The corner of College and Chapel Streets in downtown New Haven has featured five taverns or hotels for the past three centuries. Hostelries or public houses have stood on this parcel of land, on the southwest corner of the New Haven Green, from colonial times to the present. The land was originally allotted to William Hawkins of London. When Mr. Hawkins did not immigrate to America, the lot was purchased by Deputy Governor (of New Haven Colony) Stephen Goodyear, who then built a mansion on it. After Goodyear’s death it was purchased by the innkeeper of the town, John Harriman.
The first was an early 17th century “ordinary” operated by John Harriman in the mansion originally built by Deputy Governor Goodyear. Ordinaries provided a complete meal and sleeping accommodations for one price. An ordinary was also licensed to draw wine and sell it for retail.
Miles Tavern, owned and operated by Captain John Miles, who was married to John Harriman’s daughter, Elizabeth, and a New Haven Deputy to the Assembly, was the next hospitality business to follow, in 1690. When New Haven became co-capital of the colony of Connecticut in 1701, Miles Tavern became the meeting place of the council. The council continued to meet at the tavern until 1719, when New Haven’s State House was built on the corner of Elm & College Streets. The tavern closed in 1750.
Beers’ Tavern, built by Isaac Beers, was the third business in 1751. A combination inn and bookstore, the public house was often referred to as “Washington Tavern” because General George Washington stayed there in July 1775. On his way to Cambridge, Massachusetts from Philadelphia, Washington spent a night there and reviewed the New Haven troops en route to take command of the Colonial Army.
Beers’ Tavern was demolished in 1850 to make way for a new hotel, the New Haven House, which opened for business in 1851. The new hotel had 100 rooms. Built by Augustus Street it was then sold to Yale University in 1866, which in turn sold it to Seth Moseley in 1867. Yale took the proceeds of the sale, approximately $70,000, to help construct the Yale Art School. The one-time proprietor of New York’s famous Brevoort House, on 5th Avenue between East 8th & 9th Streets, Mr. Moseley made the New Haven Hotel one of the best hotels in all of New England. After his death, his son, William H. Moseley, was the landlord. The New Haven House was one hotel that was without a bar for years. One could get a drink, but the stock was kept in a small pantry near the reception desk of the hotel. This location had reserved the right to serve as far back as 1746, when the Colony provided Stephen Goodyear the right to brew beer for the town.
In 1909 the property was purchased by a corporation known as the New Haven Hotel Company, who erected the fifth & final hotel, the Hotel Taft. The Hotel Taft was built, in the Colonial Revival style, by a group of local investors and named after one of them, Horace Taft, who was the headmaster of the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut. The Hotel Taft, which opened for business on January 1, 1912, was an ultra-modern, 12-story building with 450 rooms. A grand lobby, stores, restaurants, and bars occupied the first two floors. A large ballroom took up the upper two floors. The lobby is actually a great rotunda complete with a balcony and a stained glass dome. To this day, the Grand Lobby alone is 70 feet tall, Corinthian-columned, and capped with a breathtaking stained-glass dome – rumored to be the largest piece of its type to come from Tiffany’s studio.
The Hotel Taft, designed by F.M. Andrews & Co. from New York, had a reputation throughout New England, and beyond. Adjacent to Yale University and overlooking the picturesque New Haven Green, the Taft’s location was considered ideal, in spite of the fact that it was some distance from the railroad station.
The Hotel Taft was the focal and meeting point for society and traveler alike – a symbol of the city’s academic and cultural prominence. It was the hotel where more of the great and near great likely stayed than at any other comparable sized hotel in the country. Up to one million visitors passed through its doors every year.
For eight years immediately following his presidency, William Howard Taft lived in the hotel that bears his family name while he taught constitutional law at Yale University. President Taft also was the principle speaker at the first formal affair; held in the ballroom. It was the Chamber of Commerce dinner on January 19, 1912.
One of its earliest notable guests was Woodrow Wilson, who visited on September 12, 1912 during a presidential campaign stop – the campaign in which he went on to defeat the incumbent, President Taft. Numerous Secretaries of State and Treasury, including Andrew William Mellon, Cordell Hull, and Henry Lewis Stimson also checked-in at The Taft, as well as Vice President Calvin Coolidge, in 1921.
Prohibition (of alcohol) in the United States took place from 1920 through 1933. During this time, a speakeasy was created in one of the basements of the Hotel Taft. President Taft was a staunch opponent of the Amendment that prohibited alcohol. Therefore it seems fitting that the hotel bearing his family name had such an establishment.
With the Shubert Theater as its next door neighbor, the Hotel Taft saw many famous personalities walk through its elegant entrance or underground as there was a tunnel that connected each building in the basement. Countless runs of pre-Broadway shows were performed at the Shubert Theater by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Gloria Swanson, Mary Martin, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Katherine Hepburn, Alec Guinness, Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, George Arliss, Walter Hampden, Sarah Bernhardt, Margaret Sullavan, Chauncey Olcott, John, Lionel & Ethyl Barrymore. Lorraine Hansberry stayed at the Hotel Taft when ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ was beginning its try-out run. It is purported that Groucho Marx used to begin his monologue by stating “I got kicked out of the best hotel in the world, The Hotel Taft in New Haven.” To this day, we can’t unequivocally confirm the details of what Marx did but a clue may be contained in the famous Dick Cavett interview memorialized below.
Shows were premiered in New Haven rather than in New York City to avoid the embarrassment of a flop on Broadway, where it would garner more press. The producers of the time felt they could gauge a sophisticated Broadway audience’s reaction by a New Haven reaction. The producers sent Rodgers and Hammerstein back to their rooms at The Taft to write the showstopper “Oklahoma!” and a hit was born.
Over the years, Hotel Taft left its mark on popular culture. Cole Porter’s tune “Antoinette Birby” recounts the exploits of two colorful waitresses at The Taft. Gary Trudeau included The Taft in a Doonesbury comic strip. At the request of Taft Management, the Yale a cappella group Out of The Blue wrote “Ride the Chariot” and performed the premiere in the Grand Lobby in order to celebrate the 1996 Taft Apartments passenger elevator modernization. Today, The Taft community can view the lyrics to the Porter tune, the Doonesbury comic strip and the Out of the Blue original score on the memorabilia wall in the Grand Lobby.
Scenes of The Hotel Taft are memorialized in three classic movies: All about Eve (1950), Death of a Scoundrel (1956) and Splendor in the Grass (1961).
Stefan Zweig, the best-selling Austrian writer and playwright of the 1920s and 1930s, wrote pieces of his fascinating and brilliant autobiography “The World Of Yesterday” at the Hotel Taft. The publisher’s postscript states that: “Part of the book was sketched during his residence…at the Taft Hotel, New Haven, where he sojourned for a period while toying with the thought of settling in the shadow of Yale University.” Zweig’s books, plays, and poems were translated into just about every language. He was a friend of every famous author and conductor and artist. The director Wes Anderson mentioned in the credits to his movie “The Grand Hotel Budapest” that he was inspired by Zweig’s autobiography “The World of Yesterday”.
The Taft Apartments “starred” in the popular television series “Gilmore Girls.” With the collaboration of Taft Management, a Hollywood set was built based on an actual Taft apartment floor plan. Main character, Rory, was asked to move into her boyfriend Logan’s apartment at The Taft after she was kicked out of her apartment by her roommate. This was episode 14 of Season 6, titled “You’ve Been Gilmored.” It originally aired on February 7, 2006. Logan’s apartment had a recurring role for several episodes.
Albert Einstein, Admiral Richard Byrd, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden, Lassie, Bill Tilden, Jack Dempsey, Jim Londos, Strangler Lewis, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth were just a few of the more prominent names to have stayed at Hotel Taft.
Without a doubt, the most popular guest was Babe Ruth. In 1932, the New York Yankees came to New Haven to play the local baseball club. An estimated 10,000 children were waiting outside the Hotel Taft for “The Babe.” When his car drew up, youngsters crowded around and jumped on it. It broke down in the middle of the street. Police did all they could do to manage the crowd during his time in New Haven.
The Hotel Taft had a staff of 300 men and women to cover all that its numerous guests would need. The main dining room, that seated 300, attracted approximately 900 people daily; the cocktail lounge that seated 60 usually served 150 a day; and the Tap Room that accommodated another 60 took care of 200 more visitors daily. Meanwhile a barbershop, newsstand & tobacco shop attracted other patrons.
WDRC, initially WPAJ, the first (AM) radio station in Connecticut, broadcasted from the Hotel Taft in the 1920s. WDRC still exists today, in FM format, making it the longest-running station in Connecticut as well.
The Hotel Taft was both a public and private success. While keeping occupancy rates high, it also provided public goods to the city: prestige, beauty, a meeting place, a site for Yale events, and a generator of spillover business by housing a pharmacy, newsstand, florists, and other small services. Most importantly, the Hotel Taft managed to do all of this in the face of some of the most trying economic circumstances the United States had seen – from the end of World War I until after the end of the Great Depression, and without government support.
All the while, the Hotel Taft never lost sight of customer service. Several quotes from Robert Richardson, a desk clerk for over 40 years, include “a good hotel employee tries to keep his personalities out of it. He is a part of a smoothly working machine and if he has the hotel’s interests at heart, he will do this job as quietly and unobtrusively as possible,” and “today’s guests demand courtesy and efficient service and that’s what we try to give them.”
Managers at the Hotel Taft were known to be inventive and were written up in numerous articles in the New York Times. In one instance, utilizing his expertise in food service, hospitality, and efficiency, former Hotel Taft manager J.C. La Vin was noted in an October 7, 1917 New York Times article as having invented a motorized kitchen that was capable of serving up to 6,000 meals per day for soldiers on the march. The invention was named the “Taft Army Field Kitchen.” Previous methods of feeding a large volume of moving soldiers were considered inefficient and unsanitary. Mr. La Vin’s son, Craig La Vin, was also a former manager. When the younger Mr. La Vin noticed that business in the dining room was slow, he installed an attractive cocktail lounge to rejuvenate business, which proved to be successful. The Tap Room was also built under his direction, and is among one of his notable contributions.
The Hotel Taft thrived until 1945 when an increase in automobile travel and new interstate highways spurred the building of new hotels in surrounding areas. The Wilbur Cross Parkway, opened in 1950, and the Connecticut Turnpike, opened in 1959, struck a devastating blow to The Taft. Adding to the problem was the decline in train travel, something The Taft relied on heavily for guests. Lack of parking near The Taft forced lodgers to seek more convenient locations. Mayor Richard C. Lee’s redevelopment of downtown New Haven brought another hotel to New Haven in 1970, the Sheraton Park Plaza, located just one block from The Taft. With only enough business to support one large downtown hotel, the Hotel Taft was forced to close its doors in October 1973.
Vacant from 1973 until 1981, The Taft was converted into apartments, by the Starrett Housing Corporation of New York, the form it assumes today. The exterior still maintains an old dignity to which new buildings aspire. Taft Realty Associates, LLC purchased the property on September 8, 1995 and the current management team has been in place since 1994. Since the mid 1990’s The Taft has seen extensive cosmetic and structural projects that continue to preserve and update the real estate. While fully embracing its rich history, as the building turned 100 years young on January 1, 2012, The Taft team has a belief and reputation of appreciating yesterday’s laurels, but never staying sedentary. Rather, there is a need to move forward and stay relevant in today’s ever-changing world.