Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Ever-Changing No. 746 Madison Avenue

Separate side doorways, topped with elegant Federal urns, lead to the upstairs spaces -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On March 4, 1884 The New York Times casually reported that “The congregation B’nai Jeshurun has purchased from Newman Cowen a piece of property on the west side of Madison-avenue, about 25 feet south of Sixty-fifth-streeet, being about 75 feet on the avenue, for $75,000.”

Incorporated in 1823, the group was the second oldest Jewish congregation in New York.  Since 1864 it had worshiped on 34th Street, near Sixth Avenue; but now its 20-year lease on the land was about to expire.  The development of the Madison Avenue neighborhood as a fashionable address was reflected in the price the congregation paid for the land—just under $2 million today.

Congregation B’nai Jeshurun commissioned the architectural firm of Schwarzmann & Buchman to design the new synagogue.  The choice of architectural styles had posed a problem for synagogue designers for decades.  Gothic Revival was heavily used for Christian churches, while Greek Revival smacked of a tradition of pagan worship.  Moorish Revival, however, harkened back to the pre-Inquisition days when Jews enjoyed relative freedom in Spain.

Joining forces with Rafael Guastavino, the architects combined Moorish with a splash of Byzantine.  Guastavino, who had arrived in America eight years earlier from Spain, had already earned a reputation for his arched construction process of interlocking terra cotta tiles known as the “Guastavino Tile Arch System.”   

The building was completed the following year and on March 25, 1885 was dedicated.  With a seating capacity of 1,000 and costing $200,000, it was the second largest synagogue in the city.  It was partly constructed of materials from the 34th Street structure.  “The old building was taken down and the stone and brick used in the construction of the fine new building now dedicated,” reported The New York Times.

The newspaper said “The interior of the new synagogue was modeled after the first synagogue erected in Europe, at Toledo, Spain, and is in the style of the Spanish Renaissance.  The front, which is of Philadelphia brick and stone, is of the Byzantine style, with Moorish combinations and with a portico in the Moorish style.”

As the century drew to a close and the neighborhood continued to draw millionaires, the congregation found itself in a face-to-face battle with one of the wealthiest—John Jacob Astor.  In 1894 Astor began plans for his private carriage house and stable on the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 65th Street, directly next to the synagogue.  In April Congregation B’nai Jeshurun joined other neighbors in a legal battle against Astor.

The judge was told that “it is contended that Mr. Astor is invading [the synagogue’s] rights, that bad an unwholesome odors will be wafted into the synagogue if the stable is completed, and that the neighing and stamping of the horses will interfere with the religious services.”  The congregation also contended that a stable would lower the property value of the temple by one-fifth.

Astor’s carriage house was erected elsewhere.

Congregation B’nai Jeshurun worshiped in its exotic building for three decades before deciding to move to the Upper West Side.  On January 9, 1916 its intentions to sell the Madison Avenue building to the Alliance Realty Company were announced and four months later The Times reported that “Madison Avenue is about to lose one of its most imposing religious structures in the demolition within a few weeks of the synagogue of the Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun.”

Alliance Realty Company, which had paid $165,000 for the synagogue, announced that “On the site of the interesting building will be erected a two or three story taxpayer, with stores on the ground floor and small apartment son the upper floors.”

But someplace along the way there was a change of heart.  Instead of demolishing the building, the new owners restyled it.  The architectural firm of Rouse & Goldstone was hired to transform the Moorish duckling into a Federal swan.  When they were done a year later the synagogue was unrecognizable; its façade replaced by a prim Federal Period-inspired commercial front.

Surrounding the two-story cast iron expanse of shop windows was red brick laid in a diamond pattern.  Eight-over-eight paned windows on the third floor, capped with splayed stone lintels, sat within arches.  Three tall dormers sat above the deeply-overhanging cornice.  Not all of the old building was gone, though.  To the rear the old synagogue sanctuary survived.  The Sun reported on November 4, 1917 “The rear end of the structure was not affected by the changes.”  Called the Assembly Hall,  it was 50 feet in length and 75 feet side and, according to The Sun, “about three stories high.”

By November 1917 construction was completed and tenants began moving in.  Dr. I. S. Hirsch took one of the front “studios,” as did J. C. Work.  The Clausen Art Rooms moved into one of the large street level retail spaces, offering “Paintings, Engravings, Etchings, Art, Mirrors, Picture Frames, Unique Lamps, Decorations.”
The main commercial entrance was a combination of elegant Federal motifs cast in iron.

It was the lease of the Assembly Hall that drew the most attention.  On November 4 The New York Times noted “The Alliance Realty Company has leased to Helen Moller as a dancing studio the hall in the old Synagogue building at 746 Madison Avenue, which has been remodeled.”  The same day The Sun reported on the lease, calling Helen Moller “the young American woman who has aroused considerable interest in classical dancing.”  It added “Her studio is an interesting one and perhaps is the only one of its kind…The galleries along the side of the building have been turned into rooms and offices for the use of Miss Moller’s  school.  Some of the gallery rooms will be used for private instruction.”

The newspaper said “The lease by Miss Moller will have an important bearing on the rental value of the block, according to real estate men.”  In fact, however, it was not Helen who signed the lease on the soaring space.  According to The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide it was rented by “Robert A. Pool, for a dancing academy.” 

Robert Albert Poole was, as described by The New York Times, a “wealthy English engineer.”  He had married his wife, Edna, in London in 1898.  Now living in New York, he was president of the Mediterranean Trading Company at No. 29 Broadway.   And since around 1913 he was quite involved with Helen Moller.  It was an arrangement that would soon become messy.
Exquisite, fine detailing went into the two-story cast iron front.

But in the meantime Helen went about teaching her progressive form of classical dance—mostly done barefoot—and promoting her artistic reputation.  Her great break came in February 1918 when she “and her ensemble of fifty young dancers” were scheduled to appear at the Metropolitan Opera House, accompanied by the Orchestral Society of New York.

The matinee performance went on stage on February 25 to the delight and horror of the Edwardian audience.  Helen called her studio--somewhat blasphemously considering the building’s history--“Helen Moller’s Temple;” and so in reporting on the performance The Times called the dancers “Helen Moller’s Young Temple Girls.”  But it was the girls’ costumes, or lack of them, that drew critical attention.

“A large audience applauded many times, and, at other moments hissed, as audiences here do rarely, to express varying views of the public exhibition of so much ‘nature’ in visible forms,” reported The Times.  “The idea was not new, however, and from the point of view of row AA it could be denied that the dancers appeared more than casually or instantaneously nude.”

Helen defended the near-nudity of her dancers—all under 16 years of age.  “According to pure Greek art as shown by its statuary, mostly of the dance, there is nothing ‘nude’ in the nude, but, on the contrary, it expresses the most beautiful conceptions in nature”

Mayor Hylan apparently disagreed and on March 13 instructed Police Commissioner Enright “to see to it that no such exhibition as was recently given by Miss Helen Moller, the dancer, in her interpretation of Sibelius’s ‘Valse Triste,’ be repeated.”  The New-York Tribune reported that Hyland said, in part, “This young woman claimed to have appeared in the name of art, but most people believe it was an indecent performance.”

Although Helen had hired the Metropolitan Opera house independently and had “even provided a new stage carpet at high cost for her fifty young dancers’ bare feet,” according to The Times, the Met stockholders canceled her second scheduled performance.  Instead, the act was moved to Carnegie Hall on March 11 with what The New York Times called “somewhat more of drapery and less startling effects of light.”

Later that year Helen purchased the country estate of Archibald Harrison in Mount Kisco, New York.  She announced that “she plans to build an open-air theatre modeled along the lines of the ancient Greek theatres,” reported The Times.   By now she was introducing herself, non-professionally, as Mrs. Robert Poole, and a year later, in November, little Robert Alfred Poole, Jr. would be born.

The problem was that Edna W. Poole was still in the picture.  It was not until September 1920 that Edna was granted a divorce, naming Helen Moller as correspondent.  “The dancer asserted at the time that she and Poole had gone through a form of marriage,” said The Times.

The New York Herald dredged up the earlier Metropolitan Opera sensation.  “Miss Helen Moller, the classic dancer, who attracted attention back in February, 1918, when she flitted across the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House garbed in a smile and little more, was named correspondent.” it said.

While the scandal played out, a far less controversial tenant was operating in the front of the Madison Avenue building.  Anna E. Chaires ran Miss Chaires’ Outdoor School on the second floor.  She described the facility in 1920 as “A school that adapts its methods of instruction to the mental processes and play instincts of the child.”  Teaching kindergarten through elementary grades, she described the school as “Delightful sunny rooms, perfectly equipped” and added “Some part of each day’s schooling is given out of doors, except when weather conditions are prohibitive.”

Anna Chaires also ran The Good Times Club for her pupils, “an afternoon recreation group in which the play is happier and more beneficial because guided by sympathetic teachers.”

On June 25, 1921 The Evening World reported on Anna Chaires’ Camp Tallahassee, a summer camp in Southampton Long Island for well-to-do girls aged 16 to 21   She stressed to the reporter that girls in her camp “are going to be REFINED and only do the things ‘Nice People’ do.”

“And in order to be sure these flappers will not flap Miss Chaires has laid down [a] set of fines to be paid for certain so-called misdemeanors of the camp.  Insisting that the modern girl “is going too far,” Anna Chaires published the list of violations:
$1.00 per damn
.50 for every slang word
1.00     for every cigarette
1.00 for skirts which are not six inches below knee
1.00 for rolling stockings to sock size
1.00 for high French heels
.50 for baby French heels
1.00 for calling a man on the telephone (provided he is not dad, granddad uncle or brother)
1.00 for indulging in petting parties
1.00 for jazzing, shimmying or whistling.
The money went into a scholarship fund for the girls at the subsequent season’s camp.

The Evening World described Anna as “a round-faced, plump, little woman of middle age,”  She told the newspaper “Girls are getting more jazzy, more unconventional and more shocking every day.”  And she intended that a summer at Camp Tallahassee prompt the girls “to dance decently, to use good English, to refrain from the popular slang, quit saying damn (and worse than that), to stop smoking cigarettes and doing all these wild things we hear about.”

Other tenants in the building at the time were a lighting shop and, starting in 1930, the Madison Clock Shop which had been further down Madison Avenue for 22 years.

In April 1937 plans were filed by the owner, First National Realty Corp., “for alterations,” estimated to cost $65,000.  Architect Kenneth B. Nortan had been hired to reduce the building from three to two stories.  Schwarzmann & Buchman’s handsome neo-Federal top floor with its dormers and arches was to be shorn off.

As work neared completion nearly a year later in February, tragedy struck.  Fifty-year old laborer Frank Chichka fell from a scaffold on the second floor, fracturing his skull on the pavement below.  He died in New York Hospital on February 26.

Four months later, on June 18, 1938 the renovated structure was officially completed.  The New York Times reported “the size of the building has been reduced to two stories and it now contains five stores with showrooms above.”  The newspaper said that Norton “has harmonized the original white-columned Colonial front with new bronze show windows.”

Among the first tenants was the upscale furrier, Samuel Wilentz.  Then, as the United States was drawn into World War II, the building became headquarters for the New York City Women’s Council of the Navy League of the United States.  The group with the cumbersome name opened a gift shop, named “Anchors Aweigh,” here stocked with art objects and other items contributed by New Yorkers.  A workroom on the second floor was used for the sewing of clothes for the children of enlisted Navy men.

In 1943, a year after the shop and workroom were opened, the group initiated the Navy League Kitchen Cupboard Shop in the building.  Here New York housewives could purchase “non-rationed foods and labor-saving kitchen devices for the maidless household.”  Proceeds were used for the sewing and repairing of garments for the Navy Relief Society.

Among the non-rationed foodstuffs women could purchase here were “dehydrated tomato paste and tomato cocktails, bouillon paste, a brand of ‘real’ pulverized coffee, a piquant sauce to replace chili sauce and mustard honey to be used in lieu of mustard,” reported The Times.

Following the war the street level became home to the Far Gallery—and upscale art gallery that would remain a Madison Avenue fixture until 1972.  It was replaced by La Goulue, a brasserie with a Parisian décor that lured a broad range of celebrated customers including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Catherine Deneuve, Oscar de la Renta, Bruce Springsteen, Sigourney Weaver, Ashley Judd, Jude Law and Giorgio Armani.

In 2008 the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission held a hearing on a proposal by the owners of No. 746 Madison Avenue to demolish the building.  The proposed design by Page Ayres Cowley would save the two-story cast iron storefront, plastering it onto a 14-story mixed use building.

The Landmarks Preservation Society heard arguments for and against the proposed mutilation -- January 23, 2008
The Municipal Art Society of New York testified against the proposal, saying in part “While the applicants may claim this is not a demolition, it clearly is.  While they plan to restore and retain the very significant cast iron storefront, it will be used as an architectural remnant applied to a new building.”

Preservationists and developers eventually met in the middle.  The amazing metamorphosis of the 1885 synagogue to 1917 Federal commercial structure to 1938 two-story store would have one more chapter.  The 1936 façade, including the diamond-pattern brickwork and side entrance doors were preserved, the open areas flanking the second floor filled in, and three stories rather than 12 erected above and behind.  The architects tried to be sympathetic--mimicking the overlights of the side doors on the upper story windows and adding a reasonably historic-looking cornice.

All in all what remains of No. 746 Madison Avenue is a sad, if elegant, patch of a once-charming structure.

uncredited photographs taken by the author


  1. While Facadism is not always a great solution, it surely beats the complete demolition of a structure and it's loss to the streetscape. Here we at least have the beautiful cast iron storefront to admire and I would rather have that than anythnig that would have replaced it. This was accomplished much better at Bendels on Fifth Avenue than executed here yet such solutions should be utilized more often. Wish more townhouses and low rise building fronts could be saved this way, but that addition needs better articulation. The 3rd to 5th stories are hopelessly dull and flat.

  2. All things considered, this could have been a great deal worse.

  3. Your blog is really amazing! thank you so much for your creative inspirations and thank you for the sharing.

    1. Thanks so much. Glad you're enjoying it.