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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Vanderbilt Hotel: 1913

Vanderbilt Hotel: 1913

New York circa 1913. "Vanderbilt Hotel, Park Avenue at 34th Street." 8x10 inch dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company. View full size.

On Shorpy:
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I stayed in this hotel.

On route from the UK to California my family stayed one night in this grand hotel. It was May 1964 and from memory (I was only 13) we had a rooms on the corner of the nearest block around the 5-6th floor. I remember looking out of a window down at the scene in this photograph.

While the driver slept

The beautiful architecture of the hotel was transformed into one of the ugliest, plain corners of Gotham.

Connecticut license plate

This wasn't a vehicle from NYC. The license plate shown is an undated porcelain plate from Connecticut, C6666. The "C" indicated Connecticut. In 1913, these plates had white characters on a blue background.


Architectural photography has pretty much always been captured by a large format camera because both the lens plane and the film plane can be shifted, tilted and swung in relation to each other.

I have a couple of press cameras like the Graflex Speed Graphic 4x5 that allow you to elevate the lens board to raise the lens relative to the film plane to "look up" while the camera is level or parallel to the ground. This lets you keep the vertical lines of a building from converging, making the vertical lines stay parallel to each other.

The tilt of the lens board along the horizontal axis allows you to broaden the depth of field (focus) in relation to things being near at the bottom or top to (reciprocal) things being far at the top or bottom while leaving you free to use a large f-stop to keep things farther away out of focus (like the great portraits we’ve seen on Shorpy). My, we don’t even think of f-stop on digital cameras.

When these really tall buildings are photographed, the rise of the lens board can’t "look" high enough, so a full movement view camera must be used because the focal plane (back) of the camera can be tilted horizontally to keep the vertical lines from converging because the camera itself is angled upward like any regular camera that everyone uses to get the same photo like we see in the street view below.

34th & Park

Commenter John is correct, the building on the left is indeed the 71st New York State National Guard Armory. It was replaced in 1975 by a high rise office building known as 3 Park Avenue. Its lower floors are occupied by the Norman Thomas High School.

re: Tilt-shift

The tilt-shift technique has come up occasionally here, as an example in this comment. But your comment has zeroed in on something that's always struck me as odd about such photos, particularly when it's a tall building shot from street level, and now I realize that it is indeed the fact that it tends to make the bulding's vertical proportions gradually elongate with elevation. As an experiment, using the large version of this shot, I measured the vertical dimensions in pixels of the lowest and uppermost sash windows running up the corner of the facing side. You would think that the uppermost one would be smaller, both because it's father away and because of foreshortening, but in fact, they're both almost exactly 50 pixels tall.


All these old photos of buildings shot from the street level reminded me of something I hadn't thought much about since I quit using my Graflex 4x5 and Speed Graphic 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 years ago. It was thought in bad taste to have tall buildings looking like they were "falling over backward" in photographs, so the front board of the bellows holding the lens would be tilted in such a manner as to make the lines of the buildings look straight and give the building a more natural appearance -- albeit they look larger at the top. I haven't seen this discussed before, but the Google Street View that was posted shows the difference, albeit more extreme as it was basically taken with a wide angle lens.

Empire State Bastille

Pardon my unfamiliarity with New York, but what's the fortress-like building at the left edge of the photo? Looks vaguely medieval -- perhaps an armory?

A Longchamps there

I seem to remember that a large two-level basement restaurant in the Longchamps chain once operated in this hotel. It was an art-deco kind of place. Alas, but Longchamps has gone the way of the Schrafft's, Childs, Chock Full o' Nuts, Horn & Hardart, and Bickford restaurant operations.

Uptown Traffic

No uptown traffic lane from 33rd street? Wonder when that wall was demolished to make way.

Ill-fated Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, a great-grandson of the Commodore, built this hotel in 1913. One of many permanent residents there, he moved into two top floors. He is best-known for the circumstances of his 1915 death, however. Traveling first class on the Lusitania when it was torpeodoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland, he gave his life vest to save a young mother and child. Vanderbilt was unable to swim, and his body was never recovered.

Modern better

Comparing the 1913 photo to the current Google streetview we can see the exterior has been completely revamped. This is one of the rare occasions when I like the new version better.

Larry. Moe & Curly

Outside the 7th floor washing the windows.

Ugly modernization

The modernized lower level of the Vanderbuilt is an architectural nightmare. I don't see how a self respecting architect could create such a mess. The sad thing is that the changes neither added utility to the building nor did they improve the aesthetics. It was simply performed for no reasonable purpose.

Vanderbilt Station

A few years ago, a restaurant called Vanderbilt Station opened in the the building that housed the hotel. They claimed that when the Vanderbilts lived there they had a private railroad siding beneath the building, where their private Pullman coach, attached to a locomotive, would pick them up and whisk them to all the grand places. It turns out that the story was just another NYC fairy tale. However the restaurant served great prime rib which they sold by the inch.

To be or not to be a gargoyle

That's handsome chauffeur (I'm making that assumption because of the hat -- maybe it's the owner just kicking back and waiting for someone).

On the side of the Vanderbilt building facing us, about 4 windows up, there appear to be three gargoyles missing. Were they not ready to put up yet? Were they stolen? Did the other gargoyles chase them away? Did they abandon their posts? Are they really gargoyles or some other kind of stonework? I can't see them clearly because of the distance. It looks like they are not all the same. One looks like it's a person with some dogs, for instance. More than one looks like it could be a transformer robot.

I can see that there is a window-washer about 6 windows up in the middle tier of the building. The plank is either crooked or it's an illusion because of the angle of the photo.

"The car that has no crank"

The car is a 1912 Cadillac, the first to use Charles Kettering's newly-invented electric starter. I think the first character on the license plate is C, not 6, but it is kind of strange. And the poor chauffeur doesn't even have a book to keep himself occupied while he waits!

Satan's conveyance

The Devil himself is attending a Bilderberg meeting at the hotel.

Still standing proud 97 years on.


The fellow with the "66666" license plate sitting perfectly still while the apparitions around him are in motion is a bit spooky.

Big Babies of Today

In 1913 if you were bitten by bedbugs at the Vanderbilt, you'd keep it to yourself. Today, you file a lawsuit and contact a press agent to get the word out.

Hotel with a pedigree

From its 1913 completion until it was converted to apartments in 1965, the Vanderbilt Hotel was one of the city's most fashionable in the early 20th Century. Singer Enrico Caruso lived here in 1920 and 1921, his last U.S. home.

SHORPY HISTORICAL PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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