|photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com|
By 1888 the Harlem Democratic Club was large and wealthy enough to convert the two rowhouses at Nos. 13 and 15 East 125th Street into its clubhouse. That year, on September 5, the club members admired a new addition to its rooms.
“The life-size picture of Allen G. Thurman, presented by Mr. Thurman to the club, has been placed in the library,” reported The Sun. “Both the picture and framed autograph letter from Mr. Thurman to the club attracted the attention of the members during the evening.”
The club members in the up-and-coming Harlem area were proud when Charles W. Dayton was appointed Postmaster of New York in 1893. Dayton was given a reception in the clubhouse, described by The Sun on June 9. “The club house, at 13 and 15 East 125th street, was tastefully decorated with flags and banners, and there was a profusion of flowers and palms on the platform.”
In his remarks, club president Daniel P. Hays reflected on the Harlem neighborhood. “Harlem is getting to be a great place…Now that we have a Harlem man as Postmaster we can expect the Post Office to move up to Mount Morris Park.”
Hays’s optimistic prediction did not come to pass.
By 1906 the club had moved to No. 106 West 126th Street and in 1911 the combined houses on 125th Street were sold at auction. The sale notice described them as “Two 3-story and basement brick and brownstone Dwellings, utilized for business purposes. To be sold as one parcel.” The buyer was Barnett & Co. who retained the properties for four years, before selling to developer Henry J. Hemmens.
Hermanns wasted no time in demolishing the houses. On November 4, 1915 The New York Times reported that “The two old three-story brownstone dwellings at 13 and 15 East 125th Street are being torn down to make way for an eight-story commercial building.”
The eight-story building would never materialize and, instead, Hemmens erected a three-story store and office building for the New York Edison Company. It would be the firm’s entry into the Harlem neighborhood. Here The New York Edison (which would later become Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc., or ConEd) would offer both electrical and gas service to homes and businesses.
On April 29, 1916 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that construction of the N.Y. Edison Co. building was about to commence. Architect William Weissenberger, Jr., Hemmen’s architect of choice, had drawn up the plans. The estimated cost of the structure was set at $50,000—about $1 million today.
Completed within the year, Weissenberger’s white terra cotta-clad building had a lot going on. Classical elements appeared as antefixae which lined up over the entrance and perched above the pencil-thin cast iron pilasters of the first floor. The third floor sat above a wavecrest frieze, capped by a fasces-shaped cornice and parapet.
|The long panel with exposed wood would have announced the company's name, originally. photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com|
Weissenberger gave a nod to the electrical company tenant by adding two torch-shaped lighting fixtures on either side of the first floor, and intricately-detailed caducei that flanked the second story openings. (The caduceus was the staff carried by Hermes or Mercury; often confused with the medical symbol which has only one snake and no wings.)
|Delicate engaged columns separate the openings. A remarkably-executed terra cotta caduceus embellished a pier. photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com|
On April 23, 1917 The New York Edison Company announced it was “Ready for Service” in an advertisement in The Sun. “The Harlem branch of The New York Edison Company puts all the added resources of its new office at the service of the public. Its aim is the satisfaction and convenience of our customers.”
The firm would remain in its 125th Street building through, at least, the 1920s. As the middle of the last century neared, the demographics of the Harlem neighborhood had changed drastically. Not only had it established itself as the center of Manhattan’s black population; immigrant groups too were settling here. In 1941 the former New York Edison Company building had become the clubhouse of the women’s auxiliary of the Estonian Educational Society.
The Society boasted 60 members. The New York Times, on February 9 that year, explained “Besides raising funds for the society through bazaars and shows, the women arrange weekly folk dances and conduct classes to teach children their mother language.”
As the decades passed, the 125th Street neighborhood suffered a decline. By the 1960s the terra cotta building at No. 15-17 East 125th Street had become a printing office, owned by Ira Rosenberg. The modest operation found itself in the news in September 1965 when it turned out a political flyer ordered by Controller Abraham D. Beame’s office.
Beame was running for mayor that year. His chief rival for the Democratic nomination was Paul R. Screvane. On September 10, 1965 Screvane’s campaign manager, Stanley Lowell, accused the Beame campaign of illegal activities—specifically pointing to the flyer printed by Ira Rosenberg.
“Mr. Lowell noted that the flyer, which depicted Mr. Screvane as arguing that Negroes and Puerto Ricans ‘must wait’ to get into trade unions, did not show the name of its sponsor,” reported The New York Times the following day. When Rosenberg was questioned, he said the flyer was ordered by “an uptown Beame office,” but insisted he did not know which one.
A reporter asked why it did not include the name of the sponsor. “That I wouldn’t know,” replied the printer.
|Chunks of terra cotta have fallen away; but overall the facade survives relatively intact. photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com|
Within seven years the building had been converted to a shady operation named the Taurus the Bull Social Club. Early on the morning of October 8, 1972 a man appeared at the 25th Precinct station house complaining he had been “pistol-whipped, threatened with a knife and robbed” at the club.
Patrolmen Michael Bronski and Leonard Leggio arrived at the club shortly before 6 a.m. When they knocked on the door it was quickly opened and gunshots were fired at them from inside. One hit Bronski in the shoulder. Although Patrolman Leggio attempted to return fire, the door was slammed shut and locked.
It did not take long before reinforcements arrived and broke down the door. Inside were 13 men, nine of which attempted to escape down a fire escape.
The police immediately arrested four persons “and seized five loaded handguns and small quantities of heroin, cocaine and marijuana,” reported in The New York Times the following day. “The nine persons who fled were seized after they had allegedly broken into another building seeking an escape route.”
The ground floor has been frightfully altered. photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com
Today the space once occupied by the disreputable social club is home to the Holy Ghost Pentecostal Faith Church for All Nations. Although the terra cotta façade has suffered major abuse and the street level has been badly altered; William Weissenberger’s handsome design still shines through.