Saturday, January 18, 2014

The 1904 Facelift of No. 36 West 34th Street

"Alterations" to two back-to-back brownstone mansions resulting in a single Beaux Arts commercial building.

Although West 34th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was still fashionable in 1885—after all the brownstone mansions of the Astors still anchored the Fifth Avenue end of the block—No. 36 was no longer a private dwelling.  On May 9 of that year the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity was incorporated and established its clubhouse in the lower levels of the house.  The articles of incorporation declared the objects of the club to be “To promote social intercourse among the members thereof, and to provide for them a pleasant place of convenient resort for their entertainment and improvement.”

The new club of 250 members threw what the New-York Tribune called a “memorable house-warming.”  After “two years of prosperous life in that house,” the club outgrew the space.  By May 1, 1887 the membership numbered 360 and the space was no longer adequate.  Now called by the newspaper “The largest and one of the most successful Greek letter clubs in the city,” it moved to a larger residence at No. 435 Fifth Avenue.

Shortly after the fraternity moved out, the mansion was the scene of the funeral of Henry Milford Smith, proprietor of the nearby Grand Hotel, located at Broadway and 31st Street.  In 1884 “New York’s Great Industries” had called Smith “as widely known as he is warmly respected throughout all sections of the United States, and one who has manifested superior qualifications for the keeping of a first-class hotel.”

Smith’s respected status among his peers was evident on the afternoon of August 23.  In reporting on the funeral The New York Times said “There were a large number of hotel men present, including Hiram Hitchcock, of the Fifth-Avenue; A. L. Ashman, of the Sinclair; H. H. Brockway, of the Ashland; Mr. Hoyt, of the Victoria; Mr. Rogers, of the Coleman, and George T. Putney, of the Rossmore Hotel.”

Within a few years the house would be leased to the Fox family.  While the family lived upstairs, the parlor floor housed the high-end shop of dressmakers Miss Fox and Miss Boland.  The New York Times counted them on April 30, 1891 among “some of the most fashionable” dressmakers.  Both women were no doubt embarrassed when they were separately named in newspapers during a Customs scandal that year.

The big dry goods houses were puzzled when private high-end dressmakers were offering the latest in Parisian fashions at lower prices than they could offer.  Customs officials began an investigation.  Undercover agents found that Charles H. Lauer, who had offices in Paris, London and New York, was skirting the payment of duty on “silks, worsteds, woolens, crepes, etc., and made up in the highest style of Parisian art.”  The goods were then passed on to high-end dressmakers at the reduced cost.

Sorting out which dressmakers knew about the scam and which were innocent dupes was difficult.  But in the meantime The Evening World reported on April 30, 1891 “If you have ordered a gown from Paris through your dressmaker prepare for trouble in getting it.”

The Fox family received more favorable press when Theresa Fox was married to John J. Derry on July 9, 1894.  The wedding took place in the Church of the Paulist Fathers on Columbus Avenue and 59th Street.  “The bride wore a traveling costume, and was attended by her sister Miss Amelia Fox,” reported The Times.  Following the ceremony, a breakfast was served in the house on 34th Street.

Later that year, in October, The New York Times reported on the sale of the residence.  “The four-story brownstone dwelling 36 West Thirty-fourth Street has been sold by Mrs. Herzog at a little over $100,000.”  The sale price would translate to about $2 million today.

The staggering price reflected the exclusive district.  Although William Astor had demolished his house and erected the Waldorf Hotel, completed a year earlier; the exclusive hotel drew upscale visitors to the neighborhood.  It also drew commerce, and within the next few years the old brownstone residences of 34th Street would be razed or unrecognizably altered for business purposes.

On September 19, 1902 the real estate community pondered George C. Boldt’s intentions on the block.  When Thomas H. Barber sold the two four-story houses at Nos. 32 and 34, The New York Times noted “George C. Boldt is the owner of 36 West Thirty-fourth Street, together with an abutting lot at 41 West Thirty-third Street—a circumstance which caused him to be mentioned as the probably buyer of the Barber parcels.”

If developers thought that Boldt was acquiring adjoining parcels of land to erect a large structure, they were wrong.  For a few years he simply rented out spaces in the back-to-back structures to a variety of tenants.  In 1903 artist Walter H. Robertson had his studio here.  He was scammed out of a $10 gold piece that year when two “well-dressed strangers” told him they would place his $10 horse race bet on “a sure thing.”

The Times reported that the scam artists pretended, at first, to be art patrons.  “In order to cultivate Robertson’s good-will they had pretended to select some handsome pictures, which they asked him to set aside for them in a corner of his studio.”  Having convinced him to place a bet with them, they “vanished with the coin,” explained the newspaper.  Robertson, seemingly, had more talent than common sense.

Earlier that year mining engineer John Armistead of Denver, Colorado was renting a room here while on business in New York.  In June he discovered that New York City policemen were unrelentingly determined.  When bicycle Policeman Greenison noticed the engineer “driving a 20-horsepower machine at a lively pace along the east drive” in Central Park, he took chase.  The New-York Tribune reported that “after a chase of sixteen city blocks through Central Park [the policeman] succeeded in overtaking Armistead.”

The westerner was impressed with the bicycle cop’s tenacity and riding skill.  “Allow me to congratulate you on your ability to ride.  I always like to see a man who does his work well.  I was making very good speed, and you overtook me handily.  I congratulate you,” he said.

Armistead spent the night in jail and was held on $200 bail for trial for speeding.  Nevertheless, the newspaper said that he “did not seem to mind his predicament at all, and, besides making friends with the officer who arrested him, had a merry word for most of the other officers and court clerks.”

A year later Boldt executed what the Department of Buildings termed “altering” the abutting properties.  The completed conversion was significant in the very least.  Matching Beaux Arts facades of limestone and cast iron on 34th and 33rd Streets adorned what was now a single structure.  The top floor of the five-story structure was the focal point—behind an iron-railed balcony two prim copper-clad dormers supported decorative urns.
The 33rd Street side retains the decorative railing above the copper cornice.  The twin facades were originally virtually identical.

The upper floors were intended for small professional offices like that of the architectural firm Westervelt & Austin, of which John Corley Westervelt was a member.  Westervelt would be the architect of the Childs Restaurant chain for more than three decades by the time of his death in 1934, with his office was still in the building.

From the beginning the ground floor was home to a Childs Restaurant with entrances on both streets.  In 1908 the eatery fell victim to “Hunchie” Williams, a gang leader of “expert safe blowers and counterfeiters,” according to The New York Times.  Williams’ gang robbed Childs of $8,000 in what Inspector McCafferty called a “clean-cut job.”

The restaurant would get a boost when the soaring Art Deco Empire State Building replaced the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1931.  The skyscraper housed a workforce the size of a small town; yet it offered little in the way of eating for the workers.  There was a tearoom on the 86th Floor, which cost a dollar admission; the Empire State Club, open only to members; or the Empire State Pharmacy’s lunch counter which offered only stools at a counter.  Six months after the Empire State Building opened the Childs Restaurant Company was calling its branch at No. 36 West 34th Street the “Empire State Childs.”  Workers filled the tables here where lunch could be purchased for as little at 50 cents and dinner for 60 cents.

On February 23, 1932 two men finished their meals and walked up to the cashier, Joseph Ommer, presenting their checks.  Ommer took the bills and waited for the men’s payment. Instead, one of the men produced a revolver and demanded “Where’s our change?”

With a gun pointed at his chest, Ommer produced the men’s “change”--$140 in cash, the contents of both cash drawers.  The Times reported that “The men then hurried to the street and escaped.”

Among the tenants upstairs in 1935 was C. R. Acfield, Inc.  The firm received a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission on December 11 that year on charges of “unfair practice.”  The company sold the “Perfection Toe Splint” for bunions and the “Bentoe Splint” for hammer-toe.  “The complaint charges that the disputed medicines would not cure either ailment,” reported The New York Times on December 12.

On February 6, 1942 fire broke out in the basement of the restaurant around 6:48 in the morning.  The stubborn blaze disrupted traffic on 34th Street for six hours as fire equipment blocked the street.  Fire Chief John J. McCarthy noticed that the tile flooring of the restaurant was sagging and ordered his men out of the building.  Five minutes later a 12-foot section collapsed into the cellar.  One fireman was slightly hurt and a dozen others were affected by smoke inhalation.   Despite the significant damage, the restaurant recovered.

Sadly abused, the building still shows evidence of its once-proud design.

When the building was sold for around half a million dollars in 1953, the Childs Restaurant was still going strong after nearly half a century.  Later that same year, the restaurant introduced a ground-breaking idea—take-out food.  On December 10 The New York Times reported that “A wide assortment of familiar food specialties of Childs restaurants are available in the recently opened Take-Home Food Department at the Childs restaurant at 36 West Thirty-fourth Street.
“Among the foods offered in the new department are several types of salad, beef pie, baked beans, chicken pot pie, beef stew, lamb stew, pastry, rolls, muffins, other baked goods and Savarin ice cream.”

The concept of take-home dining perhaps reflected the changing and increasing role of women in the workplace. 

Today both of the matching facades of the building are careworn.  The ground floor space where decades of Empire State Building workers grabbed lunch has been divided into separate stores with entrances on 33rd and 34th Street.  The street levels have been obliterated, covered over with modern store fronts.  The restrained and handsome upper floors are still intact, however, including those wonderful urns perched on the dormers.

The copper urns, like Aladdin's lamps, survive on both facades.

 photographs taken by the author

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