|The undulating roofline and lavish terra cotta decorations on rough stucco make the building unique in Manhattan -- photo by Alice Lum|
The Morgan mansion sat at the northeast corner of 5th Avenue and 37th Street in what was rapidly becoming the most affluent and desirable residential neighborhoods. But the residential nature of stretch of 5th Avenue, home to millionaires with names like Astor and Stewart, would disappear as quickly as it developed.
By 1914 only a handful of stubborn homeowners remained. The brownstone mansions had either been razed or converted for commercial use and so it was with the Morgan mansion. Having completed the new Grand Central Terminal, Architects Warren & Wetmore began plans for a 12-story commercial building for developers Murray Hill Investing Company which would replace the two mansions at Nos. 411 and 413 . It would be a structure like nothing seen in New York before.
|The broad Edwin D. Morgan house, on the corner, and its neighbor at No. 413 would soon be replaced by Warren & Wetmore's unusual new building -- photo NYPL Collection|
|Nearly hidden at the farthest point from 5th Avenue, a modern face is a mysterious anomaly -- photo by Alice Lum|
|The building, still under construction in 1915, is a celebration of ornamentation. Brainson Tailors is already advertising from its 8th floor space -- Architecture and Buildling, 1915 (copyright expired)|
The National Enameling and Stamping Company was among the original tenants and would stay for over a decade. And as the United States joined the war in Europe the American Red Cross took space here in 1917.
|Warriors and maidens peer out at pedestrians from lavish ornamentation -- photo by Alice Lum|
On street level the retail store was home to the Columbia Gramaphone’s “Grafonola Store.” Here shoppers wandered among hand-cranked phonographs in cabinets ranging from “English Chippendale” to Chinese lacquered models.
|Among Columbia's array of phonographs was this exotic Chinese cabinet -- The New York Tribune, December 14, 1919 (copyright expired)|
In 1919 de Valera came to the United States and took an office in No. 411 5th Avenue. His popularity in America was tested within a year. He received a heated letter in December 1920 from the Friends of Irish Freedom who demanded that he release funds deposited in American banks intended for Irish relief efforts.
The group insisted that the funds “which we understand now lies idle in American banks in your name…be sent immediately to the suffering people in Ireland to relieve their distress and aid them in their work of restoration and reconstruction.” The organization told the New York Tribune that the collected money “aggregated several million dollars.”
On New Years Eve 1921 Eamon de Valera returned to Ireland, evading notice by British authorities. The headquarters of the American Commission for Irish Freedom at No. 411 5th Avenue was besieged with well-wishers “jubilant at this new evasion of British vigilance by the man whom Irish revolutionaries elected ‘President of the Irish Republic’ while he was a fugitive from British justice,” reported the New York Tribune.
|The rough stucco is ornamented with countless decorations: caryatids, portraits, medallions, baskets, garlands and more. Note the infant faces incorporated into the molding along the roofline, totally invisible from the street. -- photo by Alice Lum|
In August 1922 around $2.3 million deposited in United States banks by de Valera’s office here was frozen by the courts. The action was authorized by the Irish Minister of Finance, Michael Collins, “to prevent any possible irregularity.” The New York Tribune reported that the De Valera government feared that “irregulars” would “use the funds to destroy that government through rebellion.”
|Grinning faces form capitals of the ornate, swirling columns while others, gaping or stern-faced, line the cornice -- photo by Alice Lum|
On March 22, 1929 the Radio Corporation of America announced that “television images are now being broadcast daily from 7 to 9 P.M.” The company’s vice president, Dr. A. N. Goldsmith said that the program was intended to give “experimenters an opportunity to look in on the development work, which, it is contemplated, will in due course evolve into a service to the public on a commercial basis similar to that of sound broadcasting.”
|High above the corner, an immense work in terra cotta resembles the figurehead of a sailing ship -- photo by Alice Lum|
Among Irish political maneuvering and television pioneering, millinery and apparel firms still hung on in the building throughout the 20th century. In 1938 the Pictorial coat and Dress Company was here as was Frank Allaixe’s millinery firm in 1944. In 1968 the showroom of Fownes Brothers glove company was on the second floor.
A $6,000 renovation of the small lobby was carried out in 1959, eliminating most of the Warren & Wetmore design. Around 2000 the façade was carefully cleaned, a modernistic front was plastered over the street level, and the original windows above replaced. Even though the building lacks landmark protection, it has survived remarkably intact and lovingly—for the most part—preserved.