This series, in partnership with Open House New York, looks at the physical city since the birth of the preservation movement 40 years ago.
For decades the Prince George Hotel, with its burnished wood, lavishly
detailed ceilings and classical columns welcomed visitors to
Edith Wharton's New York. But then the hotel declined, becoming one of
New York's notorious welfare hotels in the 1980s, when it housed about
1,600 people. The city closed it in 1989.
Today, the hotel on East 28th Street has reopened, combining aspects of both of its previous incarnations. It once again provides housing to the
formerly homeless, but the number of residents is far less, and they are able to take advantage of supportive services right in the building. At the same time, the Prince George has been restored to its former glory in what now has become one of Manhattan's official historic districts, called Madison Square North, with particular attention to its once-again elegant ballroom, a grand gathering place.
We at Common Ground, a non-profit dedicated to solving homelessness, are trying to preserve a piece of New York City's history and architecture and at the same time address a pressing social need.
A Model That Makes Sense
Common Ground currently houses approximately 1,700 individuals in a total of eight residences, including the Times Square Hotel and The Christopher in
Chelsea. We are looking to develop 3,000 additional homes in the next
Supportive housing offers people a home while also providing them with an array of services in their apartment
building. Working in partners, we have been able to offer the tenants on-site employment, counseling, health and social services. Research has shown that as individuals move out of homelessness, the supportive housing model fosters self-sufficiency and stability. In addition, supportive housing has also shown to be the most
effective means to prevent homelessness and the most fiscally efficient -- the annual
cost of providing an individual with supportive housing is far less than the average cost of providing a person with emergency medical or psychiatric care and shelter.
From Glamorous To Grim To Gorgeous
The area around the Prince George, Madison Square, was Manhattan's
social center in the 1850s, attracting prominent families who lived in
brownstones on and near Fifth Avenue. The completion of the Lexington
Avenue subway transformed the area from an affluent residential
neighborhood to a commercial district. The Prince George, north of
Madison Square Park, was a key part of that. One of the city's largest
early 20th century hotels at 14 stories tall, it was constructed in
two phases, with the main building going up in 1904 and a northern wing
added in 1912. Howard Greenley, a prominent architect who served as the
president of the Architectural League of New York, designed the building
and decorated the interior.
The hotel is modeled in the Beaux Arts style and has many classical and
neo-Renaissance flourishes. Its ground floor included the Lady's
Tearoom, the English Tap Room, and the Hunt Room. A spacious lounge later became the Prince George Ballroom.
Designed by Greenley, the ornate ballroom featured Renaissance-inspired
murals and reproductions of famous paintings, along with intricate
woodwork, marble mosaic floors, ceiling murals, and elaborate carvings.
For decades, the Prince George Hotel and its restaurants were favorite
gathering places. Even in the 1950s, long past its heyday, the hotel
continued to draw middle-class tourists. But as tourism in the city
declined in the 1970s, the Prince George, along with many New York
hotels, began to suffer. With the rise in homelessness in the 1980s, many
private hotels in the area, including the Prince George, began to accept
contracts from the city to house homeless families. During this period,
the ballroom served as a dining hall, social service office and basketball
Since the Prince George did not offer adequate facilities, services or
security to its residents, the hotel became dirty and dangerous, ridden
with drug use and crime, damaging its residents and the surrounding
community. Writer Jonathan Kozol called the Prince George at that time
"one of the grimmest places I've ever been." After standing vacant for
several years, the Prince George was purchased by Common Ground in 1996.
Backed by federal, state and private funds, the renovation began two years later, the work of Beyer Blinder Belle, the architects who designed the
renovation of Grand Central Station. Historic rehabilitation tax credits
financed some of the renovation of the lobby. In 2001, after the hotel
was largely renovated, the city designated the surrounding area a
historic district. This would set restrictions on future changes, if
any, to the building's exterior.
The hotel, in its current incarnation, welcomed its first tenants in
October 1999. Today, the Prince George provides 416 units of permanent,
affordable, supportive housing for low-income or formerly homeless
adults, including people with HIV/AIDS or mental illness and the elderly.
The residents pay 30 percent of the income in rent. About half the
residents have incomes of less than $10,000 a year. Common Ground's
social services partner, the Center for Urban Community Services, provides tenants with on-site access to social, medical
and psychiatric services, along with benefits counseling and
a wide range of community activities. The building also includes such
facilities as a computer room, lounges and an art studio.
At the Prince George, the physical setting contributes to giving
residents a sense of dignity. The ornate tearoom, as well as part of the
lobby, has been elegantly restored. The Prince George also features a
gorgeous rooftop deck with a community garden.
A Ballroom Restored, Creatively, Collaboratively
In 2004, Common Ground launched an ambitious project to restore
the 5,000 square-foot ballroom and adjacent former Hunt Room. The project presented an opportunity to offer needed training and jobs. Common Ground, working with four other non-profit groups, arranged for at-risk youth, high school students interested in restoration arts,
architectural students, and individuals with HIV/AIDS to work on the
renovation. Students at the Parsons School designed and
built an entry foyer and gallery space in what had been the Hunt
Room. Faced with an area that was beyond restoration, the students
developed an airy, modern space that is now the World Monuments Fund
Gallery, which serves as a
special exhibition and events space.
Meanwhile, staff from the Alpha Workshops, which provides training and employment
in the decorative arts for people with HIV/AIDS, restored the original
plasterwork and paint in the Neo-Renaissance Ballroom, which had
suffered significant water damage when the building lay vacant. They also provided hands-on training to a group of
young people from the Brooklyn High School for the Arts, YouthBuild USA,
and the Foyer program at The Christopher, the Common Ground facility
that houses young adults who have been in the foster care system. The
ballroom's elaborate Renaissance details — including heavy columns
ornamented by cartouches, garlands, angels and acanthus leaves — have
been restored through this unique partnership.
The ballroom, which can seat up to 299 guests, and the World Monuments Fund
Gallery at the Prince George have opened as a special events and
exhibition space available to the public. The income generated by renting out this space goes to support our efforts to house chronically homeless
adults -- an innovative re-use of a beautiful old building.
Kelly Castagnaro is director of communications at Common Ground.
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