Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The 1909 Huber Building -- No. 13 East 40th Street

Staid brownstone residences flank the white marble Huber Building upon its completion.  In the second story show window is a suite of French budoir furniture, including a fringed floor lamp -- photo Museum of the City of New York
By 1879 John F. Adams had done well for himself.  He lived in a 25-foot wide home at No. 13 East 40th Street in what was rapidly becoming the most fashionable residential neighborhood in Manhattan and he was a member of the exclusive Union Club.   The last thing his respectable neighbors would expect to read in the newspapers was that he had been involved in a public display of common fisticuffs.

Yet on October 6 a casual game of billiards in the Union Club would result in just that.  Adams’s opponent, stock broker Henry Y. Leavitt, accused him of “taking unfair advantage of his play” and, according to The Sun, “Adams retorted by intimating that Leavitt was a falsifier.”

In Victorian New York calling a gentleman—or anyone for that matter—a liar was an insult that could not be ignored.

Leavitt put his billiard cue down and asked Adams “Will you come outside?”

“Adams had hardly put his foot on the sidewalk when Leavitt, who had reached it before him, turned and struck him a stunning blow under the ear,” reported the newspaper.  Although Adams fought valiantly, “his antagonist had too much muscle and science for him.”  Adams pleaded for Leavitt to desist, but the pummeling continued.

Finally waiters from the Union Club rushed out and broke up the fight, sending Adams home in a cab.  The humiliation was intensified—both for Adams and his wife Emily—when the account was published in the newspapers the following morning.

As the neighborhood around No. 13 East 40th Street changed, the Adams family moved on.  In March 1909 Emily Adams leased the house to H. F. Huber & Co., a high-end interior decorator firm.   Huber immediately announced plans to renovate.  Plans were filed with the Department of Buildings for “making over the four story and basement residence…into a studio building, enlarging the building by a six story extension in the rear and installing elevator service.   The $20,000 make-over would be designed by architect J. H. Freedlander.

Freedlander apparently made a conscious attempt to slip the Huber Building discreetly among its high-toned brownstone neighbors.  What resulted was a curious melding of Beaux Arts residential architecture, including a delightful Juliette balcony, above two unabashedly commercial floors.  Here large show windows—especially the aquarium-like expanse of glass at the second story—gave Huber & Co. exceptional sunlight and exposure.  Above it all was a picturesque if unexpected Mediterranean overhanging roof of green tile supported by copper brackets.

The white South Dover marble façade created a start contrast to the brownstone residences along East 40th Street.  The New York Times called it “of unique design” and pointed out the “fleur de peche panels between the third and fourth story windows.”

The New York Times was taken with the carved "fleur de peche" panels between the third and fourth stories -- photo cyprusun.org
The Sun would later comment on the design firm’s “pioneering” move.  “They were among the first to see the advantage of this new business location,” it said almost a decade later, “and were followed by other large business firms.”

By May 1918 the successful business of H. F. Huber & Co. made the former house inadequate.  The houses next door, at Nos. 9 and 11, had been replaced by the Yale & Towne Building in 1913.  Huber had already taken two floors of that building and now expanded into another full floor.

Eleven years later the commercial invasion begun by H. F. Huber & Co. was in full swing.  As the decorators moved their factory to the Decorative Trades building on East 47th Street in 1929, retaining their showrooms on East 40th, The New York Times reminisced about the changes in the area.  “They were the first to encroach upon the residential district of Fortieth Street east of Fifth Avenue,” said the newspaper.  “At that time it was the only building not occupied as a private residence, with the exception of the famous Brook Club.  The Huber Building on Fortieth Street has since been surrounded by skyscrapers.”

By mid-century the showrooms of H. F. Huber & Co. had been replaced with the offices of manufacturers of less elegant goods.  In 1952 the Dunmore Company, makers of Dunmore power tools, was here.   The firm sold grinders, routers and other electric tools; advertising in hobbyist magazines like Popular Mechanics.  Also in the building was Electro-Voice, Inc.  The company sold “assemble your own” hi-fi speaker cabinets.  Its advertisements promised that “you save as much as 50% when you do it yourself” and hi-fi hobbyists could choose among period styles like Regency, Empire, Baronet and Georgian.

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, at a time when modernization was brutalizing the delicate facades of turn-of-the-century buildings, the Huber Building remained unscathed.  In the 1970s Fann-Temp employment agency did business here, offering students looking for summer jobs a “Fann-Tastic summer.” 

Little has changed at No. 13 East 40th Street since H. F. Huber & Co. moved in -- photo by Alice Lum
In the 1990s the building was purchased by the Government of Cyprus to house its Consulate General to the United Nations.   The handsome building remains relatively untouched over a century after a decorating firm elbowed its way into a fashionable neighborhood of wealthy New Yorkers.

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