Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The 1913 Lewisohn Building -- 119 West 40th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1893 the Mendelssohn Glee Club, a group of all-male singers, moved into their grand new concert venue, Mendelssohn Hall at 119 West 40th Street. A gift of Alfred Corning Clark, the building was designed by Robert Henderson Robertson who would become known for his personalization of H. H. Richardson’s Romanesque Revival style.

Mendelssohn Hall drew crowds of up to 1,000 in the Empire-style auditorium and the upper floors were rented for social functions. The hall would not stand for long, however.

In 1911 Philip Lewisohn purchased the building for $310,000, announcing his intentions to build a 12-story loft “similar to the new Tilden Building” on the site. Before the year was up, his plans would have greatly expanded.

On April 3, 1912 The New York Times reported that Lewisohn had received a building loan of $1.1 million from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to erect a skyscraper on the site of the Hall. By now the 12-story loft had changed to a 22-story structure that would stretch through the block from West 40th Street to 41st Street.

Lewisohn commissioned architects Manicke & Franke to design his new building as the area behind Bryant Park was rapidly transforming into an important manufacturing and commercial district.

On January 5, 1913 the New York American Annual Real Estate Review described the new Philip Lewisohn Building as “The largest commercial building north of 23d Street, being a whole block in depth.” The $1.2 million structure covered 28,000 square feet and dwarfed most of the surrounding buildings.

The American Annual Real Estate Review published its rendition of the new building on January 5, 1913 (copyright expired)
The Review said “Exceptional light from four sides; equipped with four high-speed elevators at each entrance. The only building in which wood is eliminated in every part.” While the building had just been opened that January, already tenants were signing leases; among them publisher F. W. Dodge Company and the United States Printing and Lithograph Company of Ohio. The United States Printing and Lithograph Company was, at the time, the largest Western printing house and leased ten full floors of the building.

photo by Alice Lum
By now architects and engineers had a relatively firm grasp on the problems related to the design and building of skyscrapers. Manicke & Franke accentuated the soaring verticality of the building by extending slim piers up the face. While the architects refrained from over-embellishing the bulk of the structure, they added Gothic touches to the upper-most and lower floors; most striking being the carved figures along the fourth story cornice.

The sculptures, dressed in medieval garb, all sit with their ankles crossed under Gothic terra cotta canopies. Each is a detailed allegory – Exploration holds a globe and compass, Industry has a large gear and Learning reads an open book, for instance.

Among the allegorical statues sits Thrift, holding a beehive, symbol of savings -- photo by Alice Lum
Despite the impressive sculptures, the June 1913 issue of The American Architect was tepid in its assessment of the architecture at best. Comparing it to the 23-story 110-112 West 40th Street Building completed the same year across the street, the journal said the “exterior masonry work…here is buff and, consequently, less striking and quiet in its decorative handling although not unattractive.”

Two years after completion, the Lewisohn Building dominates its neighbors -- The Edison Monthly, June 1915 (copyright expired)
The Edison Monthly was more positive in its assessment. The magazine praised the convenience of “two sets of lavatories on every floor,” the eight high-powered Otis traction elevators and the safety feature of every window being “supplied with wired glass.”


"A typical office" in the Lewisohn Building in 1915 -- The Edison Monthly (copyright expired)
The piano and organ manufacturer Rudolph Wurlitzer Company of Cincinnati signed a long-term $250,000 least on the ground floor store and basement area upon the building’s opening.   Upstairs, on the 20th and 21st floors, Manning, Maxwell & Moore moved in, taking 28,000 square feet of office space. The firm sold building machinery such as “electric traveling cranes, machine tools,” and supplies used by contractors, railway machinists and engineers.

Wurlitzer’s business was so successful here that a year later on July 12, 1914, Lewisohn announced he would erect a five-story annex at 120-122 West 41st Street for the tenant. The organ company signed a 21-year, $850,000 lease on the additional 20,000 square feet before ground was broken.

In 1915 the United Cigar Manufacturers Company took a full floor in the building, spending $150,000 per year in rent. It would be the first of several tobacco related firms to lease here. In 1929 the General Cigar Company was here and the P. Lorillard Tobacco Company would arrive later.

A repeating pattern of shields and open lilies separates the windows of the main shaft -- photo by Alice Lum
The building continued to attract printers and publishers, among them the International Magazine Company, owned by William Randolph Hearst. The publication was taken to court by the Ku Klux Klan in July 1923 when it published an unflattering article based on correspondence and other documents the Klan claimed were illegally obtained.

The Klan’s defense “did not deny the authenticity of the articles,” reported The Times. It merely wanted compensation for the wrongful taking of them.

By 1938 the Lewisohn Building (right), once the largest edifice north of 23rd Street, was lost in the maze of skyscrapers -- photo NYPL Collection
Throughout the 20th century a variety of industries were represented on the tenant list: Z. Horiskoshi & Co., importers and exporters were on the 10th floor; Felix Lilienthal & Co., Inc., buying office, were on the 13th; and the advertising agency Rieser Company, Inc.; G. Hirst Sons, importers of dress materials, and renowned music publishers J. Fischer & Brothers were here for years.

By the 1960s the Garment District had become firmly rooted in the area. Textile companies like The Kendall Company, apparel buying offices such as Certified Buying Service, and garment manufacturers now filled the Lewisohn Building.

On August 19, 1962 The New York Times laid out the boundaries of the Garment District as “The bustling, pedestrian-and-traffic-clogged rectangle of blocks between Thirty-fourth and Forty-second Streets, from Sixth to Ninth Avenue.” The article added, “And it appears that the industry will stay where it is for some years to come.” That same year, as with several other buildings in the area, the Lewisohn Building updated its lobby and entrance.

photo by Alice Lum
Today the blocks surrounding the Lewisohn Building remain bustling and clogged with pedestrians and traffic. Regrettably, all that bustling prevents many passersby from looking up to notice the beautiful allegorical figures staring down at them from under their Gothic canopies.

Many thanks to reader Arlene Green for requesting this post.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for posting this. I just found this bldg 6/9/12 I stopped and had to write the address down to google it. Wonderful statues in an unexpected place.

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