Friday, April 19, 2013

The 1907 Brunswick Building -- No. 225 Fifth Avenue


photo by Alice Lum
By 1906 the Fifth Avenue blocks between Washington Square and Madison Square had, for the most part, been taken over by commerce.  One by one the wealthy mansion owners moved northward as offices and high-end stores either took over the homes or replaced them.

Now the tide of trade crept past 23rd Street.  Between 26th and 27th Streets on the north side of Madison Square sat the once-fashionable Brunswick Hotel along with several old brownstone houses.  The glory days of the Brunswick had passed and the venerable hotel was shuttered.

A group of investors formed The Brunswick Site Co. (the very name of which spelled doom for the old building) and briefly considered erecting a modern hotel that would take up the entire block front.    The developers soon changed their minds, however, and The Brunswick Building was conceived—a vast office and loft building rising 12 stories above the avenue and park.

Associated Architects Francis H. Kimball and Harry E. Donnell collaborated on the design.   They created a Renaissance Revival blank which they lavishly embellished with Beaux Arts detailing.  Completed in 1907, the immense bulk of the building was relieved by the decoration.    A three-story limestone base, rusticated at the lower two floors, upheld a red brick mass that erupted with splayed lintels, stone balconies, an ornate cast iron balcony that wrapped the entire eleventh floor, festoons, cartouches and elaborate moldings.  Above it all an ambitious pressed metal cornice sat like a crown.

The new Brunswick Building in 1910 -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
It was imposing, grand and unavoidably prominent at the northern end of Madison Square.  And the Architectural Record hated it.   With the building completed in 1907 the publication apologized for its being there saying “it is, properly speaking, an extension of the influence of the wholesale part of Fifth Avenue south of Twenty-third Street to the other side of Madison Square.”

Then the critic pulled no punches.  “But whatever its economic significance, it makes a sorry contribution to the better appearance of Fifth Avenue.  It is cheap in appearance and both commonplace and frivolous in design; and the worst of it is that an infinitely better looking building could be erected on the side without the expenditure of an additional dollar.”

Architectural Record bemoaned the choice site of the “commonplace” building.  “The structure occupies one of the most conspicuous and finest sites in New York.  There is no chance of its being superseded for fifty years; and during all that time it will stand as a monument of architectural vulgarity and turpitude, which has not the slightest justification in the underlying economic conditions.”

Despite the acerbic  review, esteemed architects Carrere & Hastings announced their relocation to the building that year, as did The New York Architectural Terra Cotta Company.   The Brunswick National Bank began organizing in May 1907 and took space in the building.

The building quickly filled with a wide variety of tenants.  The American Vacuum Cleaner Co. moved in, as did the showrooms of Gullabi, Gulbenkian & Co., Oriental rug dealers.   In January 1908 American Carpet and Upholstery Journal commented on their new space here.  “The Gulbenkian warerooms, 225 Fifth Avenue (Brunswich Building), have splendid display facilities.”

A young boy helps his well-dressed mother use her new Ideal Vacuum -- the New-York Tribune December 6, 1908 (copyright expired)
The publication noted that Haratouene Gullabi had just returned from seven months in the Far East and returned with a shipment of rugs it called of “surprisingly interesting quality, present market conditions in the East considered.”

A month after Gullabi’s new rugs were unpacked the City began preparations for the widening of Fifth Avenue.   It meant that all “encumbrances” that extended beyond the property line had to be removed.   No one, not even the Astors, were immune and brownstone stoops, bay windows, sidewalk vaults and grassy “courtyards” had to go.

The New York Times reported on February 7, 1908 that “the new Brunswick Building has an entrance that extends four feet over the line, and also a thirty-foot vault.”  Only a year after its completion the building was already being altered.

The Telepost Company established its offices here in 1909.  The innovation to the telegraph offered messages sent at fifty words for twenty-five cents.  An advertisement in Popular Mechanics promised “A thousand words per minute, over a single wire, when the older Telegraph Companies average only 15 words per minute, makes possible the above named rates and other startling innovations in telegraph service that are sure to interest every progressive American.”

At the same time the Scientific American Compiling Department moved in, publishers of the "Americana Encyclopedia.Several travel agencies, including Pilgrim Tours made the Brunswick Building home.

More controversial than tour agencies or vacuum cleaner manufacturers was Willis Vernon Cole.  The Christian Science healer took an office in the building in 1910 and quickly found himself in hot water.

Police received reports that Cole was presenting himself as a doctor and operating without a license.  On January 11, 1911 he saw the first of two new patients—undercover Police Matron Isabella Goodwin and private detective Mrs. Frances Benzecry.   Mrs. Goodwin complained to Cole that she “had heart palpitation and other organic trouble.”

The healer charged her $2 for the initial treatment and told her that subsequent visits would be $1 each.  After the “treatment” he “encouraged her to come again, she said, by telling her she responded readily to his efforts,” reported The New York Times.

On March 1 the following year Cole was put on trial, during which Frances Benzecry testified that she, too, had similar experiences with the healer.  The opposing lawyers argued before the judge, however, about the basis of the case.

Cole’s attorney argued that Christian Science was being put on trial.   Assistant District Attorney Nott countered “No, we are trying the question whether this man was practicing without a license.”

“The defendant doesn’t claim a license,” the other lawyer argued, “He claims he was practicing the tenets of his Church.”

In 1914, while the German university League was printing propaganda, the newly-organized New York City Surface Car Advertising company took space here -- The Sun, September 26, 1914 (copyright expired)
More controversy came in the form of wartime alliances.  The German University League, Deutscher Akademischer Bund, disseminated literature from its offices in the Brunswick Building in 1914 as the First World War erupted in Europe.   Although the United States was still neutral, some bristled at the Leaque’s obvious propagandizing.

Professor Edgar Ewing Brandon of Miami University wrote about the League on January 7, 1915 saying in part that its leaders “conceal their purpose under misleading names, and…have no other reason for existence than to spread false information and unsupported arguments in regard to the causes and occasion of the present European war; against the hyphenated American that detracts from the dignity, honor, and even safety of our Republic; and finally against the German assumption that the American reading public is ignorant of the facts of the case.”

photo by Alice Lum
In 1918 the Brunswick Building housed a significant number of publishing firms.  Among them were Frank R. Northrup, publisher of the Telegraph; Benjamin & Kentnor; the Author’s Press; and the Artvue Post Card Company.  Brentano had by now moved in and Arthur Barlett Maurice, in his 1918 “Fifth Avenue” called the firm’s bookshop “the largest shop of its kind in the city.”

Rug merchant Gullabi, Gulbenkian & Co. was still here that year.  By now the Armenian immigrant and senior partner, Gullahi Gulbenkian, had amassed a fortune and had given more than $5 million to Amenian charities.  On July 23 the salesroom would be the scene of a particularly horrifying confrontation.  

For more than twenty years the store had employed Mugriditch Mihitarian as a porter.   The man was lazy and boorish and finally the owners, with astounding leniency, offered him a pension if he would stay away from the store.

Before long he returned and pleaded for his job back.  The kind-hearted Gulbenkians took him back, but according to The New York Times on July 24, 1918, “clerks said he had done practically no work.  The attitude of the porter caused many quarrels and yesterday he accepted the offer of a pension, made on condition that he stay from the store and cause no more trouble.”

Mihitarian accepted the deal as long as he could receive his week’s wages on the spot.  As the 54-year old Gullabi Gulbenkian handed the porter his check and attempted to shake his hand, Mihitarian pulled a revolver from his clothing and fatally shot his former employer.

Other employees rushed to subdue the killer and in the struggle the gun discharged again, striking Serope Gulbenkian, a nephew, fatally wounding him as well.

The president and vice president of Spear & Co. enjoy their modern offices here in 1929 -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The changes of the Madison Square neighborhood could be no more evident than on February 6, 1929 when the F. W. Woolworth Company announced that it had leased 26,000 square feet of the Brunswick Building for a five-and-dime store.

As the century progressed, the Brunswick Building continued to see a mixed collection of tenants come and go—for over a decade in the 1940s and ‘50s the Wallace Brown greeting card company was here; George Klein sold microscopes and telescopes, and in 1955 the Tupper Corp.—makers of the innovative plastic Tupperware—was in the building.

By the last quarter of the 20th century the Brunswick had become the Giftware Building where manufacturers such as Waterford Crystal and Supreme Cutlery established their wholesale showrooms for out-of-town buyers.

Then in 2004 the hulking building was converted to high-end condominiums and renamed the Grand Madison.  Among the buyers was Credit Suisse broker Julian Tzolov.  The millionaire bought his two-bedroom apartment in 2007 for just under $2 million and filled it with custom furniture and a state-of-the-art entertainment system.

His cushy home became his prison when he was put under house arrest on fraud charges in 2009 for selling securities in a scam that cost his investors more than $1 billion.  But not for long.  In order to avoid trial he went on the lam and was declared a fugitive in June 2009.

Tzolov was arrested in Spain and subsequently pleaded guilty to conspiracy, securities fraud, bail-jumping, visa fraud and multiple counts of wire fraud.  The 38-year old was sentenced to five years in prison after which he would be deported to his native Bulgaria.

In March 2012 his apartment with its custom furniture and stereo/television system was auctioned for $2.926 million.

photo by Alice Lum
New Yorkers have come to love the red brick building with its dripping ornamentation on the edge of Madison Square.   Now rarely regarded as a “monument of architectural vulgarity and turpitude,” it is seen by most as a familiar friend at the edge of the park.

5 comments:

  1. The Ideal Vacuum Cleaner, "the ideal Christmas present for your wife". I wonder how many wives agreed?

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  2. Great looking building - thanks for the post and the wonderful pix.

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  3. Link to current floor plans: http://streeteasy.com/nyc/building/the-grand-madison/floorplans

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  4. yesterday's eyesore becomes a familar & local architectural landmark. Not the first time critics have gotten it all wrong. What beautiful ornamentation.

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  5. Also home to the U S School of Music of "They laughed when I sat down at the piano" fame.

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