Friday, March 20, 2020

A Christmas Carol, Physical Culture and Refrigerators -- 29-33 East 19th Street




In the first years following the end of the Civil War East 19th Street was still lined with brick-faced homes.  In February 1868 William Emerson, the brother of poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, moved into No. 33 East 19th Street with his wife, Susan.  But before many years the block between Broadway and Fourth Avenue (later Park Avenue South) would see the rise of factory and store buildings.

Harry Chaffee, who owned the Sherman Square Hotel, was called by the 1898 A History of Real Estate, Building, and Architecture in New York City "a merchant builder," as well.   He had earlier turned his attention to the neighborhood blocks above Union Square.  In February 1896 he purchased the old house where the Emersons had lived, along with Nos. 29 and 31, from William F. Havemeyer.   

Chaffee wasted no time on newest his project.  On February 15 he announced intentions of erecting an 8-story, "fire-proof, brick and stone store, loft and office building" on the site.  The Record & Guide mentioned that Ralph S. Townsend would "probably prepare" the plans.  The article said "Specifications will call for all modern conveniences."

Ralph Samuel Townsend indeed designed the building and he filed plans on April 10, 1896.  The construction cost of the 60-foot wide structure was placed at $250,000--more than $7.7 million today.

Completed in January 1897, the Beaux-Arts style building could have been mistaken for a high-end hotel were it not for the storefront on the first floor and show windows on the second.  The two-story base and third floor were clad in rusticated limestone, the upper floors in smooth-faced sandstone.  Two classic Roman entrances with triangular pediments flanked the store front.  A pressed metal entablature decorated with shields and cartouches separated the show windows of the first and second floors.




A stone balustraded balcony supported by substantial scrolled brackets clung to the fourth floor.  The upper floors were ornamented with carved spandrel panels, lions heads and putti, and shields.  An iron cornice crowned the building.

An advertisement in the New-York Tribune in March described it as an "elegant, new, fire-proof building" with "every convenience."  Somewhat unusual for the period, it was what today we might call a "mixed-use" building.  It contained manufacturing, retail, office and, surprisingly, artists studio space.


New-York Tribune, March 21, 1897 (copyright expired)
Harry Chaffee quickly sold his new building.  On March 6, 1897 the Record & Guide reported that Daniel R. Kendall had paid him $450,000 for the property, garnering Chaffee a substantial profit.  Although he no longer owned the building, he moved his offices into it.  And so did Ralph Samuel Townsend.

Among the first major tenants were two large publishing houses.  Before the end of the year Maynard, Merrill & Co. would produce one of its best-selling books, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol: Being A Ghost Story of Christmas.  Because Silver, Burdett & Company published school books the two firms were not competitive.


The School Journal, August 25, 1900 (copyright expired)
In 1898 the upholstery firm of J. Stroheim's Sons occupied the second floor, and Watstein, Self & Co., makers of cloaks, also shared the address with the publishers.

The only person in the building on Sunday evening, June 26, 1898 was John Devlin, the night watchman.  Around 7:00, according to The World, neighbors on East 20th Street smelled smoke and notified Policeman Davidson.  He broke a rear window in Nos. 29-33 East 19th Street to gain entrance, and searched every floor.  "The people who summoned him helped him in the hunt," but no one could find a fire.

The officer walked to the fire station on 18th Street and notified fire fighters of the smoky smell.  At 8:30 they responded.  "Five times the whole company searched the building from cellar to roof, poking into every corner of every room, but not a trace of the fire could they find."

The men concluded that the smoke was coming from a defective chimney or furnace pipe, told Devlin to "keep a sharp lookout," and returned to the fire house.

By 10:30 the watchman was concerned about the growing density of the smoke and again sent in an alarm.  "This time fire was discovered on the second floor and in the basement," said the article.  

While the fire fighters battled the blaze, a near disaster occurred.  The tender of Engine Company No. 1 was in front of the building when embers dropped on the horses' backs.  "At a mad gallop they went through Nineteenth street, which was filled with a crowd of more than a thousand people, who were watching the fire.  In some miraculous manner all of them escaped, but several had close shaves," reported The World.  The runaway team was stopped when they crashed the tender into the column of the elevated train on Third Avenue.  "The tender was smashed into flinders, but the horses practically escaped unhurt."

J. Stroheim's Sons was not as lucky as the horses.  The firm suffered the equivalent of $468,000 damages today.


Townsend signed his work above the western entrance.

In the first years of the 20th century Maynard, Merrill & Co., Silver, Burdett & Company, and J. Stroheims (although now named Stroheim & Romann) were still in the building.  They were joined by 1904 by the showrooms of Scott & West, dealers in floor coverings; and another publishing firm, Physical Culture Publishing Co.


American Carpet & Upholstery, December 1905 (copyright expired)
Physical Culture Publishing Co. published inexpensive novels, like A Hilarious Quartette released in April 1905; but it was best known for its magazine Physical Culture.  The periodical provided articles on healthful living--exercise, avoidance of smoking and drinking, nutrition and such.  But it was the accompanying photographs of nearly naked men which accompanied some articles that drew the attention of more priggish types.


Exercise illustrations like these raised some Edwardian eyebrows.  Physical Culture, October 1904 (copyright expired) 
Physical Culture Publishing found itself in the cross-hairs of Anthony Comstock in 1905.  The founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, he self-styled himself the "weeder in God's garden."  He sought to crush anything he considered immoral--from prostitution to card playing and contraception.

In October that year Physical Culture Publishing was preparing to stage its annual "Mammoth Physical Exhibition" in Madison Square Garden.  The week-long event drew more than 100 men and 55 women contestants from across the country.  

But three days before the opening, on October 6, The New York Times anticipated "there is likely to be trouble between the management and Anthony Comstock's Society for the Suppression of Vice.  Mr. Comstock is already so horrified at the bare, printed posters advertising the exhibition that yesterday afternoon he had Bernard MacFadden, who backs the exhibition, and Benjamin F. Provandle, the young man who is attending to the posters, arrested.'  He had them charged with possessing obscene pictures.  Five hundred posters were confiscated.




The posters displayed photographs of last year's winners.  "One of them shows the women prize winners, ten or twelve young women, in white union suits with sashes around their waists standing or reclining in various positions.  Another poster shows a man wearing a pair of sandals and a leopard's skin as a breech-cloth."

Bernard MacFadden said Comstock "is going too far."  He explained "The purpose of this exhibition, which now has become annual, is to show how the spread of physical culture has improved the human body.  Manifestly that cannot be done if the exhibitors are covered with clothing."  The exhibition went on after the posters were all taken down.

Daniel R. Kendall called Ralph S. Townsend back in 1908 to remodel the top floor into offices.  Around the same time Costikyan & Co., rug merchants, operated from the store space.  The firm's name appeared in newspapers in the spring of 1911 for highly unusual reasons.

Robert C. Buttolph was one of the sales staff at the time and his marriage to Etna L. Bunning was planned for March 8 at 4:00.   But two hours before the ceremony his father could not find him.  He called the store and was told they had not seen him.  Frantic, he did his own detective work and discovered he had left a restaurant at 136th Street and Broadway at 1:30 in the morning after cashing a $150 check--a significant $4,000 to be carrying around.  At 4:00 he rushed to Police Headquarters and sent out a general alarm.

What he could not have known was that shortly after he left the house Robert had telephoned, saying he had overslept (apparently he did not say where).  "He was very sorry, but he would be on hand for the wedding," reported The Sun.  "So he was, and he had found time to dress for it too.  His father, however, was not present."

Nos. 29-33 East 19th Street continued to see a variety of tenants.  In 1913 William Meyer & Co., "laces and embroidery," took space.  In 1914 S. Epstein & Co. employed 2 men, 33 women and 2 teens between 14 and 16 years old in its women's neckwear factory.  Andby 1916 Baxter, Kelly & Faust, dealers in undertakers' supplies, was in the building.

The toy factory of Joseph Goldstein leased the seventh floor in 1927.  The offices of the Projects Vacations Committee were here during the Depression years.  The group lobbied for paid vacations for those teachers assigned to "play school projects."  Leather goods maker Louis W. Hraba, Inc. operated from space here by 1938.

Change to the neighborhood was being seen by the last quarter of the century.  In 1978 the ground floor retail space was occupied by the footwear store, Eisernann & Kott.  On May 8 that year The New York Times rejoiced "At last, a company that recognizes that women who fish are built differently from men.  Converse Rubber Company has introduced a line of footwear and waders for women."  They were available, said the article, at Eisernann & Kott.




In a surprising renovation, the sixth floor was converted to two apartments in 1988 while the rest of the building remained commercial.  From around 1998 through 2001 clothing store Serafina was in the ground floor space.  By 1999 the Acting Studio, a performance space, was in the building; and in 2004 10,000 square feet were acquired for the Manhattan Center for Kitchen and Bath.  And in 2017 the Philadelphia-based Rescue Spa, founded by Danuta Mieloch opened.  In 2019 the second floor was converted to a loft apartment.  

photographs by the author

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