Thursday, March 5, 2020

The 1910 Belvidere Building - 222 Park Avenue South





In the first years of the 20th century developers Klein & Jackson were busy erecting numerous commercial buildings just above Union Square.  Many New Yorkers felt a twinge of of nostalgia when the partners chose the old Belvidere Hotel, on the northwest corner of 18th Street and Fourth Avenue as the site of their latest project in 1909.

Joseph Wehrle had purchased the plot from William H. Vanderbilt in 1879 and erected the hotel.  Now, on May 8 the New-York Tribune reported "Another Fourth avenue landmark is soon to be replaced with a big mercantile structure.,,Klein & Jackson bought the famous hotel yesterday."  The article noted "The Belevedere [sic], in Fourth avenue, has numbered among its guests many well known opera singers, musicians and literary men and women."

Within two weeks architect William A. Rouse, of Rouse & Goldstone, had filed plans for a 12-story loft and store building for the Belvidere Building Company which Leo M. Klein and Samuel Jackson had established for the project.  The Sun reported the cost of the new structure would be $450,000--or around $12.8 million today.

Work progressed rapidly and on September 25, 1909 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that "The structural steel work is now going ahead for the new Belvidere Building."  And only a week later Klein & Jackson advertised space in the building, saying it would be "read for tenants February 1, 1910."

It may have been that rush for completion that resulted in a tragedy.  On September 1 The Sun reported that a construction worker, Antonio Galarpi, "was struck by a heavy steel beam while at work on the new building on the site of the old Belvidere Hotel."  The article explained "The beam was being lifted with a cable and was about twenty feet from the sidewalk when the hooks slipped and it fell on Galarpi."  He died on the way to the hospital.

The incident did not hamper progress and, as a matter of fact, construction was completed ahead of time.  An advertisement in the New York Herald on January 13 touted "Ready for Occupancy January 15, 1910."  It warned potential tenants that space was filling fast.  "Fully 150 wholesale concerns are now making preparations to move to this new Fourth Avenue District."  With two passenger elevators, two freight elevators and an automatic sprinkler system, the building was said to have "advantages superior in every respect to other buildings now in course of erection along Fourth avenue."

Rouse & Goldstone had designed a Renaissance Revival commercial building similar to scores of others rising in Manhattan at the time.  But they set this one apart by lavishing the top floor with Arts & Crafts style tilework.  A latticework of cream-colored tiles, interrupted by rose-framed diamond shapes, sat upon a field of mossy-green.  Sharp triangular pendants hung from the 12th floor cornice, so sleek and geometric as to anticipate the Art Deco movement to come.


The Arts & Crafts tile work of the 11th and 12th floors contrasted starkly with the stuffier Renaissance Revival elements surrounding it.
Several of the original tenants were garment related, such as the Perrin Sons glove manufacturing firm and Sutro Brothers braid makers, both of which signed leases in 1910.  But by 1917 a wider variety of occupants were calling the Belvidere Building home.

In February that year the Mentor Association took over the ninth floor.  While the organization was, technically, a publishing firm, it operated on a unique precept.  The bi-monthly magazine could not be purchased at newsstands, nor even by subscription.  Readers had to be "members" who paid a $4 per year membership fee.  They then received their issues filled with articles guaranteed to take no more than five minutes to read.

The firm's motto was "Learn one thing every day" and The Mentor's editors "select the best in Art, Literature, History, Popular Science, Nature, Biography, Music, and all of the Arts for the members."  Advertisements insisted that the broad range of knowledge members gained gave them the confidence to talk on a variety of subjects and advance in their jobs.  "I think of my membership in the Mentor Association as my college education," a member was quoted as saying.


As the building neared completion large For Rent signs appeared in the ground floor windows.  Construction on the IRT subway is still underway.  photograph by Wurts Brothers from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Taking space in January 1918 was a war-related office of the Christian Science Church.  An article in the Homer Republican on January 10 explained "Since the coming of severely cold weather the demand for warm knitted garments among our soldiers and sailors has become so great that a comforts forwarding committee of ladies representing the fifteen Christian Science churches of New York city has opened headquarters at 222 Fourth avenue."  From here the women distributed hand-knitted "helmets, socks, sweaters, wristlets" and similar garments to military camps and warships.

The war brought another tenant that month when the American Red Cross Bureau of Purchasing took the entire 11th floor.

On Friday afternoon June 13, 1919 several men entered the building and then hid for hours.  When the last of the cleaners left the building they sprung into action, breaking into the offices of corset manufacturers I. Newman & Sons, which occupied the fourth floor.  Of the three safes in the office, the thieves worked on the largest.  Police would later theorize, according to The Evening Telegram, "the burglars spent so much time on the heavy safe they were afraid to risk waiting any longer, although the other two safes might have been more profitable, as they contained cash."

Now the men had another problem.  Walking into the building was easy.  But now they were locked in.  And so while, apparently, a lookout watched from the street, they "left by the Fourth avenue entrance of the building by removing the large door from its hinges."

Early the following morning an elevator operator reported for work to find the street door removed.  As each tenant arrived he was told that someone had been inside overnight and to carefully check his office.  Newman rushed upstairs to find "doors jimmied and the safe removed to the centre of the office and the front ripped open with a sectional jimmy," reported The Evening Telegram.  The thieves had made off with $30,000 in Liberty and Victory bonds and $20,000 in cash, a heist of more than three quarters of a million dollars in today's money.

Despite the incident, I. Newman & Sons remained in the Belvidere Building well into the 1920's.  Other tenants at the time included the Mill Factors Corporation and the National Shirt Shops, Inc.  In 1924 one of the street level shops was a United Cigar Store.

Bonnie-B Co., Inc., importers of hair nets was another 1920's tenant.  The firm advertised its hand-made human hair nets as being "twice sterilized."  An ad in the Buffalo Courier in 1921 featured a photograph of film actress Ruth Roland, "noted for her lovely hair--always perfectly dressed."  Her secret, the ad confided, "is the Bonnie-B imported Hair Net with she invariably uses."

As garment firms migrated to the district above 34th Street, the Belvidere Building saw a new type of tenant.  In 1939 Philco Radio and Television took space, and as early as 1953 the Citadel Press was in the building and would stay for years.

In May 1959 the stretch of Fourth Avenue between 17th and 32nd Streets was renamed Park Avenue South; although the street address for the Belvidere Building remained No. 222.  The following two decades saw a influx of trade schools and publishers.  In 1963 the Empire School of Printing was here, joined by the Printing Trades School two years later.  By 1971 Apex Technical School, where students could learn trades like automobile mechanics, the air conditioning and refrigeration repair, was in the building.  At the same time Dogs Magazine and Motor Cycle World were being published here.



That all came to an end in 1981 when a massive renovation resulted in five apartments per floor above the street level.  

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Great piece, Tom! For many years the ground floor held a branch of the popular Exchange Buffet restaurant chain.

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