Friday, November 14, 2014

The Croft Bros. Building -- No. 26 East 125th Street

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

In 1888 the jewelry store of I. Lewkowitz had stood at the corner of Grand and Eldridge Streets for 28 years.  Squarely in the midst of what had become the center of Manhattan’s Jewish community, its high-quality merchandise earned it the nickname “the Tiffany of the east side.”

At the same time, far to the north, the Harlem neighborhood was developing as a vibrant suburb.  By now other Jewish merchants like Louis Blumstein, who moved his Blumstein’s Department Store to 125th Street in 1886, recognized the area’s potential.   On June 9, 1888 The Engineering & Building Record reported that I. Lewkowitz planned a brick “flat and stores” building at No. 26 East 125th Street.  Designed by architect W. Graul, the ambitious project was to cost $38,000.

Something delayed the plans and the lot sat unimproved for three years.  Then in 1891 The Engineering & Building Record updated its readers.  The architect was now Richard Berger and the plans were for a three-story “brick, iron, stone and terra cotta building.”  Lewkowitz apparently scaled back the designs, for the projected cost was now $30,000—in the neighborhood of $800,000 today.

On May 23, 1891 The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide chimed in, noting “the building will be finished in ash throughout, supplied with elevator, steam heat, and electric light and other improvements.”  The modern amenities would make the structure the last word in up-to-date commercial spaces.

Berger’s completed structure was light and airy.  His use of cast iron to support the upper floor openings resulted in near walls of glass; the windows separated by delicate pencil-thin columns with delicate foliate capitals.  The beige brick was relieved with white bands of limestone, intricate terra cotta panels, and a row of deeply-molded fans below the cornice.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

At the time of the building’s completion Croft Bros. was one of Manhattan’s prominent carpeting dealers.  The firm had been based at No. 2161 Third Avenue, but now moved into the commercial space in the East 125th Street building.   One of the founders, Silas C. Croft, was highly active in Republican politics and was a favorite among the Tammany Hall bosses. 

The firm offered floor cloths and window shades as well -- Harlem of Today -- 1893, copyright expired
Silas Croft’s political connections were partially responsible for the firm’s astonishing success.  In 1896 The Carpet and Upholstery Trade Review noted that although once suppliers like W. & J. Sloane and Arnold, Constable & Co. were routinely asked to give bids for carpeting for civic projects; now “all were referred to Croft Brothers, of One Hundred and Twenty-fifth street.”  To avoid messy red tape, “the superintendent is careful to divide up the work into jobs of less than $1,000, and thus keep within the law, which compels advertising for all contracts of $1,000 and over.”

Silas C. Croft cut a dashing 1890s figure -- The Carpet & Upholstery Trade Review, January 1, 1896 (copyright expired)

When Mayor Lafayette Strong offered the already high-powered Croft the position of Commissioner of Charities in 1895, reformers licked their lips.   His connection to Croft Brothers, a firm widely known for participating in graft, could result in a failed civil service certificate.  The crafty Croft was one step ahead of them, though.

On New Year’s Day 1896 The Carpet & Upholstery Trade Review reported that reformers “have been kicking, but unfortunately for them Silas C. Croft is said to have retired from the firm of Croft Brothers a week before he was appointed a Charities Commissioner, and there is no evidence before the Comptroller that S. C. Coft has sold any carpets to the city through Captain Graham’s bureau since he became a Commissioner, and consequently has not violated the Consolidation act.”

The building suffers neglect--wood rot, rust and cracks threaten the facade.  photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com 

By the turn of the century The Trow Directory listed only one brother, Charles P. Croft, involved in the carpeting firm.  Nevertheless, Silas’s association with the building seems to have survived in Tammany meetings in the upstairs meeting rooms.   But at least once, in 1906, the Lewkowitz family stepped in.

A turbulent rivalry was playing out between John F. Cowan and Percival E. Nagle for the Tammany leadership of the 13th Assembly District.  The Lewkowitzes were nervous about the safety of their chairs and tables when a meeting was planned for October 4.

The New-York Tribune reported “Trouble is looked for to-night between the Nagle and Cowan factions at the assembling of the 21st Senatorial District Tammany convention, which has been called to meet at No. 125 East 125th street.  The owner of the hall sent word to leaders of the factions that he would not allow them to use the premises, fearing that damage would be done to the furniture.”

By 1911 Croft Brothers had moved out.  In its place was Fisher Furniture which would remain here for years.   Little changed at No. 125 East 125th Street until 1926 when the aging building was updated.  The main floor and mezzanine remained store space while the second floor was used as a stock room.  The former meeting rooms on the top floor became a showroom.

In 1945, after 54 years of ownership, the Lewkowitz family sold the building which now stood in a much-changed neighborhood.   The new owners, the 26 East 125th Street Corporation, converted much of the interior space to light manufacturing.

Then 14 years later another renovation resulted in a “dance hall” on the second floor.  Called the Tusken Ballroom, it was used at least once as a meeting place by Malcolm X and his recently-formed Muslim Mosque, on June 22, 1964.


photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

For years the first floor, where Croft Brothers once sold carpeting in shady Tammany deals, was home to a Salvation Army Thrift Store; while upstairs the Tusken Ballroom became the Trowel & Square Ballroom, a nod to the Masonic Lodge that shared the space.  The fa├žade at sidewalk level was covered over with flimsy siding; hopefully preserving at least some of Berger’s original design beneath.  The building was put on the market in 2014 for $8 million, “delivered vacant,” opening the door for possible restoration or brutal abuse.

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