Stately mansions rose along Fifth Avenue north of 34th Street in the second half of the 19th century. Selected blocks that branched off the exclusive avenue became “stable streets”—necessary but odorous stretches of both private and livery stables. Among these was West 44th Street, between Sixth and Fifth Avenues. Another was East 39th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.
At No. 4 East 39th Street was Willis’s Stable, a two-story brick and stone livery business. H. Henry Willis boarded expensive vehicles and horses for private owners, and he rented outfits for temporary users—like Baron de Senechal and Henry Waller who were staying at the Calumet Club on Fifth Avenue at 29th Street in the summer of 1901.
On the night of June 11 that year the baron and Waller had hired a Victoria and driver. At around 9:45 25-year old Henry Yeagle was driving the wealthy men up Fifth Avenue past the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel when an electric motorcar heading east struck the carriage full-force. The horse was knocked to the ground and the carriage overturned. Yeagle was badly bruised in his fall to the pavement, Henry Waller found himself 10 feet away from the accident in a heap, and the baron was also thrown to the ground.
“The crash was plainly heard in the Astoria,” reported the New-York Tribune, and so many well-dressed guests crowded into the street “that traffic was blocked in Fifth-ave. and through Thirty-fourth-st.”
Although Waller suffered a sprained wrist, no one was critically hurt. The gentlemen’s clothing was less fortunate. The New-York Tribune noted “the clothes of both men were torn and soiled.”
Despite no serious bodily harm, Henry Waller was infuriated. And he seemed to be laying the basis of legal action in his remarks to reporters who rushed to the scene.
“It was palpable carelessness on the part of the motorman. My wrist is badly hurt. I can feel the swelling and the pain, and I’m afraid it will give me a lot of trouble to-morrow. The baron and I were riding up the avenue, and certainly had the right of way ahead of the car. The motorman did not slacken his speed till he hit us…The baron obtained the name of the motorman and the number of the car, and we’ve got witnesses to prove that the motorman did not have his ca under control. We certainly shall sue the company.”
By the time that the two gentlemen were unceremoniously deposited on the pavement, Fifth Avenue had changed. High-end businesses and retail stores were inching up the avenue and apartment buildings were appearing on the side streets. In 1900 Mrs. Anna T. Burgess had purchased the stable where Willis operated his business. But she would not retain possession for many years.
When Frederick Keppel arrived in New York, he was not the stereotypical Irish immigrant. Educated in England and at Wesley College in Dublin, he brought with him a refined knowledge of art. By the time Anna Burgess purchased the 39th Street property, he was the senior member of Frederick Keppel & Co., a high-end art dealer, and was well-known as a writer and lecturer on art and art history.
Keppel & Co. imported and sold rare etchings and engravings, including those by the Old Masters. Yet at a time when wealthy New Yorkers mostly looked to Europe for their art collections, Keppel & Co. also staged exhibitions of American artists. Frederick Keppel formed a close personal relationship with artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
|This etching of Whistler, after a portrait by Paul Rajon, was exhibited and sold at Keppel & Co.|
Frederick Keppel & Co. was located for years at 20 East 16th Street; but Keppel recognized the northward movement of the commercial district and the need to follow it. On January 31, 1904 The New York Times reported on the change in the neighborhood around No. 4 East 39th Street. “Long notorious as a ‘stable street,’ this block between Fifth and Madison Avenues was [in 1900] thought to be destined for the highest-class of apparent hotel improvement. With the coming of great retail houses to the neighboring stretch of Fifth Avenue all these predictions have had to be revised, and 4 East Thirty-ninth Street, sold in 1900 for $56,000, now finds a ready market at over $90,000 as a site for a business structure.”
Five few days before the article, Frederick Keppel & Co. had purchased the stable for around the asking price—in the neighborhood of $2.45 million today. Real estate men deemed the purchase “another step in the reclaiming of the stable block on Thirty-ninth Street.” While Frederick continued to run the business, his son, David, was put in charge of constructing a new gallery building. On January 30, 1904 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that David “states that plans have not been settled upon.” A budget had been established, however. The Keppels’ new building was not to exceed $40,000.
By March 12 an architect had been selected. George B. Post was responsible for some of Manhattan’s most recognizable buildings, including the massive Cornelius Vanderbilt III mansion, the 26-story St. Paul Building and the New York World Building, the tallest in the world when completed in 1890.
Demolition of the stable did not commence until October 1904; but construction proceeded rapidly. On March 18, 1905 the Record and Guide reported that the walls were “up to roof line, interior in rough shape.” By December Keppel & Co. had moved in, as had its tenants.
George B. Post had created a brick-and-stone Gothic-inspired structure. The two-story limestone base was dominated by a two-story pointed arch opening. Art patrons entering into Keppel & Co.’s two-floor gallery were watched by portrait sculptures in full relief of Rembrandt van Rijn and Frederick Keppel’s good friend, James McNeil Whistler, who had died two years earlier. The realistic sculptures burst forth from medallions below the second floor cornice.
|Beautifully-executed sculptures of Rembrandt and Whistler adorn the second story.|
The three upper floors were faced in beige brick. Grouped openings were outlined by limestone quoins. A carved cornice below the over-stated crenelated parapet sprouted two fearsome horned gargoyles that stared menacingly down at the street.
Keppel & Co. had no problem filling its new building with tenants. Ernest Dressel North was already well known as a purveyor of rare books and drawings. Although his exhibitions would seem to be in direct competition with Keppel & Co. (his December 1905 exhibition included original drawings by the likes of Rembrandt and Blake); the two dealers apparently co-existed peacefully.
|Frightening horned gargoyles flank the cornice below an over-sized crenelated parapet.|
Keppel & Co.’s first exhibition in the new space was of Charles Meryon. The French sailor-turned-artist suffered from color blindness and worked almost entirely in etchings. His tragic personal story had ended with death in an insane asylum in February 1868.
On Christmas Eve 1905 The New York Times announced “A collection of forty-eight etchings by the unfortunate French sailor-etcher Meryon is shown at the Keppel Galley…Mr. Keppel has printed a small biographical sketch with portrait of Meryon and half tones from some of his work.”
Upstairs were the offices and draft rooms of the highly-regarded architectural firm of Delano & Aldrich. The firm’s associate architect Maurice Jacques Prevot listed himself here separately in directories.
Wealthy art collectors like Henry Frick visited the Keppel & Co. gallery to view or purchase artwork. In November 1906 the gallery exhibited about 100 Rembrandt etchings on its walls. “Already many of the frames bear the small red wafer which means that the particular print so marked is sold” remarked The Times on November 4.
The newspaper’s art critic remarked on several of the etchings; but noted that they were not inexpensive “A broad, dignified landscape uncommonly finished in style and full of atmospheric effects—dated 1651—has exchanged hands for $1,250…It is known to collectors as ‘The Goldweigher’s Field,’ because the pasture belonged to Uyten Bogaret, the goldsmith whom Rembrandt painted.” The price the Keppel patron paid for that etching would translate to about $34,000 today.
Somewhat ironically, one of the last exhibitions staged by Frederick Keppel was early in 1912. The showing of etchings of Keppel's friend, James McNeil Whistler, ended on February 24. Only days later, just after midnight on March 7, Keppel died suddenly at his home. The Sun noted at the time ‘He was a lecturer on art at Yale, Columbia and Johns Hopkins.”
The operation of the gallery passed to Keppel’s son, David. His other son, Frederick, was by now Dean of Columbia College.
Delano & Aldrich remained in the building until 1916. That year the United States entered World War I and the now-vacant offices were soon in use for the war effort.
While the nation’s men were deployed abroad, women struggled to find ways to help at home. Mayor John Purroy Mitchel formed the Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense and established its headquarters at No. 4 East 39th Street. The women quickly set to work creating sub-committees and addressing war-related issues.
The women took on the issue of rationing within the year. On May 26, 1917 The Evening World reported “An information bureau for everybody interested in the conservation and economic use of food will be opened in about ten days by the Sub-Committee on Food of the Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense.” Mabel Kittrege was chairman of the Food Sub-Committee. The office on 39th Street offered “all the Government reports and bulletins on home economics” and lectures and exhibits helped homemakers with “the thrifty preparation and use of food.”
The Mayor’s Committee offered courses, like the Wartime Course for Volunteer Social Workers. And while the women were eager to arrange for recreation for the off-duty soldiers and sailors; they nonetheless held firm to their Edwardian scruples.
On November 18, 1917 the Mayor’s Committee of Women conducted a meeting “for the purpose of formulating standards of conduct at the dances given for enlisted men.” The Sun reported on their decision.
“’Tomboyism’ is becoming too prevalent among our soldiers. This business of a uniformed man with veins raging from too frequent quaffs from the ginger ale bottle galloping madly around a hall with a pretty girl in his arms to the tune of a maddening fox trot has got to stop.”
A list of regulations was established regarding the committee-sponsored dances:
Stringed instrument music only
No “jazz bands”
Mild fox trots, two-steps and waltzes only allowed
No dance to last more than five minutes, including encores
At least two minutes rest between dances
Chaperons must be provided in sufficient numbers
Soft drinks only
“Home Sweet Home” at 11 o’clock sharp (the playing of Home Sweet Home was the signal at society dances that the party had ended.)
An interesting role of the Committee came about in January 1918 when it was noticed that since the older boys and men had gone to war, juvenile delinquency was on the rise. The Mayor’s Committee sought the help of women to act as “Big Sisters” at the parks and playgrounds. Women interested in leading play and games during school children’s recreation hours would received a training course. Those who qualified would be paid for their Big Sister work.
As the Government began the registration of German Americans, No. 4 East 39th Street also housed offices for the Committee on Aliens. Here German-born citizens, deemed “enemy aliens,” could get advice and assistance in filling out the registration forms.
With the end of the war, another architect, Henry Milliken would make the building his base. On May 12, 1920 the Princeton Alumni Weekly announced “Harry Milliken, who has been associated in the practice of architecture with David Adler…in Chicago for the last three years, has opened an office at 4 East 39th St., New York, to take charge of their eastern work.”
At the same time architect Robert Work’s office was here. When he moved out in 1921, he was replaced by the architectural firm of Goodwin, Bullard & Woolsey.
In 1940 Keppel & Co. merged with another high-end dealer, Arthur H. Harlow Co. Inc. The newly-formed Harlow, Keppel Co. moved to No. 670 Fifth Avenue. Later that year, in August, America Designs, Inc. leased the entire building.
The New York Times called it “a group formed to coordinate and accelerate the art in industry movement in the United States” and said it was “comprised of industrial designers, artists, craftsmen manufacturers and retailers in the home furnishing industry.”
The Art-in-Industry Movement was created by retailers to spur consumerism. Working with art museums and artists, the stores emphasized changes in style and color; even incorporating the colors and motifs of new artists such as Marc Chagall or Georgia O’Keefe.
At No. 4 East 39th Street, model rooms were created and furnished with the last word in up-to-date furnishings. On January 4, 1942 The Times wrote at length about the “ensembles at the American Way” here. Closely harmonized, one element with another, these ensembles are the work of a group of American designers headed by Russel Wright. Although varied in their particular talents and choice of materials, these designers are at one in seeking an artistic, alert consideration of American tastes and needs.”
Throughout the rest of the century George B. Post’s handsome gallery building received gentle treatment. In 2005 it was converted to a bank, and while the Keppel & Co.’s store front is gone, the façade has otherwise been little changed. And after more than a century, Rembrandt and Whistler still carefully watch the comings and goings of patrons.
photographs by the author