PANHELLENIC HOUSE TO BEEKMAN TOWER (PANHELLENIC) TO BEEKMAN TOWER HOTEL

Postcard postmarked 1929. The front reads “‘The Panhellenic’. New York City showing new apartments under construction”

If you’re ever in New York City, near the United Nations Building, you might notice to the north a small hotel called the Beekman Tower. Its official address is 3 Mitchell Place, but it really is on the corner of 49th Street and 1st Avenue. (2015 note – it is no longer a hotel, but the building is still standing.)

The history of the hotel can be traced to the 1920s, before there was even a subway station in the area. The New York City Panhellenic Association, an organization for the alumnae of the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) women’s fraternities and sororities, was formed in 1920. World War I was over and many college women were coming to New York City to pursue careers. Finding affordable and safe housing was a problem. The Panhellenic House Association, Inc. was organized in 1922, with a Board of Directors composed of representatives of the twenty participating sororities. Their goal was to obtain affordable and gracious accommodations for the single NPC women of New York City.

A Kappa Kappa Gamma, Emily Eaton Hepburn, was the prime force behind the building of the Panhellenic House. Several men’s fraternities sponsored clubhouses for their members in New York City. NPC alumnae living in New York received a letter asking them to signify their interest in a clubhouse of their own. They could signify their interest by returning the letter with $2. More than 1,000 replies and $2,000 came back. “With this assurance of immediate interest, and with the knowledge that there was a steadily increasing group of sorority women throughout the country, most of whom would either visit or live in New York, a men’s advisory board was formed as was a women’s.”[1]

In 1925, Mrs. Hepburn was elected President of the Panhellenic House Association and remained in that capacity until, in 1955, ill health caused her to resign. She then became chairman of the board. Mrs. Hepburn pursued the project with a fervor, convincing others that it could be done, even selling shares of stock to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother. She attended the conventions of the individual NPC groups, talking up the project. She spoke about it at the 1923 National Panhellenic Congress (as the National Panhellenic Conference was then known) meeting at the Parker House in Boston. She arranged for the sale of common and preferred stock. She initiated the fund raising efforts to begin the sale of stock, “Annual bridge parties, bazaars, rummage sales, benefits of all sorts, through which the Panhellenic House Association raised the funds to carry on its nationwide stock selling campaign. For several years the Association sponsored balls, either at the Waldorf or the Plaza Hotels….They persuaded Arnold Constable & Co., at one time to let them ‘take-over’ the store for a week. Each of the sororities took responsibility for events in the store such as fashion shows, and Panhellenic got a percentage of the resultant sales.”[2]

Financing this project was a monumental task. “More than $10,000 worth of stock had been pledged in the beginning days and nearly 1000 fraternity women had sent in two dollars each in response to drives for individual memberships. But to provide financing of the magnitude needed took more than this initial effort. A first mortgage of $900,000 was obtained from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and a second mortgage for $3000,000 was held by the Mitchell Place Corporation, owned by Emily Eaton Hepburn.   The amount of authorized capital stock of the Panhellenic House Association totaled 13,5000 shares with a par value of $50 per share. Nine thousands of these shares were 6% non-cumulative preferred stock and 4,500 shares were 6% non-cumulative common stock. Each of the eighteen participating fraternities was allotted 112 shares of the common stock.”[3]

Selling the stock was a Panhellenic effort, “The drive for the sale of $450,000 of 6% preferred stock of the Panhellenic House Association, Inc., the last step in making the House a reality, was launched at the home of Mrs. A. Barton Hepburn, president of the Board of Directors. Each fraternity was represented by a team captain and a number of workers, the entire sales force consisted of 200 fraternity women and the task before them was the sale of 3000 shares of preferred stock. Mrs. Ernest Kingswell-Smith of the Texas Alpha Chapter acted as captain for Pi Beta Phi Fraternity and was given a quota of 308 shares. The responsibility for the remaining 4,000 shares has been generously taken over by two committees of prominent New York people with faith in the House, a women’s committee headed by Alice Duer Miller and a men’s committee with Owen D. Young as chairman.”[4]

Although the original idea was a clubhouse, the plans expanded to include a 14-story building with a roof garden, swimming pool and large auditorium. Architect John Mead Howells was chosen to design the building. According to Delta Gamma Marguerite D. Winant, former president of the Panhellenic Association, Howells “was a man of vision. He convinced us that the most economical building we could possibly erect on the site selected – the northwest corner of First Avenue and 49th Street, known as Mitchell Place, a one-block street running from First Avenue to Beekman Place – was a tower. A tower was the choice of the directors, and the Panhellenic House shot up in the air for 26 floors with a solarium at the top. The solarium some time later became ‘The Top of the Tower,’ the well-known and profitable cocktail lounge.”[5] Another lounge, the ‘Elbow Room,’  provided another source of revenue.

The prospectus read, “The Panhellenic House will be built on the corner of Mitchell Place at Forty-ninth Street. It is to be a house of 26 stories, which will have sunlight on the east, south and west, and a view of the East River. The first two floors will have reception rooms for residents and their friends, lounges, social hall, and a restaurant. In the remaining 26 stories there will be 380 bed rooms, many with private baths. At the top of the tower will be a lofty sun-room. The location of the Panhellenic House will make it possible for a resident to live in these pleasant surroundings and still be near her work in mid-town or lower Manhattan. The site was chosen not only because of these two advantages, but as a good real estate investment, being a part of the residential development of the East side taking place from Sutton Place and Beekman Place to the proposed Tudor City. The purchasers of the preferred stock of the Panhellenic House Association, Inc., in making this investment, are providing a real home for many college women who come to New York.”[6]

Ad in a 1931 New Yorker

The area around the Panhellenic House was developing quickly. The area was once the site of the Beekman mansion where during the American Revolution Nathan Hale was tried for spying. The middle class brick and brownstone homes that were there were showing wear and tear.  “Arrangements for a bus line on 49th and 50th Streets are progressing. A subway is under construction across town under 53rd Street and East River, and a branch of the Post Office has been recently opened on 3rd Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets, known as the Sutton Place Post Office,” according to an update in a 1928 Arrow. [7]  A report a year later noted that “a thrill is anticipated with the completion of the 85 story Chrysler Building, which gleams to meet the stars.”[8]

On October 10, 1927 construction began. The Panhellenic House opened its door a year later. When it debuted, it was the area’s highest building. In 1928, Howells received the French Architect’s Award for the building’s design. The Greek alphabet was carved into the bricks at the left of the door on the Mitchell Place entrance.  When I visited the hotel in the early 2000s, the Greek letters were still there.

The cornerstone ceremonies were held on May 20, 1928, with “Emily this time wielding the trowel. The Rev. Dwight A. Wylie of the Central Presbyterian Church (whose wife, as Emily noted in introducing him, was a Kappa Kappa Gamma) opened the ceremonies with a prayer. Emily herself described the history of the building; David V. Sutton; (of the Sutton Place Suttons), and a director of the First Avenue Association, praised the structural beauty of the building; Dr. Frank D. Blodgett, president of Adelphi College, spoke in praise of the Panhellenic spirit; Dr. John H. Finley of the New York Times gave the project his urbane benediction, and Julia Arthur, the actress, gave a dramatic reading.”[9] Owen Young, unable to attend, sent a message which Mrs. Hepburn read. He emphasized the importance of the project as a unifying force among college and sorority women in the larger interests of their common goals, and one which surmounted the competitive spirit which sometimes characterized sororities at the college level. Into the cornerstone went Banta’s Greek Exchange for 1928, a copy of the Greek alphabet, the histories of the national fraternities which backed the project, a list of 1000 charter members of the Panhellenic House Association, and a picture of Emily turning the first shovel full of earth with a golden spade.

East River view from the Beekman Tower

The report in a 1929 Arrow told of the Panhellenic House’s debut, “The New York City Panhellenic House was formally opened the evening of October 1, 1928 with a reception arranged by Mrs. Louis Wilputte, Kappa Alpha Theta, and Mrs. Richard Holton, Phi Mu. Nearly all the Board of Directors were in the receiving line and more than 800 friends came in to wish the house success. They danced, enjoyed the refreshments and looked and looked. The New Yorker said this about the ballroom where the reception was held: ‘It is such a symphony in grayish wood, silver, deep peachy red and dark pink marble! Nothing can ever spoil its serene, aloof yet irresistibly appealing dignity.’ The architect, John Mead Howells, spent three years selecting materials. The entrance on Mitchell Place had gilded floral reliefs on bright blue above the door, and the vestibule was of pale blue marble-like material with dashes of gold. The western side of the street floor led to four shops, a fine drug store, valet service, gowns, and a bookstore called the ‘Alpha and Omega.’ A ballroom was on the second floor.  On the floor with the ballroom were reception rooms; the Tree of Life, the Blade, the Oasis, and a reading room.”[10]

Monogram on a Panhellenic House demitasse spoon

 

The Panhellenic Hotel was the only hotel in New York owned and managed by women.[11]  The control and management of the corporation was in the hands of the common stock holders. An eighteen member Board of Directors, one each from the participating women’s fraternities, was responsible for the operation of the hotel.

The “City Panhellenics” was a club for all fraternity women and it had rooms on the fourth floor. The Club served as a place for initiations, banquets, dances, and other meetings of local fraternity chapters, collegiate and alumnae. An attraction for both residents and visitors, in addition to the location, was the fact that Panhellenic House became a center for the arts – concerts, lectures, and art exhibitions.[12]  The Club offered scholarships for study in New York, sponsored excellent programs to many of which the House guests were invited, and served tea to friends on the last Sunday in every month. While it was the ultimate aim to have every fraternity woman  in New York as a member of the Panhellenic Club there was “always a cordial welcome in those club rooms for each Greek, whether or not she is a member. A secretary and hostess are on duty throughout the day and evening and information concerning the activities of the local alumnae organizations of all fraternities is available and gladly given. A very earnest effort is being put forth to make the City Panhellenic headquarters a real center of Greek friendliness, as well as to develop social and cultural activities with wide appeal.”[13]

Beekman Tower (Panhellenic) 1930s

In 1932, accommodations had been made available to men, as well as to women. On July 17, 1934, the Board of Directors announced the name of the hotel would henceforth be Beekman Tower (Panhellenic)….The main reason for this change was the need to attract more local patronage. The use of the name ‘Panhellenic’ had created the impression that only sorority women could stay at the Panhellenic House.”[14]

Back of Beekman Tower fork. There is nothing on the front of the fork

The name change was taken after each individual director had “taken the matter up with her respective fraternity group, each of which considered the matter carefully before the change was made. It was not without a pang of regret that those who built the Panhellenic House and worked so unceasingly for its success finally voted that the new name was for the best interest of the House and of the participating groups.”[15] The board declared “the same high standards will be maintained, and it will continue to serve as the fraternity headquarters in New York for accommodation and service to all fraternity members and meeting place for groups in the vicinity.”[16]

The Beekman Tower (Panhellenic) was only one of five hotels in New York City to survive bankruptcy.  The hotel had survived the Great Depression and World War II, but by the early 1960s, the number of hotel rooms in New York City had reached a surplus. This combined with the advent of the women’s movement, put the hotel in a precarious situation.

The national service sorority Gamma Gamma Sigma was founded at the Beekman Tower Hotel on October 12, 1952. It was founded by representatives of Boston University, Brooklyn College, Drexel Institute of Technology, Los Angeles City College, New York University, Queens College and the University of Houston.

In 1964, the property’s value having increased because of the United Nations headquarters nearby, and the need for a hotel for college women having diminished, the Board of Directors, asked permission to sell the building to the Lyden Realty Corporation.[17]  On May 18, 1964, “a special meeting of stockholders adopted a plan for complete liquidation of the corporation and a sale of the assets and properties. On June 12, 1964, Beekman Tower was sold for $1,775,000. The distribution of $50 per share, the par value, in the corporation’s preferred stock was payable on July 15. A first liquidating distribution payment of $250 on common stock was payable after that date. Final distributions brought the amount per share to $299.[18]

 

[1] Savell, I. K. (1952). Daughter of Vermont: A biography of Emily Eaton Hepburn. New York: North River Press.

[2] Savell, I. K. (1952). Daughter of Vermont: A biography of Emily Eaton Hepburn. New York: North River Press.

[3] Lamb, A. C. (1982) The history of Phi Mu. Atlanta, GA: Phi Mu. p. 56.

[4] The ARROW, 1927, May. p. 595. It is interesting to note that Alice Duer Miller was a Kappa Kappa Gamma as was Owen D. Young’s wife.

[5] Lamb, A. C. (1982). The history of Phi Mu. Atlanta, GA: Phi Mu. p. 56.

[6] The ARROW, 1927, May. p. 595.

[7] The ARROW, 1928, May. p. 785.

[8] The ARROW, 1929, February. p. 174.

[9] Savell, I. K. (1952). Daughter of Vermont: A biography of Emily Eaton Hepburn. New York: North River Press. p. 124.

[10] The ARROW, 1929, February. p. 174.

[11] The ARROW, 1930, February. p. 416.

[12] Morse, G. F. (1973). A History of Kappa Delta Sorority 1897-1972. Springfield, MO: Kappa Delta Sorority. p 524-527.

[13] The ARROW, 1930, November. p. 159.

[14] Morse, G. F. (1973). A History of Kappa Delta Sorority 1897-1972. Springfield, MO: Kappa Delta Sorority. p 524-527.

[15] The ARROW, 1935, February.

[16] Lamb, A. C. (1982) The history of Phi Mu. Atlanta, GA: Phi Mu. p. 58.

[17] Morse, G. F. (1973). A History of Kappa Delta Sorority 1897-1972. Springfield, MO: Kappa Delta Sorority. p 524-527..

[18] Lamb, A. C. (1982) The history of Phi Mu. Atlanta, GA: Phi Mu. p. 58.

This material was adapted from Angels, Arrows and Admiration, Pi Beta Phi’s Fraternity Heritage manual which I wrote in 1995.

(c) Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com