In 1859 Broadway near Madison Square saw the opening of two magnificent new hotels. Amos R. Eno opened his Fifth Avenue Hotel, which engulfed the block front from 23rd Street to 24th, on August 23, 1859. But his was not the first. By January that year another white marble had opened, the St. James.
The six-story Italianate structure, run by E. E. Balcolm, was a block to the north, at the southwest corner of 26th Street. Critics had warned that high-class hotels this far uptown would be doomed to failure. Instead the St. James and the Fifth Avenue Hotel set a trend and within the next three decades Broadway north of 23rd Street would be lined with upscale hotels.
The St. James Hotel stunned visitors and New Yorkers alike with its gleaming white facade. Guests entered on Broadway through an understated columned portico. Baggage and other deliveries came and went through a lesser entrance on 26th Street. The sitting and reception rooms were flooded with light from the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the first floor. Here guests relaxed and watched the bustling Broadway activities outside.
One of the St. James employees who both lived and worked here got into trouble almost before the paint was dry. On January 22, 1859 The New York Times reported “A colored gent, named George H. Combs, who boards at St James Hotel, New-York, and occasionally serves those more fortunate than himself, was brought before Justice Voorhies yesterday, on a charge of bigamy.” It appears that the lothario had three wives.
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