Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The William Knabe & Co. Building - 437-439 Fifth Avenue

photo via

By 1904 the age of commodious private homes along Fifth Avenue below 42nd Street was essentially over.  It was a circumstance that did not escape the notice of Horace A. Hutchins.   

The self-made man was born in Cleveland, Ohio where, according to The Successful American in January 1903, he "started out in life at the bottom of the ladder."  His break came in 1872 when Standard Oil Company bought his refining business and offered him a job.  By now he had amassed a large fortune and turned to real estate development as a side line.

In 1904 Hutchins purchased the dwellings on the southeast corner of 39th Street and hired esteemed architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design a vast commercial structure on the site.  In reporting the plans on December 10, 1904 The American Architect and Building News noted "Work will begin May 1, 1905."

C. P. H. Gilbert created a striking Beaux Arts structure faced in tan brick that might well have been mistaken for an upscale hotel.  The two-story rusticated limestone piers of the base gave way to a pair of engaged columns on either side of the marquee-covered entrance.  The six-story midsection featured balconies above the third floor openings.  The upper portion was introduced by a stone balcony with iron railings that wrapped the Fifth Avenue and 39th Street corner, and the eleventh floor took the form of a stupendous mansard roof with elaborate dormers.

Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, February 17, 1906 (copyright expired)

As construction neared completion, on February 17, 1906 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the building had been leased.  "Messrs. Knabe & Co. will occupy the ground floor and basement for their piano warerooms," it said.  The article mentioned that the structure "will be called the Knabe Building."  

As the piano firm settled in, Horace A. Hutchins sold his new structure to the Paris-based real estate firm, Raimon Company, in October 1906.  The price, $1.25 million, would be more in the neighborhood of $36 million today.  The Record & Guide noted that real estate men regarded the price as "a fair value for this location," and added "The predictions of many old time operators that 5th av would eventually be the leading business thoroughfare now seem to be rapidly materializing."

The offices in the upper floors were leased to a variety of firms.  In 1907 publisher and dealer in old books Francis P. Harper moved his operation from No. 14 West 22nd Street into the building.  In reporting on the move in its February 16 edition, The Publishers Weekly advised "Mr. Harper's specialty has been in rare, curious and out-of-print books, early Americana and Rebellion literature, and he is among the leading experts in this line."

The American Automobile Association took offices here as its headquarters at around the same time.  And the real estate operator W. M. Ostrander, Inc. took the entire top floor that year.  Incorporated in 1905, The New York Times later said the firm dispersed "attractive literature regarding suburban real estate from the company's well-furnished offices."   

Lippincott's Magazine Advertiser, January 1907 (copyright expired)

On June 30, 1907 W. M. Ostrander placed an advertisement in The Sun entitled "Don't Invest a Dollar in Real Estate Before Reading My New Magazine, 'Ostrander's Money Maker.'"  The guide cost 5 cents a copy or 50 cents for a year's subscription.  (Perhaps Ostrander should have read his own publication, for two years later the firm went under.)

Tenants in the building were shocked by a gruesome accident that summer.  James R. Huntley had been called to repair a battery that operated the elevator bell.  As he worked, he "was struck by a descending elevator and crushed between the bottom of the car and the floor of a sub-basement," reported the New-York Tribune on June 28, 1907.  "He was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where it was said last night that he would probably die."

On December 26 that year the offices of the American Automobile Association were the scene of outraged members of "all of the automobile organizations both in club and trade circles," as described by the New-York Tribune.  The Park Board had enacted an ordinance excluding any vehicles with chains on their wheels not only from the city's parks, but "all the streets, driveways and roads under the jurisdiction of the Park Board."  The Tribune said the enactment "has met with the prompt disapproval and protest of every automobilist."

The Edison Monthly, February 1911, (copyright expired)

Automobile racing was just emerging as a popular upper-class pastime at the time.  When one set of rules for the Vanderbilt Cup race was set down by the American Automobile Association while the Automobile Club of America devised another set, it prompted "protests from the French and English clubs," said the New-York Tribune on May 27, 1908.  The day before that article a meeting of the racing board had been held in the American Automobile Association's offices and, according to the newspaper, "so far as can be judged, the fight is on for the control of automobile racing and touring contests in this country."

For generations American socialites depended on ropes of pearls to express their wealth and social status.  But now cut stones were quickly replacing them.  Eduard Van Dam, who also had jewel cutting shops in Amsterdam and Antwerp, was in the Knabe Building by now.  The Evening World said on September 24, 1908, "that owing to an increased demand for diamonds he has place a full force of men at work on full time in his New York house and that the two in Europe are similarly busy.  He said that the diamond industry would soon be in full operation."

Other tenants at the time were Mrs. Adeline Stanhop-Wheatcroft's "new Dramatic Studio," which opened in September; and the studio of Martin H. Hanson, whose Concert Direction Company managed the careers of concert vocalists and musicians.  (He was still here in June 1914 when he introduced American audiences to Russian ballet, signing a contract with the Russian Imperial Theatre.)

New-York Tribune, September 5, 1908 (copyright expired)

Also in the building was the studio of photographer Edward S. Curtis.  In January 1911 he published his massive 28-volume work of Native American photographs, The North American Indian, financially backed by J. Pierpont Morgan.  Curtis had lived with various tribes for months in order to fully understand their cultures and properly capture them on film.

In connection with its release he opened an exhibition of original photographs in the studio that month.  The Evening World, on January 14, deemed his work "in far vaster scope and closer intimacy" than paintings and sculptures.  "For Mr. Curtis, with his camera, has lived as a brother with the many different tribes of the red men, all the way from Canada to Mexico."

In the meantime, Knabe & Co. was doing well in their ground floor showrooms.  On May 19, 1909 The Review of Reviews commented "Just from the handsome Knabe building at Thirty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue alone more high-grade pianos were bought last season than from any other piano house in New York City."

In the early 1920's Knabe Piano drew crowds by exhibiting famous instruments.  On December 17, 1922 The New York Herald announced that Richard Wagner's piano upon which he reputedly composed his operatic "Ring" cycle, would be played here.  "Musicians, Wagnerian experts, composers and many of the more representative people in New York, to the number of nearly a thousand, will be in the assemblage in the Knabe studios, 437 Fifth avenue, next Thursday, to see the master piano and hear it played upon."

And in July 1927 Berthold Neuer, the firm's vice president, returned from France with two pianos formerly owned by Franz Liszt.

But already the firm had laid plans to leave its home of more than two decades.  On January 24, 1928 The New York Times reported that the company had donated 50 pianos to charity, "in commemorating its coming removal to the new Knabe Tower" at No. 657 Fifth Avenue.  

At the time Ovington's had been housed in what an advertisement called its "impressive seven story temple of stone" directly across the avenue since 1921.  The firm styled itself "The Gift Shop of Fifth Avenue."  With Knabe gone, Ovington's crossed the street.

It took 400 hundred men, guarded by scores of police, to moved more than $1 million in stock across the avenue at night.  The New York Times reported "a steady line of men carried everything from ivory elephants to paintings and Persian rugs to the new store."

To modernize the Edwardian structure for Ovington's, architect Frank H. Hutton was commissioned to transform the two-story base and strip off some of the fussy decoration.  C. P. H. Gilbert's show windows and columns were removed and filled in, and the cast iron balcony railings stripped away.

from the collection of the New York Public Library.
Ovington's had been formed in 1846 as a small store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn.  It now sold a vast array of items for the home, from small furniture to china, silver and crystal, to decorative items like statuettes, bookends and wooden boxes for tea or cigars.

The price of the crystal hors d'oeuvres dish with the sterling silver rim pictured at lower right of this 1936 ad would equal about $408 today.
In February 1951 Ovington's moved again, this time to No. 666 Fifth Avenue.   The ground floor of the Knabe Building was converted to a restaurant "with restriction on entertainment" in 1964.  The upper floors continued to house a diverse tenant list.  The Buscarlet Glove Company, importers and distributors of women's gloves, was here at the time, as was The Japan Light Machinery Information Center.  It offered a free booklet to anyone thinking of buying binoculars, field glasses or opera glasses that year.

The Japan Light Machinery Information Center was still in the building in the mid-1970's along with its division, the Japan Camera Industry Association.

photo via henson

Recently the Knabe Building was restored by Scott Henson Architect.  The work included reconstruction of deteriorated brick and repair of the copper mansard.  Despite Frank Hutton's 1928 modernization, Gilbert's striking 1904 structure is still--nearly--Paris-worthy.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Barnett Bros. Department Store - 289-295 Columbus Avenue

The dignified remains of the limestone ground floor peers above the regrettable storefront today.   photo via

When millionaire Edward Clark died in 1882, he was perhaps better known for his real estate development on the Upper West Side than for his career with the Singer Sewing Machine Company, the source of his fortune.  He left a large amount of undeveloped property to his one-year old grandson, Frederick Ambrose Clark.

Among the boy's holdings was the southeast corner of Ninth (later Columbus) Avenue and 74th Street.  Around 1894 a commercial structure was erected on the site and leased to the Barnett Brothers department store.   Formed by brothers E. G. Barnett, I. L. Barnett and I. H. Barnett, the store rapidly grew and on October 26, 1895 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that architect George H. Griebel had been hired to enlarge the building.  "It has not yet been decided whether to add one story to the present structure or to build an annex in the rear."  It appears that a second story was added.

On November 23, 1898 Printers' Ink wrote "There is a store in New York, at the corner of Seventy-Fourth street and Columbus avenue.  It is getting to be quite a store.  Only a few years ago it was an unimportant concern in a single store-room.  Now it occupies a building two stories high, half a block long, and fifty or sixty feet deep."

Barnett Brothers' rapid success was due mostly to its Upper West Side location where few such stores were yet operating.  "It is a better store and a bigger store each year," said Printers' Ink.  "The trade comes to it because it is convenient.  It is a good deal easier for people in the neighborhood to go to Barnett's than it is to get on a car and go three miles to Wanamaker's."

A portable sewing machine could be had for the equivalent of $60 today.  The Delineator, September 1901 (copyright expired)
Barnett Brothers was a true department store, offering not only dry goods and apparel, but housewares, china and glass, and other items.  As the neighborhood developed and the population increased, so did the store's business.  On February 15, 1902 the Record & Guide reported that the Clark Estate (Frederick, known as "Brose," was still a minor, at 19-years-old) had again hired George H. Griebel--this time to replace the two-story building with a "six story brick and stone dry-goods store."  Griebel estimated the construction costs at $350,000--a significant $10.5 million today.

The result was a handsome blend of commercial neo-Renaissance and Beaux Arts styles.  The ground floor was faced in limestone and the upper stories in beige brick.  Formal Renaissance-style pedimented enframements graced the corner openings of the second floor; while ebullient Beaux Arts wreaths and cartouches dripped from the cornice above the fourth floor.  Griebel's proposed six-story structure was, in fact, just four at completion.

Now in its impressive new building Barnett Brothers continued to expand its offerings.  In its March 1906 edition The Millinery Trade Review noted "Barnett Bros...have opened on the third floor of their well-appointed establishment a millinery department...The department presents a particularly handsome appearance, occupying about one-third of the floor, the remainder of which is devoted to the garment stocks."  Saying that there would most likely soon be a workroom for custom trimming hats, the article noted "The fittings are in mission oak and the soft green rugs make an effective setting for the many-hued millinery display."

That same month the store opened its Comestible Department, a sort of precursor of the gourmet shops in today's department stores.  The selling of food in department stores was a trend that greatly upset the city's grocers.  At a meeting of the New York Wholesale Grocers' Association Herman Rohrs growled "Pretty soon these dry goods stores will be advertising coffins free in order to induce people to buy flour.  They'll be offering inducements to people to die."

The store hosted a tasting event following the department's opening.  New-York Tribune, March 6, 1906 (copyright expired)

Just before Christmas in 1907 burglars broke into the building through an alleyway window and eluded the night watchman by hiding behind counters.  They made off with a tray of gold rings.  It was one of a string of similar burglaries in the neighborhood--a grocery store's cash register was stolen, and seven revolvers taken from an automobile supply store, for instance.  And then the crooks revisited Barnett Brothers.  On January 3, 1908 The New York Times reported "This time they got a trayful of watches, but the theft proved their undoing, for the detectives traced it to them."

The arrested thieves, John Townsend, a.k.a Red; his brother George; and William McGlynn, alias Fatty, gave full confessions (although "Red" Townsend was intoxicated at the time).  It was not the brazen deeds of the trio that amazed detectives and the public, but their ages.  "Red" was 10-years old, his brother was 8, and "Fatty" McGlynn was 9.

In June 1910 Barnett Brothers was reorganized after being purchased by the 14th Street department store Rothenberg & Co.  Now only one of the Barnetts remained as part of the organization.  The Pottery, Glass & Brass Salesman reported that the new owners proposed "completely remodeling the china and glass department and some other departments.  About $15,000 will be expended for new fixtures along."  The article added "The Barnett store is one of the largest and most up-to-date in that part of the city."

Frederick Ambrose Clark began selling off his significant Upper West Side holdings in the years following the end of World War I.  On February 26, 1921 The New York Herald reported "Barnett Bros., who have occupied the building at the southeast corner of Columbus avenue and Seventy-fourth street since its erection thirty-five years ago, have purchased the property."  Calling the building "a landmark in this section," the article placed the selling price at $350,000, or just under $5 million today.

Surprisingly, the department store survived only a few more years.  On January 27, 1925 The New York Times reported that the building "formerly occupied by Barnett Brothers Department Store...has been leased to the Flohar Realty Corporation."  The operators signed a 42-year lease and announced that the architectural firm of Sugarman & Berger to make significant changes.  "The building is to be completely altered with the addition of two stories," said The Times.

Above the street level shops was a floor of offices and showrooms on the second floor, and "studios and non-housekeeping apartments" on the upper floors.  Three of the studio apartments on the fifth floor were leased by the Federation for Child Study and converted to schoolrooms.  

The organization was the outgrowth of the Society for the Study of Child Nature, formed in 1888 by five women with the goal of studying children from "the mental, moral and physical view points."  A pioneer organization in the research of child development, it was by now supported by grants from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund.

In the meantime, the ground floor shops were leased to small businesses like "Mickey" Connor's barbershop in No. 293.   His opening night party on November 8, 1925 was a joyous affair.  The Irish-American newspaper The Advocate reported "There were song and dance in plenty and other things."

The corner shop was leased to the Seventy-fourth Street Restaurant, Inc.  The firm sold its lease in October 1930 to the Lincoln Cafeteria, Inc.  The space would see a succession of restaurants during the Depression years.  Bill's Chop house opened in 1932, and Andrew Jainke's restaurant was here in 1935 when the owner was held up at gunpoint at 2:00 on the morning on January 20.

The gunman, 22-year-old James Toomey, made off with $14 from the cash register, but not without a fight.  As Toomey rifled through the register, Jainke started to lower his raised arms.  The crook fired a single shot and Jainke pounced.  Hearing the gunshot, three policemen rushed into the restaurant.  The New York Post reported "Toomey fought desperately when the three patrolmen arrested him for violating the Sullivan law by possessing a .32-caliber revolver and for robbery."

Toomey never made it to jail.  He was taken to Flower Hospital with broken ribs and scalp lacerations.  His admittance card listed the place and circumstances of his injuries as "unknown."  He died on the operating table there.

Another renovation completed in 1943 resulted in apartments on the upper floors, along with a dental lab on the third and a gymnasium on the fourth.  The corner shop continued to house a restaurant and in the spring of 1950 it was leased to the Paddy Jordan Restaurant Corp.

Traces of the rusticated limestone ground floor exist on the 74th Street side.

Nine years later the shops were consolidated into a single store, taken by Pioneer Supermarket.  What remained of Barnett Brothers' limestone storefronts were covered over by an unflattering facade.  The upper floors, however, still hint at the department store and a time when Upper West Side ladies shopped for the latest in hats and fancy "comestibles."

many thanks to reader Joseph Miceli-Magnone for suggesting this post

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Lost St. Alphonsus Church - 308 West Broadway

from the collection of the Library of Congress

The parish of St. Joseph's was geographically immense prior to 1847--beginning at Canal Street and stretching north to 14th, and between Broadway and the Hudson River.  But, as The Evening World explained later, the district's "increasing German population, almost entirely without facilities for religious instruction in their own language," prompted Bishop John Hughes to add a mission parish that year.

St. Alphonsus Ligouri would be a mission church of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer on Third Street.  It was placed in the control of the Redemptorist Fathers and the cornerstone of its first church on Thompson Street, between Canal and Grand Streets, was laid by Bishop Hughes in August 1847.  The church was completed three months later.

In 1866 the congregation had grown enough to warrant the elevation of the parish from a mission to church, with a full-time pastor, the Rev. F. Nicholas Jaeckel.  The demographics had changed, as well.  The Evening World noted "Moreover, the church was attended largely by English-speaking Catholics, as well as Germans."  Those English-speaking Catholics were, for the most part, Irish.

In 1870 it was deemed necessary to erect a larger edifice.  Land was acquired on South Fifth Avenue (renamed West Broadway in 1897) just north of Canal Street.  German-born architect Francis G. Himpler was hired to design the new structure.  Archibishop John McCloskey laid the cornerstone on September 4, 1870 "with unusually impressive ceremonies," as described by The Evening World.

The church was dedicated on April 7, 1872.  Himpler had produced his own take on the Sicilian Romanesque style.  Faced in Philadelphia brick and liberally trimmed in Ohio brownstone and bluestone, the structure had cost $275,000--more than $5.8 million today.  The Evening World described it as "one of the most imposing in town," and The New York Times said "It is scarcely surpassed in beauty of its interior by any church in the City."  A broad set of granite steps led to the triple-arched entrance two stories below the seventeen-foot wide rose window.  A soaring clock and bell tower containing three bells which weighed 4,000, 3,000 and 1,500 pounds rose 190 feet above the sidewalk.  A statue of St. Alphonsus, eight and a half feet tall, stood within a niche in the gable.

The dedication ceremonies were imposing.  The New York Times reported "A brass band performed outside the church gates.  The Independent Rifle Corps (German,) from third-street, and a company of pioneers in blue jackets and Prussian helmets, formed two lines, between which the confraternities marched into the church and took their places.  The pews are intended to seat 2,500 persons, but there were many more present."

Above the cost of the church proper were the interior elements.  The floor was composed of marble tiles and the woodwork was walnut. 

The Times said "The altar was imported from Munich at a cost of $12,000 in gold.  It is a magnificent piece of workmanship, with [a] massive dome overhead, and elegantly designed pillars of green marble, with gilt capitals."  It had been executed by Meyer & Co. from designs provided by Himpler.   The stations of the cross were executed in Munich, as well, at a cost of $1,000.  "They are different from those in the other Catholic churches of the city," said The Times, "for instead of being paintings or engravings, they are carvings, the figures in full relief and colored."  The organ, built in Boston, had cost $15,000.  The New York Herald said it "is one of the largest in the United States and has sixty-five full stops."  Its black walnut case rose 46 feet high.  The total of these three elements alone adding nearly another $600,000 in today's dollars to the cost.

There were 79 stained glass windows and, according to The New York Herald, "the gas fixtures are of the most tasteful design and superior workmanship."  The 16 wall frescoes depicting the life of St. Alphonsus were done by William Lamprecht, "an artist of reputation," as described by the Herald.  The German-born artist did almost no work other than ecclesiastical. 

Although established as a German-language church, it was obvious that St. Alphonsus was becoming a mostly Irish parish.  Two weeks after the dedication The New York Herald reported "In St. Alphonsus' church Father "Tom" Burke addressed the Irish societies assembled there to participate in the ceremony of blessing the beautiful banner presented by the nuns of Kenmare, Ireland."

In the first years of the 1880's a political and social movement was taking root in America--socialism.  The fathers of St. Alphonsus seem to have viewed the movement with suspicion.  On December 7, 1884 The New York Times reported that a visiting priest from Savannah "will deliver a lecture in the Church of St. Alphonsus, in South Fifth-avenue, on Thursday evening, on the subject, "Christian Charity the Remedy of the Socialistic Movement of the Age."  It was evidence of a coming stand-off that would have explosive repercussions.

On May 15, 1898 the church began its 11-day celebration of its 50th anniversary.  Before the high mass that morning the St. Alphonsus Club band played on the sidewalk.  During the service, the number 50 played an important role.  The Times reported "The processional to the altar was headed by a cross bearer and two acolytes, followed first by fifty small boys with golden colored sashes, each carrying in his right hand a large bouquet of white and red roses.

"Then came fifty girls attired in white, each holding in the right hand a bouquet of roses...These were followed in turn by fifty alter boys dressed in red, white and purple cassocks.  Then came the clergy, numbering about fifty priests from other cities."

On February 26, 1903 a carriage pulled to the curb at Beach and Greenwich Streets.  The elegant vehicle drew the notice of the residents of the tenement district.  A young woman, described as "stylishly dressed," stepped from the carriage with a bundle and walked a block to the north.  After pacing up and down the block nervously, she entered the tenement building at No. 22 Hubert Street then quickly left, no longer carrying the bundle.  Neighbors watched her quickly return to her carriage and be driven away.

Shortly afterward Mrs. Kaye Ryan arrived in the building to visit her sister, Mrs. Patrick Saunders, on the second floor.  As the street door closed behind her, she heard the cries of babies.  She discovered twin boy infants dressed in "clothing of fine texture" and, according to The Times, "the head of each baby was incased in a delicate lace hood."  Each wore "expensive long dresses."

Mrs. Ryan took the babies to her sisters' apartment and within minutes "the Saunders apartment was crowded with women and children, all anxious to get a peep at the little fellows."  Reports flew around the room of the refined lady who had been seen dropping off the bundle.

But Mrs. Ryan had more important things on her mind than the mother.  According to The New York Times her "first thought was to have the infants baptized.  She took them to the Church of St. Alphonsus...and Father McKenna performed the baptismal rites."  The babies were named Patrick and Joseph.  Now, with the important business out of the way, the police were notified.

The sharp ideological differences between the socialists and the priests of St. Alphonsus came face-to-face on the evening of March 4, 1914.  As worshipers filed into the dimly-lit sanctuary for Lenten services at 6:00, members of "The Army of the Unemployed" assembled to hear the leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, Frank Tannenbaum, speak in Rutgers Park.  By 7:00 the crowd had grown to about 700.

After speaking, Tannenbaum told the men to fall into line, two by two, and follow him to a free night's lodging and a meal.  The New York Times estimated that 600 men headed up Canal Street, "walking more rapidly than usual and halting traffic at cross streets."  The mass of men stopped in front of St. Alphonsus Church and Tannenbaum and a "handful of followers" entered the church and marched up the center aisle.  "They made so much noise that the members of the congregation arose from their knees in alarm," said The Times.

Tannenbaum told the Father Adrian he wanted to see the pastor, and was directed to the rectory next door.  There Tannenbaum told Rev. John G. Schneider, "I've led my army here to make one request of you.  We want to sleep in the church tonight.  Can we do it?"

"No, you cannot," was the reply.  

Tannenbaum assured the priest they would clean up in the morning, but was told "You'll do nothing of the kind.  The Catholic church is no place for you to sleep, and I strongly object to the way you entered here."

"Well, will you give us money to buy food?"


"Will you give us work?"


"But I tell you we're starving."

"I can't help that.  why don't you get work?  All I have to say is that you can't stay here."

Tannenbaum pointed out to Father Schneider that his attitude fell short of Christian teachings, then moved away.  The New-York Tribune reported "Tannenbaum went to the [church] doors and called to his men to enter.  They stormed in, those who could not ascend the narrow stairs leaping the fence and entering by the side doors."

The priests gathered the women members to one side and directed the men out of the sanctuary through a rear door.  One priest ordered everyone who did not belong to the church to leave.  It was answered by one of the army directing the men, "Sit down, boys, sit down."  St. Alphonsus Church was now under the occupation of 190 members of the Army of the Unemployed.

When word arrived at Police Headquarters newly appointed Commissioner Douglas McKay ordered that every man inside the church was to be arrested.  "In a few minutes the reserves swarmed about the church, whose doors were guarded," wrote The Times.  "There was a large crowd in the street outside and traffic was blocked."

Arresting the mob inside took some time.  "The wagons were filled, driven to the station, emptied, driven back and filled again until the prisoners in all had been taken," explained the article.

The Army of the Unemployed had not had their last say.  Just before midnight on October 13 a bomb was tossed at the rectory from the elevated train feet away.  "The explosion that followed could be heard at a distance of eight blocks," reported the New-York Tribune.  The iron railing of the stone steps was blown out of place.

The explosive was tossed from a southbound train.  photo by Robert L. Bracklow from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

"Inside the rectory, the priests were thrown from their beds by the force of the explosion, and Brother Patrick, who was asleep on the ground floor, was painfully cut by flying glass."  Neighbors flew into a panic.  "Intense excitement prevailed in the section where the explosion took place, and the police had their hands full endeavoring to quiet the nervous inhabitants."

Two days later investigators linked the bombing to "the anarchists, the 'unemployed,' and the I.W.W."  And, as a matter of fact, Joseph J. Cohen of the Francisco Ferrer Association, an anarchist organization, said "A lot of people would have been pleased if St. Alphonsus's church had been destroyed by the bomb.  This is because of the treatment accorded Frank Tannenbaum and his followers, who were clubbed and maltreated when they were there last winter."  Propaganda, it seems, had inflated the story of March 4 to garner support.

The parish received a special honor in 1947 upon its 100th anniversary.  Cardinal Francis Spellman celebrated a solemn pontifical mass on October 5 attended by an estimated 1,000 persons.  He then read a letter from the Vatican that read:

It is the express wish of His Holiness that this blessing be shared by all the friends of St. Alphonsus who join with you to celebrate this anniversary.

In 1972 E. Power Biggs was among the most celebrated concert organists in the world.  That winter he arrived in New York to inspect what he deemed "some of the city's interesting organs."   Eleanor Blau of The New York Times accompanied him to St. Alphonsus where he explained that most 19th century instruments "have fallen into disrepair or have even been discarded."  She continued "An exception, he said, is an 1871 instrument at St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church...Built by E. and G. G. Hook of Boston, and later electrified by Hook & Hastings, it is particularly suited for French Romantic music.  It also has an interesting case bearing angels with trumpets."

But unseen to anyone at the time was that the magnificent instrument and the building in which it sat were in peril.  The stream which had formed the filled-in canal from which Canal Street derived its name ran under the church.  Francis G. Kimpler ignored the marshy soil and rather than drive pilings, as was customary, he placed the immense structure on a concrete slab.  The architect could not have anticipated the heavy modern-day vibrations that would be caused by the nearby subway nor the traffic on Canal Street.

photo by Neal Boenzi, The New York Times, June 21, 1980

Not long after Biggs admired the organ, it was becoming obvious that St. Alphonsus Church was sinking.  The problem first appeared in the sagging marble flooring and in cracks that ran up the walls near the altar.  Measurements showed the church was sinking at the alarming rate of more than half an inch per year.  Because of the fear of falling plaster the church was closed by the archdiocese in October 1979.

In 1980 the property was placed on the market.  "The costs of repairing the foundation would have been prohibitive," explained Rev. Timothy McDonnell, coordinator of buildings for the archdiocese.  On June 20 a "liquidation sale" was held.  Buyers walked out with "statues of saints, stained-glass windows, and hundreds of other religious artifacts," said The Times.   

James Dillon, a researcher for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, noted "It's a very fine building and it would be a pity if it were demolished, but it does have serious structural problems."  But it was demolished.  The vacant plot sat behind a chain link fence growing weeds for years.  Then the Soho Grand Hotel opened on the site in 1996.


Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Huyler's Candy Store - 863 Broadway

In 1841 work was well underway to make Union Square among the most exclusive residential enclaves in the city.   Elegant iron fencing encircled the park and within the year its decorative fountain would be completed.  Fine brick-faced homes were already rising around the landscaped square.  That year John Ferris began construction of his fine home just north of the park, on the west side of Broadway between 17th and 18th Streets.

Completed in 1842, it was designed in the Italianate style.  Twenty-three feet wide, it would have had a stone stoop that led to the entrance above the English basement.  Simple brownstone lintels capped the openings and a handsome bracketed cornice crowned the design.

It is unclear how long Ferris lived here, but before 1853 Peter Gilsey owned the house.  Born in Denmark in 1811, he arrived in New York in 1837 and entered the tobacco trade.  As the Union Square neighborhood developed, he recognized the potential and invested heavily in properties.  Along with No. 863 in 1853, he owned properties at Nos. 130, 169, 337, and 693 Broadway.  Whether he ever lived in No. 863 is questionable.  On January 6, 1853 The New York Herald reported he had received $38,000 in rents on his Broadway properties (about $1.1 million today) the previous year, suggesting he leased the house.

In the early 1860's the house was operated by Sophia C. Weesells as a boarding house.  In 1863, with the Civil War raging, she leased rooms to newly-organized The Loyal Publication Society.  The organization was formed to bolster support for the Union cause by disseminating pro-Union news articles and editorials.  Its goals, established at its first meeting on February 14, 1863 stresses the distribution of such material "in the Armies now engaged in the suppression of the Rebellion," in order to bolster soldiers' spirits.

The Loyal Publication Society remained in the house throughout the war. (copyright expired)
One of Sophia's boarders in 1865 was W. W. Brome, a merchant, who barely escaped death in his bed on December 20 that year.  Three days later The New York Times wrote "A most determined attempt at murder was made by a colored errand boy named Edward Brown, 16 years of age, on Wednesday morning last, who endeavored to kill his late employer, Mr. W. W. Brome, while asleep in his room at No. 863 Broadway."

The problems between the two had begun the Saturday before when Brown returned from an errand.  He explained to police, "Mr. Brome accused me of stealing some of his papers.  I told him I did not take them, when he said he did not want me any more."

The teen was infuriated at being accused of theft and being fired.  And he was even more concerned that Brome would file charges against him.  "I made up my mind that I would do something to him so that he would not make a complaint against me," he said.

The following Monday morning before dawn Brown went to No. 863 and found the street door open, but when he made his way to Brome's room, he heard him stirring.  So he retreated and went back home.  He tried again the following day, with the same results.  When he came back on Wednesday the door was locked, so he managed to climb atop a shed in the rear and gain entrance through a window.

He found Brome asleep in his bed and struck him in the head with a hatchet.  He dropped the weapon to the floor and, before fleeing, grabbed $35 in cash and a check for $100 sitting on a table.   The Times explained that he "was so nervous and hurried in his movements that the blow was not sufficient to kill, although it inflicted a very severe wound."

Brome's cries aroused the other boarders, but before they made it to his room Brown had escaped.  He fled to his sister's home in Dobbs' Ferry where he hid out.  He destroyed the check rather than attempt to cash it and be caught.  But it only took detectives a day to track him down.  The Times reported "Brown at first stoutly denied any participation in the crime, but was finally induced to confess to the facts."  Of the $35 he had stolen (about $557 in today's money) he had $16 left.  The article noted "The injured gentleman, Mr. Brome, is under medical treatment, and will recover in time, although the wound is a very painful and severe one."

At the time of the attack stores were invading the previously exclusively residential neighborhood.  In 1869 the basement level of No. 863 was converted to a store, home to the "fancy goods" store of Friend Pitts.  As Christmas neared that year he advertised in The New York Herald:

An Elegant Present for the Ladies.  The Cuban Cascarilla is the best powder for the skin; can be used instead of soap; removes pimples and freckles; an excellent dentifrice, inoffensive, and a sure remedy for the heartburn.

Friend Pitt's, fancy goods, 863 Broadway

After Friend Pitts suffered a rash of break-ins he hired a night watchman.  Unfortunately for Pitts the man was either a coward or a fool.  On the night of Friday, May 5, 1871 burglars broke in.  But instead of confronting the intruders or finding a policeman, the watchman ran five blocks to Pitts's house to tell him.  The New York Herald reported "Mr. Pitts not being in at the time, the watchman waited for him, and by the time they reached the store the burglars had decamped."  They had made off with goods worth the equivalent of $23,000 today.  The newspaper noted "Mr. Pitts has only occupied this store two years, and this is the fifth time it has been broken into."

It may have been his bad luck with burglars that prompted Friend Pitts to relocate further north to the corner of Broadway and 33rd Street in May 1875.  If so, his bad luck followed him.   On January 16, 1876 The Sunday Telegram reported that thieves had broken through a sidewalk grating, entered the cellar, then "cut through the floor, into the store occupied by 'Friend Pitts.'"  They escaped with $1,000 in gloves and lace--a loss of more than $24,000 in today's dollars.

That year the photographer J. A. Taylor leased space for his studio in No. 863, and the office of Simmonds & Brown, dramatic agents was here as well.  

Major change came on May 1, 1886 when the owner, Maturin Livingston, rented the building to John Seys Huyler.  The following month Huyler hired architect George Halbert to alter the store for his candy shop.

Huyler's father, David, ran a bakery and ice cream shop on Jane Street in Greenwich Village.  While working in the shop as a teen, John began experimenting with making chewy molasses candy.   He opened his first shop in 1876 age the age of 30, and in 1881 incorporated the business as Huyler's, Inc.  By now it was a recognized name in the candy business.  While No. 863 was his main store, he had two others in the city and one each in the fashionable summer resorts of Newport, Saratoga and Long Branch, New Jersey.

New-York Tribune, March 21, 1897 (copyright expired)

By the end of the 19th century John S. Huyler had garnered a substantial fortune.  He used his money and time for public good, serving as president of The Water Street Mission and donating donating $15,000 "to promote the work of the Christian Associations of Syracuse University" in 1902, for instance.

Decades later, on March 16, 1929, Ernest Gruening reminisced in an article in The New Yorker "To 23rd Street and vicinity in the early nineties, Huyler's meant just one place--on Broadway, near Eighteenth St...It was the custom among a great many to enter Huyler's bent on the purchase of a quarter of a pound of mixed chocolates and bonbons, and while waiting sampling the candies.  Sometimes the wait would be so long, and the candy so filling as one sampled, that one did not make the purchase.  One fine day Huyler's covered its candies with glass cases.  'Tasting around Huyler's,' was no more."

The popularity of Huyler's candy and ice cream parlor was evidenced when the Confectioners' and Bakers' Gazette announced the opening of a shop across the street on June 10, 1900.  "A comparatively new bakery and lunch room is Conrad's, at 864 Broadway, nearly opposite Huyler's main Broadway store.  It is superfluous to say anything of this latter great establishment.  Huyler's, for whoever has had experience with the crowds in the place on a summer's afternoon will never forget it."

At the turn of the century Huyler's had added medicated candies to its line.  The Highland Democrat, February 15, 1902 (copyright expired)
John Huyler updated what the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide now called a "four story and basement brick store" in 1903.  Architect Joseph Wolf installed new stairs, posts and girders at a cost of $1,200.

John Seys Huyler - New-York Tribune, October 2, 1910 (copyright expired)

John S. Huyler died at his country home in Rye, New York on October 1, 1910 at the age of 65.  In reporting on his death newspapers focused as much on his philanthropy as on his tremendous business success.  The New-York Tribune noted "It is safe to say that he contributed in the course of his life more than $1,000,000 to many causes which he though deserving of support."

In 1906 Huyler's had a large sign on the roof.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Huyler and his wife, the former Rosa Lee, had had four sons--Frank DeKlyn, David, Coulter and John Jr.--and a daughter.  Frank was 30-years-old at the time, and their youngest, John Jr., was 15.  Their daughter had died two years prior to Huyler's death, leaving two grandchildren.  The New York Times noted "His estate is probably worth many millions, perhaps ten, perhaps twenty."

Huyler's will gave his sons equal shares in the candy business.  He had already groomed them, according to National Magazine the following year.  "During his lifetime this far-seeing father planned the conduct of his candy and chocolate business by starting each son in a different branch of the business and at the bottom of the ladder."  

But there may have already been tension among the brothers.  The article pointed out "At the time of John S. Huyler's death a stray newspaper clipping conveying the sentiments of a family 'pulling together' was found among his valuable papers in the vault--a silent and powerful message to his sons."

Young John Jr. was a freshman at Princeton in 1912.  On December 19 that year the 19-year-old went to Morristown, New Jersey to attend a debutante dance at the Morris County Golf Club.  Afterward he spent the night at the home of a friend, Charles Delmonico.  The next morning John, Charles and another friend walked to the train station.  While his friends boarded the train, John stopped to buy a newspaper.  As he rushed for the train, the dealer called him back to retrieve a dropped coin.  That small delay ended in tragedy.

By the time he picked up the coin the train had starting pulling away from the platform.  John ran with his suitcase and grasped a rail.  The Sun reported "He jumped and thereafter either his foot slipped or the bag overbalanced him."  The teen fell beneath the train, which severed both legs.

John remained calm and alert as he even helped apply tourniquets improvised by baggage ropes.  When an ambulance was delayed, he suggested an express wagon.  But despite what newspapers called "his grit," he died later that morning.

If John Sr. had been concerned that his brothers were feuding, he was proved right in 1916 when David sued his other brothers for control of the company.  The New York Times commented on October 20 "The fact...that David Huyler has not been on speaking terms with his two brothers for months, became known yesterday."  According to David, his brothers had gotten controlling interest by "trick and device" and had ousted him as a director, as treasurer, and factory manager.

Huyler's was purchased by a syndicate in December 1925.  In 1949 the former candy store was renovated for a restaurant.  A store operated from the second floor and Department of Buildings stressed that the upper floors were to remain "permanently vacant and unoccupied."

A renovation completed in 2009 resulted in a commercial space at ground level and two apartments above--a duplex and a triplex.   Today a clothing store operates from Huyler's candy parlor, once a famous destination and today completely forgotten.

photographs by the author