Monday, July 28, 2014

The Lost New Netherlands Hotel -- 5th Avenue and 59th Street


The 17-story hotel sat diagonally across Fifth Avenue from the Plaza Hotel -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWQC1166&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

The battle for Fifth Avenue between millionaire homeowners and commercial enterprise was well underway by 1890.  Although jewelers, dressmakers and art dealers were making inroads among the brownstone mansions, it was the grand hotels that were the largest threat to the residential neighborhood.

As early as 1871 construction began on the block-wide Windsor Hotel between 46th and 47th Streets.  Now, in 1890, the doors opened to the new Plaza Hotel at the northern fringes of Millionaire’s Row and William Waldorf Astor demolished his father’s mansion at the northwest corner of 33rd Street and broke ground for the hulking Waldorf Hotel that same year.

As Astor’s massive hotel designed by Henry J. Hardenberg rose, the millionaire commissioned William Hume to work on another grand hotel, diagonally across from the Plaza at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street.   Hume presented Astor with designs for an imposing brick and stone structure with remarkable similarities to Hardenberg’s Waldorf.

A sketch of the coming structure was published in 1893 -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
The 17-story structure, like the Waldorf, featured Romanesque arches, turrets and a high mansard crowned with a balustrade.  To enable the structure to attain such heights, Hume used steel framing—one of the first examples of the structural process in the city.  The architect incorporated all the latest technology of the day to ensure the hotel would be state of the art.  Elevators, plumbing and electricity would provide guests with the latest in convenience.  There would even be a telephone in every room—a feature that would prompt a newspaper to later comment “so that the millionaire who is ill may transact his business in bed.”  As opening day approached an advertisement boasted that the hotel had “Every scientific appliance in ventilating, heating, plumbing & Electric Lighting.”

An advertisement promised "The Furnishings of a palace.  The table of an Epicure."  Club Men of New York, January 1893 (copyright expired)

On August 3, 1892 Electricity: A Popular Electrical and Financial Journal  remarked that work on the hotel “is rapidly nearing completion.  The work of a structural nature is about completed, and the decorative, plumbing and electrical work is being pushed with all speed.  Wiring has commenced, and the work of placing the power plant is at present receiving attention.”

Perhaps questionable by 21st century minds was the engineer’s idea for the in-house generators.  “A noticeable feature of the electric installation lies in the fact that no belts are to be used in power transmission; imported cotton rope will connect the engines, jack-shafts, and dynamos.  When completed, this will be the largest rope-driven electric plant in this or any other country,” said Electricity.

As the hotel neared completion, Astor leased it to Ferdinand P. Earle who also ran the high-end Hotel Normandie on Broadway.  One of Earle’s first challenges concerned the waiter’s union.  To avoid the labor problems several other hotels were experiencing, he agreed to hire union waiters.  But he put his foot down when it came to facial hair.

On May 13, 1893 The New York Times reported “The members of the International Hotel Employes’ Association were happy yesterday.  A report was brought down to their headquarters at the Chimney Corner that the manager of the New Netherlands Hotel, which is to be opened on Decoration Day, had decided to employ association waiters, but on the condition that the men should not insist on wearing mustaches.

“The waiters will waive their claim to the right of wearing mustaches.”

If Astor had paid a fortune for the construction of the hotel, Earle was not far behind in its furnishings.  All told, the project cost $3 million—more in the neighborhood of $75 million today.  The interiors were decorated by James T. Hall & Co. of New York and no expense was spared.

In a well-conceived publicity ploy, Earle invited three United States Senators to spend the night in the hotel one day before the opening.   Senators David B. Hill of New York, Charles J. Faulkner of West Virginia and Fred T. Dubois of Idaho had the cavernous hotel to themselves “in apartments equally as gorgeous and far more extensive than those which the Nation’s Spanish guests have been given,” said The Times on June 1, 1893.

“The parlors of the house, with their costly drapings and upholstery, the immense dining room finished in Mexican onyx, the spacious halls and corridors, approached by a staircase in carved Numidian marble, and even the bridal chambers were at their disposal, with none to molest or make them afraid,” reported the newspaper.

Among the works of art was an immense oil painting by Franklin Tuttle in the lobby depicting the purchase of Manhattan Island from the native Americans.  The painting measured 25 by 12 feet and the figures were nearly life sized.  A clerk explained to Senator Dubois that the price paid for the land was $24.  “’There has been a noticeable increase in the value of that real estate,’ mused the Senator as he moved away to look at another painting, which represents the refusal of Peter Stuyvesant to cede Manhattan Island to the English,” said The Times reporter.

The following morning the senators joined the Senate Committee on Immigration in the New Netherlands Room.  The Times said “The room is a reproduction of the best finished and furnished of old Dutch rooms;” and The Decorator and Furnisher said “This quaintly beautiful room is deeply imbued with the spirit of the German Renaissance.  The woodwork throughout is dark antique oak, and the tile decorations a brilliant Dutch blue, a combination rather strong and starling in its contrasts, but in a room of this character, perfectly allowable.”

Delft-style tiles covered the upper walls of the New Netherlands Room -- The Decorator and Furnisher, March 1897 (copyright expired)

But first there was the matter of formally opening the hotel.  And it would be an astounding exhibition of electrical technology.  At 10:00, with the senators and newspaper men crowded around, Earle’s young son, Guyon Locke Crocheron Earle, pressed a button.  “This act will start the machinery plant of the house, unfurl a United States flag on the flagpole, seventeen stories higher, and discharge a cannon which has been fastened to the roof.  The house will then be declared open for guests,” said The New York Times.

The remarkable hotel made news far outside New York City.  Maine’s The Lewiston Evening Journal announced on June 1, 1893 “The New Netherland is a magnificent structure, 17 stories high, of dull, yellowish brick, with brownstone trimmings.  The entrance is imposing and broad, with massive carved stone pillars supporting the portico.  It is a palace for a king, magnificent in its appointments, solid and durable as the ages.”

Calling the hotel “elegant, “ the newspaper said “But the parlors surpass in beauty and magnificence of furnishing everything in the hotel.  They open directly into the hall and connect with each other.  There is one that is especially unique and beautiful, and that is the empire room.  Their [sic] furniture is upholstered in the prevailing tints and the magnificent rugs harmonize with the whole.”

The Empire Parlor -- The Decorator and Furnisher, September 1896 (ciopyright expired)

The Evening Journal described the bridal suite in detail.  “The parlor is a symphony in cream, pale pink and Nile green.  The ceiling is a stucco work of garlands and roses, rosebuds and delicate leaves.  The walls are upholstered in Nile green tapestry, with pink and white rosebuds, and the gilt furniture is covered with satin brocade of the same color.”

The newspaper summed it up saying “There is no evidence in the hotel that money has been spared.”

In fact, no expense had been spared.  Earl purchased the carpeting, draperies, wall hangings and upholstery from W. & J. Sloane for $74,000.  The Phoenix Furniture Company had custom built the furniture for $180,000.  The silverware was provided by Gorham Manufacturing Company at a cost of $65,000.  The combined outlay to these three suppliers alone would amount to about $8 million today.

The Evening World chimed in, saying that the 370-room New Netherlands was even finer than the Waldorf.  “Of the series of Astor hotels which have so far been erected in New York the New Netherlands is, architecturally, the most magnificent.  It is, indeed, considered by many persons the most wonderful hotel structure in the world.”

The day following the opening, The New York Times commented on the technical advances, including the fire alarm.  “As a precaution against fire telemeters are connected with each room by which, whenever the temperature rises higher than 130 [degrees], the annunciator tells that fact to the office.”

The Times reported on the painted ceilings, the many oil paintings and tapestries, and the marble, onyx and hardwood trimmings.  “The general effect is of substantial elegance, and a degree of taste has been displayed which leaves no room for criticism as to over finish.”

The New Netherlands was intended more for permanent residents than transient guests.  Among the first to move in were Thomas W. Strong and his wife Lena B. Graves Strong, according to the 1893 Social Register.  The New-York Daily Tribune noted on Sunday, November 26 that year that “Mrs. N. S. de L. Wyse will give an afternoon tea to-morrow in her apartments in the Hotel New Netherlands.”

Ten days earlier, the hotel had been the scene of a politically and socially-important function.  On Thursday November 16 St. Patrick’s Cathedral was “filled with distinguished people,” according to The Evening World, as Elizabeth Elkins married Edwin E. Bruner.  Not only did Archbishop Corrigan participate, but Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore had traveled to New York to officiate in the ceremony.

The bridal party, including the maid of honor, Grace Davis, who was the daughter of Senator Davis of West Virginia, and the Elkins family took rooms in the New Netherlands Hotel.  The bride’s father was Stephen Benton Elkins, the Secretary of State under President Harrison.

Following the ceremony, “The wedding part were driven directly to the New Netherlands Hotel, where there was a wedding breakfast in the banquet hall, on the parlor floor.  The breakfast was eaten standing.  The guests were 125 in number, and the breakfast was followed by a reception, the whole of the magnificently appointed parlor floor being given up to the reception,” said The Evening World. 
 
The socially-important bride would set up housekeeping in the hotel -- The Evening World, November 16, 1893 (copyright expired) 
The newspaper noted “Mr. and Mrs. Bruner will go on a two-weeks’ wedding journey, and when they return will take up their residence at the New Netherlands.”

Unfortunately for Ferdinand Earle, his extravagant outlays for silver, antiques, artwork and furnishings were more than the hotel could provide in income.   In March, less than a year after the opening, Earle was no longer able to pay the rent and, as The Evening World worded it on April 6, “he was evicted from the palatial New Netherlands Hotel.”

By the end of June William Astor had found a new proprietor in Stafford & Whitaker.  The Evening World announced on June 29, 1894 “A lease for a period of ten years has been signed, and the work of refurnishing and refitting the big hotel will be begun very soon.”  In reporting on the change in managers, the newspaper added, “It is one of the most magnificently appointed houses in the world.”

Stafford told The New York Times “There are a number of changes to be made inside.  The house is fully furnished, and if we can make a satisfactory arrangement with Gen. Earle’s creditors, we will purchase the furnishings, but if we cannot, we will refurnish it from cellar to roof.”  He added “We shall continue to run it as a family hotel, and cater for regular boarders, although we will in no wise refuse transients.”

The magnificent appointments referred to by The Evening World would invite trouble later that year.  The hotel was decorated with costly objects and works of art—a fact that was a bit too tempting for some employees.  In September 1894 the manager noticed “that choice bric-a-brac, rare vases, silver and chinaware were mysteriously disappearing,” reported The New York Times.

The house detective was put on the case, who discovered within 30 days “several thousands of dollars’ worth of goods had been stolen,” and eight employees were under suspicion   Two police detectives were called in to help on the case.  “They found that the method was to throw the valuable booty into the ash carts, and afterward pawn it,” explained The Times on November 27.

Detectives arrested three employees, William Shannon, Allen J. Curry, and John Rooney, as well as Shannon’s wife, Mary.  They were charged with robbing the hotel of $5,000 worth of goods.  “The stolen property included almost every article of household furniture that could be used in furnishing a flat in complete style,” said The Times on November 28.  “Several truckloads of goods were removed [from the homes of the employees] and stored in a vacant room in the New Netherland, where they are practically under control of the Property Clerk of the Police Department.”

Twenty-nine year old Allen Curry was a watchman with a salary of $40 a month.  His participation in the ring enabled him to spend $45 a month on rent.  “When the premises were searched large quantities of the finest provisions that money could buy were found,” said The Times.

The New Netherlands was joined by the Hotel Savoy (right) -- photo by John S. Johnston, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWQC1166&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

As with any hotel, The New Netherlands had its share of customer peculiarities.  Near the top of the list of most unusual was Anna Held, a French-Polish singer.  The chanteuse arrived in New York in 1894 under contract with Florenz Ziegfeld.  It would be Held who suggested to the impresario that he stage an imitation of the lavish Parisian Follies. 

The beautiful singer checked into the New Netherlands in 1894 -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

But for now the woman whom The Times called “the much-advertised French singer” checked into The New Netherlands Hotel.  Among the diva’s demands was 40 gallons of milk every day “for bathing purposes.”  Ziegfeld contracted with the Long Island milk merchant H. R. Wallace to supply to milk at 20 cents a gallon.

“Miss Held had used 320 gallons, when she says she discovered that it was not fresh, and lacked the ‘creamy’ quality essential,” reported The New York Times on October 10, 1896.  Anna Held refused to pay for the milk, so Wallace sued her for the $64.

Victorian courtrooms were no place to air the subject of naked women in tubs of milk.  “Mr. Marks, Miss Held’s personal representative, said yesterday that the matter would be settled out of court, as milk baths were too peculiar to be discussed in public,” reported The Times.

Despite the publicity about milk baths and Anna’s questionable talents (The New York Times said “her abilities are of the most ordinary kind…her voice is not sweet or very strong and she uses it with no remarkable skill”), Ziegfeld was enamored with her.  In the spring of 1897 the couple signed a document in Anna’s suite in the New Netherlands proclaiming themselves married.

Although the “ceremony” had neither clergy nor public official, it was witnessed by “Diamond” Jim Brady and Lillian Russell, and Flo and Anna lived together as husband and wife for nearly sixteen years.
 
By the 1920s The New Netherlands was an anachronism among its modern neighbors.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
As the 20th century dawned, the hulking Victorian hotels of a generation earlier lost favor.  In 1905 the Plaza Hotel was demolished and in its place Hardenberg’s lavish new Plaza was erected.  The handsome French Renaissance palace stood in stark contrast to the dour brick-and-brownstone New Netherlands across the plaza.

A sketch was released in 1926 depicting the coming replacement for the old hotel -- The Architect, October 1926 (copyright expired)
In 1926 demolition of The New Netherlands began.  It was replaced by the 38-story Sherry-Netherland Hotel designed by Schultze & Weaver with Buchman & Kahn.  Now an apartment hotel, the Sherry-Netherland survives as a familiar landmark for New Yorkers, few of whom are aware of its magnificent namesake that stood here before it.

photo by Beyond My Ken

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Janes & Leo's 1899 Row at Nos. 301-307 W 105th St.



Along with the commission to design The Alimar, an exuberant seven-story apartment house on West End Avenue, developer Hamilton M. Weed gave architects Janes & Leo the job of designing four abutting homes around the corner at Nos. 301 to 307 West 105th Street.  By 1898 the Upper West Side vied with the most fashionable neighborhoods of Manhattan as upscale homes rose on its streets and massive mansions were built on its avenues.

As was The Alimar, the houses were completed in 1899.  The architects created an ensemble of high-end American basement homes which were unafraid to announce they were intended for the wealthy.  The stone bases of all four extended to the property line; but only No. 301 continued straight upward—possibly because of the party wall of the Alimar next door.  Nos. 303 to 307 stepped back, allowing for bay windows, balconies and a bowed front on No. 307.  Perhaps for visual balance, Janes & Leo perfectly matched the center homes while treating the end structures individually but harmoniously.

Within a year the upscale homes began to sell.  When Weed sold No. 301 on March 21, 1901, The New York Times mentioned “This is the second house sold out of a row of four recently completed.”  James R. Thomson was the buyer; but he resold it less than a year later, on January 17, 1902, to Thomas M. Turner.  Turner’s mortgage was $30,000—around $785,000 today.
No. 301 was the odd man out design-wise.

The following summer the Turners had a house guest, 23-year old Helen Blair of Kentucky.  Helen’s father was “very rich,” as reported in The Sun, and she was stopping on her way home from Paris.  One of the souvenirs the young woman had picked up in France was an automobile, “an electric phaeton.”  It arrived in New York on the ship with Helen.

What Helen Blair was unaware of was the newly enacted Bailey Law which required all private vehicles to exhibit “the proper tag for identification.”  And so on June 25, 1903 as she was care-freely motoring along 72nd Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, Mounted Policeman McKenna stopped and arrested her.

“The policeman insisted on getting into the machine with Mrs. [sic] Blair and leading his horse after it to the West Sixty-eighth Street Station,” reported The New York Times the following day.  She was the first woman arrested for violating the new law and newspapers eagerly reported the incident.

Helen’s automobile was impounded pending her getting license plates; but there was a problem.  None of the police officers at the station knew how to drive a car.  Sergeant Tierney asked if she would mind driving it to the police stables and she politely consented.  “The spectacle of a uniformed policeman sitting in an automobile with a woman driving aroused much interest,” reported The Times.

When Helen Blair appeared in the West Side Court the following day, she pleaded innocence of the law and told the judge she had already applied for a license.  Magistrate Zeller discharged her, prompting The Evening World to run the headline “Fair Chauffeuse Freed.”

No. 301 continued to experience rapid turnover in ownership.  In September 1904 Thomas Turner sold it to Moses Harlam, who resold it to Julius C. Landon in 1905.  In the meantime real estate operator Albert Brod bought up the remainder of the row in 1901.

Of them, only No. 305 would have a long-term owner thoughout their early years.  In May 1901 Brod sold No. 305 to Albert Goldman, the Director of the Mutual Chemical Company of Jersey City and a Director of the Tartar Chemical Co.  The Goldman family consisted of wife, Augusta, and three children, Harry, Sophie and Lillian.

The Goldmans lived at No. 305 for at least 14 years.
It was apparently a forward-thinking family, for nine years later daughter Lillian was attending the Woman’s Law Class at New York University.  In 1910 the very concept of a female lawyer was shocking to most.  Augusta Goldman died in the house on August 10, 1914 and the family would not remain here many years longer.

Wealthy families continued, for years, to inhabit the row.  Until 1913 Jose R. Barrios lived at No. 303.  He was a wealthy, retired exporter of coal to Cuba and a veteran of the Cuban army.  He died of a heart attack while riding the Third Avenue streetcar on September 27, that year.  And on May 10, 1920 the owners of No. 307 made preparations to close the house for the summer.  An advertisement in The New York Herald that day read “A lady closing her house in June would like to secure country position for her chambermaid—assist waiting—whom she can highly recommend.”

By now No. 303 was home to retired broker Edward B. Stearns and his wife.  Early in December 1921 the couple traveled to Stamford, Connecticut to spend the weekend.  Edward Stearns would not return home.

No. 303 was a match to the Goldman mansion next door.

The 44-year old left the Taylor home with another house guest, 30-year old James D. Robbins, “to make some purchases.”  As Stearns’ roadster was traveling along Cove Road, it came across a couple walking alongside the road.  Joseph H. Luboky and his 19-year old wife were returning home from a movie.

According to the New-York Tribune on December 5, Stearns was “traveling at high speed.”  When Luboky heard the roar of the motor coming from behind, he tried to pull his wife further away from the pavement.  But the automobile struck the woman, throwing her 20 feet, killing her.  Both Stearns and Robbins were thrown from the car.  Edward Stearns suffered a fatal skull fracture and Robbins’ neck was broken.

The Stearns mansion was purchased by cotton broker Layden Harriss.  He was a member of the Firm Harriss-Irby & Vose.  No. 303 West 105th Street became the scene of a violent struggle on June 5, 1924 when around 1:00 in the morning Harris heard a noise and “trailed a burglar whose progress from room to room and floor to floor was indicated by occasional flashes of an electric torch,” reported The Times.

In the living room, the broker sprang upon the burglar in the dark.  He may have thought better of it after the battle was on, however.  John Bernauer had been out of Sing Sing prison for only three weeks and the newspaper said “Particular note was taken of his powerful hands and bulging shoulder muscles…Bernauer admitted, according to the detectives, that by working on the coal pile at Sing Sing and by constantly chinning himself and performing all the gymnastics that his small cell would permit, he had kept himself fit.”

Nevertheless Harriss held his own and the commotion of the fight “aroused the house and neighborhood and attracted many policemen.”  When Bernauer appeared in a line up regarding earlier burglaries, it was noted that his “right eye had been badly blacked in the fight with the cotton broker.”

Following Harriss’ death on Sunday, September 27 the following year, a requiem high mass was celebrated and his funeral held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The homes would not survive into the second half of the century as private mansions.  No. 301 was the first to be converted.  On July 25, 1935 The New York Times reported that Mrs. Grace E. Gumbiner had leased “for five years a former private house at 301 West 105th Street, now being remodeled into one and two room apartments.”  The newspaper added “She has operated various furnished apartment houses.”

Five years later Nos. 305 and 307 were converted to apartments—two per floor.  And in 1946 No. 303 was given the same make-over.

Interior details have been gutted in No. 305 and the brick walls exposed--the antithesis of turn-of-the-century taste.  photo http://www.corcoran.com/nyc/Listings/Display/3113930
Outwardly little has changed to the especially handsome row of homes.  Inside, misguided modernization has brutalized some of the spaces.  But Janes & Leo’s wonderful group survives as a striking reminder of the fashionable lifestyles of the Upper West Side at the turn of the last century.

A quaint Juliette balcony distinguishes No. 307.
 photographs taken by the author

Friday, July 25, 2014

The 1891 Koch & Co. Bldg -- No. 136 West 125th Street



The cast iron street level was long ago brutally updated.  photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com
In 1860 H. C. F. Koch & Co. opened its first store in Greenwich Village at the corner of Carmine and Bleecker Streets.  Dealing in dry goods and “fancy goods,” the business was a success and by 1875 was ready to move northward to The Ladies’ Mile—the stretch of Sixth Avenue between 14th Street and 23rd Street that was already being built up with emporiums.  The new store on Sixth Avenue at the corner of 20th Street earned it a following among New York's feminine shoppers. 

By 1890 The Ladies’ Mile was the shopping district for clothing, linens, and shoes.  And so it was no doubt startling to Koch & Co’s competitors when the firm laid plans to close its doors and move so far north it could have been to another state—the developing neighborhood of Harlem.

Henry Koch commissioned the well-regarded William H. Hume to design his grand emporium.  The architect was simultaneously at work on the massive New Netherlands Hotel at the corner of Central Park and Fifth Avenue for William Waldorf Astor.  He produced for Koch a five-story retail palace of stone, brick and cast iron that stretched through the block to 124th Street.  It would easily have held its own among Sixth Avenue’s grandest stores.

It was a risky, but brilliant move.  Henry Koch knew that if his plan succeeded, he would no longer compete with the massive stores like Hugh O’Neill, B. Altman and Siegel-Cooper; but would essentially have a monopoly on the dry goods business uptown.  He had purchased the large plot of land—Nos. 132 through 140 West 125th Street and 141 to 149 West 124th Street—for $250,000.  The building would cost another $200,000.  The $450,000 outlay would translate to about $11 million today.

The original building was five stories tall -- Scribner's Magazine, January 1891 (copyright expired)

The store opened its doors on March 23, 1891.  The Evening World said “The ladies of Harlem and the Annexed District are much interested in the new five-story, fire-proof building on the south side of One Hundred and Twenty-fifth street, between Lenox and Twenty-fifth street.”  The newspaper added “Harlemites will have a veritable dry-goods palace almost at their doors.”  But it would not be merely dry goods that Koch offered to the district.  “Koch & Co. will also carry a full line of millinery, china and glassware, bedding and furniture, shoes, boys’ clothing, &c., in their new store.”

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com
Although workmen were still putting the finishing touches on the store when the doors were opened, shoppers were impressed by the lavish floral decoration “in the form of huge horse shoes, squares, triangles, wreaths and bouquets,” said The Sun the following day.  “’Koch Only Climbs Higher’ is the legend on one.  Others bear the word ‘Success,’ and the dates 1860-1891.”

The emporium with its two and a half acres of floor space was a model of up-to-date technology.  There were passenger elevators and electric lighting  and it contained “every modern convenience for customers and employees,” said The Sun.  To assist ladies in choosing evening wear, there was a dark room in the form of a Chinese pagoda lined with mirrors and lit by gas lights.  Inside, shoppers could then see how the items would appear in the simulated nighttime environment.  There was also an ingenious system of sending customer payments from the sales floor to the office, eliminating the necessity—and danger—of clerks handling cash.  The New-York Tribune explained “The building is equipped with the latest and most up to date pneumatic tube cash system, which is a sight worth seeing in itself.”

Koch & Co. would explain the move to its patrons in an announcement in Scribner’s Magazine. “The rapid growth of New York up to and beyond the Harlem River, the long-felt want of the residents of that section to have a first-class Dry Goods Establishment nearer to their homes, has decided us to build our present magnificent fire-proof building in 125th Street, West.  Whatever money, ingenuity, and long experience could do to make this the beau ideal of a Dry Good Store, has not been omitted.”

While Hume could have chosen terra cotta for the elaborate decorations high above street level, he went with carved stone.  photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

Puck magazine thought it was a brilliant move and in January 1891 predicted that Harlem “is at no distant day to become the centre of the Metropolis.”  The magazine was highly impressed with the move and the building itself.  “One of the most eventful days in the history of ‘Harlem’ was the day on which the Messrs. Koch & Co. opened their Dry Goods Palace in 125th St. between Lenox ad 7th Aves.  Deliberately we say ‘Dry Goods Palace,’ for the buildings built by and for this house constitute a palace, indeed, and are not surpassed by any establishment in their line.”

As shrewd as his move to Harlem had been, Koch’s next business strategy was even more surprising and brilliant.  He almost immediately sold his building and property.  On June 13, 1891 The Record & Guide reported on the sale which brought Koch a profit of $125,000.  “By this sale, too, a large capital which was tied up in the building is returned to Koch & Co.’s dry-goods business, so that the sale appears to have been a good thing for everyone concerned.”

By the terms of the sale Koch & Co. would continue to occupy its building, paying rent to the buyer, F. O. Mattiessen.  The Record & Guide saw this as a sign of things to come for Harlem.  “The general observation of able real estate men is that this sale is not only the strongest evidence during the last year or two of the great faith which investors have I 125th street property, but it shows that there is a city of itself in Harlem where business is being done independently of down-town stores, and that wealthy merchants, recognizing this and realizing the vast population in that section of the city, are seizing the opportunity to establish their emporiums on the most important thoroughfare up that way.”

The American Publishing and Engraving Co. published its History and Commerce of New York that year.  It called Koch & Co. “one of the largest and finest stores of the kind in the metropolis” and said it was “elegantly fitted up and excellently appointed, and employ a veritable little army of clerks, salesladies, etc., the entire staff numbering between eight hundred and one thousand.”

Koch & Co. opened with 32 separate departments.  Along with a long list of dress fabrics and women’s clothing, History and Commerce listed as well “rich imported millinery goods, passementeries, jewelry, notions, leather goods, furs, umbrellas, gloves, hosiery, and everything in ladies’ and gents’ furnishings, also elegant furniture, upholstery, draperies, etc., silverware, crockery and a multifarious collection of house-furnishing articles, also a full line of boys’ clothing, shoes, hats, etc., sporting goods, stationery, perfumery, toilet articles, etc., etc.”

Koch & Co.'s extensive mail order catalog offered discreet shopping for personal selections like "hair goods" and more intimate items.  (copyright expired)
By now Henry C. F. Koch had taken his son, E. Von Der Horst Koch, into the business as a partner.  The firm offered the latest in fashion to the well-heeled Harlem shoppers.  A supreme marketer, Henry knew that spending money on ambiance would reap profits.  When the spring 1892 lines were introduced, Koch & Co. filled its floor space with spring flowers for the enjoyment of its female shoppers.

“Here was an almost tropical luxuriance of natural flowers and plants of every variety and color, causing the visitor to pause and absorb for a moment the wealth of color and perfume.  This beauty of garden foliage made an admirable setting for hats and bonnets without number, and embracing all the latest styles,” said The New York Times on March 27 that year.  “A woman visitor cannot escape the fascination of the combination, and is sure to find the proper thing for herself in this particular line of adornment.”

Henry Koch’s gamble to move to Harlem paid off.  In 1893 the store was enlarged and on September 24 an advertisement announced “that the additions to and alterations in their magnificent establishment are now completed.”  A nearly seamless sixth floor provided another acre of floor space and ten new departments.  The ad stressed that the store was “unsurpassed for light, ventilation, and having all the latest improvements, making shopping a pleasure.”  It frankly pointed out the customer to whom the store catered; saying that its latest goods were “selected for the better city trade.”

The new sixth floor proudly announced the store's name - photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

Realizing that there was another valuable market to the north, H. C. F. Koch & Co. advertised in newspapers like the White Plains The Eastern State Journal in 1895 noting “We pay the railroad fares between White Plains, Hartsdale, Scarsdale, Tuckahoe, Bronxville, Mount Vernon and 125th Street Station New York.”  The price of a train ticket was worth luring shoppers to the store.  A lady’s wool “Boucle Cloth” cloak was advertised that year for $10; a significant $250 in today’s money; and a “light tan box coat” went for $35.

The enlarged store was even grander with broad arches and ornamentation -- photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW1GQGQG&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
Koch & Co.’s marketing genius was perhaps no more evident than in its Christmas windows.  In the 1870s Lord & Taylor began what be a New York retailers’ tradition.  But Koch & Co. took it to new heights.

In 1894 the firm hired F. W. Campbell, the self-styled “champion window artist of New York and Brooklyn.”  Campbell designed 13 windows and Electrical World reported “The central and largest is the Trocadero Palace, of Paris, done in miniature.  The magnificent water stairway is admirably reproduced.  The statuary is the same as the original, with one exception—a large bronze Goddess of Liberty stands in the centre of the scene.  Streams of water start from the statues, from pipes and jets.  They cross and recross each other and roll down the stairway and over the stones shining and glistening from the light of miniature incandescent lamps.”  Another scene depicted a storm at sea. “There is a wreck and the life-savers are at work.”  A small illuminated lighthouse flashed and turned.  The display cost the firm around $2,000.

The 1895 Christmas windows featured electric lights and a working fountain -- Electric World magazine December 28, 1895 (copyright expired)
The windows were outdone the following year.  The theme was “Christmas in the Old Country,” and hundreds of miniature electric lights outlined the windows and turrets of an English baronial castle.  Revelers could be seen inside while guests arrived in carriages during “the caprices of an asbestos snow-storm which has been imported directly from Paris for the occasion,” reported Electrical World.  A fountain sprayed at one side (although the magazine pointed out that, in real life, it would have frozen up). 

As did all the high-end retailers, H. C. F. Koch & Co. delivered goods to its shoppers by horse-drawn trucks.  Trouble ensued on April 25, 1900 when a steam-powered automobile panicked one of the Koch horses near Mount Morris Park where a vendor sold peanuts, candy and apples from his cart.

“About noon yesterday a locomobile was seen tearing down Fifth Avenue at a furious rate; a big bay horse, hitched to one of H. C. F. Koch & Co.’s wagons, reared as the machine passed it and then started to dash down the avenue,” reported The New York Times on April 26.  The newspaper noted “For weeks past an Italian whom the children all know as George has taken up his stand at the corner of One Hundred and Twenty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue every morning and has captured their pennies daily.”

Koch & Co.’s wagon crashed into George’s two-wheeled pushcart “with a crash that could have been heard a block away.”  It all would end in a very bad day for the horse and for George.  “The horse was thrown down by the force of the collision and some of its harness broken, while the contents of the wrecked pushcart were scattered in every direction.  The sight of numerous youngsters chasing rosy apples and gathering up peanuts by the hatfull quickly brought George to his senses and he began to shout ‘Police!’”

It only got worse.  “To cap the climax the burning charcoal in the peanut roaster set fire to a can of kerosene also on the pushcart, so that between the youngsters, the fire, and the kerosene there was only a remnant of the stock left.” 

The newspaper added “What became of the locomobile, which caused all the trouble, nobody seems to know.”

Henry Koch also realized that to maintain a successful business his employees must be happy.   In 1893 workers were invited to join the H. C. F. Koch & Co. Employees’ Mutual Benefit Association.  Every year it held a ball at which the Koch family was present.  In 1903 Notions and Fancy Goods reported on that year’s ball, held at the New Harlem Casino.  “The ballroom, tastefully decorated with palms and flowers in profusion, made a brilliant scene at the opening of the grand march, which was led by the president of the association.”  Members were treated not only to dancing; but to vaudeville entertainments.

The labor paper, The Square Deal, which often complained about working conditions, could find none in the Koch & Co. workplace.  In August 1913 it reported “The comfortable appointments of H. C. F. Koch & Co., in Harlem, its well ventilated tube room and the firm’s system of distributing bottled water to its employees, and its various social and welfare schemes, are the subjects of special paragraphs.”

While Koch & Co. kept up on current fashion trends, it was apparently not a slave to Paris fads.  Robert M. Cloos was the store’s buyer of cloaks and suits in 1903 and he told Cloaks and Furs that year his theory regarding the American shopper.

“The American woman has a fine figure as a rule—much better than the French woman, who, when she reaches the stage of curves is generally fat.  The American woman, on the other hand, has curves combined with slenderness and the lines of her hips particularly are often very beautiful.”  He therefore believed that American shopper would continue to reject the “skirt full and voluminous” favored by the Europeans.  “She has a figure to display and the full skirts do not do it.”

Therefore, said Cloaks and Furs, “Mr. Cloos has great faith in the shirt-waist suit, but he also banks on the separate skirt and shirt waist.”  The magazine noted “The firm caters to a very fine class of trade who have perfect confidence in them and seldom go down town to make a purchase.  Gowns from $200 to $250 are sold without any trouble.”

Among the largest departments at Koch & Co. was the furniture department—50 by 250 feet in floor area.  The Grand Rapids Furniture Record said in 1913, “Koch & Co. do not intend to lose a customer because of failure to ‘show the goods.’”  Here a dining room suite of ten pieces could be purchased from $100 to $800.  The periodical noted that “The firm realized that while a down town store competes with only one or two other stores of its same class, a Harlem establishment competes against all the down town stores.  It is Kock & Co. against the down town field when a prospect wonders whether to patronize the Harlem store or take his pocketbook into the subway.”

In 1923 a heart breaking tale played out.  Bessie Clarke lived at No. 1989 Amsterdam Avenue with her mother, Mary Clarke.  The 18-year old saleswoman was engaged to be married and had saved up $300 for her trousseau.  Everything seemed to be going perfectly for Bessie.

Then on Saturday May 5, just weeks before the wedding, her mother went to Koch & Co.  As the 53-year old woman was leaving, Helen E. Paul, a female detective, nabbed her.  In her bag was a silk waist and a pair of silk stockings valued at $4.  Although it was not a huge theft—amounting to about $50 today—Mary Clarke was arrested for shoplifting and held at $500 bail.

The following day Bessie Clarke appeared in Judge H. Stanley Renaud’s courtroom and offered her $300 trousseau money and her diamond engagement ring as surety for the appearance of her mother at trial.  The judge, “after he had heard from a court clerk what the bail money had been saved up for, reduced the amount from $500 to $300, and Miss Clarke got her engagement ring back again.”

That same year, on October 26, The New York Times reported “The H. C. F. Koch & Co. department store interests have bought the six-story building they occupy…from the Frederick W. Matthiessen estate.”

By now the neighborhood had significantly changed.  Quickly becoming what would be termed "Spanish Harlem," many residents of a generation earlier were being replaced by Puerto Rican families with lesser incomes.  Yet Koch & Co. continued on in its 1891 palace for another decade.  In 1932 E. Von Der Horst Koch died and before long Koch & Co. had dissolved.

The 125th Street neighborhood suffered hard times throughout the rest of the century.  Entire blocks of structures around the once-magnificent retail palace were razed.  Today only it and one other lonely 19th century building next door survive from what was once a vibrant and elegant retail center.  At street level, Hume’s handsome design has been annihilated, replaced by gaudy modern storefronts.  But above, Henry Koch’s grand emporium lives on virtually intact.