Saturday, February 17, 2018

The 1922 I. Townsend Burden House - 115 E 70th Street



At the turn of the last century massive fortunes from silver, gold and copper were being made in the Far West.  Yet finding suitable husbands for their daughters was a challenge for the wives of those new millionaires.   East Coast socialites saw the girls as nouveau riche and uncultured. 

Dennis Sheedy was one of the wealthiest men in Denver, Colorado.  His wife prepared well in advance, sending her two daughters, Florence and Marie, to cultured convent schools and taking them on extensive trips to Europe.  Starting ib 1910, as the girls reached marriageable ages, the family spent extended periods in New York City. 

Marie caught the eye of millionaire Robert L. Livingston and the sweethearts were married in Denver on February 15, 1911.   Among the guests was the 36-year old bachelor, Isaiah Townsend Burden, Jr.

The Burden family had been involved in iron manufacturing since Henry Burden founded the Burden Iron Works in Troy, New York.   After Henry's death in 1871, the enormous operation was run by Isaiah's uncle, James A. Burden, and father, I. Townsend Burden, Sr.

I. Townsend Burden, Jr. was one of the most eligible bachelors in the country.  An example of his family's prodigious wealth took place in 1870.  When newly-elected President Ulysses S. Grant was to visit their Newport mansion, Fairlawn, on Bellevue Avenue, Burden, Sr. had architect Richard Morris Hunt add a ballroom to the house for the occasion.

Soon after the wedding of Robert and Marie, newspapers spread the word that I. Townsend Burden, Jr. had proposed to Florence and the wedding was to take place soon.  All involved parties flew into damage control (society engagements were not properly announced by gossip columns, but by the prospective brides' families).

Florence sent out telegrams to the periodicals saying "There is not a word of truth in the report that I am engaged to I Townsend Burden, Jr., of New York."  She expressed her family's "appreciation of Mr. Burden's courtesy in coming so far to attend my sister Marie's wedding," and even hinted "Indeed, I have good reason to believe that Mr. Burden left his heart in the East."

Burden chimed in saying "I am more than sorry that Miss Sheedy has been embarrassed by the report...She and I are the best of friends, but there is no foundation for a report that we are engaged."  And his mother insisted she had never heard of the rumor until reading it in the paper.

Protests aside, the couple was married in the Sheedy mansion in Denver on June 17.  The problem of Florence's being Catholic and her groom's being Protestant was set to rest by a four-word telegram from the Vatican.  "Holy Father blesses marriage."   The wedding gifts for two of the richest young people in the country reflected their social positions.  Three armed detectives had stood 24-hour guard for a week prior to the wedding.

The Sheedy's gave the couple a $10,000 touring car and a check for $100,000, and a $50,000 string of pearls to the bride.  The Burdens provided a silver table service valued at $35,000 (more than $875,000 today).  Other gifts included a solid gold ink stand from Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, an onyx and gold clock with matching candlesticks from George Gould, and a solid gold after-dinner coffee set, four solid gold candlesticks from D. W. Cutting, and two solid silver compotiers from Mrs. William W. Sloan.

At the time of the wedding the block of East 70th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, had changed from one of middle-class brownstone houses and stables, to a fashionable residential enclave.  It was perhaps best exemplified a decade later when millionaire Thomas W. Lamont erected his double-wide mansion at No. 107 East 70th Street

In April 1921 Burden purchased the two old brownstones at Nos. 113 and 115, just steps away from the Lamont house, from I. N. Phelps Stokes.  He paid a staggering $100,000 for the properties--nearly $1.4 million in today's dollars.  The New-York Tribune announced "Mr. Burden is to alter the houses into a single dwelling for his own occupancy."

But the Burdens changed their minds and demolished the old buildings.  On July 15 architect P. J. Murray filed plans for a "four-story home" to cost $75,000.   But, again, the Burdens seem to have rethought things.  When the house was completed on June 20, 1922, it had morphed to six stories.

Murray placed the brick-faced structure on a limestone base, visually grounding the tall building.  Additionally, by placing a heavy stone cornice between the fourth and fifth floors, he tricked the eye and to see a four-story house with attic floors rather than an awkwardly tall structure.

Murray's personal take on the neo-French classic style was highly appreciated by architecture critic Augusta Owen Patterson.  Writing in American Homes of To-Day in 1924, she gushed "Its success is determined largely by the perfection of its line and the exquisiteness of its ornament.  Its charm is the charm of symmetry and well considered spaces.  Its precision results in elegance.  Its reserve suggests all that one has ever known of the ritualism of French social custom."

The Burden mansion was a tempting target for "the Old Dutch House man," in 1927.  House burglar Adolph Gisterer, alias William Hauck, had been a thorn in the sides of police since the 1890s.  Police Inspector Coughlin told reporters that "in his long career [Gisterer] had stolen thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry and clothing from homes of well to do persons."

In 1922 he was sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of burglarizing 20 homes.  Not long after his release the Burdens came home to find their bedrooms ransacked and clothing amounting to about $3,000 today missing.   On January 22, 1927 he was caught trying to climb through a small side window at Fifth Avenue and 71st Street.  He was subsequently charged not only with the Burden burglary; but a similar robbery of the home of T. J. Steinway at No. 128 East 64th Street a week earlier.


The Burdens' summers were spent, mostly, at Fairlawn, which I. Townsend had inherited from his father in 1913.  The Great Depression did not significantly affect their lifestyles, but the couple spent more time away from East 70th Street.  And on November 3, 1932 The Times announced that Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Pulitizer will return from Europe next week and will be at the Savoy-Plaza until going to their new home at 115 East Seventieth Street."  Four days earlier it had been announced the the Burdens had leased the mansion to the publisher.

The lease was a hint at things to come.  The title of the mansion was in Florence's name; so she was the owner of record when architect R. Barfort King was commissioned to transform it to apartments.  For some reason, while he preserved Murray's handsome facade, he fiddled with the top floor, changing the the neo-French classic dormers to copper-framed modern versions.

The modifications resulted in one sprawling apartment each on the ground and second floors, and two each on the floors above.  An advertisement promised that the apartments offered "the unique advantage of a Private House Neighborhood and Modern Living at the best.  The Suites have really Large Rooms, Woodburning Fireplaces and Completely Equipped Kitchens, Modern Bathrooms and unusual convenience and comfort." It added "Heated by Coal."

Floorplans of the top two floors were included in the brochure published by the Van Dam Management Co.

Among the tenants here in 1946 was theatrical producer and director Herman Shumlin.  By now he had produced and directed legendary Broadway hits like The Corn is Green, The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes, and Watch on the Rhine (he had also directed the 1943 motion picture version of Watch on the Rhine).  But Shumlin's long-standing political views placed him directly in the sights of Congress's Committee on Un-American Activities that year.

The Committee was founded in 1938 "to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of having Communist ties."   A hysteria developed which resulted in nothing short of an Inquisition.

In March 1946 Shumlin was summoned to testify before the Committee as "a member of the executive board of the Joint Anti-Fasciest Refugee Committee."   The terrifying tactics of the group was apparent when Shumlin appeared on Thursday, April 4.

When asked to give his name and address, he said "May I have my lawyer present?"  He was told, "Give your name and address first."  Shumlin gave his name and business address.  When he was pressed for his residential address, he responded "May I have counsel present?"  The Chairman gave a disturbing response.  "I will advise you, Mr. Shumlin, if during the course of the examination there should arise any legal question that necessitates your getting legal advise before you answer it."

By 1952 Dr. Alfred V. Weisenthal and his wife lived in the building.  Born in Vienna in 1915, he was the Chief of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital.  Following his wife's death, he remained here until his own death in August 1961.

The former mansion had seen better days by the turn of the century.  Much of the interior detailing had been lost in favor of stark modernity.   That mattered little when the house was gutted by a fire in 2006.

A pre-fire photo reveals that little was left of the Burdens' grand home.  photo via corcoran group

Reed Krakoff, the former executive creative director of Coach brand, had purchased the mansion a year earlier for $17 million.  Krakoff and his wife, Delphine, a French-born interior designer, had just embarked on a renovation to return the house to a single-family home.

photos via Curbed New York

The Krakoffs forged on, installing 18th century mantels and antique floorboards imported from Europe.   The couple sold the renovated mansion in 2014 for a jaw-dropping $51 million.

photographs by the author


Friday, February 16, 2018

The Art Deco 'Fur Land' Building - 155-163 West 29th Street


Close inspection of the long, low building reveals stylish Art Deco elements obscured by the grime and circus-like awnings.

By 1929, the West 29th Street neighborhood between Sixth and Seventh Avenues had been part of Manhattan's Fur District for years.   That year Fur Land Company, Inc. laid plans for its headquarters and wholesale store, at Nos. 155-163 West 29th Street.  But the Stock Market Crash on October 29 that year may have significantly scaled back those plans.
 
The firm commissioned the firm of Sugarman & Berger to design the structure.  Plans were filed on April 22, 1930 with the cost projected at $150,000, slightly over $2 million today.   Completed in March the following year, it was just three stories tall--standing in stark contrast to the soaring loft structures that had already risen along the block.

The architects sheathed the structure in white terra cotta tiles.  The offset entrance to the upper floors, wedged between storefronts, sat within an Aztec-inspired stair-stepped frame that smacked of grander examples found in buildings like the Chrysler Building.  A bandcourse of crisp zig-zags against rolling waves formed the base of the two-story grouped openings.  Here tiles gave the impression of fluting to the pilasters, which were capped by Art Deco capitals.  The pressed metal spandrals were surprisingly spartan.  A row of decorative tiles suggested a cornice.


The Fur Land Company leased a portion of the new building to A. Hollander & Sons, a "dyeing and fur dressing establishment."   The firm had been founded in 1889 by Austrian-born brothers Joseph and Adolph Hollander as Hollander Brothers.   A. Hollander & Son became the world's largest fur dressers and dyers listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

According to a family member, Jane Hollander, decades later in a letter to The New York Times, "the Hollanders specialized in making cheap furs look expensive, especially mink-dyed muskrat."   The company's fur cleaning process, involving sawdust and other agents, became a household word in the 1940s, "Hollanderizing."

Furs offered by department stores nationwide were marketed as Hollander-dyed.  The Pittsburgh Press, August 15, 1935
Not long after A. Hollander & Sons moved in, the firm suffered the loss of founder Adolph.  He died on September 29, 1932 at the age of 80.  His brother stayed on for another five years before retiring.  The company was still operating in the West 29th Street building in 1940 when he died while wintering in St. Petersburg, Florida with his wife.

The Depression dealt a severe blow to dealers in luxury goods, like furs.  Although it remained in the building, in 1934 the Fur Land Company leased it for "a discounted rent" of $24,000 a year, for ten years.  The ploy did not work and the building was lost in foreclosure.

Nevertheless, Fur Land forged on and on August 14, 1947 bought the building back from the City of New York.

The recovered economy following the end of World War II breathed new life into the fur industry.   The Fur Land Building continue to house furriers like Loran Furs, Inc., here by 1946, and National Coney Fur Institute.   But it was not the rebounded economy that could be credited for the unusual profits of Loran Furs.  Instead it was the fact that its partners, Nicholas Proscia and Max Davis, did not pay for many of the expensive goods they sold.

It all came to an end on January 25, 1950 when the FBI announced it had arrested them, along with American Express driver Thomas A. Carr.  The Bureau said the men were the "nucleus" of a "ring that over the last four years allegedly had stolen furs valued at $1,000,000."

Carr had been with American Express since 1917.  His route was within the Fur District and for years he manipulated shipping tickets and diverted shipments to Loran Furs, Inc.  American Express then paid out claims to the rightful customers or their insurance companies; but when that amount topped $1 million (more than ten times that much today), the firm brought in the FBI.

A six-month investigation pointed to Carr and he was put under surveillance.  After he delivered two marked cartons to Loran Furs, he was taken into custody outside.  Agents arrested Davis and Proscia in their offices.

The consumer's renewed ability to purchase furs resulted in high-end lifestyles for the furriers' executives.  Such was the case with Jack Posner, account representative for National Coney Fur.   He and his family live in the fashionable Eldorado Apartments at No. 300 Central Park West.   While their husbands stayed home to tend to business, well-to-do wives often went off to summer resorts or Europe.  And in 1954 Posner's wife, Margaret, and their 21-year old daughter, Elizabeth, left him behind as they sailed off to England.

The two boarded the Queen Elizabeth in Southampton on Wednesday, July 28 to return home.  The steamship stopped briefly in Cherbourg to board more passengers, then steamed on, bound for New York.  About nine hours after leaving port Elizabeth could not find her mother.

The ship's crew made what the Cunard Steamship Company said was a "fruitless search of the ship."  The Queen Elizabeth circled the area for about and hour and a half, and radioed other ships to be on the lookout for the woman.

On August 2 the ocean liner docked in New York.  Jack Posner met his daughter at the pier without her mother.

Sugarman & Berger's entrance smacked of those found in grand Art Deco structures like the Chrysler Building

There was at least one tenant in the building at the time who was not involved in the furrier business.  In April 152 Lester Leber left the Grey Advertising Agency to form his own agency under his own name with offices at Nos. 155-163 West 29th Street.

The Fur District remained in the neighborhood through the last decades of the 20th century.  Fur wholesaler Harry Bakel was still here in the late 1960s.

Today there is little or no trace of the furrier trade on the 29th Street block.  Garish shops vie for attention at street level, the Fur Land Building being no exception.  Sugarman & Berger's streamlined storefronts are long gone, replaced with metal roll-down gates surmounted by a carnival of vinyl awnings.  But the wonder Art Deco entrance survives essentially intact along with the upper floors.

photographs by the author

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Several Faces of 1 Broadway


Nothing of the current facade hints at its appearance in 1884. photograph by Gryffindor

Cyrus Field’s rise from an errand boy in A. T. Stewart’s dry goods emporium to one of the city’s wealthiest men was meteoric.  Years later the Daily Alta California would remind readers “His brother, David Dudley, was given a collegiate education; instead of a classical education Cyrus received $25 in cash and his father’s blessing.”
After working three years for $2 a week at Stewart’s, he took a job as a salesman for a paper manufacturer.  Before long he started his own business.  The California newspaper said “on the first day that he took possession of his new office he made the sanguine remark: ‘I shall make a fortune here in twenty years.’  Better than his word, he made his fortune in twelve years and retired, still in the prime of life, to enjoy the rest which he had never known since his boyhood.”  
The “prime of his life” was age 33 and Field left with a comfortable fortune of $250,000—between $6 and $10 million today.  But his retirement did not necessarily include "the rest" which the California journalist referred to.  He traveled with artist Frederick Church through Bogota, Guayaquil and Ecuador.   But he is best remembered for being the force behind the laying of the Transatlantic Cable in 1866.

Field was also the owner of the Evening Mail newspaper.  In 1881 he embarked on a project to erect a new headquarters building which would include additional floors of leased office space.   One by one he purchased the properties that composed the block front on Battery Place, between Broadway and Greenwich Street (today Trinity Place).  Included was the historic Washington Hotel at No. 1 Broadway, built in 1745 as the mansion of British Captain Archibald Kennedy. 

On November 17, 1881 The New York Times explained that Field "decided that six of the foremost architects of this City should enter into a competition in the drawing of plans for the immense office building which it is his intention to have erected on that ground."   The mere submission of a design would reap the architects $500; the winning architect would be awarded $5,000 (plus an additional $500 for relinquishing ownership of the designs to Field).

The designs were to be submitted anonymously, marked with a "motto," accompanied by a letter containing the architects' names which would be opened only after the choice had been made.  On November 1, the deadline, Field gathered up the plans, took this to his country home at Irvington-on-Hudson, and reviewed them with his wife.  The couple decided on Edward H. Kendall.

"Mr. Kendall's plan is to constructor a building that will in many of its details be a reminder of the old colonial days, and which will, to some extent, memorialize the building there standing and known to have been the head-quarters of Gen. Washington," said The Times.  "The architect has, therefore, produced plans for a building, the style of which he is pleased to distinguish as colonial."

The Broadway entrance, seen above, was mirrored on the Greenwich Street corner.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, June 25, 1898 (copyright expired)
While Kendall's design did include Colonial Revival elements, it also drew substantially from the new Queen Anne style.  Faced in "Milwaukee brick," its brownstone trim was, according to The Times, "the same kind of stone used in the construction of Trinity Church."   From the two main entrances at the chamfered corners rounded stone staircases spilled to the sidewalk like cascades.  Both corners included five-story "turreted oriels."  
Even after Kendall filed his plans on June 23, 1882 it seems that he and Fields were still working out significant details.  Although Field had initially put a $500,000 cap on construction costs, Kendall's plans came to $900,000--nearly $20.5 million today.  And although the plans called for an 11-story building, The New York Times described 10 stories.

Even at that height it would be a marvel.  (In 1896 one writer called the building "the pioneer of the "Sky Scrapers.)  The Times called it "an artistic effort" and predicted it "cannot fail to attract the eye, and it is believed that the building will be one of the handsomest in the City."   
The entire tenth floor, said the newspaper, would be used by the Evening Mail for its "editorial, reportorial, and composing rooms," and, of course, Cyrus Fields's office.  The press rooms were located in the cellar, with windows at sidewalk level, at the western end of the building.  The Broadway side cellar space would hold the safe deposit vaults of the banking firm which had already signed a lease for the first floor space on that side.  Floors three through nine contained 19 rented offices each, which measured 17 by 18 feet.  The Times commented "The offices on the Battery-place front will command an unsurpassed view of the Battery Park and the harbor."

Named the Washington Building in homage to its venerable predecessor, it was in fact more popularly called the Field Building.  It was completed in 1884 and, as The Times predicted, stopped at 10 floors.  Also missing from the original plans was a "cupola, with a flag-staff and electric light," resulting in a blunt roofline,

Among the first tenants were the Manhattan Hay and Produce Exchange, as well as D'Orville's restaurant, which would be the scene of business meetings and dinners.  One example was the annual dinner and election of the Telegrapher' Mutual Benefit Association on November 19, 1884.   The millionaires in evening clothes had come from as far away as Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
The offices of the committee for erecting the Statue of Liberty moved in shortly after the building's completion.  The frustrating task of erecting a base and assembling the monument had been dragging on since 1876 when the arm was first displayed in Madison Square Park.  Part of the problem was that the United States had to pay for the pedestal.  Americans were still reeling from the Financial Panic of 1873 and there was tepid interest in donating to the project.

Periodicals were not quick to get behind it, either.  Harper's Weekly declared that France should have paid for the entire gift; and The New York Times said "no true patriot can countenance any such expenditures for bronze females in the present state of our finances."

But now the goal seemed within sight.  In August 1884 the Broadway entrance of the Washington Building was draped in French and American flags in anticipation of the cornerstone laying ceremonies of Richard Morris Hunt's pedestal on August 5.  A reception was held that morning from 10:00 to 1:00 and 3,000 invitations had been sent out for the ceremony.

Only a year after the Washington Building was completed, Edward H. Kendall got his way.  On July 18, 1885 The Record & Guide reported "Cyrus W. Field intends to add three stories to the Washington Building next year, to cost about $250,000.  The addition will contain a tower and other features, and will be a continuation of the original design, which was to make it an eleven-story building.  The architect will, of course, be E. H. Kendall."

Kendall eventually got his cupola and flagpole.  Piles of bricks sit in front of the remodeled building as workers pave Battery Place in 1886.  King's Handbook of New York 1890 (copyright expired)

The Record & Guide called the remodeled structure "undoubtedly one of the handsomest office structures in the world."  Not only did were the building's electric lights powered by its own dynamos in the basement, it had its own artesian well.  The Guide concluded "It is probably the first building to attract the foreigner who comes to our shores, and it stands out prominently, both on land and water, as one of the noblest buildings at the extreme southern boundary of Manhattan Island."
The Statue of Liberty Committee would not need offices after October 1886.  But the group went out with a bang--literally.   Previous to the monument's dedication on the afternoon of October 28, a procession came down Broadway to the Battery.  That night fireworks were set off from the Washington Building.

Cyrus Field had known Wall Street speculator James H. Hunting casually for years.  A wealthy jeweler in the 1850s, he had lost his business through bad investments.   By now he was considered "to be in moderate circumstances," as described by The New York Times.   His marriage had ended in divorce and "after this Hunting seemed to grow less and less prosperous."
Hunting routinely dropped into the offices of friends to ask for small loans.  Among those was Cyrus Field and on May 4, 1888 he was back.  He walked into Field's  office in the Washington Building asking him to lend him a few dollars.

Field reportedly replied, "Why, Jim, you know how this thing is; I have calls every day or two for money, and I can't lend you any to-day."  Hunting laughed at the good natured rejection, handed Fields a note and said, "Read this tonight."

The Times reported "Still laughing and in a perfectly cheerful manner, Mr. Hunting left the office.  His steps sounded along the hall for a moment, and then the report of a pistol was heard.  People rushed out of their offices and found Mr. Hunting dead."

Field opened the note which read:

Dear Will:  It seems almost impossible to succeed.  As a last favor, will you send my body to Madison, N. J., for burial as cheaply as possible, as I have no other friend but you.  Yours, Jim.
A string of tragedies would personally visit Cyrus Field beginning in 1891.  His beloved wife, Mary, died in their country home in November.  Only weeks later his son, Edward, went insane.  He not only brought about the failure of his brokerage firm, Field, Lindley, Weichers & Co., but "raided the strong box in which his father, Cyrus W. Field, kept his securities and left it empty of valuables," as reported by The Times on December 2.   The two events seriously affected Field, who was reported bedridden and while "not unconscious" all efforts "to arouse him were not successful."

And things got worse.  A partner in the ruined Field, Lindley, Weichers & Co. was Daniel Lindley, the husband of Cyrus's daughter Grace.  Now, stricken with "nervous prostration," Grace was taken to the Field mansion on Gramercy Park.  She died there on January 11 and her funeral was held in the mansion.  It was all too much for the 72 year old millionaire to handle.  He never recovered and died in the Irvington-on-Hudson house in July 1892.

The Broadway building was purchased by the Washington Building Co.   In January 1908 the firm hired Harry E. Donnell to so "extensive improvements."  Although the plans are vague, the updates were internal and most likely involved issues like plumbing and elevators.

Far more serious renovations would come after the International Mercantile Marine purchased by Washington Building in November 1919.  The organization paid $3 million--more in the neighborhood of $42.5 million today.  Only one week later it announced the structure "is to be transformed into a great white stone structure of classic dignity and proportion."

Architect Walter B. Chambers told reporters "The cupola and the side turret windows of the present structure will be removed, simplifying and strengthening the outline of the new elevation.  The interior will also be entirely remodeled in accordance with the most modern ideas."

The remarkable make-over was completed in August of 1922.  Astoundingly, the massive reconstruction of the building was executed without dispossessing the existing tenants--they were simply moved around as construction took place floor-by-floor.  

The entire first floor became the "great booking office" of the steamship company, as described by the Record & Guide.  "This office was designed to represent the latest idea in practical utility, with extensive counter space, a large waiting room for customers, a department devoted to the issuing of travelers' checks and an information bureau."  The Guide deemed the remodeled building "a beautiful harmonious structure, which few would recognize as the old Washington Building, known for two generations as the first skyscraper in Manhattan."

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, August 19, 1922 (copyright expired)

The design won the The Downtown League's "first [place] award for an altered building" in January 1922.  In announcing the award, the League said it "covered their beautiful building at 1 Broadway, formerly known as the 'Washington Building.'"

The International Mercantile Marine Company had barely opened its offices at 1 Broadway when it became involved in a sticky international problem--Prohibition.   Passengers on elegant steamships heading to New York from Europe expected wine with dinner and, perhaps, a cocktail in the evenings.  But Attorney General Daughtery ruled in October 1922 that "no ships may enter American waters with liquor aboard."

The ruling was immediately protested by the Cunard Line, the Anchor Lines, the United American Line and Red Star Line.  On October 12 the International Mercantile Marine Company joined the others in challenging the ruling.

The day before the ruling became effective passengers of the United American steamship Resolute "entered port singing lugubriously 'How Dry I Am,' the ship's bar having been closed at sea," reported the New-York Tribune. on October 13.  The Government was given a temporary restraining order by Judge Learned Hand until the United States Supreme Court could rule on the scope of the 18th Amendment with relation to international ships.

In 1992 Allstate T. F. I. acquired No. 1 Broadway in foreclosure.  Over the decades the stone facade had weathered and fragments have fallen away.  The firm initiated a $2.2 million facade restoration by architect Stephen Cohan, executed by C. & D. Restoration.  Interestingly, as damaged stone was removed, the original brick and brownstone facade was revealed underneath.  

Above the base, colorful terra cotta shield representing ports of call adorn the facade.  Elsewhere, limestone decorations carry on a marine theme--starfish and shells, for instance.   photograph by Gryffindor
Completed in 1995, the project was awarded the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The 1868 Judson & Leary Bldg - 56 Lispenard Street


photograph by the author

By the end of the 1860s the block of Lispenard Street between Broadway and Church Streets had seen the encroachment of commerce.   Decades later, in 1919, Henry Theodore Lutz described the block in his article, "Reminiscences of the Fifth Ward," in Valentine's Manual of Old New York.  His family moved into No. 56 Lispenard, he said, in 1861.  "The house was owned and the lower part occupied by a French jeweler, Mr. Victor Marchand.  Next door was Moon's stable, where the express wagons of Harndon's express were kept, and next to 58 was John Ireland's chop house, occupying 60 and 62."

Victor Marchand's house and shop would not last many more years.  On May 17, 1867 The New York Times remarked on what it called the "extraordinary transformation" of the neighborhood.  The newspaper attributed the construction boom to the "vast fortunes accumulated during the war by down-town traders."  Included in the long list of structures under construction was No. 56 Lispenard Street.

Construction had started in August of 1866.  The newspaper placed its cost at $25,000 (about $418,000 today) and identified its owner as Judson & Leary.  And there the mystery begins.

The arcane partners were possibly dry goods dealers or merely two businessmen dabbling in real estate.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission simply describes them saying "about whom nothing is known."  Equally puzzling is their architect of record, J. Van Riper.  If, indeed, Van Riper drew the plans for the structure, he most likely drew his inspiration entirely from style books.  His listed profession was not architect, but contractor; a partner in J. & J. Van Riper, "masons and builders."

The building was completed in 1868.  The four-story, brick-faced Italianate style structure was a humble bedfellow among its rather grand stone and cast iron neighbors.  The three floors above the cast iron storefront, manufactured in the foundry of Tice & Jacob's, appeared more domestic than commercial.   The bracketed cast metal cornice and the stone lintels could have as easily appeared on a middle-class house.

If Judson & Leary ever occupied their new building, they do not appear in directories and were most certainly gone by 1869 when the newly-formed Arnold & Banning moved in.   Listing itself as "dry goods and commission merchants," Arnold & Banning represented firms like the Connecticut-based Harmon, Baldwin & Foy.  For years Arnold & Banning would market that company's Madame Foy's Corset Skirt Supporter.

from The Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, August 1872 (copyright expired)

The first Arnold of Arnold & Banning was Edward Arnold, whose brother, Franklin, joined the firm in 1871.  Edward diversified his business interests when he became an officer in the Day Manufacturing Co around 1874.  Manufacturers and dealers in silk, the firm's offices and showrooms moved into No. 56 as well.  Its silk mills were in Paterson, New Jersey.

Edward and Franklin were not the only members of the Arnold family in the building.  At the time Pennsylvania was the site of America's first oil boom as "rock oil" was discovered throughout the state.  The machines of the Industrial Revolution had made petroleum highly valuable for purposes like lubrication.   Around 1866 the Shafer Farm Oil Co. was founded in Pennsylvania and by 1876 its offices were in No. 56 Lispenard Street.  Daniel S. Arnold was its treasurer.

The following decade the Arnolds and their various business were gone, replaced by apparel manufacturers.  M. Bouton made "cloaks" here as early as 1887; and E. Biesenthal & Co., owned by Edward Biesenthal and Morris Kirstein, manufactured wrappers.  Also known as "tea gowns," the ornate dressing gowns were made to be worn over petticoats.  Tailored to fit like a dress, women arising in the morning might even wear them to the breakfast table without risking her respectability.

Wrappers preserved a woman's respectability before getting fully dressed.  original source unknown (copyright expired)
In 1898 there were three tenants in the building--A. Schuler & Co., maker of shirtwaists; Nathan Schwenk (who had started his men's neckwear business the year before); and Louis Baerlein & Co., wholesale dealers in hosiery, "furnishing goods" and gloves.  Founded in 1870, Louis Baerlein & Co. moved here from No. 540 Broadway, several blocks to the north. 

In 1908 Samuel L. Abrams had been a partner with his father in the menswear company M. H. Abrams & Son at No. 38 Walker Street.  But there appears to have been some discontent within the family that year.  Men's Wear magazine noted on June 10 that he had left the company and his brother, Jacob, had taken his place.  The article said that Samuel had "started in business for himself at 56 Lispenard street."

S. L. Abrams manufactured men's pants and would remain in the building for decades.  It was joined by 1910 by dry goods jobbers L. Kleban & Co. and Schey & Co.   Apparel and textile related firms continued to lease space following World War I.  Sharing the building in 1918 with S. L. Abrams were The Washington Mills, jobbers of men's wear, and Morris L. Polansky, "silks, trims, and woolens."

By mid-century the nearly century-old building was suffering from age and neglect.  In 1962 Department of Building documents listed a store on the ground floor, but demanded that "above floors to remain vacant," most likely because of safety reasons.

The Tribeca renaissance made its first mark on the brick building in 1978 when Gibby Goldbas's Loft opened.  The tiny off-Broadway theater offered original stagings, like the double bill in January 1979.  Gibby Goldbas's own Ghosttown was followed by Stuart Sherman's 11th Spectacle.  Tickets were an affordable $2.50 each.

Three years later a renovation of the upper floors resulted in one spacious apartment on each.  As had been the case since 1868, the ground floor was home to a store.  In 2007 Custom Frame Factory, a discount art frame store, was in the space.

photograph via hotpads.com

The somewhat time-worn appearance of the exterior belies the upscale residential spaces inside.  Where once young immigrant girls sewed together women's tea dresses and men's pants, occupants live in much more comfortable surroundings.  And the great mystery of who built the structure remains unsolved.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Frederic Taylor House - 47 West 73rd Street




Determined to see the still mostly rocky and undeveloped Upper West Side transform into a suburb for upper and upper-middle class families, Edward C. Clark, president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, began aggressively buying up land in the mid 1870s.  In 1877 he purchased 30 building lots on Eighth Avenue (later named Central Park West) between 72nd and 73rd Streets; and kept adding to his holdings until by 1881 he owned nearly the entire block between Eighth and Ninth (later Columbus) Avenues and 73rd to 74th Streets.

Clark had a close relationship with architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh.   Two years after construction began on the high-end Dakota Apartment, the two set to work on another aggressive project nearby.  Hardenbergh designed 28 townhouses stretching from No. 15 to 67 West 73rd Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.   Construction was done in two phases, with the eastern group of homes completed in 1884, and Nos. 29 through 67 a year later.

Although at a glance the two sections appear the same, the first homes section were slightly wider and more costly.  Nevertheless, they flowed together as a picturesque grouping, harmonizing their architecture with that of the Dakota.

No. 47 sits directly behind the tree in this photograph. 
Clark retained ownership of all the houses, leasing them to well-heeled families.  No. 47 became home to Frederick Taylor and his wife, the former Louisa Josephine Walker (known as Lillie).  The couple were married in 1863.

Born in New York City on September 27, 1837, Taylor had been well educated.  He attended a private school in Flushing; then went on to Yale University.  Although te received a degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, he never practiced.  Instead he went into business with the importing firm of Butterfield & Co. before entering the banking business with the Continental Bank.

Striking details are the carved oak leaves framing the arched doorway, and the highly unusual palm fronds below the second story bay.

That relationship came to an abrupt end on June 17, 1885 when he resigned after incurring the wrath of a bank director, General Horace Porter.  Taylor did not agree with some of Porter's dealings involving the West Shore Railroad.  The New York Times reported "Mr. Taylor has written a number of caustic articles exposing some of the questionable features of West Shore transactions, and thus rendered himself obnoxious to Gen. Porter."  Taylor went into business for himself, founding the banking and brokerage firm of Frederic Taylor & Co.

Interestingly, it was Taylor's adept oratory skills for which he was best known and he was highly sought after as an speaker.  The New York Times later said of him "Mr. Taylor was a frequent traveler through the West and South, keenly interested in this country's progress, and closely observant of its development, and, though a man of business, he was perhaps most widely known as a brilliant orator, of ready wit and happy humor."

That "ready wit" was best remembered following an after-dinner speech he made in Chattanooga, Tennessee on March 12, 1891.  The room was filled with important political and business figures from both the North and South; but tensions were high after an earlier speech in New York by Henry W. Grady insulted nearly "the entire Southern country," as The Times put it.

Taylor's words pacified the audience.  He said in part "there is no single fact which so fills the heart of the North with gladness as that the South has recovered from its so long prostration."  Years later The Times recalled "The speech...completely established his reputation as an after-dinner speaker."

Taylor was also, by now, the president of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railroad.  His memberships in the exclusive Union League and Metropolitan Clubs spoke of his wealth and social standing.

Not long after moving into the 73rd Street house, Taylor became the guardian of his orphaned niece, Caroline Taylor Jewell.  The girl had earlier been educated by her grandmother who, although an Episcopalian like the Taylors, had sent her to a Roman Catholic convent in Brooklyn for several years.  Upon her grandmother's death, she moved in with the Taylors, who had no children of their own.

The same year that Taylor made his Chattanooga speech, Caroline, now 20 years old, made a shocking revelation to her aunt and uncle.  She had decided to convert to Catholicism.   And, what's more, she announced she wanted to become a nun.

In 1882, according to The Times, "notwithstanding the efforts of her uncle and aunt and other friends to dissuade her, she entered the Convent of the Sacred Heart."   And Frederic Taylor made a trip to his lawyer's office.

On Thursday evening, February 4, 1897 Lillie and Frederic had dinner as always.  When Frederic got up from the table, he was afflicted with a severe back pain.  When it only grew worse, Lillie called a doctor.   She sent messages to close friends who hurried to the house.  The Times reported "Everything possible was done to relieve the suffering man, but without success, and he died a few minutes before 10 o'clock, within an hour of the time of his seizure."

The funeral was held in the house four days later.  The New-York Tribune reported "Floral remembrances were sent by friends in various parts of the country."  Among the mourners that afternoon were former Mayor Abram S. Hewitt, former Congressman John Henry Ketcham, two colonels, and millionaires like Francis E.Trowbridge, Henry Clews and William Earl Dodge Stokes and his wife.

Taylor's estate was worth about $7.5 million today.  His will left generous bequests to charitable organizations like the Five points House of Industry, the Working Girls' Vacation Society and the New York Ladies' Home Missionary Society, among others.   About $100,000 was to be divided among his two brothers, two nieces and two nephews.

But Caroline's $25,000 share posed a problem.

The will stated that he "has no desire to disinherit her on account of her connection with her adopted faith, but that he does not desire to leave her any money which might, on account of her connection with sacred orders, eventually revert to the Roman Catholic Church."  The solution was simple.  The money would be paid to her "under the condition that she should not become a nun, and that she sever her connection with all Roman Catholic institutions."

Caroline's response was definitive.  The Connecticut newspaper the Waterbury Evening Democrat reported on December 29, 1899, "She is a Sister of Charity in the convent of the Sacred Heart in New York, and does not intent to renounce her faith."

Interestingly, the solid wing walls of the stoop do not meet the treads, but sit on little feet--certainly a help during snow removal.

Lillie Taylor was gone by 1906 when the Clark estate completed a long row of upscale residences directly behind her former home.  In advertising that they were available to rent, the estate noted that the caretaker of the houses could be seen at No. 47 West 73rd Street.

That arrangement was, of course, temporary, and the former Taylor residence became home to banker William Wood Struthers and his wife, Mary.  The couple was married on March 7, 1918 and nine months later, on December 28, their daughter, Mary was born.  They would eventually have three other children, Nina, Sara and William Jr.

The son of architect Robert Struthers, William had three brothers, Robert Jr., Duncan and J. Walter Wood Struthers.  Moving into the 73rd Street house with the newlyweds was  J. Walter, who was attending the U.S. Army's aviation school for civilians on Governor' Island.

Although slightly damaged, the stained glass transom of the parlor opening survives.  Below, a striking Renaissance Revival panel includes a whimsical face and beautifully-carved flowers.

Although J. Walter was a broker like his brother, with the world at war he wanted to qualify for his "military expert" license.  By now he had been making solo flights and in May started taking passengers.  On the morning of September 8, 1916 he and another student, Charles Deere Wiman, took off in a Curtis biplane with Struthers at the wheel.

About 15 minutes into their flight, at an altitude of approximately 80 feet, something went terribly wrong.  The Evening World reported "a sharp crack, as though an explosion, caused persons on the island and on Staten Island and South Brooklyn ferryboats to look up at them.

"The aeroplane, which was moving very slowly, wavered, one side drooped and then it darted to the ground in a narrow spiral, constantly gaining momentum.  Struthers could be seen yanking violently at his controls as it shot down, but he was unable to break the course of the spiral."

The biplane crashed nose-first into the ground.  "It tore a hole in the earth fifteen feet and then the whole structure, wires, frame and canvas, collapsed upon the aviators."

It took a quarter of an hour to extricate the fliers from the wreckage.  Both men were seriously hurt.  Struthers suffered two broken legs and his face was badly cut.  Wiman's wounds seemed more serious.  Along with a broken hip, he had critical internal injuries, and doctors cautioned that he "may die."


Upon receiving word, William and his father rushed to the Governor's Island hospital, taking along their own physicians and nurses to attend the men.   Ironically, it was not Wiman who perished, but Struthers.  The following month Aerial Age magazine called him "a martyr in the cause of preparedness" and commended his bravery in trying to contribute to the country's readiness for war.

When their lease was up in 1921 the Struthers family moved to Rye, New York.   The Clark estate put the house on the market, selling it in February.  The New-York Tribune reported "The buyer will occupy after making extensive alterations."

Those alterations did not extend to the facade, which was not modernized; but no doubt included arranging an office space for Dr. Elliot W. Lawrence.   A 1903 graduate of Cornell University, Lawrence was married to the former Mary Frain.   Following the death of her 59-year old mother, Margaret McDonough Frain on December 22, 1930, the funeral was held in the 73rd Street house.

The Lawrences offered their home up for the funeral of another relative, Dr. George Thomson Elliot, the following September.  He was the 76-year old uncle of Lawrence, the sister of his mother.

In 1940 the Lawrences divide their home into apartments.  The basement and parlor level now contained the doctor's office and an apartment; the second floor had one apartment, and there were two each on the upper floors.   The couple was still in the house when Dr. Lawrence died on December 29, 1963.



A renovation completed in 2000 resulted in a single apartment each on the lower floors, and a duplex within the fourth and newly-created penthouse, invisible from the street.

photographs by the author

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Lost Thorley's "House of Flowers" - 562 Fifth Avenue


Around 1919 lush greenery spills from boxes bolted to the facade (even the corners) and along the third floor balcony.  Note the round glass canopy at the corner entrance.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

On May 23, 1890 The New York Times reported on the death of Fletcher Harper, a member of the publishing firm Harper & Brothers and a son of Fletcher Harper, one of the original four brothers who founded the firm.  In its article, the newspaper revealed the Harper family's confusing tangle of Johns and Josephs.  "Five members of the house now remain, Philip J. A. Harper, the senior partner, and a son of James Harper; Joseph W. Harper, son of J[ohn]. Wesley Harper, Joseph Henry, a nephew of Fletcher, and John Harper, son of Joseph Abner Harper, who has recently retired."

Despite their close business connections and unlike many wealthy families whose members lived near one another, the Harpers' homes were widely distributed throughout the city.  

Joseph Wesley Harper, the son of John Wesley Harper, was born in Brooklyn on March 16, 1830 and was graduated from Columbia College in 1848.  The New York Times explained later that he "resided in Brooklyn for many years,"and because there "were several Josephs in the family, and as they were intimately associated, there was necessity for distinction.  And so, to his partners, business associates, and intimate friends, he became 'Brooklyn Joe' Harper."  That appellation stuck even when he moved his family to fashionable Fifth Avenue.

The Harper house at the northwest corner of 46th Street was described by The Times as "a beautiful one."  The Italianate brownstone, built before the Civil War, was 27 feet wide on the avenue and stretched back 76 feet.  A stone stoop rose to the parlor floor and, most likely, a cast iron or stone balcony fronted the parlor windows.  In the 1870s or early '80s the mansion gained a slightly curved mansard roof.

Harper and his wife, the former Carolina A. Sleeper, had two sons, Henry Sleeper and William Armitage, and a daughter, Josie.   Following Josie's socially-noteworthy wedding in St. Thomas's Church to Navy Lt. Bradley Allen Fiske on February 15, 1882, a glittering reception had been held in the mansion.

The Times reported that the church was thronged with a large and "select" assembly and that the reception guests "represented some of the best families in the City."  The article went on, "The house was beautifully decorated with flowers, the staircases and doorways being festooned with smilax and cut flowers, as well as the reception-rooms.  There was music and dancing, and supper was served in the dancing hall."

The Harper mansion was filled with what that newspaper called "many treasures of literature and art."  The fact that the writer put literature before art was appropriate.  Joseph's publishing profession, of course, put him in contact with famous authors; but his love for literature went beyond business.  He was a member of the Century Association (which preferred not to be known as a "club") the goal of which was "to promote the advancement of art and literature."  His Fifth Avenue library was well-known and he was renowned for his "expertness as a judge of literary merit."

The Harpers, like all moneyed families, owned a variety of horse-drawn vehicles, including a dogcart.  The buggy earned its name from its original purpose for hunters.  With just two wheels, it had a seat for one or two persons in the front, and a section in the back for carrying dogs.  The back area evolved to a seat for passengers.

An entire family squeezed onto this dogcart for a photo.  original source unknown.
Harper took the dogcart for an afternoon spin in Central Park on December 10, 1891.  It nearly ended his life.   His lightweight buggy was no match for the carriage of Mrs. Ewell; so when the two vehicles collided Harper was thrown to the ground and seriously hurt.  Apparently so was his dogcart.  The New York Times reported "He was taken to his home, 562 Fifth Avenue, in Mrs. Ewell's carriage."

Caroline, like nearly all socialites, involved herself in charitable causes.  In 1894, for instance, she supplied the New York Society for the Relief of the Ruptured and Crippled, "3 girls' wrappers, 2 boys' shirts, 3 pairs of shoes, and one pair of slippers."

By the time Caroline gave the marginally generous donation to the Society, Joseph had purchased the two abutting brownstone houses at Nos. 564 and 566.  The move may have been an effort to forestall commercial development, as millionaires like William Rockefeller and the Astors would soon be doing.  If so, it would prove to be a futile strategy.

Harper retired at the age of 64 in 1894, handing over his post in the firm to his son, Henry.  He continued as a trustee at Columbia, a vestryman at St. Thomas's, and maintained memberships in the exclusive University and Metropolitan Clubs.  His retirement, however, would be short-lived.  He suffered a fatal heart attack in the house on July 21, 1896.  His funeral was held three days later.

If Joseph had intended to fight the intrusion of commerce, Caroline seems less inclined.  In August 1897 she sold No. 564 to Matilida E. Goodwin, and the following May sold her No. 566.  The four-story homes were quickly replaced by a six story commercial building known as the Euclid Building.

In 1901 Caroline Harper's mansion (left) was being engulfed by commerce.  The two houses she had sold were replaced by a business structure. 

Caroline appears to have stuck it out into 1908; but just before Christmas that year she leased the old home to Charles Thorley for $27,000 a year for 10 years.  Thorley's rent would equate to more than $690,000 a year today.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted "Mr. Thorley will occupy the lower portion of the premises for his flower business."

Thorley's was more than merely a "flower business."  Having started out at the lowest rung of the commercial ladder, a newsboy on Vesey Street, his business empire now included real estate (he was instrumental in transforming Longacre Square from a carriage making district to what is now Times Square) and one of the most important floral establishments in Manhattan.

He had opened his first flower shop on 14th Street in 1874 at the age of 16.  The teen astutely watched the trends and made the trendiest blossoms available to young men hoping to impress their sweethearts.   His became the go-to spot for the perfect bouquets.

Charles Thorley was the first to add satin ribbons to flowers--an innovation that became requisite, still in fashion today.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Times later recalled "Emboldened by that success, he began to give scope to the originality, the touches o creative genius that soon were to make him the favorite flower merchant of the Four Hundred." 

A tinted postcard shows double-decker buses passing Thorley's House of Flowers.   Across the avenue, to the right, is the 1901 Windsor Arcade.
By now he had decorated the mansions of New York's elite for weddings, funerals, dinners and balls for years.  His was the only shop used by the J. P. Morgan family, for instance.  During Easter Week in 1912, Thorley sold more than $45,000 in flowers, mostly orchids (more than $1 million today).  He told a reporter that "Easter is getting to be more and more a festival of flowers...and its celebration is changing."

He said that "Easter eggs are going out," and that society was now interested in expensive tropical flowers, noting that "Easter lilies are no longer fashionable."  He continued "During the forty-eight hours of the 'Easter rush,' I sold more than $22,000 worth of flowers.  That was an increase of easily $5,000 over last year."

Thorley's success was due not only to his "shrewdness in business" and artistic bent; but to his incomparable service.  Years later The Times provided an example.  "For instance, there was the New Yorker who dropped into his House of flowers to say that a certain American girl was even then expected at a certain Vienna hotel and her favorite roses must be there to 'say it with flowers' when she arrived.  It was a simple, typical everyday request.  The flowers were delivered on time 5,000 miles away."

Thorley leased portions of the upper floors to other business.  The dressmaking shop of Smith & Kelly was here in 1910.  One of the partners, Ida M. Smith, got in trouble with customs officials when she returned from a buying trip to France on the steamship Amerika that September.   She attempted to walk off the ship without declaring $1,100 in Paris gowns in her trunks.  And she might have gotten away with it if a female inspector had not discovered expensive embroideries hidden under her skirts.  She was arrested for customs fraud.

A staunch supporter of the Fire Department, Thorley also leased offices to the National Fire Prevention and Engineering Company, headed by former Fire Chief Edward Croker.   The friendly relationship between the FDNY and Thorley was tested, however, in 1918.

Perhaps because of his own early struggles, Thorley employed a large number of blacks in his shop.  (The poet Langson Hughes, incidentally, would work for Thorley for a brief time in 1922.)   One of them, a bodybuilder and boxer, Wesley Williams, aspired to be a fire fighter.  According to author David Goldberg in his 2017 Black Firefighters and the FDNY, The Struggle for Jobs, Justice, & Equity in New York City, "Williams's composite test scores placed him at the top of a list of hundreds of applicants, but his appointment remained uncertain due to his race."

Thorley threw his substantial support behind his employee.  He had made significant financial donations to the Tammany Hall organization throughout the years and he voice caught the attention of political bigwigs.  According to William later, Thorley not only wrote a strong letter of recommendation, he informed the Fire Commissioner "that regardless of how they felt about it, I was going to stay in the fire department.,"

Thorley was seven years into his lease when Caroline Sleeper Harper died on April 10, 1915.   As the lease neared expiration, the estate sold the property to real estate operator Felix Isman.  He doubled the rent on what was now being called "the Thorley Building" from $30,000 to $60,000 a year.  Charles Thorley responded by moving out.

Before his lease ran out on May 1, 1920, he purchased over the former mansion of John D. Wing at No. 16 West 49th Street.  The Record & Guide reported he "will alter [it] to house his business for a time at least."  The guide noted on May 31, 1919 that his Fifth Avenue florist shop would be taken over by "a new confectionery firm."

photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
That never happened.  Within the year the shoe firm of I. Miller & Sons took over the lease.  It replaced the venerable mansion-turned store and erected a 12-story commercial building on the site.  It was recently demolished awaiting the erection of a new structure.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Tin Toys, Striking Printers and Beer - 457-461 West Broadway





Amos Eno was among the wealthiest and most prolific real estate developers of 19th century Manhattan.  In 1888 he turned his attention to the block of South Fifth Avenue, between Prince Street and West Houston Street.  Half a century earlier it had been a respectable residential neighborhood, but now was filling with factory buildings.

Eno hired architect John H. Whitenach to design a substantial brick loft building that would replace the three old structures at Nos. 95, 97 and 99 South Fifth Avenue.  Construction began on July 6 and was completed just over seven months later, on March 18, 1889.

Whitenach blended Romanesque Revival and neo-Grec styles to create a factory and store building that was both utilitarian and attractive.  (Eno apparently thought so, too, for the following year he had Whitenach produce a near-copy steps away at Nos. 87 through 91.)  The buff colored brick was relieved by stone trim.   Three rough-cut stone bandcourses sliced the building into a tripartite design, reducing its visual weight.

The two cast iron storefronts that flanked the entrance to the upper floors were framed by brick-and-stone piers; while high above creative brickwork created the handsome corbel table and pediment of the all-brick cornice.

The first tenant in the building was The Sterling Bindery, which moved in before April.  Formerly located at Nos. 43-45 Centre Street, on April 11 it announced in The American Stationer that it had "removed to the new and spacious building 95 and 97 South Fifth avenue, and has increased its plant with several new machines of T. W. & C. B. Sheridan's latest patterns."

In September 1899 Sterling boasted "New Building, New Machinery," and cheap insurance.  American Printer and Lithographer, September 1889 (copyright expired)

The printing and binding firm moved in at a time when blue collar workers were standing up for themselves as the concept of labor unions gained traction.  The "press feeders" were paid $10 a week in 1890, just over $250 today.  Five of them, members of the Franklin Association of Pressmen and Feeders, demanded a $2 per week raise that spring.  Manager George R. Macey turned them down.

In response, the five men went on strike on May 13.  The Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, published in October 1892, noted that "a few other members of that organization stopped work in order to assist the feeders."  Macey reacted by hiring new workmen to take their places.  The strikers not only did not get a raise, they lost their jobs.

In 1893 The Sterling Bookbindery employed a surprisingly disproportionate number of women.  There were 15 men, 40 women, and 30 girls under 21 years of age on the payroll that year.  They worked 59 hours during the week and 9 on the weekend.

Also in the building that year were A. A. Danzig, makers of ladies underwear; John Sasey, Jr., infants' wear manufacturers; and Rudolph Oeslner, an importer and brewer of beers.  Oeslner's brewery was located in Illinois; but his headquarters and distributing warehouse of imported lagers were located here.

Oeslner's was a substantial operation, evidenced on October 1894 when Ice and Refrigeration magazine noted "Rudolph Oeslner, an importer of beers, has erected a 10-ton refrigeration plant in his depot, 99 South Fifth avenue, New York city."

In the spring of 1895 the City embarked on a project of widening and extending College Place.  By cutting the street through existing blocks it would form a connection to West Broadway and South Fifth Avenue--one continuous thoroughfare from Dey Street to Washington Square.  Businessmen like Rudolph Oeslner predicted confusion.  He joined others in a petition to the mayor on March 18 suggesting "the entire street should be given the name of West Broadway for its entire length."


The City agreed and in 1897 the building got a new address, 457-461 West Broadway.

At the turn of the century Oeslner shared the structure with A. Arnold & Co., makers and dealers in millinery trimmings.  The firm's main account was its associated company, Arnold, Constable & Co. department store.  Also in the building was Schaefer Bros., dealers in "ornamental glass," including mirrors and glass panes for train cars; and the American Toy and Novelty Works, makers of tin toys.

In 1901, before strict child labor laws, both Schaefer Bros. and American Toy and Novelty Works employed children under 16 years of age.  They worked 59 hours a week in the Schaefer factory, and 60 a week in the toy shop.

That year 21-year old John Wagner worked for Rudolph Oeslner as a driver.  On Saturday night, July 14 his heavy brewery wagon was fully loaded with kegs of beer as he headed to a saloon far uptown.  He was driving his team across the streetcar tracks on Third Avenue at 122nd Street when an approaching car sped toward him, clanging its bell, with no apparent attempt to slow down.

The New York Times reported that the streetcar was "crowded to the limit of its capacity" and "Wagner started to pull his horses from the track and the front part of the wagon was clear of it when the car struck the rear at full speed."  It was a tremendous impact.

"The crash was heard for blocks around, and brought hundreds running to the scene, many thinking that there had been an explosion."  When the collision occurred, the beer kegs were sent flying into the cars and injuring passengers.

"Keg rolled through the open windows among the terrified passengers in the transverse seats, the rear end of the truck was demolished, and the car bounded from the track and swung at right angles to the rails, bringing up with another slam against the elevated railroad pillars."   The newspaper noted that because the windows were open in the summer heat, more injuries by flying glass were averted.

Four people were injured seriously enough to be hospitalized, including Wagner who had severe head cuts and a dislocated shoulder.  One woman, 24-year old Carrie Walker, was the wife of the conductor.  She was hit with a flying keg and removed unconscious.

In fact, it appears that Wagner was lucky.  The Times reported "At midnight, the brewery wagon, with both rear wheels gone and the whole back part shattered, still lay on its side on the pavement at the side of the street."

In the summer of 1902 troubles formed within the management of the American Toy and Novelty Company.  Its president, Julius Chein had fully owned the company before accepting David Heyman in as a partner and incorporating as American Toy and Novelty.  Now it appeared he wanted it back.

On August 8 he filed suit, claiming that Heyman had never supplied the $4,000 investment originally agreed upon and requested authority to dispose of the property of the corporation.

Chein was successful and reorganized the company as J. Chein & Co.   The firm would continue to manufactured tin toys here until 1907 when it moved its manufacturing to a new factory in New Jersey in 1907.

By then the West Broadway building had a hodge-podge of tenants.  Schaefer Bros. and Rudolph Oelsner were still here; sharing the address with disparate firms like John Reichenbacher, "cabinet work;" Wolf & Newman, "hat trimmings;" and the Manhattan Plating Works which did "gold plating, etc."

Rudolph Oelsner was riding high at the time.  He owned an 800-acred summer estate near Roselyn, Long Island named Awixaway.  Like all moneyed businessmen, he filled his homes with antiques and artwork.  When Silo's Fifth Avenue Art Galleries held a week-long estate auction in May 1913, he was there, paying the equivalent of $4,000 today for Rinaldi's Good Day, Signorita.

But the end of the line for his business was on the near horizon.  The ratification of the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the sale of alcohol, would bring an end to his empire.

The Depression years saw a new type of business in the building.  In the 1930s manufacturers King Lamps, Inc. and Broadway Lamp & Novelty were here.

The industrial personality of the West Broadway block saw tremendous change in the last quarter of the century.  As the Soho art district expanded into the neighborhood, Jordan Volpe Galleries took space here in 1977.  The highly popular and successful gallery would remain for several years, not only exhibiting modern paintings and artwork, but in at least one instance, vintage furniture.   On August 5, 1979 Rita Reif of The New York Times reported on a planned exhibition here of writing desks, including two examples by famed designer Gustav Stickley.

By then The Ballroom had opened.  The restaurant doubled as a cabaret and offered live shows like By Strouse in March 1978.   Described by The Times as a "lively, fast-paced melange of songs, it was put together by composer Charles Strouse and highlighted songs he had composed for Broadway hits like Annie, Bye Bye Birdie, Applause, and Golden Boy.

In 1980 Soho Wines & Spirits opened in the building and, like the Martin Lawrence Galleries which debuted around 1984, are still here more than three decades later.


The 1990s saw new tenants like Razor Gallery and Yoshi boutique (opened in 1992).  Yoshi was described in Suzy Gershman's 2008 Born to Shop New York as "a tiny store packed to the gill with frills that you'll want to touch and try on and own."

After more than 125 years, John H. Whitenach's brick factory building is little changed from the time when horse-drawn drays loaded beer kegs on the street and teenagers labored inside at hot and noisy machines.  His handsome design proved that no matter how utilitarian its purpose, a building need not be unattractive.

photographs by the author