Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Demon-Covered Nos. 539-541 Eighth Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
In 1889 8th Avenue above 23rd Street had become a neighborhood of commercial structures and small hotels.   That year a six-story structure was constructed at Nos. 539-541 8th Avenue, stretching back along 37th Street.   Clad in light-colored brick and trimmed in terra cotta and brownstone, its arches and decorative touches reflected the highly-popular Romanesque Revival style.  

Rough-cut brownstone lintels at the second floor contrasted with the manicured terra cotta wavecrest bands just below them.   Handsome paired plaques announced “ERECTED” and “1889” on both the 37th Street and 8th Avenue facades.   Above it all was an ornate, paneled cornice with attractive rosettes.

Now painted, the terra cotta and rough-cut brownstone would have provided a handsome contrast to the brick -- photo by Alice Lum
But grabbing the most attention were the fearsome demons that appeared throughout the design.   Large, gruesome horned heads support pilasters along the second story, smaller snarling demons appear in the terra cotta panels below fourth floor openings and again at the top story.

Inserted into various piers are handsome terra cotta plaques announcing "Erected"...
...balanced by another with the date -- photos by Alice Lum
The remaining decorations—the sumptuous spandrels, geometric discs, foliate keystones and capitals—take second stage to the horrific monsters.    The unusual ornamentation may have been a tongue-in-cheek joke by the building’s owner, Albert J.  Adams, whom The Sun called a “fiend.”
Titled “The Policy King,” by the newspapers, Adams made a fortune on the illegal gambling game “policy” which mostly targeted the poor and desperate.  The Sun called Adams “the meanest man in New York”  and said “policy as Al Adams has conducted it has been a form of larceny so mean that those engaged in it are held in a kind of contempt by other gamblers.

“Al Adams has built his fortune, not alone on the small change of poor men, but on the nickels and dimes of working women and the cents of children as well.  He has absorbed their homes, and in some cases the very clothing off their backs, and worse than all he has created an army of gambling crazy men, women, and children.”
Adams used his ill-gained fortune to purchase and develop real estate, like the new building at Nos. 539-541 8th Avenue.   The upper floors, accessed at No. 301 West 37th Street, served as a residential hotel while the ground floor retail space was taken by the newly-formed furniture dealers McClain, Simpson & Co.

A grinning monster stares from among incongruous garlands of ribbons and flowers -- photo by Alice Lum
While the carriage trade patronized high-end furniture stores like George Flint or Robert Horner on West 23rd Street; McClain, Simpson & Co. catered to the middle-class.   The store promised “one price, and that the lowest,” and advertised in 1894 that it had priced its goods “to suit the times.  A little money will go further in our stores than anywhere else.”

An advertisement in The World in 1894 featured a rocker for $1.87 -- copyright expired.
While struggling couples shopped for wicker rockers and oak bookcases at McClain, Simpson & Co. the upper floors filled with tenants.  Some, like the building’s owner, were less than law abiding.   37-year old John Flemming was living here in April 1897 when he walked into the Christ P. E. Church on “the Boulevard and Seventy-first street,” as reported in The Sun on April 18.  (The Boulevard would later be renamed Broadway.)
Not realizing he was being watched by assistant sexton Oscar Willing, Flemming tried to break into the poor box, using a screwdriver from his pocket.  When he was unsuccessful he left, only to be followed by Willing who turned him over to a policeman.

Grotesque, paired demons grace the corners -- photo by Alice LUm
In November 1899 D. W. McClain, Thomas Simpson and George C. Walker decided to dissolve their partnership.  Al Adams purchased the business and turned it over to his son, Lawrence P. Adams.   The store continued selling furniture under the original name and with the same policy.  A 1901 advertisement told of “Bookcases in solid oak, glass doors, adjustable shelves, from $8.45 up.  Our elegant line of Sideboards is unsurpassed.  Solid Oak Serpentine Drawers, with French plate beveled mirrors, as low as $15.  Combination Bookcases, Hall Trees, etc., at all prices.  And then our Parlor Suits!  We have a bewildering assortment, from $9.98 for a Suit of 3 pieces upwards.”
As the previous partners had done, Adams stressed the affordable prices.  “We have the assortment of goods that you need—good articles, cheap—and our terms of credit are the most liberal and satisfactory in the city.”

Lawrence Adams continued to sell to middle-class customers, as reflected in this 1905 advertisement -- copyright expired
The problem was that Lawrence Adams was not really interested in selling furniture.  The store managed, but only with Al Adams’ financial help.    Then in October 1906 the Policy King committed suicide.  Without the inflow of Al’s money, the store went downhill fast.
The Sun reported a few months later that “While Al Adams was alive it is said the finances of the firm were all right, and he was quoted as saying they could have $100,000 if necessary for the uses of the business.”   Lawrence was not a businessman and, according to the newspaper, was “interested in other affairs and the business was in charge of a manager.”
On May 1, 1907 The Sun reported on the petition in bankruptcy that was filed “against Al Adam’s son, Lawrence P. Adams.”   Even now Al Adams stole the spotlight.   Lawrence took the $66,000 he inherited from his father and disappeared—destined to be not even a footnote in New York history.
On May 10, 1911 the executors of Albert J. Adams’ estate auctioned off the numerous real estate holdings he had accumulated over the years, most of which were corner properties.  Included in these was the building at 8th Avenue and 37th Street.
The residential space upstairs would not last much longer.  On February 12, 1919 the Imperial Dyewood Company leased 3,000 square feet as loft space.  Then, with the city in the stranglehold of the Great Depression and the garment district taking over this section of Manhattan, the building was converted to offices, showrooms and factory space in 1935. 
During the second half of the 20th century the neighborhood declined.    Along with the garment firms, tiny businesses carved spaces along the sidewalk level of 8th Avenue—some of them a bit sleazy.   Nos. 539-541 lost its street level façade which was replaced by garish storefronts.

Four-story billboards mask much of the facade; yet the intricate cornice with its decorative rosettes can be fully seen -- photo by Alice Lum
But above the mishmash of awnings and shops, and partially hidden by gigantic four-story high advertising, Albert Adams’ demon-encrusted building survives.


  1. mighty cool looking building! Thanks for the share. BTW, you off taking pic's and getting information for new shares? No posts for 8 days...I'm getting anxious - missing my NYC architecture "fix"! :-)

  2. hmmm. I haven't missed a day. Wonder why you're not getting updated.

  3. Hi Tom - I'm getting the updates in my Google Feed Reader - so there may have been a delay there. I see 4 new posts there now that I will check out. Keep up the AWESOME work. I'll have to get a must-see list from you sometime as I want to bring my wife to NYC soon from VT for a weekend or weekday overnight date.

    1. There was a problem FeedBurner and the pipes were clogged up, as it were. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. You might want to scroll back through the blog list to see if you missed some.