Who was the Hotel DeWitt Clinton’s First Guest?

The corner of State and Eagle St, before and after the construction of the DeWitt Clinton

The corner of State and Eagle St, before and after the construction of the DeWitt Clinton

The corner of Eagle and State Street has always held a place in Albany’s history. It was the home of Albany’s 37th mayor, John Townsend, one of the city’s finest mayors, until his death in 1854. President Abraham Lincoln dined there in February of 1861 while it served as the home of New York Governor Edwin Morgan*. In 1926, Morgan’s old home, now a drugstore would be knocked down. Just a year later, the Hotel DeWitt Clinton rose from the ashes and has become an anchor  of Albany’s unique skyline ever since. The city’s anticipation grew as each brick was laid and its opening neared. Meanwhile, questions and speculation of just who would be honored as the first guests to stay in the fledgling hotel swirled around the city.
John Townsend Abe Lincoln Edwin Morgan

Shortly after noon on Friday, August 26, 1927, a man carrying no luggage and wearing a three-piece suit walked through the ornate doors of the Hotel DeWitt Clinton. At the front desk he opened the pristine guest book and on its blank pages he registered his name: Governor Alfred E. Smith. The popular New York Governor and United States Presidential candidate became the first guest in the Hotel DeWitt Clinton. That historic scene itself makes for a great story; the man that vied to be the leader of the free world would be first in the glorious new hotel across the street from the Capitol building where he had been governor for five and a half years. Yes, it makes for a great story, only there was one problem. Al Smith never stayed the night at the new hotel. He only signed the guest book.

Smith would make the Hotel DeWitt Clinton his Democratic National Committee Headquarters in 1928

Smith would later make the Hotel DeWitt Clinton his Democratic National Committee Headquarters in 1928

Later in the afternoon of that same day, 73 years to the day of Mayor Townsend’s death, the first paying guests would arrive at the hotel hoping that they would have the privilege of being the actual “first guest.” Among them were Mr. and Mrs. L. W. Cooper of Orange, NJ; The Benson Family who already lived in the city of Albany; Mrs. D. N. M. Pickett of New York City; Dr. Hans Schmidt who was visiting from Holland; and possibly the most interesting name in the group, Patrick McCabe. McCabe, the former Albany County Democratic leader was instrumental in the impeachment of his nemesis, Governor William Sulzer, while serving as the Clerk of the New York State Senate in 1913. The group was only permitted to use the rooms on the first two floors of the hotel, as the rest of the floors were still under construction.

McCabe as New York State Senate Clerk in 1913

McCabe as New York State Senate Clerk in 1913

So the question is, who among the group would be forever known as the first guest to stay in the Hotel DeWitt Clinton? Turns out that it wasn’t anyone who signed the guest book that day. Two floors above them, in a room on the unfinished fourth floor, slept a kitten fondly named, DeWitt Clinton, Jr. Shortly after Governor Al Smith left the hotel, the black and white cat wandered up to the front doors. Edward Hardy, a bell-boy for the hotel was given the job of waiting on their furry guest. DeWitt enjoyed breakfasting in bed, and sleeping the day away curled up on a fine down pillow.
DeWitt Clinton Jr article headline

Three nights later, the fourth floor was finished, and DeWitt Clinton, Jr. had to give up his room for paying guests. He was moved to a blanket-lined basket under the clerk’s desk in the lobby. Being used to a queen sized bed by now, this new arrangement for the pampered, little cat just wouldn’t do. DeWitt Clinton, Jr. left as mysteriously as he arrived. The Hotel DeWitt Clinton’s manager, Sherman Hill, said it best, “I’m afraid he may have gone to another hotel.” It’s possible that little DeWitt took up residence at the Wellington Hotel down the street where feral cats had been living for years after the hotel was boarded up.

In the end, the very first guest in one of Albany’s famous hotels was not the governor, or a democratic boss, a doctor, or even a housewife. It was a cat. A cat who was affectionately named after three meaningful things to Albany; one of New York’s finest governors, a steam locomotive**, and a young hotel on the historic corner of Eagle and State Street.
DeWitt Clintons Hotel Governor Steam Engine A

(*) The current Executive Mansion did not become the governor’s official residence until 1877. Prior to that, New York Governors would live in a home of their choosing.
(**) A six-foot model of the DeWitt Clinton steam locomotive was in the lobby of the hotel for its official opening in 1928.

The Time President Taylor Almost Came to Albany, but Died Instead

On May 18, 1850, the president of the New York State Agricultural Society, Ezra P. Prentice wrote a letter to Zachary Taylor, the 12th President of the United States. Prentice wanted President Taylor to visit the New York State Fair that was being held the first week of September in Albany on Troy Road (now Broadway in North Albany). The president always took a liking to agriculture and regretted not being able to make the New York State Fair the year prior in Syracuse.

Prentice Letter to Zachary Taylor 5-18-1850
First, a little background. Ezra P. Prentice arrived in Albany at the age of 29 in 1826. In just two years he had become a successful fur trader with Williams, Packer & Co. Eventually Dennison Williams left the company and you guessed it, it was renamed Packer, Prentice & Co. In 1840 the company was presumably bought out and Prentice received a small fortune and retired at the age of 43. Prentice would then hold a whole host of titles; president of the Albany-Susquehanna Railroad, trustee of the Albany Female Academy, trustee of the Dudley Observatory, president of the Albany Commercial Bank and of course president of the New York State Agricultural Society in 1850. He died in his home on Kenwood Road at Mount Hope on July 10, 1876 after a long illness. He’s buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

Ezra P. Prentice circa 1870
Mount Hope still exists. It sits south of Cherry Hill and I-787 and just north of the Normans Kill. To the west it’s flanked by Southern Boulevard and to the east, South Pearl Street. A housing redevelopment in this area bears the name, “Ezra Prentice Homes” in his honor.

Mount Hope Map
A little over a month goes by without word from President Taylor. Prentice decides to write him again, this time offering up his home as a place for the president to stay during his visit. Ezra Prentice was indeed a squeaky wheel.

Zachary TaylorFast forward a week later to July 4, 1850. Zachary Taylor is at the Washington Monument to witness dust from Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s* tomb being placed inside the unfinished monument. He then stayed at the service and listened to numerous speakers for an additional two hours in the hot sun. He returned home to the White House at 4:00 pm, and instead of eating dinner he drank water, chilled milk and ate a bowl of cherries. Taylor then had what was described as, “an uncomfortable night.”

Washington Memorial circa 9-1850The following day, President Taylor decided to write Ezra “Squeaky Wheel” Prentice back about his attendance to the New York State Fair. Obviously, Taylor wouldn’t know if he could actually attend the fair until closer to September but he did hope to make it. However, he wouldn’t be spending the night with Prentice. He would be placing his head on Governor Hamilton Fish’s pillows instead. The letter was then placed in the mail and started its slow trip north to Albany.

Zachary Taylor Letter toEzra Prentice 7-5-1850President Taylor’s condition started to worsen by the end of that day. During the evening, army surgeon, Dr. Alexander Wotherspoon was called to check on Taylor. Wotherspoon diagnosed the president with cholera morbus, prescribed some opium and calomel and went on his merry way. The President of the United States was dead four days later.**

A day later, on July 10, word hit Albany that President Taylor had died. Ezra Prentice mourned. The city mourned. This wouldn’t be the end of Zachary Taylor for “Squeaky Wheel” Prentice though. The letter was still on its way from Washington, DC. Ezra Prentice received it shortly after learning of the president’s death. Prentice had just received the last letter President Taylor ever wrote, effectively making it a letter from “beyond the grave.” We can only imagine what Ezra Prentice’s face looked like when he opened it up to see the “Z. Taylor” signature staring right back at him!

Zachary Taylor signature Ray StantzWhere is the letter now? Has it been lost to history or is it still kept as a token in the Prentice Family line? For every mystery, there is someone, somewhere, who knows the truth. Perhaps that someone is reading. Perhaps it’s you. If you have any information on this letter, write to us. You need not give your name.

Unsolved Mysteries Logo
* Thaddeus Kosciuszko should be a familiar name with almost every Capital Region commuter. The Twin Bridges on I-87 were named in his honor.
**Sidenote: Albany native and father of modern electricity, Joseph Henry, rode in Zachary Taylor’s funeral procession on July 13 as an officer of the Smithsonian Institute.