Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The 1906 Dreicer & Co. Bldg.-- No. 560 5th Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
Two years after Jacob Dreicer arrived from Russia in 1866 he established his jewelry business at No. 1128 Broadway.    Dreicer had brought with him an appreciation for brightly-colored gems like emeralds, rubies and sapphires.  But American women of the mid 19th century were interested mainly in pearls.  The New York Times decades later would remember that “colored stones were valued by many persons as little more than colored glass.”

Although Dreicer competed with established high-end jewelers like Black, Ball & Co. and Tiffany & Co., he made the name Dreicer & Co. synonymous with exquisite jewelry.   In 1885 he took his son, Michael, as a partner and changed the firm’s name to J. Dreicer & Son.  That same year the father and son made a daring move.

While the other jewelry retailers were doing business on Broadway, the Dreicers purchased the Wall mansion at No. 292 5th Avenue.  The house was, as The Times remarked “in the heart of the fashionable residential section of New York City.”   It was converted “into one of the finest business buildings on the avenue,” said the newspaper.

From its 5th Avenue location Dreicer & Co. continued to nudge popular taste towards colored stones.   “The father and the son are credited with having done much to overcome these prejudices and to have aided in creating in this country a taste for beautiful gems and exquisite art in jewelry,” said The Times.

Yet the jewelers did not ignore pearls, either.  One 30-inch string of perfectly matched pearls sold for $1.5 million—a record price.  Single pearls sold for as high as $130,000 and the Duke of York Diamond was sold by the Dreicers for $125,000.

In 1906 J. Dreicer & Son moved north again as exclusive businesses moved up 5th Avenue.   The architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore was commissioned to design a building that, in terms of refinement and taste, would meld into the neighborhood.    Completed later that year, the structure succeeded in doing just that.

Only months after this shot was taken in 1926, the jewelry firm would be gone -- NYPL Collection
The architects produced a reserved and elegant French Renaissance structure.  Men’s Wear reported “Exteriorly the building has Porte Or marble columns, copying Versailles, with gilt capitals, and above them four stories of Indiana limestone, all in the model of Louis XV.  The work rooms of Dreicer & Co., with their Parisian workmen, are there.”

Graceful carvings and refined, grouped pilasters reflected the tone of the jewelry firm -- photo by Alice Lum
The Architectural Record was even more impressed.  “The greatest monument to [Warren & Wetmore’s] skill in handling the elusive niceties of the style of the French Renaissance may always be the Dreicer building, at 560 Fifth Avenue, in New York City, which for refinement of feeling and scholarly adaptation ranks among the best examples of ‘transplanted architecture’ in this country.”

The gold-veined black marble with gilded capitals prompted a journalist to compare the structure with Versailles -- photo by Alice Lum
Nevertheless it would be the interiors that caught attention.   The well-heeled patrons who passed through the doors of Dreicer & Co. would find themselves in surroundings not unlike the parlors and drawings rooms of the wealthiest 5th Avenue residents.  Nelson of Paris who was simultaneously constructing the interiors of the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion, was given the job of constructing the showrooms.  French paneling and mirrors, gilded molding and imported hardware were installed.  Then decorating firm P. W. French & Co. brought in the period furniture to complete the setting. 

“An important feature in securing the total effect, however, was the elimination of counters and show-cases of the uninteresting and monotonous kind usually found in stores,” commented Rawson W. Haddon of The Professional Architectural Monthly.  “In place of them, Louis XV commodes and tables—the latter with glass cases on them—are used to hold the objects on display.  The chairs and other furnishings of the room are also well ‘in period.’”

The main showroom featured walnut paneling and crystal chandeliers -- Architecture, 1917 (copyright expired)
“There are costly cartonniers of rosewood, chairs and divans of natural French walnut, hand carved, fitted with silks of original design, chandeliers of fire gilt bronze, hung with great crystals, and walls paneled in hand-carved walnut, with capitals and ornamentation of gilt.  Mirrors make for the eye an apparently endless gallery,” reported Men’s Wear.

The Salon resembled a 5th Avenue drawing room -- Architecture, 1917 (copyright expired)
By 1909 the blocks around Dreicer & Co. were filled with the most exclusive jewelers and other retailers in the country.  On November 1 of that year the Paris jeweler Pierre Cartier opened his  American branch on the 4th Floor of No. 712 5th Avenue.   Cartier historian Hans Nadelhoffer remarked nearly a century later that Dreicer was the “most feared” of Cartier’s competitors.   Before the French jeweler could import his latest designs, Dreicer had already copied them and had its versions on display.

Rare Asian porcelains were displayed in the Porcelain Room -- Architecture, 1917 (copyright expired)
The Porcelain Room was home to M. Parish-Watson & Co.  The elite retailer advertised “Chinese porcelains, early Chinese pottery, sculptures, old Chinese Porcelain, rare Persian faience.”   The symbiotic arrangement of the two firms was evident in a Parish-Watson ad that mentioned “Entrance through Dreicer & Co. or by way of 46th Street.”

The string of high-end stores along 5th Avenue in the days before surveillance cameras and electronic doors were tempting for thugs and thieves.  On December 16, 1920 robbers not only stole $50,000 in gems and jewelry from the Andrews & Winsten Jewelers just down the block from Dreicer & Co., but murdered Edwin W. Andrews as well.   The Sterling Silverware Manufacturers Association condemned what it considered police inaction, and called this brutal act the last of what it deemed a “crime wave.”

In the wake of the robbery-murder, four reporters from the New York Tribune walked into Dreicer & Co. to interview the manager about the security precautions the store was taking.

“When they entered they observed a group of muscular youths ranged in a careless semi-circle in the rear.  The conversation between the manager and the reporters, who were grouped about him, had hardly got under way when the semi-circle began to narrow and creep closer.  No one could have moved without being covered,” said The Tribune on December 18.

“’Try and start something; please try and start something,’ was the unspoken entreaty written in the eyes of each of the athletic chaps; and their arms hung free, suggesting they would be quick on the draw if occasion arose.”

The human security system apparently worked for Dreicer & Co. was not targeted during the stream of robberies.

Having the cream of New York society as its patrons could be a liability as well as a boon.   Millionaires sometimes forgot to pay their bills.  In January 1921 Dreicer & Co. took the estate of Harry S. Harkness to court over an outstanding bill of $44,307.   Later that year, on December 1 The Baroness d’Erlanger walked into the showroom and left with $8,500 worth of jewelry.  The Baroness, who had formerly been Mrs. Peter Cooper Hewitt, returned to Paris and “neglected to pay for it.”

But 1921 was a dark year for the jewelry firm for reasons far more devastating than unpaid bills.  On July 26 Michael Dreicer died at his country estate in Deepdale, Long Island.   The 53-year old had not only been a major force in the jewelry business, but had been prominent in real estate.  Upon his death The Jewelers’ Circular noted that he “was a potent factor in the development of the fine buildings in the new shopping district of New York and…he set an example for commercially attractive buildings that was followed to the great advantage of the city at large.”

Nineteen days later Jacob Dreiser was dead as well.   The New York Times reported on August 15 that “Relatives said last night that he had been unable to bear the shock of losing his son, Michael, the head of the firm.”

The business went on for a few years, but without Jacob and Michael, the spirit of J. Dreicer & Son was gone.  It was their combined expertise that formed the essence of the firm.  “Both father and sons were noted for their expert knowledge of jewels and for their care in arranging them so as best to present their beauty,” said The Times.

On November 8, 1926 the newspaper reported that Dreicer & Co, one of the most respected and exclusive of Manhattan jewelry stores would close.   Theodore Hettzler, President of the Fifth Avenue Bank, trustees and executors of the estates of both Jacob and Michael, said “This decision was reached for sentimental reasons and out of respect to the memory of the founder of the business, Jacob Dreicer, and his son, Michael.”

The Times went on to say that “The building of Dreicer & Co., regarded as one of the most beautiful on Fifth Avenue, has been sold to the Northern Pacific Railway Company.”  Cartier, who once regarded Dreicer as its most feared competitor, purchased the entire stock of jewels for $2.5 million.

photo by Alice Lum
Expansive window openings were later cut into the 5th Avenue façade, but on the whole Warren & Wetmore’s refined French exterior is essentially intact.  Even the gold-grained black marble street level remains—an astonishing feat of urban survival.   Today a tourist shop called Cute Souvenirs sells t-shirts and coffee mugs in the space once decorated in Louis XV paneling where baronesses and millionaires shopped for baubles.  It is a testament to the ever-changing 5th Avenue.

many thanks to reader Marion van der Fluit in Amsterdam for requesting this post.

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