Monday, September 30, 2019

The Lost Franklin Simon Store - Fifth Avenue and 38th Street


The show windows were curtained in this 1922 photograph, suggesting they were being redressed or it was a Sunday.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Franklin Simon was born into a humble family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on February 7, 1865.  His father, Henri, was a wood carver and cigar maker and his mother, Helen, was a seamstress.  At about the age of 13 Simon got a job as a "cash-boy" at the Stern Brothers dry goods store on 23rd Street making $2.50 per week.  

By the 1890's Simon had greatly advanced within the company.  On a buying trip to Paris he met Herman A. Flurscheim, a Stern Brothers' supplier.  The business relationship became friendly and they soon planned to open their own business in New York, importing French fashions.

In 1901 newspapers reported that Franklin Simon had leased the brownstone mansion of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson at No. 414 Fifth Avenue.  She and her husband, banker Orme Wilson, were in the process of erecting a lavish mansion at No. 6 East 64th Street.  

The fledgling Franklin Simon & Co. renovated the house, replacing the facade and gutting the interiors.  Opening day was in February 1902; but things did not go as well as planned.  It would still be a few years before retailers like Tiffany & Co. and B. Altman & Co. invaded this area of Fifth Avenue.   Simon and Flursheim's new venture lost $40,000 that year--about $1.2 million today.  But things soon turned around.

As a matter of fact, in 1905 the store expanded, erecting an annex next door to the south.  On October 10 The New York Times reporting on its opening, saying "This addition runs from the basement to the fifth floor, almost doubling their space...They are making a special display of Paris models in dresses, suits, gowns, coats, evening wraps, &c, from the leading French houses."

Herman A. Flurscheim continued to live in Paris and choose the merchandise for importing; but he was definitely not out of touch with the New York store.  On July 7, 1908 The New York Times reported he would be boarding the steamship Kronprinzessin Cecelie the following day to return to Paris.  "With this trip he will have crossed the ocean 150 times."

As was the case with many large firms, Franklin Simon & Co. hosted annual outings and entertainments for its employees.  On January 2, 1909, for instance they had "a merry evening" at Alhambra Hall, as described by The New York Times.  "The occasion was a vaudeville entertainment given by the firm, followed after by a reception."  More than 650 employees were there.

On November 6, 1909 the Record & Guide reported that Franklin Simon had hired the architectural firm of A. J. Robinson Co. to make $500 worth of alterations to No. 414, including a bridge and new doors connecting the original building to the annex.

But the continuing success of Franklin Simon & Co. again necessitated larger space by the end of the following year.  On February 2, 1911 The Times reported that the firm had spent a staggering $900,000 ($24.5 million today) for the property between No. 414 and the Brick Church on Fifth Avenue and the West 38th Street property behind the store.   The article said the store "will erect a modern building on the Fifth Avenue plot, and will also erect a new ten-story building on the Thirty-eighth Street plot." 

Plans by architect Edward Necarsulmer were drawn up in March and on May 6, 1911 the Record & Guide reported that 400 tons of steel had been ordered for the $1.2 million project.  

Necarsulmer's annex to the south and the 12-story building to the west made no attempt at architectural congruity.  The original corner structure still hinted at its domestic beginnings.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The additions were opened in March 1912.  The 12-story structure on West 38th Street housed the firm's non-retail operations--offices, tailoring shops and the mail order department, for instance.  

On April 18, just one month after the new buildings opened, the RMS Carpathia steamed into New York harbor carrying the survivors of the RMS Titanic.  One of them, Margaret Hays, disembarked with two little French children, now orphaned.  She and officials from the Children's Aid Society embarked on a two-continent search to discover their identities.  In speaking to reporters on April 21 Margaret added "Will you also please state that the children were outfitted to-day without charge by Franklin Simon & Co. of 414 Fifth Avenue.  No request was made to them to do it, but as soon as they heard that the children were in the store they offered us whatever they needed."

Franklin Simon & Co. was not done growing.  On March 7, 1914 the Record & Guide reported the store had leased "for a long term of years" the Gattle Building on 38th Street.  "The securing of this space by Franklin Simon & Co. is another evidence of the growth of the retail business in this section of Fifth Avenue."

The history of the store was recapped by The Evening World following Herman A. Flurscheim's death in June 1915.  The article recalled that in 1902 "it occupied a single building at No. 414 Fifth Avenue.  Now it occupies practically the whole block front in Fifth Avenue, between Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth Streets, with several adjacent buildings in Thirty-eighth Street."  The article noted "The business will be continued by Mr. Simon under the same personnel as in the past."

After leasing the Orme corner for 15 years, Franklin Simon & Co. purchased it in August 1916.  In reporting the sale The Sun added "When leased that part of Fifth avenue was free of trade, Franklin Simon & Co. being the first department store to locate north of Thirty-fourth street."

Six months later Edward Necarsulmer was called back to totally redesign the Fifth Avenue buildings.  Working with a $24,000 budget--about $470,000 in today's money--he updated the facades; yet oddly enough still did not architecturally unify them.


In addition to perks like the annual parties, in 1919 a profit-sharing plan was added to the employees' benefits.  The first year's bonus equaled five percent of their salaries.  Franklin Simon & Co. made it clear that those employees who had been absent because of "war service" would share equally in the new benefit.

Expansion continued in January 1920 when Franklin Simon & Co. purchased the 12-story building on 37th Street abutting its 38th Street structure.  The additional 90,000 square feet were remodeled by architects Maynicke & Franke for six floors of selling space and the upper six for stock rooms, shipping, receiving and delivering.


Shopping at Franklin Simon was not an inexpensive affair.  A $19.75 beach costume in this 1922 ad would be equal to nearly $300 today.
In an article entitled "Correctly Hatting the Boy" in May 1920, The American Hatter explained that Franklin Simon & Co. separated its men's and boys' hat departments by a full five floors.  Franklin Simon & Co. felt that combining men's and boy's hat departments "is neither considerate of the man who comes to buy a hat, nor kind to the little fellow, who is often shy or frightened in the presence of strangers.  And few refined women like to be thrown in with strange men when they are shopping for children, especially if the little fellow is hard to please or may develop tantrums."

Edward Necarsulmer--now a partner in Necarsulmer & Lehlbach--was yet again commissioned to rework the Franklin Simon & Co. store in 1922.  On June 14 The New York Times reported "The new front will be of granite and Indiana limestone and the window frames and metal trimmings will all be of bronze."  The article promised "By the new plan the front will appear as one building with one large central entrance."


A handsome stone balustrade crowned the roof line.  The American Architect December 20, 1922 (copyright expired)

The result was finally what appeared to have always been a single structure.  A two-story rusticated limestone base morphed into granite at the upper floors, interrupted by vast expanses of glass.   The design won "First Prize of the Fifth Avenue Association for Buildings Altered in 1922" as reported in The Architectural Review on December 20.

Franklin Simon & Co. continued to break ground in employee relations and marketing.  In 1923 its catalog featured photographs of live models in addition to the expected fashion sketches.   Simon introduced a parking lot for customers, "blue light sales" (as customers looked on salespeople would marked down items with a blue pencil), and an outlet store that sold out-of-season goods off site. And by the mid-1920's an annual "fashion promenade," or live fashion show, was held in the store.



Franklin Simon died at his country home in Purchase, New York on October 4, 1934 after what The New York Times called "a two-year illness."  The policies he had instituted continued, including the lavish employee entertainments.

On February 12, 1936 The Times reported that the employees "will attend a Valentine Day ball Friday night at the Hotel Astor in a ballroom decorated to resemble a ship with lower and upper decks for dancing.  Stage and radio stars will appear in an entertainment program."

But without a president at its helm, the company was acquired by the Atlas Corporation later that same year.  The firm had already controlled Bonwit Teller, Inc. for several years.  Immediately following the take over came a rash of resignations among top management.

Nevertheless Franklin Simon continued as a major Fifth Avenue player.   On September 29, 1938 a complete remodeling of the street floor sales area was completed.  It included the removal of the old wall that separated the two buildings.

Then in September 1949 Atlas Corporation sold Franklin Simon & Co., Inc., called the "oldest specialty store in the country" by The New York Times, to City Stores Company.  The organization operated department and specialty stores along the east coast.  Four years later City Stores merged Franklin Simon with City Specialty Stores.

The venerable store was totally gone in 1961.  City Stores had also acquired the well-known furniture store, W. & J. Sloane, which had operated at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 47th Street since 1912.  In December 1961 the announcement was made that W. & J. Sloane would be relocating to the old Franklin Simon building.

The opening took place on January 16, 1962.  The Times said "and like any homemaker who has just moved, [it] presented an appearance of busy disarray."  In fact, the $2 million remodeling was still underway.

W. & J. Sloane had established a long-held reputation for providing quality furniture and period reproductions.  In the spring of 1965 they introduced a novel marketing scheme with its House of Years--furniture place in room settings.  The New York Times reported on April 27 "Fred Vestal, who designed the six-room house, chose timeless floral fabrics and rugs, rather than the currently popular op-styles, which the store also offers."  And three months later the store introduced another innovation--an art gallery.  Customers could now buy not only furniture to decorate their homes and apartments, but artwork.  The 3,000 square foot gallery opened with 150 original works.

On July 28, 1979 The New York Times reported that the City Stores Company had submitted bankruptcy petitions.  The article noted "W. & J. Sloane, one of the country's largest furniture chains, has its principal store at 38th Street and Fifth Avenue."  It signaled the end of Franklin Simon & Co. stores, but the firm announced it "would continue to operate its profitable 50-store chain of W. & J. Sloane.

But only two years later, on July 9, 1981 City Stores announced that it had agreed "to sell a portion" of the Fifth Avenue building for more than $10.5 million.  The following day The New York Times reported that the buyer, the Porterfield Corporation, would "transform that structure into a high-rise, multipurpose building with offices on top of a scaled-down Sloane store."

The ambitious plans lagged until, on January 12, 1984, The Times reported "After 140 years of selling furniture to Manhattanites who expected to find the best--and more often that not did--W & J Sloane is closing its flagship store at 8 West 38th Street."

The New York Times real estate columnist Richard D. Lyons commented on the 30-story granite and glass replacement building on January 17, 1990.  He said the new tower, which engulfs the blockfront from 37th to 38th Streets, would "help restore the high-toned look to an area that had become burdened with fast-food restaurants, cheap electronic stores, cut-rate rug bazaars and souvenir stands."


photo via witkoff.com 

1 comment:

  1. People complain about facadism, but wouldnt it have been better to keep the masonry structure and incorporate it in new devlopment? Can that happen with the Demarest building nearby?

    ReplyDelete