Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The 1897 National Cloak Company Bldg. -- Nos. 119-121 W. 23rd Street

photo by Alice Lum
As the 19th century wound down, West 23rd Street had seen tremendous change.   The residential street of elegant homes had given way to New York’s entertainment district after the Civil War.  The wide thoroughfare was dotted with venues like Booth’s Theatre, the Grand Opera, Proctor’s Theatre, and Koster and Bial’s Music Hall by the 1870s.

Then, as the Ladies’ Mile—the shopping district of grand block-wide emporiums—inched upward along 6th Avenue and the theater district moved north towards Times Square, commerce and the apparel industry crept in.   In 1894 an ambitious loft and retail building was being erected by the National Cloak Company at Nos. 119 and 121 West 23rd Street.

It would be a structure on the cutting edge of architectural engineering.  Already the city was seeing tall buildings rise, the height of which was impossible a generation earlier, earning them the nickname skyscrapers.   The same year that ground was broken for the 10-story National Cloak Company building, construction began on the American Tract Society Building downtown that would stretch to twice the height.   New Yorkers craned their necks upward as new buildings went higher into the air.

Charles Miller was one of the workmen on the National Cloak Company building in September 1894.  In a tragic accident he was killed on the site.   It was a time when laborers were often hired casually and few personnel records were kept or information taken.    Pitifully, The Evening World reported on September 15 that Miller “was buried in Potter’s Field this morning.  His wife, who is said to live somewhere in Yorkville, has not yet been found.”

The building was completed in March 1897.  It was an interesting combination of styles, to be sure.  The sturdy two-story rusticated limestone base was sparsely decorated with Beaux Arts touches.  Here expansive windows provided visibility to the street-level retail space and flooded the second story with sunlight.   The architect melded Italian Renaissance with Romanesque in the brick and terra cotta upper eight floors.  If he had been reserved with decoration at the base, here he let loose.  Every opening was outlined with hefty, foliate terra cotta blocks; a decorative overkill that resulted in a crusted-over appearance.   Two heavy cast iron balconies added visual appeal and a central-three story central arch relieved the mass of the building.  Despite the over-ambitious use of the terra cotta quoins, the design worked.

The heavy geometric design of the cast iron balconies offered a pleasing contrast --photo by Alice Lum
The National Cloak Company, one of the leading ladies' tailors in the city, manufactured women’s suits and skirts.   The firm created only tailor-made garments “to order” and while the product line seems limited today, the 1890s was a time when women’s clothing needed to show off the wearer’s corset-formed figured.  Every fashionable women wore jackets, tightly cinched at the waist, made of the same fabric as the ankle-length skirts.  The Delineator noted that “Tailor-made suits are always in good taste and they can be worn upon almost any occasion.”

A surprising mix of tenants moved into the new building in addition to the apparel firms.   George Routledge & Sons was among them.  The publishing firm had been founded in 1835 and was still going strong, cranking out what The Literary Year-Book called “cheap, popular and standard books.”   Other publishers in the building were Pott & Company, who would stay for at least until 1921; and G. W. Dillingham.

E. Bradley Currier Company established its home here.  The firm supplied architectural items; one advertisement offering  “imported and domestic reproductions of all the periods executed in rich marble, embellished with wrought and mercury gold ornamentation.  Replicas of the famous mantels from the Tuileries, Versailles, Fontainebleau, etc.”  In addition, architects and decorators could shop for tile and marble mosaics, period woodwork, tile bathrooms and fireplaces and accessories here.

The wide mix of tenants also included Eugene Diezgen Company in 1904, sellers of drawing instruments and materials.  A similar firm, The Prudential Art Company would move from East 12th Street for “much larger quarters” in 1914.  But the majority of the companies, like National Cloak, were apparel firms.

photo by Alice Lum
Through the World War I years Jackson-Mack Manufacturing Company made silk petticoats and kimonos; Schaack Manufacturing took space in 1913, the same year that Fred Newmark leased the entire 9th floor; and the Lafayette Waist Company, Parisian Embroidery Company and Samuel Rosenthal were among the long list of clothing companies.

The newly completed building wore a spread-eagle ornament atop the parapet.  photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By the 1920s the garment and millinery district had moved north to the area between 35th and 40th Streets around 6th and 7th Avenues.   As the apparel firms left Nos. 119-121 West 23rd Street, new tenants moved in.  In 1921 Steiner & Co. took space here.  The firm was long established in the stationery industry but with its new department “handling high-grade coarse paper and twine” it needed what the Paper Trade Journal called a “much larger and more conveniently equipped” headquarters.

Small mail order companies established themselves in the building, offering inexpensive gadgets advertised in the back pages of popular magazines.  The Perfection Radio Corporation of America was here in 1923, offering “ear phones, crystal sets, etc.”  The company’s advertisements urged “Let Radio Radiate Your Home.”  The Monroe Specialty Co. sold an inventive device that would sharpen used razor blades with a magnet.  Through the 1950s the Berny Novelty Company continued the trend.

photo by Alice Lum
The theater tradition of 23rd Street was revived when the Duality Playhouse offered Off-Broadway productions here in the 1990s, and the Native Aliens Playhouse opened a decade later.

The century of changes along West 23rd Street passed over Nos. 119-121.  Although the space where Victorian women were measured for fitted suits now houses a computer store, the eye-catching façade looks much the same as it did when National Cloak Company opened its doors in March 1897.


  1. In the paragraph starting "The wide mix of tenants..." the drawing supplies company given here as "Eugene DEIZGEN" may, i believe, actually have been DIETZGEN - a name quite well known to those familiar with the equipment that architects and engineers have long used in drafting and measuring, certainly before the era of computer drafting.

    Can you double-check this name? The common mistake of reversing "IE" and "EI" within German words and names may be partly at work here? (And you surely know the great little Art Nouveau-ish building on Fulton Street near Nassau designed for the similar compant Keuffel & Esser?)

    (This address, 121 West 23 St., was given on the media as the approximate location for the exploding device set off on the evening of Saturday, 17 Sept. 2016, that wounded more than two dozen people.)

    1. Thank you for catching the typo in Diezgen. Corrected!