 to 1927, at 33 stories, it stands 431 feet tall. First the Paramount topped the Astor Hotel, which was torn down to build 1515 Broadway, which towers over the Paramount. It is ironic that Viacom bought Paramount in 1993.
A Sheraton Astor advertisement from 1955.
The prestige that the early black and white photos couldn’t be duplicated with color photography, and the realities of the condition were best left omitted in the painting. In four years, I’ve only been able to find one interior photo of the hotel after the 1940’s, except for the motion picture of a murder scene that was shot for “The Midnight Cowboy” in 1968, while the hotel was being demolished. Despite many attempts to stay contemporary, it had become tarnished by its surroundings.
A simple bedroom in the Sheraton Astor. I find this photo quite spooky; there is something unsaid; an extra-sensory alpha layer was captured in this photo. Something went and had yet to go terribly wrong in the above room, repeatedly over time. Metaphysics aside, the photo denotes that most bedrooms weren’t as glamorous as the Suite of the Presidents.
Still solid in structure, 1966, yet stripped of all ornate details.The demise of the Astor Hotel was largely due to the degradation of the theater district, which had become the city’s center for pornography and prostitution. In the 1920’s, there were between 70 and 80 theaters. By 1969 there were 36. Movie theaters, such as that of the Astor Hotel which had once premiered first-run films were now showing pornography. Writers at MTV told me that Kurt Vonnegut gives an accurate account of eating in the Astor Hotel’s restaurant while an X-rated film was playing on the other side of a retractable wall. I’ve read the account, along with most of his books in successive order. I don’t recall the title, it was probably written in about 1970. The Fall of the House of Usher by Charles Dickens evokes the melencholy bouquet of decay and demise on a similar scale.
A photo of the hotel from the early 1960’s. The building looks stark, stripped of all frills. It is a means of preparing a building for demolition. The same tactics were used in 1986 to deny 1600 Broadway of it’s historic status, making way for demolition. The management gradually removes all that is unique about the building, so that it becomes unworthy of preservation. Many people and organizations tried to prevent the demolition. The Miniskoff theater was built at the base of 1515 Broadway as a concession to the protest that the palace of antiquity which was New York’s premier venue for culture and entertainment was being replaced by just another office building.
A conspicuously brief Wall Street Journal Article about the decision to demolish the Astor Hotel, January 1966. The hotel was re-purchased in 1958 by a Mr. Zerkendorf, who then went bankrupt.
Paramount Building (1501 Broadway) next to the Astor Hotel, Nov. 1966.
1970: 1515 Broadway begins to arise. It is the ten-story rust-colored re-bar web that appears to be adhered to the north side of the Paramount Building, not to be confused with the stack of concrete waffles farther toward the north-west. The concrete had not yet been poured when this photo was taken.
The home of MTV and Viacom, the 54-story 1515 Broadway now towers over the Paramount building, at 1501 Broadway. The Paramount was designated as a NYC landmark in November of 1988. It is 33 stories, 431 feet tall. The globe and clock have recently been re-lighted, and the ornate building in the foreground was given landmark status in 2014. Times Square is looking up these days.
In the summer of 1985 I was interning at the National Screen Service Building (1600 B’way), above, previously the Studebaker Building. Times Square reached its lowest point that year. The theaters were mostly showing pornography, prostitution was rampant, and crack had made the streets much more dangerous. I worked odd hours, and got to know the elevator men. One asked me to stay after work and have a beer. He had been there since about 1968, when he had come home from Vietnam. Vinny told me that it was a real mess for four years while they tore down the Astor and built 1515 Broadway. The hotel was built “like a fortress”, and was not intended to ever be demolished. He also told me about the ghosts which still occupied 1600 Broadway, passing along stories told to him by the previous generation of elevator men who were there in the 1930’s. Ripley’s ran a freak-show on the ground floor, which put 1600 Broadway in a state of mayhem. I’ve been gathering research on 1600 Broadway for a future site. If anyone has leads on that building, please comment. Back to 1515 Broadway:
1 Astor Plaza, December 1971: The Grant’s Building
Here is where things get interesting. The structure was built to house the Grant Corporation’s central headquarters. At first there was a Grant’s logo on the building’s crown. Grants went out of business in 1976, only four years after completion of the building. The Grants Company lasted from 1906 until 1976, and died in that building. Four years is a very short time to require such a behemoth of an office building for their use, exclusively. There is a reason why this happened. Something was wrong with the space which once occupied the bedrooms of the Astor Hotel. Other offices in the interim had strange occurrences in that space. I knew a 27 year-old woman who was hired (at 17) by the former tenant as a secretary and given no responsibilities, just a computer and a phone. She was unknowingly hired as a prostitute for visiting clients.
In the spring of 1993 Viacom hired a feng shui consultant, whose instructions were not to use that part of the building as office space. The section of the hotel which contains the bedrooms is the 3rd through 8th floor, facing Broadway to the east (left side of above illustration). The scene from “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) that was shot there is very indicative many similar real-life events which took place in that section of the building. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, a lot of people died in the bedrooms.
Most of the space that formerly occupied the bedrooms of the Astor Hotel was hollowed out by Viacom, beginning in the spring of 1993. I was working on the 24th floor at the time. As soon as five o’clock rolled around, the jack-hammering started. Four floors were removed to make theatrical film screening rooms and space for “the Lodge”, a food buffet that occupied four to six floors of the western half of the building. No one really questioned why the ceilings were so high, and the room was so much larger than needed, in a place where space was at a premium. The only time that it was full was when the town hall meetings were held. Otherwise, the dining area only had a few people eating. It was vacuous. The Lodge had several times the number of tables and space that was required. I didn’t think about it until I had lunch in the summer of 1993 with a few writers who explained that we were eating in the space which was formerly occupied by the bedrooms of the Astor Hotel. The events which took place in that space are still looping, like film in a movie projector, influencing the corporate culture of Viacom to this day. It is one of betrayal and completely insatiable greed and thirst. No one who is on the side of the administration is held accountable for the immoral actions or crimes they commit.
As we began in the Astor Hotel’s history in it’s basement, visual comparisons to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were obvious. In modern times, comparisons to 1515 Broadway and the building occupying its plat are similar from overhead. Lang started in the basement and worked his way up to the roof. His view of what the space would look like today from the air stands true. Lang’s vision was that of a centralized, dominating structure with tentacles reaching out over the city, oddly similar to that of 1515 Broadway today.
Metropolis predicted the fate of 1515, traveling through time and space from the basement to the roof, as we have.
For Further Research: Below are URL’s for the sources that I have used. They may take you places that I haven’t found:
wiki social history:
wiki One Astor Plaza built 1972:
Hotel Astor was a hotel located in the Times Square area of Manhattan, in operation from 1904 through 1967. The former site of the hotel, the block bounded by Broadway, Astor Plaza, West 44th Street, and West 45th Street, is now occupied by the high-rise 54-story office tower One Astor Plaza.
Wickepedia Later Years:
via MCNY (Museum of the City of New York – Interiors link:
theater district moves up Broadway:
The Paramount bldg 1501 B’way:
Singing Guitar Astor roof:
processwire.com recent history & specs:
NYCmanhatton.com recent uses and MTV:
nyc-architecture.com specs, addresses, building years and recent:
NYC tour guide recent history-MTV:
New York Historical Society Hotel Interior Photos New:
Nancy Sinatra These Boots:
Museum of the City of NY – Hotel Interior Photos:
Illustrated Pamphlet from Virginia:
Gene Krupa Hotel Astor VJ Day 1945:
Emporis.com specs – Grant Building -1968-72 (Alternate names – WT Grant bldg):
Awesome Astor Page URL great pix:
Astor URL’s (organ and history):
Astor Orchestra 1926 youtube:
DO-DO-DO by Fred Rich and his Hotel Astor Orchestra 1926: