Monday, March 21, 2016

The Lost Todhunter Building -- No, 119 East 57th Street

photograph by Arthur Vitols, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

 The Rev. Arthur Mason was rector of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin and Honorary Chaplain to the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York when he died in his upscale home at No. 119 East 57th Street on May 27, 1907.   Although the fashionable neighborhood was already seeing the incursion of commerce, his widow, the former Amelia C. Taylor, remained in the old house for years.  It was regularly the scene of teas and receptions.

Two years after Rev. Mason’s death Arthur Todhunter arrived in New York from England.  He founded Todhunter, Inc. to import antique architectural items--mantelpieces, fireplace equipment, vintage lighting fixtures and hardware, and entire paneled rooms.   His success led him to contract with local wood and metal workers to have reproductions made specifically for his operation. 

For decades architects and builders had stripped Europe of architectural elements for American mansions.  In 1913 American Architect and Architecture noted the scarcity of Adams Brothers mantels.  “The work of these famous craftsmen has been so eagerly sought for by collectors that there are few, if any, genuine examples to be found that the owners will consent to part with.”  The journal prompted architects to turn to Arthur Todhunter. “The delicate detail, the correct proportion and the purity of the artistic design of Adam mantels commends them for extended use.”

In 1914 Todhunter opened his own factory in Long Island City which provided an array of items to his Manhattan store at No. 200 Fifth Avenue.   Now, along with the mantels for which he was best known, he offered weathervanes, lighting fixtures for both indoor and outdoor use, hinges, door handles, and other reproduction hardware.  Todhunter’s well-organized catalogue was a must-have for architects and builders.

By 1921 Amelia Mason had left No. 119 East 57th Street and the Encyclopedia Press leased the building for its headquarters.   The company’s conversion of the high-stooped dwelling was tepid when compared to the alterations Arthur Todhunter would do six years later.

In 1927 he designed a new façade for the house, in consultation with architect Lewis Patton.   In the 1920s a romantic fascination with old English architecture had swept the nation, resulting in entire communities of quaint neo-Tudor cottages.  The fad extended into commercial buildings as well.  In 1924 for instance, Finchley’s, a high-end menswear store, remodeled the Euclid Building on Fifth Avenue into a half-timbered fantasy.

The completed transformation was remarkable.  The New York Times said “The building suggests late sixteenth century England transported to the heart of New York’s shopping district.”

Todhunter had reproduced a medieval house with tiny-paned windows, a scalloped bargeboard, and a remarkable second story balcony reached by a circular staircase.  Here two show windows with small panes flanked a heavy iron-studded door.  As with his reproduction mantels and hardware, Arthur Todhunter took great efforts to assure the look of authenticity.  Many of the elements of the façade were original to the period.

On February 12, 1928 The New York Times explained “The designer was fortunate in finding old fragments of stone and carved woodwork to use in the ornamentation.  The gable is covered with old English red hand-made tiles.  The weathervane of wrought-iron and copper was taken from an old Queen Anne building.  Much of the window glazing is antique.”

photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Todhunter, Inc. displayed its reproductions in the building for a decade.  Interestingly, while the craftsmanship of the items was unparalleled, the prices were not out of reach.  The average cost of a mantel in 1921 was $200—about $2,700 in 2016.

This example of Todhunter's lighting fixtures was offered in 1928.
Although Arthur Todhunter continued in business in New York until 1943; he was gone from the Todhunter Building by 1939.  It had become home to the Terrace and Garden Gallery where, in February that year, a sculpture exhibition of works by Ruth Yates was held.

In 1941 the furniture store of The Hayden Co., Inc. signed a long term lease.  But “long-term” was apparently relative; and in 1945 the building was divided into small offices which filled with theatrical producers.   On October 13, 1945 George Stanton, producer of Carib Song, announced he was looking for new plays. A year later the production association formed by Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan and Walter Fried opened its office in the building.  Other offices here included those of Felix Augenfeld, architect and industrial designer; and playwright Stella Adler.

Within the next two decades City Book Auction, Inc. called No. 119 home; and on February 23, 1960 Mrs. Alfred Philips opened the Phillips Gallery here.  The antiques shop specialized in English 18th century furnishings.

The remarkable slice of 16th century Britain survived until 1973.  It was replaced with architect David Kenneth Specter’s Galleria apartment building.  One is left to wonder what happened to the centuries-old window panes and wood carvings.


1 comment:

  1. Centuries old architectural artifacts? An early 70's demolition? Pre-1976 re-awakening of this countries preservation movement. Most likely those "old" elements were destroyed with barely a second thought unfortunately.