[I]n 1883, the Albert Hotel opened on the southeast corner of 11th Street and University Place. This was a new building designed by up-and-coming architect Henry Hardenbergh, who was simultaneously working on his famous Dakota apartment house at 72nd Street and Central Park West. Hardenbergh chose bright red brick and white stone for the Albert's facades, to which he deftly added rounded balconies intermingling with squared ones, iron balconies intermingling with stone balustrades, and fanciful ornamentation. Delicately carved shells and leaves, pendants and cartouches, Corinthian colonnettes and geometrical forms, and even a few neo-Gothic monster masks were applied with the mastery of composition that brought him fame. It was--and is--a wonderful addition to the neighborhood.
[UPDATE 8/12/2011: William Ryder was actually the hotel's manager, not owner...and the name Albert comes from the original owner/investor, Albert S. Rosenbaum, not Albert Ryder. All this and much more is revealed at the fabulous Hotel Albert site, truly the last word on Albert Hotel history--which wasn't yet online at the time I was writing this piece! See more in my note at the end.]
The place must have done pretty good business for a few decades there, as it was solvent enough to undergo two expansions. A 12-story Beaux-Arts addition just south of the building (at 65-67 University Place) was opened in 1905, and a 6-story neo-Georgian annex south of that (at 23 E. 10th Street, or 63 University Place) was opened in 1923. Some notable guests, residents, and/or visitors included P.T. Barnum, General George McClellan, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Leo Tolstoy, and Thomas Wolfe. You can see part of the 10th Street building and the south side of the 12-story addition in this mid-1940s home movie (starting around the 8:31 mark). Speaking of movies, the Albert is apparently also mentioned as a pivotal plot device in Rear Window.
Considering its largely literary clientele, I suppose the Albert must have had a long reputation as an artist's haven. But at some indeterminate mid-century point, its stature seems to have slid from a bastion of genteel bohemia into a full-blown down and dirty dump. Al Hansen, father of Warholite Bibbe Hansen and grandfather of Beck, sets the hotel's '60s scene well in this 1984 article on the Andy Warhol shooting:
Also in the 1880's there was a family in Lower Manhattan who owned a lot of hotels. Each hotel was named after a son. Albert Pinkham Ryder, a famous painter, had the good fortune to be born to them and not many of the crazy artists in the HOTEL ALBERT realize it is named after him. Artists, writers, filmers and rock groups on the way up stay at the CHELSEA HOTEL on West 23rd Street. The damaged and the losers on the way down stay at the ALBERT HOTEL on University Place in the Village. Chelsea is uppers; the Albert is downers. Coke in the penthouse; smack in the ghetto. I live a yo-yo life. After a few economic disasters I had to move to the Albert with my main woman Valerie Herouvis...Some people got so fucked up the "Albert" is on the way UP for them. Einstein wasn't kidding when he thought up the theory of relativity. We never could have had the Twentieth Century without it.
In a recent post on thegearspot.net, a pal of Mike Bloomfield sums up the Albert's particular appeal to musicians thusly:
There was a flea bag hotel called the Albert Hotel on 11th Street where many of the rock musicians touring in New York would stay at because it was really cheap, and also because the hotel management would let bands rehearse in the basement. There used to be all night jam sessions at the Albert after the clubs in Greenwich Village closed.
Whether management charged extra for basement rehearsal privileges is unclear--but so many cash-strapped rockers and folkniks took advantage of the facilities that they may well have been included in the daily room rate as a basic amenity. Of course, this underground lair was decidedly not the "best of cellars," as it lacked even the barest creature comforts typical of your modern rehearsal space. Since thee most famed denizens of that den of musiquity were the Lovin' Spoonful, let's visit some Lovin' Albert lore. Here's how Steve Boone remembers it, from the website of the Spoons' current incarnation:
In the winter of of '65 we played our first gig at Joe Mara's Night Owl Cafe on West 3rd St in Greenwich Village and were told by Mr. Mara to go back and practice some more and come back and he would give us another chance. Well that was some good advice. Practice we did at the Albert Hotel on W. 10th St. in the basement alongside the laundry room, the trash chute, the cockroaches and oh yeah the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Apparently the Spoons and the Butterfields hung out and talked plenty of shop during this time, and Mike Bloomfield came to admire John Sebastian's '59 sunburst Les Paul Standard so much he eventually had to get one for himself. (The Albert would also later play a role in the formation of the Electric Flag.) I'm wondering how Sebastian was able to afford such a nice axe (which he may not have used that much anyway--didn't he usually play the autoharp onstage?) when the Spoons were living a rather hand-to-mouth existence at the Albert, if Joe Butler's quote in the Do You Believe in Magic? reissue's liner notes is to be believed:
"The first time I met Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot we would up in bed together," Butler chuckles. "It had nothing to do with sex--we were cold, staying up all night in a room at the Albert Hotel, huddled together watching TV movies, trying to keep warm. The woman who was the night manager loved Denny, and whenever the bills would pile up, we'd send him down to pitch a little woo in her direction. She'd tear up our bills and we could stay another week. We didn't have a nickel. We were literally going around scrounging for pop bottles to return to get some money." At one point most of the band plus their equipment wound up crashing in one room belonging to a woman named Butchie, immortalized in "Butchie's Tune" on the Daydream album.
Speaking of Denny and Cass, Denny Doherty's site features a humorous history of the Mamas and the Papas, in which the Albert is mentioned several times. NY Songlines says John Phillips wrote "California Dreaming" at the Albert, but most accounts I've found say it was written at the Earle (now the Washington Square). But getting back to the Spoons...the original liner notes to the Do You Believe in Magic? LP paint an even less luxurious picture of the Albert's subterranean squalor:
Firmly they retreated to the basement of the Albert Hotel. Each day they would take the freight elevator down, the electric stuff filling a laundry cart. They had to cross an enormous black pool every day in the basement, which was full of water bugs, centipedes, and sightless fish. Ancient flakes would be vibrated loose from everything and a soft rain of plaster covered The Lovin' Spoonful like dandruff. They started wearing different funny hats to keep their hair clean. The lower echelons of the hotel staff cheered them on neglecting all work for a period of days, then the boss cracked. After two months they emerged, pale and blinking, and marched on the Night Owl. Their new professionalism so impressed the owner that he cheerfully rehired them for an indefinite period of time and at his own expense had printed up 1000 balloons saying "I LOVE YOU - THE LOVIN' SPOONFUL." "It had to happen," said John.
This description of the basement's ecosystem, from an article on Tom Pacheco, is not for the squeamish either. Pacheco lived at the Albert for a spell while his band the Ragamuffins did a residency at the Night Owl, alongside the Lost Sea and the Flying Machine.
Tom lived for a while with [band member] Sharon Alexander at the Albert Hotel. He liked to do his songwriting all night (and still does). Because he didn't want to wake Sharon up, he'd ride the old freight elevator to the basement. He had to squeeze through tight crawl spaces to a center room where he would write until 6am. Huge cockroaches by the thousands inhabited the basement, making his passage there more than uncomfortable. They'd scatter when he turned the light on. [The author knows from personal experience, the way they also drop from overhead--are we squirming yet?] Now, that's dedication.
The aforementioned Flying Machine included James Taylor, who has offered his memories of the Albert in such fine publications Billboard and Mojo:
"Zack and I lived in the Albert Hotel in Greenwich Village on a floor that was burned out except for this one room," recalls Taylor. "Getting to the room was a little smoky, a charred experience, but the room itself. . .wasn't great either, haha. Yet the rodent and cockroach population had at least been discouraged by the fire. We rehearsed in the basement of the Albert, and shortly thereafter we became the house band at the Night Owl Cafe on West Third Street off MacDougal, doing three, four sets a night in between stands by Turtles and Lothar And The Hand People. Things were going OK until we made the mistake of trying to cut a record in 1966..."
The Mothers of Invention bunked at the Albert several times, and there are a couple of surreal and sexy anecdotes about their stays in Google Books. In a 1989 Q Magazine interview, Zappa mentioned the Albert during a discussion on drummer Billy Mundi's decision to decamp for Rhinoceros in '69: "I don't blame Billy for taking the job, because at that time we were so poor he was living in the Albert Hotel and he couldn't get enough to eat—he used to come in and tell us how he'd quell his appetite by drinking the hot water in the shower in the Albert Hotel, which could be a life endangering experience. When somebody comes up to you and says, you're going to get something to eat, and not only that, you'll be in a super-group called Rhinoceros, I couldn't even advise him to stick around."
Numerous garageniks and psychsters, both local and touring, found the Albert's accommodations to be among the few in town that fell within their budget. Here are some references I've found via various sites and online fanzines.
The Blues Magoos (from an interview with Ralph Scala): "We were playing for food, friendship and a place to play. Eight bucks a night a piece, ten bucks a night a piece...You put all your money together and we're crashing Hotel Albert. So, that's all you do. And then, when you really get desperate and starving, we'd take a day or two off and go back to our parents house and crash." Some legends have it that the Magoos committed one of the the earliest known hotel-window TV chuckings at the Albert in '66.
The Sopwith Camel: "While staying in "the Village," they played the Night Owl Cafe, stayed at the Albert Hotel and toured the East Coast with the Lovin' Spoonful."
The Shadows of Knight (interview with Jim Sohns): "We were staying at the Albert Hotel in New York where most of the bands stayed. After that, I met Janis Joplin wandering through the hallways. She had no room or place to stay. I bopped her. But, I don't feel like The Lone Ranger. She was pretty attainable there for a while."
The Random Concept. From an interview with Garry Higgins: "It was basically a music hotel and they allowed us to rehearse in the basement. I don’t know about everybody but several bands were there for a while…they rented rooms as well, and they had suites. I know that there were some [bands] that came to town and would rehearse while they were in town, I’m not sure about other folks. I think we lived there for about 6 months or so. We were centered there and we would go play wherever we could play." Member Simeon Cox, who would eventually go on to form the Silver Apples, recalls: "We decided that maybe it was time to try our luck in New York--the scary Big Apple--so we contacted a booking agent named Max and drove down to the Albert Hotel on 10th Street and rented 3 rooms by the week. A five piece band, plus girlfriends, roadies and other hanger-ons made for a constant party on the 7th floor of the Albert Hotel. Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention were also staying there as were a group from the midwest called Ill Wind, a coffee house band called The Lovin' Spoonful, and Mike Bloomfield and his guys. It was an active hotel. They let groups rehearse in a room in the basement and we all got to know each other because of that--using each other's equipment and so forth."
The Birth of Spring, a short-lived group featuring former Left Banke guitarist Jeff Winfield and Banke associates Alan Wauters and future Arrow Alan Merrill. No juicy anecdotes to speak of, but here are the only interior photos of the Albert that I've managed to find (Wauters in the first, Winfield in the second), courtesy of the leftbankism yahoogroup and leftbanke.nu.
Truth (Dallas band, including members of the Briks and Kenny and the Kasuals. From an interview with guitarist Richard Borgens): "The most memorable time with Truth was part of a summer spent in New York City playing clubs in Manhattan like Scott Muni’s Rolling Stone Club. Being naïve, we decided we wanted to stay at a musician hotel in the village. So we all had a big room in this absolute dump, The Albert Hotel, where some of The Lovin’ Spoonful and Tim Buckley were to have lived. Right across the street was a gay bar called The Stirrup 77. So in I went thinking I had found a little piece of the southwest in The Village of all places…not knowing anything about cowboy “code” in those early days of the gay scene in New York City. My! Everyone was really nice to me, buying me cigarettes and beer, and me with my long red hair, cowboy boots, and fringe jacket. Being basically clueless, it took me a while to figure out there were no girls in the bar. Talk about a panicked, yet measured, departure." [I have a feeling Kenny & the Kasuals might have stayed there during their earlier visit as well.]
Kaleidoscope (interview with Chris Darrow): "We were all huddled into two rooms in the Albert Hotel in Greenwich Village. Some of us had women, there were instruments everywhere - it was awful. To go from living in the middle of a sunny litle lemon grove in California to being marooned in the middle of New York at the beginning of winter just shook me to pieces."
Clear Light: "The group is met by Danny Fields, who checks the musicians into Albert’s Hotel. The band initially plays at Steve Paul’s Scene East in the Delmonico Hotel but on the first night Schuckett lambasts the crowd for not paying attention to the group’s performance and it is fired. The next day, Steve Paul places the group at his main club, The Scene." From their official page: "In December they then embarked on a tour of the East Coast, playing at the Boston Tea party before arriving in New York, where they stayed at the Albert Hotel, a notorious hang out popular with many visiting rock groups and a focus for the groupies that followed them." And from an interview with Dallas Taylor: "We all lived in one room of the Albert Hotel. Our road manager Lee Housekeeper would run across the street at 4:00 am to the corner deli after the delivery truck would carelessly leave the morning pastries right out in the open for Lee to steal. We actually 'ate cake' to keep from starving."
Moby Grape stayed at the Albert while working on their second album, and unfortunately their home away from home was the site of Skip Spence's ultimate freak-out, an axe-wielding horror story after which he was never the same. Read about it elsewhere, it's too heartbreaking for me to quote here.
Since I want to conclude this band list on a positive note, I'll leave you with a link to the most amusing Albert anecdote I've found to date, from Richard X. Heyman's memoirs, Boom Harangue. It's a bit lengthy to quote here, but let's just say it involves Tampax and Townshend in equal measure.
Speaking of...the man who first turned Townshend on to the blues and the demon weed, Tom Wright, lived at the Albert for a while, sharing the "presidential suite" with the Blues Magoos' drummer. He writes evocatively of his time there in his memoirs, Roadwork: Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out (New York: Hal Leonard, 2007). I'll poach a few good quotes here:
[The] Albert Hotel was a secret. Muddy Waters could tell you about it. Bob Dylan could tell you about it. The Moby Grape could make a mini-series on it...[It was] about thirty blocks from classy hotels and about ten blocks from the really shitty ones. The Albert was about fifty years past her prime; at one time posh, when I got there it was rundown and cheap. It had roughly twenty floors and didn't really look that bad from the outside, all granite and stone. It was the seedy characters wandering the sidewalk that gave it away. Bob Dylan used to practice there, but when I lived there in 1968, after I'd road-managed the Who's first headlining U.S. tour, it was folk rock singer Tim Hardin in the basement. But mostly it was Moby Grape...[A]t night, if you got real quiet at your place and lay down, you could hear them in the basement. And nine times out of ten it'd be great...Since the Albert was in the gray area, it was hard to book. No wandering family of tourists would ever just stroll by, and it was too expensive for bums and people who were actually broke for real. So the management let rooms to selected renegades--certain musicians, hookers (if they were beautiful and discreet), drug salesmen, artists, gangsters.
In the interest of shedding some light on the Albert's camp element, here's a link to the memories of a pre-Stonewall transsexual who stayed there, and here's a link to a front-page 7/31/69 Voice article on Jackie Curtis' "wedding that wasn't" at the hotel. [Speaking of local newspapers, apparently The Villager had office space on the Albert's ground floor during the '70s.] And the Cockettes stayed there during the run of their show at the Anderson Theater. I remember seeing some footage of the place in the Cockettes documentary, and "Sweet" Pam Tent wrote quite a bit about it in Midnight at the Palace: My Life as a Fabulous Cockette (Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 2004). Here is her initial impression:
The lobby of the Albert was about as inviting as any low-end residential hotel, only the walls were painted an institutional green and covered with signed photographs of traveling celebrities who had graced the rooms of the once-renowned "rock star hotel." Having seen a number of better days, the images of entertainers--including Buffalo Springfield, the Youngbloods, and the Turtles--hung unceremoniously on the cracked walls. A trio of elderly residents stood in attendance for our arrival, and the air was stale with the smell of old carpet, disinfectant, and boiled potatoes. The Albert had become a derelict hotel with a history of drugs and debauchery. It was now due for yet another chapter. We got our first hint of things to come as we dragged our bags into the creaky elevator cage to go up to our "suites"...The bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, the old stained wallpaper, and the cracked bathroom tile looked hellish compared to the fantasyland we'd built for ourselves on the West Coast.
By then, and for the rest of the decade, the Albert had joined the ranks of the Greenwich, the Broadway Central, the Earle, and the Marlton as one of the Village's notorious SRO's. But in 1985, it was completely renovated and converted into a cooperative apartment building--presumably with a comprehensive pest control program in place, and with no woodshedding allowed in its nether regions.
UPDATE 10/17/2010: I just finished reading Eddi Fiegel's Dream a Little Dream of Me: The Life of "Mama" Cass Elliot (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 2005), and found a few more more Albert Hotel details therein. The Mugwumps initially based themselves in Washington, D.C., but when their manager booked them for an engagement at the Peppermint Lounge, they relocated to New York to maximize their music biz opportunities.
Piling their belongings into the Buick, they headed back to New York, this time to the Albert Hotel, one of the most widely used rock 'n roll lodgings at the time. Situated just off Washington Square in the heart of the Village, the Albert was an old grande dame of a fin de siecle building, complete with ballroom and grand staircase, which had now become somewhat grouchy with old age. In contrast to the earlier comfort of her apartment in Gramercy Park, Cass now had to make do, like the rest of the band, with the less salubrious cockroach-ridden faded grandeur of the Albert. But down at heel as it may have been, the hotel was not without its own charm and came complete with its own cast of eccentrics including Hallelujah, the bellboy and resident artist Noel, who lived on the ground floor and tried to sell his dubious landscapes by hanging them out of the window on the wrought-iron railing around the building....Without any money to pay the rent, Denny was regularly sent downstairs to see the hotel manageress to offer her payment in kind, but despite their lack of money, there was nevertheless an almost constant party scene at the hotel. Cass, Zal, Denny and Jim and his girlfriend Vanessa were all officially living in the apartment's three bedrooms but guests would regularly include any number of fellow Village folkies such as Tim Hardin, John Sebastian, Peter Tork, Barry McGuire and Jerry Yester, any or all of whom would often end up crashed on mattresses on the floor after a night's smoking and singing. "It was nuts being around them," Jerry Yester later remembered. "It was like the Mad Tea Party. Lots of noise; Cass baking weird and wonderful-smelling illegal baked goods and Zally with no shirt, running around the place joking, playing pranks."
UPDATE 8/12/2011: It looks as if the truly splendid thehotelalbert.com has been up and running since April 2011, but I've only gotten wind of it today. The entire site is manna from heaven for NYC/Village history buffs, but you music types might wanna make a beeline for the "Rock and Roll Years" page. Thanks and much lust to Harold Black for the link. (Christopher Gray also did a "Streetscapes" article about the Albert and the website in the NY Times back in April...jeez, I feel so dense for missing both the site and the article until now.)