Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The "Rock Building" -- No. 315 Fifth Avenue

Like many of the staid brownstone mansions on Fifth Avenue below 34th Street, No. 315 had fallen victim to commerce by 1889.  The New York branch of the Parisian art gallery M. Durand-Ruel had moved into the old house.  That year the firm offered “Old Masters of the French school of 1850 and of all the modern artists, including the finest paintings of the Impressionists.”

Only two years later a more utilitarian showroom was in the building, that of the Wood Mosaic Co., whose factory was in Rochester, New York.  The company sold upscale “hardwood floors, from plainest strips of quartered oak to most elaborate inlaid work, using suitable foreign and domestic woods.”

By March 1894 Mathias Rock, who went by the Anglicized "Matthew," operated his merchant tailoring shop here.  The Sun called him “among the best known of the New York tailors.”  Unlike other tailors, “merchant tailors” owned their businesses, supplied the fabrics and created custom-made apparel, most often for the carriage trade.  Merchant tailors were the male equivalent of the high-end dressmakers who also set up shop in the former mansions.

Rock’s successful apparel business earned him a fortune and by the turn of the century he was investing heavily in Manhattan real estate.  On January 19, 1905 The Sun reported that he had leased for 21 years the four-story building where he had operated for a decade. 

Five months later, on June 16, The New York Times announced that Matthew Rock and real estate developer Henry Corn planned an 11-story building on the site.  Corn had signed a 21-year lease on the property, beginning May 1, 1907 with an aggregate rental of nearly $1 million (in the neighborhood of $1.2 million a year today).

Corn’s architects of choice for some time had been Maynicke & Franke.  The firm was chosen for this new building as well.  Newspapers drew comparisons of the proposed designs to the newly-completed Reed & Barton Building diagonally across the avenue (also designed for Corn by Robert Maynicke).  And yet the completed structure would be more reminiscent of Maynicke’s 1898 Sohmer Piano Building ten blocks lower, at No. 170 Fifth Avenue; also built by Henry Corn.

Little was done for six months.  But finally in December the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide announced that Maynicke & Franke had started the plans, which would be ready “for figures in about a month or six weeks time.”  The guide listed the upcoming contracts for “limestone, brick, terra cotta, plate glass, tile roof, electric elevator, steam heat, electric lights, concrete arch floors, etc.”

As construction got under way, leases were signed.  The most highly-sought tenant would be the ground floor retail space—the face of the new building.  Henry Corn was no doubt delighted when Brentano’s bookstore signed a lease in May for the first through third floors, plus the basement.  “Brentano’s will move from Union Square to 5th ave. about February 1, 1907,” reported the New-York Tribune on May 13, 1906.

As was the case with the Sohmer Building, Maynicke & Franke was challenged with creating a proportionate, attractive structure on an extremely narrow plow--28.9 feet wide on Fifth Avenue by 150 long down East 32nd Street.  And as he had done before, Maynicke succeeded.  The structure, completed early in 1907, was light and elegant.

The triparte design featured a three-story base of rusticated piers filled with vast cast iron show windows.  Here patrons of Brentano’s would find the showrooms filled with light.  The six-story mid section above was unadorned until the ninth floor where dripping garlands framed full-floor cartouches on each pier.  Below the cornice at this level, stunning foliate swags and wreaths wrapped the building.  The topmost section featured heavy broken pediments above the clustered openings.  Carved wreaths and shields filled the areas between the pediments.  It was, as newspapers of the day were fond of saying, “an ornament to the street.”

The sumptuous carved swags of fruits and flowers were carried on to the underside of the cornice.

Matthew Rock, expectedly, was among the tenants of the new building; the list of which was exceptionally diverse  The American Cement Company had its offices here, and The Italian School of Languages moved in.  Professor Arturo Sergio offered a “rapid Italian and French Pronunciation Course for singers” and “Special Classes for the study of Dante.”

Although Brentano’s had signed a 21-year lease, they were gone by 1909, moving into the new Brunswick Building on Madison Square.  In its place, somewhat coincidentally, came the Sohmer Piano Company, having abandoned its building at Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street.  Suddenly No. 351 became known as “the Sohmer Building.”  When Clarence Whitman & Co., dealers in “white goods and laces,” leased a portion of the store and basement in October 1911, the Record & Guide reported the deal “in the Sohmer Building.”

The fruit and flower motif reappeared in the cast window surrounds.

Mathias Rock died on August 9, 1912, leaving a significant fortune to his family.  His son, also named Matthew, took over the tailoring business while Henry Corn continued to oversee the building, renting space to a wide range of tenants. 

Architect B. Hustace Simonson was here at least from 1911 to 1918; while apparel businesses like Nathan Fogg Morrill, “milliner,” and La Rose Brassiere Co., makers of foundations were in the building.  The offices of the American Five and Ten Cent Stores were here by 1915 as was the architectural and engineering firm Timmis & Chapman.

Manhattan’s jewelers had followed the Fifth Avenue residential district and, along with Reed & Barton across the avenue from No. 315, Tiffany, Dreicer & Co. and other high-end dealers were clustered just above 34th Street.  Gold- and silversmiths like William Burkley and Woods & Chatellier operated from No. 315 by 1916.  They fashioned expensive items for these retailers to the north.

Woods & Chatellier employed 25-year old Frederick Zwack as an engraver.  Occasionally he would assist one of the salesmen in carrying heavy sample cases to retailers.  In the fall of 1916 he became romantically involved with a woman and the two decided to move in together.  Edwardian proprieties did not approve of unmarried cohabitation; and so on October 1 when they took a room in I. E. Brown’s boarding house, they called themselves “Mr. and Mrs. White.”  Mrs. Brown described the girl as a “good-looking young blonde.”

Things went alright in the relationship until early in December when the couple had a serious argument.  On Tuesday December 12 Mrs. Brown entered the “White’s” room and noticed that all his personal property had been removed.  That night was the last time she saw Frederick Zwack.  The blonde woman stayed until Thursday, and then she too left.  It was the end of Frederick Zwack’s brief love interest and only the start of his troubles.

On the morning of Friday December 15, salesman Edward W. Childs loaded a sample case with gold and platinum articles to take to Tiffany’s and then to Black, Starr & Frost’s.  The case weighed about 60 pounds, so he asked Zwack to help him.  They arrived at Tiffany’s where Child’s wrote out an order.  Because of the holiday crush, he decided to rush the order back to the office and instructed Zwack to continue to Black, Starr & Frost’s where he would meet him.

As Childs headed south in the snowstorm, Zwack lugged the case in the opposite direction.  In it were “45 gold vanity cases, nine gold and platinum cases, 26 gold cigarette cases, striped with platinum, two gold match boxes, one gold and platinum match box, seven green and gold match boxes, heavily carved, and three heavy gold gem caskets.”  The wholesale value was placed at $20,000—nearly half a million dollars today.

An hour later Child’s arrived at Ball, Starr & Frost’s where he was told Zwack had not appeared.  Thinking that he may have been slowed down by the snow, the salesman waited for two hours.  Then he notified Charles N. Coryell, President of the Woods & Chattelier.  Days later the hunt for Frederick Zwack continued with police concerned that the valuable items would be melted down.  The Evening World said police “developed the belief that his plans for disposing of the articles necessitated the employment of other men skilled in the work of melting the gold into bullion, thereby rendering it beyond identification and so enabling the thief to sell it.”

In the meantime, Charles N. Coryell revealed startling information on Frederick’s background.  “According to Mr. Coryell, Zwack, or White, was formerly a circus clown,” said The New York Times on December 17.

Timmis & Chapman were still in the building at the time and a year later Walter S. Timmis was in the news, not for his architectural work; but for his anti-Suffragist actions.  On June 20, 1917 the Russian mission visited President Wilson at the White House.  Suffragists took the opportunity to demonstrate at the White House gates.  “The result,” reported The Sun, “was a small sized riot, in the course of which a banner containing an attack on the President and Mr. [Elihu] Root was torn into shreds by a crowd led by Walter S. Timmis, a New York architect of 315 Fifth Avenue.”

The offending banner read “President Wilson and Envoy Root are deceiving Russia.  They say, ‘We are a democracy.  Help us win a world war so that democracy may survive.  We, the women of America, tell you that America is not a democracy.”

The standard bearers had just reached the White House gates, moments before the Russian visitors were due to arrive.  They formed an arch with it, so the vehicles would have to pass under it.  “Mr. Timmis happened to be passing and heard the crowd shouting.  ‘It’s an outrage.  It’s treasonable.’”

Timmis pushed himself to the front of the crowd and read the banner.  Incensed, he jumped into the air, grabbing the cloth at the center and ripping it from the frame.  “The crowd then made a rush on the cloth Timmis still held in his hand and tore it into shreds,” reported The Sun.

Along with Matthew Rock, other tailors and apparel businesses continued in the building.  In 1919 Alfred L. Calcott, dealer in woolen goods, was here; as was tailor Charles I. David.  David was excused from jury duty that year in the case of Arthur O’Leary versus Adolph Stern.  “He said he would not trust an enemy alien,” explained The Sun on January 30.  “Adolph Stern, a defendant, is a German.”

Throughout most of the 20th century, elevators required full-time operators.  The operator in what was now known as the Rock Building gave a carload of passengers a significant scare on September 7, 1920.  The elevator “slipped out of control of the operator at the fourth floor and dropped to the basement,” reported the New-York Tribune the following morning.  There were nine passengers in the car as it gained speed just above the basement level.

“The force of the impact smashed a lamp in the roof of the car.”  Two passengers were injured.  Thirty-four year old Irving Ulrich received cuts and Rose Gaglianom, who worked in the building, was cut on the nose.  The rest, said the newspaper, were “severely shaken.”

In 1931 there were no fewer than six tailoring businesses in the building, two jewelry firms (Fleischman Brothers and the International Gem Company), and several apparel companies.  In 1933 a new type of tenant was here—the perfume plant of 25-year old David Koehler.  The ambitious and creative perfumer sold dram-sized bottles through sales girls and newspaper advertisements at 25 cents each.  The problem was that his perfume bottles were labeled Coty, Inc.  The French fragrance firm was not pleased when it found out about the counterfeit goods.  Their dram bottles sold for between $2.75 and $10 each.

In court on December 11, 1933 he entered a plea of guilty and paid a $100 fine.

As the United States entered World War II the Book and Magazine Club operated from No. 315 Fifth Avenue.  It lured readers of Popular Mechanics in 1942 with an advertisement that read “Your name and address will bring you information how to get any national magazine for one year free.”  Then the following year it turned its focus to the war.

“Men 18 to 45—Are you prepared for the army induction test?”  The Book and Magazine Club offered a “free book” for 10 cents containing questions and answers similar those given on the U.S. Army’s general classification test.  Studying for the test, said the ad, “will help decide your place in the army.  It’s the road to officer training—toward the job you want.”

Somewhat ironically that same year a 19-year old sailor, Fireman Third Class Bernard Smith, stepped out onto the rooftop cornice.  Someone on the street noticed the white naval uniform and before long a throng gathered on the avenue.  “Crowds in the avenue, south of the building, gasped as the sailor spread his arms and manoeuvred a few feet, much as a tightrope walker might,” said The New York Times.  He held an unlit cigarette in his mouth.

Bernard Smith teetered on the brim of the cornice in 1942.

Pedestrians called the police and one pulled a fire alarm.  Traffic came to a halt.  The newspaper estimated a crowd of 2,000 onlookers.  Police cars, an ambulance, a hook and ladder truck and two police emergency vehicles crammed the street below.

Patrolman Frank Deedy and Sergeant James McGuire reached the rooftop.  Deedy tossed his uniform coat and cap to the roof, not wanting to excite the sailor.  When he offered Smith a match, Smith warned “Keep away.  Don’t touch me.”

The sergeant inched closer to Smith whose attention was focused on Officer Deedy.  When he was almost within an arm’s reach Smith turned.  He screamed at the sergeant “Keep away,” and teetered on the brim of the roof.

Sergeant McGuire said to Deedy, “Why don’t you give the sailor a match?”  The policeman understood the ploy.  He tossed a book of matches, purposely letting them fall about three feet from the sailor’s shoes.  As Smith bent to pick them up, McGuire launched himself, pulling the sailor onto the roof.  The crowd below let out relieved cheers.

It was later learned that Smith, who had a wife and child in Belmar, New Jersey, was AWOL from his station on Staten Island.  He had recently returned from a long tour at sea.

Throughout the rest of the century apparel related firms, like Standish Fabrics, were housed here; as was the National Civil Service League, in the 1960s.  The League offered a library of pamphlet material relating to the City’s civil service and personnel administration.”

The façade of Maynicke & Franke’s handsome Rock Building was cleaned and repaired in the early years of the 21st century.  Their handsome design survives even at street level—an elegant “sliver building” that rarely gets the notice it deserves.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. the broken pediments , the beautiful condition of the limestone and the fact that it is a sliver just makes this building a triple threat