Check into the Bygone Era of Single Ladies Hotels - 10 minutes read

Third officer Ina Mae McFadden of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp, one of the first tenants to move into the Lucy D. Slowe Residence Hall (the first government-built women’s hotel segregated for Black war workers).

Picture this: you, an ambitious, career-driven woman wanting to conquer the Big Apple but struggling to find a place to stay. Lodging costs are likely your top concern. Once upon a time not long ago, it wasn’t just about the prices holding you back, but a city-wide policy that prohibited women from checking into hotels unless accompanies by a husband. Enter women-only hotels, the unsung heroes of women’s liberation. These havens weren’t just safe spaces; they became icons themselves. Names like The Martha Washington and the Barbizon hotel etched their mark in New York’s history. They sheltered a new wave of college-educated, ambitious women eager for careers before marriage. Legends blossomed within these walls: Grace Kelly danced topless down Barbizon’s hallways, Sylvia Plath immortalized her shattered New York dreams from her residence in the pages of The Bell Jar, and whispers of secret parties and liaisons lingered in their corridors. The Barbizon’s guest list? A star-studded lineup featuring Hollywood and literary royalties like Joan Crawford, Liza Minelli, and Joan Didion. So let’s delve into the extraordinary history of these women’s sanctuaries…

Women sit in the reception room of the Margaret Louisa Home in New York City in 1907. The women-only hotel was built by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1891

Let us travel back to the mid-19th century when a surge in female labor sparked demand for working-class females to enter the workforce, particularly in northeastern cities. Yet, single women relocating to these urban hubs hit a snag — scarce suitable housing options. Squalid tenements or boarding houses with male lodgers were common. Recognising this gap, the Ladies Christian Union, a group of wealthy Christian women in the 1860s, stepped in. They established low-cost homes for factory, seamstress, and shop-working women. Offering middle-class standards of accommodation, complete with parlours, dining areas, and well-maintained bedrooms, admission was stringent. Self-sufficient women of “good moral character” followed strict rules: a tidy room, prayers, meal attendance, and lights out by 10 pm.

Women at the Hotel Martha Washington in New York City, circa 1915-1925.

Fast forward to the late 19th century, more middle-class were women joining the workforce as secretaries, clerks, and journalists, but housing couldn’t keep up. The Ladies Christian Union had to turn away three applicants for each one they could accommodate. Post-1920 women’s suffrage, as women set their sights on more rights, hotel restrictions tightened, intensifying the demand for female housing. The Hotel for Working Women envisioned a luxurious setup; marble columns, five elevators, gaslights, and rooms of various sizes. Thirty years later, in 1903, the Hotel Martha Washington emerged, promising freedom sans “paternalism” and “restrictions.” Not a charity initiative like its predecessors, it attracted aspiring career women —400 to 500 lodgers— funded by backers like John D. Rockefeller. The building filled up in no time, leaving hundreds of hopeful women on its waiting list.

The Martha Washington emerged as a nucleus for feminist activism, hosting the Interurban Women’s Suffrage Council’s headquarters in 1907. It dared to challenge norms by seeking a liquor license in 1933, raising more than a few eyebrows. Notably, the Martha Washington housed acclaimed figures like silent movie icon Louise Brooks and poet Sara Teasdale. Even Hollywood luminary Veronica Lake sought solace here after her career faltered, discreetly serving as a cocktail waitress under the alias Connie de Toth at 40 years old.

Suffragettes in front of the Matha Washington hotel in 1912.

This was just the beginning; other women’s hotels, like The Trowmart Inn in 1906, followed suit, offering modest yet accommodating spaces. But the game-changer arrived at the height of the Jazz Age: the Barbizon, aka “The Dollhouse”.

The Barbizon Hotel in New York City

Erected on 140 East 63rd Street in Manhattan, the salmon-hued Barbizon soared with a five-story tower and a 15-story shaft, replacing an old synagogue dating back to the 1870s. This mammoth complex, the largest at the time, housed 655 bedrooms, along with amenities like a library, solarium, swimming pool, Turkish bath, and gym. Men were confined to the ground level, lobby, and mezzanine, though some tried to venture further, including the notorious J.D. Salinger, often seen prowling the Barbizon’s ground floor coffee shop in pursuit of dates.

The Barbizon Hotel in New York City, Photograph By Sara Krulwich, T​he New York Times, Redux

Initially intended for women in the arts, the Barbizon’s allure expanded, attracting a diverse crowd, from flappers to Gibbs girls and Powers models. From the 1930s to the 1960s, it rented spaces to women-owned businesses like Mademoiselle Magazine, Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School, and the Ford Modelling Agency. This clientele drew in a glamorous mix, including future literary giants Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion, alongside Hollywood icons such as Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, Liza Minelli, and even the future First Lady, Nancy Reagan.

The Barbizon Hotel lobby in New York City

Yet, the Barbizon upheld its own strict criteria for admitting women. Entry relied on age and attractiveness, segregating residents into categories — group A for young and attractive, granted private rooms; group B for slightly older or deemed less attractive; allotted rooms with shared bathrooms; and group C for those over 35 or deemed undesirable, resulting in rejection. Until 1956, diversity was absent at the Barbizon, with solely white, middle-class residents highlighting the hotel’s moniker, “The Dollhouse.” Despite its relaxed atmosphere compared to church-affiliated lodgings, rigid standards endured. Women had to maintain a refined appearance, log their entries and exits, adhere to a 10pm curfew, and actively pursue employment. Nevertheless, the Barbizon fostered empowerment through amenities and social connections, akin to an analog LinkedIn, fostering crucial networks through events like organ recitals and afternoon teas.

Historian Paulina Bren, in her book, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free, underlines how these hotels provided not only safety and lodging but also a pre-technological world’s invaluable networking and support system for women away from home.

For decades, the stories from the Barbizon faded into obscurity, which writer Paulina Bren found out firsthand as she researched her book. “I can imagine it’s because this is a story about young women who were not considered important,” she had said when asked why no one preserved the history. But once Bren found out that the magazine Mademoiselle used the hotel as its residence for its guest editors, she was able to do some detective work to uncover the missing stories. She found some of the women who had been residents there, now in their 80s or 90s, who shared their stories with her. 

Women in the lobby of the Barbizon Hotel in 1977, Photograph By Sara Krulwich, T​he New York Times, Redux

Although the Barbizon had its own rules and curfews, its time in the 1950s was quite eventful. Grace Kelly arrived in September 1947, staying at the Barbizon while she studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. During the day, she was a poster girl of proprietary, sporting tweeds and cardigans, but she transformed into quite the wild child by night. Even today, most of us associate Grace Kelly with a cool elegance, a classy lady who was modest and sweet. However, Bren found that Grace Kelly was notorious within the walls of the Barbizon for dancing along the women-only halls to Hawaiian music, sometimes even shocking the other residents by going topless. Rumour had it she had an infamous sexual appetite and was even, allegedly, quite promiscuous.

However, The Barbizon was quite the Fort Knox when it came to admitting men into the upper floors. Mae Sibley, the hotel’s strict associate manager, was no stranger to the numerous excuses men used to try to get past the doors. Some would pretend to be doctors, called in to attend to one of the guests, or even pose as an Upper East Side gynecologist. Others impersonated plumbers or electricians, but almost all attempts failed. There is one man, Malachy McCourt, who bragged that he spent one night inside the Barbizon after zipping past the front desk with a rugby-trained fast run and an alcohol-infused confidence while his date distracted the reception. But most of the time, the men just hung around in the lobby waiting for their dates to ride down the elevator. The reception staff had quite a load on their hands, trying to stop eager men from slipping past or dealing with overanxious parents. Judy Garland sent her daughter Liza Minelli to the Barbizon and allegedly drove staff crazy by calling every three hours to check on her. 

Amenities at the Barbizon included libraries, a rooftop garden, a swimming pool and a gym — where Rita Hayworth (in black) posed for Life magazine.

Sylvia Plath had quite a bittersweet experience at the Barbizon, and anyone who has read The Bell Jar might recognise the fictionalised versions of Mademoiselle and the hotel. When she arrived in 1953, she loved her room, which she described to her parents in a letter as having a “wall-to-wall rug, pale beige walls, dark green bedspread with rose-patterned ruffle, matching curtains, a desk, bureau, closed and white enameled bowl growing like a convenient mushroom from the wall.” She also adored the radio in the wall. However, Plath found her time frustrating, as according to Bren “she was brimming with desire and a real sense of how unfair it all was that men could act on their lust, but she could not.” She was snowed under with work from Mademoiselle, found the dating pool lacking (not much has changed in New York then), and felt she endured “the lost dream of New York.”

Sylvia Plath is photographed while interviewing poet Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle

The Barbizon was most certainly not immune to tragedy. Despite all the security measures, in 1975, one long-time resident, Ruth Harding, was found strangled to death in her 11th-floor room. She was remembered by her fellow hotel residents as friendly and always talking to anyone who would listen. Tragically, her murder was never solved; a poignant reminder of unresolved stories lurking within the hotel’s history, some destined to remain shrouded in mystery forever.

As with many good things, the era of single ladies’ hotels eventually drew to a close. This decline most likely stemmed from the increasing rights and freedoms granted to women. As societal restrictions waned, allowing women access to regular hotels and the ability to secure their own apartments, the demand for the specialised hotels dwindled. The 1960s marked a turning point when single women traveling independently could finally check into hotels or dine solo at restaurants without requiring a male companion’s endorsement, and by the 1970s, the zenith of these hotels had passed.

Even the renowned Barbizon experienced a decline in occupancy, changing hands multiple times between 1979 and 1981. After several renovations and ownership changes, it transformed into a collection of luxury condominiums. However, a surprising twist emerged for some former residents.

DRDTX5 The Barbizon Hotel, New York

Remarkably, a handful of women chose to remain at the Barbizon. As of 2005, 21 women continued to reside there. During renovations, they were temporarily relocated to a nearby hotel but eventually returned to new apartments on the fourth floor. To this day, five of these resilient women still inhabit the premises, paying the same rent they did upon arrival, with some even maintaining rental rates from the 1950s. In essence, the spirit of the Barbizon endures through their presence.

Another surviving bastion of women-only living is the Webster Apartments. Established in 1923 by Charles Webster and his brother Josiah, senior partners at a nearby Macy’s store, these apartments provided a safe and affordable haven for unmarried “shopgirls” and the like, offering protection, particularly for young women from small-town America. Charles Webster’s legacy ensured the Webster Apartments continued to offer subsidised rooms for working women, albeit at rates adjusted from 1923 levels. Applicants must meet income criteria, and the traditional rule of no gentlemen callers above the first floor remains intact.


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