For a time, I lived in a women-only hotel—the Brandon, on West 85th Street, which closed in 2017. Women-only hotels are rare today, but cities once abounded with this kind of institution, meant for young women who came to a big city and needed somewhere “respectable” to stay.
The Brandon was originally built for the Three Arts Club in 1927. Its opening was reported in the newspapers and supported by the great and good of the city. The library (long gone by the time I lived there) was donated by Frederick Vanderbilt.
Single-sex institutions were on the rise at this time, nearly a century ago, when women were establishing their own social clubs and institutions to rival the men-only club rooms that had long been part of city life. Women starting to make their way in commerce and the arts wanted respectable venues in which to mix and relax. The Cosmopolitan Club, on the Upper East Side, also dates from this era. I have stayed there, too, and with its luxurious rooms and charming courtyard, it offers a glimpse of what women-only hotels once were.
In the first half of the twentieth century, these hotels served a social purpose. The idea that there was a safe place, where their daughters would be chaperoned and curfewed, must have reassured many parents of girls moving to the city. The hotels also filled an economic niche. Before the law mandated equal pay, lower salaries put women at a disadvantage in the rental market. Rooms at low cost were a genuine need.
By the time I came to stay at the Brandon, some of its Vanderbilt-era glamor had worn off, though remnants lingered in the building’s beautiful auditorium and some ornate mailboxes. The theater had become the main lounge, the stage still used occasionally to screen movies. I was shown to a small room—a bed, a desk, a closet—overlooking an air shaft.
Before coming, I had received a voluminous list of rules for residents, including no casual dress and no feet on the furniture. On arrival, however, I saw the lounge full of young women in track pants, their bare feet up on the sofas. The gracious ladylike behavior implied by the rules list had obviously slipped over a generation or two.
My fellow residents were a range of women, including foreign students, interns, and divorcées. Some of the younger residents frequently hopped between the various women’s hotels—the Webster, the Brandon, and the Evangeline—depending on availability. There were also older women, who, rumor had it, had been staying there since the 1960s and were still paying $150 a month for rent.
I met one lady, retired from her job as a UN translator but who came back every summer to work on a particular project. There were cliques: the older ladies all sat together in the dining room, and sometimes they got into disputes with the younger women. Shouting matches could break out in the hallway. Tempers frayed more easily with the lack of air-conditioning; electric fans were forbidden, as too many small appliances would short out the old wiring. One optimistic resident had a window air-conditioning unit delivered—the staff laughed and sent it back. We all sweated in our small rooms.
And yet, the Brandon had everything that I needed, and it’s a shame that the model can’t legally be reproduced today. Renting a room with a bathroom down the hall has been ruled out by planning law and by culture. New York can’t build new SROs; only those opened before 1969 are still permitted to operate. Most people, when they hear of SROs, think of the boardinghouses catering to older men, in seedier neighborhoods—the kinds largely swept away by gentrification.
A handful of women-only hotels still operate in New York City. Most are affiliated with religious institutions, established to provide a haven for young women of a certain faith. Yet young people still arrive in cities every day—and more will come back, when the pandemic finally abates. They could benefit from having a safe and affordable place to stay. One hears much talk about “affordable housing” in cities; women-only hotels ought to be part of that conversation.