Single Room Occupancy Hotels
Single Room Occupancy or SRO hotels are low-cost urban housing for longer-term to permanent residency by lower income occupants, some of whom are formerly or otherwise would be homeless. Most SROs were built in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, with a boom in conversions of existing hotels to the SRO format in some cities at the end of World War II. Their numbers decreased in the 1960s and 1970s, and now they are rapidly disappearing under the pressure of urban renewal and increasing gentrification of former skid row areas. The term "single room occupancy" and acronym "SRO" are used in the U.S. and Canada. The term bedsit is used in Britain, and chambre de bonne in France. Face-to-face in Nigeria refers to a similar but slightly larger design for one-room and two-room apartments. Below are the exterior and interior of the White House Hotel at 340 Bowery in Manhattan, which opened as an SRO around 1900 and became a combined SRO and hostel around 2000 and continued as such through 2014. It's the dark brick four-story building, the blue doors are the main entrance.
The SRO buildings were mostly constructed in or near the business centers of larger cities in the U.S. from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest known published use of the term "single room occupancy" in 1941, although the term originated in New York City in the previous decade and the concept goes back at least fifty years before that. They began to be built in the late 1800s in Chicago to house a large transient workforce that entered and left Chicago on a seasonal basis. There are estimates that 40,000 to 60,000 people, mostly men, lived in SRO facilities during the winters around the turn of the 20th century.
Hobos of the early 1900s, before 1920, were transient workers and many were quite skilled. They tended to do work outdoors, and stayed in SROs over the winters in Chicago and other northern cities. By the 1920s the West was mostly settled and the number of skilled migrant jobs declined. Tramps were men who traveled but did not work, while Bums lived in the SROs full time.
Some SROs had originally been hotels of a more luxurious interior layout, converted to the SRO format to greatly increase occupancy. Many of them, like the White House, followed what became called the "cage hotel" or "hall room" design. The rooms — really cubicles, sometimes called "cabins" — were small compartments divided by walls that did not extend all the way from the floor to the ceiling.
The second picture above shows a corridor within the White House. Each floor of the building was two large rooms. The walls of the cabins or cubicles were fastened to the floors but they only extended up about seven feet. Wooden lattice work, like trellis material, was used to cap the cubicles and keep people from climbing over the wall from one to the next. Some SROs used chicken wire, hence the "cage hotel" term.
Each cubicle extended about six feet in from the doorway and about four feet wide. Just enough room for a small bed. This was a wooden shelf with a narrow foam mattress. A small wooden storage cabinet, a few hooks on the wall, and a fluorescent light fixture completed the guest quarters.
All plumbing — sinks, showers, toilets, and some enormous urinals of the early 1900s design — were shared and located at the ends of the corridors. Of course, shared plumbing facilities were very common in hotels before the 1940s.
At least the cage hotels offered some privacy. Dormitories had no dividers, they were simply large rooms filled with beds. Flop houses didn't even have beds, you paid for the right to sleep indoors on the floor.
Charitable, state, and federal programs pay part or all of the rent of many financially disadvantaged SRO tenants. Tax abatements can support renovation, provided that the resulting space is rented to low-income individuals. But the urban decay of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. led to decreases in SRO housing. 81% of the SRO housing disappeared in Chicago between 1960 and 1980. Continuing development and gentrification greatly increases pressure on remaining availability as former SROs are converted or demolished as their tenants are evicted. Some cities, including San Francisco, have more recently enacted regulations on the conversion of SROs to reduce the eviction of tenants.
Many San Francisco SRO landlords also charged "visitor fees" as a means of taking a cut of prostitution and drug dealing in their properties. These "visitor fees" became illegal in 2001.
|1825||340 Bowery was the location of a tavern where the members of the New York Pigeon Club met.|
|1875||Two brothers ran the Blooms dry good store there.|
|1881||In 1881 it housed Emil Kronner's dime museum where the New York Sun reported that the owner was arrested for "giving a sacrilegious performance...after losing two freaks."|
|1899||A flophouse (or dormitory, or SRO) named the Bellevue Hotel was operating there.|
|1905||A census recorder in 1905 listed 70 men who lived at the address, but that number was growing.|
|1907||The NoHo Historic District Extension report by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (2008) says that the missions and SRO hotels in the 14-block area housed 25,000 men on a typical night in 1907, a number later increasing to 75,000.|
Eusebio Ghelardi purchased the property at 340 Bowery in 1916. He was an Italian immigrant who had worked as an inspector for the New York City civil engineering department. That same year he added a two-story extension to the rear. In 1928-1929 he expanded onto the lot to the south, 338 Bowery, and built a unified brick façade across 338-340 Bowery.
The NoHo Historic District Extension report includes:
338-340 BOWERY (West side between
Bond Street and Great Jones Street)
Borough of Manhattan Tax Map Block 530, lot 36
Date of construction: 1928-29
Architect: Not determined
Original Owner: E. Ghelardi
Type: Lodging house
Style: Late Arts & Crafts
Features: Four-story double building; rusticated brickwork; wrought-iron fire escape; 1st floor: historic steel casement windows with random panes of stained and colored glass; non-historic store window (at No. 338 Bowery) with security gate; non-historic doors; non-historic hanging sign on historic bracket; 2nd-4th floors: historic kalamein windows, some converted to doors; decorated brick spandrels; Cornice: brick parapet with stuccoed brick blind arcade; Site features: basement passageways connecting to the rear of the building; wrought-iron railings.
History: The White House Hotel began operating at 340 Bowery about 1916-17 and took its present Arts and Crafts-influenced appearance in 1928-29 when the Ghelardi family expanded their lodging house to incorporate the lot to the south of their property and constructed the current unified façade with its blind arcade and rusticated brickwork. Accommodations in most Bowery flophouses were either a choice between a cot in a dormitory or a cubicle. The White House offered residents the relatively private cubicles. The White House maintained a whites-only policy for much of its history and this is said to be the inspiration for its name. The White House, now serving a diverse clientele, is still in business, one of the last hotels of its type on the Bowery. The building which is largely intact to its early to mid-twentieth century appearance contributes to the mixed-use and architectural diversity of the NoHo Historic District Extension.
1916: Two-story extension to 340 Bowery. Owner: E. Ghelardi. Certificate of Occupancy: lodging house.
1928: Extend building to south (no. 338 Bowery), add new façade to 340 Bowery. Owner and builder: E. Ghelardi. Certificate of Occupancy: store and lodging house.
1914 Eusebio Ghelardi (lot 36)
1915 Estella J. Ghelardi (lot 36)
1928 Stella J. Ghelardi (lot 37)
1929 Ambrose Reality Co
1930 Stella J. Ghelardi (lots 36, 37)
1938 Roerb Realty Inc. (Eusebio's daughter Sylvia was president)
1998 338 Bowery Property, LLC
2007 Metro Sixteen Hotel, LLC
David Isay and Stacy Abramson, Flophouse: Life on the Bowery (New York: Random House, 2000), xiii-xiv, 3.
New York City Department of Buildings
New York City Directories
New York County, Office of the Register, Deed Sect. 2 Liber 232, p. 436, 438; Liber 3664, p. 296-97.
The Third Avenue Elevated train line ran above the Bowery from 1878 to 1955, making the thoroughfare darker, dirtier, and noisier.
I lay there in my open-top cubicle room looking at the ceiling. ... I listened to the grunts and squeals and snarls in the nightmare half-light of random, broken lust.
It was like the room of a Russian saint: one bed, a candle burning, stone walls that oozed moisture, and a crazy makeshift ikon of some kind that he had made.
On The Road, Jack Kerouac
There were 234 cubicles in the building by 1950. They were 6×4 foot cubicles with walls that stopped well short of the floor. Chicken wire mesh was fastened across the tops to keep someone from climbing over the divider into another cubicle.
The indigent Bowery population varied, with booms immediately after both World Wars when men were processed out of the military in New York City and given money with which to get home. Many of them stayed on in the Bowery SROs, never leaving. The hard times of the Depression also caused a large surge.
The G.I. Bill of 1944 provided educational opportunities leading to economic opportunities for veterans, and the Bowery population began to decline. After a peak of maybe 75,000 during the 1930s, it was down to 15,000 in 1949.
However, the Bowery was the city's Skid Row from the 1940s through the 1970s, with the most helpless derelicts remaining there.
Well-intentioned outrage about conditions had an effect that ended up shutting down SROs and pushing some of the residents from bad conditions in SROs to even worse conditions on the streets. This is similar to what happened to public mental health care in the U.S. from the late 1960s through the 1980s.
Mike Ghelardi took over operating the White House for an uncle in 1980. Pressure increased, including a 1996 court decision including SROs in city rent regulations, making it difficult to evict residents.
Mike, the last Ghelardi, sold the White House in 1998 to Meyer Muschel. A corporate attorney, Muschel managed to increase rents for the tenants. He also did the renovation that divided it into a permanent section for residents and a transient side run as a hostel.
Muschel sold the property in 2007 to Metro Sixteen Hotel for $7.8 million, although he stayed on as property manager. Metro Sixteen Hotel is owned by Sam Chang, who has made a fortune developing hotels for budget travelers. By 2009 Sam Chang owned hotels with a total of 4,000 rooms in New York City, including a 24-story Hilton Garden Inn and one building on 39th Street combining three chain hotels: a Hampton Inn, Candlewood Suites, and Holiday Inn Express.
The 2008 inclusion of 340 Bowery in the NoHo Historic District Extension came as a surprise, and one of Metro Sixteen's lawyers said that it would not have been purchased if there had been any idea it was about to be included in a historic district.
In 2009 most of the tenants owed at least two months' rent, and some hadn't paid since the 2007 purchase. The rents had gone up to $8.32 per night by then, adding up to about $250 per month or a little over $3,000 per year. One of the tenants, Roland Davies, has demanded improvements in the building and has filed 23 lawsuits against the owners while acting as his own attorney.
Meanwhile Chang's company had other problems. In 2009 the New York Attorney General accused a contractor with whom Chang had worked of paying non-union laborers based on skin color — $25/hour for white carpenters, $18/hour for blacks, and $15 for Latinos and Brazilians. In 2011 the company had to pay a fine for alleged price fixing.
In 2011 Chang's company proposed converting the property into a 10-story hotel, but the city denied that plan. In early 2014 a similar proposal for a 9-story hotel was also denied.
The deed was apparently transferred when the White House shut down its hostel operation in September 2014. At that point only nine permanent residents were left.
If you haven't guessed yet, I have stayed there several
times, always on the transient or hostel side of the house.
I first stayed there in 2005.
2005: 3 nights in April, 5 in May, and 4 in August;
2006: 4 nights in April and 8 in July;
2007: 5 nights in May, 11 in July— August, 3 in December;
2008: 5 nights in June;
2009: 8 nights in January—February, 4 in July;
2011: 6 nights in March, 8 in September, 3 in October—November;
2012: 8 nights in July, 5 in November;
2013: 5 nights in January and 4 in December.
99 nights overall, a total of 3 months plus a week. It was closed from September 2009 until January 2011. It closed down, apparently for good, in September 2014.
On the virtual tour below, you will see that the permanent residents were on the south side, the hostel on the north side. There was one staircase up from the lobby, the permanent resident side was to the left or south, the transient or hostel side to the right or north. Keys opened the locking doors leading from either side off the staircase.
A few times, however, the residential side door was propped open and we transients could peep in. Signs on the permanent resident side listed rules starting with Rule #1: No screaming, no fighting, no spitting.
Some older signs were left in place on the transient or hostel side, including the one seen below. It dates back to when people carried "bundles and valises" and at that time there were both day lodgers and night lodgers.
The floor plan above was posted in the wrong place, it was intended for room #358 on the permanent resident side. I photographed this in my room (or cubicle or cabin) on the transient or hostel side.
Rooms 301—339 are on the transient or hostel side,
rooms 351—369 are on the permanent resident side.
One night I was in Karpaty Bar or (or Карпаті Бар), a Ukrainian place on Second Avenue just south of 9th Street. Dave on the adjacent stool asked me where I lived. I said I wasn't from the area but I often stayed at a place called the White House.
He was startled to hear that, as he had stayed at the White House for four nights several years before "when it was all derelicts." He verified that the name signified that SRO segregation continued into the late 1980s and early 1990s. Black men weren't allowed to stay at the White House unless they were older. What were seen as "the young troublemakers" were sent across the street to the Paradise or further south along Bowery.Bucovina
Dave went on to casually mention how the Karpaty wasn't strictly Ukrainian but Carpathian, hence the name, and specifically related to the Bucovina area that spans southwestern Ukraine and northeastern Romania. He was familiar with Bucovina, as I was. So, just because someone stayed at the White House back in the day doesn't mean that they aren't well traveled and informed.
The Entry and the Lobby of the White House
Let's go in! The bright blue doors lead into the lobby.
The front desk was staffed 24 hours a day. The keys were attached to large metal rings going through sections of dowel rods about like broom handles. They weren't something you would put in your pocket and forget about. You always gave your name and room number to retrieve your key.
Here are three views looking into the lobby, and three views looking out from near the desk, over a range of years and seasons.
Once you had your keys, the door into the stairwell was near the front windows. The person at the desk pressed a button to let you through. Then you climbed one, two, or three floors.
On the second floor, rooms 203—245 were for transient hostel visitors, while 251—279 were for permanent residents.
Below we're looking out into the stairwell from the transient hostel visitors side, and then starting back downstairs to explore New York.
Now it's a matter of finding our room, or cubicle. The person at the desk will have told us which floor and to use the first key to go through the door on the right (and it wouldn't open the door on the left anyway). The second key will unlock our room, or cabin.
We will walk up and down the corridors to find our cubicle. We can see the wooden lattice material around and over the tops of the cubicles. Strings of small decorative lights provide adequate illumination at night.
Once you had stayed there, you knew to request a room in a particular area. Some people were bothered by street noise toward the front of the building, but I found it much nicer there than near the showers and toilets at the rear of the building! Without ceilings, the showers became noisy early and stayed that way into mid-morning.
In hot weather, the air conditioners were mostly at the front of the building. Give me a room toward the front and the street any time!
In the last picture above we're looking out the window to the north. The Bowery and Third Avenue join a few blocks north, that's the Chrysler Building visible some 38 blocks to the north.
Let's open the door of my cabin and go in. Most of the space is the bed, a foam mattress on a wooden shelf. That leaves plenty of storage space under the bed.
Each room has a deadbolt lock, you could hang the key ring on its knob. No electrical outlets, just a short fluorescent tube if you wanted light.
Some floors were painted with light green walls, others with white. Blue doors everywhere as if you were in the Greek islands.
This was all shared, the same as it was in all but the more luxurious hotels at least through the first third of the 20th century. Some sinks and toilet stalls appear in the first picture, and a door into a shower in the second picture below.
There were actual marble panels dividing some of the toilet stalls. One or two floors had some original urinals, put in when urinals were enormous floor-mounted units.
The partial remains of an electric motor dating back to the early 1900s have been embedded in untold coats of white paint. This would once have powered a ventilation fan mounted in this street-side window.
CBGB & OMFUG was a music club on Bowery facing the end of Bleeker Street, just a block and a half down Bowery from the White House. The club opened in 1973, hosting bands playing a variety of music. The name stands for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers. The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, the Talking Heads, and other acts are associated with it. The Police played their first U.S. shows here, and the B-52's, Joan Jett, and other big names played here.
The last show was on October 15, 2006, after a legal battle over rent.
The short-lived Morrison Hotel art gallery was next door briefly. Now fashion designer John Varvatos has a store in the CBGB location, and a Patagonia clothing store is next door.
In the first picture below, we're looking out through the White House's fire escape in April of 2006. The Salvation Army mission is still there on the northeast corner of Bowery and 3rd Street. A demolition–construction project is underway across Bowery.
By November 2012, the Bowery Hotel and its Gemma restaurant had opened directly across Bowery from the White House.
Rooms at the Bowery Hotel are listed at $345 per night and up, so over ten times the per-cabin nightly rate on the hostel side of the White House, and more than 41 times the residential rate. The restaurant's menu includes antipasti from $8–15, insalati from $9–13, pasta from $15–21, secondi from $22–29, and cocktails starting at $11.
In the summer of 2015 the Salvation Army mission had been demolished and a 13-story building with condos above ground-floor retail was under construction.3rd Street
The 3rd Street Men's Mission was still operating just behind the Bowery Hotel on 3rd Street. In 1991 Project Renewal converted the location from a place where up to 2,000 men were once actively using and selling drugs into a program housing 200 otherwise homeless men.
White House Shuts Down in September 2009
I had made a reservation to stay at the White House starting in late October 2009. A few weeks before I received an email from them saying that they were temporarily closed and my reservation was cancelled.
I found another place to stay, and I stopped by while I
was in the city.
IMMINENTLY PERILOUS TO LIFE
notices on the windows, dated 09/18/09 from the
New York Building Commission.
Most of the keys were taken down from the board behind the desk
but the permanent residents were still there.
The girl at the desk was hopeful that they would re-open,
or maybe open in a different location, and said that they
would send me email when they figured out what would happen.
Things were the same when I was back in the city in March and September 2010.
White House Reopens in January, 2011
In February 2011 I received email from the White House saying they had reopened in January after over $100,000 in improvements and renovations. I made a reservation and was back there in March. For one thing, the wooden lattices had been replaced with irregularly spaced metal channels.
Sir Shadow Sir Shadow's
Among other renovations, every room had custom original single-line artwork by Sir Shadow, a resident of the White House. Quincy Jones, Isaac Hayes, Oprah Winfry, and others have purchased his works.
I don't think any of them stayed at the White House, though. I certainly haven't run into any of them in the mornings at the shared sinks.
Larger pieces line the corridors. Some of the floors were given a bright green and orange color scheme.
White House Shuts Down September, 2014
The White House shut down with little to no notice in September, 2014. This time seems to be the final shutdown. Almost a year later there were a few permanent residents in place but the end was near.
in New York
The last of the SROs are closing and missions are moving out. The building at left in the picture below was the Prince Hotel, a few blocks south of the White House at 220 Bowery. It opened as the Prince Hotel in 1927. In the 1940s it was converted into an SRO to pack in soldiers being processed out of the military after being brought to New York City in troopships.
Now it's the Bowery House, an SRO turned budget hotel. You can stay in one of their 1940s design cabins for about $60–90 per night. The building to its right is the former YMCA including "The Bunker", a windowless former locker room in which William S. Burroughs lived from 1974 until 1981.
Across the Bowery from those two buildings is the Bowery Mission, which was founded further south into Chinatown in 1879. It was the third rescue mission established in the U.S. and the second in New York City. It moved to its current location at 227-229 Bowery in 1908-1909. These are the two brick buildings at the center of the first picture below, and toward the left in the second picture. The five-story building at 227 Bowery had been built in 1876 for an undertaker and coffin manufacturer, it was modified when the Mission moved in. They were then able to expand into the adjacent three-story building at 229.
The Salvation Army had a location next to the Bowery Mission at 225 Bowery. Ace Hotels bought that location for $30 million in March 2014 as the Salvation Army moved that branch to Brooklyn.
I stayed at the Bowery House for the first time in May, 2016. Let's go in. Reception is on the third floor, there are cabins on the second, third, and fourth.
We have our key, let's find our cabin. The hallways are dark even during the days.
Here it is. The cabins are a little larger than those at the Whitehouse. They also have electrical outlets. That's a nice upgrade from the White House, where you had to leave your electronics down at the front desk for charging.
You are provided with a hand towel and a bathtowel. You are also given a bottle of water and a pair of small foam earplugs.
Each room has Bowery-specific artwork — old photographs or paintings of the Bowery, a photograph of The Ramones in front of CBGB, or a related movie poster like Bela Lugosi's Bowery at Midnight.
The roof top is open, with nice views up and down Bowery. In the first picture below we're looking north, past the Bowery Mission and the New Museum.
In the second picture above we're looking south along Bowery.
There are lounge areas on the second and third floor, but since we're in New York and there is so much to do, not many people hang around here.
In 2016 there were still three or four permanent residents who had been living there since the 1970s. You might meet one of them here.
After a long day in New York, let's go up to the roof again. In the first picture below, looking north, you can see the Chrysler Building in the distance. It's the building with the white pointed top.
Other Former SROs Operating as Hotels
Further south on Bowery are the New World Hotel at 101 Bowery and the Bowery Grand Hotel at 143 Bowery.
One of the staff at the Bowery House told me that they have had a few guests who started their stay in New York at one of these two, and found that a move to the Bowery House was a significant upgrade.
The Barbizon Hotel for Women was built in 1927 at 140 East 63rd Street, where it crosses Lexington Avenue. It's a 23-story structure with a steel frame supporting concrete walls, covered in brick with limestone and terra cotta decoration.
It was a residential hotel for women intended to provide a "safe refuge" for its occupants. It had very small private rooms with shared facilities, at least conceptually like the men's SROs. Dress and conduct codes were strictly enforced, and men were not allowed above the first floor. It had a swimming pool, Turkish baths, a sun deck, squash and badmiton courts, a solarium and roof garden, a beauty parlor, and a coffee shop.
Residents included Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Candice Bergen, Ali MacGraw, Cybill Shepherd, and Jaclyn Smith. Sylvia Plath lived there, and it featured prominently in The Bell Jar.
SROs in Chicago
The Covent Hotel is at 2653 North Clark Street in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. As of April 2016, it was still in operation with some occupants, as you can see in the second and third pictures below.
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