Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The 1882 Ontiora Apartments -- No. 200 W. 55th Street

Although it was inventor and actor Isaac Merritt Singer who founded the Singer Sewing Machine Company; it was Edward Clark who made it a success.  The sewing machine was not a new idea when Singer began tinkering with the contraption around 1850; several variations had already been patented.

Singer’s improvements, however, patented on August 12, 1851, resulted in the first practical machine.  His prototype could sew 900 stitches per minute—more than 40 professional seamstresses.   Clark had been Singer’s attorney since 1848 and the two became business partners.  

A marketing genius, Clark sold the domestic versions of the machine to wives of clergymen at a 50-percent discount.  When the preachers’ wives received their sewing machines, Clark knew that women in the congregations would follow suit.  He also came up with the idea of an installment plan, so a housewife could make small payments on the $10 machine until it was hers.  As improvements made the older machines obsolete, Clark accepted trade-ins—an unheard of concept that caused sales to skyrocket.

Edward Clark amassed a personal fortune and began looking towards real estate development.  In the 1870’s he teamed with architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh and erected rental cottages for summer visitors to Lake Otsego near Cooperstown, New York.  It would be the beginning of a long and mutually-prosperous relationship.

It would still be years before Hardenbergh’s name would be nationally recognized for buildings like the Waldorf and Astoria Hotels, the Western Union Building on 23rd Street, and the Plaza Hotel.   Toward the end of 1877, Clark bought up several building plots on Seventh Avenue.   Outspoken in his elitist attitudes towards the impoverished; he intended to make the West Side as affluent as the East.  To do so he would simply push the poor out by constructing high-end apartment buildings and he urged other property owners to do the same.

He encouraged landowners to work together, mutually investing in property, and issuing restrictive covenants on construction.  He told a meeting of the West Side Association in 1879 that only their cooperation could establish the West Side’s “exclusive character” and lure well-to-do residents. 

According to the authors of “The Park and the People," he asserted “There is the highest authority for believing that the poor will always be with us; but it does not follow that the poor will necessarily occupy any part of the West Side plateau.  The poor would be sufficiently with us if they lived in New Jersey or Long Island.”

The previous year Clark had put his money where his mouth was.   He owned three of the corner lots at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 55th Street.  In 1878 he began erecting what today would be termed “luxury apartments.”  Henry J. Hardenbergh designed all three—the Wyoming, the Van Corlear, and the Ontiora.

The Ontiora was completed in 1882 at the southwest corner.    The red brick building with white stone trim stretched along West 55th Street with its entrance centered at No. 200.   Unlike the Dakota Apartments he had designed for Clark two years earlier, there were no turrets or pyramids or balconies.  Instead Hardenbergh turned to the sharp angles and clean lines of the Queen Anne and Eastlake Movements currently taking hold.  The entrance portico morphed into the slightly-projecting wall of the central staircase hall within; which then edged back to the façade much like an exterior chimney wall.  Here the architect focused his embellishments—including stained glass windows with “jewels,” and the date of completion in a carved cartouche.

The date of construction is carved in a cartouche resembling a frightening, gap-mouthed creature.

Still hoping to push the poor to New Jersey, Clark’s Ontiora offered one enormous apartment per floor—about 2,000 square feet or the dimensions of a reasonably-sized private home.   The ceilings rose over 10 feet from the floor and the interior doors and cabinetry were of handsome woods.

Just as the first residents moved into the new Ontiora, Edward C. Clark died on October 14, 1882.   The new tenants were of the social class Clark had hoped for.  Lawrence Miller and his wife lived here by 1892.  She was a member of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Committee of the Post Graduate Hospital and a force behind the building fund for the new babies’ ward of that facility.

Mrs. Miller and the other committee members worked to raise $20,000 to build and equip the new Post Graduate Hospital wards.  The New York Times said “These wards not only serve to relieve the misery among the children of the destitute, who are treated free of charge and without distinction of race, color, or creed, but also serve as a school for the physicians from every part of the country who come to study the diseases of children.”

It was not all charity work for the socialite, however.  A year later, on January 26, 1893, the society gossip newspaper, Town Topics, noted that “Mrs. Lawrence Miller, of West Fifty-fifth street, who has been visiting her mother, Mrs. Joseph Sawyer, in Boston, the past fortnight, has had no end of agreeable attention offered her.”   No doubt other wealthy ladies poured over the list of affairs held for her.  “She had a dinner at the Somerset Club, among other smart entertainments, given by Mr. and Mrs. David Nevins.  Mrs. Miller gave a luncheon just before leaving for New York to a party of twelve of her old school friends at her mother’s house on Commonwealth avenue.”

White stone trim contrasts with the robust red brick.
In the Ontiora at the same time were Dr. Bernard E. Vaughan and his wife.  The medical prodigy had moved to New York two years after the apartment building was completed to study at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  Following his graduation in 1887, he was accepted as a member of St. Luke’s Hospital, later to be made house physician.

The year after he left the hospital, in 1889, he married Maud Phillips Kniffen.  His career continued to skyrocket.  By 1895 he was the assistant attendant physician at the New York Cancer Hospital, physician at the New York Dispensary, instructor at the Post-Graduate Hospital (Mrs. Miller’s pet charity), and was on the medical staff of the New York Life Insurance Company.

On February 27, 1895 the 32-year old doctor was taken from his apartment to St. Luke’s Hospital.   He was operated upon for appendicitis the following day; and within a few days succumbed from “the effects of an operation,” according to The Sun on March 7. 

Rather oddly, the members of the Hospital Graduates’ Club felt it necessary to vote on delivering condolences to his young widow.  The club’s minutes of April 23, 1895 read “Resolved, That the sincere sympathy of the club be tendered to his bereaved family, and that this action be entered upon the club records and published in the professional journals of the city.”

The McLoughlin family was residing here at the time and little William McLoughlin proved that a privileged upbringing did not always dissuade mischief.  He found himself behind bars in November 1896.

According to The New York Times on November 4, “William McLoughlin, eight years old, of 200 West Fifty-fifth Street, was arrested last night for building a bonfire in Fifty-fifth Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues.”   Exacerbating the boy’s crime was his choice of fuel for the fire.  He was also charged with “tearing down fences built around a vacant house in the same block.”

Other residents were the well-to-do W. H. Shields and his wife.  Mrs. Shields was the sister of the Rev. John Spencer Turner, Jr.  On October 9, 1898 The Sun reminded readers that he was “the Episcopalian clergyman whose conversion to the Catholic church created considerable discussion last summer when the fact became known.”

Mrs. Shields and her brother were born in Brooklyn and he was ordained an Episcopalian priest in 1894.  When he converted to Catholicism, things got messy.  “He was rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Rochester, N. Y., when he incurred the displeasure of the late Bishop Cox by reason of his ritualistic practices,” said The Sun.  “The Bishop forbade him to preach in his diocese, and in token of this inhibition Mr. Turner caused a black flag to be displayed from his residence.”

The hoop-la seemed to have died down a bit by the following year.  The European comings and goings of Mrs. Shields and her husband were commonly noted in the society pages.  But in October 1898 social eyebrows would be raised after their steamship docked in Manhattan.

The Sun ran the shocking headline that announced “Mrs. Shields Turns Catholic” and reported “Mrs. W. H. Shields of 200 West Fifty-fifth street, this city, has lately returned from Paris, where she was converted to the Roman Catholic faith.”

In 1915 sewer workers toil on 55th Street.  The deep light well with its iron railing is still evident and the commercial space on the ground floor is still years away -- photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
When Helen Guard lived here in 1915, the ground floor of the Ontiora was still girded by a deep light well and the apartments were still rambling, upscale flats.   That year Italy put aside its policy of neutrality and in May entered World War I on the side of the Allies.  Helen Guard was a friend of Madame Daballa, the wife of the Italian General in Turin.  Through her Helen learned of the sufferings of the Italian troops in the frigid mountains 8,000 to 10,0000 feet up.

She wrote to the Editor of The New York Times on October 8, 1915 offering to collect warm clothing for the soldiers.  Telling readers that the Italian Government had let its female citizens know that 18 million pairs of woolen socks and several million woolen mittens and sweaters were needed, she wrote “Italy has made no appeal of any kind for aid to others than her citizens.  I am quite sure, however, that there are thousands of American women who feel themselves in debt to her, and if any one of them would like to send one pair, a dozen pairs, or a hundred pairs of woolen socks for the Italian soldiers’ use, I shall be happy to forward them.”

Helen closed her letter saying “They should be of large size.”

Throughout the following decade the apartment house retained its respectable tone, although by 1922 a commercial space had been gouged out of the Seventh Avenue facade.  Thomas D. Green and his wife lived here in the 1920’s while daughter, Julie Gibbs Green, attended the Veltin School and the Mount Vernon Seminary in Washington, D. C.  In August 1923 Julie was married in a fashionable ceremony to Princeton graduate and former Navy Junior Lieutenant Perry McKay Sturges.

In 1922 when the Greens were living here a storefront had been installed on the 7th Avenue side.  photograph by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWRMYLJ0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=18#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWRMYLJ0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=18
As the 1940’s approached change was coming to Seventh Avenue.  In 1938 the light well was covered over and each of the gargantuan apartments were divided into three—all except the third floor which remained a single apartment.  That holdout resident remained until 1956 when the third floor apartment, too, became three.

Through the first decade of the 21st century the building was slathered in gray paint -- photo http://www.startsandfits.com/hardenbergh/ontiora.html
Sometime after the mid-20th century Hardenbergh’s robust Ontiora was covered over in a monochromatic coating of gray paint.  The all-important contrast of brick and stone was disguised and the building became supremely overlookable.  Inside things were not faring too well for the once-elegant apartment building either.  In 1997 The Times opined “the Ontiora is now far from what Edward Clark envisioned: dirty and bedraggled, swamped by traffic and noise, the ground floor now turned over to commerce.  The halls have open trash cans—Clark would have had staff whisk any garbage away by dumbwater—and the walls are grimy with age.”

Although the street level, including the wonderful entrance portico, has been obliterated, most of Hardenbergh's hefty design survives.
A restoration of the façade sometime after 2006 resulted in the re-emergence of the wonderful details.  The stained glass panels still survive in the stairwell hall and the three apartments per floor—still roomy by Manhattan standards—with their 10-1/2 foot ceilings still exist.
non-credited photographs taken by the author

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Lost H. Bramhall Gilbert House -- No. 40 West 57th Street

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE8XP7D&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

In 1902 the West 57th Street block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues had changed.  The regimented rows of brownstone homes constructed a generation earlier were being replaced or remodeled into extravagant mansions as the city’s wealthiest citizens moved northward up the avenue.  Among the millionaires on the block were Harry Payne Whitney, Mrs. Elizabeth Roosevelt, Mr. and Mrs. O. H. Harriman, Mrs. Robert B. Maclay, Mr. and Mrs. M. C. Borden.

As the year drew to a close at least one stealthy burglar found the block to be a lucrative hunting ground.  Within two months between November and January no fewer than ten homes had been broken into and jewelry, silverware and other valuables taken.  Terrifying to the residents was that the thief always ransacked the upper rooms while the family was at dinner.  The intruder would enter from the roof; but police were baffled as to how he managed to reach the roof and escape with his bag of loot.

Among the residents victimized was Charles F. Schmitt who lived at No. 40 West 57th Street.  The President of Charles F. Schmidt & Peters, a wine importing firm, Schmitt was comfortable with the house as it was built—a four-story brownstone that served his family’s wants. 

Also in the house were Schmitt’s wife, their four daughters and one son.  The Sun called him “one of New York’s prominent German merchants.”  He had been doing business in the city for more than half a century since his arrival in 1852 at the age of 20.  Schmitt’s no-nonsense German approach to his home seeped into his social life as well.  While his neighbors held memberships in several of the exclusive Fifth Avenue men’s clubs; Charles Schmitt had time for only one social club—the Deutsche Verein.

At the time of the Schmitt burglary attorney H. Bramhall Gilbert lived in a fine mansion at No. 826 Fifth Avenue at 64th Street.  With him were his wife Lilla, their son, Harry, and daughters Florence, Elizabeth and Lilla.  Next door lived Mrs. Gilbert’s brother, William Gould Brokaw, in an equally-lavish home.  Lilla Gilbert was born into the massively wealthy Brokaw family.  Many believe her playboy brother, fascinated with fast cars, would become, the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby character.

Lilla Brokaw Gilbert in 1899 -- Cosmopolitan Magazine, (copyright expired)

In 1903 the Gilberts sold the mansion and, going against the northward flow of Manhattan millionaires, purchased a house one block to the south at No. 17 East 63rd Street.

Toward the end of 1905 Charles F. Schmitt became ill.  His condition worsened and he died in the 57th Street house on January 26, 1906.  Within a matter of weeks the house was sold. The buyer was John F. Carroll, a prominent Tammany leader and influential factor in New York politics.  Carroll had decided to give up politics that same year.  He had made a reported $2 million in 1904 on Wall Street and now turned his attentions to “dealing in ice stock,” according to The New York Times.

While John Carroll was apparently pleased with the fashionable location, unlike Charles Schmitt, he was not content with the outmoded brownstone.  On Wednesday, February 20, 1907 the New York Evening Telegram reported on his plans to replace the old house with an up-to-date mansion.

The newspaper described the proposed six-story home.  “It will have a central vestibule entrance paved with white granite and an entrance hall in the centre of the building.  The first floor will contain a reception hall and the billiard room, the second floor the drawing and dining rooms and the third story the library.”  The estimated cost for the new house was $75,000—about $1.5 million today.

The house, completed nearly three years later, was a stark departure from the dour brownstone it replaced.  The French Gothic mansion pulled out all the architectural stops.  A prominent three story oriel of small-paned leaded windows was encrusted with exuberant carvings.  It supported a commodious balcony protected by an intricately carved stone railing, above which dormers and spiky finials exploded upward.

Surprisingly, the Carroll family never moved into their new mansion.  Instead, on July 13, 1910, it was reported that Carroll leased the house to H. Bramhall Gilbert for five years at an aggregate rent of $100,000.  The Gilberts continued move against the current of the residential flow.

Lilla Gilbert's French parlor exuded wealth -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE8XP7D&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
Lilla Brokaw Gilbert threw open the doors to the mansion soon after the family moved in.  The Gilbert home would appear in the society pages regularly as dinners, receptions and teas were hosted here.  Especially notable were the entertainments given for young Lilla who was introduced to society late in the fall that year. 

The Gilbert dining room turned to England for inspiration -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE8XP7D&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
The Gilberts’ lavish lifestyle in their city mansion carried over to their summer home “Sunshine” at Great Neck.  The sprawling estate was a Long Island showplace and the family’s steam yacht, the Sunbeam, was moored nearby in the Long Island Sound.  The Evening World mentioned that “The Gilbert houses at Great Neck and No. 40 West Fifty-seventh street, New York, are among the handsomest maintained by society people.”

The surprisingly-modern bathroom included a walk-in shower -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE8XP7D&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
The following summer H. Bramhall Gilbert died in Aix-les-Bains leaving an estate of approximately $15 million.  A few months later, on November 17, 1911, John Carroll died.  Lilla and her daughter continued with their lease of the 57th Street house. 

Before the appropriate mourning period had passed, Lilla Gilbert announced the engagement of her daughter.  The Evening World, on July 5, 1912, ran the headline “Society Surprised by the Betrothal of Miss Gilbert.”  The newspaper described the heiress as “a beautiful young woman, a linguist, a musician, an athlete and with a turn toward charitable pursuits.”  It added “At Palm Beach she is reckoned one of the best swimmers of her set.”

The entrance foyer featured a highly-unusual ceiling fixture -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE8XP7D&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
Lilla’s fiance was the 25-year old Howard Price Renshaw, the son of a wealthy Troy, New York, inventor and manufacturer.  Social page readers were more interested in his British pedigree, however.  The Evening World mentioned “Mrs. Lily Hamersley, who afterward became the Duchess of Marlborough, and whose son married Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt, is his aunt.”

Gothic shared space with Moorish in the Gilbert library -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE8XP7D&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

The wedding was celebrated in the 57th Street mansion on the afternoon of April 15, 1913, followed by a reception.  If society had been surprised a year earlier, it would be staggered six months later when the New-York Tribune reported “Announcement has been made of the engagement of Mrs. H. Bramhall Gilbert, daughter of the late William V. Brokaw, of this city, to Captain Cyril Patrick William Francis Radclyffe Dugmore, late of the British Army Service Corps and now on the reserve of officers.”

The recently widowed Lilla had just returned from Europe where she and daughter Florence had spent the summer; perhaps getting to know Captain Dugmore better.  Immediately upon their return Lilla left the 57th Street mansion for good and took an apartment at No. 903 Park Avenue.

A month before Lilla’s wedding in the Gilbert mansion, William Ziegler had purchased a building lot from Otto Kahn on 71st Street on the Lenox Library Block.  His new property abutted the Henry C. Frick mansion currently under construction and was reported to be the largest plot, with the exception of Frick’s, on the block.  With construction of his planned mansion expected to last at least two years, Ziegler needed a place to stay.  On September 2, 1913 he leased the 57th Street mansion from Teresa R. Carroll for two years at $20,000 a year (a substantial rent of about $400,000 a month today).

Ziegler, had recently come into possession of the multimillion dollar estate of his father, William Ziegler, a manufacturer and patron of Arctic expeditions.   Ten months before signing the lease, he had married Gladys Virginia Watson in the St. Regis Hotel on December 11.

The Ziegler family expanded three weeks after taking the 57th Street house when a daughter was born in their country house in Noroton, Connecticut.

When the Zieglers moved into their completed mansion on East 71st Street, Teresa Carroll briefly leased the 57th Street house to Wendell C. Phillips in 1916.  But by now the neighborhood had drastically changed.  Wealthy residents had nearly all fled up Fifth Avenue along Central Park and their former mansions had either been converted for commercial purposes or razed. 

A year later, on February 13, 1917, Mrs. Carroll leased the house to Hagop K. Kevorkian who converted the mansion to “The Studios.”  An artist himself, Kevorkian ran an art gallery called “Kevorkian” and rented studios.  On May 19, 1918 he showed his patriotism by hosting an “Entertainment Intime” for the benefit of the smoke and canteen fund of the Dewey Navy Recreation Committee of the Woman’s Naval Service, Inc.  Among the celebrated entertainers were Marion Davis, the Dolly Sisters, Ann Pennington, Kay Laurel, Ina Claire, and a troupe from the Ziegfeld Follies who did a number.

Kevorkian’s star-studded benefit was patronized by some of society’s most elite, including Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, George Jay Gould, John Wanamaker, Jr., Reginald Vanderbilt and Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Jr.

Lilla Gilbert's stunning interiors were stripped bare to showcase Kevorkian's sculptures -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE8XP7D&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
Kevorkian made an unfortunate choice in tenants in 1921.  Already in the building was Adeline D. Cummings who ran an upscale art and antiques shop upstairs.  She was highly upset when a new tenant moved in—Dr. Berthold Baer who ran an undertaking establishment.  Hagop Kevorkian was equally upset when she began moving her inventory out of the building.  The dispute ended up in Supreme Court.

She complained in court that “the injury her business suffered from the all-pervading, though suave, gloom virtually constituted eviction proceedings.”  She told the judge “Funeral services were held in the building and there were coffins everywhere.”  The New-York Tribune reported “When prospective customers, seeking antiques, sought to take the elevator to Mrs. Cummings’s shop they were likely to find the car piled high with coffins, she said, and redolent tuberoses and resignation.”

The newspaper said lightly, “The coffins were undeniably modern and utilitarian and did not appeal in the slightest to Mrs. Cummings’s customers.  One or two encounters with coffins, she said, was enough for the hardiest and her business began to languish alarmingly.”

Kevorkian converted the street level to retail space -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE8XBOK&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

The dispute was worked out, the funerary business left, and on May 6, 1922 the Real Estate Record and Guide reported that “An antique dealer who for some time had leased the former fine residence of the late John F. Carroll at 40 West 57th street, recently bought it.”

Kevorkian would retain possession of the house for years and in the 1930s and 1940s, in addition to the studios, apartments were leased in the upper floors to well-to-do tenants.  In 1937 one of these was Andy Sannella, a locally well-known radio and dance orchestra leader.  On June 22, 1940 Walter Winchell hinted at a debutante’s identity without exposing her name.  “The pretty gal who tried to wreck the Stork Club last night while cold sober (she bumped over tables, chairs and crockery) dwells at 40 West Fifty-seventh street.  She was released in the station house after signing a promise never to go there again.”

Not long after the pretty girl knocked over tables at the Stork Club, the 57th Street house became home to the American Friends of Norway.  Then, in the late 1950s to 1961 photographer Ray Shorr operated his studio and classroom here.  Students learned the art of photography from the celebrated Shorr.  A lingerie store, the Corsetorium, was on the ground floor.

August 1961 was the end of the line for Ray Shorr’s photography class here, the Corsetorium, and the French Gothic mansion itself.  Alfred Lawrence purchased No. 40 and No. 38 as part of a redevelopment project that replaced the old homes with a modern business building.
photo http://nyocommercialobserver.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/40-west-57th-street1.jpg

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 http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWEK9PB2&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

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  http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWEK9PB2&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

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.