Building History Timeline

Thomas Wolfe

In the same years that Hart Crane was staying at the Albert, so was novelist Thomas Wolfe, who had taken a job teaching at nearby New York University. According to one biographer:

Impressed by Wolfe’s credentials, which included strong recommendations from Professors Lowes and Baker, and charmed by the ingenuous candor of his letter, Watt offered him appointment as instructor in English, at a salary of eighteen hundred dollars a year, and Wolfe promptly accepted. Badly dressed in his new but ill-fitting suit and overcoat, which together cost him only $69.50, he showed up in New York during the first week in February, rented a room at the inexpensive residential Hotel Albert, on University Place between 10th and 11th streets, just a few blocks north of the university, and met his first classes on February 6. … he was lonely in New York. Of course he was constantly meeting students and fellow residents in the Hotel Albert, but he had few friends.

On first moving in, in 1924, he wrote in a letter:

The world is mine, and I, at present, own a very small but gratifying portion of it - Room 2220, at the hotel Albert.

The Albert appears in Wolfe’s notebooks several times. On one page is a list of “People I Know in New York” which includes “Margaret (Hotel Albert).” In his extensive notes for “The October Fair,” an unfinished work, he includes a reference to “the Hotel Albert People.” The most extended reference in his notebooks describes “Christmas at the Hotel Albert”:

The cheap Christmas tree trembling with tinsel & colored lights – the painted and powdered and bravely smiling hags – (forever and forever and forever binding up and taking down their hair, like the hospital waitresses – contrary – the husky Irish and Italian women leaning from windows as the trains thunder past)….

Wolfe then wrote about the Albert at great length in his novel, Of Time and the River, in which he called it the Hotel Leopold. His description of the hotel as comprised of three buildings, a shorter one on either side of a tall one, clearly refers to the Albert. From Chapter 18 (a lengthy selection):

The Hotel Leopold, where he now lived, was situated on a short and grimy street about two blocks from the university, northward, in the direction of Union Square.
The Leopold, although one of the city’s smaller hotels, was not a single building, but a congeries of buildings, which covered an entire block. The central, and main building of the system, was a structure of twelve storeys, of that anomalous stone and brick construction which seems to have enjoyed a vogue in the early nineteen hundreds. To the left was a building twenty or thirty years old, known as “the old annex.” It was eight storeys high, of old red brick, and the street floor was occupied by shops and a restaurant. To the right was a building of six storeys, which was known as “the new annex.” This building, more simple in design than the others, was constructed of basal stone of the rough, porous, light-hued kind which was predominant in many of the new architectures throughout the nation. The building, neat, compact, and for the most part unadorned by useless ornament, somehow gave the effect of having been stamped out, with a million others of its kind, by a gigantic biscuit cutter of such buildings - and hence to speak, now or in what way it was hard to say, yet instantly apparent, the mechanic spirit of a “newer” or more “modern” scheme - the scheme of “the ‘twenties,” of 1922 or 1924.

It was hard to know why one found fault with the building, but somehow it left one without joy. In many obvious ways this would be apparent at once, not only to the architect, but to the layman - it was superior to its companion structures. Although not a building which combined simple grace with use - as the old colonial structures of New England do - it was at least a building lacking in the clumsy and meaningless adornment which disfigured the surface of its two companions. Moreover, the rough, porous-looking brick had a look of lean and homely integrity: it was hard to know why one disliked the building and yet one did - the other two, with all their confusing and unreasoning decoration, were the warmer, better, and more cheerful places.

What was it? It was almost impossible to define the quality of “the new annex” or its depressing effect upon the spectator, yet its quality was unmistakable. It belonged, somehow, to a new and accursed substance which had come into the structure of life - a substance barren, sterile, and inhuman - designed not for the use of man, but for the blind proliferations of the man-swarm, to accommodate the greatest number in the smallest space - to shelter, house, turn out, take in, all the nameless, faceless, mindless man-swarm atoms of the earth.

The transient population of the Leopold, comparatively, was small. The great tidal fluctuation of brief visitors - business men, salesmen, newly wedded couples on their honeymoons, people from small towns out for a spree or a week or two of bright-light gayety - which swarmed in unceasing movements in and out of the city, had scarcely touched the life of the Leopold. The hotel, set in a quarter of the city that was a little remote from the great business and pleasure districts, depended largely for its custom on the patronage of a “permanent” clientele. It was, in short, the kind of place often referred to as “a quiet family hotel” - a phrase which the management of the Leopold made use of in advertising the merits of their establishment, on the hotel stationery.

But that phrase, with its soothing connotations of a tranquil, felicitous and gentle domesticity, was misleading. For the Leopold was decidedly not “quiet” and although it contained within its cell-like rooms almost every other kind of life, of “family life” there was almost none and what there was, so desolate and barren, that one felt himself to be looking at the museum relics of what had once been a family rather than at the living and organic reality. And because of this, one felt constantly about the Leopold the spirit of defeat - either of lives still searching, restless and unfound, or of lives which, in the worst sense of the world, had fallen upon evil days.

And curiously, in spite of the hotel’s pious assurance of its “quiet family life,” its boast of permanency, there hovered about the place continually, indefinably but certainly, a feeling of naked insecurity, a terrifying transience - not the frank transiency of the great tourist hotels with their constant daily flux of changing faces - but the horrible transiency of lives held here for a period in the illusion of a brief and barren permanence, of lives either on the wing or on the wane.

Here, for example, among the three of four hundred beings who inhabited the motley structure of these conjoined walls, were a number of young people who had only recently come from smaller places and were still stunned and bewildered by the terrific impact of the city upon their lives, or who, after a year or two of such bewilderment, were just beginning to orient themselves, to adjust their lives to the city’s furious tempo, and to look around with a bolder and more knowing calculation for some kind of residence a little closer to their true desires.

To young people of this sort, the Leopold had offered, when they first came to the city, its spurious promise of warm asylum. Many of them had landed here - or rather popped in here like frightened rabbits - after their first terrified immersion in the man-swarm fury of the city’s life, and the feeling of desolation, houseless naked loneliness, bewilderment, and scrambling, scuttling terror which the sudden impact of that ruthless, sudden revelation had aroused in them. For this reason, those barren walls, those terrible, hive-like cells of the Hotel Leopold were not without a glory of their own. For in those cell-like rooms there could be held all of the hope, hunger, passion, bitter loneliness and earth-devouring fury that a room could hold, or that this world can know, or that this little racked and riven vessel of desire, this twisted tenement of man’s bitter brevity, can endure.

Here, in these desolate walls, on many a night long past and desperately accomplished, many a young man had paced the confines of his little cell like a maddened animal, had beat his knuckles bloody on the stamped-out walls, had lashed about him, a creature baffled and infuriated by the million illusions of warmth, love, security and joy which the terrific city offered him and which, tantalus-like, slipped form his fingers like a fume of painted smoke the instant that he tried to get his grasp upon it.

Again, if the Hotel Leopold had housed all of the hope, joy, fury, passion, anguish, and devouring hunger that the earth can know, and that the wild and bitter tenement of youth can hold, it also housed within its walls all of the barren and hopeless bitterness of a desolate old age. For here - unloved, friendless, and unwanted, shunted off into the dreary asylum of hotel life - there lived many old people who hated life, and yet who were afraid to die.

Most of them were old people with a pension, or a small income, which was just meagrely sufficient to their slender needs. Some of them, widowed, withered, childless, and alone were drearily wearing out the end of their lives here in a barren solitude. Some had sons and daughters, married, living in the city, who came dutifully to stamp the dreary tedium of waning Sunday afternoons with the stale counterfeits of filial devotion.

The rest of the time the old people stayed in their rooms and washed their stockings out and did embroidery, or descended to the little restaurant to eat, or sat together in one corner of the white-tiled lobby and talked.

Why could they never make it come to life? Why was no great vine growing from the hearts of all these old and dying people? Why were their flesh, their sagging, pouch-like jowls and faces, so dry, dead, and juiceless, their weary old eyes so dull and lustreless, their tones so nasal, tedious and metallic? Why was it that they seemed never to have known any of the pain, joy, passion, evil, glory of a dark and living past? Why was it that their lives, on which now the strange dark radiance of million-visaged time was shining, seemed to have gained neither wisdom, mystery nor passion from the great accumulation of the buried past - to have been composed, in fact, of an infinite procession of dreary moments and little mean adventures, each forgotten, lost, and buried, as day by day the gray sand of their lives ran out its numberless grains of barren tedium.

This, indeed, seemed to be the truth about them: as they sat together in one corner of the lobby talking, all their conversation seemed made up of dreary dialogs such as these:

”How do you do, Mrs. Grey? I didn’t see you in the restaurant tonight.”

”No-” the old woman spoke triumphantly, proudly conscious of a sensational adventure - “I ate out tonight at a new place that my son-in-law told me about! - Oh! I had the most dee-licious meal - a won-derful meal - all any one could eat and only sixty cents. First I had a dish of nice fruit salad - and then I had a bowl of soup.....

The chapter continues in this vein.