The Express Elevator to Bygone Days — COVID-19 Hastens the Commercial Real Estate Cycle
“Mr. Watson come here — I want to see you!” said Alexander Graham Bell on January 25, 1915. Mr. Watson’s reply: “It would take me a week now.” The occasion was the first transcontinental phone call between the inventor of the telephone and founder of AT&T, who was in New York, and Professor Bell’s one time assistant, Watson, in San Francisco. While communication was thus revolutionized, at the time, there was still only one telephone for every working person in America. One solution for early technology adopters was to live in a big city with population density supported equally by that of phone lines. But the means with which to set up house and home in an urban setting was not in many cases realistic, especially for single men and (gasp!), women.
Enter the hotel apartment, a new type of building introduced in Chicago in 1915 that catered to those looking to live in desirable neighborhoods they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. The mini abodes featured small kitchenettes but cooking was not required given tenants could dine in the building’s café or restaurant. At the time, especially in desirable metros, propriety dictated having a staff that separated a home’s inhabitants from outsiders. That is what made the amenities today’s travelers take for granted invaluable to those seeking independence without the wealth required to adhere to societal strictures – maid, laundry and concierge services, billiards and smoking rooms, and of course, a telephone in every suite.
But it would be a building with an arresting Gothic façade on New York’s upper Eastside at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street that gave the apartment hotel mystique. Opening its doors in 1926, the Barbizon billed itself as a “Club Residence for Professional Women.” The storied residence was described by the New York Post as, “a sort of upscale dormitory, a gilded safe space for women looking to make their way in the big city at a time when most women were getting married young and having children, not launching careers as models, editors, secretaries and actresses.” Initially a magnet for girls from the Midwest and California, every morning at 8:30 am, the lobby would come alive with hundreds bedecked in gloves and stockings on their way to the Katherine Gibbs School, a premier secretarial program. But it was the waif-like models and actresses that made the Barbizon the stuff of legend. Prior to achieving stardom, the likes of Grace Kelly, Joan Didion, Cybill Shepherd, Candice Bergen and Joan Crawford were residents.
As with so many aspects of American culture, the hotel apartment’s heyday ended in the 1960s. A 1966 ad in the New Yorker listed weekly rent at the Barbizon at $6.75 a week, or roughly $50 in today’s dollars accounting for annual inflation of 3.95% since then. Today, a hotel room in New York City would run you closer to $300 a night, at least prior to the coronavirus outbreak that’s wrecked the city’s economy. The question on everyone’s minds is how soon hotel room rates will return to such lofty levels, whether it will be a matter of months or years.