Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Tiny Surprise-- No. 407 Park Avenue

photograph by the author

In May 1906 Alice E. Schoenberger purchased the brownstone fronted house at No. 18 East 62nd Street from George W. Jacobs.  The widow of John Hobson Schoenberger had inherited an estate of several million dollars.   Her carriages and horses were stabled in her private carriage house at No. 407 Park Avenue, between 54th and 55th Streets.

It was common for private stables to be located a few blocks away from the mansions of New York’s wealthy.  The unpleasant odors and noises were better kept at arm’s length.  What was surprising about Alice Schoenberger’s two-story brick carriage house was its location on Park Avenue rather than a side street.   The train tracks that had run down the middle of the avenue to Grand Central had been covered over in 1902 and the boulevard landscaped.  Now Park Avenue was changing from one of small buildings to a high-end residential thoroughfare.

In November 1910 Alice modernized her stable for the convenience of the stable boys or grooms who lived in the second floor.  She commissioned architect M. J. Callahan to do $1,000 in improvements, including a bath and pump house.

In 1912 a 12-story apartment building was completed at the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 54th Street.  The new structure edged up against the south wall of Alice’s carriage house.  The architects had optimistically included openings along the northern wall, over the little stable building.  To protect the sunlight and air flooding those rooms, the owners, Swan Brown Company, purchased the stable from Alice Schoenberger in March, that same year.

The little carriage house had not been altered when this photo was taken.  Architectural Record (copyright expired)
The owners immediately renovated the stable as an upscale business building.  Later that year it was leased to Charles Duveen, owner of the Charles of London art gallery at No. 718 Fifth Avenue.   The opening of Duveen’s branch gallery here reflected the high-end tenor of Park Avenue by now.

The survival of the two-story building was ensured in April 1914 when Swan Brown Company accumulated the remainder of the block—Nos. 409, 411 and 413—and laid plans for another 12-story apartment building.  The Sun reported on April 7, 1914, “In order to insure light and air for both of these apartment houses the two story structure at 407…separating the present and proposed buildings, will remain as it is, except that the front will be remodeled.”

American Architect and Architecture, December 1916 (copyright expired)
And remodeled it was.  The architectural firm Cross & Cross (the architects of the new building next door) was hired to transform the carriage house to a modern garage.  The result was a limestone-clad neo-Classical structure that melded with the fashionable residences on the avenue.  A stone balustrade, carved panels of swags, and handsome bay and entrance doors provided an elegant air.  The second floor, where hay was once stored and stable boys lived, was converted to an upscale apartment.

A second-story apartment (below) was above the large garage area.  American Architect and Architecture, December 1916 (copyright expired)
The Park Avenue location was apparently far too valuable for the mere convenience of a garage.  In 1921 architect Alexander M. Bing of Bing & Bing converted the first floor to a store.  In doing so he simplified the Cross & Cross fa├žade.   Show windows and a single doorway now sat within a rusticated base.  The second floor openings were replaced with Renaissance-inspired windows and a balconette.  Only the rooftop balustrade survived from the Cross & Cross design.

Interior decorators for the wealthy, Wood, Edey & Slater, moved into the building in June; and architect Charles K. Slayter moved his offices onto the second floor.

The string of renovations was not over.  In 1931 both floors became store space after the lingerie shop of Mlle. Marie leased the building.  The well-known boutique had been located at the corner of Madison Avenue and 55th Street for a decade.

Only three years later the building was transformed again.  Traabert & Hoeffler, Inc., manufacturing jewelers, had signed a long-term lease on No. 407.  They hired architect J. M. Berlinger to renovate the interiors to accommodate the exclusive shop.

The New York Times, on October 26, 1934, announced “The main floor salon will be octagonal in shape and will have an overhanging balcony.  A skylight ten feet in diameter is another feature.”  The show windows were equipped with “invisible glass” to highlight the expensive merchandise.

Trabert & Hoeffer was founded in 1926 by former Metropolitan Opera singer William Howard Hoeffer and Duane Trabert.  Trabert died one year later and the firm continued under Hoeffer.  The Park Avenue store, like the upscale jewelers of Paris and London, had no counters.  Patrons entered a sitting room with small tables and pale blue velvet chairs on pale blue carpeting within pale blue walls.

During its first year on Park Avenue Trabert & Hoeffer acquired the Star of India sapphire.  The 563.35-carat gem was one of the largest in the world and nearly flawless.  In 1935 silent film star Douglas Fairbanks purchased it as a gift to Mary Pickford.  The jewel would later make international news when it was stolen from the American Museum of Natural History.

In the early hours of May 5, 1941 the “invisible glass” of the show windows proved to be an unexpected problem.  The New York Times reported “The trouble with the ‘invisible’ window of the jewelry display at 407 Park Avenue was that it was too invisible.”

At 4:30 that morning a pedestrian saw an “intoxicated man teetering” on Park Avenue, who stopped in front of the Trabert & Hoeffer display.  “He stuck his hand through the window and was last seen staggering north with an expensive clock hugged against his chest,” said the newspaper.  The drunk and the clock were not seen again.

William Howard Hoeffer retired in 1956 at the age of 64.  Paul Russo, who had been with the firm since 1935, purchased the business.  By now the store had had branches in Paris, Chicago, Beverly Hills, Palm Beach, Miami Beach and Atlantic City.  It was not the change in ownership that affected the jewelry store, it was the change in the neighborhood.

Many of the stylish apartment buildings along Park Avenue had given way to office buildings.  Even the building next door, on the southern corner, was renovated to offices in 1957.  Russo explained to a reporter in 1971 “When everything along here was apartment houses, we would have only three or four customers a day, but they would buy expensive pieces.”  Now he received 20 or more customers a day, workers in the banks and offices buildings, but they did not have the funds to purchase costly items.

Russo responded by offering small items like zodiac charms for as little at $15, and tie bars and other small items for about $30.  But the small sales, although there were many of them, were of little help when the new owner raised Trabert & Hoeffer’s rent from $33,000 a year, with taxes included, to $75,000 plus about $19,000 in real estate taxes.  Unable to cover the rent, Trabert & Hoeffer closed at the end of 1971, after 37 years in the little building.

The two-story shop where Park Avenue socialites had purchased diamonds and emeralds was converted to the Chicago Restaurant.  The eatery remained in the space for several decades until it was, once again, renovated.  In September 2005 Stefano Ricco, Italian men’s wear designer, opened a high-end boutique here.  In announcing the opening The Times said the store was “brimming with high-end silks.”

No. 407 hides between its much taller neighbors.  photo by The Real Deal
But the little building that started its life as a private carriage house survives, nestled between the two tall structures that saved it 100 years ago.

photo by the author

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