Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Lush 1893 Decker Building -- 33 Union Square West


Potted palms wave below the fanciful minaret in this 1893 print. -- author's collection
When the German-born John Jacob Decker left his job with the Bradbury piano manufacturing company in 1856, he and his brother invested their life savings of $4000 to set up a new firm. Before long Decker Brothers’ square pianos were ranked among the best in the industry.

By the end of the Civil War the firm’s business was such that they required a building of their own and in 1869 commissioned Leopold Eidlitz to design an elaborate building on Union Square. Here the fashionable residential area was just beginning to give was to commercial interests.

Sitting among the brownstone residences, Eidlitz’s four-story building stood out in stark contrast. Its multi-colored façade with Venetian arcades and fanciful Victorian Gothic detailing was, at the very least, nonconformist.

Pianos at the time were highly popular parlor fixtures. Well-bred young girls were necessarily schooled in piano and after-dinner recitals were de rigueur. Every household that could afford a piano had one; and the absence of the instrument mutely spoke of the family’s financial condition.

Years later in 1919 Music Trades magazine would remember that Decker Brothers “was always included in the first five or six manufacturers of pianos of distinction.” That reputation and success necessitated a larger building and in 1892 the brothers hired the architectural firm of Alfred Zucker to design a new headquarters.

Colorful and controversial John Edelmann was given the project. Edelmann was an outspoken anarchist whose radical viewpoint resulted in his expulsion from the Socialist Labor Party. He was not only a friend, but a mentor to the fledgling Chicago architect Louis Sullivan.

Working with a narrow plot – the 30 foot width of the original brownstone house that the Deckers razed for their first building – Edelmann’s design outdid the Venetian fantasy he replaced. Completed in 1883, it was an amalgamation of Venetian and Moorish elements with balconies, exuberant terra cotta panels of Islamic motifs, cast iron filigree and, topping it all, a domed minaret.


A year after its completion J. S. Johnson captured the Decker Building, clearly dwarfing its neighbors, on film. -- nypl collection
Decker Brothers occupied the first two floors with the great expanse of glass for their “piano rooms.” Alfred Zucker moved his offices into the top level and the intermediate floors were leased out. The building rose 11 floors, making it the tallest building on the Square.

Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly was quick to review the new building. “The most beautiful of recent high and narrow structures, and representing in its latest development terra-cotta walls and skeleton construction, is the Decker Building, on Union Square,” it said in its July 1893 issue. “It has the advantage of facing a broad public square, which few of the high structures of Perpendicular New York have, and excites unusual attention because of its appearance and its height.”

Pitman’s Journal of Commercial Education, whose offices moved into the building shortly after its completion, chimed in. “The Decker Building is furnished throughout with every modern invention for saving time and trouble.” The article described the latest and best elevators, including a freight elevator “for raising supplies of every description” and a “mail shoot” that made possible dispatching letters without leaving one’s office. The essence of modernity, “the building is lighted by the electric light.”

Union Square was the epicenter, by now, of fashionable commerce. The year the Decker Building opened, a special correspondent from The Daily Chronicle compared it to London’s Trafalgar Square saying “Imagine a large square with buildings of all shape and sizes, from a squat three-story old-fashioned house to a slender pile which towers up thirteen stories into mid air – offices, shops, hotels, restaurants, theatre, all round; the whole having a much more continental than English aspect reminding you now of Brussels and then of Munich, with elements distinctively American.”

George W. Shiebler & Co., silversmiths took over the third floor, which The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review called “one of the most perfect business lofts to be found in that section of the metropolis.” The sales room was fitted out in mahogany, in the rear were offices and counting rooms and a “hotel room” for visiting wholesale buyers. Behind these were the packing and polishing departments.

Not everyone was thrilled with Edelmann’s ebullient façade. In the April 1894 issue of The Engineering Magazine Barr Ferree called it “a building afflicted with the smallpox.” The critic felt that eleven stories were quite enough, “a fact which must be obvious to everyone save the maker of the design, who has stretched it out at the top by means of an absurd tower that is rendered more absurd by the hipped roof pinned on on either side of it.”

Ferree went on to insult Edelmann personally, saying his design “succeeds only in telling how little the man who made it knew what he was about. This is not unimportant in itself, but it is a pity the information had to be given in so permanent and visible a form”  He summed up his review saying “The raising of the other buildings will not improve it, though it will lessen its aggressiveness. Fortunately the cable cars go pretty fast here.”

Ferree’s scathing opinion of the Decker Building was in the minority and Edelmann’s elaborate façade was highly praised; even the often-irascible Real Estate Record and Guide called it “highly artistic.”

Other early tenants included The Globe Review, a quarterly review of “literature, society, religion, art and politics” – in short everything. In 1894 the National School of Electricity established its headquarters here and in 1897 theatrical manager Joseph Arthur had his offices in the building.

In 1902 the advertising agency George Ethridge Co. started business in one room on the 7th Floor. Business boomed and two years later the firm took nearly the entire 9th Floor. The Women’s Municipal League set up its headquarters here in 1903 and architect Arnold W. Brunner moved in a year later.

A threat came to the Decker Building in 1902 when ground was broken for the foundation for architect Bruce Price’s Bank of the Metropolis. The deep foundation necessary to uphold the new bank building meant that the Decker foundations would be undermined. If remedial actions were not taken, the Decker Building could face collapse.

photo by Alice Lum
The entire south wall – weighting 76,000 pounds per foot – was lifted 1/8 of an inch and placed on double tiers of massive steel beams. The shallow foundations were then blasted out and deeper ones were build on the bedrock. It was, at the turn of the century, an engineering marvel.

Renowned artist Isabel Bishop had her studio on the 4th Floor beginning in 1934, remaining here until 1978 painting and drawing inspiration from the much-changed Union Square below.

More notable than Bishop, however, was Andy Warhol who moved his studio, called the “Factory,” to the 6th Floor in 1968. It was here on June 3 that same year that playwright Valerie Solanas waited patiently for Warhol and art critic Mario Amaya to return. When they did, Solanas shot them both, hitting Warhol three times.

Solanas, who felt Warhol was attempting to wrest a screenplay from her, surrendered to police shortly after. She was sentenced to three years in prison. Warhol remained in the Decker Building until 1974.

By the time the Windsor Construction company purchased the building through foreclosure in 1994 it had been sorely abused. The elaborate storefront had been obliterated, the fanciful minaret had long ago disappeared and the balconies had been stripped away.

Joseph Pell Lombardi's restoration replaced the missing balconies -- photo by Alice Lum
While they planned a conversion to residential use, the firm commissioned well-known preservation architect Joseph Pell Lombardi to restore the façade. Lombardi replicated the first floor where Decker’s pianos were once proudly on display and reconstructed the missing balconies and other details.

photo by Alice Lum
Although it was part of restoration discussions, the minaret did not make the final plans.

The only Edelmannn structure to survive in New York City, the Decker Building now has commercial space on the first floor and 18 residential units above. It stands as a remarkable example of fanciful Victorian architecture, a true gem on Union Square.

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