Ginger Roots: The Bristol Hotel

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

In my series Ginger Roots, I will be covering Ginger's life pre-Hollywood, and putting a focus on the history of many buildings that she lived in, frequented or performed at during this time. 

To read my first installment on the Baker Hotel, visit this link.

For a couple short years in the 1910s, Ginger Rogers and mother Lela called the Bristol Hotel in Manhattan home. Ginger was about six years old at the time, and attended public school while Lela was working at the Fox offices nearby. She recalls these years in her book, speaking about playing in her mother's makeup and being supervised under her watchful eye at business dinners at Rector's, the "fancy restaurant" around the corner. These years would come to an end at the start of World War I, when Lela enlisted in the US Marines.

The Bristol Hotel beginnings

The original Bristol Hotel

The Bristol Hotel was originally built in a different location than the one Lela and Ginger took up residence at only a few blocks away. According to The Bowery Boys, the original Bristol first opened in 1875. This location, however, was closed down in May of 1902 due to a lease increase, and the hotel no longer being profitable. It soon found it's final home at 122 West 49th Street, where a young Ginger would end up in the mid 1910s. According to a clipping from the New York Herald, it either already existed or was planned to be there in 1903.

The Bristol Hotel that Ginger knew
The Bristol Hotel, then under new management, boasted of its convenient location in the city, as it was within walking distance to the shopping district, theaters, and Grand Central Station. Below is an advertisement from 1912:

From the Star-Gazette
1912 was the same year that saw Senator William F. Mackey pass away at the hotel of heat exhaustion. By 1916, around the time or shortly after Ginger and Lela moved in, the hotel was in the midst of a $500,000 expansion project.

To add a bizarre tidbit to the Hotel Bristol's history, it did play a small role in the story of murderer and sexual abuser Harry K. Thaw. In 1917, a suitcase with his initial was discovered in one of the many rooms. Inside were several letters he had written to various young men, luring them with promises of advancement in their careers or their education. This connection is not one I had been expecting while researching a topic involving Ginger Rogers, but there was one day I fell into a rabbit hole with this case a while back. You may be familiar with it if you have seen the 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. To learn more about this twisted story, visit this link.

To add another morbid tidbit from December of 1910, a woman accidentally set herself on fire in one of the rooms when the flame caught on her clothing as she attempted to light a candle. Quite a bit of dark history associated with this hotel.

Anyways, on a much lighter note, here is an ad for Christmas dinner at the Bristol, 1922:

In the decades following the 1910s, nothing seems to be too out of the ordinary. Countless promotional ads for luncheons were dispersed to appeal to the public throughout this time. Below is a photo of the lounge at the Bristol:

Photo from Hip Postcard
The hotel also housed an elegant restaurant and bar called the Pink Elephant. 

Photo from Ephemeral New York, c 1940s

Piecing things together

Let's circle back to that original location. Louisa M. Gerry inherited the original Bristol building at the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. In 1902, she leased the hotel to Walter J. Salmon for 20 years. Salmon then, unbeknownst to Gerry, turned around and negotiated a joint venture with close friend Morton H. Meinhard. It appears that they may have upped the cost for the original Bristol to operate on the property, causing the hotel to shut down due to lack of sustainable profit. A relocation of the hotel on 49th Street would soon follow at some point before 1910. Salmon and Meinhard split the investment in half in a plan to utilize the growing commercial value of the surrounding area. With the original Bristol gone, the partners renovated the lower floors, converting them into shops. Despite the equal investment, for the first five years of the 20 year lease, Salmon collected 60% of the total profits. For the remainder of the lease, they split the profits evenly. They had each collected more than $500,000 by the end of the lease. The lease was up by 1922, and by then, Salmon and Meinhard had had some sort of falling out and were no longer on speaking terms. 

In 1920, Louisa Gerry passed away and her son Elbridge inherited the property. Elbridge partnered with Salmon and the two planned to merge the corner lot on which the hotel once stood with surrounding plots to construct a 59 story building. When Meinhard learned of this, he filed a lawsuit that earned him a 50% stake in the property. To fast forward, the site of the old Bristol was demolished in December of 1929 to make way for the new structure at 500 Fifth Avenue.

This group of buildings serves as a commercial business center today.

Not too much is known about the fate of the second Bristol building. Records pinpoint that it was still operating by 1964, and that is the latest I am able to find even after a lot of digging. This makes sense because construction was completed on the building that currently occupies the lot where the second Bristol stood in 1969, started 1966. 

One thing is for certain, Ginger made a lot of memories during these early Manhattan days, and this seems to be a relaxed, carefree time period in her life. In her book, she recalls being in the hotel room playing with her mother's vanishing cream, her young mind assuming it would turn her invisible. Ginger also befriended young Leslie Marsh, Mae Marsh's daughter at this time.

It was certainly an adventure to research this hotel, one that my sister even took part in helping me piece together. I went into this completely unknowing that the hotel had moved locations, so for days I was extremely confused as to why I was finding the Bristol Hotel at two different addresses so close together. Luckily after a lot of dedication and intense digging, we found the answer. This may have trailed off into more information about the site of the original hotel, but I hope it provided you an informative backstory on the history of a place that Ginger called home at one point in her life.

Sources:, The Bowery Boys, Ephemeral New York, Supreme Court Records and Court of Appeals Records, The New York Herald, The Daily Telegraph

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