21 March 2012

The George Washington Hotel on Lexington just above 23rd is now a residence hall for School of Visual Arts students. On the outside, it's easy to pass by. The building is a weird combination of the gorgeous and the seedy. The seedy is telegraphed mainly from the metal awning that hangs over the door (below). Only the holes for the words George Washington are there, no light behind. It gives the impression the building is derelict and might be an SRO.

But look up to the second story and you see great expanses of beautiful, honey-colored brick, arranged by sunbursts around vaulted windows frames by pillars and decorative trimmings. Frank M. Andrews was the architect.

The building was erected in 1928 as a hotel and has had some famous residents, including W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. Auden called it "much the nicest hotel in town." And "there is a good piano," he told visiting friend Benjamin Britten. On leaving the hotel, he presented the manager with a thank-you note in verse, written on hotel stationery. Here's one stanza:

The walls look unlikely to crumble And although, to be perfectly fair/A few entomologist grumble That bugs are exceedingly rare/ The Normal Man life is so rich in Will not be disgusted, perhaps/To learn that there's food in the kitchen, And that water comes out of the taps/That the sheets are not covered with toffee, And I think he may safely assume/That he won't find a fish in his coffee Or a very large snake in his room.

At other times, its reputation has been dicier. It was a brothel at one point, and a bootlegging joint during Prohibition. In 1981, a fugitive murderer was cornered by the FBI in the lobby, and, two years later, there was a drug raid here that made headlines. Soon after that, it was in danger of being demolished, but some history-minded citizens prevented that. Since 1990, it's been a dorm.

One picture I don't have here is of the lobby. One of the problems of old buildings like this that are under the wing of a school or corporation is that there's usually a belligerent security guard in the lobby, shooing away anyone who's not there on official business. That's a shame, because the lobby is beautiful, boasting three amazing, fully restored, wooden elevators. They are breathtaking. Take a peek at them if you can. Just tell the guard you got lost.

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