Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Butchered Beauty -- No. 167 West 23rd Street

In the 1930s the Star Bar & Grill in No. 167 boasted a new arcade storefront (right). The facade and scrolled parapet of No. 169 next door was created by the same architect a year apart. -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
In the decade before the outbreak of Civil War, West 23rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues was a high-end residential street.   Among the wealthy residents of the block was insurance broker John P. Nazro, whose family lived in the three-story brick home at No. 167.

Nazro was partners with Marshall Pepoon in Pepoon & Marshall, with offices at No. 12 Wall Street.  Pepoon’s mansion was conveniently nearby—two blocks away at No. 182 Fifth Avenue.  In 1858 young Hiram H. Nazro was studying at Columbia College.

Within two years the Nazro family would be gone and Henderson Moore moved into No. 167.  The well-respected businessman had his office at No. 60 Broadway and was a member of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York.    He would be followed in the house by Sarah A. Coon.

Sarah and her female colleagues bravely faced professional discrimination—they were physicians.  In 1871 the President of the American Medical Association called women doctors “monstrous productions seeking to rival men;” and the editor of the Buffalo Medical Journal deemed them “loathsome and disgusting.”

The same year that those men were insulting female doctors, Sarah was an attending physician in the Dispensary and Hospital Society of the Women’s Institute (there were two other women on the attending staff, as well).  On February 7, 1871, a year after the Dispensary opened, The New York Times explained that the goals of the facility were “to ameliorate the sufferings of invalid women, by furnishing gratuitous treatment and advice to out-door patients” and to provide medical treatment “to invalid women in the middle rank of life, whose incomes are insufficient to warrant the employment of well-skilled physicians and surgeons.”

Dr. Coon was still in the house in 1881.  Her professionalism by now was recognized by the Medical Society of the State of New York with a seat on the Society’s Committee on Hygiene.  At the time, however, the tone of West 23rd Street was in the grip of change.

The emporiums of Sixth Avenue had begun spilling onto West 23rd Street in 1878 when the Stern Brothers dry goods store opened between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Quickly the formerly elegant street was becoming the center of Manhattan’s entertainment district.  On the corner of 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue rose the white marble Booth’s Shakespearean theater, diagonally across the intersection from Koster & Bial’s Music Hall.   And in 1884 the architecturally eccentric Eden Musee—part wax museum, part theater, part pleasure garden—opened just a block to the east of No. 167.

By 1888 it appears that the brick house had been converted to commercial space at street level with rooms rented on the upper floors.    Frederick S. Foote was in the building that year when he introduced his newest invention—Foote’s Vegetable Knife.  Scientific American, on January 5, 1889, was enthusiastic about the gadget.  The journal called it “a simple form of knife whereby vegetables can be easily and rapidly pared without unnecessary waste.”

The forerunner of the modern potato peeler, Foote’s patented tool prevented the blade from “entering the vegetable or object being cleaned” too deeply.  And it incorporated pointed corners “for removing eyes of potatoes or reaching depressions in the surface of the vegetables being pared.”

Frederick Foote's handy kitchen gadget made life easier for housewives in 1889 --Scientific American, January 5, 1889 (copyright expired)
The location of No. 167 West 23rd Street, just a block or two in either direction from several theaters, made it convenient for roomers in the theatrical profession.   Actor and musician Adolph Wilson lived here in 1891 when he ran into trouble.  Wilson was playing in the Bijou Theatre with the High Roller Company when, on July 16, he was arrested and charged with “stealing jewelry and clothing from Mildred Mosely and Lillian Evans.”

The two women were actresses in the troupe and lived together at No. 221 West 40th Street.  Wilson pleaded guilty before the Court of General Sessions on August 6, 1891.  Judge Cowing sentenced him to two years and six months in the State prison.

Louise Wernert, like Sarah A. Coons, entrenched herself in a mostly-male profession.  A real estate operator, she owned many properties in the neighborhood.  In 1898 architect Patrick F. Brogan received the commission to convert the vintage house into a modern commercial structure.  Considering the impressive theaters and emporiums along the thoroughfare, Brogan had a challenge to make No. 167 stand out.

Brogan was somewhat busy in the area at the time.  His office was conveniently nearby, at No. 119 East 23rd Street.  Within the year he would convert the building next door as well, melding the designs of the two as harmonious and exuberant sisters.

For No. 167 Brogan used both cast iron and pressed metal to transform the brick residence into a show-stopping commercial structure.   The expected pilasters and columns of the upper floors and the pressed festoon motif would have been made the building both attractive and ordinary were it not for the extravagant tower with its pyramidal cap.  The relatively small building suddenly held its own with the most imposing structures of 23rd Street.

Among the first tenants in the newly-converted building was the showroom of the Ohio-based Canton Steel Roofing Co.  Here the firm showcased examples of pressed metal ceilings along with the large sample books from which potential clients could select designs.

At the turn of the last century pressed metal ceilings were highly popular for commercial spaces.  They adorned drugstores, dry goods houses, bars, and restaurants.   Creating the finished product was a time-consuming and exacting process.  Elaborate borders had to follow the precise contours of the space; allow for columns and ceiling fixtures; and wrapping around fixtures such as back bars or built-in displays and floor-to-ceiling cabinetry.

When the new Collins restaurant and café opened across the street at the southeast corner of 23rd Street and 7th Avenue (in a building also owned by Louise Wernert), Canton Steel Roofing supplied the ceiling.  On August 2, 1902 The Record and Guide complimented their work, saying “The metal ceiling work is especially attractive.”

On the ground floor were the offices of the Guarantee Dental Company.  The dentists promised “honest dealings when we invite you to call and have your teeth examined free.  We urge no one by cunning schemes to have work done.”  Patients may have been encouraged by Guarantee Dental’s promise of “positively painless dentistry.”  A customer could purchase a full set of 24-kt. gold crowns here in 1907 for $5.00—a bargain at about $130 in 2015 dollars.

Disaster visited the Guarantee Dental Company’s office on February 23, 1903 in the form of a runaway wagon.  The horse drawing the Consolidated Gas Company wagon was frightened at the corner of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue by “the puffing of an automobile,” according to The New York Times the following day.

The horse bolted along West 23rd Street pulling the large wagon behind and sending the crowded street into panic.  “The horse dashed westward past carriages, cars, and carts, having many narrow escapes from collisions,” said the newspaper.  But luck quickly ran out.

The horse ran onto the sidewalk directly in front of the Eden Musee, scattering pedestrians in every direction.  The wagon smashed into the sign and showcase of manicurist Madame Casteran, destroying both, as it headed directly for No. 167.

The Times reported “Then, continuing, it demolished the showcase of the Guarantee Dental Company, and in so doing spilled several dollars’ worth of gold teeth and fillings over the sidewalk.”

Proctor’s Theatre, up the block, was also damaged.  The horse and wagon ran through the portico where it smashed portraits of actors being displayed there.  Finally the spooked horse was captured by Policeman White on Seventh Avenue.

Guarantee Dentist Company would remain in the building at least until 1915.  Dr. Joseph Semon was here at the time, perhaps more well-known for his race horses than for his medical practice.   Dr. Semon was secretary of the Road Drivers’ Association, which often raced at the New York Speedway.  Despite the suggestion of both organizations’ names; neither had anything to do with race cars and everything to do with horses.

Semon’s horses routinely appeared in the racing columns and on September 10, 1906 The Times reported that he had “introduced a new pacer, Bon Jay.  He is a stylish roan gelding with a record of 2:19.”

By now the entertainment district had moved northward to the recently-renamed Times Square. Manhattan’s garment district had arrived on West 23rd Street on its migration that would eventually end north of 34th Street.  In June 1919 the estate of Louise Wernert leased the two upper floors of No. 167 to Andrew and Christie Siotka.  The Fur Trade Review reported that they “will manufacture furs, etc., under the firm name of Siotka Bros.” here.
By the mid-1930s the ground floor had received a new face—an angled Art Modern arcade shop front for the Star Bar & Grill and its related wine and liquor store.  The space would be operated as a bar for decades and in 1964 its manager was hailed as a hero of sorts.

At around 4:00 on the morning of June 4 29-year old George Field closed the Star Cafe.   Mrs. Katherine Hughes, who lived at No. 601 West 190th Street, had been visited friends in Chelsea and was on her way home.   Two men taunted her from a car.  When she ignored them, one of them got out.  Michael Yager punched Katherine, knocking her to the pavement at the northeast corner of 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue.

According to The Times the street was crowded with about 50 other pedestrians who witnessed the assault but did nothing.  George Field followed and then confronted the 23-year old.  Yager decided to “grapple” with Field.  It was an unwise choice.

The newspaper described the bar manager as “6 feet 1 inches tall and weighs 212 pounds.”  The confrontational Yager was 5 feet 11 inches and weighed 180 pounds.  It ended badly for Yager.

“Mr. Field punched Yager twice, breaking his nose and knocking him unconscious.  Mr. Field broke a bone in his right hand.”   Yager was arrested and charged with felonious assault.

The Star Cafe was still here around 1974 when Edmund V. Gillon photographed it.  No. 169, next door, would lose its impressive parapet at the same time No. 167 was brutally decapitated.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1989 much of the neighborhood was included in the Landmark Preservation Commission’s Ladies’ Mile Historic District.  The district stopped short of including No. 167 West 23rd Street by one block.  Nevertheless, the remarkable pressed metal façade had survived and in the years following the destruction of Pennsylvania Station and heightened appreciation for vintage architecture, New Yorkers could not imagine the quirky little building’s being desecrated.  Calling it a “confection,” preservation advocate Margot Gayle had said in 1974 it “must be seen to be believed.”

photograph by the author
But in 1991 while the backs of preservationists and neighbors were turned, the owners of No. 167 West 23rd Street pulled down and scrapped the stunning tower.  In 2010 the AIA Guide to New York City described the remains as “a simple, elegant façade.”  

 A decade earlier it had been so much more.

1 comment:

  1. There's a special place in Hell for owners and developers who purposely desecrate their buildings to avoid potential landmark designations (sometimes immediately when they first get word that their building is under review) and it happens all too often. The facade mutilation of Chickering Hall on 57th Street is one example from 2015 where a developer, Vornado Realty Trust should have been fined since they did it to stop the Landmarks Commission from moving forward with a review and they later went on to jack hammer the Rizzoli bookstores elaborate vaulted plaster ceilings of the adjacent building after verbally stating they would allow a group to salvage the ceiling. It was purposely done for their own amusement and to shove it in the faces of preservation advocates. Fines should be hefty enough to thwart such idiots who run companies that care little about the cities heritage they destroy.