Thursday, August 22, 2019

The 1887 Middendorf & Rohrs Bulding - 1 Little West 12th Street



The ghost of the painted Middendorf & Rohrs Grocers signage is still legible above the second floor windows.  The No. 33 also appears--the firm preferring to use the address of No. 33 Gansevoort Street.

In 1879 Peter Houschild, who earned his living as a clerk, lived in the building where Little West 12th and Gansevoort Streets came together.  For decades working class men like Houschild--carpenters, carmen, and laborers, for instance--had rented rooms here.  The location earned the old structure two exchangable addresses: No. 1 Little West 12th Street and No. 33 Gansevoort Street.   

James C. Cooper had owned the property since 1853.  On April 9, 1887 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide announced architect Peter J. Zabriskie had filed plans for Cooper to replace No. 1 Little West 12th Street with a "three-story brick store and open lofts."  The projected construction costs were $8,700--or about $237,000 today.

Zabriskie's neo-Grec style building was clad in red brick above a cast iron storefront.  The architect chamfered the eastern corner to conform to the conjunction of the two streets.  Rough cut stone was used for the bandcourses and other trim; while the remaining decorative elements were executed in brick, including the complex dentiled cornice.

In 1897 German immigrants Henry Mittendorf and Herman Rohrs partnered to form Middendorf & Rohrs, wholesale grocers.  They moved their operation into Cooper's building, preferring to use the address of No. 33 Gansevoort Street.   By the turn of the century Rohrs's brothers, Peter and John, had joined the firm.

Both Henry and Herman were already well-established in the grocery industry.  The same year the fledgling firm took over the building Herman Rohrs went to Albany as a representative of the Grocers' Association of New York City.  He and members of other business groups were showing support of a bill introduced by Senator Charles L. Guy "to prevent merchants from making dishonest, misleading statements regarding their goods in order to draw trade from their more honorable competitors."

Rohrs continued to be vocal in his defense of smaller retailers.  When the mammoth department stores like Siegel-Cooper introduced grocery departments to their offerings of apparel and housewares at the turn of the last century, Rohrs made his opinion clear.  At a meeting of the New York Wholesale Grocers' Association he railed "Pretty soon these dry goods stores will be advertising coffins free in order to induce people to buy flour.  They'll be offering inducements to people to die."

Herman Rohrs died in 1904.  The firm continued under Herman Mittendorf with Peter and John Rohrs now full partners.  They enjoyed continued success and on March 16, 1918 the Record & Guide reported "Middendorf & Rohrs, produce dealers, bought from the Cooper estate the 3-sty building at 3 Little West 12th st. for occupancy."  Architect John G. Michel was commissioned to build an annex.

Completed in 1919, it rose five stories and offered no hint that it was at all associated with the building next door other than a diamond-shaped plaque in the parapet with the initials MR.  Like Zabriskie had done three decades earlier, Michel used brick to create the few decorative elements.



There were only 15 employees in the new building in 1919, suggesting that it was used mostly for storage.  

Henry Middendorf died in 1927 at the age of 80.  Two years later Peter and John Rohrs finally purchased No. 1 Little West 12th Street from the Cooper estate.  The firm remained in the two structures until 1964 when the properties were sold to the Avaco Realty Corp.


The Middendorf & Rohrs initials are emblazoned on the parapet of No. 3.

A renovation was completed in 1973 for a meat packing firm.  No. 1 now had a cooler and storage area on the first floor, freezer rooms on the second, and offices on the top floor.  No. 3 was converted for mostly storage, with a locker room for employees on the second story and additional offices on the third.  The changes would seem to be perfect for meat dealer John A. Ottman who purchased the two buildings in 1986; but the following year he sold the properties to Peter J. and Richard P. Kleinknecht, who ran the Kleinknecht Electric Co. at No. 5 Little West 12th Street.  

The Kleinknechts retained ownership of the buildings until 1998 when they were purchased by well-known real estate operator William Gottlieb.  It was that year that No. 1 got a surprising tenant--the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.  Writing in The New York Times on June 14 Bernard Stamler explained the group would move in in August and "there it will stay for about two years, as it renovates its permanent home at 208 West 13th Street, a few minutes' walk--and a world--away."

At the time the gay community was being devastated by the AIDS epidemic.  In addition to outreach to the victims, the Center offered resources for the community in general--more than 300 programs including career services assistance, arts, cultural and health and wellness.  More than 5,000 people a week were using the facilities at the time.

The Times architectural columnist David W. Dunlap commented on the change in the Gansevoort neighborhood on August 29 the following year.   He recalled that 15 years earlier signs read "Hookers and johns beware.  We take your numbers."  Although High Line Park was still a decade away, the neighborhood was noticeably changing.

What was not yet significantly changing was the AIDS crises.  On July 27, 2000 a memorial service was held for Stephen Gendin, co-founder and contribution editor of POZ magazine.  It was just one more of the gatherings to which the community had become far too accustomed.  By the end of 2000 nearly 450,000 persons had died from the disease.



The arrival of High Line Park fast-forwarded the transformation of the Gansevoort Market and Meatpacking Districts.  One by one the former grocery and butcher buildings were transformed into trendy restaurants, boutiques and art galleries.  The three buildings owned by the Kleinknechts in 1987 now all share the address of No. 1 Little West 12th Street.  But the original No. 1 on the Gansevoort Street corner stands out with its intimate architectural charm.

photographs by the author

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