Completed in 1853, by architect James Renwick, the St. Denis Hotel stood at the corner of East 11th Street and Broadway. The property, which was owned by the Renwick family, had been given to them by their relative, Henry Brevoort, a successful farmer and prominent landowner during the late eighteenth century. The hotel was named after its first proprietor, Denis Julian, and its style was derived from Elizabethan and Renaissance models. It was said to be “one of the handsomest buildings on Broadway, occupying seventy-six feet on that thoroughfare and one hundred and twenty on Eleventh Street” by Miller’s New York as it Is, Or Stranger’s Guide-book to the Cities of New York, Brooklyn and Adjacent Places. James Renwick was a partner in the prominent architectural firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell, who was responsible for numerous notable Gothic Revival-style buildings during the mid- to late-nineteenth century. His first commission was Grace Church, a notable French Gothic Revival-style work and a designated city landmark, built in 1847, which has been called “one of the city’s greatest treasures.” Besides the Trinity building, which was demolished in 1853, the St. Denis was the first building in New York to utilize terra cotta as exterior architectural ornament.
During its heyday, the St. Denis was located in what was considered an upscale shopping district or “the most fashionable part of Broadway.” It was patronized by many notable individuals, wealthy businessmen, theatrical superstars and Presidents. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln often stayed there on their trips to New York. In September 1867, Mary Todd Lincoln stayed at the St. Denis, while visiting New York for the purpose of selling her personal belongings. After an 1873 fire, the St. Denis was rebuilt in 1875.
In May of 1877, the St. Denis was the site of Alexander Graham Bell’s first public demonstration of the telephone in New York. He had already patented the telephone and made public demonstrations of it in Boston, a week prior, but was looking for financial backers. He demonstrated this in the hotel’s second-floor “gentlemen’s parlor,” while two hundred invited guests observed.
Other distinguished individuals who stayed at the St. Denis were General Ulysses S. Grant, P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Roscoe Conkling, Buffalo Bill and Sarah Bernhardt.
In 1917, after 64 years of operation, it was announced that the St. Denis would be closing its doors to make way for a loft building. The reason for its demise was the surrounding neighborhood’s change in character and the manager’s inability to keep up with modern hotel-keeping ideas. In February 1920, the Renwick family finally sold the property, which had been in their family for 250 years, at auction.
“The changing of the St. Denis Hotel to an office building obliterates one of the oldest hotels in the city…The St. Denis Hotel was the fashionable headquarters half a century ago” said the New York Times. The hotel was converted into a modern store and office building, in which numerous artists including Marcel Duchamp maintained their studios.