Monday, March 16, 2015

The Lost Alexander Building - No. 548 5th Avenue

from the collection of the New York Public Library

When 26-year old Andrew Alexander opened his first shoe store on Eighth Avenue in 1857, the Fifth Avenue mansion district was just beginning to inch north of 42nd Street.    His business flourished and in 1896 he opened his own impressive building at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 19th Street—squarely in the center of the shopping district that would become known as the Ladies’ Mile.

But as the turn of the century came and went, fashionable shopping, like fashionable living, followed a northward flow.  While Roland Macy would erect his massive department on 34th Street and Broadway; other retailers like Benjamin Altman, would boldly move onto Fifth Avenue—fueling the panic of millionaire homeowners.

On April 2, 1906 Thomas W. Evans died in his brownstone home at No. 548 Fifth Avenue, the same year that Altman opened his white marble retail palazzo a few blocks to the south.  The 87-year old was the founder and senior member of the dry goods firm Evans, Gardiner & Co.  His funeral was held in the house on Wednesday morning, April 4.

Evans’s widow, Louise, lived only a few months longer.  On Friday, December 21, she too died in the house.   Real estate operators were impatiently waiting in the wings.

In an estate sale early in 1907 Frederick B. Klingman purchased the house for $340,000—a significant $8.7 million in today’s dollars.  On November 22 The New York Times announced that plans had been filed to remodel the “old Evans house.”  The newspaper said the changes included “the making over of the basement and first story into stores.”

Following his slight makeover, Klingman sold the property in 1910 for $425,000.  When the buyer offered the property at auction on Thursday, May 11, 1911, he pointed out in advertisements that it was an “exception opportunity for merchants” and that it was the “only available parcel on West Side of Fifth Avenue from 34th to 59th Street.”

Although Andrew Alexander had died at the age of 72 in 1903; his will requested that his wife and daughters “continue his business.”   They had done so admirably and now the estate eyed the old converted brownstone as a tempting site for expansion.

Having made the winning bid of $415,000, the Alexander shoe firm now laid plans for its new Fifth Avenue store.   The company went to the top of the heap in choosing its architects.  Carrere & Hastings had just completed the masterful New York Public Library three blocks to the south.  They would now focus on a smaller commission—the remodeling of the old Evans house.

On July 8, 1911 The Times reported that the architects had filed plans “for taking down and rebuilding the entire front wall of the five-story store of Andrew Alexander at 548 Fifth Avenue and rebuilding it with a brick wall covered with stucco, at a cost of $50,000.”

The description of a brick wall “covered with stucco” fell far short of what was to come.   Carrere & Hastings turned to a 16th century Italian technique known as sgraffito.  Similar to that used for painting of frescoes, the process involved the application of layers of color-tinted plaster to a moistened surface.  Significant during the Italian Renaissance, sgraffito was about to make its appearance on a Fifth Avenue shoe store.

photograph The Architectural Record June 1921 (copyright expired)

The renovation was completed before year’s end.  The upper three floors closely resembled an Italian townhouse with the intricate two-toned sgraffito ornamentation, the cast iron balconies at the third floor, and the deeply-overhanging tiled roof.   The two-story shop front was framed in colored marble against a rusticated background.  A handsome half-domed canopy over the entrance was composed of fish-scale glass sections, and the name of the store appeared in bronze letters below an intricate frieze.

photograph The Architectural Record June 1921 (copyright expired)

Andrew Alexander opened its uptown store in December 1911.  Charles Price, writing in Arts & Decoration “regretted” that Carrere & Hastings had not shown the designs in that year’s Architectural League of New York’s annual exhibition.   He called the work “the charming little shop with which they recently decorated Fifth Avenue, its façade treated with ‘sgraffito’ ornamentation.”  Aymar Embury II called the building “excellent” in The Brickbuilder.

Alexander shoes were hand-crafted, more expensive than the average shoe, and marketed to the moneyed consumer.  An advertisement in the Columbia Spectator on January 11, 1913 offered an incentive to the college boys.  “In the large universities Alexander Shoes have been the criterion of Style and value for many years.  Columbia men receive especial consideration when known.”

Incredibly intricate sgraffito designs covered the third floor facade -- The Architectural Forum, December 1921 (copyright expired)

The bulk of Alexander’s customers were female, however.  In the August 1914 issue of Silk the columnist who went by the name Madame Butterfly, mentioned some of the current styles.  “The shoe especially designed by this shop for dancing is very smart.  It is made of patent calf, either white or black, with panel of contrasting effect.  As these shoes are hand-made the price may be higher than those machine-made, but for dancing elasticity and durability must be counted upon.”  Madame Butterfly, of course, did not want to ignore the other shoes available.  “The shoes for members of the family who care less for dancing than they do for the country’s pleasures, tennis, golf, etc., have had due attention given their needs.”

As patriotism swept over New York City during World War I, Andrew Alexander joined other Fifth Avenue retailers in displaying nationalistic posters and artwork.  In listing the many displays on September 30, 1918, The New York Times noted “The Vow,' by Douglas Volk, based on President Wilson’s utterances at Mount Vernon in July, aroused much interest.  This was exhibited in the window of Andrew Alexander at 548.”

The high-end product Andrew Alexander offered to its wealthy customers is evidenced by the annual slipper sale prices in 1919.  Boot and Shoe Recorder on January 11 noted “At the Fifth Avenue store the sale covered slippers at $4.90 a pair, and was described as follows: ‘Beaded slippers of satin, black and bronze kidskin, beautiful designs, and finest work.  Also slippers at $5.85, $6.85, $7.85 and $8.75.”  The war-time sale prices translate to over $100 for the least expensive.

A 1914 advertisement featured a dance slipper (left) and a shoe for "fall street wear."  Dry Goods Economist October 10, 1914 (copyright expired)

The elegant Andrew Alexander shoe store would remain here until the early 1920s.  It was replaced by Sheridan’s, a high-end shop selling gowns and millinery. 

On September 28, 1928 four well-dressed women exited a taxicab and entered the store.  Miss Paget, a saleswoman, greeted the women and took one of them to the mezzanine to look at coats.  The others took seats near the door and waited.

The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger, October 21, 1921 (copyright expired)

When the woman found nothing to her liking, she joined her friends and they climbed back into the taxi which had waited for them at the curb.  It was later that someone noticed that the $1,200 mink coat from the display window had left with them.

Within a week Sheridan had vacated the space and J. Edman & Bros., Inc. leased it “for a new link in its chain of apparel stores.”  In reporting on the changeover, The Times mentioned that the structure was “formerly known as the Alexander Building.”

Like Sheridan’s, Edman & Bros. would not remain in the building overly long.  In 1935 O. H. Gropper, leather goods manufacturer, leased the building.  The former Alexander shoe store was now The Gropper Travel Outfit Store.   The leather shop had barely opened before a tragedy occurred.

Around 7:00 on January 18, 1935 foot patrolman James M. J. Killian and his partner, Walter B. Curtis, happened upon an armed robbery taking place in the store.  A gun battle erupted during which 30-year old Killian was fatally shot in the temple.  He had been on the force since September 27, 1929 and left a wife and two daughters, aged four and one-and-a-half.

All four crooks were arrested.  They confessed to having committed at least 20 hold-ups within the past few months.  The New York Times reported “The four had been so successful, they said, that they had planned to leave for Florida last night for a vacation.  They planned the luggage store hold-up to pick up a little more expense money, they explained.”

The public was outraged at the brutal killing and the details of the trials were followed in the newspapers for weeks.  All four were eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Sing Sing.

By 1938 Carrere & Hastings’s wonderful Edwardian façade with its elaborate decoration had fallen from fashion.  That year, on October 23, The Times reported that “The four-story building at 548 Fifth Avenue is being altered into a structure of two stories at an approximate cost of $15,000.”  Somewhat ironically, it was another shoe firm that commissioned architect Eugene Schoen to transform the sgraffito decorated structure into a sleek Art Moderne building, as much sculpture as architecture.

The Walk-Over Shoe Store opened on March 1, 1939.  The Times reported “features of this store are air conditioning, concealed lighting and a large mural by Arthur Crisp entitled ‘Shoemaker’s Dream.”

The Walk-Over shoe building was a masterwork of modern architecture.  photograby by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,%20548%20Fifth%20Avenue.-2F3XC5U9346W.html

The Victorian brownstone, turned Italian Renaissance townhouse, turned Art Moderne retail store survived until 1958.  A six-story bank building replaced both it and the corner building at No. 546.  Today, in place of that structure is the 22-story mirror-glassed Safra National Bank Tower.

photo by epicharmus


  1. Actually one of the few cases where I like the replacement building - the Walk-Over Shoe building, not what is currently there. The Moderne building was quite stylish and interesting. The mirror glass building there now is just so boring and cliche. I'm not a fan of mirror glass buildings.

    1. I totally agree. I would be very hard pressed to choose between the Carrere & Hastings building and the Schoen structure. You can have the glass one!

  2. Wow - this one has everything! Besides the architectural details the back story has great interest. A stolen mink coat, an unfortunate police shooting, and a mural named "Shoemaker's Dream" ! You couldn't make this stuff up and be credible.

    BTW, I received my pre-ordered copy of "Seeking New York: .." and absolutely LOVE it. Very nicely done. I can take it with me and enjoy a slice of old NYC whenever I have a few moments. So glad you made this happen, Tom!

    1. You're right. You just could not make up these great stories. Thanks for the compliment on the book! Hope you continue to enjoy it! Thanks again

  3. I agree...the original jewel like the moderne

    ...then the mirrored mess......yuck.

    Great entry!