The hotel lobby buzzes like any other in New York on a weekday morning, as families from around the world excitedly examine maps, while bellhops in khaki pants and polo shirts give directions and load luggage carts.
But this hotel lobby is different. And not just because of its five glittering chandeliers or the three-story marble-like columns that trumpet an earlier age.
Nobody pays a bill at the front desk.
In a city of $400-a-night hotel rooms, the Bossert Hotel, on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, may be the best deal. Provided the guest is a Jehovah's Witness.
Members in good standing of this religious group — those who have gone door to door proselytizing or have completed international missionary work — are eligible for up to three nights of accommodations free of charge, three meals included, at a former high-society hot spot.
"I can't even believe it," said Lori Jacobson, 47, from Simi Valley, Calif., looking up at the chandeliers on her first trip to New York with her sons, 12 and 14. Her husband, Marc, was getting information for a Big Apple Bus tour.
The Jacobsons submitted an application a month ago to their local congregation, which everyone who wants to be a guest must do. Without the Bossert, Ms. Jacobson said, "we would have never been able to do this with a family."
Once considered the "Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn," the 12-story classical-style hotel built in 1909 by Louis Bossert, a lumber magnate, has a history that dovetails with the Jehovah's Witnesses' own history in the area since that same year.
Today, many members come to tour the group's world headquarters, near the Brooklyn Bridge. The hotel is one of the 34 properties that the group's business division — the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York — owns and meticulously maintains in Dumbo and in Brooklyn Heights. The network of offices, parking lots and residences is worth an estimated $1 billion, according to local real estate brokers.
The Watchtower clock and sign adjacent to the Brooklyn Bridge may be more recognizable than the Bossert, but the hotel — easy to walk past on a busy shopping street — is a more subtle symbol of the modest, close-knit religious group and its future in a brownstone bastion.
After more than a century, the Jehovah's Witnesses are likely to be headed out of Brooklyn, having bought a 253-acre plot for a new headquarters in Warwick, N.Y., in Orange County, about 50 miles north of New York City. They have already moved their printing operations to Wallkill, N.Y., farther north than Warwick (where 10,000 Bibles are produced a day), and their educational center to Patterson, N.Y., about 65 miles north and west of the city. The Witnesses are proceeding through Warwick's land-use process to build a seven-building complex, and approval could come as early as next spring.
In preparation, the Witnesses are selling eight properties in Brooklyn Heights, including carriage houses and small apartment buildings. A deal to turn the Bossert into dormitory housing and then condominiums — with R.A.L. Companies, which had bought another large Witness property and turned it into condominiums, One Brooklyn Bridge Park — fell through in 2008.
"We are not actively marketing the property right now," said Richard Devine, the chief spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses.
The group took over the building in a state of disrepair in 1983, renovated it in 1988, and in summer 2010, turned it into a 224-room hotel. Five residents who lived there before 1983 remain in their apartments, Mr. Devine said.
"We're just extras," said one of them, Monica Grier, 83, laughing.
Ms. Grier, originally from England, moved into the two-bedroom apartment on the 11th floor with her husband, George, in 1956. She is grateful for the infusion of polite activity, recalling the female screams she heard when part of the building was a seedy single-room occupancy hotel. Until last summer, the hallways were mostly silent except during the Witnesses' special events.
When her husband died in 1988, she decided to stay. She first paid $300 in rent; now she pays $800. She said staff members treated her well and had not tried to proselytize to her.
Daisy Diamontopulos, 80, who has lived on the 10th floor since 1965, said the same. "I am a Roman Catholic and that doesn't bother them," she said. "I put my Christmas decorations on the wall. They come to my home, they invite us to theirs."
Both she and Ms. Grier hope they will be able to stay through whatever incarnation is next for the Bossert.
Community leaders say there will be a discernible demographic effect once the 1,400 members living and working in Brooklyn, including the 20 or so who work at the Bossert, leave.
They have a light footprint. Members who work full time for the organization in Brooklyn are not allowed to have children or dogs or cars with them because their work is all-encompassing.
And that policy could have an impact on the neighborhood when the Witnesses' presence decreases and new residents move in.
"Right now, we don't have the schools capacity to support an influx of residents with children," Judy Stanton, the Brooklyn Heights Association's executive director, said. She added that she was concerned about upkeep since Watchtower society placed a premium on maintenance, including the surrounding sidewalks and parks.
The neighborhood, however, may become livelier, said Ms. Stanton, although it is unlikely to resemble that of the Bossert's golden age, in the first half the 20th century.
Former presidents, mayors, governors and debutantes flocked to the Hotel Bossert's vaunted Marine Roof restaurant, designed to look like a two-tiered promenade deck of a ship. They danced in the ballroom under the crystal chandeliers that now illuminate the inner lobby. The Brooklyn Dodgers celebrated there after their only World Series victory, in 1955.
The roof closed in 1949, and it had collapsed when the Witnesses took it over, transforming it into unremarkable event space, though the sweeping views of Lower Manhattan were preserved. While most rooms are small and plain, the lobby is fairly opulent.
Of course, nothing in New York is truly free. Volunteer contributions sustain the organization, and that holds true at the hotel, where, next to a stack of brochures in the lobby is a thin slot for donations.
The Jacobson family contributed $300.
Lisa Gibertini, 27, and her husband, Auston Gibertini, 29, were recently visiting from Portland, Ore., and had not decided on their gift amount. "We're so thankful to stay here," Ms. Gibertini said. "You just want to give a donation."
Mr. Gibertini added, "If we didn't, then it wouldn't be ready for the next person."