03 March 2009

The Knickerbocker's Back Door

I've often stared at 143 W. 41st Street, near Broadway, and wondered what this dirty, thin, Gothic building was doing there at the back door of gaudy, modernized Times Square.

Well, it was being a back door, actually. I discovered recently that this address was indeed the back entrance of the fabled Knickerbocker Hotel, the shell of which still sits at the southeast corner of 42nd and Broadway. The Knickerbocker was the heart of Times Square society during the first two decades of the 20th century. Bluebloods, stars, swells—they are went there, dined there, drank there, stayed there. Some lived there, like Enrico Caruso.

The back entrance must have been near the kitchen, because it apparently attracted a regular bread line. Caruso once gave his coat and shoes to one of the desperate who stood there, a man named Emile Shubert. (Not one of the rich, theatre-owning Shuberts, I trust.)

Still, there's something unexplained about the 41st Street side of the Knickerbocker. It's too grand a facade, and a lot of the details indicate it once served as a theatre entrance of some sort. Indeed, a Certificate of Occupancy from 1921 issued to the Knickerbocker indicates it housed a "restaurant with dancing and cabaret." Perhaps this was where folks entered when their sole aim at the hotel was food and entertainment.

And those gargoyles up at the top sure are imposing. Finally, what on Earth is that large, oxidized metal bowl on top of the building? It looks like a huge Olympic torch.


Jill said...

I once worked for a guy who claimed to have once owned the Knickerbocker Hotel. I did a bunch of freelance work and he stiffed me for a lot of money. That place has bad Karma.

David Freeland said...

Thanks for sharing this interesting info with us, Brooks. I too have often wondered about that building. It's great to know more of its history.