A Tale of Three Buildings: Franconi’s Hippodrome, The Fifth Avenue Hotel & The Fifth Avenue Building a.k.a. The Toy Center
The west side of Fifth Avenue between 23rd and 24th streets had been country land well into the middle of the 19th century. The land for many years had been occupied by a quaint tavern and horse changing station.
On this site in March 1853, Henri Franconi, a European from a long line of equestrian performers, arranged with investors to have an amphitheater built which was then called Franconi’s Hippodrome. This precursor of the modern day circus with performers, animals and chariot races was housed in a large structure shaped like an ellipse and was 338 feet by 196 1/2 feet that could seat 10,000 people and was covered by a red, white and blue canvas supported by a center pole 70 feet in height and a circle of smaller poles 40 feet in height.
It opened on Monday, May 2, 1853, and The New York Daily Times was not impressed with the class of people attending the Hippodrome shows. Attendees they said “…were blacklegs, gamblers, rowdies, and the miscellanea of polite roguery and blackguardism.” The reporter added “The Hippodrome is badly conducted and exercises an injurious influence on the public morals.” It sounds as if the Hippodrome was 100 years ahead of its time!
Wealthy merchant Amos R. Eno began acquiring pastoral land in the vicinity in 1851. He bought nearly 20 full city lots plus five additional lots for $260,000 around 1854 and 1855 on Fifth Avenue between twenty-third and twenty-fourth streets. The purchase was called “Eno’s Folly” because the city was barely developed beyond 14th street. Eno wanted to develop the property for “great marble stores” after he tore down the Hippodrome.
The week of November 12, 1855 saw the final performances at the Hippodrome which featured General Tom Thumb and the menagerie. The Hippodrome closed forever Saturday, November 17, 1855. The animals and fixtures were auctioned off immediately. The demolition of what remained of the Hippodrome began in March 1856. The newspapers commented that “neighbors are not sorry” to see it go.
By September 1856 construction of the edifice of the new building was underway. During construction human bones were found at the site and it was discovered that the land had been a potters field many years ago.
A financial crisis ensued early in 1857 and the partially completed walls were temporarily roofed over, when Paran Stevens the leading hotelier in the country saw the site as being well situated for a hotel. On May 12, 1857 Amos Eno announced to the press his intentions to complete the building as a hotel.
With Paran Stevens participation, Eno restarted the construction to build a grand hotel. By August, the Panic of 1857 was in full motion and it forced Eno to slow construction until the economy recovered.
When The Fifth Avenue Hotel was opened to the public on August 23, 1859 it was considered the finest hotel in the city. An 1866 guide book to New York City put out by The Fifth Avenue Hotel described itself somewhat modestly:
THE FIFTH AVENUE HOTELIs a splendid six-story building, of white marble, and of gigantic dimensions, situated at the junction of 23d street and Fifth avenue, opposite Madison Park. It fronts on three streets, contains upwards of one hundred elegant suites of apartments; and ample accommodations for more than one thousand persons. There is an elevator, on the principle of Archimedes’ screw, for the convenience of guests.Distance from City Hall, 2 ¼ miles. Darling, Griswold & Co., proprietors.
The hotel had many unique offerings for the time, one of which was private bathrooms, the other, as noted in the guide book description, an elevator. This elevator, which was designed by Otis Tufts, was the second successful passenger elevator ever developed.
Elisha Otis installed the first modern elevator in 1857 at 488 Broadway. Elisha Otis’ elevator which was based on a cable system, was the one that would catch on with the public. Otis Tufts complicated screw designed elevator was lifted by a large hollow screw and would eventually prove ineffectual because it was useful only in buildings that were a few stories in height.
The hotel suffered its greatest disaster on December 10, 1872 when a fire broke out killing twenty two hotel servant girls and causing over $100,000 worth of damage. Sixteen of the dead girls were found together in one small room. The stairway outside the door to this room was on fire, making escape impossible, except by a window inside the room which lead to the roof. But the girls were smothered and roasted to death. The window was barred.
President’s of the United States since Lincoln had stayed or lived at the hotel including Grant, Garfield, Hayes and Arthur.
The Fifth Avenue Hotel also had “The Amen Corner” (which were actually two corners) in the western end of the lobby, where Republican Boss Thomas Platt frequently held meetings. Every Republican candidate for governor since 1868 was decided by the political bosses meeting at the hotel. The two stories to the origination of “The Amen Corner” are somewhat similar. The Republican leaders would tell their subordinates what to do and they generally did it without question, hence the name “Amen Corner.” The other explanation is that no legislation or idea could pass without Platt’s “amen.”
By 1907 the hotel center of the city had moved one mile north of Madison Square and the land that the Fifth Avenue Hotel sat upon would be more valuable if developed as a skyscraper. The Eno family which owned the property announced in 1907 that they would build a $10 million dollar, 24 story office building on the site as soon as the lease to the hotel expired the following year. The hotel closed at midnight on April 4, 1908 although the Second National Bank continued operating in the building until July 6th of that year.
The building was soon after demolished and rapid progress was made in the construction of The Fifth Avenue Building as it was to be known. The building was designed by the architectural firm of Maynicke and Franke and was opened on May 1, 1909. It ended up being only fourteen stories in height and was the largest office building in terms of ground area covered with the exception of the Metropolitan Life Building located on the opposite side of Madison Square.
The building became known as “The Toy Center of the World” because so many of the tenants were in the toy or novelty business.
The building had a reputation for being well maintained and retaining its solid location when the Eno heirs finally sold it in 1950 to a syndicate of investors headed by Lawrence A. Wien for around its assessed value of $6.6 million dollars.
“Eno’s Folly” had turned into a bonanza for Amos Eno’s descendants.
The “Toy Center Building” as it is now known, was given landmark status by The Landmarks Preservation Committee in 1981. Over the years most of the toy companies that were based there, have left due to battles with past building landlords.
After many changes in ownership, J.P. Morgan now owns a 90 plus percent stake of the building. They paid $700 million dollars to Lehman Brothers in June of 2011 for control of the building.