It may be Paris in April, and Miami or the Riviera in January, but it has always been Saratoga in August. This fostered a necessity to house guests, whether they were seeking the curing waters, or the fickle whims of fortune at the track or faro tables.
Accommodating guests in Saratoga Springs was the fruitful brain-child of the municipal founder Gideon Putnam, who somehow fantastically envisioned a resort community only a scant few years after the the United States shed the bonds of Colonial rule. Putnam’s Tavern and Boarding House, later called Union Hall, and then the Grand Union Hotel, was the well-spring of Saratoga.
His descendants capitalized on the patriarch’s plans, and improved what was left to them. The original title holders had deeded out, and converted their hereditary real estate into some other spendable commodity which could be divided among them.
Another pair of entrepreneurs who recognized the Spa City’s rocket-like trajectory, the Leland brothers, had grand plans for the former Putnam establishment and a few others locations, and invested heavily. One of George and Warren Leland’s ventures, the Ainsworth’s Hotel, was purchased in 1865, and added to Union Hall.
The Lelands built an Opera House to serve the guests at Union Hall, which was inaugurated by none less than General Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1865, the Independence Day after the Union was preserved. Doubtlessly, in what had to be a BIG time for the little village that had also just seen the introduction of the General’s favorite sport, thoroughbred racing, the horizon for development in Saratoga Springs must have seemed limitless.
The Leland brothers however, who invested a sizable fortune in improvements to Union Hall, went into bankruptcy on February 26, 1872. Union Hall was sold for more than a half million dollars ($532,000) to Alexander T. Stewart, a Manhattan dry-goods and furniture merchant, who had been one of the hotel’s largest creditors (the Referee’s Deed lists all furnishings, including 391 rocking chairs).
Alexander Turney Stewart was an interesting fellow; born in Belfast in 1803 of Scot-Irish decent, he attended Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland before arriving in New York. Although trained to be an educator or a clergyman, he yielded to native proclivity and became a successful merchant. A.T. Stewart conceived of and built what is considered the first department store, and his chosen location was the city of New York, an emerging global center of commerce.
He was a giant of business known as the “Merchant Prince,” but was said to weigh less than 100 pounds. He adroitly anticipated the cotton shortage the Civil War created, and captured the fabric market. He purchased US Government Bonds, which raised capital for the Union Army, and made him the nation’s greatest single holder of securities. He was a resolute man who made it big, placing him in the upper reaches of wealth.
In Saratoga, Stewart renamed Union Hall the Grand Union Hotel, and had immediate expansion plans for his new entity on Broadway. He purchased several properties on Washington Street for a new wing, and made an offer for the Bethesda Episcopal Church. The church members considered the hotelier’s offer, but decided not to move. It was known that congregant James Marvin had a large stake in the competing United States Hotel.
Despite his simple dress, Stewart was very recognizable in Saratoga Springs, with his sparkling blue eyes, and neat brown beard with no mustache. He was a local phenomenon, well known by all the real estate he began to acquire, and the fine horses he drove along Broadway. Although not openly extravagant, he appreciated the finer items, including the art he collected.
Alexander T. Stewart was a shrewd speculator and man of business, yet he also financed the sending of supplies to Ireland during the 1846 famine. He was one of the original incorporators of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), organized in 1866, and served as vice-president.
He was appointed Secretary of the Treasury in March 1869 by President Grant, but could not accept due to a long-standing law which excluded from that office all who had an interest in importations. At the time he was underway with a planned community for his employees at Garden City, Long Island and a hotel in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan exclusively for single working women. He contributed a shipload of flour to France in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War and $50,000 in relief following the Great Chicago Fire.
The expansion of the Grand Union was planned by architect Edward D. Harris, who designed numerous Saratoga structures. Stewart’s felicitous vision was for an enormous hotel, towering above Broadway, with extensive wings on both Washington and Congress Streets, surrounding an open air park-like courtyard. This included a vast chamber dedicated to terpsichorean (dancing) delights with Adolphe Yvon’s colossal painting “The Genius of America,” dominating nearly the entire north wall of the ballroom.
Stewart commissioned the artist, who was well known for his academic painting of historic subjects and a professor at the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris, to create a work celebrating the Nation’s Centennial. The immense hotel was designed with a special apartment for Stewart and his wife Cornelia which afforded views of the idyllic courtyard and burgeoning Saratoga Springs. Alas, during this construction phase Stewart died. The New York Times reported April 11, 1876, “Work on the Grand Union Hotel was suspended, by order of the architect until after the funeral, and the flag on the hotel was displayed at half-mast.”
The Stewarts left heirs as their three children died young. Judge Henry Hilton, corporate counsel who owned Woodlawn Park in Saratoga (later the location of Skidmore College), became Executor of the estate. The couple had been building an Episcopal Cathedral in Garden City, which would contain their crypt when completed. Mr. Stewart’s remains were temporarily interred in the family vault in St. Mark’s churchyard, on Second Avenue in the city of New York.
The vault was constructed of arched brick and the floor was about 13 feet below the surface, and accessed by a stone stair case. The opening to the vault was sealed by three heavy stone slabs, keyed into curbing, and covered by earth and lawn. The finely crafted oak coffin was covered in black velvet and ornamented with gold mountings. This was placed in a hermetically sealed lead case, and finally an exterior cedar casket, which would eventually be transported to the Cathedral crypt.
In November of 1878, more than two years after his remains had been placed in the vault, a bizarre “Poe-style” macabre crime of the most morbid type occurred. The triple-casket was broken open, and the body of A.T. Stewart was stolen in a graveyard robbery. Fiends perpetrating this type of crime were termed resurrectionists by the newspapers of the day, and a plot to steal the body of slain President Abraham Lincoln occurred at the same time. Mr. Stewart’s diminutive stature was recalled by those who conjectured that his remains were placed in a bag, spirited out of the vault, and over the spiked wrought iron fence.
The couple had erected a marble palace in 1873 on the northwest corner of West 34th Street at Fifth Ave, across the street from the then Waldorf-Astoria and present day Empire State Building, which was considered one of the finest homes in America. Ransom notes accompanied with the unique and valuable casket hardware, wrenched off in the gruesome theft, were sent to Cornelia Stewart at her manse. Judge Hilton’s reply to the desecration was that he would not pay a cent, but would make all efforts to have the grave robbers taken into custody. Understandably, Mrs. Stewart was willing to exchange treasure for peace of mind.
Rumors abounded, some stoked by retired law enforcement officers turned writers, with tales of covert exchanges. Years later, the New York Times on July 25, 1906 wrote, “The matter was dropped and no more was heard about the case until a report was circulated that Mrs. Stewart had paid a large sum and that the body of A.T. Stewart had been placed at rest in the crypt originally built for it at Garden City, Long Island.”
In April of 1907 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote, “It was never definitely known to the public whether the heirs of Mr. Stewart yielded to the fabulous demands of the thieves, but what was supposed to be Mr. Stewart’s body was returned and now lies in the crypt at Garden City.”
Many faulted Judge Hilton’s management of the Stewart estate. His actions were characterized by racism and anti-Semitism, which limited his hotel patrons and forced the departure of regular retail shoppers. A Puck cartoon in 1882 satirized Judge Hilton announcing a sell-off of the department stores, while not being able to fill the shoes of A.T. Stewart, with writs of incompetence and poor judgement tucked in his hat, before the yawning crypt, with the many projects of the deceased; Woman’s Park Hotel, Garden City, the Grand Union and Windsor Hotels in Saratoga on the block, under the caste of a disappointed and frustrated specter.
By 1896 several downstate dailies lamented the failure of the once great firm and Stewart’s mercantile operations were purchased by Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker. A series of lessees and other owners operated the Grand Union Hotel successfully for another nearly seven decades, as Mr. Stewart’s improvements had created one of the largest and popular hostelries in the world.
The edifice was demolished in 1953, yet numerous relics from the Grand Union survive, including Adolphe Yvon’s enormous painting, “The Genius of America,” which endures in Chancellor’s Hall of the NYS Education Department in Albany.
Illustrations, from above: Congress Street at Broadway intersection with the 77 th Regiment Monument in the foreground and the Grand Union Hotel beyond, from Saratoga: Winter And Summer by Prentiss Ingraham 1885; Portrait of Alexander T. Stewart from The Merchants’ National Bank Of The City Of New York by Philip G. Hubert, Jr. 1903; English architect H.C. Harrison designed the Florid Gothic style Cathedral of the Incarnation Garden City, Long Island. From Men of Business by William O. Stoddard, Charles Scribner’s Sons 1893; Puck Vol. XI.-No.268. April 26, 1882.
James S.Kaplan says
The Grand Union Hotel was the site of one of the ugliest and most disgraceful incidents of anti- Semitism in New York State in the 19th century. Joseph Seligman probably the leading Jewish financier of the day each year took his family to stay at the hotel for summer vacation. In 1879 Judge Hilton, the then proprietor of the hotel refused to permit. selignan to stay there because of a new policy that Jews would not be allowed there. In a well publicized campaign in the press and elsewhere, which attracted the support of many prominent New Yorkers such as Henry Ward Beecher, Seligman attacked this policy of excluding Jews from one of New York’s most prominent hotels. Hilton however stood his ground arguing that since his hotel was privately owned he could exclude whoever he wanted and that many of his gentile guests were offended by the presence of Jews. Ultimately notwithstanding Seligman’s valiant and boisterous attempts to fight
the hotel’s anti-Semitic policies they remained and were adopted by many other hotels throughout New York State leading to separate largely Jewish hotels in the Catskills and borscht belt. In fact many New York Jews at the time criticized Seligman for taking such a public stand against these Anti Semitic policies, and it would not be until the anti discriimination laws of the 1960’s that they would be completely eliminated..
Although Seligman and his Wall Street firm in the 1870 s and 1880 s were among the most prominent in the nation, they later faded int relative obscurity. However. His uncompromising though originally unsuccessful stance in fighting Judge Hilton’s anti Semitic policies today is one of which all New Yorkers.particularly those working and living on Wall Street can be extremely proud.
Editorial Staff says
More details about that story are told here.