04 July 2012

The Oddball History of the Hotel Roger Smith

Manhattan has a lot of old hotels with great, storied names. The Waldorf=Astoria, the Peninsula, the St. Regis, the Carlyle, the Edison, the Warwick, the Roosevelt. (I still mourn the fact that the Stanhope converted to apartments before I got a chance to stay in it.) But my favorite of all may be the Hotel Roger Smith, a mid-sized, unassuming structure at 47th and Lex, convenient to Grand Central.

I think I like the name because it's so odd. Who's Roger Smith?, I wondered every time I passed by the handsome vertical, green neon sign. Well, you know me. I don't tend to wonder about such obscure New York historical questions too long before I go off and try to find out the answer.

As is frustratingly often the case in this City, the hotel's website tells you next to nothing about the place's history. Actually, completely nothing.

I discovered that in 1929 a Hotel Roger Smith was built in Stamford. It was erected by the Roger Smith Corporation, a subsidiary of Mayer and Hambur, Inc., of New York City. In 1931, the Behriont Hotel in White Plains was taken over by the Roger Smith Corporation and its name changed. In 1931, the company took control of the Hotel Brittany at Tenth Street and Broadway. OK, so what we seem to have here is an aggressively acquisitive hotel outfit gobbling up rival hotels teetering in the wake of the Great Depression.

By 1934, the Roger Smith boys has added the Brewster Hotel and the Hotel Cameron, both on W. 86th Street, to their roster. Finally, in 1938, we come to the building at 47th and Lex. It was called the Hotel Winthrop. The Roger Smith Corp. bought it, planning to fill it with tourists in town to see the World's Fair. By this time, the company also had hotels in New Brunswick, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.

The Winthrop was built in 1926 by the firm of Hearn & Erich.

Maybe that's why the Roger Smith website doesn't get into the place's history. It's not glamorous. The Roger Smith was part of an early American hotel chain. How dull can you get?

However, in 1988, the hotel got a lot more colorful. It fell into the hands of a sculptor named James Knowles. (His wife inherited it from her dad.) He displayed his work in the halls, ran a gallery on the ground floor, and invited theatre companies and chefs to come in and do their thing. He also gave out his own annual film awards, called the Rogers. Kooky.

Knowles still runs is. He calls himself the "President, CEO and Artist-in-Residence." Maybe that's why I always got good vibrations off the Roger Smith. It's that weird thing: a family-owned hotel in 21st-century, midtown Manhattan.

The Stamford Roger Smith, by the way, was torn down in 1996. The Roger Smith in White Plains was renamed the Coachman and became a homeless shelter. I think the Manhattan Roger Smith Hotel is the only member of the original chain left.

And who was Roger Smith? I have no idea. Neither of the founders of the Roger Smith Corp. were of that name. Perhaps they made it up, thinking the name sounded "American." Of course, the name Roger Smith has an odd connotation today. Roger Smith was the lampooned and ridiculed auto CEO at the center of Michael Moore's documentary "Roger & Me."

Roger Smith would never have stayed in the Roger Smith.


Ed said...

Great find about the Roger Smith! I've made a note to visit the lobby later. I've always associated the hotel with the GM executive too, so its always seemed a little creepy to me. Maybe it should be renamed "The Winthrop"?

Krista said...

The first time I visited NYC in '94, I stayed on a near-stranger's floor on 11th & C above a bar until the friend I was traveling with couldn't take the noise and discomfort anymore (two nights). Somehow we ended up at the Roger Smith. I have no idea how the friend found this hotel since obviously internet research didn't exist yet. And I don't remember a thing about the hotel other than its bland name.

Theodore Grunewald said...

Hi Brooks,

You weren't the first to wonder. This entertaining piece written by 'Stamford Advocate' reporter, Carol Grunewald, upon the 1981 demolition of the Stamford Roger Smith, sheds some light on the mystery of "who was Roger Smith?":

Here's some more bittersweet tidbits about the vanished Roger Smith also from the Stamford Historical Society's website:

And more from the collections of the Ferguson Library:

The site of the still-mourned old hotel, a vacant lot for more than a decade, is now occupied by another of Stamford's agressively undistinguished new buildings:

Imogen Cooper said...

The first time I stayed in new York I stayed in the Edison. Its proximity to Times Square was brilliant and the price I paid for my room wasn't bad either. Since then I have stayed in various hotels and gladly I haven't been disappointed. I am visting again in September and this time I will be staying in a serviced apartment , fingers crossed I won't regret my choice to change accommodation type :)

dave1chills said...

please dont rename the place just because of a michael moore doc. wow, that would be a terrible unintended consequence, dontcha think?

Soho said...

Oh my... how times have changed!

Anonymous said...

You mean it's not named after Ann Margaret's husband?

Anonymous said...

Here is a little piece of history for you: Perhaps the best known guest who stayed regularly in the Winthrop was David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel. In 1942 he stayed there for several months. When he had to go to Washington DC he complained that the rooms in the local Ambassador were much smaller than in the Winthrop and had only a shower. BG missed his beloved Winthrop bath.