Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Fred R. Hamlin House - 305 West 71st Street

Period photographs show the doorway, above a shallow stoop at the right, a centered window, and the service entrance to the left, where the present doorway is located.
In 1896 the husband-and-wife team of Carline and Luther F. Hartwell completed a handsome row of seven rowhouses on the north side of West 71st Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.  Designed by Frederick Friend, they stretched from No. 305 through No. 317.

The eastern most house, No. 305, was leased to Robert Appleton, a member of D. Appleton & Company, publishers.  The well-known businessman was also a member of the New York Athletic and the University Clubs, and the Yale Alumni Association.

In April 1903 real estate operator James O'Brien purchased the house and waited for the Appleton lease to expire.  As with most other moneyed families, the Appletons left the city that summer.  While most left one or two servants behind to guard their properties, No. 305 was left unoccupied.  It proved to be a tempting target for mischievous youths.

Nine-year old Herbert Shannon lived across the street and one afternoon he and three friends, two of them also 9-years old and the other 8-years old, climbed over the basement gate, forced open the door "and then scampered through the house," as reported by The New York Times on August 29.  Had the intruders been professional adults, they would have made a haul; the newspaper noting "there were plenty of valuable things which could have been carried off."  But there was only one item that caught the boys' attention.

"That was a miniature railroad, consisting of trains of cars, stations, tracks, locomotives, &c., and complete in every detail.  This was all that was removed."  Having made off with the toy train set, the boys did not cover their tracks very well.   A foot patrolman later noticed the basement door open and a detective was put on the case.  The four boys were arrested, charged with burglary and locked up.

When the Appleton family returned to the city, they would have to start looking for a new home.  They did not look far--moving into the house next door at No. 307.  Surprisingly, James O'Brien demolished the eight-year-old house they had called home and began construction of a replacement in January 1904.

The structure was completed before the summer's end.  Designed by George Keister,  it was a blend of Renaissance Revival and Beaux Arts styles, arguably no more attractive or upscale than the house it replaced.  Designed on the American basement plan, the entrance was a few steps above the sidewalk within a limestone-faced base.  Three charming Juliette balconies which perched above a stone cornice fronted French windows.  Ambitious stone pediments above the third story openings were decorated with palm-flanked cartouches and lions' heads.  The Flemish-bond brickwork of the second and third floors gave way to a rusticated pattern at the fourth.  A deeply-overhanging metal cornice finished the design.

Early in August O'Brien sold the 25-foot wide house to Fredrick R. Hamlin, who was better known as Fred.  It had already been a momentous year for the theatrical producer.  Hamlin was born into the industry, the son of John A. Hamlin, manager of Chicago's Grand Opera House.   Only five years before buying the new house, he began his own theatrical career.

His first production, Arizona, was a success.  But nothing could prepare him for the sensation caused by his 1902 staging of The Wizard of Oz.   It was followed by another blockbuster, Babes in Toyland (which was still in production in 1904).  The two triumphs resulted in his partnering with Lew Fields and Julian Mitchell to form Hamlin, Mitchell & Fields.

The Wizard of Oz was a monumental success for Hamlin.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
By the spring of 1904 it must have seemed to Hamlin that his life could not get better.  On April 16 he purchased a summer home in Bellport, Long Island, and two days later he married Mary Burton Cadow, of Chicago.  Now the newlyweds had a fashionable townhouse as well.

Tragically, Hamlin's seemingly perfect life was about to end.  He came down with the grip (influenza) in October.  Although he seemed to have essentially recovered, he was left with a nagging cough.  On the advice of his doctor he and Mary traveled to Virginia Hot Springs at the beginning of November, where he appeared to have improved.  They came back to New York on November 23.

Suddenly Hamlin was attacked with severe stomach pains.  Doctors could find nothing wrong and told Mary he was simply run down.  Then, on Saturday night, November 26 his nose began bleeding, and was not stopped until the following day.  The New York Times reported on Monday, "Physicians were in constant attendance, and had assembled for a consultation in the evening, when Mr. Hamlin became suddenly delirious, and twenty minutes later died."

Hamlin's estate was more than $4 million by today's standards.  The whirlwind schedule of a marriage and purchase of two properties had not distracted him from making his will.  Mary received one-third of his estate, which was managed by his attorney brother, Herbert W. Hamlin.

Mary was not satisfied and sued the estate for the ownership of the two houses.  In court papers her lawyers claimed "Before the purchase, and during the progress of his negotiations for the purchase, he frequently declared to various persons that he intended to give the properties to his wife, and that he so intended to give them as a wedding present."  The battle dragged on into 1911; but Mary (by then remarried) was unsuccessful.

In the meantime Herbert Hamlin leased No. 305 to moneyed families.  John Stoddard lived here in 1912 when he and two partners incorporated the Eastern Coal & Coke Company.  In 1916 Sophie Louise Stebbins signed a lease; and in 1918 P. V. Giroux, a partner in the Gerrard Wire Typing Machines Co. lived here.

Still owned by the Hamlin estate, No. 305 was being operated as a rooming house in the Depression years.  Among the roomers was 26-year old Richard Nicolai Belling.  One of eight generations of acrobats, the family's long tradition of world-wide travel caused him frustrating troubles in 1932.

Belling's grandfather was born and lived in Philadelphia; but the family was in Paris when Belling's father was born.  Belling's siblings were born in various locations.  He explained to a reporter "Bob was born in Chia, Siberia; Tom was born in Manila; I was born in Hungary; Maude was born in Copenhagen."

Immediately upon Belling's birth his father went to the United States Consul and registered him as a U.S. citizen.  When he was 14-years old, according to Belling, "I came to the United States in 1920 with father and was admitted as an American."  But in 1929 he applied for a passport and was now told he was a Chinese citizen.  Customs officials contended that while his grandfather had the right to "hand down" his citizenship, because he lived in the U.S., his father could not do so.  Despite being an American citizen by birth, he had been born outside of the country.  A 1926 Customs decision held that "children of American citizens who have never resided in the United States are not American citizens.

So Belling went to the Chinese Consulate.  He was denied a passport because he had been registered as an American citizen in 1906, so he was therefore not a Chinese subject.  He thought he had the solution when he made out an application for U.S. citizenship, noting "I renounce my allegiance to the Republic of China."  It was rejected.  The clerk told him, "You can't do that because Chinese are not admitted to citizenship in the United States."  

So Richard Nicolai Belling was left without a country, and unable to travel.  The New York Times quoted him on February 4, 1932:  "I'm not an American, they tell me.  Well, then, I'm a Chinese and have no legal right to be here.  I can't become an American.  I can't get the money to fight this out in Supreme Court and, besides, there's a decision as precedent against me.  What can I do.?"  (Happily, The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 and Belling later received his citizenship and social security card.)

Another roomer, William T. Jobe, had other problems.  The 29-year old was arrested on November 8, 1934 for burglary and suspicion of a separate armed robbery.  The Times reported he was charged with "burglary in the theft Wednesday night of $900 worth of jewelry and clothing from the apartment of Jene Carroll in the Hotel New Weston, Forty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue."  On the same night a Los Angeles manufacturer and his wife were held up in the same hotel and robbed of jewelry valued at $2,500.

On November 26, 1936 Herbert Hamlin announced that he had leased the house for five years.  "The lessee intends to remodel the house into one and two-room apartments," reported The Times.  The renovations, however, appear to have fallen short.  In 1937 the building received a "multiple dwelling violation" from the Department of Buildings.  It may have resulted in the lease being cancelled.  On October 17, 1938 Herbert Hamlin leased the house, "containing eighteen small apartments," to Carroll Woolf.

Woolf made further renovations, which resulted in 1940 in a caretaker's room and two furnished rooms on the first floor, two apartments on the second, three furnished rooms on the third, and six more on the fourth.  It was possibly at this time that the entrance was moved from the right to the left of the ground floor.  The configuration remained that way until 1966, when a conversion resulted in one apartment on the ground floor and two each above.

Much of the 1904 detailing survives in the dining room.  photo via blocksy.com
In 1996, following Miriam and Jon Birge's purchase of the house, a ten-year renovation was begun.  An owner's duplex was created on the second and third floors.  It was most likely the Birges who gave the house its unconvincing neo-Georgian entrance.  They put the house on the market in 2015 for just under $12 million.

photographs by the author

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Lost Tammany Hall - 137-149 East 14th St

The sign for Tony Pastor's Theatre is above the eastern entrance (left)  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The Tammany Society was one of several social clubs by that name which arose in Philadelphia and other cities   The New York society elected its first officers in 1789, its members being mostly craftsmen and mechanics along with a few professionals like attorneys and merchants.  They dressed in Native American costumes, were known as braves, and were divided into tribes.  The group first met in a room in Martling's Tavern on Chatham Street.  Originally non-partisan, by 1795 it was solely allied with the Democratic Party.  

Tammany Hall built a new clubhouse at 170 Nassau Street in 1812.  But by the end of the Civil War, the neighborhood was filled with business buildings and on March 20, 1867 the members decided to sell.  The New York Times deemed it a good idea.  "The old house has a famous history and at one time was the seat of the political power of the country," it noted.  But the decision to relocate was "a very proper move."

A year earlier the Academy of Music at the corner of 14th Street and Irving Place had burned.  Architect Thomas R. Jackson had been selected to design the replacement building.  Now he was commissioned by the Tammany Society to design its new clubhouse directly next door, at Nos. 137-149 East 14th Street where the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons stood.

The cornerstone was laid on Independence day, 1867.  Place next to the metal box was the original "casket" from the 1811 cornerstone.  Among the items within the new version were gold and silver coins minted in 1867, a bill for the construction, a History of Tammany Society, and the program and an invitation to the day's ceremonies.

T'he souvenir pamphlet handed out that day included a description of the building.  The 116-foot wide structure would be three stories tall "and to be built of marble and red brick, the marble extending thirty feet high in the front."  There would be "a fine triple window in the centre twenty-five feet wide, surmounted by a straight pediment."  The the arrangement of the openings of the flanking pavilions created a Palladium effect.  Above the cornice would be "a massive pediment, bearing in large letters the words 'Tammany Society.'"  On either side were the dates 1763 and 1867 and an enormous arched niche held at 12-foot statue of a Native American (presumably Tamanend, leader of the Lenape tribe from whom the society took its name).

Inside were impressive spaces--a capacious library, the "grand hall," and a concert room; as well as the expected clubrooms and committee rooms.  The pamphlet described the concert room as "one of the most beautiful ever constructed in this city."  With seating for 1,000, its frescoed ceiling rose 30 feet above the floor and its stage was 52-feet wide.  The main committee room, 35 x 75 feet, had a "ceiling as heavenly as the concert room."

Females, who would appear only on evenings of concerts and entertainments, were provided for.  "On the second floor the rights of women are to be recognized by a dressing-room thirty-two by forty feet."  Nearby was the gentlemen's dressing room.  The third floor contained the grand hall, reportedly the most spacious in the nation.  It could accommodate 4,000 persons.

Proceedings of the Tammany Society, July 1867 (copyright expired)

There were three entrances on 14th Street.  They not only provided balance, but led to rental spaces.  The entrance to the east, next to the Academy of Music, accessed the concert hall and also led to the public hall.  The basement was set aside for a restaurant which "will answer to all the increased and cultured epicureanism of that section of the city."  

Jackson placed the cost of construction at $300,000--just over $5 million today.

The building would be dedicated exactly one year later, July 4, 1868.  As it neared, the Tammany-loathing New York Herald used a derogatory, roundabout way to announce the date.  "The big Indians of the Tammany ring--men who have grown fat and are growing fatter on the spoils of this Corporation--the grand sachems, little sachems, pappooses [sic], sagamores and whiskeyskinskis, assisted by the representatives of the national democracy from all the States and Territories of the Union, reconstructed and unreconstructed, and aided by the women's rights women, too, will meet on 'the glorious Fourth' to inaugurate this new temple of the 'Tammany Society of the Columbian Order.'"

The article recalled the group's sometimes pugilistic meetings saying, "The history of the old Tammany Hall is a starling record of democratic lovefeasts of the Donnybrook order, fruitful of faction fight, cracked crowns, bloody noses and used up locofocos, and it will be almost a miracle if the new Tammany Hall escapes a similar baptism."

On the day before the ceremony the building was draped in red-white-and-blue bunting and an enormous canopy composed of evergreens called "The Archway of Triumph,"stretched from curb to curb. The New York Herald deemed it "a cheerful and festal piece of ornamentation, odorous as well of the forest atmosphere, so dear and inspiring to the old braves."  The decorations, inside and out, cost Tammany $20,000, according to The New York Times.

The scene during the building's dedication.  Tammany Hall Souvenir of the Inauguration of Cleveland and Stevenson, 1893 ( copyright expired)
The next day was oppressively hot, with temperatures reaching into the 90's.  The New York Herald said the heat played "sad havoc with shirt collars" and described people using any manner of article with which to fan themselves--straw hats, pocket handkerchiefs, newspapers and "old battered wideawakes."  (Wideawakes are the broad-rimmed hats still worn by Quakers.)

"That great big arc de triomphe in front of Tammany, with its huge integument of evergreens, riveted many an eye.  Though not artistic it looked cool, and who cares for art with the thermometer going higher than a kite and his shirt collar wilting like the tender petal of an uprooted flower."

The New York Times was less openly critical, at least about the structure. The dedication coincided with the Democratic National Convention.  The newspaper said the delegates were welcomed "to one of the most splendid halls in the country.  New-York City is not deeply indebted to Tammany Society for blessings conferred, but it does owe the organization for one of the finest and most imposing building fronts the City can boast."

Turning to the great hall, the article said "This great space has been finished with the most perfect taste, and exhibits none of that glaring obtrusive art found in to many public buildings.  The frescoing and gilding done by Philip Donnoruma, is especially noticeable for the perfect taste that has dictated every touch of the artist's brush."  Flanking the stage were two enormous bronze figures holding candelabras, each supporting 60 gas jets.

The great hall, decorated for the National Democratic Convention upon the building's dedication.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
As political meetings began within the committee rooms and great hall, Dan Bryant signed a lease for the concert hall.  Bryan was, actually, Dan O'Neill.  He and his brother, Jerry, took the stage name Bryan after they formed Bryant's Minstrels in 1857.  The Civil War had not dampened the group's offerings of plantation-themed comedy, Southern banjo music by Stephen Foster and similar composers, and blatantly racist black-faced comedians.

On March 1, 1868 The New York Times had announced "Dan Bryant is now in Mobile...In the Fall, when his new theatre over Tammany Hall is opened, Mr. Bryant will reappear in his Congo dress, and play the bones."  Bryant's Minstrels drew crowds in it new space.  It reported gross receipts in May 1870 of $142,000 by today's standards.

Because city government and the Tammany Society were essentially the same; graft and corruption were nearly effortless.  The New York Times exposed a scheme on July 8, 1871.  In the spring of 1870 the city rented space in the building for use as the armory of the Sixth Regiment--the top floor and five or six small rooms on the floor below.  Rent was paid for the empty space for a year before the regiment moved in.  The Times scoffed at the functionality of the space, saying the practical size of the drill room was 100 x 40 feet.

But worse yet, "The entire portion of the building that is used for military purposes could not be let for any legitimate business for $3,000 a year," said the newspaper, "but the municipal Ring pays...the snug little sum of $36,000 per year."

Bryant's Minstrels was replaced by The Germania Theatre by 1876; and then in 1881 actor and manager Antonio "Tony" Pastor moved his troupe in.   A year earlier the brilliant impresario had been approached by a woman who "said she knew a little girl with a lovely voice," as he later recalled.  He met the Helen (Nellie) Louise Leonard in the parlor of the rooming house where she lived and she sang "The Clang of the Wooden Shoes" for him.

He was so struck by her voice that he sat numb.  Helen said "Oh, Mr Pastor, don't you like my singing?"  Once he recovered he hired her on the spot and she appeared at the Tony Pastor Theatre on Broadway under the new stage name he gave her, Lillian Russell.  She was the most famous of the several stage stars discovered by Pastor who would now appear in the new location.

To the left a section of the Academy of Music can be glimpsed.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
An arsonist used the theater to access the building on October 23, 1884, thereby avoiding the doorman at the main entrance.   Between the "green room" of Pastor's and the barroom of the clubhouse was a small closet where the man soaked newspapers and a bundle of rags in kerosene and ignited them.

Just after the performance had ended, patrons of the barroom noticed smoke.  The bartender and a porter searched, and "found a fire burning fiercely upon the floor," according to The New York Times.  The flooring was ripped up and the fire extinguished before substantial damaged could be done.  The following day Chief Shay of the Fire Department "was on hand to look after the safety of the wigwam."

Tammany Hall was essentially omnipotent in New York City operations.  The February 1894 issue of The Atlantic Monthly said "No one who has not lived in New York can imagine the despotic power which Tammany Hall exercises there.  No citizen is too humble to be beneath its notice; no citizen is too rich or too powerful to be safe from its interference.  Thee is not a man living in New York, however independent his character, who would not think twice before doing an act likely to offend Tammany, or the city government, for they are one and the same thing."

from the collection of the New York Public Library
Nevertheless, as was the case with that article, newspapers and magazines spoke out.   The following month the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide railed "While the leaders of Tammany Hall are...opposing any increase of salaries to the policemen, they are pushing increases of salaries to some of the highly paid Tammany Halls heads."  One example cited was the salary of the Superintendent of the Department of Buildings, proposed to be raised to more than $200,000 a year in today's dollars.

And when Charles F. Murphy was elected head of Tammany Hall in December 1903, the New-York Tribune ran a full-page photo of him, captioned "PHOTOGRAPH OF THE REAL MAYOR OF NEW-YORK FOR THE NEXT TWO YEARS."

The "Real Mayor."  New-York Tribune December 27, 1903 (copyright expired)
In March 1906 Tony Pastor celebrated the 25th anniversary of his theater within the Tammany building and the 50th anniversary of his "grown-up" career in the theater (he started out as a child actor).  But two years after that stellar performance, Tony Pastor's occupation of the space came to an end.

On August 30, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported "The Olympic Theatre, formerly Tony Pastor's was opened last night.  The attraction this week will be the Bowery Burlesquers, and they will give two performances daily."

A major fire erupted in Tammany Hall on December 12, 1910.  The New-York Tribune reported "For two hours yesterday morning the fate of Tammany Hall hung in the balance while several fire companies...fought to save the grim old tiger's historic lair on East 14th Street."  Investigators blamed the blaze on "the cigar of some careless merry maker who had attended the dance there the night before."

The great hall, which had been converted to a ballroom for the previous night's event, was flooded as was the floor below.  The Olympic Theatre was "badly damaged by the deluge," said the newspaper.   The total damage was initially estimated at $25,000.  Happily, none of the historic paintings nor the Society's records were destroyed or seriously damaged.

The New-York Tribune remarked "The fire revives the talk, prevalent no long ago, of the society deserting this building, erected in 1867, and moving up town to a new wigwam."

An electric blade sign announces the Olympic in this turn of the century photo. The staircases at street level have been removed.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Only three weeks later the building was on fire again.  On January 6, 1911 The Sun reported "Tammany Hall made another effort to burn up last night."  The fire started, this time, in the theater during a performance, most likely among painters' supplies under the stage.  The patrons were herded out, but they were addressed by Police Captain Burfiend on the street who informed them that the small fire had been put out and they could return to their seats.

The show went on, but not without some difficulties.  "Water poured through the hole over the stage, however.  While the Ginger Girls did their Amazon march in broken ranks, dodging splashes of dirty water and buckets of sawdust placed on the floor to receive it, the firemen were busy just over them pouring on more water, 'washing down' after the fire."

In December 1915 the vaudeville troupe the Broadway Belles opened for a week at the Olympic Theatre.  The Evening World remarked that comedian Joe Marks "long identified with the best known burlesque attractions...kept the large crowd in roars of laughter."  At the time the theater's landlords were considering a move.  Eight months earlier the Tammany Society met to discuss "the project of moving from its historic clubhouse...to large and more modern quarters uptown," according to the Record & Guide on April 24.  "Action was deferred, however, till a later date."

That date would not come until 1927.  On December 6 The New York Times reported "Tammany Hall has been sold."  The price for the property was "believed to be in the neighborhood of $750,000."

Tammany did not move far.  In 1929 its new clubhouse was completed just three blocks north, at No. 100 East 17th Street.  Today the old site is covered by the block-engulfing Con Edison Building.

The Con Edison tower sit upon the old Academy of Music site; Tammany Hall's site is directly behind.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Rev. C. F. Frey House - 266 Bleecker Street

Charles Oakley was perhaps responsible for the erection of more houses and shops during the Greenwich Village building boom of the 1820's and '30's than anyone else.  A Village native, he was both an attorney and merchant; but it is his development of scores of middle-class structures for which he is remembered.

Around 1833 he completed a row of five houses on the west side of Bleecker Street between Morton and Leroy Streets, each with a shop on the ground floor.  (Four years earlier he had petitioned the Common Council of the City of New York to rename Herring Street to Bleecker Street.)

No. 250, like its identical neighbors, was three-and-a-half stories tall, including the store.  It was faced in Flemish bond red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  A single dormer pierced the roof, and a simple wooden fascia board ran below the cornice.

At least by 1841 the ground floor held the drugstore of Joseph M. Frey.  He lived upstairs with his father, Rev. Joseph Samuel C. F. Frey, a fascinating figure in religious history.  The men shared the upper floors with William S. Woodward, who ran the hardware store at No. 201 Greenwich Street.

Rev. C. F. Frey (he rarely used his two first names) was born on September 21, 1771 in Maynstockheim, Germany to strict Jewish parents.  He and his brothers were schooled at home by a tutor.  Frey later wrote "My mother herself narrowly watched us, and would never suffer us to read any book but in the Hebrew language, lest we should read any thing about the christian religion."  He added "Our tutor took every opportunity to impress us with prejudices and hatred against the christian religion."

But all the precautions fell short.  As a young adult Frey embraced Christianity, and convinced German ministers to give him instruction.  His arduous quest took him to Berlin, then to London, and finally, in 1816, New York City.  His purpose in coming to New York was to set up a branch of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews.  By the time he moved into the Bleecker Street house, he was a member of the Baptist Church of Christ on Mulberry Street, and the author of several books and treatises.

Of the five 1833 houses, three survive incredibly intact.  A floor has been added to No. 268 (right).
Frey arrived in his new country armed with a packet of letters of recommendation from clergymen in London.  He would need a position and funds, after all, if he were to establish the society.  Typical was the introductory letter fro David Bogue:

The Rev. C. F. Frey, of the seed of Abraham, was a student of the seminary at Gosport, upward of three years.  I believe him to be a true disciple of Christ; I consider him well qualified to teach the Hebrew tongue in any of the schools or colleges of the United States; and I cordially recommend him to the kindness and patronage of the friends of religion in America.

It is unclear how long Joseph Frey maintained his drugstore here.  His father left New York in 1843 to make a nine-month tour of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky on behalf of the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews.

The occupants of the upper floors had changed by 1846 when Jacob L. Dodge and James B. Dupignac lived here.  Dodge was a butcher with two shops, one at No. 32 Cornelia Street and the other at No. 236 Bleecker Street--both conveniently steps away from No. 250.  Dupignac was a publisher with offices at No 55 Reade Street.  In 1842 he was voted a Commissioner of Common Schools in the First School District, as well.

Dodge,too, was a well-rounded man whose interests went far beyond the butcher business.  In 1847 he was elected to the Board of Aldermen.  He additionally held at least two patents for "hats."  But it was politics, not pork chops or headwear, for which New Yorkers recognized Dodge's name.

In October 1854 he fired off an angry letter to the editor of The New York Times which read:

DEAR SIR:  Having noticed the publication of my name in several journals of this City, as being an independent candidate for the office of Commissioner of Streets and Lamps, I desire to inform the public through your valuable paper, that I am not a candidate for any office whatever; and, in conclusion, I most cheerfully recommend to the Whigs of the City and County of New-York, to cooperate with me in the support of the regular nominated candidate of the Democratic Whig party, Christian W. Schaffer, Esq.

Dodge was correct that he was not a candidate for Commissioner of Streets and Lamps.  He appeared on the ticket for Commissioner of Repairs and Supplies.

In the meantime, Dodge had new neighbors upstairs at No. 250 by 1849.  Benjamin Herman, a painter, was also living here that year, as was Charles P. Lindley.  Lindley was a partner with Aaron Mundy in Lindley & Mundy, the drygoods store that now occupied the ground floor.  The proprietors' interests were philanthropic as well as commercial.  The store was listed as a supporter of the New-York Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor.

Lindley & Mundy made way for another dry goods store, J. & S. Langstadter, in 1850.  It was run by brothers Jacob and Samuel, both of whom lived upstairs.  Jacob was also a partner with Bernhard Langstadter in the J & B Langstadter store at No. 268 Bleecker Street.   The two stores do not seem to have competed with one another, J & S Langstadter being described as "drygoods," and J & B Langstadter as "hosiery."

Jacob L. Dodge does not appear in city directories as living here in 1859 when Bleecker Street was renumbered, giving the building the new address of No. 266.  The Langstadters were still here, along with Anne Hare, a widow, and her two grown sons, Frederick W. and George R. Hare, both clerks.  Whether he lived here or not, Dodge nevertheless purchased the building in 1862.

By 1865 Ernest Albrecth's "book and shoe store" occupied the ground floor.  That year, on March 15, one of the upstairs tenants, J. Spear, was drafted into the Union Army.

The continuous turnover in upper floor occupants continued.  Augustus and Guidia Stoppelkam anticipated a new member of the family in March 1867.  But infant mortality, especially among the working class, was high in the mid-19th century.  Tiny Charles A. Stoppelkam lived only briefly.  The infant died on April 7 and his funeral was held in his parents rooms here two days later.

The remainder of the century saw significant changes to Greenwich Village.  Poets, musicians and artists were drawn to its winding streets, creating Manhattan's Bohemia.  Bleecker Street became an even more important shopping street, filled by the end of the century with Italian bakeries, butcher shops and similar stores.

On August 28, 1921 The New York Herald reported that Mrs. G. Montante had purchased No. 266, which she "intends to alter and occupy."  It was most likely Montante who converted the upper floors into a single residence.

The upper portion, once home to several families, is now an inventively-designed duplex. photo via www.prestonny.com
In 1950 Books-By-Mail moved into the store, starting a long tradition of book sellers in the space.  After being at the corner of Bleecker and 11th Streets since 1984, Biography Bookshop moved to No. 266, changing its name to Bookbook.  The shop remains there.  In the meantime, the time-worn house still retains much of its appearance from a time when a renowned Jewish-born Christian evangelist lived here.

photographs by the author

Friday, January 18, 2019

The 1895 Holmes-Bromley Candy Factory - 83 Warren Street

J. M. Atwater leased the property at No. 83 Warren Street from Grace Church.  The building he erected on the site housed his extensive business of jellies, sauces, catsups, canned goods, and other grocery items "wherewith the epicurean palate is so deliciously tickled," according to Illustrated New York, in 1888.   The writer mentioned that "The store, No. 83 Warren Street, is in one of the most desirable locations down town."

In March 1894, 34 years after opening his business, Atwater sold the leasehold to the property to Hampton O. Marsh for $5,000.  Marsh, who lived in Morristown, New Jersey, immediately initiated plans to replace the old Atwater building.  His architect, W. G. Beatty, filed plans in May, calling for a five-story brick and limestone loft building to cost $13,000--about $382,000 today.   Beatty included a hand-powered sidewalk freight elevator and electric lighting in the plans.

Hampton O. Marsh would never see his building completed.  He died of a heart attack in his home on September 22 that year at the age of 63.  His estate forged ahead with the plans.

The building was completed by the end of the year.  An industrial blend of Romanesque Revival and Renaissance Revival styles, it was faced in variegated Roman brick and trimmed in limestone.  The no-nonsense cast iron storefront had none of the grandiose Corinthian capitals and other decorations of a generation earlier.   Brawny splayed lintels with prominent keystones adorned the openings of the second through fourth floors.  A row of five arched openings sat upon a delicately-carved stone cornice at the fifth.

The new building was leased to candy manufacturer Holmes-Brumley & Company.  The factory's boilers required a smoke stack, so W. G. Beatty was called back in January 1895 to make the alterations, which cost the Marsh estate a little over $7,500 by today's standards.

In February 1897 the estate sold the leasehold to Benjamin Sire for $5,400.   He would soon have to find a new occupant of his building.   On March 26 The Sun reported that Holmes-Brumley & Company was in financial trouble and Robert W. Bullock had been appointed its receiver.

The candy company had debts amounting to nearly half a million in today's dollars.  Bullock, who was just 28 years old and "bears a good reputation," according to The New York Times, had been a bookkeeper in the company.  He now took on the responsibility of settling the affairs of the firm; a psychological burden which may have been more than he could handle.

The first week of July Bullock complained to friends of a headaches and said he thought he would go away for a few weeks to rest.  That was the last anyone heard from him.  On July 16 The Times reported "Some alarm is felt by creditors of Holmes, Brumley & Co...Mr. Bullock has been missing for more than two weeks, and as a result the settlement of the affairs of the company is blocked."  The article was quick to assure "no one suspects that the young man has absconded...They fear, however, that he has either met with foul play or is seriously ill and unable to communicate with his friends."

Bullock had already sold off the perishable stock of the firm, and had arranged for an auction of the company's equipment and furnishings.  The auction went on without him; but the buyer of the company's safe encountered a problem when it was revealed that only Bullock had the combination.  A representative of the safe factory was called to open it.  Everything inside was in order--checks made payable to Bullock as receiver, and some cash.  The mystery of Bullock's whereabouts only deepened.

On July 17 the New-York Tribune proposed "It may be possible that Bullock, while laboring under some mental stress, has wandered away, and does not know what he is about or what he is doing.  He was an extremely nervous man, and was under the care of several nerve specialists."  Oddly enough, the newspapers lost interest in the case after the company's finances were settled.  None seems to have followed up on the story of the missing man and his fate.

The former candy factory became home to a drastically different tenant.  Robert A. Keasbey was a manufacturer and dealer in industrial supplies, including railroad and ship parts.  The firm was, for instance, among the top bidders in 1898 for supplies for the New York Navy Yard.  And it was the Robert A. Keasbey company which supplied the asbestos coverings for pipes in the two torpedo boats being built for the U.S. Navy in Elizabethport, New Jersey in 1903.

In September that year Marcus Stowe Hill took a job earning $15 a week as a clerk.  His had been an ambitious but sadly disappointing career to date and the new job was a distinct step down.  He had met his wife, Alberta, in Sidney, Australia and they were married on December 1, 1888.  By now they had two children.

At one point Hill had moved his family to San Francisco, where he was a commission merchant.  But he devised a scheme to make a fortune making Egyptian and Turkish cigarettes.  He convinced three friends to invest $7,500 and relocated the family to Japan where the cost of living was lower.  In 1901 he returned to America and hired an engineer to make a special cigarette-making machine.  But it never worked.

And so to make ends meet he accepted the job of clerk.  After having worked at Robert A. Kesbey just three weeks, Hill was no doubt humiliated when police entered the building and arrested him for non-support.  Alberta, willing to wait no longer for her husband, had arrived in New York with the children and gone directly to the police.

Hill pleaded with the judge "I asked her not to come here, as it costs much more to live here than in Japan.  She has $500 worth of diamonds and I hardly have a collar button."  Alberta produced her husband's landlady as a witness, but, according to The Sun on October 3, 1903, "her evidence was all in favor of the defendant."

Irene Kenney testified "He boarded for $6 a week because he wanted to save money to get back to his family, of whom he appeared very fond."  Alberta's suit fell flat.  "The Magistrate dismissed the complaint when Hill said that he would do the best he could by his wife," explained The Sun.

Not long after the messy affair, the Robert A. Keasbey company moved to North Moore Street.  Three butter and egg firms took its place at No. 83 Warren Street.  The first was the Consumers' Butter and Egg Co., which had been organized at Greenwich and Reade Streets in 1902.  Two years later, according to The Sun, "a fire drove it to 83 Warren Street."

The blaze came at an especially bad time.  Consumers' Butter and Egg Co. was already burdened with debts that amounted to $15,000 (about $426,000 today), according to the New York Produce Review on March 9, 1904.  Unable to survive, the journal reported that the firm would close its doors.

On May 4, 1904 the New York Produce Review and American Creamery reported that after 27 years at No. 81 Warren Street, J. D. Stout & Co. had moved next door to No. 83.  "The object of moving was to get a more modern building and a better equipment for the handing of butter, cheese, and eggs, which have been the specialties of the firm every since its organization," the journal explained.

The American Produce Review, May 1904 (copyright expired)

A separate article on the same day noted that De Wolff & Christiansen "have moved from 15 Harrison street down to 83 Warren street."  Both butter, cheese and egg firms remained here only until about 1913, when a far different tenant moved in.

The James Goldmark Co. was the New York agent for Holtzer-Cabot Electric Co., based in Boston.  Its extensive list of products included buffers and polishers, time clocks, motors and dynamos, fire extinguishers, and soldering compound.

Following World War I No. 83 became home to the New York branch of Chicago-based John F. Jelke Co., makers of oleomargarine.  The firm was looking for an ambitious young employee in the summer of 1920.  "Boy Wanted--Strong, willing, for stock room and shipping department; steady employment, $14 a week."  It would be a lucrative job for someone, the weekly pay equal to about $185 today.

John F. Jelke Co.'s oleomargarine was marked under the Good Luck label.
The following year a salesman was needed.  The firm's advertisement in The New York Herald on April 24, 1921 sought someone with "good record and high class references" to sell "popular food in Bronx and Brooklyn."  The candidate would have to "driving experience."  The ad concluded "If you are a business producer with ability and character, call early Monday morning, John F. Jelke Co., 83 Warren St."

The Warren Street block saw a wave of employment agencies take over buildings beginning in the early 1940's.   The Employment Agency Center Building opened at No. 80 in 1942, housing more than 40 agencies; and the same year the Edwards Employment Agencies, Inc, purchased No. 73 Warren Street.  That deal prompted The New York Times on May 19 to call it part of "the recent movement of many similar enterprises from Sixth Avenue."

On November 17, 1947 The Times reported that the trend had reached No. 83.  "Roberts Employment Service, 83 Warren Street, a new organization specializing in male and female positions in the mechanical, technical and building trades, has been formed by Edward Greenberg."

Employment services would give way to residential space by the mid-1970's (although not legally converted).  Unlike so many Tribeca lofts which were taken over by artists, No. 83 became noted for its musical residents.  According to Mike Katz and Crispin Kott in their 2018 Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to New York City, "Dubbed the 'Home for Teenage Dirt,' 83 Warren St. around 1977 was a residence for musicians Lydia Lunch, Bradly Field, and Miriam Linna; members of the group Mars; and writer and former WFMU DJ James Marshall."

Official residential conversion came in 1990 when the building was transformed for one apartment per floor.  But more than 113 years of change in the neighborhood has not greatly affected the appearance of W. G. Beatty's handsome brick factory building.

photographs by the author

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The 1912 Allen Wardwell House - 127 East 80th Street

In the first years of the 20th century the three-story brownstone at No. 127 East 80th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues, was home to Alfred and Sophie Wagner.  On December 23, 1911, after the couple sold the architecturally out-of-date residence to Allen Wardell, The New York Times commented that he "will alter and occupy the house."

The Wagner house was similar to No. 125, partially seen at right.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Wardell's father, William T. Wardwell, had died the previous January.  He had been for years the treasurer of the Standard Oil Company.  Allen had graduated from Yale University in 1895, and then from the Harvard Law School.  He and his wife, the former Helen Rogers, were married in 1903 and had two children, Edward and Clarissa.

If, indeed, the Wardwells initially intended to remodel the 20-foot wide Victorian house, they quickly changed course.  On April 20, 1912 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Delano & Aldrich had filed plans for a new five-story residence to cost $25,000--in the neighborhood of $652,000 today.   Allen Wardwell and William Adams Delano may have already known one another; they were in the Yale graduating class.

The family moved into a rather austere brick-faced house.  The architects gave the facade nearly no decoration.  The centered entrance wore a Georgian-style fanlight, an iron balcony fronted the two second story windows, and two decorative half-round balconettes sprouted from the fourth floor openings.   A severe brick parapet took the place of a cornice and provided privacy to the terrace of the mansard level.  Inside were 17 rooms and five baths.

The all-brick facade was rather uninviting.  The American Architect, March 16, 1915 (copyright expired)

Aside from his legal practice, Allen Wardwell was highly involved in social programs.  He was treasurer of the Legal Aid Society, the mission of which was to provide legal assistance to those unable to afford it; and was president of the Red Cross Hospital on Central Park West at 100th Street.  In October 1915 he petitioned to have the name of the hospital changed to the Park Hospital, saying the change would give the facility "a wider scope and permit it to accomplish more good."

His involvement with the Red Cross intensified following the Russian Revolution and the United States's entering World War I.  With the rank of major he headed the Red Cross Mission to Russia in 1917, traveling to Moscow to help free hopeful emigrants.  On December 26, 1918 The New York Times described the nation as "starving, disrupted Russia, where food is denied to persons not regarded as 'class-conscious workmen' and all persons not in sympathy with Bolshevism are dispossessed."  The article noted "Major Allen Wardwell of the American Red Cross... was looking after the interests of foreign prisoners."

The first and second floor plans show a dramatic staircase hall and just two rooms massive rooms on the second floor.  The American Architect, March 16, 1915 (copyright expired)
Wardwell's expertise on the situation in Russia continued at home, following the war.  He was consulted by the Council on Foreign Relations in April 1919, for instance, regarding the Bolsheviks, Lenin and Trotsky.  He warned the group, in part, "One of the Bolshevik principles is the international revolution, namely, an attempt to create similar revolutionary movements in other countries"

In the meantime, Helen busied herself within society.  She was affiliated with the Women's Auxiliary of St. George's Church and opened the house for the group's yearly sewing classes during Lent.  She was a trustee and secretary of the Manhattan School of Music, as well.  The Wardwell country estate, Grey House, was in Lawrence, Long Island, where Helen was president of the Garden Club of Lawrence.  An ardent gardener, she routinely won prizes for her blossoms.

The 80th Street house was the scene of a somber event on January 26, 1921 when the funeral of Helen's father, Edward Leighton Rogers, was held here.

Clarissa and Edward received the educations expected of the children of wealthy families.  Clarissa attended the Brearley and the Ethel Walker Schools before going on to Bryn Mawr College.  Like his father, Edward entered Yale University.  While Allen had been a member of the Scroll & Key, Edward joined the Skull & Bones.  He had a theatrical side as well and was a member of the Yale University Dramatic Association.  Edward appeared on stage when that group presented the play Out o' Luck as its annual entertainment at the Plaza Hotel in December 1925.

Allen Wardwell continued to balance his partnership in the law firm of Stetson, Jennings, Russell & Davis with his outside interests.  In February 1926 he was named president of the Legal Aid Society.

Edward graduated from Yale in 1927, the year of his sister's two coming-out events.  That fall she was introduced to society at a dance at Grey House, and then on December 10 a reception was held in the 80th Street house.

Allen Wardwell's many involvements expanded when, by 1926, he became vice president of the American-Russian Chamber of Commerce. (Edward joined him as a director and member of the executive committee in 1929.)  Allen was also a member of the Active Campaign Committee of the American Society for the Control of Cancer.

Edward married Lelia A. P. Morgan on June 10, 1930 in St. James's Church on Madison Avenue.  Clarissa was the bride's maid of honor.  The following year, on December 8, 1931 the Wardwells announced Clarissa's engagement to F. Livingston Pell, Jr.

But, as always, there were pressing issues for Allen to attend to.  Two weeks later, on the day after Christmas, he sailed for Berlin.  A headline in The New York Times read "To Advise On Reich Debts" and the article explained "Allen Wardwell, counsel for the American subcommittee on standstill arrangements with Central European debtor banks, will...participate in the negotiations now going on there for a new agreement to replace the current Stillhaltung."

Despite Allen's exhausting travel and work schedule, he and Helen occasionally managed to fill their social responsibilities.  On July 14, 1933 they gave a dinner followed by a musicale highlighted by a recital by famous mezzo-soprano Eva Gauthier at Grey House.

Allen Wardwell was aware that the house had a security weakness.  The rear of the house was outfitted with a fire escape which he occasionally used to enter the house without waking the household.  Whenever he found himself at the front door without his keys, he would go around to the back, pull himself onto the fire escape ladder, and then climb up to the bedroom window.  But in 1935 a burglar used the same tactic to get in and steal "gems of small value" from the room.  So Wardwell had a bar installed which, when locked at night, ensured that the window was secure.

Unfortunately, on April 30, 1937, Helen had not yet locked the bar when she went down to dinner at 7:00.  Allen was at his office, so she was alone in the house with three servants.  None of them heard a thing as a stealthy burglar climbed the fire escape, entered the bedroom, and made off with between $5,000 and $7,000 in Helen's jewels, some of them family heirlooms.

Only when a maid entered the room at 7:30 and noticed a drawer open and its contents gone was the theft discovered.  Helen telephoned her husband who returned home and notified police.  Among the missing items was a diamond brooch that had belonged to Helen's mother valued at around $34,000 by today's standards.  Detectives' only clue were the footprints of a single man on the fire escape.

The following summer the Wardwells sold No. 127 to Mrs. Christine Fischer.  In reporting on the sale on August 1, 1938 The New York Times noted the exclusive nature of the neighborhood.  "Homes in the same block are owned by Vincent Astor, Lewis Spencer Morris, George Whitney and Clarence Dillon."

Christine Fischer would not be among them for long.  She lost the house in foreclosure in June 1940.  It could be that she overspent on her renovations; for when Dr. Frank H. Netter purchased the house in November that year, major changes had been made.  Delano & Aldrich's severe red brick facade had been embellished with a rusticated limestone base, French doors at the second floor, and molded stone frames around the openings.

Christine Fischer made significant changes to the appearance of the house. The New York Times, November 26, 1940 
The updates did not end with the outward appearance.  On November 26 The New York Times noted "Among its features are a large penthouse studio and library, an elevator, a salon in which extensive paneling recently was installed, landscaped terraces off the dining room and a roof garden off the penthouse.  Extensive alterations have been made in kitchen and pantry.  The kitchen walls are of glass tiles."

Dr. Netter was widely known as a medical illustrator.  He had recently completed an exhibition, the "Transparent Woman," for the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair.  His wife, known professionally as Mary MacFadyen, was also a physician, as well as a newspaper columnist.

Frank H. Netter's exhibition in the San Francisco World's Fair - Popular Science, May 1939

The Netters did not stay long in the house.  They sold it to Chester A. Bolles and his wife, the former Martha Lee Sims, in February 1945.  The purchase came just in time for the arrival of a son on April 8 that year.

The 44-year-old Bolles was chairman of Continental Industries, Inc.  The wealthy executive traveled in his own private airplane.  It was around the time that he purchased the 80th Street house that he hired a new pilot, 26-year-old Air Force veteran Jerome Casper. 

Just six months after the birth of his son, on Monday evening, November 19, Bolles and four financial consultants were in his airplane during a driving rainstorm when it crashed into the Hudson River near Edgewater, New Jersey.  Two days later authorities had still not located the wreckage nor any bodies.  A briefcase was discovered floating in the river, along with several seat cushions, but, as reported by The New York Times on November 21, "It was believed that the plane was imbedded in the mud of the river bottom and the bodies were strapped to their seats in its cabin."

It appears that only one body was ever discovered; that of Walter A. Hurley which was found on a riverbank.  Bolles was declared deceased, but his net estate of over $1 million was not settled until February 1951.

In the meantime Martha Bolles had sold No. 127 in June 1946 to the family of William S. Glazier.  They remained here until May 1955.  It received a significant interior renovation (costing about $93,000) beginning in 1998 by architect Lawrence F. Guthartz.

Outwardly the Wardwell house is little changed since the 1940 remodeling that added a touch of personality to formerly dour facade.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader John Malecki for requesting this post

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The 1908 Merchants' Building - 693-697 Broadway

photo by Beyond My Ken
Born in Germany in 1849, Philip Braender arrived in the United States as a teenager just after the end of the Civil War.  He began his career as a "mason builder" in 1871, but quickly moved into real estate development.  From 1877 to about 1892 Braender focused on erecting apartments, most of them for the German immigrant community.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide later remarked "there is scarcely a block between 63d and 125th street which does not contain evidence of his workmanship, in the shape of five-story flats."

During the last decade of the century he had branched out into other areas of the city.  In November 1907 he purchased the three five-story buildings at the southwest corner of East 4th Street, and the two smaller buildings on the side street.  It was a corner that had seen tremendous change.  Around 1843 the upscale Waverly House hotel opened on the site, amidst the mansions of some of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens (Cornelius Vanderbilt erected his 40-foot wide home at No. 10 Washington Place nearby in 1846).

The posh hotel sat in a quiet residential neighborhood.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
But the second half of the 19th century brought commerce.  The mansions disappeared, to be replaced by businesses, as did the Waverly House.  Now Philip Braender had grander plans for the corner.

On January 8, 1908 The American Architect and Building News reported that architect William C. Frohne was "preparing plans for a sixteen-story loft building."  The estimated cost, said the article, was $1 million; more than 27 times that much today.

Later that year the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide added "The three lower stories will contain stores and have elaborate show windows.  The upper exterior will be of light brick and terra cotta, with copper trimmings."  Frohme had included all the latest amenities:  "electric elevators, high-pressure heating, and an electric power plant."  (An independent generator was a near-necessity at a time when power from outside companies was not always dependable.)

Frohne released this rendering in July 1908.  Note the elaborate cornice crowned with torches.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, August 1, 1908 (copyright expired)

The soaring structure was completed before the year's end.  It was originally to be called the Braender Building; but during construction the name was changed to the Merchants' Building as evidenced in a carved cartouche above the Broadway entrance.

Each of the rusticated limestone piers sat on polished granite bases.  The cast iron show window enframements took the form of bundled sheaves.  Above the third floor cornice stern-faced owns raised their wings to uphold a decorative stone band carved to mimic the cast iron bundles around the storefronts.  The band reappeared above the 13th floor.  Fearsome lions' heads took the place of owls on the 14th floor.  Far from street level, they were executed in less expensive terra cotta, along with the banded and fluted columns of the 15th and 16th floors, which incorporated female faces into their Corinthian capitals.

photo by Phyllis Winchester

But the most striking element of Frohne's design was the effusive copper cornice, fabricated by Max Kestenbaum.   Although the original rendering showed gigantic torches lining the edge, they were downsized to a regimented row of anthemia, each the height of a man.  Upheld by enormous brackets, the massive cornice must have been blinding in the sunshine before the shiny copper obtained its green, weathered patina.

Architects' and Builders' Magazine, January 1909 (copyright expired)

Even while the Merchants' Building was under construction, apparel and textile firms scrambled to lease space.  In September 1908 the Royal Tailoring Corporation of Chicago rented two floors, a total of 18,000 square feet.  It was among the first of the more than a score of tenants who would manufacture clothing and millinery here.

Four years after moving in many of the apparel firms were rocked by a wide-spread labor strike.  Unions, which were becoming more powerful, sought improved working conditions, reduced hours, and better pay for their members.  But their strong-handed methods included intimidation of those workers who stayed on the job--too often resulting in physical injury or death.

Workers in J. L. Taylor & Co.'s factory were terrified by mobs of union members waiting for them on the street; to the point that they were afraid to leave the building.   On January 8, 1913 The New York Times reported "At the factory J. L. Taylor & Co., 693 Broadway, where disorder occurred on Monday night at closing time, there was renewed intimidation of the workers last night.  Automobiles took away 100 of the girl employees under police protection.  Twenty men employees, it was admitted by the manager of the factory, were prepared to spend the whole night in the place for fear of being beaten by strikers if they attempted to go to their homes."

Close inspection reveals that two tenants, William Rosenbaum  & Co. and Thos. A. Sullivan & Co. placed their names in metal lettering at the fourth and fifth floors.  Architects' and Builders' Magazine, January 1909 (copyright expired)
Philip Braender died in November 1916.  The Real Estate Record & Guide said "No less than fifteen hundred private houses, apartments and fireproof commercial buildings came from his hands."  Many of those structures, including the Merchants' Building, were still owned by his estate.

It was not labor problems, but an organized band of brazen thieves that plagued apparel makers in 1918.   On November 20 The Evening World reported "Silks and woolens to the value of almost $1,000,000 have been stolen from loft buildings in New York since the first of the year...They haul their plunder away in motor trucks."

The saavy burglars were aware of new forensic techniques and used a substance on their fingers to prevent prints.  "Cases are on record where they bored through brick and plaster walls to get their booty," said the article.  "They have smashed doors that were built like safe doors and have broken strong locks.  In some cases safes have been blown apart."

The Merchants' Building was on their list of targets.  Among the victims listed by the newspaper was Mark Bros., which had lost $2,000 in goods, nearly $33,000 today.

The Braender estate sold the building in September 1919 to Max N. Natanson for $900,000--in the neighborhood of $12.8 million today.  The following year in November Natanson sold it to Morris P. Altman.  The rapid-fire turnover of the property continued until, when Edward W. Browning sold it in September 1930, The New York Times remarked "the deal marked the nineteenth time the property had been sold since 1916 [sic]."

The Evening World, November 12, 1920 (copyright expired)
Despite the frequent buying and selling of the Merchants' Building, it continued to be fully-rented to apparel and millinery firms.  The same 1921 issue of The Haberdasher reported on three new tenants--the recently formed Shapiro Brothers, manufacturers of youths' and men's clothing; Benjamine Poe, neckwear;" Matthew Rosenbloom, shirts; and the new men's clothing firm Rosen-Edison Company, makers of their "Better-Made" brand.

The Good Value Hat and Cap Company was in Merchants' Building during the Depression years.  Workers at the time were paid in cash, a practice inconceivable today.  Once a week an employee would withdraw the weekly payroll from a nearby bank and then nervously return to stuff pay envelopes for each employee.  The routine was not lost on criminals, who sometimes watched the movements of cashiers and bookkeepers for weeks and then pounced.

Such was the case on October 16, 1931 when 20-year-old Lillian Elson returned from the Bank of America at Broadway and Third Street.  She stepped into the elevator with two other passengers.  Just before the operator closed the doors, three men joined them.  As soon as the doors closed, each of the men pulled out a pistol.  They ordered the operator to stop at the third floor, snatched the large envelope of bills from Lillian, and got off the elevator.  According to the passengers, they ordered "shoot up to the roof."

The men then ran down the stairs to make their escape.  But they neglected to pocket their weapons before reaching the lobby.  E. J. Rosenwald, who was entering the West Fourth Street entrance, saw the guns as they rushed past and shouted "Stop thief!"  His calls drew the attention of a 22-year-old soda clerk, Alfred Siegel.

As it turned out, Siegel was the last person the robbers would want to encounter.  He had been a football player in 1929 at De Witt Clinton High School and was currently awaiting appointment as a policeman.  The athletic young man took up the chase, focusing his attention on crook with the pay envelope.

John Virga apparently realized he was in imminent danger of capture, so he flung the payroll to the ground, hoping to distract his pursuer.  That did not work.   After a three block run, Siegel made a flying tackle on Washington Place.  The 27-year-old Virga was arrested and the envelope--containing $1,399.55 was recovered.

The cast iron sheaves of the storefronts, now painted blue, are mimicked in the stone course above the owls.  photo by Beyond My Ken
The Paper Box Makers Union had its offices in the building by 1929.  Labor unions had still not abandoned the practice of strong-arming strike breakers and owners.   After a five-year Federal investigation, officials arrived at the office on July 6, 1934 and arrested Charles Vonie, the union's business representative, and Joseph Parisi, the business representative of the Paper Box Drivers Union.  They were charged with coercion and conspiracy.  Assistant State Attorney General Benjamin Heffner said complaints had been made by manufacturers "who had charged they had been forced to sign union wage agreements."

Another millinery firm in the building at the time was the Goldy Hat Company.  The Great Depression significantly slowed business for apparel and millinery firms as Americans cut back on non-essential spending.  Joseph Markovitz had been working at Goldy Hat Company for about two years when he reported for work on October 21, 1935.  That morning he became one more victim of the Depression when he was told, according to The New York Times, "there was no work for him."

Markovitz was stunned.  He lingered, apparently trying to figure out what he would do now, how he would pay his bills, but could not come up with a solution.  "He remained there all morning, then went into the hallway, the police reported, and jumped from a window."  He had taken the time to write a note of apology which was found in his pocket.  "The body crashed through the wooden roof of a three-story building at 8 West Fourth Street," reported The Times.

Markovitz's tragic suicide was the first of three horrible occurrences to take place in the building.  The Mill Comb Manufacturing Company was a long-term tenant in 1940.  Its foreman, Aristide Blain, was a French-Canadian, earning the 43-year-old the nickname "Frenchy" among his co-workers.  What those colleagues may not have understood, however, was that while Blain did not mind the nickname, he was overly sensitive about other things.

On February 22 a 23-year-old bookkeeper, Frances Marks, was found murdered on East 101st Street.  Before long police announced that they were looking for a suspect in the case, known on the streets as "Frenchy."  Workers at the Mill Comb Manufacturing Company began teasing Blain, saying they heard he was wanted by the cops.  Blain took it all too seriously.

On Saturday night, March 23 Blain did not return home and no trace of him could be found.  Then, on Monday morning his employer, John Litterer opened the office to find Blain's body hanging from a door lintel by his belt.  A note to his wife was found on his desk:

I am wrongly suspected of murder but I am glad that you know I am as innocent as you are.  You and your daughters know I have always been home before 12 midnight.  I have so much other trouble that I decided to end it all.

Police confirmed that he "had nothing whatever to do with the murder, which is still unsolved," reported The New York Times.

Nine months later another body was found in the building--this time a victim of a gruesome murder.
At 6:10 on the morning of December 7, 1940 Raymond Franklin, a handyman in the building, arrived for work but could not get in.  Normally the night watchman, John C. Fischetti, answered his rings and admitted him.  Franklin forced a door and upon entering found the body of Fischetti near the chair where he normally sat throughout the night.  The pillow from that chair had been placed under his head--but it was the only evidence of kindness on the part of his murderer.  His skull had been fractured and a length of rope used to strangle him.  Police felt the motive was personal, since his belongings and a small amount of money were still on him.

It did not take detectives long to find the murderer.  Guiseppe Daviso was arrested on December 12 and charged with the crime.  The 46-year-old ex-con had asked Fischetti for a loan that night.  When the watchman refused, Daviso became enraged, striking him in the head, then strangling him.

Another victim around the time was William C. Frohne's copper cornice  By 1936 it had been removed, its scar covered over by patches of various materials.

The building continued to be home to apparel firms--like the Walforf Novelty Company which made trimmings, and the Leather Novelty Blocking & Stitching Company into the 1960's.  The owner of another, the Allied Fur Company, Norman Weissman, found a secondary way to make money.

On October 24, 1965 The Times reported "A detective posing as a fur buyer and two policewomen posing as models broke up yesterday what the police called a $200,000-a-week bookmaking operation when they raided a fifty-floor loft rented by a fur company."   While Weissman sold furs in the front offices, Arthur Sonnenschein, Martin Hirsch and Samuel Zorn ran a betting operation in the back.  All four men were arrested, and Sonnenschein was hit with a second charge of "having tried to bribe Deputy Inspector Paul F. Delise," who was in charge of the raid.

Two years later New York University owned the building.  While the school continued to lease space to manufacturers, it converted other sections for offices and storage.  When the "morgues"--or clipping libraries--of the defunct newspapers The New York Herald Tribune, The New World-Telegram and The Sun were donated to the university's School of Journalism in 1967 (more than 14 million clippings), they were brought to the 12th floor of the Merchants' Building.  Several hundred file cabinets were brought into the 8,000 square foot space to accommodate the collection.

A decade later NYU announced its intentions of converting the building to residences.  Democratic candidate for mayor Edward I Koch was not pleased.  He told the 400 guests at a gathering at the Americana Hotel on October 18, 1977 that the plan was "a clear perversion of a good objective.  We need housing but certainly not at the expense of jobs."

When New York Secretary of State Mario Cuomo asked rhetorically "Is it done in a sinister way?" Koch replied "I doubt it.  I think it's really an ineptitude."

As it turned out, Koch's opinion did not matter.  In 1980 the Merchants' Building was combined internally with nine other structures, including the 12-story 250 Mercer Street directly behind to create 277 cooperative apartments designed by architect Henry G. Greene.  Working on the exterior renovation was engineer Vincent Stramandinoli, who removed the materials from the old cornice where raw brick and the old steel frame were all that was left.

A much more reserved replacement cornice was fabricated which brings the Merchants' Building back--almost--to its 1908 appearance.

photograph by Phyllis Winchester
non-credited photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Phyllis Winchester for prompting this post