When the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Innocents was founded in 1866 the West 37th Street location was largely undeveloped. By the turn of the century, however, it was surrounded by a bustling residential neighborhood of middle-class brownstone and brick houses. By now the church also owned three houses directly behind the church, at Nos. 135 through 139. One, No. 139, served as the rectory while Nos. 135 and 137 provided extra income as boarding houses.
New York City’s millinery and garment districts were inching northward up Broadway. In the years prior to World War I apparel and hat firms one by one took over the brownstone rowhouses north of 34th Street, converting them for commercial purposes. The Garment District was well established before the 1920s, and developers snapped up the old structures to erect large loft buildings specifically for the apparel trade.
As the houses were demolished and its congregation scattered, the Church of the Holy Innocents was left in serious financial trouble. As 1924 drew to an end, the Church decided to liquidate the 36th Street houses. On December 18, 1924 The New York Times reported that the Church had sold the three buildings “as a site for a twenty-story office building.” The buyer was Morris Rosenstein, who with his brother, owned the cotton fabrics firm of Morris Rosenstein & Bro. But for his real estate dealings, Morris had established the Mor-Ro Realty Corporation—a tepidly-creative name.
|Based on Morris Rosenstein's fashion building, his cotton business was highly successful. Millinery Trade Review, December 1921|
Rosenstein made an unlikely choice of architects. Although Emery Roth, of course, did other work; he was most well known for his apartment houses. And it was possibly this residential work that influenced the exuberant decorative design of what would be known as Fashion Tower.
|Stretching a bolt of fabric between them, one cherub holds a scissor, the other a palette and brush; symbols of the garment trade.|
Rosenstein had paid $375,000 for the land and Emery Roth estimated the cost of the building to be a staggering $1 million; a figure that would equate to about 13 times as much today. The Garment District had come a long way from the converted brownstone houses and the new Fashion Tower would be the last word in loft and office space for apparel firms.
|Roth's design was for a Gothic-based structure -- Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University|
Roth’s design bridged the gap between the outgoing Art Nouveau style and the emerging Art Deco movement in a vaguely Gothic tower. While much of the decoration--the spandrels and the carved window surrounds of the two-story retail space, for instance--were reminiscent of the last decade; the elaborate embellishments of the fifth floor were patently Art Deco.
Roth playfully worked iconography of the garment industry into his design. Between the third and fourth floors, two winged youths in bas relief stretch a bolt of fabric emblazoned FASHION TOWER. One holds scissors in his hand; the other a palette and paint brushes. Higher up, barely distinguishable from street level, spandrel panels depict women admiring their reflections in hand mirrors or holding yarn spindles. Above each side entrance, Roth installed spectacular polychrome terra cotta panels of peacocks. While the peacock had been a popular Art Nouveau motif; it had for centuries been a symbol of pride and vanity.
The building quickly filled with apparel firms like the Lily Fair Dress Company, Max J. Jablow, and Seekenep Silk Company, all of which leased full floors. Nearly a century later the Garment District still engulfs the neighborhood around Fashion Tower and, while its tenants are still mostly of that industry; a few non-related renters have moved in.
|The exquisite terra cotta panels survive after 90 years.|
Most chroniclers of Emery Roth’s work overlook the Fashion Tower. Even more amazing is the fact that renovations to the building have carefully preserved his striking façade. Sensitive updating has worked around the original shape of the elliptical arched openings and other architectural elements, and the proud terra cotta peacocks--perhaps the architect's unspoken comment on female vanity--still perch above the doorways.
photographs by the author
photographs by the author