NYC’s Deadliest Hotel Fire Took 86 Lives
On March 17, 1899, the Windsor Hotel at 575 Fifth Avenue caught fire, the first smoke and flames billowing from the building just as the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade reached 47th Street. Not even the proximity of the city’s firefighters marching by could save the grand hotel from burning to the ground. Nearly 90 people died, making the Windsor the deadliest hotel fire in New York and the worst commercial disaster until the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.
“The Most Comfortable and Homelike Hotel in New York”
Advertising itself as “the most comfortable and homelike hotel in New York,” the Windsor Hotel opened in 1873 by Chicago hotelier Warren F. Leland. Its proximity to the new railway terminus at Grand Central, the predecessor to the current station, and siting on one of Upper Fifth Avenue’s poshest blocks portended success, particularly as hotel living was gaining in popularity among the well-heeled.
Until then, Upper Fifth Avenue was almost exclusively residential, a posh enclave for the Gilded Age’s wealthiest New Yorkers. The sumptuous brownstone flanked by mayoral lampposts at 579 Fifth Avenue was home to Helen Gould, daughter of the late railroad magnate, Jay Gould, the ninth richest man in America during his life. Further up Fifth between 51st and 52nd Streets, William K. Vanderbilt’s Petit Chateau at № 660 stood next door to the Triple Palace built by his father, William Henry. Taking up an entire city block between 46th and 47th streets, at first the Windsor wasn’t without its skeptics, but the handsome seven story brick-and-brownstone hotel soon earned its place in the neighborhood, drawing the fashionable set of the Gilded Age to its canopied entrance.
The hotel’s interior mirrored the luxury that most of its guests had come to expect in a home. In the main hall, a curved marble grand staircase spiraled upward to a magnificent plaster-work ceiling capped by a soaring rotunda. Rosewood paneling inlaid with satinwood and black walnut festooned the main corridors and public rooms; the latter included a large drawing room and two adjoining parlors, all beautifully furnished and elegantly appointed. A grand octagonal salon was a popular spot for society weddings and other celebrations.
The Windsor was a small city unto itself. All the practical amenities were provided on premise — barber’s shop, grocery, general storerooms, telegraph office, several restaurants serving three meals a day, and 139 public and private bathrooms outfitted with hot and cold taps.
The five hundred guestrooms were kitted out in curtains, bed hangings, and carpets of crimson, blue, or purple velvet and equipped with private bathrooms, an almost unheard of luxury at the time. A two-bedroom suite with private parlor ran to $200 a week, the equivalent of more than $6,000 today.
It wasn’t only luxury for which guests at the Windsor paid top dollar. It was the assurance of safety. In each guestroom, hidden behind the heavy velvet drapes and lace curtain liner, was a coil of rope hooked to the sill, the length of which reached to ground-level. Theoretically, a fire-trapped guest could unwind the rope and descend to safety. Before 1899, there had never been the need to put the theory to the test.
The hotel registry read as a Who’s Who of the day. Touring opera divas, captains of industry, financiers, politicians, and visiting heads of state were among those who treated the Windsor as their home away from home. Abner McKinley, brother to the then U.S. President, occupied a suite of rooms on the third floor with his wife and their disabled daughter. For years the celebrated soprano Adelina Patti kept a standing suite of rooms on the third floor overlooking 47th Street, outfitted with a private billiard table at her behest.
Not all hotel guests were of the champagne and caviar set. Among the hotel’s long-term residents was Mrs. Dora Gray Duncan, a divorcee from San Francisco who gave children’s dance classes in a fourth floor parlor to support herself and her four children, including then twenty-two-year-old Isadora. The episode, chronicled by Duncan in her memoir, My Life, would leave the future dance sensation with a lifelong dislike of hotels.
St. Patrick’s Day Fire
Friday, March 17, 1899 brought a longed for breath of spring, welcome anytime but especially so as it was St. Patrick’s Day. Drawn out by the warm weather, spectators had assembled along Fifth Avenue since early that morning, staking out their spots along the roped off sidewalk to get the best glimpse of the parade as it made its way down Fifth Avenue. By midday, thousands stood three-deep, many with shamrocks pinned to their hats and lapels and waving miniature Irish flags, then a harp upon a field of green
Ideally situated along the parade route, the Windsor was fully booked, with both local and out-of-town guests. That afternoon, hotel guests stationed themselves along the banks of windows lining the concourses looking down onto Fifth, the adults sipping champagne, several of the gentlemen smoking.
Shortly before 3:00 pm, drums and bagpipes and brass bands announced the parade’s approach. The highlight of the procession was the fire wagons wrapped in bright green and orange bunting, the strapping firemen decked out in navy blue dress coats done up with double breasted silver buttons. Carrying presentation trumpets filled with daffodils, doubtless many were anticipating the string of Bowery saloons where they’d finish out the day.
A familiar burning stench stopped the procession just as it came up to 47th Street. Across the avenue, fire blanketed the Windsor’s first four floors, black smoke blowing forth from the windows fronting Fifth as well as those on the 46th and 47th Street sides.
The marchers stalled to a scratchy stop. Spectators stood dumbstruck, no longer watching the parade but instead staring up at the hotel, its cornices and fire escapes crawling with people. More of the trapped stood at the open windows wailing to be saved.
A life-sized doll dropped from one of the front-facing windows and crashed onto the sidewalk. Not a doll at all but a woman who’d been breathing seconds before. She’d chosen suicide over being burned alive. More jumpers followed, the shriek of sirens joining the screams of onlookers helpless to do other than stand by and watch.
Inside the hotel, pandemonium broke loose, guests and staff grabbing what pets and possessions they could carry and fleeing for the stairwells and other exits, only to be beaten back by impenetrable walls of smoke and flame. Those who could ran back to their rooms only to discover that the window ropes were useless with the hotel’s bottom four floors now blanketed in flames. Several tried anyway, flaying their palms only to have the ropes break before they could reach the sidewalk.
By 3:10 p.m., the fire had torn through the hotel, devouring the sumptuous carpets and curtains, wall hangings and artwork and sealing off the stairways and elevators. At least a dozen of the desperate flung themselves from the windows rather than let the flames take them. Others held out as long as they could, praying that brave firemen would reach them in time.
The fire went to five alarms but the pedestrians packing not only Fifth but the 46th and 47th side streets slowed the fire engines’ progress. By 4:30 p.m., the hotel was reduced to rubble; only the chimney stood. Occasionally a bank of flame would bubble up and burst forth as the streams from the hoses were played upon it. Periodic explosions of gas pierced the steady thrum of pumping engines. Several engine companies stayed onsite through the night, wetting down the still smoking ruins.
Fire victims flooded nearly all the city hospitals — Bellevue, New York, Flower, Harlem, Roosevelt, Presbyterian, and St. Vincent’s. Neighboring heiress Helen Gould opened her home as a makeshift hospital. She and another neighbor opened a “restaurant” serving hot meals to the firemen. Several hotels provided shelter to the displaced, including the hotelier, Mr. Leland, who lost both his wife and twenty-year-old daughter, Helen. In shock, he was put up at The Murray Hill in the suite of rooms recently vacated by the British writer, Rudyard Kipling.
At final count, eighty-six persons perished, several lingering in hospitals before succumbing to their wounds. The April 3rd Evening Telegram reported that forty-five bodies were recovered, not all of them identifiable. Forty-one more remained missing. It was assumed the unclaimed would be buried in a potter’s field, but Mr. Leland pronounced the notion “sacrilege” and took it upon himself to see to their proper burial. The coffins of sixteen unidentified corpses and a seventeenth filled with sundry body parts were laid to rest at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester at the hotelier’s expense.
Inquest and Aftermath
Every day for the following week, the fire headlined newspapers, not only in New York but across the country and as far afield as England. As workmen sifted through the still-smoking ruins, revised rosters of the dead and injured were printed daily. An inquest was convened to determine the cause of the fire. In its course, the following official story emerged.
At 3 p.m., John Foy, a headwaiter at the hotel, was passing through the hall on the parlor floor on his way to the bank of bow windows to watch the parade. Ahead he spotted a gentleman guest light a cigar and then toss the match out the window. According to Foy, the strong breeze blew the lit stick back into the lace curtain. Within seconds, the curtain and surrounding draperies were aflame. Foy tried smothering the flames, but they swiftly spread beyond the windows to the corridor. Next, he rushed to the fire alarm box but when he pulled the chain, it broke. Leaving it, he raced down to the main floor to alert Mr. Leland and the front desk, crying “Fire!” as he went.
The careless smoker story had its skeptics. Charles Whiting Baker, managing editor of The Engineering News, cited the experiences of two highly creditable hotel guests, Mr. Stauffer, Vice President of The Engineering News and a Colonel Cowardin, President of the Richmond Virginia Dispatch Company. Colonel Cowardin, staying in a third-floor room, № 369, reported a charred odor as early as nine o’clock that morning, which persisted throughout the day. In his interview printed in The New York Times, Baker concluded the fire must have smoldered in the walls or flues from the third floor to the top on the southeastern side since morning.
Not all the news was a testimony to tragedy. Daring rescues were reported. A bicycle policeman, Charles Liebold, darted inside the burning hotel and single-handedly rescued five men from a lower floor, one of whom he had to haul over his shoulder and carry out. Later, he heard a woman screaming on the fifth floor and tried to save her as well but a barricade of flames blocked him from reaching her, and he was obliged to quit the building.
There were civilian acts of courage as well. Alerted to the fire, Mrs. Duncan coolly marched her young pupils and two grown daughters, including Isadora, down the fourth floor stairs to safety. And the waiter, John Foy, who after alerting the front desk, continued down to the basement to warn the women working in the laundry.
Nor were all the rescuers two-footed. The Mail and Express printed a picture of Nell, the Dalmatian mascot of Hook and Ladder №21, who came through the fire but narrowly.
But by far the gallant heroes of the day were the firemen. New York Fire Chief Binns singled out ten of his top men for the Roll of Merit, but only one did he put forth for the Department’s highest honor, the James Gordon Bennett Medal for exceptional bravery in the service of saving lives.
Captain William Clark was awarded the Bennett in 1900. Clark carried off several daring rescues at the Windsor, including climbing to the second floor on a regular ladder, then using a hand-held scaling ladder to reach the third floor. From there, he managed to haul himself up to a fourth-floor window and carry out a trapped woman. Clark’s heroics are the inspiration for my dramatized account of the Windsor fire in my historical novel, Irish Eyes.
The fire at the Windsor Hotel remains the deadliest hotel fire in New York. Despite its claims of being fireproof, many of the fire safety measures we take for granted today, such as fire stops and sprinkler systems, were missing from the 1870’s building. Even when the city’s building code requirements were updated in 1892, many commercial structures like the Windsor managed to avoid making structural updates.
A grand monument was planned for the unclaimed bodies buried at Kensico but the monies were never raised. (Mr. Leland, who might have championed the cause, had returned to Chicago where he perished of peritonitis on April 4, 1899). It wasn’t until 2014 that a stone marker was finally erected to remember the fire and its victims.
Hashagen, Paul, A Distant Fire. A History of FDNY Heroes. Freeport, NY: Fire Books, 1995.NYC Fire Museum, F.D.N.Y. An Illustrated History of the Fire Department of New York on Its 150th Anniversary. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2003, 2015.