Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hunt & Hunt's 1906 Alvin Building -- 373 Fifth Avenue




Times were much different when Charles H. Russell lived in his impressive brownstone mansion at the corner of 5th Avenue and West 35th Street.  The avenue was the most fashionable address in the city and just two blocks south on the opposite side of the street were the mansions of brothers William B. Astor and John Jacob Astor III.

But times change.

The Astors razed their homes.  John Jacob Astor demolished his mansion and, to spite his sister-in-law Caroline Astor, built the hulking Waldorf Hotel on the site.  Caroline followed suit, erecting the Astoria Hotel and moving further up the avenue.  It was the beginning of the end of the neighborhood.

By 1902 Russell’s home at 373 Fifth Avenue was being converted to commercial use by Fishel, Adler & Schwartz.    The high-end art dealers renovated the old mansion beyond recognition.  “The entire building has been remade and a notable facade takes the place of the old brownstone front,” reported The New York Times on July 3, 1903. 

Some of the interior walls were faced with marble and skylights were installed in a few of the galleries “which flood the pictures with daylight in the murkiest weather and bring out the most delicate shades of the oil paintings,” the reporter noticed.

The expensive renovations would be short-lived, however.    As wealthy New Yorkers abandoned their high-stooped mansions and fled north, this stretch of Fifth Avenue filled with the marble and limestone palaces of the best-known merchants.  Tiffany & Company’s white marble palazzo designed by Stanford White was completed in 1905 as was the monumental B. Altman Department Store that took up the entire block from 34th to 35th Street.

The little art gallery building was doomed.   Architects Hunt & Hunt, the sons of esteemed architect Richard M. Hunt, designed an eight-story showroom and office building for Joseph Fahys & Co.  The main leasee would be the silversmiths Alvin Manufacturing Company.

As the building neared completion in 1906, it was the last straw for French jeweler, Boucheron.  The company had leased the building at 590 Fifth Avenue with intentions of opening a New York store.  But now the jeweler decided the avenue was becoming too crowded.

“The recent tendency of jewelers to move to Fifth Avenue, it is said, has convinced the French merchants that the field is well filled,” said The Times, specifically pointing out the Alvin Building.

Boucheron remained in Paris and Alvin Manufacturing had one less business rival.

The completed building was thoroughly modern.   The brick fa├žade boasted little ornamentation other than terra cotta panels, a decorated cornice below the eighth floor, and restrained, dripping ornaments and wreaths inspired by the Beaux Arts movement.   The building’s architectural reserve marked a stark shift from the over-ornamented styles of the previous quarter century.


The Alvin Manufacturing showroom featured mahogany cases and heavy electrical lighting fixtures -- photo the New York Architect 1906 (copyright expired)
Alvin Manufacturing installed its showrooms in the long retail space.  Polished wooden cases glistened with silver flatware, vases and trinkets under the electric illumination of massive hanging fixtures.

In the offices above, a variety of tenants moved in, including at least two dentists, Dr. William C. Fischer and Dr. Alison Harlan.   The building had been opened only a year when Dr. Harlan did work on the teeth of the famed opera singer, Madame Calve.  The doctor would regret it.

Madame Calve had been referred by another patient, Joan Schon, who made a living as a masseuse.   When Ms. Schon mentioned that she knew the diva, the dentist offered to pay her one-third of his fee if she would arrange an introduction.  After Dr. Harlan billed the opera star $900 for work done, he forgot about the verbal agreement with Ms. Schon.

The upset masseuse sued the doctor for $333 and won the case after a publicized battle.

Awnings shade window shoppers at Alvin Manufacturing's store.  Some brownstone houses still remain on Fifth Avenue while commercial buildings, like the white Tiffany & Co. building in the background, have replaced others. - NYPL Collection
Along with the dentists a long-standing tenant was A. I. Reed Mfg. Company, makers of leather stationery products, hand-tooled purses and bags, and other leather items.   One of the first to sign a lease, A. I. Reed would be here for decades.

Only five years after building its New York headquarters, Alvin Manufacturing moved on.   Alvin sublet the retail space to Walpole Brothers  in 1911 for 15 years at a total rent of $350,000.  The new tenant was a London-based manufacturer of high-quality Irish linens.

As World War I raged in Europe, the Alvin Building saw various apparel companies move into the upper offices.  Goodwin Corsets were here, making not only women’s foundations but post-surgical abdominal support belts; Oregon City Mfg. Company produced woolen blankets, Navajo Indian robes, steamer and automobile robes, “mackinaw clothing, flannel and cassimere overshirts, overcoats, bath and lounging robes;” and Laura E. Post ran her “artistic knit goods” business from here.

The building was also the headquarters of the League of Women’s Voters in the last years before 19th Amendment to the Constitution.   As the amendment became fairly assured, the league offered “all kinds of first aid to women voters in a strictly nonpartisan fashion, characteristic of the organization.”  In October 1919 this included free access to records of candidates running for office and answering questions about feminist issues.

A full year before the right to vote was guaranteed, the league was holding a “Registration Tea” at the Hartley House and a few months later, Mrs. Charles Tiffany was the main speaker at a political discussion in the headquarters; her topic being “Do Representatives Represent?”

She didn’t think so.

The Fifth Avenue neighborhood continued to change.  The massive Waldorf-Astoria hotel was razed in 1929 to make way for the iconic Empire State Building.  Walpole Brothers linens was replaced by jewelers Bowman, Foster, Wurzburger, Inc.; which was then replaced by Jackman’s Furriers.  Then in 1943 the retail space became home to Sidney Meyer home furnishings, draperies and upholstery fabrics.

The store was home in the 1950s and 60s to Pfaff Sewing Machine Company, a West German firm.  In August 1954, while other stores like Lord & Taylor up the avenue were displaying classic contemporary fashions – wide-skirted dresses with fitted bodices and up to four petticoats—Pfaff opted to display Christian Dior’s latest French line which the press was calling the “flat look.”

Dior had come up with a “controlled-bosom” design that removed the feminine curves so popular at the time.  A Times reporter called one dress “an unbelted tube of taffeta.”  Passers-by were as unimpressed.

“It looks like a hunk of clothesline.  Dior will never get away with it,” remarked one man.  And when a 10-year old girl asked her mother “What are those things, Mama?” the newspaper reported that her mother’s response was “They’re supposed to be Paris fashions,” and hustled the little girl away.

By the 1980s, when the National Catalog Network and the American Committee on Italian Migration had their offices here, the street level of No. 373 Fifth Avenue had been barbarously destroyed.  Any trace of Hunt & Hunt’s first floor retail space was obliterated.


New owners converted the building, in 2007, into a boutique hotel called Hotel 373 Fifth Avenue.  The ground floor where Edwardian women in plumed hats once shopped for silver tableware is now a Starbucks coffee shop.   But on the whole Hunt & Hunt’s modern office and store building survives with little change.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment