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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The St. Denis Hotel

Today's postcard, mailed in 1908, shows one of the most famous old hotels in New York, the St. Denis, at Broadway and 11th Street.

Run by hotelier William Taylor, the St. Denis was opened in 1853, just across from Grace Church. Both buildings had been designed by James Renwick, who would later go on to build St. Patrick's Cathedral. Billed as the "most centrally located hotel in the city," the hotel was within walking distance of most of New York's prime theaters, restaurants, and department stores, many of which lined Broadway south of Union Square. The hotel quickly developed a celebrity clientele, including first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who stayed there during one of her frequent trips to the city. Ulysses S. Grant worked on his memoirs at the hotel and, when he was stuck with writer's block, his publisher, Mark Twain, moved in for three months to get him over the hump.

The St. Denis was also the spot where Alexander Graham Bell showcased his telephone for the first time in New York. As we write in Inside the Apple:
Though he had already patented the device and made public demonstrations of its efficacy—a week earlier in Boston, he’d made a connection to Providence, Rhode Island, 43 miles away—he hadn’t yet found a market for it. At the St. Denis a crowd of about 50 filled the drawing room on the second floor where Bell made telephone calls to the A&P Telegraph office in Brooklyn, using wire strung across the not-yet-completed Brooklyn Bridge. In the audience were potential financial backers, such as Cyrus Field, the president of the company that 11 years earlier had successfully laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable. 
At least one observer at the St. Denis, telegraph pioneer Walter P. Phillips, derided the invention as “a toy, if not an absolute humbug.” But it is clear that others were impressed. Later that year, the first telephone was installed—connecting J.H. Haigh’s home on John Street to his factory in Brooklyn. By 1878, the first telephone directory was published: it contained 252 listings: 235 businesses and 17 people who had telephones installed at home.
Most people don't realize that the St. Denis is still standing. Though it has been converted into offices and has a rather drab exterior, it is still Renwick's 1853 building.

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