Wednesday, March 9, 2011

From Wharton to Starbucks -- No. 14 West 23rd Street

Hiding behind the cast iron facade at No. 14 West 23rd Street is Edith Wharton's birthplace
In 1857 comfortable brownstone residences were being built along West 23rd Street. During that year the three-story home at No. 14 was erected on the wide thoroughfare, just off the corner of fashionable Fifth Avenue. Here, five years later, Edith Newbold Jones was born and it was here she would grow up, absorbing the rituals and traditions of upper-class New Yorkers that would fill her writings later in life – often to the chagrin of her mother – as Edith Wharton.
Just three years after Edith’s birth the Fifth Avenue Opera House was built in 1865 a block away at 24th Street. It signaled the transition of the 23rd Street area from one of staid upper-class homes to the entertainment district. In 1869 Booth’s Theatre, the palatial white marble Shakespearean theatre at the corner of 6th Avenue, would be constructed and the same year Bryant’s Opera house opened across the street.

As 23rd Street became increasingly commercial, No. 14 was renovated by architect Henry J. Hardenberg to a retail space in 1882.
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When, in 1892, James McCutcheon & Co. took over the building, George H. Billings was commissioned to modernize it. At some point during the two renovations two additional floors were added.  Billings replaced the remaining brownstone fa├žade with one of straight-forward cast iron that pretended to be nothing more than a prominent store. The use of cast iron allowed large windows that permitted sunlight to illuminate the selling floors.

McCutcheon had been selling fine linens to the carriage trade since 1864, making successive moves uptown as the shopping districts changed. The 23rd Street salesrooms were filled with imported handkerchiefs, table linens, towels and embroideries. In 1893 The New York Times wrote of the store, “Besides the general line of table cloths and napkins are dainty lunch sets of solid linen, white and in colors, pinks, yellows, and blues; also of silk and linen, white and in colors. Here, too, are tea cloths in variety, with napkins to match.”

By the turn of the century James McCutcheon had branched out into ladies’ undergarments, devoting a full floor to imported corsets and lingerie and employing a staff of custom fitters.

In June 1906 the company announced its intended fifth move – this time to Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets – as other neighboring retail stores, too, left 23rd Street.

No. 14 West 23rd Street sat empty for a considerable period until wholesale firms began settling in what had once been a bustling shopping area. Finally in February 1914 the wholesale china and glassware firm of Lazarus & Rosenfeld took over the lease. Two other wholesale china firms, L. D. Bloch and S. Herbert& Co., established themselves in the area, and a lace firm leased the building directly across the street at the same time.



Down the street, Numbers 18 and 20 still reveal portions of the original brownstone houses that lined West 23rd Street when Edith Wharton lived in No. 14 (white building second from left).
Today a Starbucks store claims the street level and the upper floors are freshly painted a gleaming white.  At the second story enticing hints of the 19th Century windows survive and, underneath it all hides Mrs. Jones' brownstone mansion where her daughter, Edith Wharton was born.

-- many thanks to the intrepid researcher Laura Farrell for clearing up confusion as to street addresses!

non-credited photos taken by the author

13 comments:

  1. I believe that the photo you show here is of 12 West 23rd St, not #14. I would very much like to see a photograph of these row houses before they were altered. The history you present here is interesting.

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  2. I found this photo in the NY Times. The house certainly looks like the one you have photographed here, but if you look up the address for Starbucks it is #14, and Qdoba is at #12. I wonder if the addresses changed?
    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/12/realestate/12SCAP.html

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  3. I'll have to walk by and check out the address; however since Hardenbergh's Western Union Building sits where #12 would have been, I can only assume the numbers shifted. Here is a vintage shot of No. 14:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/12/realestate/12SCAP.html?pagewanted=2

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  4. Tom, #12 has an interesting history as well. (Again, the #s may have shifted, and I would love to find out exactly which house is which.) In July of 1870, Benjamin Nathan (VP of the NY Stock Exchange and uncle to Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, named for Benjamin and born only that May) was brutally murdered on the second floor of that house. The murder was never solved. At that time, the Whartons were in Germany, so were not at home next door. As an aside, it is during this summer that Edith Wharton, age 9, was stricken with typhoid fever while in Germany. The Whartons returned to the house on 23rd Street a year later, according to a biography of Edith Wharton.

    Please do post if you are able to find anything out by passing by the houses.

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    1. Laura ... just in case you didn't see the Benjamin Nathan post .. here it is (sorry for the delay in responding!)

      http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2011/10/no-12-west-23rd-street-scene-of-crime.html

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  5. Tom, I just found this, the original of the photo that the Times used from Picture History:
    http://www.picturehistory.com/product/id/1754
    They say that the house shown is #12. I think #12 is the Nathan mansion and the house seen to the right is the Wharton home at #14. I think the Times made a mistake. Also, I had read somewhere that the Wharton home is now unrecognizable, which is true about #14, but not about #12.

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  6. According to this blog, the Western Union building on the corner (address: 186 Fifth Ave) went up in 1883 (year is designated by W.U. 1883 at the peak of the building). The photo the Times used (Picture History) was taken about 1880) and you can see that the Western Union building is not there. I wonder what was torn down to make way for Western Union. Another mansion? And might the coming of Western Union have begun the change in the neighborhood from residential to commercial?
    http://www.nysonglines.com/23st.htm
    Edith Wharton's mother left West 23rd Street at some point (it must have been before the photo was taken in about 1880) and moved to 28 West 25th Street. Edith was living on 25th St with her mother in 1885, the year she was married.

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    1. Amazing, i work across the park (mad sq park) on 25th street, had no idea i was so close to Wharton country.

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    2. You should glance at the buildings on the south side of 23rd just east of 5th since you're so nearby ... you can still see some of the mansions poking above the "modern" commercial fronts. Amazing.

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  7. Hi Tom,

    I wonder if you could tell the provenance of my area/building - Hamilton heights on Broadway between 151st & 152nd st.

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    1. Anita -- I'll do some poking around for you. Thanks!

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  8. I just found an old James McCutcheon & Co. catalogue? Does anyone know a collector who might want it. It had to be printed after 1906 because the address shows 34th Stree and 5th Avenue.

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  9. Do you know if James McCutcheon still exist, if they have ceased trading do you know in which year?

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