Heartbreak Hotel


When I lived in Park Slope in the mid 1990s, I developed a crush on the neighborhood slut. Her name was the Lincoln Plaza Hotel, and she was a bundle of contradictions. Unlike other so-called “short-stay” motels, which tend to sprout in anonymous cinder-block buildings near freeway exits, this was a beautiful 117-year-old mansion on a street lined with stately brownstones. Though the exterior was dignified, the interior was decidedly racy. As I passed the Lincoln Plaza on my way to Prospect Park, I usually tried to peer past the smudged glass door and get a peek through to the lobby, which was painted a naughty red and lit by dusty chandeliers.

Even after leaving the neighborhood, I sometimes visited the object of my affection, at 153 Lincoln Place, near the corner of Seventh Avenue’s progressive-yet-upscale commercial strip. And once, a few years ago, I even managed to get inside and take a look around. The reception desk, cordoned off with Plexiglas, listed wares on a handwritten sign: “Candy $0.75. Gum $0.50. Condom $1.00. Deodorant $1.00.” Other items in a display case—unwrapped toothbrushes stuck in the sort of plastic cup found at a keg party, and a half-empty box of tampons—also appeared to be for sale. In the lobby, posters of faded sunsets hung next to a sign reminding guests not to drink in the hallways. Soiled zebra-striped cushions sat upon the squat, heavily lacquered stools of an African-inspired furniture set. A pillowcase adorned a small matching table.

At $50 for eight hours, the hotel had few amenities. One guest came down from his room to ask about the lack of ice buckets. “Where you supposed to put the ice?” he complained, adding, “There’s no soap in there, either.” An employee apologized and offered a garbage bag for the ice. “I just want a cup for some ice water,” the guest grumbled.

Upstairs, hotel employees trudged down the halls, bearing bundles of soiled linens. The rooms themselves were furnished with fluorescent lights, saggy beds, and little else. The walls of room 24 were scrawled with conquests past: “Rodolfo y Nana 7-21-00” was next to “Leonora y Joselito,” written inside a hastily drawn heart and limp arrow. A few doors down, room 26 witnessed the hotel’s only murder. In April 1999, a woman was found hanged inside the shower, after the ceiling downstairs began to leak. Her “boyfriend” was booked for the crime.

The place was a misfit in this long-gentrified neighborhood. Everyone seemed to know what went on inside, but somehow the Lincoln Plaza managed to stay in business, undisturbed for more than four decades. Odd, considering that the neighborhood is all about procreational rather than recreational sex. Local activists recently groused about the opening of the Pink Pussy Cat Boutique—a lingerie and sex-toy shop—across from a middle school on Fifth Avenue. In a way, the hotel has offered some light titillation to what has been a fairly staid neighborhood for the past couple decades.

The other day I happened to bike past and discovered that the no-tell hotel was no more. The Lincoln Plaza closed last Thanksgiving, and is being retrofitted for upscale apartment units. The hotel was one of the last relics of the neighborhood’s colorful but shady immediate past, the 1970s and 1980s, when the sidewalks were crowded with drug pushers instead of stay-at-home moms pushing Maclaren strollers.

“People used to say to me all the time, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ ” said James Westmoreland, an attorney who lives two doors down from the former hotel. But, Westmoreland said, no one lobbied to banish the hotel from the neighborhood, adding that people in Park Slope “just really don’t want to get involved in a fight.” Neighbors liked the owner, Frank Lee, and his employees, and besides, Lee was a good neighbor. He sandblasted paint from the original brick facade and registered the place as a historic landmark. A few years ago, before the hotel closed, Lee said he might someday turn the place into a bed-and-breakfast. But the Lincoln Plaza thrived as it was, and the hotel remained the same. On a good day, if all rooms were occupied, at $50 for eight hours, the hotel could rake in as much as $3,900. That’s if you ignore the need to change sheets between shifts.

“Some of the women looked like they were professional,” Westmoreland said, “but that never bothered anybody.” However, this being Park Slope, neighbors found something to complain about among themselves. The honking of Town Cars in front of the hotel day and night was a nuisance. “We just sort of ignored it and moved our bedroom to the back,” Westmoreland sighed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly quiet in the back of the house either, especially when the hotel’s windows were flung open for fresh air. One summer, Westmoreland’s young son, Lucio, was playing outside on the balcony and heard amorous shrieks from his neighbors to the east. Lucio, then seven years old, ran back into the house shouting, “Mom! Mom! There’s someone dying next door!” When Westmoreland returned home from Thanksgiving with his family last year, the hotel was closed. “I will miss it a little,” he confessed.

The building has acquired a rich set of urban legends over the years. Some said it was a Catholic home for unwed mothers in the 1950s. “That’s apocryphal,” said William Younger, who has lived on Lincoln Place for 24 years and is the author of Old Brooklyn in Early Photographs, 1865-1929.

Others whispered it was once a speakeasy, with distilleries and wild parties in the basement. “That’s completely apocryphal,” retorted Younger, who pointed out that prohibition ended in 1933—the same year the original owner died in his home.

Here’s what really happened: The mansion was originally built for multimillionaire Frank Lusk Babbott in 1887, four years after the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. Babbott was a successful jute merchant, which probably means he made millions selling twine. When he retired from the jute mill, he became a patron of the arts, picking up works by James Whistler and Winslow Homer. Babbott was an upstanding Brooklyn citizen and served as a trustee of the Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. His wife, Lydia, also had money to burn. She was the daughter of Charles Pratt, a Standard Oil Company magnate. The Babbott home was further enlarged as the house filled with his four children and his art collection, which was, as The New York Times knowingly observed in his 1933 obituary, “notable for quality rather than quantity.”

In 1945, the mansion was sold and turned into a Presbyterian retirement home. The building had been empty for a few years when Frank Lee bought it and turned it into a hotel in 1959. In the early years, the hotel hosted grand wedding receptions for local families—back when the neighborhood was working-class and African American and Puerto Rican—and ladies with elaborately feathered hats milled around the lobby. Over time, the hotel became known as a discreet meeting place for amorous couples. Every 10 years or so, locals tried to oust the Lincoln Plaza from the neighborhood, but none of the efforts succeeded. Last year, the property (which includes a garden lot next door) was sold for well over $2.5 million to the Foster Family Trust, which is administered by a family in the neighborhood. The hotel’s tiny rooms are gone, gutted to make room for spacious upscale condos or apartments, which will surely be outfitted with granite countertops and brushed-steel appliances.

So the building has returned to its genteel roots, but not without witnessing the neighborhood’s many transformations. Babbott hung his Whistler lithographs, elderly Presbyterians hung their heads, the hotel hung lusty posters of sunsets, and one spring night, one man hung his lover up in the shower in room 26. And a few years from now, the building’s new residents will hang their flat-screen television sets and watch Sex and the City reruns. The building remains the same, but the neighborhood has surely lost a conversation piece—not to mention a form of live local entertainment. And I have forever lost my crush.

Wendy Bryan never stayed at the Lincoln Plaza Hotel. Honest.

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