Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Daniel Hoagland Carpenter House - 39 Bethune Street

Even before her marriage to Divie Bethune, Joanna Graham had devoted her life to charitable works.  With financial help from her husband, she founded institutions like the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, the Infant School Society and the Society for the Promotion of Industry Among the Poor.  When she ceded land in Greenwich Village for a street, it was named in her honor, Bethune Street.

In 1846 a three-story, brick faced house was erected at No. 39 Bethune Street.  Three bays wide, the Greek Revival style residence sat above a shallow porch.  A horsewalk--or narrow passage to the side--led to the rear yard where a second structure was located.

It was the picture frame factory of John Sigler (also spelled Siegler in some documents) before long.  On September 29, 1853 The New York Herald reported that "a fire broke out in the shop of Mr. John Sigler, at the rear of No. 39 Bethune street."  The New York Times added "The flames were discovered by the workmen just as they were quitting work and, with the assistance of two or three fire companies, the fire was extinguished before doing much damage to the building.  The loss on the stock of Mr. Siegler is estimated at $360."  The loss would equal more than $12,000 today.

Daniel Hoagland Carpenter was married to Hester Van Zile in 1853.  Shortly afterward they moved into No. 39.  The couple would have five children. 

Carpenter's American roots stretched back to colonial times.  The New York Times later remarked "An ancestor, William Carpenter, was with Roger Williams in the founding of the Providence colony, and he, with Alice Carpenter Bradford, wife of Gov. Bradford of Massachusetts, and others, purchased land from the Indians at what is now Oyster Bay, L. I. in 1677."  

Daniel Carpenter and his partner I. H. Wilson, now operated their lumber business and steam mill, D. H. Carpenter & Co., in the rear factory building.  Lumber from Carpenter's establishment would be used in major structures like the Fifth Avenue Hotel and the Brick Presbyterian Church.

Daniel Carpenter was active in community affairs.  And he, as well, seems to have had little patience for saloons which operated in the neighborhood on Sundays.  He made a complaint against Isaac B. Smith in the summer of 1854 resulting on a raid.  Smith, his bartender, and his customers were arrested--nine persons in all--and each fined $2.50, around $77.50 today.

On September 26, 1860 Carpenter and I. H. Wilson announced the dissolution of their partnership.  The New York Evening Express noted "D. H. Carpenter will continue the business at 39 Bethune Street."  

The rear building was large enough for Carpenter to rent space.  On April 17, 1863 an advertisement in The New York Herald offered "A light, high ceiling room, fifty by twenty feet, to let cheap, with steam power.  A wood worker preferred.  Inquire of D. H.Carpenter, 39 Bethune street, New York."  That same year, on July 24, he advertised "Cabinet Maker Wanted--This morning apply to D. H. Carpenter, 39 Bethune st., N.Y."

In 1867 Carpenter purchased a home in Maplewood, New Jersey, initially, it seems, as a summer house.  The family was still living on Bethune Street in 1869 when 15-year old Marion entered the June Introductory Class of the City University of New York.  But by 1875, although he still ran his mill from the rear factory, Carpenter had moved his family permanently to Maplewood.

The main house was altered for a packing box factory run by James Fagan and A. W. Loomis.  On June 1 John McLellan and his wife, Euphemia, purchased the property for $9,500, just over $250,000 today.  Within the year they hired architect James E. Ware to renovate the house.  His plans, filed on January 29, 1886 read "factory building, altered for tenement." 

When Gustavus Isaacs purchased the property at auction in March 1899 the Real Estate Record & Guide described it as a "3-story brick tenement."  At the same auction he purchased the two-story tenement at No. 747 Washington Street.  Exactly ten years later he sold the properties to the newly-organized  Zurich Silk Finishing Company, which simultaneously purchased Nos. 33 through 37 Bethune Street.

The old horsewalk still separated the new factory from No. 39.
Oddly enough, while a substantial silk finishing factory was erected at Nos. 33 through 37 and at 745-747 Washington Street, the vintage house at No. 39 Street survived as the firm's office.  

A 1911 advertisement discretely removed the 1846 house from its depiction (where the empty lot appears at the corner); however the old D. H. Carpenter & Co. factory is included.  Silk magazine, November 1911 (copyright expired)
In 1912 the Zurich Silk Finishing Company of America merged with three other firms to form the Silk Finishing Company of America.  The former residence continued to house its business offices.  

For decades to come workers would receive an envelope of cash on paydays.  That practice necessitated at least one employee to make a weekly trip to the bank to withdrawal the payroll, making him a tempting target for robbers.

On December 21, 1912 paymaster Charles Weber and assistant paymaster Edmund Wyder made their regular Saturday morning trip to the Security Bank of New York on Ninth Avenue at 14th Street.  Because they had given the workmen an unusual mid-week advance so they would have money for Christmas gifts, the payroll was only $1,194, about half of normal.  It was nevertheless a significant $32,000 in today's money.

As they headed back to Bethune Street, two black touring cars were positioned on either end of the block.  Two men loitered on the sidewalk where the paymasters would have to pass.  And as they did so they were ambushed and bludgeoned with blackjacks.  The drivers of the automobiles reacted quickly, picking up the robbers and making off with the payroll.

Just over a week later police were close on the trail of the criminals.  The Sun said on December 30 "The detectives have traced the affair to a former employee of the silk mills who was discharged three weeks previous to the holdup."  It added "the arrest of a band of Harlem hourly expected."

Dry Goods Guide, August 1920 (copyright expired)

It December 1920 $125,000 worth of silk in today's dollars was stolen from the factory next door.  A reporter from the New-York Tribune visited No. 39 three months later and was told "that the four employees who told of the robbery have good records and have the company's confidence."  It was apparently well-founded confidence because on March 25 four young men were arrested in connection with the robbery.

The Silk Finishing Company of America left Bethune Street in 1923.  An advertisement on August 9 offered simply "factory for rent."  Finally, three years later, Domestic Engineering and the Journal of Mechanical Contracting announced "C. F. Biele & Sons Co. has recently moved its office and factory to new and larger quarters at 33-39 Bethune street, in New York City, whither they removed from 379 West Twelfth street."

The firm had been organized in 1867 and produced show cases for department stores, museums and private collections among other clients.  In 1938 The New York Sun wrote "The Charles F. Biele & Sons Co., calling itself simply 'artisans in metal, glass and wood,' and usually referred to casually as makers of show cases and vitrines, is far from being as humdrum as it sounds."  The article clarified, "Important private collectors, such as Benjamin Altman...have called upon Biele for special cases; President Roosevelt for his ship model collection; Theodore Roosevelt for his japanese art objects and the present John D. Rockefeller."

A 1940's tax photograph reveals a painted facade.  The wooden shutters overlap one another in their opened position.  via the NYC Department of Records and Information Services.

Charles Biele was not only a designer, but a licensed architect.  He personally oversaw the custom orders.  The Sun noted "Biel has made cases for the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] for more than thirty-five years and for the Morgan Library going back to the elder J. P. Morgan."

Amazingly, as its predecessors had done, Charles F. Biele & Sons used the little brick house for its offices.  The firm was here until its dissolution in 1943.

In 1987 a renovation returned No. 39 to a single family residence.  It was placed on the market that year for $1 million; its realtor boasting four bedrooms, three baths, four fireplaces and "atrium and garden."

The renovation leaves no trace of the home's varied uses or of its miraculous survival.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Ken Biele (and relative of Charles Biel) for prompting this post

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The 1915 Hotel Nobleton - 126 West 73rd Street

In the first years of the 20th century neo-Gothic style business buildings clad in gleaming terra cotta began popping up across the city.  The most notable, of course, was architect C. P. H. Gilbert's masterful Woolworth Building, completed in 1913.  That same year a fledgling developer, Edward West Browning, completed what was just his second building.  The 30-story World Tower was designed by Buchman & Fox in the same style and materials.

The architects and the developer would soon work together again.  On June 6, 1914 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted that the estate of William E. Hoe had sold Browning his 25-foot wide home at No. 126 West 73rd Street.  The notice added, "Mr. Browning has bought in the last month three other dwellings in the immediate neighborhood."

Later that year real estate operators Earle & Calhoun commented "Investors are beginning to realize that the West Side has become a big apartment house center and are buying private house sites for improvements with such structures."  And that was the impetus behind Browning's grabbing up of houses in the area.

On June 20 the Record & Guide announced "Buchman & Fox...are preparing plans for three apartments to be built by Edward W. Browning."  In fact the firm was essentially designing just one.  Browning's cost saving plan was ingenious.  By erecting three identical 13-story buildings the cost of terra cotta molds was reduced by two-thirds, as was, no doubt, the architectural fee.  Construction costs of each was projected at $60,000, or just over $1.5 million today.

Among them was the Hotel Nobleton on the site of the Roe house.  (The others were on 72nd Streets, Nos. 118 and 42.)  In its September 1914 issue The Clay-Worker described the "three Tower apartment hotels" as another innovation by Browning.  "The buildings will mark a new era in hotel construction, and testify to Mr. Browning's original ideas with reference to building."  And article added "The facades of the buildings will be English gothic, with ornamental terra cotta used throughout."

Intricate terra cotta tiles incorporate a profusion of Gothic designs.  Edward Browning's monogram appears in the central quatrafoil above the second floor.
Residence hotels, or "apartment hotels," were essentially a melding of the conveniences of hotel living (there were no kitchens in the apartments, for instance) with the long-term leases of an apartment building.  Residents enjoyed maid service and the use of hall boys who carried packages and delivered mail.  A common dining room was used by all tenants, the price of their meals included in the rent.

Like its identical siblings, the Hotel Nobleton had four suites per floor, "consisting of two rooms, foyer, hall and bath, with parquet floors," said The Clay-Worker.  Each floor contained four apartments.  The ground floor dining rooms opened onto a courtyard, described by the magazine as "Roman sunken gardens, so that in hot weather guests may eat in the gardens if they desire."

Among the initial residents was the rather peculiar Louis Graveure, who had moved in shortly after the building's completion.   In actuality, the actor and baritone was Wilfrid Douthitt.  He had made his New York City debut the year before in The Lilac Domino.  But when he rented his apartment in the Nobleton Hotel, he did so under the name of Louis Graveure--insisting he was not Wilfrid Douthitt.  He claimed that unlike the English-born Douthitt, he was Belgian.

Douthitt launched a new career under his assumed name.  On October 7, 1915 a reporter from the New-York Tribune showed up at his door in the Nobleton.  "Monsieur Louis Graveure still denies he is Wilfrid Douthitt, the light opera barytone, whom he so greatly resembles," said his article.  "He says, moreover, that he exceedingly dislikes the publicity given him.  When asked if he would submit to examination by members of 'The Lilac Domino' company, in which Mr. Douthitt was the star, Monsieur Graveure said he would refuse any such proposal."

The singer was scheduled to sing within the month and he now threatened to cancel if the harassment continued.  "'I have been made a fool of and don't like it.  I am not Wilfrid Douthitt, and I don't see why I should be called upon to prove it.  Perhaps, now, I shan't give my song recital in Aeolian Hall after all."

Wilfird Douhitt aka Louis Graveure.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
Graveure did sing and on October 21 the critic from The New York Times began his review with a barb.  Included in the ticket price, he said, was "the privilege of guessing whether the singer was the man the program announced him to be, or another."  Although unconvinced (as was apparently nearly everyone) that Graveure was "newly discovered" as the recital announcements claimed, the critic was diplomatic.  "On the whole, Mr. Graveure is an interesting artist, whose recital showed a distinct improvement in aims and methods over the single concert appearance of his British ally, Mr. Douthitt, last season."

An advertisement in the New-York Tribune in September 1921 described the Hotel Nobleton as "The Hotel of Sunshine, Light and Air Accessible, Residential and Quiet."  The apartments were leased "handsomely and tastefully furnished" for $65 a month and up--just over $900 a month today.

The hotel was the scene of a heart-pounding incident on January 16, 1921.  Around midnight burglars "looted" the apartment Frederick Cowan, as worded by The New York Times.   They entered from the roof, but were spotted by a nearby resident, who called the police.  "There are burglars on the roof.  Send right away.  You can catch them."

The Times reported "Reserves and detectives raced to the scene and in a few minutes the block was surrounded."  Detectives discovered a clothesline tied to the Nobleton's chimney.  It led to the open sixth-floor window of Cowan's apartment.  They hid behind the chimney, waiting for the culprits to climb back up the rope.

When 21-year old Luke O'Neill, and then 23-year old William Daly, appeared, carrying a bag of Cowan's valuables, the police leaped out.  The Times reported "Daly dropped his bundle and fled toward a skylight, followed by O'Neill, but after three detectives had emptied their pistols the two were captured."  The newspaper described "an exciting chase of the roofs of houses on the south side of West Seventy-third Street."

Later that year Morris Curtis rented what The New York Herald described as "an elaborately furnished apartment."  Like Louis Graveure, he had more than one name.  He also went by Richard Cunningham, Marquis Curtis, and, according to The New York Herald, "half a dozen other names."  The police, however, knew him best as "Gimpy."  His arrest record stretched back to August 1899 when he was jailed for burglary.  He had been released from Sing Sing prison most recently in October.  

On June 12, 1922 The New York Times reported that Curtis, "a quiet, pale gray man in the forties," had answered the doorbell the night before to come face-to-face with Inspector John J. Coughlin, head of the detective bureau.  The men were already quite familiar with one another.  And now Curtis was suspected as having played a part in the robbery of Keith's Royal Theater in the Bronx.

Coughlin had come with three detectives.  As the men talked the Inspector looked around the apartment.  His eyes "came to rest on two pint bottles of colorless liquid on the mantle-piece," said The Times.  "The inspector left his chair, crossed the room and picked up one," assuming it was bootleg gin or vodka.  He was wrong--it was nitroglycerin, used for blasting into safes.   Unwilling to become a victim himself, Curtis advised him of the contents.  "Then he replaced the bottle very, very tenderly beside its companion."

The detectives searched the apartment.  The New York Herald reported "In the apartment were found three loaded German Mauser automatic pistols with two extra clips of shells for each gun; a box of detonating caps, a heavy coil of wire such as used with explosives; three bank books" and three law enforcement badges.  A grip containing burglars tool was also found.

Curtis was arrested on suspicion of the theater burglary, of possessing explosives in a dwelling house, violating the Sullivan Law (i.e., having an unlicensed firearm), and possessing burglar's tools.

The Hotel Nobleton played a key part in a drama that caught national attention in 1924.  Francis Herman Roshek, described by The New York Times as "a well-to-do dry goods merchant," and his wife, Mary, had a 14-year old son, Frank.   The couple's marital bliss hit a bump when Francis suspected his wife of having an affair with Wilbert A. Leonard, the night clerk at the Nobleton.  Leonard was married as well.

The couple separated and Mary took Frank to their new apartment in--not surprisingly--the Nobleton.  Frank was a student at the Collegiate School on West 77th Street.  Following the first day of class on September 23, 1924 he failed to come home.  Inquiries revealed that he had never showed up at the school.  The Times said "investigators attached some significance to a statement by Mrs. Roschek that Franklin had spoken of a hunchback who had accosted him in Riverside Drive."

A nationwide search was launched when no trace of the boy could be found.  His father offered a reward for any information.  

In fact, perhaps upset with the upheaval in the family, Frank had made his way to Washington D.C. where he got a job in a drugstore.  He might have remained missing much longer had he not become ill late in October and telephoned his father to come for him.  Francis brought the boy back to their house on West 81st Street.  Mary flew into a rage.

She went to court charging her husband with kidnapping; and suing for divorce as well, saying he "beat her on many occasions" and had driven her from the 81st Street house "at the point of a pistol."  She said he had been cruel "nearly the entire fifteen years of their marriage."  Francis sued as well, pointing out the extramarital affair with Leonard and producing Hotel Nobleton employees and residents who saw Mary and him together.

Frank, in the meantime, was caught between his parents' bitter battle.  In an unusual decision, when the divorce was granted Francis got custody of his son, with Mary having "an opportunity to see him occasionally."

Another shady tenant of the Nobleton was Harris C. Willis.  He and James Kelbe, who lived in Queens, were arrested on June 5, 1930, charged with operating an unlicensed radio station.   These were not innocent ham operators, but sophisticated gangsters bringing illegal liquor into New York Harbor by ship.

The Standard Union reported that the arrest came after weeks of investigation by Federal agents and the Coast Guard.  "According to Assistant U.S.. Attorney J. Bertram Wegman, the men are believed to be part of a rum-running syndicate and are thought to have been communicating with ships at sea."

In 1969 a renovation resulted in two apartments and half of two duplexes per floor; reducing the number of apartments but enhancing the desirability of half of them.

In 1998 a restoration of the facade was completed by architects Cutsogerge & Tooman.   Buchman & Fox's original plans had not called for adequate steel in the vertical sections between the openings.  Forty of the 55 terra cotta panels were reproduced in fiberglass as new steel was installed behind them.

photographs by the author

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Lost Church of the Covenant - Park Avenue and 35th Street

When this photo was taken the bell tower of the Church of the Incarnation, at left on Madison Avenue, had not yet received its spire.  Note the elegant fencing that surrounds the center sections of Park Avenue.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1858 Dr. George Lewis Prentiss resigned his position as pastor of the Mercer Street Presbyterian Church because of illness.  Two years later, having returned from Europe where he regained his health, he was approached by a group of former parishioners and friends who urged him to create a new Presbyterian church on Murray Hill.  Like his former church, it was to be of the "New School," sometimes referred to as the "Liberal Presbyterian."

The first service was held on November 25, 1860 in the chapel of the Home of the Friendless on 29th Street near Madison Avenue.  The troubled times gave Prentiss reason to worry about the advisability of a new venture.  Abraham Lincoln had been elected a few weeks earlier and tensions in the South were at a breaking point.  In his first sermon he said:

The state of the times, I confess, does not, at first thought, seem auspicious for the success of our work  Our dear country is in the throes of a great trouble; fear is on every hand; the most hopeful patriotism is smitten with anxious forebodings; we know not, we dread to guess, what awful calamity may be impending over us.

George L. Prentiss The History of Brick Church, 1909 (copyright expired)

Prentiss's trepidation was well-founded.  Five months later the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter, plunging the nation into civil war.  

The name of the congregation was not chosen until the spring of 1862, after elders were appointed and Prentiss was formally elected as pastor.  In May 1862 the Church of the Covenant was decided upon.  The congregation now needed a permanent place in which to worship.

The 83 members of the church were well-to-do.  A committee consisting of Benjamin F. Butler, Charles H. Leonard, Enoch Ketcham, William E. Dodge and George B. de Forest secured the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 35th Street.   James Renwick, Jr., whose masterful St. Patrick's Church was rising on Fifth Avenue, was chosen to design the new building.  The cornerstone was laid on November 5, 1863.

The Church of the Covenant was dedicated on April 30, 1865.  Renwick produced what The New York Herald deemed "an elegant and substantial church edifice."  The brick and stone structure was designed in the Sicilian Romanesque style.  The three entrances on Park Avenue were sheltered within stone porticoes, the central of which projecting slightly forward.  Directly above was an arcade of stained glass openings.  The gable was dominated by an enormous stained glass rose window.

Two additional entrances opened onto 35th Street, each below a story-tall stained glass window.  Directly behind the main church was the chapel, of matching materials.  It featured two striking towers.

An early stereopticon slide shows the newly completed structure before the fence was installed.  Park Avenue is paved with granite blocks.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Ironically, five months after its completion, the church was the scene of the funeral of one of the men who had made it possible.  Wealthy merchant George Beach de Forest, Sr. died at his summer estate on September 23, 1865.  His funeral was held here three days later.

The following year the pipe organ was completed and installed.  On November 15, 1866 The New York Herald reported "A concert will be given this evening at the Church of the Covenant, Thirty-fifth street, on the occasion of the opening of the new organ.  Messrs. Morgan and Bristow will perform on the organ, and Mrs. Abbott and Mrs. Gommer will sing."

The massive new organ featured scores of pipes.  The History of Brick Church, 1909 (copyright expired)
The Church of the Covenant was the venue for a remarkable meeting in 1869.  On May 20 The New York Herald announced that the assemblies "of the two great Presbyterian bodies" would be meeting that day.  "The Assembly of the Old School will hold its sessions in the Brick Presbyterian church, corner of Fifth avenue and Thirty-seventh street.  The Assembly of the New School will meet in the Church of the Covenant."  The nearly 500 delegates had an important decision before them.  "The most important question to come before the Assemblies this year is that of union."

On the eighth day of the conferences the members of the Old School Assembly came to the Church of the Covenant for a joint prayer meeting.  Before they returned to the Brick Church hands had been shaken, old fractures mended and there would never again be separate assemblies.

Dr. Prentiss turned his attentions to those on the East Side with nowhere to worship.  In 1870 he pointed out that "it would be a shame for them to worship in such comfort and leave their East Side brethren poorly accommodated," according to Shepherd Knapp.  Land was acquired at No. 310 East 42nd Street and architect J. Cleveland Cady hired to design a chapel.  Called the Memorial Chapel, the $50,000 structure was dedicated in December 1871.

The interior of the Memorial Chapel was decorated with festoons of leaves in this photo--possibly Thanksgiving decorations.  The History of Brick Church, 1909 (copyright expired)

On April 27, 1873 the 67-year-old Prentiss preached his last sermon in the Church of the Covenant.  He began it with Victorian eloquence and drama:  "When the alarm of secession was thundered across the broad expanse of this country, and when already in the distance the roar of the cannon and rattle of musketry could be heard, the project of building this church was first broached."  He ended it with similar articulation.  "When I leave you I do not intend ever to return to the pulpit, but my heart and all my good wishes will forever be clustered in the church and its congregation.  Goodbye, my friends."

Prentiss was replaced by the Rev. Marvin R. Vincent, who would remain for 15 years.  Vincent was not only "popular" and "widely known," as described by the New-York Tribune; he was a prolific author of religious books.  The newspaper noted "In addition to his books Dr. Vincent has published numerous pamphlets, magazine articles and tracts."

Rev. Marvin Vincent The History of Brick Church, 1909 (copyright expired)
The Thanksgiving service in 1879 was remarkable for two reasons.  On November 28 The New York Times said it "was somewhat out of the usual order, consisting almost entirely of a musical programme."   A quartet was backed up by a 40-voice chorus who performed selections from Handel's Messiah, including the Hallelujah Chorus along with other solos and choral pieces.

But even more unusual were the decorations.  Rev. Vincent had asked the congregation "for gifts of fruit and flowers and more substantial remembrances, to be distributed to the poor and among the various charitable institutions," said The Times.  But before that distribution, they were arranged as sanctuary decorations.

"In the Gothic arches, on either side of the pulpit, masses of flowers arose from walls of fruits.  Foundations compactly built of bananas, apples and grapes gave tempting support to a superstructure of cut flowers, tastefully arranged in baskets and bouquets.  Above these rose a bank of flowering plants, surmounted by graceful palms."  The pulpit was decorated with grape clusters, "making a striking frontispiece to a luscious background."

Rev. Vincent was a staunch supporter of the Temperance movement and he hosted a meeting of the Temperance Institute in the church on January 31, 1886.  Among the speakers was Dr. J. Leonard Corning, whose topic was "The Relation of Alcohol to Insanity."  He assured the audience "that there was nothing more certain than that the abuse of alcohol constitutes on of the most potent causes of insanity."

Vincent resigned in November 1887 and in December 1888 Rev. James Hall McIlvaine was installed as his successor.  Five years later he entered into merger talks with Brick Church.  After months of voting, discussion and negotiations, on November 30, 1893 the New-York Tribune reported "Arrangements are nearly finished for consolidating the historic Brick Presbyterian Church...and the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant."  The agreement meant that the congregation of the Church of the Covenant would move to Fifth Avenue and the Park Avenue structure be abandoned.

Not all of the members were content with the pact.  Of the 500 members, about half opted to form a new congregation, housed in the Memorial Chapel building on 42nd Street.

On March 4, 1894 the New-York Tribune reported that the Park Avenue buildings, including the church, Sunday school rooms and parsonage, had been sold "to a private syndicate of wealthy property owners."  The price was $325,000, or about $9.8 million today.

The syndicate had been formed by wealthy Murray Hill residents who feared that otherwise the church would be razed for what they "considered would be a detriment to the neighborhood."  The New York Times announced that they would "tear down the church and parsonage and cut up the plot into lots for high-class residences."

As demolition commenced, the cornerstone and the "memorial table of 'Faith'" were removed and installed in the 42nd Street church.   The Faith tablet had been presented to the church in 1863 by William Curtis Noyes.  "It is of the purest Italian marble, and represents a female figure gazing up at a cross that seems emerging from the clouds.  It was executed by E. D. Palmer in 1858," explained the New-York Tribune on December 17, 1894.

In January 1895 the last of the building plots on the site was sold.  In reporting the sale the New-York Tribune noted "The property was purchased by the syndicate in order to prevent business houses being erected on it."  But the days of private residences in the Park Avenue neighborhood would not survive many more decades.  In 1939 the 19-story apartment building designed by Henry C. Pelton was completed on the site of the Church of the Covenant.

photo via

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Hill & Co. Dry Goods Store - 581-583 Sixth Avenue

In the first years following the end of the Civil War John H. Dresler operated his substantial bakery from the converted house at No. 261 Sixth Avenue.  The bakery was conveniently located only about three blocks from No. 119 West 13th Street where Dresler and his wife, Sophia, lived comfortably with their daughters.  

The scope of his business was evidenced in the spring of 1874 when thousands of poor New Yorkers faced literal starvation following the onslaught of the Financial Panic of 1873.  Soup kitchens were opened, clothing drives were initiated and donations of money were petitioned by newspapers.  Local police precincts ran certain soup kitchens and on March 13 Captain John H. McCullough of the 29th Precinct announced that John Dresler had donated 80 loaves of bread.

The avenue saw the rise of lavish dry goods and department stores in the third quarter of the century.  Dresler responded by demolishing the old house and the one next door at No. 259 and commissioning architect John E. Terhune to erect a modern commercial building on the site.  His plans, filed on April 3, 1891, called for a "five-story iron and glass store" to cost $40,000--or about $1.14 million today.

Completed in 1892, Terhune had designed a striking cast iron front that allowed for vast expanses of glass.  Unusual hefty banded piers flanked the ground floor.  The pilasters of the second floor were decorated with blank shields and delicate ribbons.  Between the two-story pilasters of the third and fourth floors, twisted single-height engaged columns separated the paired openings.  The spandrel panels between the floors were decorated with elaborate Moorish designs.  Above a projecting cornice, the fifth floor carried on the motif of twisted columns, its arched windows creating rhythm to the design.

The dry goods firm Hill & Co. leased the building; however Dresler seems to have been reticent to entirely move his bakery from the location.  On February 27, 1892 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that he had hired B. F. King to install "two bakers' ovens."  The coexistence of the upscale store and the bakery does not seem to have survived long.

The year after Hill & Co. moved in another economic downturn, the Financial Panic of 1893, hit.    On September 22, 1893 The Evening World reported "Although times may be hard, Hill & Co., of 259 and 261 Sixth avenue, seem to have decided that women will wear just as pretty hats and buy as many as ever before, for seldom have there been such fine displays as at the opening this year."  The article mentioned that even the women who did not intend to buy a new hat dropped in just to see what was new--"many of the most fashionable visited the popular house to at least learn what the styles for the season will be."

The paddock suits shown here cost the equivalent of $270 to $361 in today's dollars.  The Evening World, April 6, 1894 (copyright expired)

The Ladies' Mile saw a change in shopping trends as dry goods stores--which traditionally sold clothing, accessories and linens--branched out, adding departments for unrelated items like furniture, housewares and shoes.  Hill & Co. joined the department store trend in the fall of 1894, introducing a "carpet and curtain department."  The store kicked it off with an aggressive advertisement in The Evening World on October 15:


We are 25% cheaper than any other carpet house in the country.  It will pay you to call and examine the new carpet and curtain department of Hill & Co.

In 1900 Hecht Bros. department store took over the building.  Run by brothers Meyer and Bernard Hecht, the store continued to buck retailing tradition along Sixth Avenue by offering mens' and boyswear.  Gentlemen's outfitters had for years lined Broadway near Union Square, while Sixth Avenue catered to the feminine shopper.  Hecht Bros. offered both men's and women's fashions.  And they offered payment plans, as well.

Hecht Bros. proposed that "The Swellest Dresser In New York" shopped at its store.  The World, November 8, 1901 (copyright expired)

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported "The first surprise was the opening of a large establishment entirely devoted to specializing outer and under apparel for every member of the family and extending the privileges of credit to every patron."

An advertisement in The World on November 8, 1901 explained "We not only provide clothing of the dressiest character for the entire family at astonishingly low prices, but we offer you the advantages of our charge system, which permits of small, convenient payments."  The payments were, no doubt, necessary for some patrons.  A "high-class suit" of "splendid fabrics" listed in that advertisement was priced at the equivalent of $762 today.

Hecht Bros. remained in the building until 1907 when John Dresler's daughters, Sophia and Emma, took it in a different direction.  By now the grand emporiums of the Ladies' Mile had moved northward.  In response the women hired architect H. W. Cotthaus to make what the Record & Guide described as "extensive alterations to the department store."  The New York Herald announced on September 11 that Cotthaus's plans called for "making over the fire story department store Nos. 259 and 261 Sixth avenue...into a studio and office building with sales rooms on the ground floor."

The renovated building became home to Miles Bros., motion picture makers and outfitters of motion picture theaters.  Bachelor brothers Harry J. and Herbert L. Miles not only provided films, but the equipment on which to screen them.  The Sun remarked "The firm is well known in the moving picture trade throughout the country.  The brothers came here from San Francisco."

In 1907 they marketed their Picturephone, an early attempt at talking pictures.  An advertisement that year touted "Here It Is!  Singing and Talking Moving Pictures."

The windows of the Miles Bros. branch office on East 14th Street lists its variety of motion picture items. from the collection of the University of California, Berkeley,  Bancroft Library 

The Picturephone, which cost a significant $15,200 in today's dollars, came "complete with especially wired Phonograph."  An advertisement explained:

Remember, this marvelous instrument is sold under the guarantee of our firm that it is the greatest possible added attraction to any Moving Picture or Vaudeville Theatre.  The moving pictures, acting in harmonious conjunction with a perfect synchronizing a complete performance of solos, dialogues, duets, concerts, operas and dramas.

Despite the firm's success and renown, Harry J. Miles suffered depression--possibly because of his diagnosis with epilepsy in the fall of 1907.  He and Herbert lived in an apartment on the seventh floor of the Concord Hall apartment building on Riverside Drive at 119th Street.  At 10:30 p.m. on New Year's Day, 1908, the 40-year-old said goodnight to his brother and went to his room.  An hour later John Noyes, a hall boy, heard a crash in the inner courtyard. Harry had jumped to his death from his window.   Herbert continued running Miles Bros. at least through 1916.

Another set of brothers, Jacob and Samuel Liberman leased the store in November 1910.  Lieberman Bros., clothiers, ignored the flight of other dry goods firms from the district. 

By 1921 the store was home to May & Co.'s furniture store.

The Evening World, March 30, 1921 (copyright expired)

Sixth Avenue was renumbered in 1926, giving the building its new address of Nos. 581-583.  The most notable tenant in the upper floors came in 1932 when Walter Quirt leased two floors of the building.  Quirt was the secretary of the National Students League, founded a year earlier.   Renovations resulted in a workshop, gallery and meeting space.  Although the League staged exhibitions in the gallery space, its agenda went far beyond art.

In 1934 The Examiner called it "an organization of radical writers and artists," and "a Communist students' organization."  The publication noted it "has sympathizers at 129 American colleges."  In his 1997 book Student Politics in America: A Historical Analysis, historian Philip G. Altbach writes "From its beginning, the NSL was controlled by the Communists and echoed Communist policy on both campus and national issues, although it never openly acknowledged its Communist leadership."

The National Students League staged protests and demonstrations, aired radio shows and held meetings in its Sixth Avenue space.  Among its demands in 1934 were "1. Lower tuition fees, a free college in every city, 2. Academic freedom for all students and instructors, and 3. Abolition of all forms of compulsory religion services in college" among other goals.

In May 1933 what the Daily Worker described as a "mass memorial meeting" for Japanese Communist Takiji Kobayashi was held here.    A leading force in the Communist community in Japan, he was a writer, lecturer and organizer.  Arrested in May and August 1930, he was tortured by the Imperial Police.   After being tortured again after a subsequent arrest in February 1933, he was brutally murdered by the Imperial Police.  

Early in 1934 the National Students League moved to 14th Street.  The building was sold in 1938 and by 1941 the ground floor was once again a furniture store, Forman's.  The tradition was continued in the 1980's and '90's when Furniture Gallery was a neighborhood fixture.

New York Magazine, April 16, 1984
At the time Bob Giraldi Productions operated from an upper floor office.  It was renamed Giraldo / Suarez Productions sometime around 1994.

Today a casual clothing store operates from street level.  The more than 125-year old cast iron facade is stained with rust--a condition that could be rectified by a coat of paint.  Despite the neglect, the Hill & Co. dry goods store retains its 1892 dignity.

photographs by the author

Friday, October 18, 2019

Buchman & Fox's 1906 Cast Iron Beauty - 1026-1028 Sixth Avenue

On March 9, 1906 the New-York Tribune reported that owners Charles Land and Leopold Heilburn had taken the first steps "for making over the two five story and basement dwelling houses Nos. 662 and 664 Sixth avenue into an office building with stores on the ground floor."  Architects Buchman & Fox had prepared the plans, which included "a facade of ornamental galvanized iron and glass and a central marquise entrance."  They included "an elevator and a new plumbing plant."  The cost of transforming the old houses into a commercial structure was projected at $50,000--about $1.44 million today.

The remodeled building, sitting mid-block between 38th and 39th Streets, was completed within a year.  Buchman & Fox had designed a sumptuous cast iron facade in the quickly waning Beaux Arts style.  Other than the tantalizing promise of an iron and glass marquise, there seems to be no existing evidence of the appearance of the store level.  The overall tripartite design survives above, however.

The midsection, three stories tall, is divided into three vertical sections each two bays wide.  They are framed in delicate foliate sheaths and each floor separated by elaborate spandrel panels.  The fifth floor features three three-bay arcades, the openings separated by paneled pilasters.  The ornate terminal cornice is supported by two deliciously opulent brackets on either end.

Among the original occupants was Charles Lang, himself.  C. B. Kleine was another.  The firm rented and sold everything necessary for motion picture theater operators.  An advertisement in The Moving Picture World on May 4, 1907 urged customers to send for Catalog F to order "Kinetoscopes, Cameragraphs and Stereopticons [and] Films of all makes.  Everything in supplies." 

One of the fourth floor occupants, Henry Schultz, was carrying on a less savory business.  The firm appeared to be an "exchange" office; but in truth, according to The Sun on June 11, 1907, it "has long been known as 'Dutch' Henry Schultz's poolroom."  The term poolroom referred to an illegal gambling operation.  

According to police Schultz's office was was affiliated with "the big 'Bob' Davis poolroom syndicate." It was a sophisticated operation, containing a switchboard with ten telephones for reporting race results and taking bets.

On June 11, 1907 the New-York Tribune reported that Police Lieutenant and his men had made a raid on the office the day before.  "They climbed the stairs to the top floor and broke in the door of the alleged exchange."  They surprised six operators sitting at a switchboard.  "The police ripped the telephone instruments from the switchboard," said the Tribune.

According to The Sun this was an integral piece of organization.  It reported that "the official notion is that it was the receiving centre for all the Bob Davis syndicate's news from racetracks outside of New York and the distributing point for all the poolrooms and a great number of handbooks in Manhattan north of Twenty-third street."  A bankbook found in the office showed that it was taking in about $20,000 per month--a staggering $550,000 in today's terms.

By 1908 one of the retail spaces was home to the Wallace Eating-house, run by Ellsworth Childs.  He ran a string of 15 restaurants at the time, each one painted green.  Before long he and his brothers would consolidate their businesses into the famous chain of Childs Restaurants.

By 1909 George Kleine was representing three motion picture companies, Gaumont, Urban and Eclipse Films.  He prompted would-be theater operators to enter the field with an ad in The Sun on March 7, 1909.  "Today it is the subject that interests, not only the novelty of the invention.  Complete plays are enacted upon the curtain with specially written music that sometimes ranks with the classics."  

For "absolute new films and new subjects," theater operators paid $25 per reel.  For "fair quality films in good condition, not new," they paid $20.  Kleine offered an ongoing service whereby subscribers received "three changes weekly."

Twenty-two year old Alfred Kelly miraculously escaped death here on Friday 21, 1913.  He somehow became trapped in the elevator shaft, with the car descending.  Seconds before the young man's body was crushed, another employee named Hoffman shut off the power to the elevator.  The Newtown Register reported "It was feared, at first, that the young man’s injuries would be mortal...Kelly was crushed internally, and besides several ribs were fractured, as was his right arm.  He also suffered cuts about the head and body."  Miraculously, a week later he was "getting along comfortably" in Bellevue Hospital.

Two months later Philip Levy signed a 10-year lease on Ellsworth Childs's former restaurant space.  The Record & Guide reported "after extensive alterations he will open this place as a first-class bakery and lunch room."  Levy was the head of the A. B. Bakery & Lunch Room Co., Inc.

In the meantime George Kleine was enjoying great success, and produced his own films under the name Ambrosio.  On November 23, 1913 The New York Times noted "George Klein originally intended to cover the United States with twenty-two companies of the Ambrosio photo drama, 'The Last Days of Pompeii,' but the success of the venture has compelled him to organize two and three special extra companies in several sections."

A month later he initiated an international "moving picture scenarios contest."  Kleine hoped to get fresh screenplays by offering writers $1,000 for "the best scenario written by an American."  His continued success led to his moving uptown by 1916.

Other tenants in the building by then were the Regent Phonograph Co., headed by Henry Waterson; and the less glamorous Star Window Shade Co.  

The gradual transformation of the area into the Garment District was evidenced with the arrival of the Snappy Dress Company.  In 1920 B. Goldsmith & Co., dress manufacturers, was also here.  It was around this time that the building was first referred to as the Sperry Building.  On April 13 the New-York Tribune reported that the entire building had been leased to Aaron Kosofsky for 21 years.

Kossofky had headed the Hudson Bay Fur Company for decades.  He was quick to change the appellation of the address, listing the location in his advertisements as the "Hudson Bay Building."

The colorful Kossofsky came up with a marketing gimmick that he hoped would draw major attention to his business.  It did--but not in a good way.  On January 12 1922 Printers' Ink reported "An example of the extent to which men will sometimes stoop to get publicity was witnessed in New York City last week when a furrier named Aaron Kossofky, president of the Hudson Bay Fur Company...turned a fox loose on Fifth Avenue at one of the busiest corners in the world."

The journal lamented "This is a typical, old-time press-agent idea.  Anything that got a business into the newspapers, even though in an ignominious way, was regarded as desirable publicity."  No one else shared Kossofsky's enthusiasm.

The New York Times had reported on January 8 "Two days in jail and a fine of $100 was the punishment imposed yesterday by Magistrate Corrigan upon Aaron Kossofsky...who pleaded guilty to a charge of cruelty to an animal.  The judge did not hold back in his opinion of the stunt.

"Never has the public indignation at an act of cruelty to a dumb animal been aroused as in this case," he said.  The treatment of the fox was much worse than simply letting him loose on a crowded urban street.  The judge pointed out that "the winding of a twine muzzle through the animal's mouth, partly cutting off its breath and causing pain, was enough to convict the defendant."  But even worse, one of the fox's forelegs had been broken under the wheel of a limousine.

Kossofsky appeared in press again a few months later.  He applied to the United States Patent Office to trademark the term "Hudson seal," which, he said, he had been using since 1906.  The problem for the Government was that his "Hudson seal" referred to "muskrat dyed to imitate seal," according to the documents.  The New York Times, on June 9, cited officials who suggested "the trade-mark could not be properly registered in any case, inasmuch as it misdescribes its object, since 'Hudson seal' is no seal at all."

Despite his several problems, Kossofsky and the Hudson Bay Fur Company remained in the building for years.  In 1925 Sixth Avenue was renumbered, giving the building its new address of 1026-1028.

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century the area around the building declined.  Yet despite the obliteration of the store level, added fire escapes and jutting window air conditions, Buchman & Fox's lavish cast iron facade survives essentially intact.

photographs by the author