The Windsor Hotel Fire of St. Patrick’s Day 1899

“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.

The elegant Windsor Hotel took up an entire city block of Upper Fifth Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets.

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

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.

Legacy

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.

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.

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