Friday, July 25, 2014

The 1891 Koch & Co. Bldg -- No. 136 West 125th Street

The cast iron street level was long ago brutally updated.  photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
In 1860 H. C. F. Koch & Co. opened its first store in Greenwich Village at the corner of Carmine and Bleecker Streets.  Dealing in dry goods and “fancy goods,” the business was a success and by 1875 was ready to move northward to The Ladies’ Mile—the stretch of Sixth Avenue between 14th Street and 23rd Street that was already being built up with emporiums.  The new store on Sixth Avenue at the corner of 20th Street earned it a following among New York's feminine shoppers. 

By 1890 The Ladies’ Mile was the shopping district for clothing, linens, and shoes.  And so it was no doubt startling to Koch & Co’s competitors when the firm laid plans to close its doors and move so far north it could have been to another state—the developing neighborhood of Harlem.

Henry Koch commissioned the well-regarded William H. Hume to design his grand emporium.  The architect was simultaneously at work on the massive New Netherlands Hotel at the corner of Central Park and Fifth Avenue for William Waldorf Astor.  He produced for Koch a five-story retail palace of stone, brick and cast iron that stretched through the block to 124th Street.  It would easily have held its own among Sixth Avenue’s grandest stores.

It was a risky, but brilliant move.  Henry Koch knew that if his plan succeeded, he would no longer compete with the massive stores like Hugh O’Neill, B. Altman and Siegel-Cooper; but would essentially have a monopoly on the dry goods business uptown.  He had purchased the large plot of land—Nos. 132 through 140 West 125th Street and 141 to 149 West 124th Street—for $250,000.  The building would cost another $200,000.  The $450,000 outlay would translate to about $11 million today.

The original building was five stories tall -- Scribner's Magazine, January 1891 (copyright expired)

The store opened its doors on March 23, 1891.  The Evening World said “The ladies of Harlem and the Annexed District are much interested in the new five-story, fire-proof building on the south side of One Hundred and Twenty-fifth street, between Lenox and Twenty-fifth street.”  The newspaper added “Harlemites will have a veritable dry-goods palace almost at their doors.”  But it would not be merely dry goods that Koch offered to the district.  “Koch & Co. will also carry a full line of millinery, china and glassware, bedding and furniture, shoes, boys’ clothing, &c., in their new store.”

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
Although workmen were still putting the finishing touches on the store when the doors were opened, shoppers were impressed by the lavish floral decoration “in the form of huge horse shoes, squares, triangles, wreaths and bouquets,” said The Sun the following day.  “’Koch Only Climbs Higher’ is the legend on one.  Others bear the word ‘Success,’ and the dates 1860-1891.”

The emporium with its two and a half acres of floor space was a model of up-to-date technology.  There were passenger elevators and electric lighting  and it contained “every modern convenience for customers and employees,” said The Sun.  To assist ladies in choosing evening wear, there was a dark room in the form of a Chinese pagoda lined with mirrors and lit by gas lights.  Inside, shoppers could then see how the items would appear in the simulated nighttime environment.  There was also an ingenious system of sending customer payments from the sales floor to the office, eliminating the necessity—and danger—of clerks handling cash.  The New-York Tribune explained “The building is equipped with the latest and most up to date pneumatic tube cash system, which is a sight worth seeing in itself.”

Koch & Co. would explain the move to its patrons in an announcement in Scribner’s Magazine. “The rapid growth of New York up to and beyond the Harlem River, the long-felt want of the residents of that section to have a first-class Dry Goods Establishment nearer to their homes, has decided us to build our present magnificent fire-proof building in 125th Street, West.  Whatever money, ingenuity, and long experience could do to make this the beau ideal of a Dry Good Store, has not been omitted.”

While Hume could have chosen terra cotta for the elaborate decorations high above street level, he went with carved stone.  photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

Puck magazine thought it was a brilliant move and in January 1891 predicted that Harlem “is at no distant day to become the centre of the Metropolis.”  The magazine was highly impressed with the move and the building itself.  “One of the most eventful days in the history of ‘Harlem’ was the day on which the Messrs. Koch & Co. opened their Dry Goods Palace in 125th St. between Lenox ad 7th Aves.  Deliberately we say ‘Dry Goods Palace,’ for the buildings built by and for this house constitute a palace, indeed, and are not surpassed by any establishment in their line.”

As shrewd as his move to Harlem had been, Koch’s next business strategy was even more surprising and brilliant.  He almost immediately sold his building and property.  On June 13, 1891 The Record & Guide reported on the sale which brought Koch a profit of $125,000.  “By this sale, too, a large capital which was tied up in the building is returned to Koch & Co.’s dry-goods business, so that the sale appears to have been a good thing for everyone concerned.”

By the terms of the sale Koch & Co. would continue to occupy its building, paying rent to the buyer, F. O. Mattiessen.  The Record & Guide saw this as a sign of things to come for Harlem.  “The general observation of able real estate men is that this sale is not only the strongest evidence during the last year or two of the great faith which investors have I 125th street property, but it shows that there is a city of itself in Harlem where business is being done independently of down-town stores, and that wealthy merchants, recognizing this and realizing the vast population in that section of the city, are seizing the opportunity to establish their emporiums on the most important thoroughfare up that way.”

The American Publishing and Engraving Co. published its History and Commerce of New York that year.  It called Koch & Co. “one of the largest and finest stores of the kind in the metropolis” and said it was “elegantly fitted up and excellently appointed, and employ a veritable little army of clerks, salesladies, etc., the entire staff numbering between eight hundred and one thousand.”

Koch & Co. opened with 32 separate departments.  Along with a long list of dress fabrics and women’s clothing, History and Commerce listed as well “rich imported millinery goods, passementeries, jewelry, notions, leather goods, furs, umbrellas, gloves, hosiery, and everything in ladies’ and gents’ furnishings, also elegant furniture, upholstery, draperies, etc., silverware, crockery and a multifarious collection of house-furnishing articles, also a full line of boys’ clothing, shoes, hats, etc., sporting goods, stationery, perfumery, toilet articles, etc., etc.”

Koch & Co.'s extensive mail order catalog offered discreet shopping for personal selections like "hair goods" and more intimate items.  (copyright expired)
By now Henry C. F. Koch had taken his son, E. Von Der Horst Koch, into the business as a partner.  The firm offered the latest in fashion to the well-heeled Harlem shoppers.  A supreme marketer, Henry knew that spending money on ambiance would reap profits.  When the spring 1892 lines were introduced, Koch & Co. filled its floor space with spring flowers for the enjoyment of its female shoppers.

“Here was an almost tropical luxuriance of natural flowers and plants of every variety and color, causing the visitor to pause and absorb for a moment the wealth of color and perfume.  This beauty of garden foliage made an admirable setting for hats and bonnets without number, and embracing all the latest styles,” said The New York Times on March 27 that year.  “A woman visitor cannot escape the fascination of the combination, and is sure to find the proper thing for herself in this particular line of adornment.”

Henry Koch’s gamble to move to Harlem paid off.  In 1893 the store was enlarged and on September 24 an advertisement announced “that the additions to and alterations in their magnificent establishment are now completed.”  A nearly seamless sixth floor provided another acre of floor space and ten new departments.  The ad stressed that the store was “unsurpassed for light, ventilation, and having all the latest improvements, making shopping a pleasure.”  It frankly pointed out the customer to whom the store catered; saying that its latest goods were “selected for the better city trade.”

The new sixth floor proudly announced the store's name - photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

Realizing that there was another valuable market to the north, H. C. F. Koch & Co. advertised in newspapers like the White Plains The Eastern State Journal in 1895 noting “We pay the railroad fares between White Plains, Hartsdale, Scarsdale, Tuckahoe, Bronxville, Mount Vernon and 125th Street Station New York.”  The price of a train ticket was worth luring shoppers to the store.  A lady’s wool “Boucle Cloth” cloak was advertised that year for $10; a significant $250 in today’s money; and a “light tan box coat” went for $35.

The enlarged store was even grander with broad arches and ornamentation -- photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Koch & Co.’s marketing genius was perhaps no more evident than in its Christmas windows.  In the 1870s Lord & Taylor began what be a New York retailers’ tradition.  But Koch & Co. took it to new heights.

In 1894 the firm hired F. W. Campbell, the self-styled “champion window artist of New York and Brooklyn.”  Campbell designed 13 windows and Electrical World reported “The central and largest is the Trocadero Palace, of Paris, done in miniature.  The magnificent water stairway is admirably reproduced.  The statuary is the same as the original, with one exception—a large bronze Goddess of Liberty stands in the centre of the scene.  Streams of water start from the statues, from pipes and jets.  They cross and recross each other and roll down the stairway and over the stones shining and glistening from the light of miniature incandescent lamps.”  Another scene depicted a storm at sea. “There is a wreck and the life-savers are at work.”  A small illuminated lighthouse flashed and turned.  The display cost the firm around $2,000.

The 1895 Christmas windows featured electric lights and a working fountain -- Electric World magazine December 28, 1895 (copyright expired)
The windows were outdone the following year.  The theme was “Christmas in the Old Country,” and hundreds of miniature electric lights outlined the windows and turrets of an English baronial castle.  Revelers could be seen inside while guests arrived in carriages during “the caprices of an asbestos snow-storm which has been imported directly from Paris for the occasion,” reported Electrical World.  A fountain sprayed at one side (although the magazine pointed out that, in real life, it would have frozen up). 

As did all the high-end retailers, H. C. F. Koch & Co. delivered goods to its shoppers by horse-drawn trucks.  Trouble ensued on April 25, 1900 when a steam-powered automobile panicked one of the Koch horses near Mount Morris Park where a vendor sold peanuts, candy and apples from his cart.

“About noon yesterday a locomobile was seen tearing down Fifth Avenue at a furious rate; a big bay horse, hitched to one of H. C. F. Koch & Co.’s wagons, reared as the machine passed it and then started to dash down the avenue,” reported The New York Times on April 26.  The newspaper noted “For weeks past an Italian whom the children all know as George has taken up his stand at the corner of One Hundred and Twenty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue every morning and has captured their pennies daily.”

Koch & Co.’s wagon crashed into George’s two-wheeled pushcart “with a crash that could have been heard a block away.”  It all would end in a very bad day for the horse and for George.  “The horse was thrown down by the force of the collision and some of its harness broken, while the contents of the wrecked pushcart were scattered in every direction.  The sight of numerous youngsters chasing rosy apples and gathering up peanuts by the hatfull quickly brought George to his senses and he began to shout ‘Police!’”

It only got worse.  “To cap the climax the burning charcoal in the peanut roaster set fire to a can of kerosene also on the pushcart, so that between the youngsters, the fire, and the kerosene there was only a remnant of the stock left.” 

The newspaper added “What became of the locomobile, which caused all the trouble, nobody seems to know.”

Henry Koch also realized that to maintain a successful business his employees must be happy.   In 1893 workers were invited to join the H. C. F. Koch & Co. Employees’ Mutual Benefit Association.  Every year it held a ball at which the Koch family was present.  In 1903 Notions and Fancy Goods reported on that year’s ball, held at the New Harlem Casino.  “The ballroom, tastefully decorated with palms and flowers in profusion, made a brilliant scene at the opening of the grand march, which was led by the president of the association.”  Members were treated not only to dancing; but to vaudeville entertainments.

The labor paper, The Square Deal, which often complained about working conditions, could find none in the Koch & Co. workplace.  In August 1913 it reported “The comfortable appointments of H. C. F. Koch & Co., in Harlem, its well ventilated tube room and the firm’s system of distributing bottled water to its employees, and its various social and welfare schemes, are the subjects of special paragraphs.”

While Koch & Co. kept up on current fashion trends, it was apparently not a slave to Paris fads.  Robert M. Cloos was the store’s buyer of cloaks and suits in 1903 and he told Cloaks and Furs that year his theory regarding the American shopper.

“The American woman has a fine figure as a rule—much better than the French woman, who, when she reaches the stage of curves is generally fat.  The American woman, on the other hand, has curves combined with slenderness and the lines of her hips particularly are often very beautiful.”  He therefore believed that American shopper would continue to reject the “skirt full and voluminous” favored by the Europeans.  “She has a figure to display and the full skirts do not do it.”

Therefore, said Cloaks and Furs, “Mr. Cloos has great faith in the shirt-waist suit, but he also banks on the separate skirt and shirt waist.”  The magazine noted “The firm caters to a very fine class of trade who have perfect confidence in them and seldom go down town to make a purchase.  Gowns from $200 to $250 are sold without any trouble.”

Among the largest departments at Koch & Co. was the furniture department—50 by 250 feet in floor area.  The Grand Rapids Furniture Record said in 1913, “Koch & Co. do not intend to lose a customer because of failure to ‘show the goods.’”  Here a dining room suite of ten pieces could be purchased from $100 to $800.  The periodical noted that “The firm realized that while a down town store competes with only one or two other stores of its same class, a Harlem establishment competes against all the down town stores.  It is Kock & Co. against the down town field when a prospect wonders whether to patronize the Harlem store or take his pocketbook into the subway.”

In 1923 a heart breaking tale played out.  Bessie Clarke lived at No. 1989 Amsterdam Avenue with her mother, Mary Clarke.  The 18-year old saleswoman was engaged to be married and had saved up $300 for her trousseau.  Everything seemed to be going perfectly for Bessie.

Then on Saturday May 5, just weeks before the wedding, her mother went to Koch & Co.  As the 53-year old woman was leaving, Helen E. Paul, a female detective, nabbed her.  In her bag was a silk waist and a pair of silk stockings valued at $4.  Although it was not a huge theft—amounting to about $50 today—Mary Clarke was arrested for shoplifting and held at $500 bail.

The following day Bessie Clarke appeared in Judge H. Stanley Renaud’s courtroom and offered her $300 trousseau money and her diamond engagement ring as surety for the appearance of her mother at trial.  The judge, “after he had heard from a court clerk what the bail money had been saved up for, reduced the amount from $500 to $300, and Miss Clarke got her engagement ring back again.”

That same year, on October 26, The New York Times reported “The H. C. F. Koch & Co. department store interests have bought the six-story building they occupy…from the Frederick W. Matthiessen estate.”

By now the neighborhood had significantly changed.  Quickly becoming what would be termed "Spanish Harlem," many residents of a generation earlier were being replaced by Puerto Rican families with lesser incomes.  Yet Koch & Co. continued on in its 1891 palace for another decade.  In 1932 E. Von Der Horst Koch died and before long Koch & Co. had dissolved.

The 125th Street neighborhood suffered hard times throughout the rest of the century.  Entire blocks of structures around the once-magnificent retail palace were razed.  Today only it and one other lonely 19th century building next door survive from what was once a vibrant and elegant retail center.  At street level, Hume’s handsome design has been annihilated, replaced by gaudy modern storefronts.  But above, Henry Koch’s grand emporium lives on virtually intact.


  1. Are the upper floors living space or offices or abandoned or what?

    1. I believe they are used for small businesses and storage.