Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Tin Pan Alley Relic -- No. 40 West 28th Street

The newly-restored copper bays and cornice gleam.  A gouged out scar testifies to a 20th century attempt at modernization, now removed.  photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

By 1890 the once-residential block of West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue bustled with commerce as old homes gave way to business structures.  As the entertainment district inched northward, Broadway saw the rise of elegant transient hotels.  In 1891 Edward Lamontagne leased the old four-story brownstone house at No. 40 West 28th Street to John Ulber. 

Ulber opened a saloon in what had been the English basement, and his Ulber’s Hotel above.  Sitting atop a saloon, one can imagine that the hotel was a bit less classy than its Broadway counterparts.  Although Ulber had signed a seven-year lease; his landlord apparently changed his mind within four years.

On May 30, 1895 The New York Times reported that Lamontagne had sold the 25-foot wide house “known as Ulber’s Hotel” to “an investor” for $60,000.  That figure no doubt played heavily in Lamontagne’s decision to break the lease—it would amount to over $1.5 million today.

The new owner gave the former residence a substantial makeover; replacing the brownstone with a prim limestone façade.  Expansive windows flooded the interiors with sunlight.  The openings at the third and fourth floors were framed in molded copper and two pencil-thin columns spanned the two floors.  The top floor, now the fifth with the stoop and English basement gone, featured arched openings with carved keystones.  A copper cornice crowned it all.
photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

One block to the east, West 28th Street was already familiarly termed “Tin Pan Alley” and was lined with the offices of songwriters and music publishers.  With the opening of the new office spaces in No. 40, one of the best known of these moved in.  Publisher and songwriter Charles B. Ward moved his New York Music Company from No. 57 West 28th.  1895 was a banner year for the company with two major hits: “The Band Played On” and “Strike Up The Band.”

The self-congratulating Ward explained his innovative marketing ideas in Printers’ Ink in December 1895.  “I was the first music publisher to use a daily newspaper as a medium for bringing a song into popularity.  The paper was the N. Y. Sunday World and the song ‘And the Band Played on.’  It appeared in the issue of June 30, 1895, and made a hit.  While, of course, the song possessed a considerable degree of merit, yet I consider that its widespread popularity was largely due to the methods I employed.”

The block of West 28th Street was filled with song writers and publishers.  The shady neighborhood was also rife with illegal gambling houses and saloons.  Among them was Charles Rand’s pool room in No. 40 West 28th Street.  The 19th century term “pool room” did not refer to the game of billiards; but to horse race betting.  In 1895 Police Captain Pickett raided Rand’s operation and seized “all the money and paraphernalia,” according to The Evening World.

Charles Rand and his six employees were arrested and held on $1,000 bail each; a staggering sum of nearly $27,000 today.  Nevertheless all seven men provided their bail.  The newspaper noted that “The penalty is no less than one nor more than five years, and a fine not exceeding $2,000.”

Five years later Charles Rand’s pool room was gone, but George P. Smith was running the Arcadia here.  The saloon was raided on March 14, 1900 and closed down.  Smith was arrested “on charges of keeping a disorderly house,” according to the New-York Tribune the following day.

The New York Times said of the raid “Only the proprietors were arrested and each of the nine most notorious resorts in the Tenderloin precinct was visited.”

Benjamin Rikeldifer was the New York agent for the Baker-Rose Sanitarium at Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, New York and in 1906 his office was on the fourth floor of No. 40 West 28th.   As spring approached that year he received an disturbing letter from the sanitarium.

On March 4 the office girls in the Van Titzler Musical Publishing Company directly across the street became annoyed when Rikeldifer sat staring into their window for hours.   The St. Paul Globe reported that they "thought they were being insulted."

It started around 10:00 in the morning when "Suddenly he leaned back in his chair, turned slowly to the window and sat as motionless as a statue.  Slowly the hours passed, but Rikeldifer never moved.  His eyes were fixed on the windows across the street."

Mamie Bagly and Clara Schroeder were "typewriters" at the publishing office (the early 20th century term for "secretaries").  After six hours of being stared at the girls were indignant and another office worker, Samuel Earlish, decided to defend the women's honor and demand an explanation.

Earlish crossed the street and accosted janitor William A. Collins with a "vigorous complaint."  He threatened to call the police if the insolence did not stop.  Collins and the elevator boy went upstairs and unlocked Rikeldifer's office.  The janitor shook Rikeldifer by the shoulder, looked into his eyes and ran out in a panic.

The Globe reported "He had swallowed a dose of morphine sulphate in his office in the Twenty-eighth street building.  An open letter on his desk before him made the reason clear.  It was from his employers, and declared that he had failed to please them."
The New York Music Co. would score another hit with its tremendously successful "Take Me Out To the Ball-Game" published here.

The New York Music Company was still here in 1908 when it published another block-buster song, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”   The ground floor space was, by now, a more respectable establishment.  Max Herzka and his wife Annie ran their small restaurant here, catering to the many loft and office workers in the neighborhood.

The morning of February 7, 1910 was an brutally cold and when Max and Annie opened the restaurant shortly before 7:00 they did not realize that the boiler had frozen overnight.  Soon the employees began filing in.  Annie Vogel was the cashier, there were three waitresses, and 32-year old Mary Phillips arrived for her first day as a cook.

A customer walked in around 8:00 and ordered boiled eggs and buttered toast.  Mary started the toast and lighted the gas stove to boil the water for the eggs.  With her in the kitchen were Herzka and Annie.

“Hardly had the stove been lighted before the water started to boil, and then there occurred a terrific explosion,” reported The New York Times the next day.  “The stove was thrown backward and the boiler, which exploded, fell on top of it.  Herzka, his wife, and the cook were hurled with great force to the floor, and the cooking utensils fell on top of them.”

Meanwhile, in the restaurant area dishes crashed to the floor and the large plate glass window was blown out.  The customer and the four employees were knocked to the ground.  Within a few minutes the kitchen was on fire and passersby ran into the building to learn from the waitresses that there were three people trapped inside. 

Police arrived and found Herzka and the two women in the burning ruins.  Herzka and Annie were both unconscious and were carried to the street.  Mary Phillips was able to get herself out.  Both Max and Annie Herzka were taken to the New York Hospital, where Annie’s survival was questionable.  Mary’s burns were dressed and she was sent home with an unbelievable tale of her first day at work.

“The falling over of the gas stove caused a lively blaze in the rear of the restaurant,” reported The Times, “the loss being estimated at $5,000.  Nearly everything in the place was broken by the explosion and fire.”

Over the next few years the building would become home to a wide variety of small business.  In 1911 the Automatic Baseball Company leased space here.  The firm manufactured a tabletop baseball game.  The Progressive Embroidery Company and the Well Made Garment Company both took space here in 1913. 

In 1915 Harry A. Bunyard leased the store and basement.  He hung a sign outside that read “The Uptown Seed Store—The Harry A. Bunyard Co., Inc., Seeds, Bulbs, and Plants, Grass Seed Specialties.”  The American Florist noted “As Mr. Bunyard is very well known in all branches of the trade, he had many callers during the past week, while fitting up his store.”

Harry Bunyard was also Secretary of the American Sweet Pea Society.  Despite his sterling reputation, however, the company went into bankruptcy the following year.

The same year that Harry Bunyard opened his plant store at ground level, Morris Sapo had a brush with thieves in his top floor office.  The diamond setter routinely kept more than $100,000 worth of gems in his safe.  The potential haul was tempting to four professional gem thieves.  Unfortunately for them, one of their girlfriends had a problem with drinking and with keeping her mouth shut.

The Sun, on May 27, 1915, reported “In an exchange of confidences over a highball or two in a cabaret near Times Square a girl bragged to a detective that her ‘friend’ was too clever for the police and that he was going to make a haul from Morris Sapo’s safe.”

Police Captain Gildea assigned 20 detectives to watch the building for a week.  Finally on May 26 four men arrived around 7:30 at night. The entered Sapo’s establishment and began to drill the safe.  The detectives were on the roof, watching through a ventilation scuttle.  After about an hour all 20 detectives charged into the office, capturing all four burglars.

The robbers had been working by a light screened by an opened umbrella.  One of the thieves had protested against using an open umbrella indoors.  “I told you we’d have bad luck if we opened that ----umbrella,” he growled after the fight was over.

By the time World War I erupted the Garment District had edged into the neighborhood and No. 40 West 28th Street was mostly filled with apparel firms.  The building with the diverse past suffered neglect in the second half of the 20th century; but around 2011 the façade was restored and the interiors were converted to apartments.
photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

Today the handsome building looks much as it did when turn of the century musical hits were published above illegal gambling dens here.

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