Monday, September 25, 2017

The Lost Cohnfeld Building - Bleecker and Greene Streets


By the time this photo was taken the mansard had lost its architecturally important ironwork.  from the collection of The Alexander Architectural Archive, the University of Texas as Austin

In the last quarter of the 19th century women's hat styles included artificial flowers, berries and, often, a profusion of feathers.  The fashion for feathers became so intense that whole species of birds became endangered for their plumage.  Taking center stage in the New York feature industry was Isidor Cohnfeld, called by The Sun "the king of the feather trade."

Most of these women's millinery fashions in 1880 included feathers--one, in the center, has an entire stuffed bird. The Queen, The Lady's Newspaper, December 11, 1880 (copyright expired)

Cohnfeld was born in Germany in 1845, but grew up in England.  He arrived in New York around 1865.  The St. Paul Daily Globe said of him 20 year later, "He is essentially a self-made man, and by superior business talents has accumulated a large fortune."  The New York Times attributed his vast wealth to his business "as an importer on an immense scale of feathers and other articles with which women are wont to deck themselves."

Indeed, by the time of the article Cohnfeld was the largest feather dealer in New York and operated branches in London and Paris.  He lived in a lavish mansion at No. 56 West 57th Street and, like several other millionaires, was known for his thoroughbred horses.  His payments of $25,000 for the stallion Maxey Cobb and $15,000 for Helene, gained him "much prominence in horse circles," according to The New York Times in 1887.  The St. Paul Daily Globe described his private stable on the corner of 58th Street and Park Avenue as "palatial" and said it was fitted up "with smoking apartments and rooms for his master of the horse."

On February 16, 1884 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that architect Alfred Zucker had filed plans for a seven-story "brick, iron and stone front warehouse" for Cohnfeld, to cost $225,000--around $5.68 million today.  But what was more surprising than the enormous price was the location, on the southeast corner of Bleecker and Greene Streets.  The neighborhood had, for several years, been a center of brothels, lawless dives and gambling dens.

Zucker's original renderings show a profusion of lacy ironwork, stone urns and other decorations on the uppermost floors.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide (copyright expired)

Looking back in 1898 the Record & Guide's A History of Real Estate, Building and Architecture explained that the new "Mercantile District" (today known as Noho) was kick-started by the Cohnfeld Building and prompted by its architect.

"The creation of the new locality may be said to have commenced in February 1884, when the Cohnfeld Building was erected at the southeast corner of Bleecker and Greene streets.  This was the pioneer structure, for which Mr. Alfred Zucker was responsible not only for the plans, but for the selection of site.  The friends of the owner and many experienced real estate men regarded the placing of such a building in such a position as a foolish and ill-considered step--the reputation of the place was so bad and its advantages for commercial purposes were so far from being appreciated."

The completed building opened onto Greene Street.   The Sun (which claimed the construction costs had risen to $400,000) said "It was [Cohnfeld's] boast that he would have the finest and lightest lofts that there were in this city for his 500 girls to work in, and he spared no cost to get them."  The New York Times described the building as "The finest feather factory in the world," and the St. Paul Daily Globe said "It is a model of architectural beauty inside and outside, and one of the highest in New York, as it towers seven feet higher than the Equitable building on Broadway."

Here young women were employed in sewing, trimming, bleaching and dying feathers.  While The Sun placed the number of  workers at 500, another newspaper said "He employs over 1000 persons at his works in this city."  Given the scale of the structure, the number most likely fell somewhere between those estimates.

Unbeknownst to Cohnfeld, at the time of the triumphant opening of his impressive factory his days of hobnobbing with Vanderbilts and Shepards at the race track were coming to an end.   His millions began drying up; many in financial circles blaming the high cost of the Cohnfeld Building for his money troubles.  The newspapers which had recently praised the structure now universally called it "Cohnfeld's Folly."

A panicked Cohnfeld began selling off property in the spring of 1886.  He sold a loft building one block south of the Cohnfeld Building at the corner of Greene and Houston Streets in May that year for $70,000, for instance.


Then, on November 4, 1887 The Sun ran the headline: Where Is Isidor Cohnfeld?  The article began, "Isidor Cohnfeld, the well-known dealer in ostrich feathers, has had the reputation of being a very rich man.  He was supposed to be the biggest dealer in the country in ostrich plumes.  It is reported that he has left town, and under mysterious circumstances."  The article noted "It is alleged that Mr. Cohnfeld has disposed of his horses and that his business has been conducted for some days by his bookkeeper and by Mr. Periam, formerly his manager."

Servants who came to the door at the West 57th Street mansion "refused to give any information regarding Mr. Cohnfeld's whereabouts."  An employee provided an excuse, saying Cohnfeld's "health had been failing of late, and that he was seeking a rest by advice of his physician."

But the press was not buying the story.  The following day The New York Times said "He was last seen down town about a week ago, and then seemed to be perfectly well."  The newspaper added, "He is said to be in the vicinity of Niagara Falls, a resort that is close, as most people are aware, to the Canadian boarder."  The implication that Cohnfeld was on the run from his creditors was clear.

It was discovered that Cohnfeld had sold his nearly-new building to Leon Mendel, a partner in the Chicago-based real estate firm of Mendel Brothers, for $350,000.  Shortly before his disappearance, he had essentially liquidated his stock of feathers "at ruinous prices," according to The Sun.   And true to The Times' insinuation, before long Isidor Cohnfeld crossed the Canadian border, reportedly with a satchel containing over $250,000 in cash.

The Mendel Brothers leased the entire Cohnfeld Building to Alfred Benjamin & Co.  The firm was described by the South Carolina newspaper The Abbeville Press and Hammer as "probably the largest manufacturer of fine ready made men's clothing in this country."  Like Isidor Cohnfeld, the firm employed hundreds of mostly immigrant laborers.

With the introduction of labor unions in the last years of the 19th century, businessmen like Alfred Benjamin were compelled to make difficult decisions.  He tried, initially, to keep arm's length from the problem.

On July 11, 1890 The Times reported that the cutters' union had boycotted the goods of Alfred Benjamin & Co. "because the firm had refused to interfere between its men and the union.  Mr. Benjamin had been requested to compel some of his men to pay dues that they were said to owe to the union, and he replied that that was none of his business, and that as long as these men did their work properly he would give them work."

Begrudgingly, Benjamin came to a costly compromise with the union.  In December "after a long fight," he paid the union $2,500 "for expenses incurred in fighting the firm."

Alfred Benjamin's problems would become far worse than labor friction four months later.  Smoke was seen wafting from a sidewalk grate just after 5:00 on  March 17, 1891.  The hundreds of workers inside were preparing to leave for the day.  The first alarm was turned in at 5:20, a second five minutes later, and then three others in rapid succession.

The New York Times reported that from its opening there were those who considered the building a fire hazard.  "The building known as 'Cohnfeld's Folly'...appeared to be one of the most solidly-constructed buildings in the city, and the general impression among those who saw it after it was put up was that it was fireproof.  But those who saw it erected were of the opinion that a fire once started below would, unless mastered at the first floor, sweep through the whole building and destroy it."  Fire Chief Charles O. Shay said "It's a timber stack with enough wood in it to build a small town."

The conflagration rose throughout the building.  The St. Paul Daily Globe reported "Suddenly, with hardly a moment's notice, the flames shot their way up through the building, and burst through the roof in a blaze that could be seen for miles about.  Then every floor was attacked by the devouring element, until from sub-basement to roof the magnificent building was a fiery furnace.  The firemen in the street below were like pigmies [sic] battling with a giant."

The fire spread, eventually engulfing nearly the entire block.   The following morning The Sun's headline read "Two Millions Burned Up.  The Dance of the Flames Begins in Cohnfeld's Folly."  And the sub-headline continued "Building After Building in Bleecker Street Goes Up with a Beautiful Display."  With unexpected callousness, the headline added "Benjamin's Gone--Where will the Men Get their Summer Clothes This Year?"

On the morning of March 18 nearly the entire block--ten buildings in all--was a charred ruins.  The Cohnfeld Building was completely destroyed only seven years after its completion.

An unexpected twist soon occurred.  Although there were no reports of any fatalities in the Cohnfeld Building fire, a specter was reportedly seen among the ruins soon after.  Within days long crowds of curious ghost-hunters lined the street hoping for a sighting.

On April 10, 1891 The New York Sun reported "The Bleecker street ghost drew as large a 'house' last night as Barnum's Circus or any of the theaters.  There was a bigger crowd about 'Cohnfeld's Folly' than there was three weeks ago when the flames gutted the buildings from Mercer to Green streets...The wraith was not due till midnight, but the street was packed with watchers as early as 9 o'clock."

The newspaper reported that the throng was so dense that pedestrians could not make their way along Bleecker Street and that twice policemen "descended on the mob and routed it."  Five minutes after the police left, the crowd reassembled.  The spirit was illusive, however.  On April 14 The Evening World reported "The people who have been watching a week for a sight of the Bleecker street ghost are getting discouraged.  Ghosts, by the way, are never around when wanted."

Interestingly enough, Mendel Brothers commissioned Alfred Zucker to design the replacement building.  Construction of the six-story structure began in September 1892.  That building was demolished in 1957 as part of the massive Washington Square Village apartment complex.

photo by Tayler MacMillan via nyunews.com

1 comment:

  1. Trying to imagine what this building must have looked like the day it was finished......WOW!

    ReplyDelete