The Whitehouse Hotel hasn’t been open since September 3, although a paper sign hanging in the window of the front door says the closure is only temporary. The end was so quick and unceremonious that even the hotel’s own website is still happily inviting prospective guests to billet at “the most affordable hostel with private accommodations in NYC.” Single rooms are on offer at rates as low as $30 a night. That is, until a look at the reservations calendar reveals consecutive dates colored in red for “unavailable” that stretch on to the end of 2015.
There’s no apparent construction underway but eerily, I see people inside the building every time I walk by. In September, its blue door hung ajar, as if the hotel was open for business. Inside, a group of men chatted away on the lobby’s chessboard floor. Two months later, I found the door locked, but a glimpse through its glass windows showed a man sitting at the counter, still, almost like a piece of furniture. All attempts to get more information beyond what city records hold, failed.
It had been my impression that such levels of secrecy and intrigue were the sole province of government agencies and movie studios, not for a place like the Whitehouse Hotel, a building scrawled in graffiti next to a Subway sandwich shop.
As a neighborhood denizen, it’s hard not to wonder about the future of the Whitehouse, and so I did. New York City’s Department of Buildings reveals little information. In April, Michael Lisowski of Otte Architecture filed an application to convert the building from a four-story single room occupancy, or SRO, dwelling into a nine-story hotel. The application was denied pending a zoning approval challenge. So far, contact with the current owners has yielded no information about upcoming plans.
New Yorkers are accustomed to constant opening and closing of places of business, but it always takes on more poignance when the place is considered a neighborhood institution. It even warranted landmark status when it was included in the NoHo Historic District Extension.
So many recent changes on the Bowery give off that end-of-an-era scent, but the hotel’s closure may truly warrant the cliché. Even as its fellow neighborhood flophouses have closed down, the Whitehouse Hotel – labeled as “the safest and most genial of all the hotels on the Bowery today” in David Isay’s 2000 book, Flophouse – remained defiantly open.
The Sunshine Hotel? It’s now the Bowery Diner, although even that is pegged to a website that announces it’s been closed for renovations. The Prince Hotel is now Bowery House, which one of its owners once described as somewhere between a hotel and a hostel. The Andrews House, perhaps most true to its former self, is currently transitional housing operated by the nonprofit Common Ground.
If history is any indicator, this end to the building’s most recent iteration won’t be the last. Before the Whitehouse was the Whitehouse, the building at 340 Bowery, over the course of two centuries, had at least nine previous lives.
In 1825, it was home to a tavern where members of the New York Pigeon Club met. In 1874, it housed Blooms, a dry goods store owned by a pair of brothers. Six years later, the building served as the location for a dime museum. The New York Sun reported that Emil Kronner, who ran the museum, was once arrested for “giving a sacrilegious performance… after losing two freaks.”
Since at least 1899, it’s been a flophouse, first named the Bellevue Hotel and then, since at least 1916, the Whitehouse.
Whatever the name, 340 Bowery has long evoked visions of the troubled and the down-and-out, a place the Buffalo Courier-Express described in 1954 as “a hotel for derelicts.” Decades earlier, in 1899, a music hall singer named Irene Adler swigged poison in front of the doors of the lodging house because her lover, a boarder, had left her. And a year before that, Eddie Marx, a nine-year-old boy who lived in the building, tried to burn down a neighbor’s house. “He’s a terror of that part of the Bowery,” said Frank Kogler, the owner of the home that Eddie tried to incinerate. “They had to put him out of school and he has been in any number of scrapes. He’s up to all sorts of devilry.”
This was hardly unique at the Whitehouse, of course. The history of the Bowery has been written, painted and shouted many times before: its beginnings as a jovial neighborhood in the mid-nineteenth century, stocked with restaurants, businesses and theaters, followed by a quick decline after the Civil War, with the mass arrival of thousands of unemployed veterans and the completion of the Third Avenue railway. Well-to-do residents moved out, and brothels, flophouses and missions moved in. The 2008 NoHo Extension Report recalls that by 1907, the area’s SRO houses and missions provided refuge for 25,000 men on any given night. At its peak, the 14-block district swelled to a nightly population of 75,000.
So, by 1916, to own a lodging house made good financial sense. As investments go, lodging houses hardly had the potential to be money-making machines, but there was never a shortage of guests. At around that time, the flophouse fell into the hands of Eusebio Ghelardi, an Italian immigrant who had once worked as an inspector for the city’s civil engineering force. The NoHo report mentions a rumor that the boarding house got its name from its whites-only clientele.
Immediately, Ghelardi set out to expand the facility. In 1905, the Census recorder tabulated 70 men who lived at the address, all of whom were noted as white. In 1929, Ghelardi added space on the adjacent property, at No. 338.
By 1950, there were 234 cubicles in the building, all constructed in the manner of other city lodging houses: what were known as hall rooms, about four feet wide by six feet long with walls that didn’t extend entirely to the ceiling but with chicken wire protection fastened to the open space, partly to discourage neighbors from scaling the dividers to hop into an adjoining space and partly to ensure access to sprinklers in case of a fire.
The Whitehouse Hotel was a family business. Building documents contain many references to the various Ghelardis involved in its ownership. Cardona Ghelardi, probably Eusebio’s brother based on later accounts, filed a 1929 building permit; Anthony Ghelardi, Cardona’s son, filed an alteration application the previous year. In 1938, Stella Ghelardi, Eusebio’s wife, transferred ownership of the property to Roerb Realty, the president of which was Sylvia Ghelardi, Eusebio’s daughter.
The Ghelardis were able to do fairly well. Shortly after buying the Whitehouse Hotel, Eusebio bought a five-story tenement. In 1940, the Census recorder documented that Eusebio earned $5,000 in real estate during the previous year, the equivalent of about $85,400 in 2014. Sylvia earned $1,500 the same year, about $25,600 in 2014 money.
As long as denizens of the Bowery were down on their luck, establishments in the district, including the Whitehouse Hotel, fared reasonably well. Especially in the aftermath of the country’s wars, the Bowery’s population would balloon. But the cycle broke after World War II. The country became prosperous, and the G.I. Bill opened up educational and economic opportunities for veterans. What was good news for most of the United States prompted a slow death for the Bowery. By 1949, the district’s population shrank to 15,000. Unlike other New York areas, the Bowery’s gentrification has been 70 years in the making.
Somehow, though — even as the tattoo parlors, barber shops and missions gave way to restaurants and luxury hotels — the decidedly unluxurious Whitehouse Hotel survived.
It wasn’t just the G.I. Bill that brought down the Bowery, of course. Locally, well-intentioned people who were outraged about inhumane conditions sought to reform the housing market. Beginning in 1955, the city passed various housing regulations resulting in a shrinking number of SROs. And then, of course, just like everywhere else in New York, the real estate market boomed. By 1966, there were only about 5,000 indigents who still called the Bowery home.
Throughout, the Whitehouse remained in the hands of the Ghelardi family, although records show that it was a strain to do so for Mike Ghelardi, who took over for an uncle in 1980. By 1996, Ghelardi was forced to moonlight as a limousine driver, buying lottery tickets in the hopes that a windfall would help keep the SRO afloat. “I came here to serve the poor and to serve God,” Ghelardi said in David Isay’s book. “But when you’re dealing with people who have nothing, a big percentage will try to take from you.”
Compounding the pressure of the residents inside was a 1996 court decision on the outside. It included lodging houses within city rent regulations. A 1996 New York Times column argued that the decision made it difficult for landlords to evict SRO residents, because they could string out court cases for months.
So, in 1998, Mike Ghelardi became the last Ghelardi affiliated with the Whitehouse Hotel. Although he admitted that owning the hotel had made him cynical, he said he’d miss most of the residents and was disappointed to be the family member who had to sell.
The Whitehouse Hotel’s new owner was Meyer Muschel. Like Ghelardi, Muschel was religious; he was the president of a Jewish synagogue on the Upper West Side, the Congregation Ohab Zedek. Unlike Ghelardi, he’d been a corporate attorney.
Tenant advocates wanted Muschel to guarantee low rents for the long-term, but Muschel refused. He finally prevailed, and was able to remodel his investment. As the number of permanent residents dwindled, Muschel began offering rooms to young backpackers, hoping that tourists would offset the cost involved in housing the long-term tenants. By 2002, the flophouse wasn’t yet profitable (Muschel estimated to John Tierney of the New York Times that he lost $200,000 the year before) but the owner said he expected it to get in the black soon.
Jim Provost, a lawyer at Legal Services NYC, a legal assistance firm for low-income New Yorkers, painted a grimmer portrait of Muschel’s tenure at the Whitehouse Hotel. “I’m much more familiar with Meyer than I’d like to be,” Provost said during a telephone call. (Muschel at first agreed to talk to me but then did not respond to subsequent messages.)
Provost worked on SRO cases for a decade, although he no longer does. His hope was to force landlords into making repairs. Tenants at the flophouse have brought cases against the building’s management through New York City’s Legal Services division. For much of Provost’s time with LSNYC, management of the Whitehouse was Muschel. Though Provost couldn’t detail specific cases, he said that the majority of tenants the firm represented complained about issues such as bedbugs and fire safety violations, like the painting over of sprinklers or the erection of lattices that blocked them.
The plan to open up the boarding house to tourists also came over the objections of some of the tenants. Provost explained that the conjoining of the two buildings created a wide, expanded lobby area but the two upper floors, where people lived and stayed, were never connected. So, to get from the 338 side of, say, the third floor to the 340 side meant that people needed to walk down three stories, traverse the lobby, and climb three stories once again.
Provost didn’t explain the building’s idiosyncrasy. The building documents at 31 Chambers don’t even allude to it, so it’s impossible to ascertain why the Ghelardis maintained the separation. Nevertheless, to hear Provost tell it, Muschel wanted to exploit it – keeping one side exclusively for tourists, and the other for permanent residents. But residents with cubicles in what would become the tourist side fought the move. In the end, the tourists arrived anyway.
For some permanent residents, the change brought on a feeling that they were like zoo animals for tourists to gawk at. But others relished the opportunity to give backpackers directions and tips about how to explore the area.
Regardless, the experiment within the boarding house eventually proved to be too much for Muschel, who had been threatened and assaulted in his early days at the Whitehouse. In 2007, he sold the establishment to Metro Sixteen Hotel LLC for $7.8 million, though he stayed on to manage the property.
Hotel developer Sam Chang owns Metro Sixteen Hotel, as well as other companies, and has made his fortune targeting the budget traveler. In 2006, he became the first Asian-American to build a high-rise hotel in Manhattan: his Hilton Garden Inn, built in 2006, rises 24 stories. In 2009, he opened Gotham’s first “three-pack”: three hotels that share a building. Hampton Inn, Candlewood Suites and Holiday Inn Express all share an address on 39th Street. At the time, the Times reported that his hotel empire included 4,000 rooms in New York City.
But the Whitehouse Hotel has proved to be a snag in the hotelier’s portfolio. Patrick Jones, a lawyer for Metro Sixteen, said to the Times in 2009 that most tenants owed at least two months’ rent, with some paying no rent since at least the time of the building’s purchase. One tenant, Roland Davis, has filed 23 lawsuits against the hotel since 2009, arguing that the management ignores his complaints and wants to evict him. Jones also said the building’s inclusion as a landmark was a surprise to its new owners. “If there was an inkling that this was going to be placed in a historic district, the owners wouldn’t have purchased it,” he said at the time. That year, the developers applied to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, requesting permission under the hardship provision to develop the property.
The Whitehouse Hotel was certainly not Sam Chang’s only hardship. In 2009, the New York Attorney General accused a contractor with whom Chang had previously worked of paying laborers on a sliding scale based on skin color: white carpenters were paid $25 per hour, black carpenters were paid $18 and Latino and Brazilians were given $15. Union carpenters were paid $44 an hour.
In 2011, Chang’s companies needed to pay a fine for alleged price fixing, though they never admitted any wrongdoing. Shortly after the Whitehouse Hotel’s closure, a construction worker on a site turning a parking lot into a hotel was crushed to death by a slab of concrete. Construction was suspended.
The Whitehouse Hotel’s website proclaims that the hotel reopened in 2011 after renovations totaling $100,000. Later that year, the hotel planned to open a fitness studio, though it’s not clear whether that ever came to be. In 2011, the city shot down the company’s proposal to convert the boarding house into a 10-story hotel. A subsequent proposal from earlier this year to make the hotel nine stories was rejected too.
Regardless, Metro Sixteen’s problems with the Whitehouse Hotel may soon come to an end. In May, reports surfaced that the hotel was in contract with a buyer for $12 million.
For months, it had been frustrating to get answers about what was happening in the White House in the present-day. I reached out to people whose names studded the SRO’s documents furnished by the Department of Buildings website, but I received either silence or comments about how they couldn’t speak on the subject since they weren’t the owner.
Finally, I called Metro Sixteen. When I tried to explain why I was calling, the cheerful man on the other line soured, abruptly saying that the company had sold the hotel. Before I could ask my follow-up questions (when and to whom?), he hung up on me.
This stunned me, because none of the documents I had seen up until that point from city bureaus indicated that this mysterious sale had occurred. Finally, I found a deed that recorded the transfer of ownership: on September 4, the day after the building closed to outsiders, Metro Sixteen Hotel LLC transferred its deed to the White House — to Metro Sixteen Hotel LLC care of the Renatus Group, which describes itself on the company website as a firm that acquires real-estate loans. PropertyShark states that the transfer was set to the tune of $8.2 million.
It may indeed mean yet another sad metamorphosis for yet another time-honored Bowery institution. And while it’s easy to lament that the Bowery has turned into something unrecognizable to those who knew it when, the charm of poverty and grime has a way of wearing thin.
Even still, that doesn’t mean its advocates or tenants will give up without a fight. In September 15, a court ruled that the building’s ownership and management could not receive an injunction against Ronald Davis, the tenant who’s filed nearly two dozen lawsuits against them. The ruling noted that there were nine tenants left.
Still, they appear isolated, frozen in the building that time has forgotten. In early December, I hoped to obtain some answers from the person who staffed the front desk. The door was locked, of course, but a tap at the window of the front door prompted the man to cross the wide lobby and open the door to speak with me. He politely said he couldn’t answer any of my questions, since he’d only started working at the desk after the building’s closure; perhaps the man who worked in the mornings, who had been employed there for a longer period of time, could help me.
But when I returned the next day, there was no one at the lobby’s front desk. Maybe he or she had taken a break, but it was too cold to wait. An illuminated light bulb provided the only clue that anyone had been there at all.