Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The 1890 Judge Building - 110-112 Fifth Avenue

By the spring of 1888 the Fifth Avenue blocks just above 14th Street were rapidly changing from brownstone mansions to commercial buildings.  On May 12 that year the Record & Guide noted that real estate operators Robert and Ogden Goelet had purchased the four story residence at No. 1 West 16th Street.  Built in 1845 it had been the home of attorney A. J. Vanderpoel for two decades.  The journal said the buyers would used it "in conjunction with the adjoining ground for the new Judge building."

Judge magazine, founded in 1881, was already publishing its 16-page satirical magazine in the relatively small building at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street, next door to the Vanderpoel mansion.  That building, according to the Record & Guide, was only a year old in 1888.  But it and the two structures to the north--including No. 112 occupied by William Knabe & Co.'s piano showrooms--would soon come down to make way for a massive and impressive new home for the magazine.

Following the death of William Knabe, Herman F. Keidel had managed the Knabe business.  He did so with marked success and, according to The New York Times, "was very much attached to it, believing to a certain extent that the success of the business in this part of the country depended upon that site."  Keidel even lived in the basement level of the building.  But in late 1888 he received a notice from the Goelet brothers informing him that "the possession of the property must be surrendered by May 1, 1889 to make way for improvements."  The Times explained "This meant that the Judge Building, adjoining 112 Fifth-avenue, intended to extend so that it should absorb the old building."

Knabe agonized about the prospects and then came to a tragic decision.  A few months later, on the morning of February 17, 1889 he rose at about 7:00, "put on his slippers and bath gown, walked to a mirror in a room in the rear of his bedroom, and shot himself in the right temple," as described by The Times.

Although Fifth Avenue had begun changing, the quiet block of 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues still hung on to its residential character.  The invasion of their calm by the Judge publishing firm sent several of the wealthy residents to the Board of Health to complain on June 14, 1889.

A special meeting was held during which William Turnbull, W. T. Buckley, William GIbson and Dr. Daniel M. Stimson testified to the din and vibrations emanating from the corner building.  Turnbull said "he was unable to sleep soundly at night on account of the incessant noise and jarring of the printing presses, and members of his family were in a nervous state," according to the New-York Tribune.  Gibson said he had gone to the building several times to publisher William J. Arkell, but got "no satisfaction."   For his part, Arkell dismissed the matter, choosing not to appear at the meeting.  The Tribune said "It was understood that he was prepared to make a contest in the courts if the Board decided that his business was a nuisance."

In the meantime, the Goelet brothers commissioned McKim, Mead & White to design the new printing house.  Completed in 1890, the eight-story structure was dominated by a series of arched openings--later earning the style the name "arcaded Renaissance Revival."  The two-story granite base included three entrances; the center doorway distinguished by a portico supported by polished granite columns.  Above each doorway was an oval window surrounded by carved palm fronds.

Terra cotta quoins ran up the rounded corners of the buff colored brick upper floors.  Above the cornice from which enormous lions' heads snarled down on the pedestrians was a pierced parapet.

The iron fence of a surviving mansion can be glimpsed at the lower right.  from King's Views of New York City 1893 (copyright expired)
In December 1890 the two-story showroom space had not yet been leased, so it was used for the Charity Doll Show benefiting 12 city hospitals.  The five-day show and sale drew great attention, The New York Times promised "Twenty-six hundred dolls will be on exhibition, 800 of which will have been dressed by the girl pupils of the Normal College, the remainder by well-known ladies."

Many of those "well-known ladies" were opera and stage stars from as far away as Berlin, London, Rome, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg.   The First Lady, Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, promised a doll, as did the wives of the Cabinet members.  By the time the exhibition opened on December 15 the number of dolls had risen to 3,000.

The elaborate affair included complex staging for some exhibits.  "Of the dolls specially provided for may be mentioned fifty negro dolls, which in conjunction with an imitation log cabin, will illustrate scenes from Mrs. Stowe's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin," reported The Times, and "Another group of fifty dolls, designed by Miss Eveline Raymond, will be placed in a miniature country schoolhouse, a little building about 10 by 12 feet, and will present tableaus of various things which happen in village schools."

One extraordinary doll was sent from London by opera star Emma Albani.  She had personally made the costume; an exact copy of the one she wore in the second act of Otello.  The value of the doll prompted a $20 customs duty to enter the U.S.--nearly $550 today.  Nevertheless Caroline Harrison's doll stole the show.  Her costume was made from the her silk inauguration gown.  The Times opined "The value of the 'Harrison doll' does not consist in finery and good looks, but in its ancestry, and without doubt somebody will be willing to pay well for a doll dressed by the President's wife."

Dolls gave way to pianos when the Fischer Piano Company leased the lower floors for its showroom.  It share the ground floor with a Post Office "substation," what today would be known as a branch post office.  William Arkell, who could often be crusty, was magnanimous in providing space in the building.  The Times reported on January 21, 1890 "In the case of the station in the Judge building, Mr. Arkell offered to keep it up free of charge, and he is the only manager who doesn't receive the annual $400."

Fischer Piano was already in the showrooms when this photo of a tranquil Fifth Avenue was taken.  Abutting the Judge Building is the Kingsland mansion.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Sharing the upper floors with Judge were other publishing and printing firms:  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper; the publishing firms of Sackett, Wilhelms & Co. and R. F. Fenno & Company; and the Fless & Ridge Printing Co.

The year 1891 saw two horrific incidences in the building.  The first involved Charles Demetri, described by The New York Times as "an Italian."  He collected waste paper, of which there was no shortage in the Judge Building.   He arrived there on the morning of February 18 and started down to the basement on the sidewalk elevator platform.  The Times reported "It went down so rapidly that he lost his wits and reversed the gearing, and, as the platform was ascending, he attempted to jump out, but was caught between the platform and the sidewalk and killed."

Sixteen-year old Max Boxheimer worked in the pressroom of Sackett, Wilhelms & Co.  He was killed in a bizarre and grisly accident on October 20 that year.   The Times reported in unnecessary detail "The youth, in crossing the pressroom, stumbled and fell against the flywheel of a steam printing press.  He was caught in the spoke and was whirled around several times, striking the ceiling at each revolution."

The July 30, 1892 issue satirically depicted an "addled" Grover Cleveland.  (copyright expired)

On February 1, 1898 William J. Arkell made the significant announcement that he had filed papers in the County Clerk's office to consolidate Judge, Leslie's Weekly and the Demorest's Family Magazine into a single corporation known as the Arkell Publishing Company.  He noted that "the place of publication will continue at the Judge Building."  At the time Judge magazine had a circulation of nearly 100,000.

In 1902 Arkell was still leasing smaller spaces to other printing-related establishments like the Hopkins Photographic Supply Company, and printer Henry Romeike.  Sackett & Wilhelms & Co. was still in the building that spring when fire broke out in a pile of rubbish in the press room of The Judge Publishing Company on the seventh floor on the night of March 23.

The fire spread throughout the floor, climbed the walls to the ceiling where it set off the automatic alarm.  Responding firefighters had to break through the heavy 16th Street doors, then drag hoses up through an elevator shaft.  They managed to extinguish the blaze within an hour.  Although the flames had been contained to that floor, businesses below were damaged by water.  The New York Times was unimpressed with the vigilance of the security guard.  "There was a watchman in the building, but he was unaware of the fire until the firemen commenced smashing the doors."

Ten months later the Goelet estate leased the Judge building to real estate operator Henry Corn.  The 20-year lease "is said to involve about $1,500,000," reported the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide on January 17, 1903.  Corn had his own ideas about the building, and they did not include publishers and printers.

In a separate article the journal noted that Corn had already hired architect Robert Maynicke for "putting in a new front and adding three stories."   Those plans were expanded by May 16 when they now included new wiring, modern plumbing and elevators, revised floorplans and an additional story.  The extensive alterations would cost Corn $11.3 million in today's dollars.

Construction was expected to be completed in January 1904; but worker strikes caused delays.  On January 9 the Record & Guide was optimistic, saying the alterations "are steadily progressing in spite of the cold weather."

Maynicke's alterations were completed later that spring.  He had created a nearly seamless transition in adding the upper four floors.  Oddly enough, he moved the portico with its free-standing columns from the center to the northern entrance.

Photographed on April 17, 1909, the Judge Building is slathered with the names of its tenants.  The relocated portico can clearly be seen.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In place of printing and publishing firms, the building now filled with garment and textile companies, several of them involved in the lace industry.  Lace importer Bauman, Ludewig & Co. was among the first.  It occupied one of the 15,000 square foot floors in 1907, as did Gitsky & Co. and John Bonwit & Brand.

Probably the largest firm in the building at the time was Weil-Haskell Company, manufacturers of shirts and waists (shirtwaists, or "waists," were the most popular article of apparel for women in the 1890s through the World War I years).   Although the firm had orders for $300,000 in spring goods in October that year and was in the process of turning out 6,500 dozen shirts and 1,500 dozen waists, it was in serious financial trouble.

And things seemed to be only worsening with partner August Weil suddenly died on October 9 under suspicious circumstances.   The following day the Vermont newspaper The Barre Daily Times reported "poison may have caused his end" and explained "A vial from which a quantity of hydrocyanic acid, or prussic acid, as it is commonly known, had been taken, stood on a dressing table beside the bed where he lay when his body was discovered."

The possibility that Weil had sacrificed his life to save his company was a clear possibility.  When his safe deposit box was opened it was discovered he had half a million dollars in life insurance.  The benefits were divided equally between his wife and the company.

On October 26 the bankruptcy proceedings were put on hold; and on February 8, 1908 The Sun ran the headline "Weil's Business Survives Him."  The $250,000 influx of cash--equal to nearly $6.6 million today--saved the firm. 

Other apparel firms in the building in the pre-World War I years were Getskay & Company; Hydeman & Lassner, "importers and manufacturers of veilings and nettings;" Engel & Kraus, makers of women's collars and "boudoir caps;" Abraham Hauman, makers of men's and children's clothing; and manufacturing tailors Bauman Clothing Corporation.

The Sun, March 7, 1909 (copyright expired)
In 1915 a renovation resulted in the handsome arched windows of the third story being replaced with square openings.  It was possibly at this time that the polished granite columns and portico were removed.

Edmund Vincent Gillon's photograph, around 1978, shows the square-headed third floor windows and missing portico.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Two decidedly non-apparel related firms in the building in 1921 were the American Produced Toy Company, Inc. and the Uncle Sam Doll Corporation.   The two companies were "in an embarrassing position" financially, according to representatives who spoke to reporters on March 25 that year.  Four years after the war with Germany, they blamed that country on their problems.

Now back on their feet, German toy manufacturers had resumed their imports to the United States.  The New York Times said "For the last eight or ten months imports of German toys have been exceedingly heavy, reminding the dealers somewhat of the imports in this line before the war."

But an attorney appointed by Federal Judge Mayer felt the firms were using Germany--still an enemy in the minds of many Americans--as a scapegoat.  He said he "had heard the report that German competition was responsible for the trouble the American toy manufacturers are now having," but that he "doubted it."

Engel & Kraus was still in the building, occupying the seventh and eighth floors, at the time.  That year the firm hired 16-year old Isadore Karp as an assistant shipping clerk.   The teen proved to be a hot head and after a year on the job, in February 1922, Henry Kraus, son of one of the firm's partners Gustav Kraus, fired Karp for his "ungovernable temper."  The temper for which he was discharged soon boiled over with tragic results.

On March 7 Karp returned to the building.  When the elevator boy asked him why he was hanging around the freight entrance, Karp casually said he was waiting for Henry Kraus.  Around 10:00 he was seen in the packing room of the firm, before he disappeared again.  He reappeared at 2:00 in the shipping room and told a clerk he wanted to see Kraus.   The boy returned saying that Henry Kraus would not see him.

When he was spotted in the hallways later with a gun, an employee rushed to inform the owners.  Max Engle responded and when he entered the hallway, Karp jumped from behind a door and yelled "What did you make me lose my job for?  Hands up!" and fired his gun.  He had mistaken Engel for his former boss.

The 57-year old Engel died without regaining consciousness.  Karp ran from the building and was arrested on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.  When he was informed that Engel was dead, he replied "I'm the guy that killed him.  Let 'em bury him."

Later that evening his mother gave reporters a slightly different account.  She said her son was "mentally unbalanced" and that she believed he had "given up his job of his own accord after he had quarreled with Henry Kraus."

Tenants of the Judge Building suffered a string of burglaries and robberies through mid-century.   Twenty-year old Solonon Hirsch worked as an officer clerk and messenger for the boys' wholesale clothiers Gladstone Brothers in 1934.  Until the second half of the 20th century workers were paid in cash; a system that made the jobs of employees like Hirsch especially dangerous on paydays.

On October 19 that year Hirsch returned from the bank with the company's $2,098.75 payroll.  He entered the elevator with three other men.  Just as the car reached the eighth floor, one of the men knocked the control handle from the hand of elevator operator Joseph Cross.  Suddenly Cross and Hirsch were looking into the barrels of three pistols.  The crooks snatched the money envelope, demanded Cross return them to the ground floor, and escaped.

Burglars who broke into the sixth floor shop of Quickturns, Inc., another clothing company, in February 1947 attempted to make off with $2,100 worth of rayon material.  But police had been tipped off and as the three men attempted to drive off, they were seized.  A few minutes later a truck arrived to help in the haul.  Its five occupants were arrested on the spot.

In 1956 the Svirsky Clothing Company operated from the Judge Building and parked its delivery vans nearby in the Annex Garage on East 11th Street.  Just after midnight on October 9 four gunmen subdued the night watchman, bound him with adhesive tape, and stuffed him in the van of a truck.  They then drove off with two Svirsky Clothing Company trucks loaded with $50,000 worth of clothing--more than $440,000 by today's standards.

It was around this time that the passenger elevators in the Judge Building were upgraded to the new "self-service" type which no longer necessitated an operator.  The modern convenience encountered a glitch on November 25, 1958 when 11 passengers were trapped between floors.

Calling it a "capricious elevator," The Times said "Three men and eight women were descending in the newly installed self-service elevator...when it suddenly changed direction near the fourth floor and stopped between the tenth and top floors."   The panicked group shouted, pressed buttons, and opened a ceiling panel to admit more air.  But their efforts were futile.

After an exasperating hour of entrapment, the elevator suddenly began moving.  It stopped at the fifth floor and the door "mysteriously" opened.  The newspaper reported "The passengers scrambled out and took to the stairs."

In December 1985 Anthony C. Wood held his breath.   He was the director of the Historic District Council, a private group that was lobbying hard for the landmark designation of what would be known as the Ladies' Mile historic district.   While he watched, the cornice of the Judge Building was being removed.

He told New York Times architecture reporter David W. Dunlap "After you see a few cornices disappear, you realize how incredibly important they are to the design of a building and the feel of a neighborhood."  But preservationists could relax in this case.

The new owners installed a fiberglass version of the Maynicke cornice, the color of oxidized copper.

The Judge Building had been purchased by The New York Times Company a year earlier when it announced the exterior would be "restored in a manner consistent with the original design intent."  But the pressed metal cornice had deteriorated beyond restoration.   Vito J. Colaprico, a vice president of The New York Times Company, announced a molded fiberglass near copy would be fabricated.  He also announced that the third floor arches would be restored.

The renovation included modern interpretation of the McKim, Mead and White arches.

The renovated building became home to several New York Times Company publications, including Snow Country magazine, New York Magazine, Vibe, Family Circle and Child Magazine

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see the Judge Building on this blog. It appears in the 1975 Dover book "New York Then and Now". It's described as having been subjected to tasteless alterations - concurrent with the architectural massacre of the 1970's. It was great to see this building come back into its own - stunning, even.