The transformation of 535 112th St.
By Ben Schneider
In 1906, a narrow six-story building was erected at 535 West 112th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam. Since then, the red-brick structure has been a hotel, two different restaurants, and a Jewish co-op.
In its early years, the hotel attempted to appeal to the bourgeois aspirations of local residents and students. A 1921 Columbia Spectator advertisement for the Hotel Royal Restaurant describes it as a “cozy place to pass the noon hour,” and highlights the “Table d’Hotel Lunch 60¢” The hotel ran a separate Spec campaign in the early ’20s, extolling itself as a “refined family hotel” with a “European plan and special student rates.”
But not every aspect of the hotel was so family-friendly. A 1931 article in the Brooklyn Standard Union relates the matricide of Herman Diller, the owner of a drug store on 115th and Broadway. Along with his elegant Brooklyn apartment—in which he was found beaten to death by a hammer—Diller rented a room at the Hotel Royal that he shared with some of his young employees. After discovering his body and arresting his wife, police learned that Diller “frequently went to an apartment he shared with the young men and, according to the clerks, took women companions with him.”
Minor scandals aside, by the middle of the century, the hotel’s glory days were behind it. In 1954, the Hotel Royal Restaurant became the Hotel Roy Pizzeria, a transition very much in keeping with the changes occurring in the neighborhood. Single Room Occupancy hotels, or SROs, were no longer seen as a viable housing option for anyone but the most desperate, and Morningside Heights had begun a dramatic decline. Across the city and the nation, white and affluent people fled to the suburbs, paving the way for large-scale “urban renewal” projects that would make places like The Hotel Royal relics of the past.
Powerful institutions like Columbia were essential players in this process. Starting in the late ’60s, the University began buying every neighborhood property it could get its hands on, including the Hotel Royal and countless other SROs. In 1972, thanks to a $40,000 endowment from the novelist Herman Wouk, CC ’34, the building became Beit Ephraim (affectionately known as the Bayit), a “Jewish food co-op.” The structure was only minimally altered in the conversion, except for the addition of a large kitchen in the back.
Stephen Cohen, CC ’70 and GSAS ’74, one of the co-op’s founders, describes the Bayit’s early years as a “contentious time.” But one would expect no less from a community made up of “people who were very active in Jewish life but had different points of view.” These principles, as well as a shared passion for food and cooking, have kept the Bayit going strong to this day. For inhabitants past and present, the building’s history has mostly faded into the background— though Cohen does admit, “I’d heard the place was a brothel.”