Friday, June 17, 2022

The 1911 Erskine Press Building - 17 East 13th Street


The painted Erskine sign somehow survives.

At the turn of the last century, the Butterick Publishing Company had been leasing the converted three-story dwelling at 17 East 13th Street for at least a decade.  In 1863, Ebenezer Butterick had created the first graded sewing patterns, and three years later his sewing machine company began making women's dress patterns.  In 1867, he published the first issue of the Ladies Quarterly of Broadway Fashions.  The business became an enormous success with 100 branch offices in the United States and Canada.

Butterick left the old structure in 1910 and on May 13, 1911 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported, "The Henschel estate has agreed to erect at No. 17 East 13th st. a new building for the Erskine Press."  It was no doubt a momentous move for Archibald Erskine.

Erskine was a carpenter by trade when he arrived from Scotland around 1867.  He eventually partnered with another Scottish immigrant, Robert McGregor, in a carpentry-building business.  Erskine diversified in 1895, when he added a "job printer" business, Erskine Press, at 22 East 13th Street, across the street from the Butterick building.   "Job printing" meant the firm produced work like tickets, letterheads, notices, invoices and such, almost always on a single sheet of paper.

Two weeks after the Record & Guide's announcement, architect George Turland Goosey filed plans for a two-story structure to cost $3,500--just under $98,500 in today's money.  (Interestingly, the Erskine building firm did not get the contract, which went to The Jones Construction Company at 1 Union Square.)

Completed within the year, the Erskine Press building was never intended to be ostentatious.  The East 13th Street facade was as much storefront and windows as it was red brick.  Goosey drew on the outdated Italianate style for his design, giving it a bracketed cornice that would have been expected in the 1880's or '90's.  Happily for the pressmen working inside, a service alley allowed for extra windows on the eastern elevation.

The 81-year-0ld Archibald Erskine had retired when Erskine Press moved into the new building.  His sons, Archibald Jr. and George Chambers had been involved with the business since around 1897 and now continued to run it.

Erskine Press was listed at 17 East 13th Street until 1933.  That year Walter and Isabel Bryan founded The Villager and moved its fledgling operation into the building.  The Villager's masthead pronounced, "Weekly Newspaper Reflecting the Finest Traditions of Washington Square and Greenwich Village."

The April 13, 1933 front page of The Villager, from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Angela Nin, who went by Anaïs, had begun writing detailed journals as a child, living at 158 West 75th Street.  She went on to write novels, short stories and erotica in France.  Prior to Germany's invasion of France, she returned to New York.  Unable to find a publisher for her works, she turned to self-publishing.  

Despite having married Hugo Guiler in the 1920's, Nin carried on several romantic affairs.  In 1941, according to one source, her current lover, Peruvian-born communist Gonzalo More, was intrigued with printing.  That year the two purchased a treadle-operated platen press for $75.  Nin wrote, "Gonzalo was sure it would work" for printing books.  They originally operated what they called Gemor Press from Nin's $60-a-month apartment at 144 MacDougal Street.

In 1944 The Villager had recently moved to more commodious quarters and Nin and More moved Gemor Press into 17 East 13th Street.  

Anaïs Nin (original source unknown)

With the move came a larger printing press.  Nin's Winter of Artifice, published on MacDougal Street had been a success.  Before long Gemor Press would publish works of other authors, as well, like Max Ernst.  Nin's This Hunger, published in 1945, landed her a contract with Dutton publishers and the following year Gemor Press left East 13th Street.  In The Diary of Anaïs Nin, she explained, "The press collapsed under a mountain of debts.  Corroded by Gonzalo's irresponsibility.  It was closed."

image via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services

The printing and publishing firms that had peppered the East 13th block for decades soon moved on.  By the early 1960's, 17 East 13th Street was home to the real estate firm Percy Brower, Newman & Frayne.  In 1963, the agents marketed Sayville Shores, a housing project in Sayville, Long Island on the former estate of millionaire Frank S. Jones.

In 1976 Les Trois Petits Cochons (The Three Little Pigs) opened here.  The October 25 issue of New York Magazine that year called it "a tiny shop in the best French charcuterie tradition."  It would remain in the space, selling French cheeses, salads and pates for more than a decade.

The charcuterie was replaced in 1991 by Adore, run by Japanese immigrants Yakihito and Makie Yahagi.  Like Les Trois Petits Cochons, the shop would remain for years, selling sandwiches, salads and pastries.  

Alberto Benenati and Yves Jadot opened La Maison du Croque Monsieur in 2012.  The tiny restaurant's signature dish was reflected in its name.  In announcing its opening on September 4, 2012, The New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant described croque-monsieur as "the French answer to grilled ham and cheese, often served slathered with a béchamel sauce."

Amazingly, considering all the building's incarnations, when the Southeast Asian take-out spot Chard opened in 17 East 13th Street in 2022, the Erskine Press sign still survived between the first and second floors.  

Preservationists and literary historians should be fearful that this excruciatingly charming little building has no landmark status.  That the place where works by 
Anaïs Nin--considered among the most prominent of 20th century women writers--were printed survives virtually-intact is miraculous, a situation that could change with the whim of the owner at any point.

photographs by the author
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