Webster Hotel, New York City New York

Date added: March 21, 2024 Categories: New York Hotel Swartwout, Egerton Tracy, Evarts
Front facade from north (1983)

The Webster Hotel is one of the few remaining examples of the once-numerous small hotels that characterized midtown Manhattan in the early twentieth century. Designed by the prominent New York City architectural firm of Tracy and Swartwout in 1902, the Webster exhibits the three-part composition and classical detail characteristic of high-rise architecture in this period. Construction of this building was a product of the rapid development of the midtown area as a commercial and theatre district after 1890. Nearly one hundred hotels were built in the neighborhood between 1898 and 1916; the Webster is representative of a large group of smaller hotels that catered to the middle class. Today, more than two-thirds of midtown's turn-of-the-century hotels have been destroyed. The Webster is the most intact of only three hotels of similar size and quality to survive.

Evarts Tracy and Egerton Swartwout were graduates of the Yale School of Architecture (1890 and 1891, respectively). Both trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and worked as draftsmen for McKim, Mead and White before opening their firm in New York in 1900. Their first commission appears to have been the New York Yale Club (extant, 30 West 44th Street, 1901), which was followed by the Webster Hotel in 1902. With the Home Club (11 East 45th Street, New York, 1908; demolished), these three buildings form a group of hotel and club buildings closely related in design. They appear to have been the only club or hotel buildings designed by the firm. Each has a front facade organized into three major vertical sections and three horizontal sections, with a masonry base (limestone in the two extant cases) surmounted by brick and an elaborate cornice.

The firm specialized in public buildings, doing most of their work outside of New York City. Besides the three buildings cited above, Tracy and Swartwout are known to have completed only one other building in New York: a public market at Broadway and 95th Street, which has been greatly altered. Their most famous work is the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City (1912), which is considered an excellent example of neo-Renaissance architecture. Besides these five buildings, Tracy and Swartwout are known to have designed and built at least twenty-one other structures. Their public commissions included a post office and courthouse, an armory, city and town halls, memorials and a municipal auditorium. Their private commissions included churches, a bank, an industrial building, at least three houses, at least two more memorial buildings, and part of the Yale Museum of Fine Arts. Tracy and Swartwout appear to have built primarily on the East Coast, in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., but they also designed buildings in Colorado, and at least one each in Chicago, Illinois, and Macon, Georgia. Additionally, they built battle monuments in England and France.

While a large number of Tracy and Swartwout's designs were mentioned in the architectural publications of the period, not many of their designs were illustrated. It is thus difficult to draw conclusions about the firm's characteristic work. At least six of their buildings (including the Webster) are known to have been in the Classical Revival style, but they also designed a Shingle style house in Netherwood, New Jersey and a Rococo fountain in Brooklyn, New York. Tracy and Swartwout were typical of many other architects of their time in their use of a variety of motifs, but the fact that almost a quarter of their known work was in the Classical Revival style appears to classify the Webster as typical of their work. All of Tracy and Swartwout's buildings display overall symmetry, use of freely interpreted classical motifs, and masonry construction.

During the period from 1898 to 1916, there were approximately ninety-one hotels built in midtown Manhattan between Lexington and Seventh Avenues, 40th to 57th Streets. The turn of the century was a period of rapid development for midtown, with the growth of the theatre and of commerce. The area now known as Times Square began to be developed for theatre use in 1893, while the expansion of Grand Central Terminal (a structure intimately tied to the growth of commerce in Manhattan) began in 1903. These two sectors of the economy fueled the need for hotels as temporary and permanent lodging. This need was increased by the fashion among the socially prominent of the period (as well as the merely socially ambitious) to live in hotels, rather than to keep their own establishments. While the Webster Hotel was probably never among the most fashionable residences, its development was no doubt a product of the increased demand for hotel lodgings in midtown Manhattan during this period.

Sixty-four of the original ninety-one hotels have been destroyed. Of the dozens of small hotels near the Webster Hotel, only three hotels of any architectural significance remain. Contemporary with the Webster is the Wentworth Hotel (59 West 46th Street, 1902, Buchman and Fox), and the Mansfield Hotel (12 West 44th Street, 1901, Renwick, Aspenwall and Owen). However, both of these hotels have drastically altered ground floors. Other hotels in this vicinity, though containing examples of fine detailing, exhibit drastic differences in overall design and scale.

Building Description

The Webster Hotel is located at 40 West 45th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, on a busy commercial street in midtown Manhattan. Directly to the east stands the Harvard Club of New York; the Webster's western neighbor was the Seymour Hotel, which was demolished. The Seymour site is now vacant. Both sides of the block are lined with masonry office buildings built at various times during the twentieth century. Like most of these buildings, the Webster Hotel fills its entire lot, maintains the street wall, and has ground-floor commercial space serving the public.

The Webster Hotel takes the classic early-twentieth-century form of a base, shaft, and cap. The base is of rusticated limestone, the shaft red brick, and the cap limestone and brick. The twelve-story facade is divided vertically into three major bays.

The base features a central arched entry, surmounted by a limestone gargoyle in the shape of a woman's head. This gargoyle is flanked by limestone garlands. The entry is flanked by two windows on either side; on the left, these windows are hidden by a deep, vertical, striped, period canopy (not the original) which matches the canopy over the entrance. On the left, the windows have been replaced by a modern door leading to a restaurant, and the limestone facade has been covered over with wood paneling.

A vertical canopy matching those over the entry and left windows shielded this bay, as the installation marks of this canopy still mar the limestone over the eyebrow windows. This old canopy has been replaced by a sloping, horizontal canopy of more modern design.

The second floor is divided into three bays, each with two one-over-one wood sash windows. These windows are accented by shallow cast-iron balconies with a scroll pattern and a central "W". The limestone cornice of the base runs above these windows featuring triglyphs and metopes filled with circular lozenges.

Floors three through eleven comprise the shaft of the building. All windows are paired one-over-one flat-topped wood sash, except as noted. The third-floor windows are the most deeply recessed, and stand behind low iron railings. From the fourth through the eleventh floors, the facade is articulated by recessing each bay within a single brick arch. On the fourth floor, the openings are French doors, which open out onto cast-iron and limestone balconies. The undersides of these balconies take the shape of a cornice supported by limestone scroll brackets. This cornice motif runs across the facade as a water table. The three bays on this floor are flanked by four rectangular double panels of white terra cotta and brick. In these panels, the bricks have been set in a circle, with two bricks radiating out of the circle in four diagonal lines. Additionally, the central bay of this floor is flanked by flagpoles.

The fifth through ninth floors feature terra cotta and brick panels inset below all the windows, with the design of these panels changing from floor to floor and with the panel in the central bay always differing in design from those flanking it. These panels are variations on themes of circular and square lozenges. The fifth-floor central panel is also ornamented by a limestone cartouche.

The tenth-floor windows are arched, with each pair joined by a thick short brick colonnette surmounted by a limestone capital. The window pairs are separated by a horizontal band of terra cotta diamonds. The tympanum formed by the major arch of each bay is filled by circular and diamond-shaped terra cotta lozenges. At the center of each arch is a limestone scroll bracket supporting the limestone balcony in the shape of a garland that decorates each of the eleventh-floor windows. These windows are flat-topped. Each pair is flanked by a trapezoidal limestone capital with four small dentils at the bottom edge. Between and above each pair of windows is an oval limestone cartouche flanked by garlands. Each bay is flanked by one pentagon motif in brick and terra cotta, incorporating triangular, circular, and diamond-shaped terra cotta panels.

The twelfth floor constitutes the cap of the building and is distinguished from the shaft by a beaded limestone water table. Each of the bays on the twelfth floor is made up of three tall, narrow, flat-topped windows (one-over-one sash) divided from each other by short brick piers, each of which is surmounted by an echinus and an abacus. These piers support a denticulated frieze. Each of the bays is flanked by a terra cotta circle surrounded by a brick circle, itself surrounded by an upright terra cotta rectangle. These panels are flanked by wooden brackets which support the denticulated cornice of the shallow-pitched copper roof.

The only alterations made to the exterior of the building are the wood paneling added to the front facade of the restaurant and the replacement of a window with the restaurant door (mentioned above). As also mentioned, the original canopy above this window/door has been replaced by one of more modern design.

Whatever significant interior spaces may once have existed have been obliterated by a condominium conversion project that was abandoned before completion. There are indications scattered throughout the building that there were once some very fine interior details: a single shell-shaped plaster niche still remains in the lobby, for example. A ventilating grille in the front vestibule repeats the "W" motif of the balconies; "W"s appear again in the design of the massive mantlepiece in the office adjacent to the vestibule. On the upper floors, each of the corner hotel rooms features a fireplace surround of a different architectural design. These details are all that remain of the Webster's interior architectural detailing.

Webster Hotel, New York City New York Front facade (1984)
Front facade (1984)

Webster Hotel, New York City New York Front facade detail (1984)
Front facade detail (1984)

Webster Hotel, New York City New York Front facade from north (1983)
Front facade from north (1983)

Webster Hotel, New York City New York Front facade from north (1983)
Front facade from north (1983)