Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The 1904 Houghton, Mifflin Bldg - No. 11 East 17th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1880, when senior members retired, the publishing firm of Hurd and Houghton reestablished itself as Houghton, Mifflin and Company.   The company not only published scholarly works like law books and dictionaries; but printed popular novels and magazines like The Review and The Riverside Magazine for Young People.  Just two years earlier it had purchased The Atlantic Monthly.

Shortly after the change in name and management the publisher moved its New York offices uptown from Astor Place to the Union Square neighborhood.  The firm moved into the former Gross mansion, a pre-Civil War house at No. 11 West 17th Street.  A generation earlier the block had been lined with high-end residences in keeping with its location between Fifth Avenue and the square.  Now, as commerce encroached on the area, wealthy citizens moved northward and their homes were converted to businesses.

In 1899 Professor B. S. Hurlbut described the sections of the four-story brick house used by Houghton, Mifflin and Company.  “They occupy a portion of a building which still discloses in the drawing-room, now filled with books and desks, the former use as a family residence.  Two of the partners have their office here, and the various interests of the house are served, the department for the sale of standard libraries being especially active.”

Houghton, Mifflin and Company established its retail store on the lower level.  The upper floors remained residential and were rented out to boarders.  Attorney William Cleveland Cox and his wife, the former actress Alice Gleason lived here in 1888 and well-known actor Walden Ramsey died in the house on October 6, 1895.

Houghton, Mifflin’s keen marketing was evident in its 1889 advertisement extolling the new paper-back edition of “John Ward, Preacher.”  The new release was described in the New-York Tribune.  “Mrs. Deland’s remarkable Novel, which has excited so great interest through the English-speaking world, is now issued in tasteful paper covers, at Fifty Cents.  It is the first number of The Riverside Paper Series, of Standard and Popular Copyright Novels to be issued Semi-Monthly.”

In December 1901, two decades after Houghton, Mifflin moved into the old mansion, the Gross family sold the property to Daniel b. Freedman.  Three months later he resold the house to “a Mr. Snyder” according to The Sun.    The newspaper noted “The buyer will either build a loft building or resell the property with a building loan.”

Indeed, Snyder resold the building, this time to James A. Campbell, who turned it over yet again in October 1902 to “a Mr. Stillwell” for $60,000.  That deal, apparently, fell through and in 1903 Campbell, with his partner William Clement, laid plans for a modern loft building to replace the old house.

Campbell & Clement razed the building and commissioned respected architects Israels & Harder to design an up-to-date store and loft building.    What the architects produced was a seven-story store and loft building completed in 1904 that made a statement among its neighbors.

Among the proper, expected commercial designs of the other structures going up along the block, Israels & Harder introduced an energetic splash of Art Nouveau.  For Houghton, Mifflin & Company’s bookstore, a two-story retail space soared from the sidewalk, enframed in stone.  Heavy moldings--picture frame-like--embraced the expansive windows and a carved medallion flanked by cornucopia announced the address.

Above, seven stories of brown-red brick engulfed centered, grouped windows, culminating in a double-height studio, sun-drenched by a massive Palladian-inspired window.   Here an ambitious terra cotta arch capped it all, flanked by wonderful, scrolled outsized volutes.

The demolished Gross house would have been similiar to the  still-surviving 1846 Daniel Brooks house next door -- photo by Alice Lum
With the modern building completed, Campbell had better luck in selling the property.  In January 1904 it was sold, only to be re-sold to Inter-River Realty and Construction Company on February 6.

Houghton, Mifflin and Company moved into its new office and retail space, and the upper floors quickly filled with a variety of tenants.  In 1905 Lemonoff, Saxe & Co., skirt manufacturers, was busily making women’s apparel here.   Other clothing manufacturers included Snyder & Parnes, and cloak and suit makers Sigmund Katz.

Interestingly, Houghton, Mifflin and Company was not the only bookseller to take space in the building.  Lemcke & Buechner dealt in art books and in 1906 offered the first folio in a series by Dr. Paul Herrmann of Dresden on “paintings of the ancients.”  The folio pictured the wall paintings that survived in Pompeii, Rome, Herculaneum and Stanbael, along with Italian mosaics.

There were to be a total of sixty books in the series, each with ten plates each.  Six books would be published annually.  The over-sized books were available by subscription only and The New York Times noted that “subscriptions to less than twenty parts will not be accepted.”

Another bookseller, Strauss & Muller, was in the building by 1910.  Perhaps the concentrated competition was too much for Houghton, Mifflin; or perhaps they were simply “following the steady march of business uptown,” as Walden’s Stationery and Printer put it.  Either way, the publisher left the building in 1911 for a new building near Grand Central Terminal.

No. 11 West 17th continued to be home to apparel manufacturers and small businesses throughout the century.  Art Craft Fixture and Novelty Company was here in the 1920s, offering electrical lighting fixtures.  Bricker & Ratchick, Inc., makers of “cloaks and suits” leased the 7th floor and added another full floor in 1931.  A year earlier Isidore & Charles Levin, dealers in “notions,” took the retail store and basement.

In the mid 1960s Amalgamated Union Local 15 had its offices here.  The union was headed by Benjamin Ross, “sometimes known as ‘Benny the Bug,’” according to The New York Times on December 20, 1964.  The shady operations of the union caused John F. Funke, of the National Labor Relations Board to describe it as “one that a government agency would not willingly endorse.”

During a trial before the Board that month, attorney Nathan Goldman said that Ross “practiced his now well-recognized pattern of extortion, muscle and intimidation.”

The 1960s and ‘70s were a time of political and social radicalism in America.   The building became headquarters for the Underground Press Syndicate, a network of counterculture publications including the East Village Other, the Berkeley Barb, The Paper and Fifth Estate.

The Syndicate held a news conference in the building on July 13, 1970 concerning a three-day rock festival to be held on Randall’s Island.   The New York Times listed organizations represented at the conference: The Young Lords, the White Panther Party and the Revolutionary Youth Party Collection, “which represents such groups as the Gay Liberation Front, the Committee to Defend the New York Panther 21, and Youth International Party.”

In 1998 the building was converted to apartments—one per floor.    Early that year aspiring artist Kobo leased the astounding top floor with its vast 16-foor tall window (his real name was Oded Kobo, but Tracie Rozhon of The New York Times explained “he hasn’t used his first name since he was 3”).
The artist enjoyed what The Times article described as “a two-story living room, tin ceilings and rare side windows.”  The 2,400 square foot studio/apartment cost him $3,500 per month.  Unfortunately for Kobo, his lease—which the landlords were not interested in renewing—was for a mere nine months.

Although the windows have been replaced and the lower two floors have been altered; the wonderful 1904 loft building remains a refreshing and unusual example of Art Nouveau architecture in Manhattan.
photo by Alice Lum

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