After the Marvin House at the northwest corner of Division Street and Broadway in Saratoga Springs was destroyed by fire in 1865, it was quickly rebuilt as the city’s largest hotel. In the early 1880s it was renamed The Arlington Hotel briefly before being purchased by William W. Worden in 1885. He renamed it The Worden Hotel at the request of guests who honored him with a dinner celebrating his purchase.
The Worden had a boiler which generated steam heat, still unusual at that time. It was located near the railroad tracks (it sat on the corner which had formerly housed the Saratoga and Schenectady Railroad Depot), coal storage bins were located under the sidewalk of Division Street.
In addition to the standard overnight accommodations, the Worden had several rooms for events and a notable tavern, in rathskeller style. This help make the Worden a gathering place for Saratoga Springs’ year-around residents. Among The Worden’s many distinguished guests was Mark Twain who stayed at the there when he arrived to visit Ulysses S. Grant at nearby Mount McGregor, in the former President’s final days.
The Worden was an impressive masonry edifice, in the best Broadway style of Saratoga Springs. Elevator equipped, it stood five stories, covered with a slate mansard roof. The columned two-story veranda faced Broadway, with the entrance to the rathskeller below. The Division Street side included storefronts and an additional lobby entrance through a revolving door. Across Division Street from the Worden Hotel stood the renowned United States Hotel.
W.W. Worden, a Civil War veteran and former sheriff had other interests as well. He was a partner in the city’s Victoria Vaudeville open air theatre, a principal of Adirondack Trust and the Congress Spring Company, and was appointed Saratoga Springs’ Postmaster by President Theodore Roosevelt. He was a prominent Republican and was President of the Sacandaga Mining and Milling Company in nearby Hadley. Worden also sponsored a stakes race at Saratoga Race Course, where he was a director. Due to his diverse business interests, he hired Joseph E. Kelly to manage The Worden. Kelly later purchased the hotel, and after he died in 1916, his widow, Anna Kelly, ran the Worden until 1918 when she sold it to Edward C. Sweeny.
Sweeny lived in the building and prided himself on offering the highest level of service and cuisine, advertising the hotel as “modern, in every respect.” He made numerous improvements to the building, focusing on the ambiance of the dining rooms and the tavern room. Sweeny commissioned artist Edward P. Buyck to produce several murals that gave The Worden a distinctive atmosphere, and drew on Saratoga’s unique history.
Edward Buyck was descended from several generations of craftsmen in his native Belgium. He worked in oils, watercolors, etchings and sculpture. He was immediately called into service in King Albert’s Royal Guard when the Balkan conflict turned into the First World War. He was injured and evacuated to England, and later to the United States, where he became a citizen and entered the U.S. Army. Army service brought him to the Watervliet Arsenal where he met his wife-to-be Mary Willard Vine of Albany.
After the war Buyck found work with thoroughbred owner and breeder William Woodward, master of Belair Stud, whose white with red polka dot silks were carried by two Triple Crown winners. Buyck was well familiar with horsemanship, having been a mounted hunter and polo player in Belgium. His position at Belair allowed him to visit Saratoga at the time the turf was being dominated by Willis Sharpe Kilmer’s Exterminator and Samuel D. Riddle’s Man o’ War. He was on hand to witness Big Red’s triumph in the Mid-Summer Derby, the Travers Stakes of 1920.
The several murals that Edward Buyck created for Sweeny’s Worden House detailed an 1890s Broadway scene and other local landmarks, including The Worden, High Rock Spring, and the clubhouse founded by John Morrissey then known as Canfield Casino. A mural of Man ‘o War’s victory at the Travers took a place of distinction in the rathskeller. Buyck’s portrait commissions included President Franklin D. Roosevelt and he developed a reputation for recreating historic events in his paintings and sculpture.
Edward C. Sweeny died in 1945, and Saratoga lost a community champion. Besides operating the Worden, he was the lessee of the state owned Gideon Putnam, and in 1943 was part of a group that purchased and re-opened the Grand Union Hotel. He was an executive in the New York State Hotel Association and the Adirondack Trust, director of the Chamber of Commerce, Commissioner of Public Safety, served on the board of the Saratoga Hospital and a charter member of the McGregor Golf Links. Ownership of The Worden passed to theater magnate William E. Benton, and following his death in 1951, the hotel became a corporate entity. Buyck passed away in 1960.
As the Saratoga track season was ready to get underway some sixty years ago at the Spa, a very unfortunate occurrence took place. The Saratogian of July 26, 1961 reported:
“Twenty-four guests escaped safely early today, when a smoky fire, causing an estimated $100,000 damage, broke out in the 122-room Worden Inn, a 95-year-old landmark in heart of Broadway. Three firemen were hospitalized. Management said the hotel will be closed for an indefinite period. Three valuable murals, hanging in the gutted basement bar and dining room, were destroyed. Heavy damage was reported to the first floor of the hotel, while the second, third and fourth floors were hit by some fire, but mostly water and smoke. . . The murals, painted by a Dutchman identified only as Byack [sic], had hung in the bar since the early Twenties.
One painting depicted the famous Travers of 1920, showing Man o’ War winning the race with John P. Grier second and Upset third. The other murals, management said, showed the original Worden Inn and High Rock Spring. . . Mrs. Albert J. Welch served coffee to firemen, policemen and the hotel guests. Her husband, the owner of the Adelphi Restaurant, Broadway, donated the coffee. Pitney’s Dairy donated gallons of milk to be served to firemen. Captain Tighe said the milk clears the breathing system, when smoke is inhaled.”
Two days later the same daily wrote:
“The Worden Inn, one of the few remaining Saratoga Springs hotels associated with the city’s heyday as a summer playground for millionaires, is slated to be torn down. Word was issued today by Louis J. Farone, local business agent for the hotel, which was gutted by fire Wednesday, that the structure would be demolished immediately. The blaze is believed to have started in the basement area near the famed rathskeller. . .Meanwhile, it was also learned today that several professional artists have volunteered their services to try to restore the famous mural of Man of War winging home well ahead of John P. Grier and Upset which was almost completely destroyed by the blaze. The cause of the early morning fire was laid to an air compressor in a storeroom back of the bar. All four floors of the 120 room structure were so damaged by flames and smoke that it is not considered repairable by its owners.”
There was much lament over the loss of the old pile, and this sorrow was recorded for years afterward in many publications. The Sage of Saratoga, Frank Sullivan on the pages of the July 27, 1969 New York Times, gives us an idea today how keenly the impact was felt:
“When we were a lad of 60, on the Sunday afternoon before the opening of the Saratoga meeting, the visiting firemen of the turf always gathered in joyful session at the bar of the Worden hotel, now defunct because of fire. Before filing so much as a comma for their journals, the turf writers and friends reported at the Worden bar for our annual Varnishing Day.
“Varnishing Day is, we hear, a rite observed by artists and has something to do with shellacking their various masterpieces before an exhibition, At our Varnishing Day, we boys shellacked ourselves and each other with liberal applications of Scotch or Bourbon, and without that Worden get-together the Saratoga meeting could not have been considered open, It was like a college reunion. Racing writers who had actually not seen each other since the previous afternoon at Belmont embraced like long-lost brothers and varnished each other. It was a ceremony of warmth and it is gone, like too many other pleasant features of the past decade.”
Today, the only reminder of The Worden is a historic marker on Broadway in front of the Spa City Motor Lodge, formerly the Downtowner Motel.
Photo of Worden Hotel courtesy Library of Congress; newspaper articles courtesy The Saratogian.