Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Snugly tucked into the corner of 6th Avenue and 23rd Street is a beautiful, polychromed little building that has seen more than its share of ups and downs. Built as a high-end jewelry store in the 19th Century, its station in life has declined considerably; but the vestiges of better days are still clearly evident.
William Moir came to New York in 1840 and was immediately apprenticed to a watchmaker, Alexander Martin. A few years later he became journeyman with jeweler Emmett Pell on Hudson Street and when Pell retired in 1844, Moir bought the business with his brother John. It was when John retired in 1870 that William decided on a move his business uptown.
Anticipating the migration of the shopping district which would create The Ladies Mile within a decade, Moir chose the 23rd Street corner and commissioned architect Theodore A. Tribit to design his 5-story cast iron building. The result was a beauty -- expansive, arched windows allow exceptional light inside and make the facade light and airy. The cast iron of the upper three floors imitates stone quoining, each floor being defined by a broad, richly-decorative band. Graceful pillars support quasi-balconies on the 6th Avenue side. Ornate balustrades double as roof cresting.
In 1889, in an effort to jump on the 6th Avenue bandwagon, Ehrich Brothers decided to move their dry goods emporium from 8th Avenue to 6th Avenue, eyeing the entire block from 22nd to 23rd Streets. The problem was Moir's jewelry store. He wouldn't sell. In resignation, Ehrich's built their massive store around Moir's little corner building, having entrances on both 6th Avenue and 23rd Street.
William Moir died in 1896, The Times calling him "one of New York's oldest and best known retail jewelers." His wife commissioned Tiffany Studios to create a stained glass memorial window for First Presbyterian Church on lower Fifth Avenue where he had been treasurer for over 20 years. The window celebrates Moir's Scottish roots with panels depicting St. Columba.
Today the Moir building stands proud, if a little embarassed. The cornice disappeared at some point and all traces of Tribit's ground floor are gone. An unfortunate but necessary fire escape disrupts the flow of the architectural design on the 23rd Street side. Inside, where once cases of silver flatware, gold watches and diamond earrings were displayed to women in plumed hats carrying parasols under their arms, customers now buy chicken wraps and bottled water.
But despite some hard use, the Moir building is still a beauty.
Monday, March 29, 2010
|Arnold, Constable & Co in 1894 -- King's Photographic Views of New York (copyright expired)|
Actually, the original entrance to the old Arnold, Constable Dry Goods store was on Broadway. As the firm grew, so did the store; additions being added until at last the monster emporium spanned the entire length of 19th Street, taking out the former home of actor Edwin Booth with it.
Aaron Arnold, a British emigrant had opened a small dry goods business in 1825 on Pine Street in lower Manhattan, planting the seed of what would become the oldest department store in America. In 1842 he took on James Mansell Constable as his partner. At some point in the later 1860s the name Arnold & Constable became Arnold, Constable & Company.
By 1857 the partners moved to Canal Street, where a five-story marble clad store awaited which was dubbed Marble House. Offering "Everything From Cradle to Grave," Arnold, Constable & Company gained a reputation among the ladies of the moneyed carriage trade. Business continued to boom and the retailers laid plans for a second store in the newly-developing shopping district around Union Square.
New new building, designed by Griffin Thomas, sat on the southwest corner of Broadway and 19th Street, replacing, among other houses, the former home of actor Edwin Booth. Completed in 1869 the five story structure was clad in marble, brick and cast iron.
Arnold, Constable & Company had chosen the site well. Only three years later Thomas was called back in to enlarge it down the 19th Street side. Thomas added a striking two-story mansard roof, drawn from the French Second Empire architecture that had taken over Europe after the Paris Exposition of 1852.
The French-style architecture was most possibly intended to hint at the European goods offered inside -- gowns from The House of Worth in Paris, French china and imported silks. The carriages that parked outside carried New York's feminine elite. Mary Todd Lincoln was a regular shopper and the account ledgers read like the social register: Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Astor for example.
Wiilliam Schickel designed the final westward additions and even established his offices in the building. Despite a change in materials, the cast iron Broadway facade giving way to brick and masonry towards 5th Avenue, the additions are nearly seamless. When the 5th Avenue end was completed, Arnold, Constable & Company became the first department store with a 5th Avenue address. The massive emporium exemplified what would become known as a retail "palace."
|5th Avenue facade looking east down 19th Street|
James Constable died in May of 1900. Fourteen years later the store moved again, razing the Vanderbilt mansion at 40th Street and 5th Avenue for a new, more modern store. Despite its several uses throughout the 20th century the grand old store survives, a striking remnant of a fashionable era in retail shopping.
non-credited photographs taken by the author
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Pass by Worth Square, that little triangle of land formed by the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 24th Street, on any sunny afternoon and you will find scores of office workers having lunch and enjoying the outdoors. Ask any one of them if they realize they are lounging on the grave of General Worth and they will recoil in shock.
Unknown to nearly all New Yorkers and tourists alike, Major General William Jenkins Worth lies under the tall obelisk in the center of busy Manhattan traffic.
Worth was born to Quaker parents in Hudson, New York in 1794. Despite their pacifist teachings, when the War of 1812 erupted, Worth enlisted in the army. By 1813 he was promoted to lieutenant. By the time the war ended he had risen to the rank of major and was appointed commandant of cadets at West Point, even though he never attended the institution.
His meteoric rise continued and by 1838 Worth was colonel of the Eighth Infantry, fighting the Seminole Wars in Florida. It was Worth who convinced John Spencer, Secretary of War, to allow the Seminoles certain territorial rights, ending the war and permitting the Indians to live in peace.
He went on to fight in the Mexican American War during which he earned the rank of Major General in 1846. After the war he commanded the army's Department of Texas -- and the outpost where he was stationed was named after him: Fort Worth. There on May 17, 1849 he succumed to cholera.
|photo NYPL Collection|
|A ticker tape parade in the 1920s marches past the Worth Monument - NYPL Collection|
Worth's momument was designed by James Goodwin Batterson who kept himself busy with, among other things, the designs for the U.S. Capitol Building, the New York State Capitol and the Library of Congress. It is a 51-foot high granite obelisk. Inset on the south side is a bronze relief of Worth in battle, sword drawn, upon his rearing horse.
Bands around the obelisk list the general's military campaigns. On the north side, another inset bronze plaque memorializes him. Originally the four granite piers at the corners of the fence held ornate lampposts, visible in the period photograph above.
The Worth Monument is the second oldest monument in the parks of the City of New York and without a doubt the least known gravesite in the city.
uncredited photographs taken by the author
Friday, March 26, 2010
Seven years after the completion of The Empire State Building, its famous next-door neighbor to the north, the Spear & Company furniture store unveiled its $300,000 New York showroom. Intimidated by the internationally famous landmark next door the new building took modern design a step further.
Unlike the Empire State Building which immediately became the icon for Art Deco, the Spear building eschewed ornamentation. No Deco zig-zags and lightning bolts here. The visual impact was left to the surfaces, shapes and lines. The result is a masterwork of 1930's modern architecture.
The main structure, not square with the street line, sits back from 34th Street, a stark plane punctuated by a series of four rectangular and off-set windows over what was once the large show window at street level, still slightly visible. To the north end a curved, slightly higher, section juts out to continue the flow of The Empire State Building. A series of five brilliantly-designed rectangular windows break the curve like glass shoe boxes shoved into the smooth rounded surface.
Prior to the paint job we see today, the two sections contrasted slightly in color -- architects De Young & Moscowitz fashioned the curved section in limestone, the main section in beige brick. Far ahead of its time, Spear's 1938 building was the last word in modern interior touches including indirect lighting and air conditioning -- innovations that would not become common for another two decades.
Today the ground floor is a carnival of garish signs and awnings. The interior has been divided into myriad retail spaces since 1959. Virtually no one stops to marvel at the astounding architectural design of the Spear & Company building; yet amazingly the overall character of this 20th Century work of art remains intact.
uncredited photographs taken by the author
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
|photo by Mike Strand|
Roland Macy had died in 1877 and in 185 brothers Isidor and Nathan Straus acquired the business. Realizing that the continued northward movement would leave his store behind and as the century wound down, they schemed to jump ahead of the pack, secretly buying up the properties along Broadway from 34th to 35th Streets. A handshake with Alfred Duane Pell cemented a $250,000 agreement for the 34th Street corner property.
Henry Siegel, part owner of a major competitive dry goods concern, Siegel-Cooper, got wind of the plan. Through an agent he outbid Macy's for the corner lot by $125,000 and understandably Pell accepted--the difference was a substantial $3.8 million by today's standards. Although Siegel's intentions cannot be completely certain, it appears he wanted Macy's 14th Street property. He held the 34th Street corner hostage; the ransom being the 14th Street property.
The Strausses called Siegel's bluff. In July of 1901 it was announced that that Macy's would built a gigantic new store with over 1.5 million square feet, nine stories high, a commercial phenomenon. The structure would be built around the obstinate corner; a notable example of a real estate holdout.
|Horse-drawn carriages and one motorcar line the curb in front of the new department store. Siegel's replacement building, still vacant, sits on the corner. photo from the collection of the New-York Historical Society|
In the 1940's Macy's began using the little building as a backing for its advertising in what must have been an "if you can't beat it, use it" philosophy. As the decades progressed, less and less of the little building, designed by William H. Hume, was visible.
|Advertising had begun covering the little corner building by the 1940s -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Today just two floors of the Hume building can be seen under the huge red Macy's shopping bag that has become so familiar to New Yorkers. The David and the Goliath of the 34th Street corner have made peace, it would seem, after a century of irritating co-existence.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Ask me to name my candidate for the most charming spot in Manhattan and you'll probably get the answer "The Ladies Pavilion in Central Park." Postcard-perfect, it is at once peaceful, fanciful, historic and beautiful. Erected in 1871 the little cast iron building has had a bumpy life, narrowly escaping oblivion more than once.
Built originally as a trolley shed, or "ombra" (from the word "umbra" meaning shelter ... so let's play a word game: If a big shelter is an umbra, a little shelter is...that's right!...an umbrella!) at the entrance to the Park at 8th Avenue and 59th Street. Similar shelters were erected in several places for the comfort of those New Yorkers who had to travel long distances by trolley to enjoy the Park.
As the Maine Monument was being planned at the Columbus Circle entrance in 1912, the lacey little building would have to go. It was moved to Hernshead in Central Park -- the tiny peninsula that juts into the Lake (Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux felt it resembled a heron's head, hence the name). Olmstead had particularly liked this site and lavished it with lush flowering shrubs and trees. To this day it is one of the most beautiful spots in Central Park in the Spring.
The "Ladies Cottage" had formerly sat on the site and was used for women to demurely slip into their iceskates out of the prying eyes of gentlemen who might catch a glimpse of exposed ankle. The fate of the Ladies Cottage is not known; however the Ladies Pavilion took up the cause and feminine discretion was preserved.
As the 20th Century progressed the Lake was used less and less for skating as the Wollman ice skating rink was installed in 1949. As the 1960s drew to a close the Ladies Pavilion was in obvious disrepair and sorely neglected. In 1970 architects Adams & Woodbridge, through the efforts of the Friends of Central Park, assessed that extensive repairs and component replacements were crucial. Nevertheless, City red tape delayed action and in September 1971 the Pavilion lay in pieces, vandals having toppled the deteriorating structure to the ground.
Luckily everything that could be saved was gathered and stored while the struggle for funding continued. In 1972 restoration began. A masonry foundation was veneered with Manhattan schist coping stones that once served as the foundation for a Central Park comfort station. Within the year the 500 cast iron elements were ready for reassembly and like a 2-ton phoenix the Ladies Pavilion began rising to life again.
Except for the absence of the multi-colored slate roof, the result was virtually indistinguishable from the little trolley shelter of 1871. Painted blue grey with gold-leaf touches it was reopened in October of 1973 (having cost only $21,000 because Parks Department employees did most of the work).
In the absence of consistent maintenance, however, the Pavilion was in bad shape again by the early '80s. A less extensive restoration was again undertaken, replacing missing parts, repainting in colors closer to the originals and repairing the roof and foundation. Twenty years later the struggle continues as weather and abuse take their toll. Yet the Ladies Pavilion remains one of the most delightful spots in New York.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Forty-one years after the American Revolution, the General Convention of the Espicopal Church established a "general seminary" to be built in New York.
A year later, in 1818 Clement Clark Moore, best remembered for his "A Visit from Saint Nicolas," donated 66 tracts of land from his estate in Chelsea, which equaled a full city block -- the area from 9th Avenue to 10th Avenue and 20th Street to 21st. Three years later Trinity parishioner Jacob Sherred left a princely endowment of $70,000 to help with the cause.
|Valentine's Manual, in 1863, published a lithograph of the early seminary -- NYPL Collection|
In 1826 the first building, a stone Gothic Revival structure, opened in what came to be known as Chelsea Square. By 1836 a second building was completed, nearly identical to the first. Seminarians studied in a rural, idyllic setting.
By the 1870's however the northern-bound city was encroaching on Chelsea. Students were exposed to the temptations and worldliness of the theatre and commercial districts that grew ever nearer. Financial troubles plagued the school, as well.
But when the wealthy Eugene Augustus Hoffman took over as Dean in 1879 things changed. Hoffman poured personal money into his plan for the instution. Drawing from the plan of Oxford University he envisioned a central quadrangle flanked on three sides by Gothic Revival buildings. He retained Charles Coolidge Haight to design the complex and what emerged is a rich, connected collection of brick and stone buildings embracing the central lawn in a U shape. The project lasted from 1883 until 1902.
Gables, turrets, oriel windows, and stained glass harmoniously combine into a romantic whole. My favorite time to pass the Seminary is just at dusk, or even better, during a nighttime storm. The brooding Victorian mass rises up against the sky like a page from Emily Bronte.
Haight's centerpiece is the Chapel of the Good Shepard and its English belltower. Over the main doors is an exquisite bronze bas relief and the 15 tubular bells which are tolled daily by the Guild of Chimers is the oldest set still in use in the country.
|The Chapel of the Good Shepard sits back on the lawn behind a sturdy iron fence.|
The original 1827 building on the east end was replaced by an unfortunately incongruous building, Sherrill Hall, designed in 1960 by O'Connor & Kilham. Sherrill Hall was razed and a mixed-use five-story building was erected in 2009 that includes retail and residential space. While the new structure does not pretend to be 19th Century Gothic Revival, it more sympathetically blends in.
non-credited photographs taken by the author
Saturday, March 20, 2010
|photo NYPL Collection|
My architect friend, Paul, smiles when I refer to a particular building as "a pile." Smile if you will, the Gilsey House at 29th Street and Broadway is a Victorian pile. And a wonderful one at that.
Pyrotechnics in cast iron, this is the type of building that makes me love architecture.
Peter Gilsey was a Danish immigrant who made his fortune in America as a merchant. Not content with his success, Gilsey bought up properties in midtown, where the north-bound theatre district was emerging. He recognized that this area would need a high-class hotel very soon. In 1868 he purchased the last farm in midtown from Caspar Samlar and with that, his location was set; including the grounds of the Saint George Cricket Club.
Gilsey commissioned architect Steven D. Hatch, who later designed the landmarked 1888 Laclede Building in St. Louis, to create his 300-room hotel. Gilsey envisioned a hotel that would rival the downtown hotels that catered to the carriage trade. And he understood that if you wanted to entice the wealthy, you had to spend money. So Gilsey spent in those post-Civil War years $350,000 on his new hotel.
The Gilsey House opened in 1872. The rooms were outfitted in costly woods like rosewood and walnut. The carved fireplace mantles were of the finest marble. Gilt bronze chandeliers hung from elaborate plastered ceilings. The exterior was a visual feast -- arches, columns, angles; Hatch's fantasy rose from the sidewalk to the roof in an explosion of cast iron ornamentation.
|The "Cafe Royal" in the Gilsey House - (author's collection)|
Friday, March 19, 2010
O'Neill's building was unique along The Mile: it was the only block-long cast iron facade, it was painted yellow -- a true novelty at the time, and on either corner a full-story cylindrical tower supported a bulbous shiny dome. To this day the O'Neill building stands out among the architectural crowd of 6th Avenue.
O'Neill was born in Belfast, but his parents brought him to New York as a child in 1844. After the Civil War he opened a dry goods store near Union Square where the carriage class had begun shopping in stores like Tiffany & Company. But in 1870 the merchant set his sights on a move to 6th Avenue and began buying up small buildings.
He commissioned Mortimer C. Merritt, an architect who became known for his lush cast iron facades and in 1887 his new store was completed. It was he first of The Ladies' Mile department stores and deeply cast in the building's pediment was HUGH O'NEILL, lest anyone miss who owned the store!
O'Neill did not live to see the great mercantile houses leave 6th Avenue as they moved north to 34th Street and beyond. The multi-millionaire storekeeper died in 1902.
The Ladies' Mile rapidly declined. By the 1920 all the great dry goods stores were gone. The once lavish retail palaces became home to small industries. Sometime before the middle of the 20th Century the shiny domes of Hugh O'Neill disappeared. And by the late 1970s, The Ladies' Mile was an eerily ghostly, rusting row of mostly-empty buildings.
Historic preservation stepped in when the Ladies' Mile Historic District was established in 1989. The grand old emporiums began, one by one, breathing new life as they were restored and became home to modern stores .
Hugh O'Neill's however, was not to become a store again. In 2003 it was purchased for $37 million and recycled into luxury condominiums. Two penthouse floors were added, invisible from street level, and the fanciful beehive domes were rebuilt. Today the building gleams with its coat of crisp white paint.
A grand dame among The Ladies' Mile, the Hugh O'Neill store starts life anew.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Originally called the 13th Street Presbyterian Church, the building was nearly destroyed twice by fire -- once in 1855 and again in 1902. Two merges with other local Presbyterian churchs and two accompanying name changes resulted in The Village Presbyterian Church.
The church became responsible for a footnote in America's history when, during the 1884 presidential election between James Blaine and Grover Cleveland, Blaine attended a meeting of New York preachers here. The Rev. Dr. Samuel Burchard extolled, "We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion."
A Democratic mole in the audience grabbed onto the anti-Catholic comment and made certain it was extentively publicized. Catholic opinion rapidly turned against Blaine which cost him New York State. And because of that he narrowly lost the presidency.
A important structure architecturally as well as an integral part of the historic character of the block, the church was threatened when, in 1975 membership declined to the point that the church disbanded. Purchased by a developer, the building was slated for redevelopment into luxury condominiums. Despite a public outcry and pleas to The Landmarks Preservation Commission, the plans for redevelopment were approved.
Luckily, while the interiors are lost forever, the facade was carefully preserved. Entrances to the residences were installed covertly into the side walls, undetectable from the street. Even the old church message board remains out front.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Some years ago a family of tourists turned a corner in Greenwich Village. The small boy, perhaps seven years old, exclaimed "Oh, Father! Look! A guild hall!"
He was close. What he mistook for a European guild hall was the Jefferson Market Courthouse. Clearly the most fanciful Victorian structure in Manhattan.
Finished in 1877 on designs by Frederick Withers and Calvert Vaux (of Central Park fame) the courthouse was the product of one of Boss Tweed's graft schemes. The New York Times, a consistent adversary of Tweed, grumbled that a suitable building could have been built for half the price -- variously reported from $360,000 to $550,000. Referring to the seedy area in which it was located, The Times called it "a jewel in a swine's snout."
|photo NYPL Collection|
A riot of Victorian Gothic design, the courthouse is a medley of materials and shapes. Red brick, ochre colored Ohio stone, cast iron, colored stone, and stained glass work together in creating the arches, pinnacles and gables. The clock tower starts out as an octagon, becomes a cylinder, then a square. It is a feast for the eyes.
The facade is decorated all over with sculptures, from the huge stone New York Seal near the eaveline, to small, unexpected owl heads. Gruesome gargoyles spew from the clock tower. One medallion is of a resting man, reflecting on nature and looking very much like John Ruskin. Another depicts a stork eating a frog.
In 1896 author Stephen Crane testified here in defense of a prostitute -- Crane said he had seen the girl in the Tenderloin District while he was there "studying human nature." In 1906 Harry Thaw was tried for the murder of Stanford White who was having an affair with Thaw's wife, Evelyn Nesbit.
By 1927 the jail and courthouse was used only for trials of women, becoming locally known as "the lady's courthouse." It was here, on February 9, 1927 that Mae West and her entire cast of the Broadway play "Sex" was tried and jailed on obscenity charges.
|photo NYPL Collection|
Because of redistricting, the courthouse ceased operation in 1945, was used for various uses by the police department and other agencies, but by 1958 it was abandoned. Home to rats and pigeons, it was slated for demolition by the city in favor of an apartment building.
Fate stepped in when Margot Gayle, Democratic district leader, attended a Christmas time cocktail party at 51 5th Avenue in 1959. Conversation turned to the courthouse and it was agreed that it should be saved.
There were no landmarks laws, no preservation movements, and recycling vintage buildings for new purposes was essentially unheard of. Saving the courthouse would be a momumental undertaking. The group started with the clock. According to Ms. Gayle, "it had been stuck at 3:20 for several years." A telegram was sent to mayor Robert F. Wagner saying "What we want for Christmas is to get the clock started."
Wagner jumped on the cause and, eventually, other politicians, celebrities and literary figures joined in. The clock was restored. A new use was now needed for the building. Although the New York Public Library was initially not receptive to the idea of having a branch in an old court building, the mayor swayed them by threatening to withhold capital funding.
By 1967 the renovation, designed by Giorgio Cavaglieri, was complete. It was the first real example of historic preservation in the city. In 1974 the Women's Detention Center was demolished and replaced by a beautiful community garden that perfectly compliments the renewed building.
|photo by Alice Lum|
Today the Jefferson Market Courthouse is not only one of the most distinctive buildings in Manhattan, it is one of the most beloved by New Yorkers.
Monday, March 15, 2010
|The 21st Street Cemetary at the turn of the last century - photo NYPL Collection|
Greenwich Villagers know well the second Congregation Shearith Israel cemetery on West 11th Street off 6th Avenue. This tiny triangle of land holds about 20 headstones, a fraction of those buried here when the cemetery was a much larger square burial ground. Burials began here in 1805 when Greenwich Village was far from Manhattan to the south and the surrounding area was rural countryside. By 1830, however, the city's grid plan was taking place and West 11th Street cut through the plot. The majority of the deceased were disinterred and moved north to the new cemetery on West 21st.