Saturday, December 28, 2013

The 1897 Spingler Building -- Nos 5-9 Union Square West

"Spingler Building" is announced above the polished granite columns of the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1778 German-born Henry Spingler purchased the sprawling Dutch farm that included the area which would later become Union Square.  Over a century later The New York Times would recall that Springler “bought the farm direct from the first owner of the land, who, frightened at the stirring events of the Revolution and lacking faith in the Government of the then new United States, decamped back to his native country, Holland.”

The article got the facts slightly wrong, if a bit more romantic in the telling.  The first owner was, indeed, of Dutch descent.   Elias Brevoort and his wife, Leah, sold the property to John Smith, “a leather dresser,” according to old documents, for 340 pounds.  Upon his death, his executors sold the land on February 29, 1788 to “Henry Spingler of the city, shopkeeper,” for 950 pounds.

As decades passed the land came into the hands of the Van Buren family through marriage.  What had been farmland in 1778 was transformed into Union Square in 1832; and by 1845 the surrounding streets were paved, landscaping had been completed, and fine homes rose around the park.

But as rapidly as farmland became residential; residential became commercial.  As the turn of the century approached, wealthy homeowners had abandoned the square and handsome upscale business buildings replaced their brick mansions.  With a nod to Henry Springler, the large structure that replaced three houses at Nos. 5 through 9 Union Square was named the Springler Building.  Among its tenants was the Estey Organ firm.  A devastating conflagration destroyed the building in 1895.

The potentially-lucrative site would not sit vacant for long.  On July 18, 1895 The New York Times reported on the planned replacement.  “Messrs. James L. Libby & Son have leased from the Van Buren estate 5 to 9 Union Square and the connecting property, 20 East Fifteenth Street…The purchasers will begin at once the erection of an eight-story fireproof building of limestone, buff brick and terra cotta front.”

Four days later work started on clearing the burned-out rubble in preparation for construction.  The Times anticipated that the “new building will be ready for occupancy on May 1, 1896” and like its predecessor “will be called the Spingler Building.”

James L. Libby & Son commissioned firm of W. H. Hume & Son to design their new edifice.  The L-shaped plot enabled the architects to place the trucking facilities on the 15th Street side; leaving the Union Square frontage unsullied.

The initial hopes for completion by May 1, 1896 turned out to be a bit optimistic.  The building was finally ready for occupancy the week of March 7, 1897 when James L. Libby & Son advertised “Elevator running this week.”  The owners boasted the “finest stores and lightest lofts in the city.”

A decorative parapet announces the building's name in 1897 -- the New-York Tribune, March 7, 1897 (copyright expired)

W. H. Hume & Son’s Italian Renaissance-inspired structure was restrained and dignified.  A two-story limestone base supported six floors of light-colored brick embellished with carved stone and terra cotta.  In keeping with the other high-end retailers on Union Square, prospective tenants here were guaranteed a classy a classy home. 

The exclusive retail neighborhood of Union Square was reflected in the announcement of the Springler Building’s major street level tenant.  In August 1897 The American Hatter reported “Cluett, Coon & Co., now occupy their new quarters, 5, 7, and 9 Union Square West, in the handsome new fireproof building adjoining Tiffany & Co.  This is one of the finest locations in the city of New York, facing as it does the beautiful Union Square.  Their showroom and offices are among the most attractive to be found.  The interior is richly furnished, and finished in natural oak throughout, and is a model of neatness and convenience.”

Cluett, Coon & Co. was one of the nation’s leading men’s furnishers—manufacturing and selling shirts, collars, and cuffs.  By 1897 the firm name became Cluett, Peabody & Co.  Men’s fashions, just as much as ladies’, changed with the season and the well-dressed gentleman did well to keep up with modifications in collar height, tie and lapel width, and similar wardrobe details.

photo by Alice Lum
On March 24, 1901 Cluett, Peabody & Co. instructed the readers of the New-York Tribune on “correct collars for men.”  Using two of its latest styles as acceptable examples it said “The tendency this season is toward less extravagant height than has been popular, the Nistoga being three inches in front and the Arcassa two and three-quarters inches.

“For day wear, with stiff bosomed shirts, the proper thing is the tab collar with wings.  For neglige shirts the collar should have a wide fold, with either square or round corners.  Shirts invariably have pleated bosoms, whether soft or laundered, and the attached cuff, with square corners, is somewhat narrower than last season.”

In order to guarantee that a gentleman was property outfitted, the Tribune advised that “Cluett, Peabody & Co. have just issued a dainty booklet, sent on application, of the new things for spring and summer wear, with a resume of correct styles for all occasions.”

In the years just prior to World War I the parapet had already disappeared -- photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Meanwhile, the upper floors of the Springler Building filled with light manufacturing and office tenants.  In 1901 Mark Aronson, maker of cloaks and suits, employed 100 workers—an even mix of 50 males and 50 females—each of whom worked 51 and a half hours per week.  Among those leasing office space in 1906 was Henry Hart who operated his Metropolitan Life Insurance business here.

Aronson’s presence in the building reflected the encroachment of the millinery and apparel district into Union Square as the exclusive retailers continued their march northward along Fifth Avenue.  Apparel-related firms like the London Button Company and, later, the Rochester Button Company would occupy the entire second floor.

A somewhat surprising use of the building came about in 1921 when the Maryland Casualty Company installed a hospital for treatment of injured compensation claimants.  Hospital Management reported that “The hospital is completely equipped, including X-ray apparatus and baking and massage machines.  A staff of surgeons and nurses will be on duty at all times.”

Horse-drawn and motorized vehicles share Union Square West in front of the Spingler Building on a snowy March 9, 1920 --photograph by Arthur Hosking, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Along with Rochester Button Co. in the 1930s were Premier Cutlery, Inc. and the retail store of the Surplus Wholesale Corporation.  A long-term retailer was Joseph Mayer Co., Inc. dealers in “distinctive picture frames.”  The firm would remain in the building from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Following the turn of the 21st century nearly half of the Spingler Building was leased by Rockwell Group, a “cross-disciplinary architecture and design practice.”  The retail space at street level, where fashionable Edwardian gentlemen shopped for collars and cuffs, is now home to an expansive Staples store.

photo by Alice Lum

Except for renovations at street level, W. H. Hume & Son’s light, unpretentious Spingler Building is nearly unchanged since its opening in 1897.


  1. Your blog is amazing, it's one of my favorites! Congrats!
    I would love to know more about madonna's house (152 east 81st). It's gorgeous and always makes me curious about its history.

  2. Your version of the story of the Spingler purchase is an improvement but it is inaccurate.
    #1 Brevoort was not the 'first owner'. > The land was granted to Simon Congo, freed slave, in the 1640's. The grant was later confirmed when the British Crown took over. Then, it went through other ownerships before the Brevoort family secured title. During British rule the free slaves were driven from NYC due to the institution of laws intended for that purpose.
    #2 The original John Smith died in 1768. leaving the parcel in trust to his wife and children. His wife died in 1773. It is unclear why the executors sold the estate to Spingler. (print media of the era got the story wrong but their versions of the story persist in the retelling) It is indeed likely that the many heirs (sons) were Loyalists... but they did not have title to the property. James Duane (atty. and mayor of NY) was one of two remaining executors for John Smith, deceased.
    The correct story is compiled at
    The best source material is in Isaac Phelps Stokes' Iconography of Manhattan where the chain of title is documented.
    Thanks for the work you've done on this topic. I appreciate all the other details you've put together here.