Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Electus D. Litchfield House - 171 East 73rd Street

In 1864, 25 years after Robert Lenox's death, his son James Lenox began partitioning off his 30-acre farm into building lots.  He sold them at an average of $5,575 each--just under $90,000 today.

Before long a row of brick-faced Italianate-style homes was completed on East 73rd Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues.  At 20-feet wide they were intended for financially-comfortable, albeit not wealthy, families.  Three stories tall above an English basement, the houses could claim no outstanding architectural elements--other than their striking cast iron verandas at the parlor level.  A noticeable scar on the facade of No. 175 (one of the last two survivors of the row) suggests that the entire group had the charming detail.

Two houses away, No. 171 became home to Edwin L. Hodgson, who was listed under the catch-all description "merchant."  The relocation to the still mostly undeveloped district must have seemed to the family as if they were moving to the country.  They previously lived on Oliver Street in the crowded, noisy Lower East Side.

The Hodgsons remained in the house until the summer of 1885.  Edwin sold it that year to Jonathan and Caroline Southward.   The couple had a son, also named Jonathan, and like the Hodgson family would stay at No. 171 for decades, finally selling it in June 1911 to millionaire George J. Gould.

As the mansions of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens had crept up Fifth Avenue along Central Park, private carriage houses cropped up along blocks far enough away to not be a smelly nuisance; but close enough for convenience.  At the turn of the century the East 73rd Street block which included No. 171 had essentially become a "stable block."  Prim residences were demolished for the lavish carriage houses of millionaires like Henry Harper Benedict, Charles Hudson, and J. B. Layng.

In reporting the sale, the Real Estate Record & Guide noted "Mr. Gould's garage occupies the adjoining property at Nos. 167 and 169."  The purchase may have originally been intended to provide extra housing for Gould's garage staff.

Most of the block was lined with handsome carriages houses in 1911.  The Gould stable-turned-garage (right) nestled up against No. 171 East 73rd Street.  photo by Alice Lum
Gould was travelling in France when he suffered a fatal heart attack in May 1923.  The brick house on East 73rd Street was purchased by well-known and influential architect Electus Darwin Litchfield.

Born in New York City in 1872, Litchfield had worked in several architectural firms, like Carrère & Hastings and Lord & Hewlett.  He and his wife, Elizabeth, had two children, Elizabeth and Burnham.

Unlike many architects who moved into vintage houses, Litchfield did not alter the Victorian facade.  It was a surprising decision, given that in 1920 he had initiated a dramatic re-make of a group of vintage homes in the neighborhood.  On February 20 The Sun reported that he had "purchased twelve old fashioned houses" on 68th Street between Second and Third Avenues, "and will alter them into the modern American basement type."  The newspaper deemed that the project would result in "a new society neighborhood."

The changes which Litchfield did make to No. 171 were a protective brick and iron wall at the property line in 1924, and the division of the interior to what today would be termed two duplexes.  The Litchfield family lived in the lower two floors and leased the upper to upscale tenants.

A 1940 tax photo shows Litchfield's intimidating wall. photo NYC Department of Records 
The Litchfields spent their summers in Stockbridge, Massachusetts; although Electus, like many busy heads of families, seems to have been there mostly on weekends or for short visits.   Yearly announcements in society columns included mentions like that in the New-York Tribune on September 24, 1922.  "Arrivals at Heaton Hall in Stockbridge include Mrs. Electus Darwin Litchfield, Miss Elizabeth and Master Burnham Litchfield."

Litchfield made his mark not only as a designer of public buildings--the National Armory in Washington, the Denver Post Office and Courthouse and the Public Library in St. Paul, Minnesota among them--but of monuments, such as the Lewis and Clark memorial in Astoria, Oregon.  He designed entire communities, as well.  He was responsible for Yorkship Village, and World War I industrial town of 2,000 homes for shipbuilders near Camden, New Jersey; and was the architect of the Red Hook housing project which replaced slums.

As president of the Municipal Art Society in the 1930's he vehemently fought against Park Commissioner John Sheehy's proposal to convert 32 acres of Central Park into athletic fields.  Some of his ideas were surprising.  When John L. Nagle, Chief of Design of the Bureau of National Parks, suggested cleaning up the grounds of Liberty Island in December 1933 by removing "barracks and storehouses" that surrounded the base of the Statue of Liberty, Litchfield bristled.  He cautioned Nagle "these ancient buildings, with their easily distinguishable doors and windows, are extremely valuable," since they provided a comparison of scale to the monument.

Electus Darwin Litchfield.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
And in 1935 he may have surprised parents when, as reported by The New York Times on January 28, he sent a letter to every public school in the city "asking the help of the pupils in keeping the streets and parks clean and in preventing defacement of the city's monuments."  (He was not suggesting that the children do free-lance sanitation work; but that they be aware of littering and vandalism.)

In the meantime, the Litchfields' upstairs tenants were well-to-do.  Stock broker Webster Tilton was here in 1939, followed by socialite Enid Locke Gillett and her daughter, also named Enid.  Mrs. Gillette was the widow of Lowry Gillett.  When Enid, her only child, married Peter Irving, Jr. in St James' Episcopal Church on May 3, 1941, the event made headlines on the society pages.

Electus Darwin Litchfield died on November 27, 1952 at the age of 80.   His obituary in The New York Times summed up his illustrious career, saying he "was a member of many private and city organizations, championed civic-improvement causes including slum-clearance and housing projects.  He was a devotee of municipal beautification."

Elizabeth Litchfield sold the house to Samuel Nirenstein in December 1953.  When he sold it six months later it was described as a "four-story apartment house;" but in fact it still had just the two duplexes that Litchfield had configured.

In November 1958 the lower portion became home to the Chilean Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Daniel Schweitzer.   Four months later the 64-year-old bachelor suffered a terrifying incident.

At around 6:20 on the night of February 13, 1960 three men, ranging from about 20- to 30-years-old, managed to breach the protective wall out front.  Schweitzer was in his parlor floor study when he heard the breaking of glass at the front door.  He was suddenly confronted by the burglars who demanded money while holding their hands in their pockets to suggest they had guns.

Schweitzer turned over all his cash--$181.  In an odd gesture of compassion, when he asked them if he could have $5 back, they agreed.  It would be their only kindly act. 

One of the men, who spoke to one another in what Schweitzer thought was Hungarian, asked him "Are you a Jew?"  When the diplomat said he was, the man ordered "Let's hear you say 'Heil Hitler' and give the salute."  The thugs forced him to repeat the humiliating act several times before fleeing.

Schweitzer went upstairs where Dorothy Wilson and two sons, 12- and 13-years-old, lived.  He told her what had happened and she urged him to call the police.  But Schweitzer was so terrorized that he refused to call for help until 7:00, as the intruders had ordered.

At the time Stephen McKenzie DuBrul, Jr. had been married to the former Antonia Paepcke for three years.  Born in 1929, DeBrul had already made a name for himself.  At only 26-years-old he had been named a partner of Lehman Brothers.

The DuBruls were living at No. 171 East 73rd Street--now once again a single family home--when son Nicholas was born in March 1966.   Their second child, Jennifer, would be born six years later.

Stephen's astounding career continued to evolve.  From 1961 to 1965 he served as a part-time consultant to the President's Council on Economic Advisers.  In 1970 he was elected to the board of the Continental Can Co.; and two years later, after having been with Lehman Brothers 16 years, he joined the prestigious brokerage house of Lazard Frère.   Then, while at the White House "on a business matter" in October 1975 Douglas P. Bennett, the White House recruiter, asked him if he would be interested in becoming head of the Export-Import Bank.

In reporting on the appointment two months later, The New York Times mentioned No. 171, getting the construction date slightly wrong. "They own an 1850 red brick house on 73d Street in Manhattan."

The DuBruls stayed on in that red brick house at least through the 1980's.  By the time the house was again placed on the market in 2011 the interiors familiar to the Southwards and Litchfields were gone, replaced by open, modern spaces.  But the brick wall outside still remained, prompting Curbed New York's headline on May 1 that year to comment "Gated UES House Kept the Poor Away Before Madonna Made it Cool."

photo via Curbed New York
Unseen from the street, a sizable extension to the rear had transformed what had been built for an upper-middle class family 150 years earlier to a 6,500-square foot residence with six bedrooms, five and a half baths, and a 33-foot living room under a skylight.  The asking price in 2011 was $6.375 million.

Electus D. Litchfield's protective wall has been removed, bringing the house back to its charming 1860 appearance.  

photographs by the author

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The 1882 George Washington Statue - Federal Hall

photograph by OptimumPx

In 1699 construction began on the third of New York's City Halls.  Sitting on Wall Street at the head of Broad Street, it was completed the following year and would be the site of some critical moments in the forming of America.  Here the concept of our venerated freedom of the press took root when, in 1735, John Peter Zengel was tried and acquitted of libel against the Crown.  And in 1765 the Stamp Act Congress met here, starting the movement against taxation without representation.  From its balcony the Declaration of Independence was read to New Yorkers for the first time.   It became the first Capitol Building after the Revolution, saw the first meeting of the United States Congress, and it was here that President George Washington was inaugurated.

Federal Hall as it appeared in 1789. from George Washington Day by Day, 1895 (copyright expired)  
The Government abandoned the building when it moved to Philadelphia. in 1790.  It was eventually demolished in 1812; to be replaced  in 1842 with a magnificent Greek Revival Custom House designed by two of the country's foremost architects--Alexander Jackson Davis and Ithiel Town.

In 1856 a small group of wealthy New Yorkers presented the city with a statue of George Washington--the first statue erected in the city since the Revolution.  The straightforward gift, placed in Union Square, caused no civic uproar other than from those who objected to its "idolatry."  Such would not be the case in 1880 when another statue of Washington was proposed.

The new monument would be placed on the steps of the old Custom House--now the Federal Sub-Treasury Building.  The spot was chosen as being as close as possible to the exact position where the first President took the oath of office.  But this was Federal property and although the $35,000 necessary to erect the statue (around $866,000 today) was provided by the New York Chamber of Commerce, approval from Congress was necessary.  Not all members were warm to the idea.

The objection of Representative James Blount, from Missouri, on December 9, 1880 would have prevented the unanimous consent necessary.  He was assailed in session that afternoon by New York Representative Samuel S. Cox, who said "Why an objection should come from my abstract friend I cannot understand...This bill, without appropriating any money from the Treasury, proposes simply to authorize the erection, in a very historic place, of a monument to George Washington, which shall be under the control of the Government, which shall be no disgrace to the country, as some monuments are."

Blount withdrew his objection.

The Chamber of Commerce chose the highly respected John Quincy Adams Ward to design the sculpture.  On October 9, 1883 The New York Times reported that the "erection of the marble pedestal for J. Q. A. Ward's statue of George Washington, in front of the Sub-Treasury Building, is advancing very rapidly."  The architect of that pedestal, Richard Morris Hunt, was as esteemed as the sculptor.

The precise height above street level, like the location itself, had been carefully calculated.  It statue would be at the same level above Wall Street that Washington had stood in 1789.  The newspaper announced that the marble block was inscribed:

On This Site
In the building then known as Federal Hall,
George Washington
Took the Oath as the First President
of the United States of America
April 30, 1789

The unveiling was held on November 25, 1883--the anniversary of Evacuation Day when the last of the British troops left New York.  It was covered by newspapers as far away as North Dakota, whose Bismarck Tribune reported "The unveiling of the statue of George Washington on the steps of the sub-treasury was attended by a brilliant company, including the president of the United States, members of his cabinet, the mayors of New York and Brooklyn, Bishop Potter, Rev. Dr. Storrs, Collector Robertson and Wm. M. Evarts.  George W. Lane, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, opened the ceremonies."

In his 1887 The Youth's History of the United States, Edward Sylvester Ellis recalled "President Arthur stood on the pedestal under an umbrella, held by a friend...By a sharp jerk the governor [future President Grover Cleveland] snapped the slender cord that held the American flags wrapped about the statue, and as the bronze figure burst to view the vast assemblage broke into cheers in which they were quickly joined by the forts whose cannons began thundering the moment the signal was given from the top of the building."

Ward's heroic-sized statue stood 12 feet 6 inches high and weighed 5,900 pounds.  It depicted Washington in the act of taking the oath of office.  Ellis noted "Washington is represented as dressed in the uniform which he bought for the occasion.  A military cloak covers the left shoulder, and falls from the right shoulder."  Ward's depiction of the cloak partially falling away symbolized Washington's leaving military for civil life.  It was at the time the largest statue of Washington in existence.

The marble pedestal itself was 7-1/2 feet high and 16 feet long, bringing the overall height of the monument to 22 feet.  Inside the pedestal was a box containing "specimens of all the coins of the United States, copies of newspapers, records of the Chamber of Commerce, and other matters," according to Ellis.

When the old Federal Hall was razed, the stone slab on which Washington had stood for the 1789 inauguration was removed, inscribed, and embedded in a wall in Bellevue Hospital.  It was brought back and placed in the stone platform directly in front of the Washington statue, protected by a metal railing.

Visitors look down on the brownstone slab, reputedly the one on which Washington stood in 1789.  Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine, June 1884 (copyright expired) 

That proved to be a bad idea, however.  On December 10, 1895 The Topeka State Journal reported "The brown stone slab known as the George Washington stone, fixed in the base of the pedestal of the statue of George Washington in front of the sub-treasury is to be removed to save it from destruction."  The following May The Spirit of '76 explained "The stone has yielded to the action of the weather to such an extent that it has been removed to the interior of the Sub Treasury in order to preserve it, and it will be placed in a sealed glass case."

The Washington statue quickly became beloved by New Yorkers and  a destination for tourists.   On a particularly frigid day during the winter of 1890 37-year old Robert Dunlap remove his overcoat and wrapped it around Washington's legs to prevent the President's catching a chill (Dunlap was later committed to the Flatbush Insane Asylum).   The monument was a favorite subject for stereopticon slides, travel guide illustrations and amateur photographers.  One such "camerist" brought Wall Street to a halt on July 23, 1892.

The New York Times described that the amateur photographer who "invaded Wall Street yesterday" as "a trim young woman in a blue suit and a black straw had, and she wanted to get a picture of the statue of George Washington."  The process of doing so was much more of an ordeal in 1890 than snapping a photo on one's phone today.  "So she set up her camera in front of the office where J. Pierpont Morgan reorganizes railroads...and proceeded to cover her head with a cloth and shove slides into the camera after the orthodox fashion."

The feminine photographer caught the attention of the brokers, businessmen and errand boys who populated the busy district.  "Fat men stood in the blazing sunlight and didn't notice how hot the combination of sun above and asphalt pavement below was making them; messenger boys formed an inner circle about the camera, but at what passes as a respectful distance with their kind; truck drivers halted their teams, and curious faces appeared at the window commanding a view of the camera."

None of this distracted the diligent photographer and not until she had exposed a few slides did she fold up the camera, the tripod and gather up her equipment.  "And then the crowd disappeared as quickly as it had assembled," concluded the article.

Two New Yorkers became dismayed at the aged look their beloved statue had acquired in the decade following its unveiling.  And so on Christmas Eve morning they took matters into their own hands to correct the problem.  Their good intentions were sadly misguided, however.

The Pennsylvania newspaper, the Freeland Tribune, reported "Such people as walked down Wall street at 9 o'clock this morning saw an act of vandalism.  Two colored men, with long handled brushes, were scrubbing the statue of George Washington in front of the Sub-Treasury building, and removing all the beauty which time and weather add to all bronzes."

Stock broker Henry T. Chapman, "who owns many masterpieces of art," told a reporter from the New York Mail and Express "The glory of pieces in bronze is the potine [patina] which the wear and tear of the atmosphere puts on them.  It takes years to accomplish this.  I have watched with great interest the growth of potine on the Washington statue, and was astonished this morning to see the men scrubbing the statue and removing potine.  You would never see such a thing in Europe."

The well-intended vandalism was stopped at the neckline, leaving Washington's head a musky green and his body a brilliant bronze.

By 1904 the patina was once again evenly matched.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
The patriotic iconography created by Washington's pose and location was not lost on politicians, social advocates and publicity men.  It was repeatedly the scene of war drives, political stomping, and the subject of political and social cartoons.

The monument was a favorite vehicle for political cartoonists.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
Motion picture star Mary Pickford stood at Washington's feet on April 11, 1918, megaphone in hand as she implored a crowd to buy War Bonds.  The New-York Tribune reported "More than 20,000 persons were swayed by the film star's smiles and patriotism as she stood in the shadow of George Washington's statue."  She told the masses that subscribing to the Liberty Loan they would "drive nails in the Kaiser's coffin."

So popular was the statue that in an article on George Washington on October 31, 1935 the North Carolina newspaper, the Roanoke Rapids Herald wrote that the "two monuments most often visited in a spirit of veneration not only by Americans but by visitors from all nations" were the Washington Monument in D. C. and the Wall Street statue.

This striking stereopticon image was created in 1897.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
As was the case in World War I, the second World War drew speakers to the steps of Federal Hall and George Washington.  On May 1, 1942 The New York Times reported that "at the base of George Washington's statue, several speakers yesterday compared the nation's present difficulties with the problems confronted on April 30, 1789, when the country inaugurated its first President and proceeded to overcome obstacles much greater than those growing out of today's war."

As a symbol of America, the statue drew the unfriendly attention of protesters during the Vietnam War.  In September 1963 "electric bulbs, loaded with paint and tar" were hurled at the statue, as reported by The New York Times.  The vandalism was successfully removed within a week.

Four years later the statue was sought out for a more positive, if self-serving purpose.  On October 23, 1967 The Times reported that on "one windy afternoon early this month, five men gathered before George Washington's statue in front of the old Treasury Building at Wall and Broad Streets...They waited patiently while a magazine photographer took pictures, then melted anonymously into the rush-hour crowd."

One female pedestrian "remarked tartly that the statue of the first President seemed an inappropriate backdrop for a cigarette commercial."  It was not a cigarette commercial being photographed, however.  It was Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon, whose campaign staff saw the monument as a perfect way to project Nixon's patriotism and American ideals.

After 130 years the statue was conserved as part of the overall restoration of Federal Hall which started in 2004.  The project involved "stripping away years of grime and heavy-handed interventions with state-of-the-art laser technology and allowed the sculptor's work to shine by coating it with a lighter brown protective patina," as described in Federal Hall's website.

John Quincy Adams Ward's masterful bronze depiction of George Washington remains the centerpiece of the Stock Exchange neighborhood, as popular with New Yorkers and tourists as it was in 1883.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

C. P. H. Gilbert's 23 and 24 Riverside Drive

In 1893 the trustees of the New York Orphan Asylum sold off its sprawling grounds overlooking the Hudson River.  Stretching from Riverside Drive to West End Avenue and from 73rd to 75th Streets, it had been bucolic in 1836 when the orphanage was erected.  Now it was among the city's most valuable property.

The orphanage grounds were divided into building plots; many of which were purchased by individuals rather than developers.  In an unusual cooperative move, eight such buyers hired mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design harmonious side-by-side homes on West 74th Street.  Almost simultaneously Asa Hull and George McKesson followed suit.  They purchased the lots at Nos. 23 and 24 Riverside Drive, respectively, in 1895 and hired Gilbert to design nearly matching homes.

Gilbert turned to ornate Francois I Revival style for the project, completed in 1897.  As he had done on some of the 74th Street homes, he place the upper floors upon a somewhat boxy and unadorned limestone base.  Dog-legged stoops with solid wingwalls led to entrances.

The upper three floors were faced in beige Roman brick and trimmed in terra cotta.  Two story rounded bays provided balconies at the fourth floors. Above the trios of elaborately decorated fourth-floor openings pairs of fearsome griffins stood guard below an intricate metal cornice.  The subtle difference between the two homes was the absence of the center bay windows at No. 24.

Gothic tracery executed in white terra cotta is echoed within the metal arches of the cornice.
Asa Hull was the principal of Asa Hull & Co. at No. 132 Nassau Street, printers of hymnals and religious songbooks.  As was often the case within moneyed families, he put the title to No. 23 in the name of his wife, the former Sarah J. Warren.   (Although, mysteriously, the earliest building documents list "Lisa Hull" as owner.)  The couple's summer home was at Shelter Island.

Hull not only printed the hymns, but wrote them.  He had stepped away from his niche of Sunday School songbooks and hymnals briefly in 1877 when he published Hull's Temperance Glee Book.  The cover described it as containing "a choice variety of Temperance Songs, Duets and Choruses suitable for the sociable entertainments of the several Temperance Organizations."

Hull produced scores of song books for Sunday Schools like this one. (copyright expired)
Sarah shared her husband's uncompromising moral views and held the office of vice-president of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Social Purity.

When a tax was proposed on "country checks," (or out-of-state checks) in 1899, Asa Hull protested by means of a letter to the editor of the New-York Tribune.  It shed much light into the operations of his business, saying in part:

My business is mostly mail business, and nine-tenths of the remittances come from the country in checks, many below $1 each, and the result will be that I shall be obliged to decline all small checks...The nature of my business is such that I could not stand any further taxation.

The houses, seen mid-block here in 1903, were surrounded by mansions when the Hulls and McKessons lived here.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In the meantime, George C. McKesson was a partner in the wholesale pharmaceutical firm McKesson & Robbins, founded in part by his father, John.   The McKessons summered at Monmouth Beach in New Jersey.  (George's son by a former marriage, George, Jr., had taken his adopted father's surname.  George McKesson Brown would eventually build one of Long Island's most magnificent estates, Coindre Hall.)

Almost assuredly, the lifestyles of the McKessons and the Hulls were starkly different.  The McKesson name appeared regularly in the social activities of New Jersey resort district.  Such was the case on July 3, 1915 when the McKessons were among the more than 200 guests at Hilden, the summer estate of the William Barbour.  There they rubbed shoulders with millionaires with names like Schiff, Borden, Fahnestock and Straus.

Sarah J. Hull died on June 29, 1909 and her funeral was held at No. 23 three days later.  Asa lived on in the house for another eight years.  He died on April 4, 1917 at the age of 92.  His funeral, too, was held in the house. 

While No. 23 was soon sold to Sarah T. Adams, the McKessons remained next door through the 1920's.  But by 1930 both residences were being operated as rooming houses.

The tenants during the Depression years were not all upstanding citizens.  "Major" Irving F. Coleman was living at No. 24 on December 3, 1930 when he was arrested there "on the charge of writing worthless checks passed in Washington," according to The New York Times.  The article added that he "faced the additional charge of impersonating a Federal officer."

Colman's roommate, John Otis Handy, was an accessory to the crimes.  The Times reported that he "had cashed one of the worthless checks."  As for Coleman, he had invented his rank.  "It was learned that Coleman was no major and that he had found persons willing to cash his checks, it is charged, because of a portly and dignified bearing, which fitted the borrowed title."

The former Hull house had its own criminal tenant.  On April 2, 1943 Robert J. Cassidy and three cohorts stole a truck containing $85,00 in liquor in Long Island City.  It was a major haul, worth $120,000 today--or it would have been had they not gotten caught.  Cassidy pleaded guilty in the Queens County Court on May 17.

On January 13, 1945 The Times reported that Stanley Estates, Inc. had purchased the "rooming house at 23 Riverside Drive."  It was quickly converted to apartments, two per floor.  The same firm acquired No. 24 and converted it to apartments two years later.

The conversion to apartments did not initially improve the respectability of the buildings' tenants.   Thomas Hirsch, who lived in No 23 in 1958, went by the street name "Schoolboy."  He was arrested in a drugstore on Broadway and 50th Street on May 9, 1953 charged with bookmaking.  The police called him a "known Broadway figure" in illegal gambling.

Martin J. Yamin lived next door in 1955.  A former Baltimore judge, the 32-year old was accused of taking part in the hold-up and murder of Joseph Aronowitz on February 15 that year.  Aronowitz, who lived on West 83rd Street, was scheduled to testify for the state in a Baltimore hold-up case.  But, according to police, he was "taken for a ride" before that could happen.  His body was found in an abandoned automobile in Brooklyn.

On April 7 that year The New York Times reported that Stanley Estates, Inc. had sold the "two four-story converted buildings containing nineteen apartments" to Mary Ley and Helen Jambor.

Happily, unflattering press ended around the same time.  By the end of the century there were small commercial tenants as well.  Birch Music Press was in No. 24 in the early 1970's; and Riverside Books, a publishing firm, was in No. 23 by the early l990's.

photographs by the author

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Lost 1935 S. H. Kress & Co Bldg - 444 Fifth Avenue

The second floor windows were flanked by plaques of stylized Mayan motifs.  photo by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On March 30, 1931 the elderly spinster, Ella Virginia von E. Wendel died in the house her grandfather, John Wendel, had build in 1856.  When constructed, the mansion at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street sat in an exclusive residential neighborhood, just a few blocks north of the Astor mansions.  But now it was surrounded by modern business buildings, rushing pedestrians and honking traffic.  The Victorian time capsule in which Ella and her servants had lived was worth what newspapers said was "many millions of dollars."  She had so successfully ignored the 20th century that, according to The New York Times, she had never ridden in an automobile.

Ella Wendel's property, seen here in 1934, included a copious walled side yard where she hung the laundry.  Seen behind is the Wendel carriage house.  photograph by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On July 15, 1934 The New York Times reported "After withstanding the encroachment of trade for many years the old Wendel house at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-ninth Street will make way for a modern building.  A 5-10-and-25-cent store will replace the faced brick residence, long the home of Miss Ella Virginia von E. Wendel, eccentric spinster and last of the Wendel family to occupy the house."

The article explained that the S. H. Kress & Co. had obtained a long-term lease on the property, and added "Mr. [Claude W.] Kress said the company's architect, E. F. Sibbert, had made preparations for the drawing of plans for the new building."  While Kress executives could not give specifics about the coming building, The Times was able to report "The Fifth Avenue store will be the finest unit in the Kress chain, which extends throughout the country."

Architect Edward F. Sibbert had been elevated to supervising architect of S. H. Kress in 1929.  The "dime store" chain was prospering.  It had opened 58 new stores since 1920 and its 1928 sales reached $414 million in today's dollars.  Because of the low price point of the firm's merchandise, the Great Depression did not negatively affect its bottom line; but improved it.  Sibbert would design 176 Kress stores during the Depression years.

He designed the seven-story Fifth Avenue store and offices in what architectural historian Martin Greif called "Depression Modern" and Ada Louise Huxtable termed "Woolworth Modern."  As the flagship store of the chain, Sibbert gave it upscale elements.  The first two floors were trimmed in bronze--the windows, doors and flagpoles were all cast in the costly material.  The first and second floors were clad in granite, the upper stories in marble.

Bronze played an important part in the lower floors.  photo by F. S. Lincoln, from the collection of the New York Public Library
Samuel Kress, the firm's president, had a keen interest in archaeology and exploration, one that left its mark on No. 444 Fifth Avenue.   Sets of 32 Mayan-type plaques flanked the second floor openings; yet close examination revealed they announced items available inside--jewelry, fabrics and hardware, for instance.  According to Robert Kevin Chastine in his 1997 thesis "Dime Store Deco,"  the soaring mullions of the upper floor openings "end above the roofline in a Mayan headdress motif."

The "penthouse" level, mostly invisible from street level, was clad in white brick.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Nation's Business made note of the cost of the Depression Era store.  "In New York, the new store of S. H. Kress & Co. at Thirty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, will run into a lot of money--especially as the plans call for a first floor unbroken by a single pillar!"

The cavernous main sales floor had no visible support.  Sibbert's ceiling design is like a work of art.  photo by F. S. Lincoln, from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Fifth Avenue entrance.  Note the mezzanine above which fronted the second story windows. photo by F. S. Lincoln, from the collection of the New York Public Library
The completed structure earned Sibbert the Pan American Congress of Architecture's gold medal in 1940, and praise from the Architectural League of New York.

The New York Times, which routinely published long descriptions of significant new buildings, was unusually reserved in announcing the completion of No. 444 Fifth Avenue.  On October 30, 1935 the newspaper reported that the building was completed and had opened two days earlier.  "The store takes up the basement and first floor.  The upper floors, for the time being, will be used for stockrooms."

Inside, Depression-weary shoppers were treated to sleek designs and amenities like a cafeteria and lounges.

The Ladies' Lounge might easily have been in a Broadway theater.  photos by F. S. Lincoln, from the collection of the New York Public Library
The store was a popular destination for cost-conscious homemakers and newspapers routinely spotlighted the items it offered that would keep a house or apartment up-to-date at a low price.  The Depression was no sooner over than the restrictions of World War II hampered home decorators.  But S. H. Kress & Co. offered help.

On December 20, 1942 Mary Madison titled her article in The New York Times "The Home in Wartime."  In it she gave readers inexpensive Christmas decorating tips, including "rainbow-hued globes of fragile plastic.  These are cents apiece at Kress, 444 Fifth Avenue."

An early postcard showed the sidewalk awnings.
S. H. Kress & Co. received such free publicity for decades.  Journalist Mary Roche told her readers in February 1945 about the "decalcomanias" available in the store.  The "ready-pasted borders" had been used for years to decorate small spaces like cupboard doors.  Now Kress offered larger versions for walls.  "Decalcomanias, of course, are the perfect answer to the amateur who wants a painted motif but cannot draw a line.  And borders can turn remarkable tricks in disguising bad architectural features or pulling together a room and a group of furnishings that are out of scale with each other."

Other items highlighted by The New York Times over the years were the "inexpensive vases designed by Belle Kogan for garden flower arrangements on coffee tables, foyer consoles and other occasional settings," in June 1946; decal strips to apply to the edge of kitchen shelves or canisters, in April 1951; and the plastic-coated shelf paper which pretended to be lace the following year.

On February 1, 1960 four African American college students sat down at a lunch country in a Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina.  When they were refused service at the all-white section, a nationwide backlash was sparked.  It arrived at the corner of 39th Street and Fifth Avenue on February 13, 1960.

Although neither S. H. Kress & Co. nor its across-the-avenue neighbor, F. W. Woolworth, participated in discriminatory service here, their Southern stores were fully engaged.  Black and white customers used separate restrooms, drinking fountains, and eating facilities.

Separate drinking fountains are seen in this photo of the Montgomery, Alabama Kress store.  Kress Collection, National Building Museum.
That afternoon the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) picketed both stores.  Demonstrators, both black and white, walked back-and-forth on the sidewalk carrying placards with demands like "End lunch-counter discrimination," and "Support North Carolina students."

The following month, on March 30, the NAACP joined in, staging a similar protest in front of the store against lunch-counter segregation.  It would be a long-fought struggle.  Three years later, on April 20, 1963, The New York Times reported on the "hundreds" who formed "lines of orderly vocal marchers" who picketed as part of the nationwide protest against segregation.  Not all New Yorkers were moved.  The newspaper reported that the Woolworth and Kress customers "appeared indifferent and store managers reported business even better than usual."

In 1972 the store suffered a much different type of protest.  Late on the night of August 18 an incendiary device exploded inside the store, sparking a fire.  It was one of six similar incidents that night and police concluded the bombs had been placed in the various stores prior to closing.   They were planted by the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Movement as part of its efforts to gain independence.  Unlike at some targets, the damage to S. H. Kress & Co. was relatively minor.

photo by F. S. Lincoln, from the collection of the New York Public Library
Although S. H. Kress & Co. on the whole was operating at a profit in 1977, the Fifth Avenue location was losing money.   On September 16 the firm announced it would close the former flagship store.  Two years later, on November 8, 1979, The New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable lamented the passing of the five-and-dime store in general.  "It was not the marketing of opulence.  It catered to anything except expensive excess.  It was an idea based on frugality and the most for the least.  It was, in fact, a matter of nickels and dimes; it was that great American institution, the five and ten."

Huxtable continued "The flagship stores of two of the largest competing chains--Woolworth and Kress--now stand empty at opposite corners of 39th Street on Fifth Avenue...The two silent stores symbolized the end of an era."  She mentioned Sibbert's details:  "granite, stainless steel, bronze and baked enamel, and deco details that look like the tops of palm trees in the sunrise."

Those details would not survive much longer.  In 1981 Republic National Bank began gobbling up the Fifth Avenue real estate between 39th and 40th Streets, including the Knox Hat building, its headquarters since 1965.  On July 27, 1981 the bank promised only that the Knox building would not be demolished.

The building sat vacant in August 1979 when Earl Christian took this shot for the New York Public Library's collection.

On April 16, 1983 The Times reported "In homage to the heyday of 5-and-10-cent stores, a city crane this week sidled up to the former S. H. Kress store on Fifth Avenue, near West 39th Street, and stripped the facade of its glories--six black marble Art Deco panels and six limestone crests carved with a classic Greek honeysuckle motif.  They were carted off at the direction of the Landmarks Commission, which will also rescue the Kress Building's four handsome brass doors, two of them revolving."

The LPC's interest in those elements was not matched by its concern for the structure in general.  According to Robert Kevin Chastine "There was a fight to save the Kress flagship store, but only one person on the New York Landmarks Commission saw the significance of the building.  Therefore, the building was demolished on the grounds that the building could not be designated a New York landmark because S. H. Kress Company was not a New York Company."

The Kress building sat at the left, on the opposite corner from the surviving Knox building.  photo by Nicolson & Gallowy
The Republic National Bank, which wraps the Knox Building, replaced the other structures on the block with its soaring glass tower.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Hungarian House - 213-215 East 82nd Street

The mirror-image brick-faced houses at Nos. 213 and 215 East 82nd Street were built around the time of the Civil War.  Stone stoops led from the sidewalk to the parlor floors.  Their single-doored entrances and two-story heights identified them as homes for middle-class residents.  Both wore typical wooden Italianate-style cornices.

In 1873, when No. 215 was offered for sale, the bulk of Manhattan's German population was still centered in the Lower East Side.  The advertisement described "A neat two story and basement brick House, in excellent order and containing all the modern improvements."

The house next door was being operated, at least in part, as a rooming house.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on May 10, 1874 offered "A pleasant and nicely furnished room--good location; home comforts; moderate rent; five minutes from Central Park."

No. 213 seems to have been owned by John Bernardin Marin Lesieur at the time.  He died on September 24, 1874 and his funeral was held in the house two days later.  His death notice in The New York Times mentioned that he was the "eldest son of John B. Lesieur, of Paris, France."

In 1881 No. 213 was purchased by Francis McQuade, a real estate developer and builder.  The transaction came at a time when German immigrants were beginning to move northward into the Yorkville neighborhood.  Within a few years the both houses were acquired by the Central Turn Verein--a German social club.

The now-combined structures were used for a variety of purposes, such as the ceremony which took place on April 24, 1899.  The New York Times reported "Roundsman [i.e. patrolman] Louis C. Wagner will be presented with a gold medal for meritorious conduct at the Adams fire.  The presentation will take place in the Central Turn-Verein Hall, 213 East Eighty-second street."

And five months later, on September 24, the newspaper announced "The fair of the Central Turn Verein, to be held for the benefit of the German school conducted by the verein, will open at 8 o'clock this evening in the rooms at 213 East Eight-second Street, and will continue until Oct. 1."

At the time the Turn Verein was finishing construction a lavish new headquarters at the corner of 85th Street and Lexington Avenue where it would move before the end of the year..

Simultaneously the "Great Economic Immigration" had begun.  At the turn of the century an estimated 1.7 million Hungarians entered New York Harbor.  This wave of Hungarians left their homeland almost entirely for economic reasons.  A significant number settled in Yorkville where Hungarian-language churches, newspapers and social clubs emerged.

The Central Turn Verein retained possession of Nos. 213-215 East 82nd Street and in 1912 was still listed here; most likely using the facility as an auxiliary space.  At some point the stoops of the houses were removed and an iron balcony installed to connect the entrances.

But the German population of Yorkville dwindled more quickly than the Hungarian and on September 9, 1966 the Central Turnverein of the City of New York sold the 82nd Street building to the American Foundation for Hungarian Literature and Education.  The organization had been formed three years earlier by the Széchenyi István Society, the American Hungarian Library and Historical Society, and the Hungarian Catholic League.

The building was named Magyar Haz, or Hungarian House.  To ensure that the property would forever remain in Hungarian hands, the Articles of Incorporation restricted ownership rights to "organizations with similar objectives."  Because ownership was still held by the three founding organizations, the perpetuity of Hungarian control was further guaranteed through a clause demanding that all three co-owners agree to a sale.

The Hungarian population in Manhattan had swelled following the 1956 revolution against the Communist regime.  More than 200,000 refugees fled their homeland as the Soviet military invaded Budapest, killing in total 2,500 Hungarians.

Among those fleeing the peril was Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty.  He had been imprisoned for life in 1948, but was freed by freedom fighters in 1956 and sought refuge in the United States Embassy.

On September 29, 1973 The New York Times reported "Jozef Cardinal Mindszenty, the 81-year-old exiled Primate of Hungary, was reunited at Kennedy International Airport last night with 200 Hungarians who fled to the United States in 1956 following the Hungarian uprising."  The following May he visited what was by now known as Hungarian House.   A bronze plaque memorializing the event is affixed to the facade.

The Cardinal would by no means be the last prominent Hungarian to visit the building.  The first democratically-elected Prime Minister of Hungary, Józef Antall, addressed New York's Hungarian community here; and Presidents Árpád Göncz and Pál Schmitt were guests.  Others included European Parliament member Otto von Habsburg; nuclear physicist Edward Teller, Nobel Laureate physicist Dennis Gábor; Cardinal Péter Erdő, Primate of Hungary; and László Köver President of the Hungarian Parliament.

The Hungarian House offered services like English classes to the community, as well as lectures, concerts and exhibitions.  It kept the ethnic traditions alive, as well.  When The New York Times ran an article in 1992 entitled "Keeping Budapest Hopping," and reader wrote back saying "it is not necessary to travel to Hungary to attend a Hungarian Tanchaz [i.e., folk dance].  Tanchazs are held approximately once a month at Hungarian House."

The little brick Civil War period residences continue to house Hungarian House.  Its website explains that while times change, the objectives of the facility, in essence, have not.  "Today's immigrants and visitors come from different backgrounds and have different needs than Hungarians of the major immigration waves did.  Yet the goal remains the same; to maintain Hungarian culture and acquaint American society with it."

photographs by the author

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Russian Tea Room - 150 West 57th Street

photograph by the author

On February 3, 1873 John F. Pupke purchased two back-to-back lots on 57th and 56th Streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues from Mary Douglass, a widow.  Pupke paid $29,750 for the property--almost $630,000 today.

Pupke had come to New York from his native Germany in 1845 at the age of 16.  He took a job in a coffee firm; and later he became a partner in the coffee and tea importing company Pupke & Thurber.  He and his wife would have five children.

The wealthy merchant erected a 25-foot wide brownstone on the 57th Street side of his new property and a brick carriage house behind that faced 56th Street.  Designed by prolific architect John G. Prague, its construction was completed in 1875.  Living in the house with the family was a staff of three servants.

Jutting into the rear yard was the glass-cased conservatory, so fashionable in upscale Victorian residences.  Here the Pupkes would relax amid tropical and rare plants.  That conservatory survived until 1886 when John Pupke had it demolished to be replaced by a two-story brick extension to the house.  Designed by well-known architect William Schickel, the renovations cost Pupke $8,000, or around $215,000 today.

By the time John F. Pupke died in his brownstone residence on May 25, 1898 he was president of the Eppens, Smith & Wiemann Company, another tea and coffee importing firm.  The funeral of the 69-year-old merchant was held in the residence two days later.

The family remained in the brownstone house at least through 1909.  Daughter Helen, still unmarried, was listed here that year.  She was Assistant Secretary of The Art Workers' Club for Women, founded the year of her father's death.  The group was formed for the "mutual interest and support among women artists and models."

But the once-exclusive residential block had changed by now.  Steps away was Carnegie Hall, opened in 1891, and one-by-one the old homes were being converted to boarding houses or businesses.   While they retained ownership of No. 150 West 57th Street, the Pupke family had left by 1911.  Nellie H. Wall leased it, operating it as a boarding house.

The Pupke house is seen just to the right of the building in the left foreground.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Pupke family bowed to the inevitable in May 1913 when they hired architect Katharine C. Budd to make extensive renovations.  Her plans called for a storefront, new walls, and studios.  The artsy neighborhood was replete with living and working spaces for painters, sculptors and musicians.  No. 150 filled with similar tenants.

New-York Tribune, October 11, 1914 (copyright expired)
After having been in her family for nearly half a century, Helen C. Pupke sold the house and stable to real estate operator Robert E. Simon in February 1919 for $150,000.  It was a significant sum, more than $2 million today.  Simon made his own renovations, removing the stoop and installing an automobile showroom on the ground floor, offices on the second, and "bachelor apartments" on the third and fourth.

The showroom was rented to Ogden & Clarkson, American agents for the Pic-Pic Automobile Company.

This April 25, 1920 ad promised that the Pic-Pic car had "proved its remarkable stamina on shelltorn mountain roads and terrain at the Front with the French and British armies."  The New York Herald (copyright expired)
Pic-Pic's lease would be short-lived.  In November 1920 Robert E. Simon rented the showroom to the Fiat Automobile Company of Turin, Italy.

Significant change to the former Pupke mansion would come around 1929 when a cafe, The Russian Tearoom, leased the former showroom.  The business, incorporated that year, had been formed in 1927 by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet.  It listed among the items available here "Russian Art Chocolate."  Vocalists and musicians continued to rent studios in the upper floors.

The storefront in 1935 looked little different than any other lunchroom or cafeteria.  photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Russian Tea Room began life modestly; but by the 1940's it engulfed the entire property to 56th Street.  Its sleek, art moderne interiors reflected the upscale patrons who spilled in from Carnegie Hall concerts.

The design of the bar area exhibited clean modern lines.  It replaced the soda fountain after Prohibition was repealed.  photograph by Samuel Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The restaurant and its management found themselves in hot water with the State in December 1939.  The Russian Tearoom, Inc. and Solo Judenfreund, its secretary, were charged with "having defrauded the State Insurance Fund of premiums due for several years on their workmens' compensation insurance."  On December 19 Judenfreund pleaded not guilty for both himself and the organization.

But finally, on June 18, 1940, guilty pleas were entered on behalf of the restaurant and Judenfeund, admitting, according to The New York Times, "they defrauded the Insurance Fund of the State Workmen's Compensation Department of $3,973 between March 1934 and March 1939."

It was a rare smear on The Russian Tea Room's reputation.  The following year the restaurant received much more favorable press when it joined other eateries in providing Thanksgiving dinners to the thousands of soldiers and sailors on leave in the city.

While celebrated patrons dined on chicken Kiev, caviar and borscht downstairs, the top two floors continued to house artists.  Among them were soprano Carmen Rueben, and her husband Paul Schumm (the diva used her married name only privately).  The solo vocalist was well-known both on the American and European concert stage and gave vocal training in her 57th Street studio.  She lived here until her death on July 27, 1944.

The Boyar Room featured modern paintings of Russian scenes.  photograph by Samuel Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Broadway producer Lee K. Holland (whom, The New York Times said "in 1947 introduced James Mason and his wife, Pamela Kellino, to Broadway) opened his "lavishly appointed offices" above the restaurant in November 1951.

By then Alexander Maeef had sold The Russian Tearoom,  After running it since 1933 he gave it up in 1946.  Maeef had become a celebrity in his own right, as would the buyer, Sidney Kaye, who was the son of Russian-immigrant parents.  It was under Kaye's proprietorship that the interiors took on a splashier personality.

The New York Times would later remark "Mr. Kaye considered the old-world quality of the restaurant sacrosanct...He decided never to remove the Christmas balls and tinsel from the chandeliers in the dining room, because, he said, 'Christmas comes around again so soon.'  He even had the Christmas tree remain in the front window all year because, he said, 'it looks so Russian.'"

Kaye married an actress, Faith Burwell, in 1957, who joined him in managing the restaurant.  Coincidentally, his sister was the wife of operatic tenor Jan Peerce.

The Russian Tea Room's most famous neighbor, Carnegie Hall (and the source of many of its well-to-do and celebrated patrons) was threatened with demolition in 1955.  The restaurant became the ad hoc meeting place for the Committee to Save Carnegie Hall.  Luncheons were held here to hammer out strategies to battle the loss of the landmark.

Perhaps even more famous to its guests than the proprietor was The Russian Tea Room's maître d'hôtel, Anatole E. Voinoff, one of its original founders.  Born in Moscow and educated at the Military Academy of Catherine the Great, he had served as an officer in the Czar's army.

His death on February 9, 1965 prompted headlines in Manhattan newspapers.  The New York Times said of him, "To operagoers, devotees of the ballet and classical music, as well as to the stars and other performers, he was probably the best-known 'maître d'' in the city, and one they had come to look upon as a permanent fixture because of his long service."  

The same press coverage followed the death of Sidney Kaye at the age of 53 two years later.  His obituary mentioned "He wore impeccably tailored dark suits and black-framed glasses, and he had a warm smile and easy wit and humor.  He brought an atmosphere to the restaurant that combined European cafe and, as he said, 'the tremendous effort to maintain a shabby gentility.'"

The first week of September 1977 The Russian Tea Room was closed for renovations.  The New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton was nervous to visit the remodeled interiors; but was relieved at what she found.

Along with "improvements" like the carpeting that hushed the din which had previously bounced off the hardwood floors, she approved of the bar being "cut in half to make room for an extra, curved banquette in this cafe-entrance," and said the "marble, brass and polished mahogany give this area considerable style."  But she was equally pleased that much of the old Sidney Kaye decor survived.

"The same pine green walls, pink cloths, cranberry glass hurricane lamps, the mixmatch of paintings, the brilliantly polished brass samovars and the glittering Christmas tree tinsel and ornaments combine to create an atmosphere that is still uyutno--about as close to the Russian language comes to that particular homey charm the Germans describe as gemutlich."  

The renovations extended the restaurant into half of the second floor, where a cafe was installed.  Interestingly, the architectural details of the 1875 house still survived within the top floors--the marble Victorian mantels and woodwork, for instance.

As Christmas approached in 1981, Moira Hodgson, in an article on December 9 in The New York Times, commented on the famous diners who haunted the restaurant.  "Only last week a visitor might have seen Diana Ross, Diana Rigg, Anne Bancroft, Mel Brooks, Max von Sydow, Maureen Stapleton or Joseph Heller," she wrote.   Actress Candice Bergen, a regular customer, told the writer "If it weren't for the Russian Tea Room, I'd starve."

Other patrons were stars of the dance world, like George Balanchine, Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev; and Broadway and motion picture personalities.  Hodgson recounted "When Raquel Welch arrived after her first performance in 'Woman of the Year,' she asked, 'Now that I've taken over Bacall's part do I get her table?'  She did, the second booth on the left at the front."

At the time of the article Sidney Kaye's wife, now Mrs. James Stewart-Gordon, still ran the business which required a staff of 168.  There were 177 dishes on the menu, and a separate bakery on the premises provided items like cakes and piroshki.

That same year Faith Stewart-Gordon announced plans to add three floors and completely re-do the facade.  She hired architect Millard Bresin make the changes; while insisting that "the appearance of the restaurant will not be changed."

Architect Martin Bressin released this rendering in December 1981, showing the surviving Tea Room appearance .  

While those plans were never fulfilled; the facade was completely refaced, resulting in a stark plaster wall ornamented with a large bas relief of a dancing Russian bear.  The old ground floor storefront was not, as promised, preserved.

Scenes from at least two movies took place in The Russian Tea Room.  Dustin Hoffman, as Michael Dorsey, aka, Dorothy Michaels, was here in the 1982 Tootsie; and the following year scenes in The Russian Tea Room appeared in Unfaithfully Yours.  Sort of.  The restaurant had been minutely reproduced in Hollywood, 3,000 miles away.

The Main Dining Room as it appears today.  photo via
In 1999 the interiors were redone by Harman Jablin Architects.  Three years later the venerable restaurant closed; but happily reopened in 2006, reviving a New York City culinary icon.

From Sweat Shop to Sumptuous Living - 44 Lispenard Street

Not long after New York's labor force returned from fighting in the South a building boom engulfed the Tribeca area as vintage homes and shops were replaced by tall loft buildings.  Among the most prolific of the architects working in the area was Isaac F. Duckworth, who routinely made use of the increasingly popular cast iron facades.   In 1866 he was hired by Emanuel Ehlfelder to design a five story structure on the site of a one-story brick building at No. 44 Lispenard Street.

Ehlfelder had made his fortune as a merchant of "fancy goods and trimmings."  He intended to continue his business at his Broadway address, erecting the Lispenard loft as an investment.   Completed in 1867, Duckworth had turned to the relatively new French Second Empire style.  Flat Corinthian pilasters separated the openings of the storefront, while the identical upper floors--each defined by prominent cornices--featured flat-arched openings with curved corners and paneled piers.  The upmost, or terminal, cornice incorporated an arched pediment which announced "ERECTED 1866."

(Interestingly, Duckworth would recycle the foundry molds, creating identical structures at No. 315-317 Church Street, No. 54 Lispenard Street, and No. 38 Lispenard Street.)

Ehlfelder's new building filled with a variety of tenants.  Among the first was M. Bleha, listed as "manufacturer and importer of artificial flowers, ostrich and fancy feathers."   His listing in The Merchants' Directory in 1867 promised "Feathers cleaned and repaired equal to new."

Other initial tenants were dry goods dealer Emanuel Buchstein, silk merchants Despres, Hartley & Co., and cloak manufacturer S. Heineman & Co.  Like some other businessmen in the area, all three would have problems with burglars and thieves

The first to be burglarized was Buchstein.  Soon after he moved his operation into the building, on the night of July 8, 1867, thieves broke into his space making off with four pieces of cloth valued at $300--more than $5,000 today.  Detectives quickly nabbed Charles Mayflower and Henry Schleabach who were found guilty and sentenced to four years and six month in the State Prison exactly one month later.

At the time of the crime construction was nearing completion on No. 42 Lispenard, next door.  Five months later, at around midnight on December 11, Police Office Kerns noticed a "suspicious individual" within the construction site.  When Kerns moved in to investigate, he became the target of loose bricks.  Officer McInerny, responding to Kerns's whistle, fired two shots at the trespasser, who jumped down 17 feet and tried to escape, but was immediately captured.

Inside the uncompleted building the officers found bundles of silk and other goods from Despres, Hartley & Co., later valued at more than $25,500 in today's dollars.  Inside No. 44 other goods had been packed up, ready for removal.  The New York Herald identified the burglar as "a young Frenchman named Alphonse Deplechon and reported "It is supposed that Deplechon had some confederates in the burglary, but they managed to make their escape."

In the meantime, S. Heineman & Co. seems to have been doing well.  On July 9, 1868 it advertised "Wanted--A few first class operators on W. & W. [sewing] machines, accustomed to work on cloaks."  And a year later it was again increasing its staff, promising "good pay and constant employment to competent hands."

S. Heineman & Co. was the victim of crime in the fall of 1870; not by burglary but a slick 15-year old and an irresponsible mailman.  Augustus Mockers offered to deliver some of letter carrier Thomas W. Parson's mail, including an envelope addressed to S. Heineman & Co.   Instead, he opened the letters and removed anything of value, including the $16 draft (about $300 today) made out to Heineman & Co.  The teen discovered that stealing from the mails was a bad idea when it was not S. Heineman & Co. who landed him in court, but Special Agent James W. Taylor of the Post-Office Department.

At the same time another tenant was having problems.  Wm. Maas & Co. dealt in novelties, and in the winter of 1870 had been "constantly missing small packages of goods" little by little for months.  Simultaneously, two other novelty dealers in the immediate neighborhood were experiencing identical losses.  Detective Field concocted a trap to discover the culprit.  In February 1871 he hid in the store and waited.   The New York Times reported that he "detected the charwoman, named Catharine Lehan, in the act of stealing a small quantity of cheap jewelry."  She was arrested and in her rooms on Watts Street the detective found "a large quantity of miscellaneous goods which had been stolen from the stores in which she had been employed."

By 1875 linen dealer and accessory maker Emil S. Levi was in the building.  That year he interviewed potential workers in his office for his social club.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on February 18 read "Wanted--A caterer (German) for a first class club, composed of over 230 members.  Applicants call on S. Levi, 44 Lispendard st."

Levi's business was doing well enough that he needed a manager the following year.  In June 1876 he was looking for "Forewoman on Ladies' Collars and Cuffs."  He shared the building at the time with Isidor Rosenthal, woolens dealer, and Isidor Bloom, maker of ladies underwear.

In 1878 Bloom's business failed and the courts named Joseph Biernoff its assignee.  Within months he had formed Biernoff & Livingston with Lewis M. Livingston, at the same address.  A want ad on August 8, 1879 suggests that they had turned the old firm around.  "Wanted--Experienced hands on all kinds of ladies' underwear; study work."

At the same time S. & G. Lorsch was in the building.  The firm manufactured children's dresses and infants' robes.

Dry goods and apparel firms would continue to call No. 44 home over the decades.  In the 1885 Bischoff & Rodats, "embroidery material," moved its offices and salesroom here.  Founded in 1835, its mills and factory were in Hamburg, Germany.  New York's Great Industries called the firm in 1885 "a house of standard and in fact world-wide reputation."

As the 1890's neared, S. & M. Stern, cloak and jersey maker, was here, as were woolens dealer M. McCrossan and Berg Brothers Co., "fancy goods wholesalers."  (An overheated register caused a scare for M. McCrossan on February 2, 1889, when it sparked a small fire.)

Leo Moses had been a traveling salesman for S. & M. Stern for two years at the time.  His territory engulfed parts of New England and Canada.  On October 21, 1889 he boarded the steamer Cumberland headed, according to Fur Trade Review, to Eastport, Maine.  He never made it there.  When the vessel arrived at St. John, New Brunswick the following day the 55-year old was found dead in his stateroom.

Neither foul play nor suicide was suspected.  Before boarding the Cumberland Moses had sent a letter to the office with orders and confirming he had received his pay in the mail.  The esteem in which he was held by the firm was evidenced when Solomon Stern, senior partner, accompanied Moses's nephew to St. John's to recover the body.

Berg Brothers Co. hired 14-year old Joseph Silver as an errand boy in 1890.  His short-lived employment ended when he was fired in June that same year.  It was not the last the firm would hear of the enterprising lad, however.  As The New York Times worded it, "he had learned more than how to run errands."

Within a week or two Berg Brothers Co. began receiving invoices from the Clark Spool Thread Company.  On July 20 The Times reported "A watch was set and Silver came to grief when he presented an order apparently signed by Berg Brothers calling for $38 worth of goods.  It is thought that he obtained fully $400 worth of goods before his scheme was discovered."

Berg Brothers Co. and S. & M. Stern were joined in 1891 by Jacob Seligman, shirts, and I. Goodman, makers of "wrappers and tea gowns."  The latter's operation was substantial, employing 52 workers, only five of which were men.  Included in the work staff were 20 females under 21, two under 16, and one "child who cannot read or write English."  They worked 10 hours per day, according to the State Factory inspector that year.  Jacob Seligman's factory would remain in the building for more than a decade.

Another clothing firm here at the turn of the century was Levin & Zutalove, run by Meyer Levin, Jefferson M. Levy and Bernard Zatulove.  The trio provided what was apparently a most unpleasant working environment.  In 1902 all three were individually cited for "failure to clean, disinfect and ventilate water closets."

Surprisingly, Levy was a well-respected politician and former Congressman.  He soon left Levin & Zutalove and partnered with former Mayer Smith Ely to form the National Novelty Clothing Co.  The shirt-making firm also took space in No. 44 Lispenard.  A change of name did not improve Levy's practices, however.  In 1908 he was cited for "failure to provide water closet for female employees" and for "failure to ventilate and screen and keep in sanitary condition water closets at premises 44 Lispenard st."

Levy was persuaded to run for Congress again that year.  The disgusting facilities in his factory became an issue.  On August 9, 1908 The New York Times reported "In reference to the report that he had been arrested for violating the factory laws at 44 Lispenard Street, the headquarters of the National Novelty Clothing Company, ex-Congressman Jefferson M. Levy said yesterday that he was not the President of the company, but simply a part owner of the property."  He told reporters that "alterations requested by the factory inspectors were being carried out."

Presumably with improved restroom facilities, the National Novelty Clothing Co. was still in the building in 1910 when fire broke out on May 16.  Berg Brothers Co. suffered $15,000 in damages and National Novelty Clothing and Epstein & Brother lost a combined $10,000.  The total in damages would equal about about $665,000 today.

Berg Brothers would stay at No. 44 at least through 1914.  Following the fire it was joined by S. Hollander & Son, makers of children's wear and dealers in bridal accessories.

The Millinery Trade Review, July 1911 (copyright expired)
About the time that Berg Brothers left the building, a far different type tenant moved in.  Nicholas E. Marcoglou was a tobacco dealer and manufacture of Arabesca cigarettes.  His packaging drew the legal ire of Junius Parker, another manufacturer, in 1915.  Parker's letter to Marcoglou, dated September 1, complained in part of the "noticable, and, as we thought, unquestionable resemblance of these packages to our Pall Mall cigarettes."  Despite the conflict, which ended up in court, Marcoglou remained in business at No. 44 at least through 1921.

In 1920 two firms leased the building, the Efanef Fur Dyeing Co. and the Columbia Doll & Toy Co.  Only a few months later Columbia Doll & Toy Co. purchased the property.  The toy manufacturer leased space over the coming years to a mixed bag of tenants including the Signode System, Inc., which made strapping for textile bales and boxes; and the Grand Union Equipment Company, dealers in soft goods.

Like so many of its predecessors in the building, Grand Union Equipment Company was the victim of extensive theft beginning in 1930.  Over a period of years inventory mysteriously disappeared.  Then, in October 1934, the firm's president, Samuel Sackett, dropped into Frank J. Wolfram's engraving shop next door at No. 46.  He happened to notice towels bearing his label there.   He notified police who obtained a search warrant for Wolfram's furnished room at No. 135 East 104th Street.   Not only did they check Wolfram's, but all 95 of the rooms in that building.  After a five-hour search, they determined that "virtually all of the furnishings in the house" had been stolen from the Grand Union Equipment Company," according to The New York Times on October 30.  Wolfram had hired burglars to make off with an estimated $20,000 in goods over the years.  The value of the haul would equal about $366,000 today.

Even as the garment district moved north of 34th Street there was at least one hanger-on on No. 44.  Lichiman & Son Mfg. Co., makers of children's wear, was here in the early 1940's.  When the building was sold to the newly-formed 44 Lispenard Street Corporation in October 1942, The New York Times reported that the building would "be altered by the buyers for their general merchandise business."

Throughout the decades of varying use, the cast iron facade remained essentially unaltered.  In the mid-1990's two art galleries--Thicket and Kurt Mundahl--moved in, signifying the arrival of the Tribeca rebirth.  A renovation completed in 2018 resulted in one loft residence on the second floor and a sprawling triplex above.  That 3,000 square foot residence was offered for sale in 2018 for $7.05 million.

photographs by the author