Gramatan Tower, 2019. Photo by N. Bower
By Marilynn Hill, Lifetime Co-Chair, The Bronxville Historical Conservancy
Mar. 13, 2019: “If ever there were a Bronxville landmark, the Hotel Gramatan is it. For who comes to our community and fails to see it sitting high and proud on a rocky hill overlooking the village? And what resident has not had the secure sensation of being ‘home’ as he steps off the train and feels it hovering over him?”
These remarks, written by a Bronxville historian shortly before the 1972 demise of the Hotel Gramatan, capture the sentiment of villagers both then and now regarding the place held by that grand hostelry in the minds and hearts of local residents. Today, mention the hotel to almost anyone who lived in the village before the 1970s, and the name immediately elicits a personal memory associated with the landmark.
Gramatan Tower, March 2019.
Built in 1905 by William van Duzer Lawrence, the large Spanish Mission-style building with its arches, creamy stucco exterior, and red-tile roofs exuded grandeur in both size and luxury. Designed to incorporate three significant architectural elements, the hotel at the top of the hill visually cascaded to the Gramatan Arcade of shops below, and these two structures were connected by the stately Gramatan Tower, which housed an elevator for guests to descend to the street or train.
With 300 guest rooms, a grand ballroom, three dining rooms, a 125-carriage stable, and piazzas, or porches, on all sides, the resort hotel attracted a national and international clientele. Some of its more well-known guests included Theodore Roosevelt, Mrs. Jefferson Davis, the Barrymores, Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Theodore Dreiser, and Eleanor Roosevelt, to name a few.
Hotel Gramatan, circa 1920s.
But more important and enduring for village citizenry was the hotel’s role as a local social center. Wedding, birthday, and graduation celebrations; service organization meetings; family dining excursions; and adult balls and youth dance classes were all held at the hotel. Most notable among the latter was Miss Covington‘s weekly dance class attended by, among others (and much to his distress), the young, shy John F. Kennedy.
The Hotel Gramatan was also a part of a cluster of buildings that made up Bronxville’s early civic, service, and commercial center. Guests at the hotel had easy access to the new village hall, library, police department, bank, train station, and hospital, where they met and mingled with local residents.
By the end of the 1930s, however, the great depression of the previous decade had dimmed the grandeur of the hotel, and gradually, the glamorous guests were replaced by less well-off pensioners. (Some years later, with stealth, mischievousness, and a bit of irony, a group of teenagers climbed the scaffolding atop the hotel to the large illuminated marquee and removed enough light bulbs to beam out across the community the words “Hot Grama.”)
By the 1960s, in spite of the fact that the exterior still projected grandeur, the hotel had fallen into disrepair and needed renovation. Minimal work was done on the hotel building, but the repair needed on the Gramatan Tower required simplifying and reworking the roof and replacing the mission arches with a flat, more neutral-style ridge design. However, the original slim profile of the sentinel tower continued to blend with the arcade and hotel architecture of the past, as it would with the Gramatan Court townhouses that eventually replaced the hotel. (Later, in the 1990s, because of further deterioration that threatened the safety of the elevator and passengers, additional restoration was required on the tower’s upper walls and roof.)
Although villagers knew well that the hotel had seen better times, the 1972 Lawrence family decision to tear down the magnificent building still came as a shock. Its total destruction took a mere two days; villagers’ adjustment to the barren hilltop took many months. A building so deeply embedded in community history, however, is also deeply embedded in communal memory, and the sight of the Gramatan Arcade and the Gramatan Tower extending toward the hilltop can still easily conjure up memories and that “secure sensation of being ‘home’” – of being part of a community – that our early historian invariably felt when in the shadow of the old Hotel Gramatan hillside.
Hotel Gramatan property after demolition; all that stands is the Gramatan Tower, circa 1970s.
Gramatan Tower with new Gramatan Court townhouses, circa 1990s.
Author's note: The sources for this article are articles written by Hill, Marcia Lee, and Ann English in volumes 1, 3, and 4 of The Bronxville Journal, published by The Bronxville Historical Conservancy, and the conservancy's book Building A Suburban Village: Bronxville, New York, 1898-1998, edited by Eloise Morgan. The quotation at the beginning of the article is from the book Bronxville in the Good Ol’ Days by Anita Inman Comstock. The last three photographs were provided courtesy of the Bronxville History Center.
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