Saturday, September 20, 2014

The 1895 Ahrens Bldg - Nos. 70-74 Lafayette Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1891 the History and Commerce of New York described architect George H. Griebel as “a gentleman of middle age—a native of Germany, where he acquired a thorough knowledge of his profession…Theorectically and practically Mr. Griebel is an accomplished representative of his important profession, and numerous evidences of his skill may be seen in various sections of the city and adjoining localities.”

Before long Griebel would be adding on more “evidence of his skill” to his resume.  Herman F. Ahrens had operated his downtown liquor store on Elm Street (later renamed Lafayette Street) for around three decades.  In 1879 he acquired two properties at the corner of Elm and Franklin Streets from the William Briggs estate.  He moved his liquor business into one of the two wooden structures, No. 40 Franklin Street.

Shortly after Ahrens acquired the properties discussions arose about the improvement and widening of Elm Street.  The widening would necessitate the demolition of the structures only on the opposite side of Elm Street; and could significantly raise the value of Ahrens’s property.  The City wrangled over the details of the project for over a decade.  But a year before the final hearings took place in July 1895, Ahrens forged ahead.

He commissioned George H. Griebel to design an office and store building for his corner lot.  It was an exciting time for architects as both steel frame construction and  elevators made multi-level structures possible.  For Ahrens, Griebel would produce a seven-story Romanesque Revival beauty.  He deftly contrasted two colors of brick as well as carved stone to create a colorful and visually-stimulating façade.  And while he garnished the structure with Medieval motifs, Griebel added ultra-modern 1890s metal windows that filled the three great Lafayette Street arches.

photo by Alice Lum
Not everything went smoothly in the construction of what would be known as the Ahrens Building.  In the last decade of the 19th century the organized labor movement was well underway.  The builder had hired non-union steamfitters; a fact that did not go unnoticed by union workers.  On the morning of March 5, 1895 the union mechanics walked off the job and construction ground to a halt.

The Sprague Electric Elevator Company had already finished up in the building before the walk-out.  It had been chosen to provide the six elevators for the Ahrens Building.  These were successfully installed by February 16, 1895 when the firm announced it was now “putting in two of its elevators in the new residence of John Jacob Astor, 5th avenue and 65th street.”

Eventually labor problems were solved and the Ahrens Building was completed later in 1895.  The ground floor with its vast shop windows was intended as retail space; while the upper floors were rented as offices. 

Among the first tenants was lawyer Robert Racey.  He would take on a few highly unusual cases of fraud in June 1900.  The flood of Italian immigrants into New York Harbor at the time was overwhelming.  Newcomers, unfamiliar with the language and their new surroundings, were easy victims for unscrupulous con artists—including their own countrymen.

Italian merchant Luigi Corelli had recently landed in New York when he arrived at Racy’s office.  The Sun reported on June 11, “He told his story through an interpreter explaining that he had been buncoed out of $500.”  It was the origin of the famous “I have a bridge for sale” scam.

An Italian-speaking man approached Corelli and said he thought he remembered him from the old country.  Corelli told him his name and the man exclaimed that, of course, they had known one another.  Corelli, on the other hand, could not recall ever meeting him.

The man took Corelli for a drink then showed him around the city for two days.  On the second day he took the new-comer to the Brooklyn Bridge and told him in strictest confidence that he could sell him the New York half of the span.  The conman explained that Mayor Van Wyck owned the Brooklyn side. He convinced Corelli to buy the New York side for $500 and, after a week, if he liked it he would arrange to sell him the Brooklyn side for $10,000.

According to The Sun, the lawyer replied “Very cheap for the Brooklyn side of the bridge.  I’d give that much myself for it.”

But the gullible immigrant had more money than common sense and the swindler was not through with him.  The translator added “My friend buy-a Central park bear, too, an’ two stores.”

Robert Rayner told police “He was lucky in not buying the new zoological gardens.  I had a man in here the other day who told me that he bought the aquarium from an Italian who met him at the Battery.  He had been in New York but a few days and he signed a contract to buy a third interest in the zoo for $500, from another Italian.”  Rayner guessed that the same man was responsible.  “He took one of my clients down to the city hall, told him it was a hotel, sold him some of the furniture and then brought him over to the county court house where he got his money in return for appointing him chef of the Court House hotel.”

Police went looking for the Italian bunco man.  And Signor Corelli was irate.  As he left Rayner’s office the interpreter said that Corelli vowed that if “Mr. Bunco” did not buy the bridge back, he would kill him tomorrow.

The Amalgamated Society of Engineers established its headquarters in the building by 1902, and other attorneys moved in.  Among them was Colonel Robert J. Haire whose client Louise Vermeule died of strychnine poisoning in her Riverside Drive home in January 1908.  Twice tried for forgery and once for grand larceny, Haire declares that his now-dead client was innocent on the grounds of insanity.

“Why, the woman was crazy, utterly crazy,” he told reporters on January 5.  “That is the only explanation one can give for the amazing turnings and twisting to which she had recourse.  It would account, too, for the effrontery by means of which she has fooled so many men of recognized keenness.”

Bull-nose brick and intricately-carved stone are just two of the elements that distinguish the structure.  photo by Alice Lum

Lawyer Francis W. Stanton was also in the building at the time.  He found himself in trouble with the District Attorney Jerome in December 1908 when he was “accused of taking money and jewelry as a fee from Elizabeth Chalmers, a client, arrested for larceny, without returning any legal services,” reported The New York Times on December 19.

According to the D.A., “Stanton took $25 of her $30, and later obtained her bank book and drew $30 more from the Greenwich Savings Bank.”  But when her case was called she was discharged.   Shortly thereafter she was arrested again, this time for a theft in the Hotel Lafayette.  While she was awaiting trial in the Tombs, Stanton visited her again.  According to The Times he “took possession of her locket, chain, and diamond ring.” 

Chalmers told the court that her attorney promised that he would get the charges reduced to petit larceny; but when she was arraigned on October 14, 1908 he did not appear.  The woman was found guilty of grand larceny in the second degree.

District Attorney Jerome was scathing in his courtroom condemnation of Francis Stanton.  “I feel it my duty to express openly my contempt for such a disgraceful abuse of a client on the part of a lawyer.  I am free to say that such conduct is shameful and shameless, and that a lawyer indulging in it is a disgrace to the bar of New York.”

Also in the building at the time was W. G. Shea who ran the Government’s employment agency suppling workers for the Panama Canal.  Shea was tasked with finding “blacksmiths, rock drill runners, iron molders, car carpenters, angle iron workers, and cooks and stewards who can speak Spanish.”

The New York Times noted on July 23, 1907 that Shea “has been advertising daily the last week for skilled mechanics of all trade to go down to the Isthmus at good wages.”  But, said the newspaper, he was having trouble “filling the vacancies with the right class of men.”

Perhaps the reports of rampant yellow fever and malaria discouraged skilled workers; but for whatever reason, instead “Tattered crowds come down to the office daily looking for a soft job and an ocean trip to Panama, but they go away disappointed.”

The agent was not frustrated, however.  He told reporters he was not in a hurry and “can afford to wait until he gets his complement of the right sort of men.”

Herman F. Ahrens had died by now and the management of the Ahrens Building fell to his wife, Josephine.  On October 31, 1910 the minutes of the Sinking Fund Commissioners noted that Mrs. Josephine H. Ahrens had leased to the city the third, fourth and seventh floors of the structure “for the use of the Board of Coroners” for a period of two years beginning October 1, 1910.  For the three floors the City would pay Josephine $5,220 per year—a seemingly reasonable $125,000 in today’s dollars.

On March 15, 1911, one of New York City’s greatest catastrophes occurred when more than 140 women died in the Triangle Waist Company fire.  The tragedy would set the stage for improved and safer working conditions nationwide.  Less than a month after the disaster the inquest into the deaths was opened in the new Coroners’ Court in the Ahrens Building.

The upper floors of the structure continued to be leased to a wide variety of tenants.  The Web Pressmen’s Union established its headquarters here by 1912 and The Language Press would soon take a full floor.

Although altered, the original medieval-looking entrance survives.  photo by Alice Lum

In the meantime, as early as 1908, Ahrens Saloon was on the ground floor.  Nearby at 45 Franklin Street, Francis E. Hill was the junior partner of Henry C. Kelly & Co., dealers in twine and cordage.  On August 22 that year, soon after arriving at his office, Hill sent a messenger boy to Ahrens Saloon to purchase a bottle of Palm wine.  According to The New York Times the following day, “Ahrens refused to sell this, on the ground that he did not know Mr. Hill.”

Hill then went to the saloon himself and bought a bottle of champagne which he took back to the office.  The executive, who was apparently having domestic problems, sat at his desk and wrote a check to his wife in the amount of $625, and another to Ogden & Cadmus for $84.  He then wrote a letter to his wife and shot himself in the head.

The letter, which began “Precious Darling,” said in part “Try to think kindly of me sometimes, and to forgive me as I hope to be forgiven.  I loved you with all my heart, and did try faithfully to do my duty, but failure seems to have been my inevitable lot.”

In 1924 jewelry manufacturer Bernstein & Roskin operated from the second floor of the building.  There were twelve other jewelry firms in the building at the time.  In the early hours of November 9 detectives followed a known crook who went by the names of Hymie Boston, Hymie Roskin and Hymie Meyers.  When the safecracker and his accomplice, Morris Levine, entered the Ahrens Building, the cops slipped in behind them.

As the thieves were attempting to break into the safe of Bernstein & Roskin, they were apprehended by the detectives.  The New York Times said that all the jewelers in the building “had safes heavily stocked with jewelry in anticipation of the Christmas trade.  Had it not been for their intervention, the police said, the two burglars might have looted the whole building before it was opened for business this morning.”

By mid century the aging building was no longer being used as office space; but as storage and light manufacturing.  At ground level Ahrens Saloon, by the 1940s, was home to Peter’s Bar & Grill.  It continued the tradition two decades later as Doyle’s Corner Pub moved in.

photo by Alice Lum
The Ahrens family retained ownership of the structure until 1968 when it was sold to Morris and Herbert Moskowitz.  The men reconverted the aging upper floors to office space.  George H. Griebel’s stunning structure has received a facade restoration and its wonderful polychromy once again awes passersby.

1 comment:

  1. Morris and Herbert Moskowitz were father and son.