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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

An Elegant Old Hotel Gives New Lives to the Homeless

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 ten years.

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 court.

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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