Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Cast Iron Jewel Box on 23rd Street

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.

Moir's choice of location turned out to be a good one.  The 6th Avenue elevated train opened in 1878 and 6th Avenue became the mecca for high class shoppers.  According to a New York Times article in 1872, Moir's store offered "a fine selection of French clocks and bronzes, especially imported by him, and a yet larger stock of watches, native and foreign, jewelry, diamonds, and silver-plated ware. The diamond jewelry is noticeably good, and is all made on the premises."

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.

Shortly thereafter the jewelry store became home to one of Riker's Drug Stores; Riker's having 25 branches in New York City and three laboratories in Manhattan.  Ask many local historians about the little building at 711 6th Avenue and they will probably answer that it was a drug store,  William Moir's exclusive store fading from memory.

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

The Arnold, Constable Dry Goods Store

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

The Major-General Worth Monument

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
In addition to Fort Worth, the general was honored in the naming of Worth Street in Manhattan; Worth County, Georgia; Lake Worth, Florida; Lake Worth Lagoon, Florida; and Worth, Illinois.
After being temporarily buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, the esteemed soldier, whose writings are still mandatory for West Point cadets, was laid to rest in Worth Square on November 25, 1857.  A grand procession of 6500 soldiers and high-toned speeches marked the ceremony.

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.


Add caption
The heavy cast iron fence around the monument is replete with symbols.  The fence posts are Roman fasces around the base of which are cannon balls.  Each stave of the fence is a replica of the Congressional Sword of Honor Worth received while commanding in Texas.  Each sword is capped by a miniature helmet; swags and tassles connect each hilt and oak leaves and acorns tie them all together.

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.

In 1995 a restoration of the monument was underwritten, largely, by U.S. Navy Commander (Ret.) James A. Woodruff, Jr., the general's great-great grandson.  Commander Woodruff's family, through the Municipal Art Society's Adopt-a-Monument Program, endowed the maintenance of the monument and its surrounding planting bed.

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

An Overlooked Modern Masterpiece on 34th Street

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

Cleopatra's Needle - Central Park

On Greywacke Knoll in Central Park, just south of The Metropolitan Museum, stands the oldest monument in New York, the 3000 year-old obelisk fondly referred to as "Cleopatra's Needle."  Also called Pompey's Pillar, the ancient stone is greatly ignored despite its long and riveting history.

Originally one of a pair, the 68-foot-high monolith was carved of red granite quarried in Aswan around 1450 BC on the orders of Pharoah Thutmosis III (best remembered as the pharaoh who was swallowed up by the Red Sea while pursuing Moses and the Jews).  They were installed in the Temple of the Sun in the city of On (or, as the Greeks called it, Heliopolis) as part of his jubilee.

Two centuries later, to memorialize military victories, Ramesses II added the hieroglyphs.  In 12 BC, the Romans moved the obelisks to Alexandria and installed them in the Caesareum, Cleopatra's temple in honor of Mark Antony.  Both obelisks toppled at some time, one during the earthquake of 1301, and they lay on their sides for centuries.

In the late 1800s the government of Egypt gave a similar obelisk to the city of Paris.  Then, in 1877, one of the Thutmosis obelisks was presented to London.  With typical 19th century New York City Euro-envy, public outcry arose.    New Yorkers insisted their city, too, was entitled to an ancient obelisk.

The Commissioner of Public Parks of the City of New York, Henry G. Stebbins, started a fund raising effort to move an obelisk to New York.  William H. Vanderbilt stepped up with a donation of more than $100,000--and with the signing of that one check the fund raising was completed.  Stebbins then wrote two acceptance letters to the Khedive of Egypt and sent them to the Department of State.  The City of New York had eagerly accepted the gift of an Egyptian antiquity before the Egyptian government knew anything about  it.

Judge Elbert Eli Farman, then US Diplomatic Agent and Consul General to Egypt, approached the Khedive in March of 1877 and requested an obelisk.  Because of the exceptionally friendly terms between Egypt and the United States at the time, the gift was promised in writing in May of that year.  (Farman was also responsible for a large number of other Egyptian antiquities and coins ending up in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The problem of transporting the 240-ton, 68-foot-long obelisk was turned over to Lt. Commander Henry Honychurch Gorringe, on leave from the United States Navy.  Three years later, in 1880, the plans were finalized.  The first task was to get the monument from vertical to horizonal.  After one scare during which the obelisk nearly came smashing to the ground, it was transported seven miles to Alexandria to the waiting steamship Dessoug.

The Dessoug was put in dry dock, an entrance opened in its hull far below the water line and the giant pillar rolled into the hold.  On June 12, she shoved off for New York City, arriving on July 20.  A team of 32 horses pulled the oversized souvenir to Central Park.

The ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone was held on October 2, 1880.  An elaborate parade from 14th Street to 82nd Street was composed of over 9,000 Masons.  Reports estimated the spectators along the route at over 50,000.  The Grand Master of Masons in the State of New York presided over a full Masonic ceremony.

An early postcard shows the hieroglyphs were stunningly intact.

Cleopatra's Needle was a destination for strollers through Central Park in the 19th century.  Unhappily, the obelisk no longer enjoys that celebrity.  Few visitors to Central Park pause before the relic that stood in Egypt during the time of Moses.  The hieroglyphs, which in 1880 were crisp and deep, have suffered more than a century of exposure to New York weathering.  Some sections are mostly illegible and in others the inscriptions have totally disappeared.

Far from the place where it was carved three millennia ago, Cleopatra's Needle continues to inspire awe in those to pause to appreciate it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Little Building Under the Big Bag at Macy's

photo by Mike Strand

The dry goods store established by Rowland Hussey Macy in 1858 at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue was in the hub of the shopping district.  But by the 1880s large, impressive emporiums were establishing themselves further up Sixth Avenue along what would be called The Ladies Mile. 

Roland Macy had died in 1877 and in 1896 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 Strauses 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

Defeated, Siegel razed his little corner building and erected a five-story commercial structure.  When R. H.  Macy & Co. moved into its new building in 1903, Siegel took over the 14th Street property.  Four years later he sold his interest in the 34th Street building to Robert Smith who resold it in 1911 for $1 million--more than 27 times that much today.

In the 1940s Macy's began using the little building as an easel 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

The Ladies Pavilion - Central Park

Among the most charming spots in Manhattan is the bucolic Ladies' Pavilion in Central Park.  Postcard-perfect, it is at once peaceful, fanciful, historic and beautiful.  Designed by Jacob Wrey Mould and erected in 1871, the little cast iron building has had a bumpy life, narrowly escaping oblivion more than once.

It was originally used as a trolley shed, or "ombra" (from the Latin umbra meaning shelter) at the entrance to the Park at Eighth Avenue and 59th Street.  Similar shelters were erected in several locations 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.  It was used by women to demurely slip into their ice skates protected from 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.

The Lake was used less and less for skating after the Wollman ice skating rink was installed in 1949.  As the 1960s drew to a close the Ladies Pavilion had fallen into substantial disrepair and was 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, municipal red tape delayed action and in September 1971 the Pavilion lay in pieces, vandals having toppled the deteriorating structure to the ground.

Everything that could be salvaged 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 two-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 once again in bad shape by the early 1980s.  A less extensive restoration was 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 Central Park.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The General Theological Seminary - Chelsea

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 Ninth Avenue to Tenth 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 institution.  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.  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.

Adhering to the English prototype, Haight designed the dining hall with great stained glass windows, soaring cathedral ceilings and heavy timbers -- looking for all the world like a scene from Harry Potter.  Here is St. Mark's Library with the world's largest collection of Latin Bibles.  The south side of the complex facing 20th Street where a stone wall is topped by a heavy cast iron fence is the only vantage point for the passer-by to get a glimpse of the serene campus.  The quadrangle sits on an elevated expanse about six feet above the sidewalk making the complex literally, if not spiritually, above the outside world.

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.


Incredibly, the seminary considered abandoning this, the oldest Episcopal seminary, in the 1980's.  Instead, thankfully, it was decided to put $68 million into the restoration of the venerable institution.

A recent alteration on the 10th Avenue side to accommodate the new Desmond Tutu Center required the removal of part of the great rough stone wall that protected the Seminary for almost two centuries.  The subsequent design was extremely well thought-out and the result is nearly seamless.

Without question the most distinctive complex of buildings in Chelsea, the General Theological Seminary is well worth walking by on your Sunday stroll.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Gilsey House - 29th and Broadway

from the collection of the New York Public Library

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 soon need a first-class hotel.  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 to design his 300-room structure.  Gilsey envisioned a hotel that would rival the downtown hotels that catered to the carriage trade.  And he understood that in order to entice the wealthy, he would have to spend money.  Gilsey's new hotel cost him $350,000 in post-Civil War era dollars--more than $6.5 million today.

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.

Under the exuberant cast iron cresting of the mansard roof cap an enormous clock rests on cast iron mermaids that are far too high from the street to be seen.  Extraordinary garlands of full-blown roses in incredible detail swag under the eaves -- again, so far from the street level and they cannot be appreciated.  But the architect and Gilsey knew these details were there.

The Gilsey House was an instant success.  The bar, the floor of which was inlaid with silver dollars, became a world-wide destination.  Celebrities like Samuel Clemens, Diamond Jim Brady and Oscar Wilde passed through its halls.

Troubles for the Gilsey House began in 1904 when legal battles between the Gilsey family and the hotel's operator boiled over.  On December 12 of that year the proprietor ordered all guests out of the hotel with essentially no notice.  Although things returned to normal soon, the hotel's problems continued and it finally closed in 1911.

The "Cafe Royal" in the Gilsey House - (author's collection)

Shortly thereafter the wonderful cast iron columns that projected over the property line were removed and the building, once host to the wealthiest guests in the world, became a seedy loft building. 

By the 1970's the future of the Gilsey House was doubtful at best.  Water leaked into the building, rust attacked the structure and floors sagged.

Amazingly, in 1980 Richard Berry and F. Anthony Zunino purchased the Gilsey and converted it to residential co-ops.   Cosmetic restoration using fiberglass reproductions of the columns and other architectural details were installed and, for the time being, brought the Gilsey back to life.

Astonishingly, the ground floor details--normally the first to be lost under pseudo-modern facades--remain.  In 1991 the co-op board backed an actual restoration and today the Gilsey House is proud and stately again.  Unfortunately, picture windows replace arched 19th century designs and the important projecting columns will, no doubt, never be replaced.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Hugh O'Neill Dry Goods Building

Composed of a string of retail palaces built in the 19th Century, The Ladies' Mile lines 6th Avenue from 18th Street to 23rd Street.  A century ago women wearing leg-of-mutton sleeves and plumed hats crowded the sidewalks as they bustled from one emporium to another.  Important among these  was the Hugh O'Neill Dry Goods Store at 655 6th Avenue.

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!

The 6th Avenue El appeared around the time of O'Neill's new opening, probably adding incentive to the growth of The Ladies' Mile and definitely guanteeing success for Hugh O'Neill.  Five years later he had 2500 employees on his payroll and in 1895, using the talents of Merritt again, he raised the domed towers and added a fifth floor.

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

A Greek Revival Treasure in Greenwich Village

photo by Beyond My Ken

West 13th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues is lined with large mature trees and gentile residences from the mid-19th century.  And holding court over it all is the stately 1846 Village Presbyterian Church.

One would be hard-pressed to find a better, purer example of period Greek Revival architecture in the city.  Wide stairs lead from the heavy, cast iron fence to imposing painted wood portico with its great, ionic fluted columns.  Three wooden doorways with Greek Revival surrounds are centered within the warm brick facade.

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 churches 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."  ("Romanism" referred to the Vatican and Roman Catholicism.)

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 architecturally important structure as well as an integral part of the historic character of the block, the church was threatened in 1975 when 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, 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.

photo by the author

A superb example of Greek Revival architecture, The Village Presbyterian Church is a visual delight and an elegant survivor of pre-Civil War New York. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Jefferson Market Courthouse

photograph by the author

In 1877 construction of the Jefferson Market Courthouse--so named because it shared trapezoidal parcel bounded by Sixth and Greenwich Avenues, and Christopher and West 10th Streets with the Jefferson Market complex--was completed.  Designed by the firm of Vaux & Withers, composed of 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 an equally 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 New York Times called it "a jewel in a swine's snout."

from the collection of the New York Public Library

The completed project was actually a combination of buildings:  the courthouse to the north, a jail complex to the south and the Jefferson Market buildings to the west.  The site had been, since 1833, a group of sheds serving the market and a tall wooden fire lookout and bell.  The lookout was incorporated into the clock tower and the resulting assemblage was pronounced one of the ten most beautiful buildings in America by a poll of architects in 1885.

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 begins out as an octagon, morphs to a cylinder, and then a square.  It is a feast for the eyes.

The facade is abundantly decorated with sculpture, from the huge stone New York Seal within the central, Sixth Avenue gable, to small, unexpected owl heads.  Gruesome gargoyles loom 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."  It was here in 1906 that Harry Thaw was tried for the murder of Stanford White, who was having an affair with Thaw's wife, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit.

By 1927, the jail and courthouse were 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 were tried and jailed on obscenity charges.

The Women's House of Detention occupied the site of today's Jefferson Market Garden in 1938.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1929 the market buildings and the jail were razed and the Women's House of Detention, a hulking Art Deco behemoth rose, nearly dwarfing the courthouse.

Because of redistricting, the courthouse ceased operation in 1945, afterward 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 Fifth Avenue in 1959.  Conversation turned to the courthouse and it was agreed that it should be saved.

At the time, 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 monumental 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 the directors 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.

non-credited photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog