Saturday, December 20, 2014

Gimbels Dept. Store -- 6th Avenue and 33rd Street

As the building neared completion, Daniel Burnham released a sketch  Real Estate Record & Guide, July 10, 1909 (copyright expired)
At the turn of the 20th century, the main shopping district in Manhattan stretched from 14th Street to 23rd Street along 6th Avenue and along Broadway—the area known as The Ladies’ Mile.  Rowland Hussey Macy ran his successful department store at 14th Street, just below 6th Avenue where palatial emporiums filled entire blocks.

But in 1902 Macy took a brave gamble.   He leap-frogged the district and built the largest store of them all ten blocks north at 34th Street.   Near the mansions of Fifth Avenue, the new Macy’s was set so far apart from the other dry goods stores that a steam-powered omnibus was provided to shuttle shoppers back and forth.

Macy no doubt felt secure with his competitors located far to the south.  But his greatest rival was not yet in New York City; but in Philadelphia.

Sixty years earlier Bavarian immigrant Adam Gimbel opened a lace shop in Vincennes, Indiana.  In 1886 the first “Gimbels” store opened in Milwaukee, followed seven years later by a large department store in Philadelphia.

Following the turn of the century, construction began on the mammoth Pennsylvania Station near Macy’s.  The increased potential of the area was not lost on Benjamin Gimbel and, despite his five brothers’ reluctance, he convinced them to open a Manhattan store.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide would later recall “In those days the site of the present Gimbel Building and the Pennsylvania station were occupied by dwellings and old-fashioned flats and tenements typical of the period.”

The Gimbel brothers leased land atop the “McAdoo tunnel system” for a term of 105 years.  The New York Times announced on January 30, 1909 that the “massive store” would “be the terminal of the McAdoo tunnel system, or Manhattan tunnels, which, by the time the store building is completed, will connect with the Pennsylvania Railroad, Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Erie system, and the Lackawanna & Western Railroad, handling, it is estimated, 1,000,000 persons daily.”

The department store site covered the entire blockfront from 31st to 32nd Street facing Sixth Avenue and across from Greeley Square.  Gimbels chose Chicago-based Daniel Hudson Burnham as its architect—possibly influenced by his design of other department stores including Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago and the McCreery Department Store in Pittsburgh.  Burnham filed plans for a 10-story structure above ground, with more floors below street level.

The understated Renaissance-inspired design belied the list of superlatives used by the press.  Newspapers and journals made note of the 2,406 support columns, the 12 “vast entrances with seventy-two doors,” 27 acres of floor space and the 45 show windows.

On July 10, 1909 The Record & Guide reported on “A mile and a half of banister” that would run along the stairways, the 8,000 automatic sprinklers and the 50 electric elevators.  The journal estimated that the construction of the mammoth store gave “directly and indirectly, employment to thousands of operatives.”

Armies of workmen scrambled to complete the store in record time -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

A copper box containing a history of the Gimbel operation and “other data which will be of curious interest to some future generation,” according to The Record & Guide, was placed in the corner stone on December 8, 1909.  The excavation of the foundation had taken five months alone and strikes slowed construction.  Nevertheless on June 11, 1910 the $12 million store, including land, was completed ahead of schedule.

Gimbel Brothers immediately capitalized on the convenience of sitting directly above the subway.  A double-height “Subway Store” was designed to make subterranean shopping as chic as the upper floors.  Advertisements boasted of the easy accessibility for shoppers even in remote areas.  Adding to Gimbels’ accessibility to mass transit was the 6th Avenue Elevated train.  A station stop was created directly outside the store at 33rd Street.

The Subway Store was a retail innovation -- The Sun, October 5, 1910 (copyright expired)

Macy’s greatest threat had arrived and a decades-long competition for patrons was on.
Shortly after opening Gimbels advertised black beaver hats for $5.75 and ostrich plumed hats for $15 -- The Evening World, December 6, 1910 (copyright expired)

While Gimbels did offer high priced goods, it mostly targeted the middle-class woman.  Gimbels advertisements repeated the word “plain” – “Plain as a butter tub” and “Plain old Gimbels,” for instance.  It gained a loyal customer base of women who knew they were getting quality items at affordable prices.

The Gimbels New York department store was so successful that in July 1919 the brothers broke the 105-year lease by purchasing the property for $7 million.

The Bernard Gimbel, who oversaw the New York store, was a brilliant marketer, staging fashion shows, carnivals and other gimmicks to draw customers.  In March 1920 wealthy socialites worked as saleswomen, donating their 10 per cent commissions to Bellevue Hospital.   On March 13 The New York Times commented, “Miss Fay Bainter sold a hat almost the moment she arrived, but selling became difficult, for customers increased so swiftly that the floor space was congested.  Mrs. George Baker, Jr., has been on duty for three days and Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson worked hard all Thursday afternoon.  Mrs. F. N. Watriss and Mrs. Mary Hoyt Wiborg are among the more recent workers.”

The 6th Avenue Elevated station was directly outside of Gimbels -- Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Among the conveniences offered was the nursery where mothers could drop off their children while they shopped.  On September 10, 1921 at 2:30 a young woman in a black silk dress dropped her one-month old baby girl with Stella Ellis, saying she would pick up the infant later.  When the store was closed, the baby was still there.

A policeman was called who took the child to Bellevue Hospital.  The nursery, it appeared, was an easy way for the mother to abandon her infant with the knowledge it would be cared for.

A model strikes a post during a fashion show around the time of the store's opening -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

Sitting between Macy’s and Gimbels was the nine-story Saks & Co. department store, engulfing the 6th Avenue blockfront between 33rd and 34th Streets.  In 1922 the firm began construction of its new building on Fifth Avenue at 50th Street.  Although the project would take two years to complete, Gimbels was quick to react. The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on June 15 that Gimbels had leased the structure for 21 years at an annual rental of “between $400,000 and $500,000 net.”  It was, no doubt, no coincidence that the move followed closely on the heels of R. H. Macy & Co.’s announcement to erect an addition to its store.

In reporting on the lease, The New York Times mentioned “It was said that it was too early yet to make any definite announcement of plans for the actual physical linking together of the two structures, but two ways of joining them may be used.”  One idea was a tunnel, connecting to the various passenger tunnels already in place.  “There is also the possibility of building an overhead bridge,” said the newspaper.

But before any of this could take place, less than a year later, on April 25, 1923, The New York Times reported that Gimbels and Saks had merged.  “When Saks & Co. move to their new store at 617 Fifth Avenue, Gimbels, [which] already had acquired the present Saks building just across Thirty-third Street from the Gimbel store, will open there a special store similar to that now conducted by Saks.”

When Gimbels opened in the former Saks building in 1924, a platform from the 6th Avenue El was extended down 33rd Street and a connecting bridge built between the two structures at the second floor.  Now customers could easily alight from the elevated and enter either store.  The bridge had its drawbacks, however.  It became a favorite escape route for shoplifters who would dash from Gimbels into the former Saks building, or vice-versa.

A postcard captured the bridge between Gimbels and the former Saks Building after the demolition of the El.

Gimbels’ long list of innovative marketing perhaps reached its apex in September 1924 when it opened a radio station on the 8th Floor.  “The entire station, including the studio in which the artists perform, the transmitting room and power room, will be in a glass enclosure, so that the public can see how broadcasting is done and how the apparatus functions,” reported The Times.  Shoppers were allowed into the studio during program were being aired; and a special “receiving room” was available for people to gather to hear important news events.

Louis Gimbel described the family-friendly programs, including “debates and concerts by school children and music students recommended by teachers of music.  A feature of the opening program will be Uncle Wip, the bedtime story teller of station WIP, Philadelphia, who has organized a club of 35,000 children by his broadcasts.”

Gimbels’ phenomenal growth was evidenced not only by its sales exceeding $100 million that year; but by the purchase the following year of the 18-story Cuyler Building at Nos. 120 through 126 West 32nd Street.  When Gimbel Brothers announced the $2.5 purchase in October 1925, it said the acquisition “was made necessary by the great growth of the company’s business.”  To connect the Gimbels store with the Cuyler Building, architects Richard H. Shreve and William F. Lamb were commissioned to design another sky bridge—this one a three-story copper-clad Art Deco beauty.

An ambitious 3-story bridge connected Gimbels with the Cuyler Building.

The Gimbel store’s gimmicks to attract customers became more creative during the Depression years and in November 1935 the 6th Floor was turned into a replica of the 19th century Barnum Museum on Broadway.  Adults paid 15 cents and children a dime to see the legendary museum’s attractions.

“It is really a complete Barnum,” said The Times.  “Joice Heth, wizened and witch-like, is there to remind you that she lived when George Washington was too young to chop down trees.  The Cardiff Giant looms coldly from his erect coffin in a corner.  The white whale, with an undulant tail and heaving sides, spouts regularly—at least as often as some one pushes a button hidden by the rail.”

Among the 60 life-sized models were Tom Thumb, the Fejee Mermaid, Jumbo the Elephant and Jenny Lind.  “Barnum himself stands at the side of his nightingale,” said The Times, “and when the electricians in the rear room see to it, he makes a speech of introduction.  Then Jenny sings, although her papier-mâché lips do not coordinate with the melody very well.”

On April 24, 1937 Amelia Earhart addressed a group of 500 in the department store’s restaurant.  The New York Times made special note of her announcement that “she purposed to attempt the ‘round the world at the Equator’ flight again ‘some time around the middle of May.’”

Although the old 6th Avenue El was demolished in 1939, the second story bridge remained to link the Gimbels and Saks buildings. 

In August 1941, just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government instituted curbs on the manufacture of silk stockings.  Silk was necessary in the manufacture of parachutes.  The announcement sparked a near riot among female New Yorkers.  On August 5 a New York Times headline read “Women Stampede for Stockings As Result of Government Silk Ban.”

“Ropes controlled the crowds at Gimbel’s, where nineteen extra [employees] confronted the women who were lured there by a special sale of nylon and silk hosiery that disappeared early in the morning.  Even though salesgirls were summoned from near-by counters to assist with the stocking sale, there arose a plea from the buyer, ‘Get me some more girls, please,’ as the noon customers bunched in the store.”

Gimbels pitched into the war cause by selling Victory Bonds and, in 1943, installing a vegetable garden inside the store “to prove that two persons can grow all the vegetables they need for three months on a tiny plot,” said The Times.   It went even further, at the war’s end, by helping the Government sell off surplus property on the selling floor.

The rivalry between Macy’s and Gimbels was legendary; and never more so than during the Christmas selling season.  But in December 1955 an unexpected truce was called.  On December 9 The New York Times wrote “Bernard F. Gimbel, who has long been devoted to a department store that bears his name, did something extraordinary yesterday.  He went to Macy’s.”

Gimbel visited the office of Jack I. Straus, President of R. H. Macy & Co., with an surprising marketing strategy.  Soon “throngs of happy, rosy-cheeked shoppers, eagerly crowding one another off the sidewalks, were becoming aware of two huge signs on Macy’s and Gimbels.  The Macy sign read ‘This Way to Gimbels’ and ‘When Macy’s Tells Gimbels, It’s the Miracle on 34th Street.’  The Gimbels sign was similar, except that it pointed to Macy’s.”

The competition was evident three years later when the motion picture Auntie Mame was released.  Rosalind Russell, in the role of Mame, walked off her job at Macy’s during the Christmas rush.  Infuriated customers wanted to know how they were to get the items they wanted.  “Go to Gimbels,” Mame responded.

Things were changing for Gimbels Greeley Square by the 1960s.  On December 29, 1965 E. J. Korvette, Inc. announced plans to take possession of the former Saks Building.  Four months later, on April 23, 1966, The Times reported on the removal of the second story bridge.  “After 42 years, the two-level bridge is being demolished.  In about a week, it will pass into oblivion—a fate that has overcome many other New York landmarks.”

Two years later Gimbels announced plans for a new store on the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 86th Street.  The 14-story white marble and black slate building opened in February 1972, and the old 6th Avenue building became known as “Gimbels downtown.”  But unlike its Upper East Side counterpart, the 1910 store sat in what was now an increasingly seedy neighborhood.

On June 6, 1986 the Associated Press reported “Macy’s no longer has to keep its secrets from Gimbels.  After 76 years of a fierce but friendly rivalry, Gimbels at Herald Square is going out of business.”   Within a year the Brooklyn-based department store Abraham & Straus announced it would take over the old 6th Avenue building.  The intended gut renovation was part of an attempt to revive the Herald Square shopping district.  Earlier the old Saks-then-Korvettes building had become a vertical mall, Herald Center; however to date its reception among shoppers was tepid at best.

Burnham’s Edwardian façade remained—more or less—while the interiors were junked and replaced by the A&S Plaza that featured an enormous central atrium.  Walls of glass and a sleek two-story base retained the old structure's bones while giving it a decidedly modern feel.  And yet still clinging on high above 33rd Street was the wonderful Art Deco sky bridge which had somehow survived.

The plan failed.  By 2002 when advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding leased the 270,000 square foot building, Times reporter John Holusha remarked “The building once housed Gimbels, then Abraham & Straus and then Stern’s department store and along the way became known as the Manhattan Mall.”

Foote, Cone & Belding decided on another direction for the property--a mixture of business offices, showrooms and stores.  In 2006 the building was sold once again, this time to Vornado Realty Trust for about $689 million.

Little remains to remind New Yorkers that a massive department store one engulfed three buildings here.  Except a fantastic copper sky bridge, long ago sealed up, high above 33rd Street.

current photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Karina Romero for requesting this post

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Bowne House -- No. 274 W 71st Street

The wealthy Bowne family traced its American roots to John Bowne, an English farmer who arrived in 1649 at the age of 22.  Bowne settled in what would become Flushing, Queens, east of Manhattan.   Disregarding Peter Stuyvesant’s narrow-minded religious views and, perhaps, thinking his farm was remote enough to escape discovery, Bowne invited Quakers to worship in his home in 1662.

He was arrested and subsequently banished from New Amsterdam.  Determined not to lose his property, he sailed to the Netherlands and pleaded his case.  Somewhat shockingly, the Dutch West India Company ruled in his favor—no doubt significantly humiliating the autocratic Stuyvesant.

The Bowne family prospered throughout the decades.  As the end of the 19th century approached New Yorkers were familiar with the name Bowne through Robert Bowne, a founding director of the Bank of New York; Walter Bowne, Mayor from 1829 to 1833; and fabulously wealthy Robert Bowne Minturn of the shipping line Grinnell, Minturn & Co.

Several of the Bowne women were not satisfied with living in their husbands’ shadows.  One, Mary Bowne Parsons, took a stand against slavery, and funded the education of poor females.   As the turn of the century neared, wealthy, single women were expected to remain with their families.  Caroline Bowne, like her ancestors, did not feel obligated to abide by social expectations.

By 1886 the development of the Upper West Side was well under way.  Developers Fonner & Lawther purchased a strip of land on West 71st Street near the Hudson River and set architect Edward L. Angell to work designing four up-to-date residences on the site.  Stretching from No. 274 to 280, they were completed the following year.  The Romanesque Revival houses were designed to flow harmoniously from one to the other; yet each was distinctly different.

Fonner & Lawther took a gamble.  Angell had just established his practice in New York that year.  But the architect’s playful treatment of Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival and other styles would make his mark on the Upper West Side. 

Angell sat No. 274 on a rough-cut brownstone base that extended halfway up into the parlor level.  The dogleg stoop was protected by a rather severe stone wall.  The marriage of Romanesque with Queen Anne resulted a distinctive, arched parlor window partly filled with jeweled stained glass; a saw tooth patterned brick panel in the gable, and a hefty carved garland over the doorway.

Angell's design included fanciful details like the carved ribbons at either side of the entrance.

The house became home to the unmarried Caroline Bowne, daughter of Walter and Eliza R. Bowne.   She lived here, her name appearing in society columns as she sailed to and from Europe and attended social functions, until her sudden death on September 21, 1905.  The house was the scene of her funeral on Saturday two days later.

Caroline Mano purchased Bowne house in 1907, but with no intentions of living here.   She soon leased it to railroad magnate John Philander Hopson and his wife.   On May 1, 1907 the railroad man was appointed superintendent of the New York Division of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad.  This position earned him an office in Grand Central Terminal.

John Philander Hopson -- Railroad Men, July 1907 (copyright expired)
Like all the wives of wealthy New York businessmen, Mrs. Hopson busied herself with entertainments and philanthropies.    Such was the case on March 6, 1915 when she hosted an “auction bridge party” in the house.

By the time the United States entered World War I many of the grand homes of the Upper West Side were being operated as boarding houses.    On April 28, 1919 The Sun reported that Caroline Mano had appointed The Houghton Company as agents for No. 274.  Five months later, on September 17, the newspaper noted that the house was “being altered into small suites.”

Within the year Helen Birch was operating the boarding house which she had leased through the Houghton firm.  Then in August 1920 the 35-year old widow became interested in another house, No. 273 West 73rd Street, also handled by the company.   She later explained that “it was most attractive and she might like to lease it.”

She met Herbert R. Houghton at the house on Thursday August 5 at 5:00.  He showed her through the residence but then, according to the New-York Tribune, “when he had conducted her to a room upstairs, she says, Houghton began violently to protest his love for her.

“Every effort to escape his oration was futile, the widow says, and he became more and more unrestrained in his action.”  The Evening World was even more detailed in its reporting, saying that Houghton “locked her in the bathroom with him.  She fought him, she said, until her neck, arms and legs were bruised and her clothing torn.”

According to The Sun, she escaped through feminine guile.  “Nothing availed to convince him that his suit was as unwelcome as his manner of presenting it.  Mrs. Birch says, but at last she managed to put an end to the situation by promising to meet her rough and importunate wooer last night.”

Instead, once she was out of the grasp of the overly-passionate real estate agent, she called the police.  Well-respected and married with children, Herbert Houghton was indicted on August 24 and was so shaken by the charges that he collapsed.  “Houghton had to be assisted into the automobile which took him to General Sessions,” said the New York Herald the following day.

Unlike the East Side, the Upper West Side rarely discriminated against theatrical types.   By 1922 Stanley H. Worthington was operating the boarding house at No. 274 and among his tenants was vaudeville actress Billy Weston.  In August that year Broadway Brevities remarked on Billy’s liberal fascination for men; despite her marriage.  She was in rehearsals for the Greenwich Village Follies when it reported:

“Billy Weston, one of the survivors of the old flagellation club on Ninth avenue, seems to be keeping fairly busy with some of our most representative citizens.  Billy seems to just hop from one infatuation to another—that is, if you want to drop into that kind of terminology.  Hubby took a hand in it the other day, and gave Billy a brand new set of hand-tooled blue prints—you know, the old divorce stuff.”

The following month Billy Weston would end up in the hospital, the victim of an apparent devious assault.   The actress had been seeing a man for several weeks.  They traveled to Saratoga for a week and when they returned, Billy told her landlord they had both lost all their money on the races.

On September 10 Worthington told police “They continued on friendly terms until a few days ago, when they had a quarrel.  She was ill afterwards.”  He said that on Thursday, September 7 the man called to ask how she was “but said that he did not wish to talk to her.”  When Worthington let him know that Billy was sick, he hung up.

When she found out about the call, Billy chided Worthington.  “Why did you let him go?  I’m broke and he promised me money.”

The situation became murkier on Saturday night September 9 at around 11:30.  There was a knock on the apartment door of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Martin of No. 245 West 51st Street.  A man was holding onto Billy Weston and told the Martins she was sick and asked permission for her to rest a while.

“Then he disappeared,” Mrs. Martin told police later.  “We never did succeed in reaching him, although we tried by telephone and messenger.  The young woman became worse and was soon in a very serious condition.  She told us that she had decided to end her life and had taken poison because of the trouble over her divorce proceeding.”

Billy Weston was taken to Bellevue Hospital where she was diagnosed with an overdose of drugs.  A physician told reporters “she tells us she has taken bicholoride of mercury, though we find no indication.  The symptoms of bichloride of mercury poisoning, however, may not develop for three or four days.  If she has taken a dost of this poison, it may result fatally.”

The mysterious man who had dropped off the sick actress was never found.

Within five months of Billy Weston’s hospitalization, in February 1923, Caroline Mano sold what The New York Times was now calling “the three-story private dwelling.”  The newspaper pointed out that “This is the first sale of the property in sixteen years.”  It was assessed at the time at $31,000—in the neighborhood of $400,000 today.

In 1954 the house was converted to apartments—two per floor.   The following decades were less than kind to the old home.  At some point the owners covered the warm contrast of brick and stone with a slathering of purplish paint.  Inside, no trace of architectural details remain.

A view of one of the rear rooms reveals that the Victorian elements have been gutted
Nevertheless, the house that a wealthy bachelorette, a railroad tycoon, and a vaudeville actress called home endures as an example of the somewhat quirky residential architecture of the Upper West Side’s late Victorian period.

photographs by the author

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Frederick Mertens Mansion -- No. 963 Lexington Ave.

In the 1880s Jacob Schmitt, Henry Weller and Peter Schaeffler joined in the flurry of real estate development on the Upper East Side.  Operating as Jacob Schmitt & Co. they erected rows of high-end speculative houses along the blocks east of Fifth Avenue’s rising mansions.

In 1887 they acquired the properties stretching northward from No. 963, at the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 70th Street, to No. 971 Lexington Avenue.  Five small wooden houses with stables to the rear sat on the property.  They were quickly demolished and the architectural firm of Thom &Wilson was put to work designing a row of substantial homes to replace them.

Completed in 1888 No. 963, on the corner, was the most desirable of the row, owing to the additional sunlight from the long 70th Street exposure.  Thom & Wilson turned to the popular Queen Anne style for the five-story mansion.  The brownstone-clad basement and first floor served as a base for the three stories of red brick above.  The entrance sat above a high brownstone stoop and was protected by a hood supported by two short, twisted columns sitting on gently-curving supports with floral carving.  Stone quoins, carved panels and a shallow oriel marked the Lexington Avenue façade.

The architects were even more playful on the 70th Street side.  A charming bay window at the parlor level was flanked by three deeply-framed openings.  One blind opening, disguising the fireplace on the inside wall, contained a pretty if non-functional niche.   Above were whimsical openings and carvings and two long, paneled piers that disguised the chimneys.

The completed house was not vacant for long.  On April 25, 1889 Schmitt, Weller and Schaeffler sold it to Frederick W. Mertens for $41,000—a little over $1 million today.  Mertens was the principal in Frederick W. Mertens & Sons, which manufactured and sold cigars.  With him in the business were his sons, Frederick W. Mertens, Jr., and Robert E. Mertens.

No. 971, at the far left, was a mirror-image of No. 963.  New York Court of Appeals Records & Briefs, 1914 (copyright expired)
Five years after moving in, Mertens contracted architect J. Hauser to do $600 worth of interior alterations.  He would not enjoy his home improvements for many years.  On January 18, 1899 Robert E. Mertens died, followed by the death of his father just five months later.  Frederick Jr. was suddenly and unexpectedly the sole owner of the cigar firm.

A delightful oriel on the 70th Street side is flanked by a blind opening with a niche.

In his will Mertens had left the bulk of his estate, including the company, to Frederick.  To Robert’s infant son, Robert E. Mertens, Jr., he left $25,000; apparently in the form of an interest in the family firm.  It was the beginning of an ugly family feud that would last for years.

Robert’s widow, Laura, asked for an accounting of the books in June 1899.  Frederick resisted.  Laura later complained to the courts that her brother-in-law “hated” her son; a circumstance that cause her concern.  Finally Frederick produced an accounting “claiming that the balance in his hands of the assets of the copartnership only amounted to the sum of $16.19.”  Laura was outraged and the resulting case of Mertens v. Mertens dragged on in the courts for years.

In the meantime the house at No. 963 Lexington Avenue was sold.  It was for a while home to real estate operator and contractor Moses A. Slone who was highly active in the area.  It was most likely Slone who offered spacious apartments in the mansion.  The house was one of dozens of properties included in a class action suit against the city when a 14-inch gas pipeline was laid below the sidewalk, disrupting the harmony of the families inside and causing damage to the structures.

The hefty stoop of No. 963 is propped up for gas line construction in 1914.  A sign offering a duplex apartment hangs outside.  New York Court of Appeals Records & Briefs, 1914 (copyright expired)
On January 29, 1916 George Whitney Martin married Agnes W. Hutchinson.  The wealthy lawyer and his new bride moved into No. 963 that year; becoming a new entry in the Social Register.  Their stay here would not be long and by 1920 Charles Haase and his family had purchased and moved into the corner house.

Haase listed his profession as “grocer,” with his business located at No. 153 E. 70th Street.  The term is drastically misleading; bringing visions to modern minds of an apron-wearing owner of a small corner store.  Haase was highly successful and bought and sold buildings as a side line.  The well-to-do merchant was married to the former Anna Intemann and with them in the Lexington Avenue house were their two grown children, William and Anna Louise (who was known by her middle name).

In 1921 Louise married Philip H. Fischer in the Emanuel Lutheran Church on Lexington Avenue and 86th Street.  It would be another decade before her brother left the family house.

By the time Louise married, Lexington Avenue had drastically changed since 1888.  Most of the grand homes had been raised or converted for commercial purposes. A widening of Lexington Avenue in 1924 necessitated the removal of the brownstone stoop.  The entrance was moved to sidewalk level and the former doorway became a window.  Happily, Haase opted to retain the wonderful Queen Anne enframement.

On June 15, 1929, the engagement of William C. Haase to Edith M. Arnold of Plainfield, New Jersey was announced.  Anna and Charles lived on in the Lexington Avenue home until Charles’s death on November 27, 1933 at the age of 78.  His funeral, the last to be held in the once-grand home, was held the following Tuesday evening at 8:00.

In 1953 alterations were begun to transform the mansion into apartments, two per floor.  In 1955 a ground-level conversion resulted in store space and “light merchandise display and sales” on the former parlor floor.

The upscale boutique Helen Cole moved in.  The store prompted Kate Simon in her 1959 New York Places & Pleasures to comment, “Gentle gags and pretty trivia are the main occupation of the street-floor store.  This is the place to buy such small conversation pieces as mink-tailed dusters.”

From the late 1960s into the 1980s it was home to another glitzy shop, Boutiques de Noel; before being converted to a bank office in 1988.  Then, for years as the 20th century became the 21st, the space was Lumi Restaurant--known for its “French Riveria lifestyle and Mediterranean cuisine,” as described by one patron.  It was the setting for one scene in the film “Sex in the City.”

The wonderful entrance details (left) survive as a window surround.

Today Frederick Merten’s mansion is mostly overlooked.  Some of the sculptural detail has been stripped; but on the whole it survives remarkably intact above the sidewalk level.  With a little imagination, the passerby can envision the Merten family in their 1890s garb, descending to a waiting carriage.

non-credited photographs by the author

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

St. Luke's in the Fields -- Hudson Street

photo by Alice Lum
In July 1821 The Christian Journal and Literary Register reported “On Monday, June 4th, the corner stone of a new building, to be styled St. Luke’s Church, was laid in Hudson-street, in this city…The part of the city in which the proposed church is building, including the village of Greenwich, and its vicinity, has long been regarded as very suitable for the formation of a new parish.  An attempt to this effect was made by a few Episcopal families last fall.”

The families the article referred to had met in the house of Mrs. Catherine Ritter who lived on the corner of West 4th Street and Little Jones Street.  On November 6, 1820 the parish was organized.  Clement C. Moore, whose family estate Chelsea sat further north, was named senior warden.

Since then, said The Christian Journal, “A convenient room for the holding of divine service was procured.  The congregation has greatly increased; and, by the divine blessing on the zeal and activity of its leading members, aided by the charitable succours of their brethren throughout the city, there is every prospect that, for numbers and character, St. Luke’s will hold a most respectable rank among the parishes of the city.”  The journal went on to print the inscription on the cornerstone, which included “John Heath, Architect.”  Heath paid for the cornerstone himself.

While the small congregation worshiped in the little school house on Amos Street (later renamed West 10th), the plot for the permanent structure was purchased from Trinity Church.  Trinity owned a large swath of land in the area, familiarly called the Trinity Farm and given to the church by Queen Anne in 1714. 

The spot on Hudson Street was bucolic.  The summer estates of New York’s aristocracy engulfed much of the surrounding land—like the 300-acre estate of Sir Peter Warren, now owned by Abraham van Nest; and the famous Richmond Hill just to the south, formerly owned by Aaron Burr.  There were only four structures within eye-shot of the church site, one of which was the old State Prison.  To the south, between the site and Canal Street, there was just one building—the Tyler Tavern.   The only means of public conveyance from New York City was a stage that made two runs a day.

The rural setting would earn the church the familiar name "St. Luke's in the Fields;" a moniker still used today.

Years later the Rev. Dr. A. W. Jenks, professor at the General Theological Seminary, would remember “Several of the leading men of St. Luke’s first urged that New Yorkers should build their Winter homes there.  Before that Greenwich Village had been a Summer colony.”  Their urgings were aided by calamity.  In 1822, as construction on the chapel was nearing completion, a horrendous yellow fever epidemic took hold in the city.  New Yorkers who could afford to do so abandoned the city for the fresh air and open countryside of Greenwich Village.  The hamlet experienced a building boom as houses sprung up on the dirt streets.

In 1860 Valentine's Manual of New York published a romanticized version of the early setting - copyright expired
John Heath’s completed structure cost $7,500 according to church records—about $154,000 today.  Built of brick, it reflected the prim Federal style of a country church.  The entrance was through a large, square bell tower topped by a wooden parapet.  Tall, round-arched openings flooded the interior with light.

In 1850 the Rev. Isaac Henry Tuttle became rector, a position he would hold for decades.  In its 30 years of existence, the congregation saw rapid change in the neighborhood.  Along with the rise in population came poverty and other social ills.  The Archives of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church recalled decades later that Tuttle was faced with a parish “changing by removals, decreasing in income, and crowded by the advent of a foreign-born population.”  It was Tuttle who initiated many of the social programs for which St. Luke’s was best known.  “His sympathy with those whose circumstances had changed for the worse led to the institution of St. Luke’s Home for Indigent Christian Females.”

On July 10, 1863, just five days before his 84th birthday, Clement Clarke Moore died in his summer home in Newport.  His body was returned to New York during a time of tremendous upheaval.  In March a strict federal draft law was enacted whereby every male citizen between 20 and 35 was subject to military duty.  A lottery was established to select the draftees; but those who could afford the $300 waiver fee could avoid conscription. 

On the day after Moore’s death the first lottery was held.  Two days later, when the working classes realized the inequity of the system, riots broke out.  For five days no one was safe on the streets of New York as mobs murdered civilians and torched homes and businesses.  Moore’s casket arrived in the city and was secretly moved through the streets to the churchyard behind St. Luke’s where it was quietly buried.

St. Luke’s, like all churches and chapels, would see numerous weddings and funerals throughout the years.  Perhaps none was so poignant as that of Francis J. Lyon and Mary Imogene Greene.  On Thursday, October 26, 1865, just a few months after the end of the Civil War, the happy couple was married in the church by Rev. Tuttle.  The newlyweds boarded the steamer St. John for their honeymoon excursion.

Three days later, at 7:00 on a Sunday morning, the vessel’s boiler exploded.  Both Francis and Mary were scalded to death.  At noon on Tuesday, October 31 and just five days after their wedding here, their coffins were carried into the church.  The New York Times reported “the coverings being removed, the bodies were seen habited in their bridal attire.”  The church was crowded with mourners, and the newspaper said “The services were performed in a very impressive manner, by Rev. J. H. Tuttle the same clergyman who had officiated at the marriage ceremony.”

In the 1880s the grand society churches populated by Manhattan’s wealthy closed for the summer season.  Their congregants were off to Newport and other summer resorts and it was during these three months that reparations and redecoration to the church structures were done.  More humble parishes like St. Luke’s remained open.  So during the summer of 1883 services were held in the chapel while the main sanctuary got a make-over.  On September 16 that year The Times reported that services in the main church would resume that day; saying St. Luke’s “has been thoroughly redecorated and repaired, and now presents a most attractive appearance.”  The newspaper added “St. Luke’s was formerly known as the Greenwich Village Church, and as it stands in the midst of its quiet churchyard, attracts much attention from those passing by.”

By now St. Luke’s congregation numbered about 400.  The plain, Federal-style architecture was out of date and unappreciated by many.  A writer for The Times in 1886 offhandedly remarked “As all old residents of the city know, the old church building, attractive in its ugliness, stands in Hudson-street, just where Grove-street juts into that thoroughfare.”  In January that year its attractive ugliness nearly came to an end.

Around 7:15 on the evening of January 6, 1886 passersby noticed wisps of smoke rising from the roof.  Within five minutes steam fire engines clattered up to the church.  “When the main door of the building was opened a volume of thick smoke drove the firemen back, but not before they had seen furious flames in the rear of the building.  The chancel was converted into a blazing furnace, and before the firemen could enter the building the handsome organ was in ruins,” reported The New York Times.

While some firefighters rushed to remove valuable items to the street; others streamed water into the building.  Unfortunately, they inadvertently shot directly through two valuable stained glass windows—valued at $500 each at the time.  When the fire was extinguished, the organ was a total loss and the chancel roof was “burned to charcoal.”  The loss was estimated at around $15,000; nearly $400,000 in today’s dollars.

The fire was one of several factors leading to the decision to move the congregation north.  On December 18, 1888 many New Yorkers were shocked and dismayed to read in The Times “One of the old landmarks and an exceedingly old and revered place of worship, St. Luke’s Protestant Episcopal Church, in Hudson-street, between Barrow and Christopher streets, will not only be soon leveled to the ground, but all the memories connected with its site will be destroyed by the removal of the dead from the ancient burying ground.”

Following the fire St. Luke's got a few Victorian enhancements like the gingerbread side porches and the entrance hood -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
The congregation had already laid plans to erect a new church at 141st Street and Convent Avenue.  Now, on December 17, the pew holders met and decided to transfer all the 500 or so bodies in the churchyard to other cemeteries “as promptly as possible.”  This included, of course, the grave of Clement Clarke Moore.

Trinity Church had repurchased the land on which St. Luke’s and its associated buildings and churchyard sat.  It now proposed to build a $1.5 million complex including “a great church.”  The Times projected “They will form, in all probability, one of the most complete groups of buildings for church purposes in the world.”

Four years later the new St. Luke’s Church uptown was completed and on November 27, 1892 the 83-year old Rev. Tuttle issued his last sermon from the old building.  For some reason Trinity’s grand plans died away and the venerable building survived.  It was now “St. Luke’s Chapel, Trinity Parish.”

Further downtown sat another Trinity chapel, that of St. John’s.  The astonishingly beautiful Georgian structure once stood on St. John’s Park, the most elegant residential neighborhood of the early 19th century.  Designed by John McComb and completed in 1807, it was now surrounded by commerce and freight depots.

Wurts Bros. captured the simple, stenciled ceilings and exquisite stained glass around 1910 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1909 Trinity decided to close St. John’s and combine its congregation with St. Luke’s.  The move would allow Trinity Church to demolish the architectural jewel.  It prompted a debate that lasted for several years.  One of the considerations brought up by concerned citizens nationwide was the architectural value of either structure.  St. Luke’s, often the brunt of criticism, was most often on the losing end.  On June 1, 1914 John Handforth fired off an impassioned letter to the New-York Tribune.  In it he proposed, if one building had to go, “then let the vestry close St. Luke’s Chapel, the most hideous specimen of ecclesiastical architecture in the city, and transfer the work to St. John’s Chapel.” 

The magnificent St. John’s Chapel was demolished in 1918.  St. Luke’s not only inherited its congregation, but a most extraordinary tradition.  In 1827, five years after St. Luke’s Church was completed, a wealthy recluse named John Leake was found dead before his fireplace in Park Row.  Leake had no relatives to inherit his fortune and he instructed that 1,000 pounds “be laid out in the annual income in sixpenny loaves of wheaten bread and distributed every Sabbath morning after divine service to such poor as shall appear most deserving.”

photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Every Sunday thereafter, until 1860, Trinity Church distributed 67 loaves of bread from the church steps.  Then the practice was transferred to St. John’s (which moved the distribution to Saturday to make the charity less conspicuous).  Now the Leake Dole, reportedly the oldest bread line in the world, was carried on by St. Luke’s.  The Evening World reported on February 10, 1919 “At 9 o’clock every Saturday morning the sixty-seven loaves are piled on a little table in the chapel, and children who are known to be members of deserving families call for them.”

The newspaper added “This weekly dole, which keeps alive the memory of a lonely old man, has come as a God-send to more than one family that might otherwise have been breadless.”

The changes in the Greenwich Village neighborhood that St. Luke’s parishioners experienced throughout the 19th century continued through the 20th.  By 1976, when St. Luke’s once again became an independent church, the area around the structure was the center of New York’s gay culture.  The parish embraced its new members and was catastrophically impacted by the AIDS epidemic.

In 1981 a fire even worse than the 1883 blaze consumed St. Luke’s.  For many there was no hope of rebuilding the gutted and blackened shell.  But a determined Rev. Ledlie I. Laughlin Jr. was resolute.  The architectural firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates oversaw the reconstruction and in 1985 the reborn church was reconsecrated.

photo by Alice Lum

No longer considered “ugly” or “hideous,” John Heath’s charming country church survives after nearly two centuries.  The former churchyard is a welcoming garden, open to the public daily.  St. Luke’s Church, with its contemporary houses lining the rest of the block, forms a unique picture of live in rural Greenwich Village.