Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Trusses and Sailors -- No. 34 East 23rd Street

photo by Alice Lum

Like nearby Union Square and Gramercy Park, Madison Square park in the 1870s was encircled by high-end homes of the well-to-do.  The park officially opened on May 10, 1847, still ahead of the city’s dogged northward migration.  But the exclusive residential nature of the park would not last long.  Close on the tails of the residents were the shops, hotels and business buildings that were lumped together under the heading that struck horror in the hearts of homeowners: Commerce.

By 1891 commerce had elbowed its way among the fine residences of Madison Square.  The five-story brick-and-stone home at No. 34 East 23rd Street was now the shop of dressmaker Miss Macheret.   And while the carriages of wealthy socialites stopped at its door; very few of the women still lived on the Park.

While Miss Macheret ran her dressmaking business here in 1894, No. 34 (with bay window) still retained its residential appearance; unlike its commercial neighbor next door at No. 32 photo Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,
While Miss Macheret sold expensive gowns and dresses from No. 34, neighboring residences were being razed or altered for business purposes.   Similar change would come to No. 34 in 1904.  The handsome fa├žade with its second story bay window was stripped off to be replaced by an up-to-date Beaux Arts limestone front.  An expansive first floor show window was framed in stone, capped by a modest cornice with dentil molding.

Above a central three-story arch was framed in rusticated stone.  The recessed openings were accentuated by a concave enframement; out of which burst forth an aggressive two-story sided bay topped by balcony with cast iron railings.  Sumptuously carved stone brackets supported a cornice-balcony at the uppermost floor.
photo by Alice Lum
With the renovations completed, owner Alfred E. Schermerhorn busied himself filling the building.  A developer, Schermerhorn was well known at the time for his Hampton “cottages” as well as commercial buildings in the city.  In October 1906 he had filled the building.  Pomeroy Company leased the second and third floors; the Technical Supply Company of Scranton, Pennsylvania took the fourth; and the fifth floor was leased to L. & C. Hardtmuth.  The retail area at street level would be the home of D. T. Owen & Co., furniture dealers.

The New-York Tribune, June 24, 1911 -- copyright expired
Pomeroy Company had been located nearby at No. 17 Union Square.   The firm manufactured elastic stockings, trusses and other artificial limbs.  L & C. Hardtmuch dealt in stationery supplies—tracing papers, pencils, and artist materials.  By 1911 it was doing a brisk business as the distributor of Koh-I-Noor Pencils.  The “copying ink pencils” for office work were imported from Europe.

Schermerhorn was fortunate in that his tenants would remain in the building for years.   D. T. Owen would sell the latest styles of furniture well into the 1920s from here.   In 1922 the store offered “’Bed-rock’ buying for the thrifty woman—and with it is Owen Quality, always and only, the best that skill can command.”

Customers would be custom-fitted for Pomeroy's devices -- The Railway Surgeon, February 1915 (copyright expired)
With the United States’ entry into World War I a new tenant moved in—the U.S. Navy Recruiting Station.    The conflict spurred a patriotic fervor which resulted in lines outside the office door.  On March 29, 1917 alone 97 men applied.  Lieutenant T. H. Taylor was in charge of the station and he described the support staff here.  “We have enough stenographers and clerks to meet our needs and two surgeons and four men from the hospital corps to handle the medical inspection.  Eight chief petty officers have been assigned from the navy yard to handle the sub-stations which are being opened about the city and for the automobile campaign.”
By the turn of the century only one former house in the row retained any hint of its residential roots -- photo by Alice Lum

A year later, in May 1918, the recruiting officers were taking in about 500 men every week.  The zealous men were often either under-aged or over-aged for the military.  On May 14 The New York Times reported on the recruits that had showed up the previous day.  “Most of the men were below or above the draft age and several of them had obtained permission from their local boards to enlist in the navy.”

The physical condition of many of the men eager to serve was sometimes a problem.  On one day in March 1917 of the 97 men who applied, 32 were rejected upon physical examination.   The following month Dr. William Hills Sheldon established physical training classes for “building up men who were rejected by the army and navy for physical defects.”  He and his physical instructor, Arthur McGovern, requested that the Navy Recruiting Office send “a number of men who were acceptable to them except that they lacked the requisite weight and development.”  Dr. Sheldon wrote in the New York Medical Journal on June 8, 1918 “These men entered the classes in physical drill and were also instructed in hygiene.  We were encouraged by the results obtained in those men who came regularly.”

Even with the end of the war in 1919 the Navy Recruiting Office did not slow down.  Although the general public viewed World War I as the "war to end war," the Navy was not so sure.  The Pittsburgh Press noted on June 8, 1919 “With the signing of the peace treaty an immediate prospect, recruiting officers of the navy are putting forth every effort to ‘sign up’ new men to keep the naval personnel up to required strength.”

Potential recruits were lured with the promise that they could choose the ship they wished to serve on.  The officer in charge of the 23rd Street office told the newspaper that the men could visit the large ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and take their pick.  “The navy yard today is a busy place and is well worth a visit to all those interested in naval shipping,” said The Press.  “This method of recruiting will be sure to result in the signing of many new men, the naval officers believe.”

Later that year the office was recruiting sailors to re-man the crew of the U.S.S. Arizona which was berthed in the New York Navy Yard.  The Navy marketed the warship in the most boastful terms.  “So proud is the Arizona of her record that she defies any ship in the American navy to come forth with more interesting tales of places visited,” said the New-York Tribune on August 11, 1919.

Lieutenant F. H. H. Gilmer added “Within a period of four weeks the Arizona saw the coasts of South America, North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.  Going some, isn’t it?”

The same month the office was looking for “mechanically inclined men” for service aboard the U.S.S. Shawmut.  The Shawmut was, according to the New-York Tribune “the only aviation mother ship in the navy”—the 1919 version of the modern aircraft carrier.

“The Shawmut acts as tender for ten seaplanes and will be attached to the Atlantic fleet,” said the newspaper.  “Four of the seaplanes are carried on board ship.  The other six are known as air boats—big seaplanes of the F-5 type.  Air boats are flown from port to port, and engage in all fleet manoeuvres.”

If aircraft carrier duty was innovative, work on the U.S.S. R-38 was more so.  Thirty-eight men enlisted by the 23rd Street office in February 1920 were to be flown to England to train for duties as members of its crew.  The special training was necessary because the U.S.S. R-38 was not the expected United States Navy vessel—it was a giant dirigible.

The recruiting office promised that those chosen would be assigned “to a new duty that will make them the envy of the entire service.”   The dirigible was 708 feet long with a capacity of about 2 million cubic feet.

Little by little the post-war recruiting slowed.    In March 1921 the office was expected to recruit 25 men per week—about 10 percent of its quota at the height of the war.

Architects William O. Prescott and David Cairns Scott had been kept busy during the conflict.  In reporting that Scott & Prescott was moving its offices to No. 34 East 23rd Street in 1920, American Architect and Architecture noted “During the war Scott & Prescott were architects for the Army Hospital for shell-shock patients, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Club of New York, the recreation building for the Navy Aviation Camp at Montauk Point, L. I., and the Navy Post Office.”
The cornice has sadly been lost; but the bulk of the handsome structure is intact -- photo by Alice Lum

A quarter of a century later William Prescott would still be operating from his offices here.  Bookman Associates, book publishers, would move in during mid-century.  Today a variety of small businesses fill the spaces where early tenants stayed on for decades.  The retail space where “thrifty women” shopped for living room furniture is now home to a sandwich shop.

The cornice has disappeared from the roofline and the ground floor has been somewhat altered.  But on the whole the Beaux Arts beauty retains its integrity—looking very much as it did when idealistic young men lined up in its hallways to sail off to war.

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