Monday, July 1, 2019

Then and Now: Excelsior Hotel, NYC

West 81st Street, Manhattan

Excelsior Hotel, NYC,
Excelsior Hotel on West 81st Street, NYC, in the 1970s.
The Excelsior Hotel at 45 W 81st St, between Columbus Ave and Central Park West, New York City, is one of those seemingly eternal New York City institutions that just toils on, decade after decade, doing its thing. I found the above snapshot of the Excelsior Hotel from the 1970s and wondered what it and the surrounding area looked like in the 21st Century. So, I decided to do a comparison of the Excelsior Hotel from the 1970s to 2018.

Hotel Standish Hall, NYC,
A picture postcard of the Hotel Standish Hall at 45 West 81st Street, New York, New York from around 1930.
First, let's go back in time a bit. A little digging disclosed that the Hotel Excelsior originally was named the Hotel Standish Hall. The building in which the Hotel Standish Hall was located was built in 1922. The name derived from Miles Standish, an English military officer hired by the Pilgrims as military adviser for Plymouth Colony. The building had a Spanish Renaissance design. The name was changed at some point during the 1950s to Hotel Excelsior, which means "ever upward" (among other things). Around 2000, the hotel went through a major renovation which included a new lobby and removal of paint from the lower-floor stonework. They found that, over the decades, the building had been painted, and removing paint revealed shields with the motto ''Constant en tout,'' translated as ''Faithful in everything."

Excelsior Hotel, NYC,
Excelsior Hotel on West 81st Street, NYC, in October 2017 (Google Street View).
A recent view of the same spot shows that the Excelsior Hotel remains in place. One key to a successful business in New York City is having an advantage due to your location. With the Excelsior Hotel, the advantage is that it is right across the street from the American Museum of Natural History. It also is about 500 yards from Central Park and a short walk from the Hudson River. So, the Excelsior Hotel continues to do a brisk business after almost a full century due to its favorable location and changing to meet the times. In addition, Excelsior Hotel rates are reasonable for Manhattan, perhaps due to relatively low real estate costs due to having remained in the same building (with proper maintenance, as we have seen) for so long. This is not an advertisement for the Excelsior hotel, but those are the sorts of factors which keep you in business. Looking at the somewhat threadbare canopy of the Excelsior Hotel shown in the photo from the 1970s, that wasn't the best time for it, but it made it through due to its natural advantages.

View from Excelsior Hotel toward Museum of Natural History, NYC,
View south from the Excelsior Hotel toward the Museum of Natural History (Google Street View).
Being in such an old building does, however, have some drawbacks. It was not standard 100 years ago to have the same sorts of common spaces that more recent hotels include. For this reason, the Excelsior Hotel ranked last in a survey for the best place for unattached singles to stay. However, one can easily imagine that the Museum of Natural History attracts a lot of families with children who are there to see the museum, so that may not be the worst reputation to have for a hotel right across the street from it. The hotel played to that advantage by opening a "Planetarium Restaurant" around 1940 (The Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History opened in 1935, while the museum itself dates from 1877). The Excelsior Hotel is favored by European tourists and business people who appreciate the lack of noise that often accompanies singles. Having that reputation is ideal for the Upper West Side, which basically has become a bedroom community for the business areas in Midtown Manhattan and Wall Street. Having a generic and internationally recognizable name such as "Excelsior" probably doesn't hurt in luring that kind of clientele, either (there are Excelsior hotels in Sorrento, Italy, Dubrovnik, Hong Kong, and many other far-off locales). That may have been why they changed the name from the more parochial "Myles Standish" which someone halfway around the world probably wouldn't recognize.

100 West 81st Street, NYC,
100 West 81st Street at Columbus Avenue (Google Street View).
Most of the other buildings near the Excelsior Hotel also have been unchanged for many decades. For instance, the first large hotel on the street, the Hotel Colonial at Columbus Avenue, was built in 1905, and the next was the Bownette (funded by chemical manufacturer Samuel W. Bowne, hence the name) at 11 West 81st Street, built in 1908. The mid-rise Endicott just across Columbus Avenue at 101 West 81st Street was built in 1889. It does not hurt that these buildings are in the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District. So, when you mention that these are "pre-war" buildings, you could be referring to quite a few wars.

The Burnette, 101 West 81st Street, NYC,
The Burnette, 101 West 81st Street, on the northwest corner of 81st Street at Columbus Avenue. It dates from 1889 (Google Street View).
So, the Excelsior Hotel building dating from 1922 is not exactly unusual for that area. In fact, what does attract the eye are any changes over time, not the continuities. Comparing the 1970s photograph with the more recent shots shows that the white building at the southwest corner of 81st Street and Columbus Avenue looks much different. It turns out, though, that it is the same building, albeit heavily remodeled. This is 100 West 81st Street, which is described as "created by converting four flats and a small commercial building from the 1880s in 1978 to 1982." So, we can date the original photo at the top of this page to the period prior to 1978, when the building was converted. That remodel apparently was done for conversion to a coop, which was accomplished in 1983 (a very hot time for NYC coop conversions).

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. There is a lot of history in New York City if you know where to look for it. Please feel free to visit some of our other pages in this series!


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