Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Windows that Saved a Landmark -- The 1908 Coty Building, 714 Fifth Avenue

Image Emilio Guerra

Fifth Avenue in 1907 was changing. Grand limestone, marble or brownstone mansions still lined the broad avenue; however the northward march of retail establishments was causing millionaires to flee further uptown, erecting chateaux and palaces along Central Park. Mansions were being demolished to be replaced by commercial buildings or transformed upper-class stores.

At 59th Street the Plaza Hotel was being completed, across from the imposing residence of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. This was the year that real estate investor Charles A. Gould commissioned Woodruff Leeming to convert his home at No. 714 5th Avenue to a six story commercial building that purposely blended with the homes of the wealthy who had not yet surrendered the battle.

Retaining its original 1871 proportions, height and style, the converted limestone facade mimicked its neighbors. The mansard roof continued the line of the former parsonage of the 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church to the south and the Zabriskie residence to the north; and the overall French style melded into the environment.

photo NYPL Collection

The design of Gould’s renovation was unique – the first two floors being a single retail unit and the third through fifth floors being treated as a whole -- essentially a wall of glass structurally and architecturally far ahead of its time.

As the building was being completed in 1908, Francois Coty was becoming rich in France with his perfume, La Rose Jacqueminot, introduced in 1904. By 1910 he was expanding and searching for an appropriate New York headquarters. He found it at No. 714 Fifth Avenue.

On August 31 of that year, in what it called “A further addition to the business interests on Fifth Avenue in the vicinity of the Vanderbilt houses,” The New York Times reported on “the leasing of the Charles A. Gould residence, 714 Fifth Avenue, through the Cross & Brown Company to a French perfumery firm. Alterations will be made at once preparatory to opening the house as a retail store.”

The newspaper somewhat nostalgically added, “This entire block, therefore, on the west side of Fifth Avenue, between Fifty-fifth and Fifty-sixth Streets, except the church property on the Fifty-fifth Street corner is now devoted to business.”

Coty signed a 21-year lease for the building paying between $20,000 and $25,000 per year.

Immediately after acquiring the property, Francois Coty commissioned the famous French glassmaker, Rene Lalique, to replace the wall of windows on the central floors. The extraordinary three-story work of art, reminiscent of the Art Nouveau designs that made the artist world-renowned, consists of intertwining vines and flowers climbing up the side windows while leaving the central-most panes clear. The overall effect of the composition could be appreciated only from the street. The windows, while not original to the design of the building, instantly became its most striking feature.

Coty occupied the three floor with the Lalique windows and subleased the first two floors to the Stage Society of New York and the top floor to various tenants.

As American doughboys returned from World War I they brought with them Coty perfumes and powders, creating new demand across the country. Coty’s American business skyrocketed. A factory and laboratory were built on Manhattan’s west side to avoid the importation tariffs. The factory was manufacturing, by 1929, 23 different perfumes and a seemingly unending list of other cosmetics and toiletries.

Coty renewed its lease in 1931; however a year after Francois Coty’s retirement in 1940, the firm moved to 423 West 55th Street. The building, however, would continue to be referred to as The Coty Building.

A heated battle broke out between preservationists and developers when in 1985 a plan was unveiled to erect an L-shaped, 44-story office tower with entrances on West 56th Street and on Fifth Avenue. The plan would necessarily involve the demolition of Nos. 712 and 714 Fifth Avenue.

The Municipal Art Society took up arms and petitioned the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark the building. When the Lalique windows were brought to the attention of the Commission, it agreed to schedule a hearing.

The Commission designated the Coty Building a landmark; but on May 28, 1985 it also approved a Certificate of Appropriateness for the tower to be built behind them, incorporating the facades of the two former houses.

Between 1989 and 1990, architects Beyer Blinder Belle restored the façade and renovated the interior as the flagship store of Henri Bendel. A four-story atrium replaced the former Coty offices and, for the first time, Rene Lalique’s exquisite windows could be viewed as a whole from an inside perspective.

Jerold S. Kayden, in his “Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience,” wrote, “Although such hybrid preservation efforts disturb some advocates of historic preservation, they enjoy the support of others who believe that a balance between development and preservation is politically and economically essential in modern cities.”

Image Emilio Guerra

The passerby may not notice that nothing is left of the Coty Building other than its façade. The copper-clad roof and dormers, the soaring two-story retail entrance and Rene Lalique’s unique and priceless windows appear much as they did in 1910. Only by entering the threshold does one enter the 21st Century.

Friday, October 29, 2010

"The Little Treehouse That Could" at No. 50 West 12th Street

photo Associated Press

When the handsome brownstone-fronted house was built at 50 West 12th Street in the years prior to the Civil War, no one could have anticipated the attention it would draw.

Surely the neighbors on the quiet residential street were scandalized when the first owner, Robert N. Freeman, was arrested, “charged with retaining in his possession a number of gold watches belonging to Messrs. Middleton & Pooler, importers of watches, at No. 16 Maiden-Lane, and of Mr. George H. Barney, jeweler, in the same building, which had been entrusted to him to sell on commission.”

Then on January 15, 1905 resident Henry J. Smith was locked up and fined $3 the next morning at the Jefferson Market Court, charged with intoxication. Smith had accused three men and a woman of robbing him.

“I was robbed of $4 in a chop suey place, and there stand the people who did it,” he told Patrolman Steinmeyer of the West 13th Street Station. According to The New York Times, the three “of apparent respectability were pointed out by Smith, and all four were indignant when the policeman repeated the complaint and took them to the station.” The group had been to a dance in Harlem, had just exited the 42nd Street Subway station and were saying good-night when Smith identified them.

“Smith seemed to be overcome by something or other while the episode was being discussed, and the Sergeant decided that he was not in a condition to be on the streets alone, and ordered him locked up,” reported The Times.

By 1915 things settled down at No. 50 West 12th Street. Irving Simon, president of Levia Realty Company, purchased the house for $22,000 then spent another $8000 on renovations, including a large “skylight studio” on the fourth floor, “modern plumbing, electricity and steam heating. Rent for the house jumped from $1500 a year, furnished, to $3550.

That year the house began its tradition of housing artistic types with artist Adolf Lawson renting the first floor for $800 a year, and stage dancer August Duncan occupying the third and fourth floors at $1800 per year. The second floor with its 14-foot high ceilings was leased for $950.

No. 50 West 12th Street around 1915 -- photo NYPL Collection

Towards the end of the 20th Century No. 12, by now reconverted to a private residence, was owned by musician David Byrne of the Talking Heads. Around 2005 he sold the property to renowned artist Melinda Hackett.

And that’s when all the attention really started.

The new notoriety had nothing to do with stolen watches, or intoxication, or an historic townhouse in the Greenwich Village Historic District. It had to do with a treehouse.

Hackett wanted her three daughters, accustomed to the freedom of grassy North Salem, New York, to have their own private retreat. In the small backyard stood a venerable London Plane tree, just aching for a treehouse.

Photo Associated Press

The artist commissioned Nick Cohen and Ashley Koral – whom she already knew – to design and build the juvenile getaway. $5000 and about five months later the Hackett girls had a unique, circular treehouse with a winding staircase.

Architect Robert Strong told the Associated Press “It's a beautiful treehouse; it has a beautiful design. It's wonderful the way it encompasses the branches; it's completely rounded, flowing much like the tree."

Hackett’s neighbor did not agree.

An anonymous complaint charged Hackett with building “a structure in the rear which is nailed to a tree,” seemed unsafe, and was constructed with no posted permit.

It was the beginning of a months-long battle. The artist appeared before the court of the Environmental Control Board, filed retroactively for a building permit, fought three violations from the Department of Buildings, and pled her case before the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission (she had altered an historically-designated property).

In the Fall of 2010, much to the chagrin of the nameless neighbor – whom at least one journalist termed “grumpy” – Melinda Hackett’s treehouse was granted a stay of execution by the Landmarks Commission.

Although the legal battle cost Hackett about as much as she spent to construct the treehouse, her daughters still have their private place where “They plot. They scheme. They gossip,” as their mother put it.

Photo Associated Press

Speaking to the Associated Press Melinda Hackett said the fight and the expense was worthwhile. “This is the little treehouse that could.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Alexander Hamilton's 1802 "The Grange"

photo NYPL Collection

In 1800, a year after John McComb, Jr. designed Archibald Gracie’s country house–which would become known in the 20th century as Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the Mayor of New York–and three years before he received the commission for New York’s City Hall, the architect was hired by Alexander Hamilton to design his country estate.

That summer Hamilton had purchased land eight miles north of the city where he would erect the first house he owned, an undertaking he called “my sweet project.” He chose a site near the estate of his friend, Gouverneur Morris, with astonishing uninterrupted views of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers roughly where 143rd Street and Convent Avenue is today.

print from the New York Public Library Collection

McComb an elegant two-story frame Federal residence with columned porches on all sides to catch the summer breezes. Completed in 1802, Hamilton named the 18-room mansion “the Grange,” after his ancestral home in Scotland.

Alexander Hamilton lived in the Grange only two years with his wife, the former Elizabeth Schuyler, their eight children and his mother, Rachel Faucett Lavien.  On July 11, 1804, he died in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr.

The Hamilton family lived on in the house for another three decades after which various families owned it as the Harlem neighborhood rapidly grew.  In 1889, the Greenwich Village parish of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church purchased land that included the Grange as it anticipated its northward relocation.   By now the area was becoming heavily populated and as city street construction commenced, the house occupied a site directly in the path of 143rd Street. The church moved the building 350 feet southeast to 287 Convent Avenue, where it was used for services while a permanent structure was planned.

John McComb’s elegant porches, the cornice and roof balustrade were stripped off.  The broad entrance steps were removed, the imposing entranceway was boarded shut, and an entry was cut into the side, which now faced the street.

The Grange, sitting sideways, with the new St. Luke's Episcopal Church encroaching -- photo New York Public Library Collection

The parish began construction of its new church in 1892. When the attractive Romanesque church was completed in 1895, it came within feet of the Grange.  A few decades later a six-story apartment building rose on the opposite side, cramping Hamilton’s house between.  The once-elegant residence which had sat among 32 acres of lawns and gardens was unrecognizable in its claustrophobic setting.

The Grange, squeezed in between its new neighbors -- photo New York Public Library Collection

At a time when historic homes and buildings were given little importance, the Grange began attracting attention.  On May 6, 1908, an act authorizing the City of New York to purchase the mansion and move it “to a site in St. Nicholas Park, formerly constituting a part of the Alexander Hamilton farm” was passed by the State Legislature.

When the city failed to act, a frustrated reader wrote to the editor of The New York Times on October 9, 1913 saying, “For some reason there is a halt, either from indifference of overwhelming politics.”

“The Grange,” the writer continued, “…was built by Alexander Hamilton from timber grown on the Albany estate of his father-in-law, General Philip Schuyler.  It is of white oak and hand hewn.  From the porch steps of this house Hamilton went for the last time to fight the duel with Aaron Burr on the west shore of the Hudson River.”

Despite the push by the State and public outcry, Hamilton’s Grange sat squashed and unrestored.  In October of 1929, The New York Times criticized city authorities “for alleged indifference in the matter of the acquisition of the Colonial home of Alexander Hamilton.”

Four years later the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society purchased the house and, nearly a decade after that, in 1933, opened it as a museum.  The Crescent Athletic-Hamilton Club presented the Grange in June of 1936 with the 30-foot bronze statue of Hamilton which had stood before the Brooklyn Heights club since 1892.

Despite the relatively shoddy treatment of the house, finally on May 2, 1961 President John F. Kennedy signed the bill that designated it a national monument.  The New York Times said that Kennedy “did more than enhance the memory of the eminent statesman, a founder of this nation.  He also preserved one of the all too few examples of an exquisite style of American architecture, the ‘Federal,’ so light, so decorative and yet so noble.”

Two weeks later, the Kennedy Administration passed a resolution to acquire and preserve the Hamilton Grange as a national shrine under the ownership and management of The National Parks Service.  At long last, in 1967, the City of New York Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the house a landmark.

In designating the mansion, the Commission noted that “as the building is now situated, the Grange cannot be made to reflect either its architect’s conception or its condition when it was Alexander Hamilton’s residence.”

On June 25, 1999, State Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright requested perpetual easements for a portion of St. Nicholas Park for use as a site for the Hamilton Grange national Memorial.  Within four years the Park Service had set aside $11 million to move and restore the house.

The news was not received favorably by everyone.  Many residents felt the house should stay.  The vicar of St. Luke’s, William M. Savoy, said “It’s here, and it’s been here, and why not leave well enough alone?”  Yet another local, Sam Pittman, told The New York Times he was in favor of the move. “Oh, it’s a nice house. But the thing is in sideways!”

photo by Schwartz - New York Daily News

In early May 2008, the Grange was gradually jacked up 35 feet off the ground–a process that took two weeks to accomplish.  Lowered onto rollers, it was cautiously inched a block and a half down Convent Avenue to the park–part of Hamilton’s original estate.  Of the $8.4 million earmarked for restoration, the move accounted for approximately 40 percent.

photo by Joshua Bright for The New York Times

The National Park Service initiated studies to determine precisely how the house looked in 1802 in order to fully restore the exterior.  The Grange was reopened to the public in September 2011.  Its new site in St. Nicholas Park allows the visitor, once again, to fully appreciate the house in a suitable setting.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Swedish "Cottage" in Central Park

As the Central Park commissioners strolled the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, they were enchanted by a traditional Swedish schoolhouse; part of the exhibition of Sweden. Built in the Nordic Romantic style, the schoolhouse was intended to demonstrate the masterful woodworking of Swedish craftsmen.

Like the other exposition buildings, the schoolhouse would be demolished when the fair was over. Frederick Olmsted, architect of Central park along with Calvert Vaux, persuaded the New York City Parks Department to purchase it for the park. At the close of the Exposition, the charming building was bought for $1,500, carefully dismantled and reconstructed in Central Park in 1877.

Photo Hubert Steed

The commissioners now had a beautiful little building and absolutely no idea of what to do with it. For years it was used as a tool shed and then, in an even more unglamorous transformation, was converted to restrooms.

In 1910, after a barrage of complaints – many from Swedish-Americans – plans were initiated to convert the building once again. Parks Commissioner Charles B. Stover explained “[The Park architects] put hardly any comfort stations there, and I have been forced to hurt the feelings of the Swedish community by reopening the model Swedish schoolhouse as a comfort station. Fortunately I have received in the corporate stock budget an appropriation of $25,000, which will enable me to put up a new station and so restore the schoolhouse to its proper use.”

What “its proper use” would be was up to debate.

In June, 1912, when Commissioner Stover announced the schoolhouse would be used as an entomological school, The New York Times ranted against the proposal in an editorial titled “Central Park Bugs.”

“The place [for the school] is to be the shanty on the edge of the Ramble, which has been called the Swedish schoolhouse, and has a history which would be more respectable if it had never been dumped in Central Park. Mr. Stover proposes to have a perpetual exhibition of bugs in that shanty. The study of bugs is edifying, but Central Park is no place for schools.”

The editor continued, “If Mr. Stover has some spare bugs of positive merit we have no doubt that they would be admitted there and placed on exhibition. The idea, according to The Sun, is that the exhibition shall comprise all the insects that visit the Park. Obviously, the Swedish schoolhouse will be too small for the purpose.”

Photo Central Park Commission

Despite the newspaper’s protests, the schoolhouse was used as the entomology center for several years. Through the 1920s it was the meeting place of the New York Bird and Tree Club whose impressive list of members included Mrs. Thomas Alva Edison, Joyce Kilmer and Quentin Roosevelt.

For a brief period, during World War II, the building (now sometimes called the Swiss Chalet) became the district headquarters for the Civil Defense. Then, in 1947 with a push from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardian and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the building was renovated for use as a design workshop and a children’s marionette theatre as home for the Park Departments Traveling Marionette Theatre, founded in 1939.

By the mid-1970s the theatre experiment had proven itself and a permanent marionette theatre was constructed with seats for 100 children and a stage area capable of more professional and complicated productions. In 1977 a total restoration of the schoolhouse was initiated, bringing the careworn wooden structure back to prime condition. Air conditioning was installed, the Baltic fir façade was refurbished and lost elements on the second floor balcony were reproduced.

One of the last marionette companies in the United States, the Theatre makes its own puppets, writes its own scripts and produces the shows internally.

The Swedish Cottage, one of the very few structures in Central Park not designed by Calvert Vaux and his assistant Jacob Wrey Mould, is also one of the most charming. It is located on the west side of the Park at 79th Street.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The 1912 First Precinct Station House - 16 Ericsson Place

Nathaniel Bush held the enviable position of official architect to the New York Police Department for over three decades. From 1862 to 1895 he produced numerous station houses throughout the city. Not only was Bush an architect, but he was a New York Police Department sergeant, as well.

Bush retired because, as The New York Times reported on April 24, 1895, “age has unfitted him to perform his duties properly.” Tammany Hall jumped at the chance to give its own favored architects, Horgan & Slattery, the position. Not unexpectedly, building costs began climbing.

With the consolidation of the five boroughs in 1898 the New York Police Department quickly grew.  Within the next few years plans were underway for a surge of station house construction.  Requests poured in to the City Controller’s office to investigate the fees paid to Horgan & Slattery.  In 1901 Controller Grout reported that $193,661.34 had been paid to the firm in that year alone.

The New York Times complained, “For many years the Police Department economized many thousands of dollars through Nathaniel D. Bush, a detailed policeman, who was a competent architect, and none of whose plans for station houses resulted in disaster or loss to the city.”

As the building boom began, Hoppin & Koen was hired to design the magnificent Police Headquarters at 240 Centre Street, completed in 1909–a domed Beaux Arts palace.  Three years later they were commissioned again to design the Fourth Precinct station house at 16 Ericsson Place.

The Fourth Precinct had been housed in an 1871 structure which was no longer adequate.  Throughout the late 19th  century the precinct was home to numerous murders, assaults and other crimes. For its new station Hoppin & Koen designed an Italian Renaissance palace with a large stable on the southern end.

The AIA Guide to New York City called it “A limestone Renaissance Revival palazzetto whose public interior in no way reflects the opulence of the exterior–except for the stable on the Varick Street side.  The paddocks and other equine accoutrements have a quality that exceeds that provided for the officers.”

The dignified formal precinct house features two two-story arched entrances, a modest bracketed cornice, and the Seal of the City of New York in relief below the stone third floor course.

When the First Precinct station house at 100 Old Slip was closed and subsequently reused as the Police Museum, the First and Fourth Precincts were combined.  Although FOURTH PRECINCT is deeply incised into the limestone façade, the station house is now the First Precinct.

The exterior of the building is extraordinarily unchanged since 1912 and police horses still occupy the paddocks of the stables.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The First Hungarian Reformed Church - 344 East 69th Street

Not until after the unsuccessful Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849 did the first Hungarians immigrate to New York City. This new addition to the city's diverse population heartily welcomed the revolutionary Louis Kossuth when he visited Manhattan in December of 1851 to rally financial and political support for his cause.

In the 1870’s, however, over 10,000 Hungarians had settled in Manhattan in, for the most part, two 2nd Avenue neighborhoods: between 1st and 10th Streets, and between 55th and 72nd Streets. New York historian Konrad Bercovici wrote “The houses of the Hungarian district in New York are more or less of the modern tenement type...It is within that the homes are different from the houses of the people of other nationalities...It is in the kitchens of these houses, spick and span, [that] one can notice the differences of national character. Love of good food, spicy and tasty, is one of the characteristics of the Hungarians."

Thousands more crushed into the Hungarian neighborhoods and by 1910 estimates of the population ranged from 76,625 to over 110,000.

In 1895 a small group founded The First Hungarian Reformed Church, or New York-i Első Magyar Református Egyház. Their charming three-story edifice with central bell tower at 121 East 7th Street was reminiscent of a rural church.

As the Lower East Side became increasingly congested, more and more Hungarians migrated north to the Yorkville section of the city -- of which Random House's Depression era "New York City Guide" would write "The Hungarians, in the upper seventies, aid in giving Yorkville its Central European atmosphere.  The Hungarian daily, Amerikai Magyar Nepszava, is found on the newsstands in this vinicity; Tokay wine is featured in the liquor stores; and in the delicatessens are sold goose livers and the famed Hercz, Pick, and Drossy salamis from Budapest.  The Hungarian cuisine is noted for its variety and savory sauces; in this neighborhood, particularly on East Seventy-ninth Street between First and Second Avenues, are many restaurants whose specialities are chicken paprikas, rostbraten, and strudel."

In 1914 the congregation opted to build a new church on a plot purchased at 344 East 69th Street. Hungarian-born architect Emery Roth was commissioned to design the structure.

Roth would go on to design some of Manhattan’s most memorable Art Deco apartment buildings; however for The First Hungarian Reformed Church he drew his inspiration from his homeland. Combing traditional Hungarian styles with Vienna Secessionist touches he created an unpretentious but strikingly unique facade. Completed in 1916 at a cost of $22,000, the facade incorporates brick, tile, stucco, tile and limestone. Dramatically punching through the deeply overhanging eaves is an 80-foot bell tower.

The First Hungarian Reformed Church, while quaint and charming, was home to no-nonsense worshippers with a decided purpose. Reverand Zoltan Kuthy, the pastor who dedicated the new structure, would go on to be one of the most active and influential figures in Hungarian-American Protestantism. A successor, Reverand Laszlo Gerenday, became pastor after having served with the French Foreign Legion; and later the Reverand Imre Kovacs would lead fervid demonstrations against the Communists, protesting Soviet control over Hungary and the loss of basic human rights in his homeland. On July 9, 1944 the congregation held a special service exclusively to protest the treatment of Jews in Germany.

At a rededication ceremony on December 31, 1930, Hungarian sculptor Janos Horvay presented the church with three bronze tablets that were originally to be installed in the Kossuth monument on Riverside Drive.

Although the population of the Yorkville neighborhood is no longer predominantly Hungarian, the services at the First Hungarian Reformed Church are still conducted solely in the native language. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on August 31, 2000.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The 1843 Governor's Island "Admiral's House"

Well before the eruption of the Revolutionary War, the incalculable defensive significance of the island in the middle of New York Harbor was recognized.   The Dutch, the British and now the rebelling colonists all maintained fortifications here.

After the Revolution, military structures continued to be built. Fort Jay, surrounded by a 13-foot moat was constructed in 1806 and one-by-one additional buildings were erected to accommodate the military presence. The United States Army took possession of the island in 1821 and in the early 1840s commissioned architect Martin E. Thompson to design a residence equal to the status of its most ranking officer. Called The Commanding Officer’s Quarters it was completed in 1843, a large brick Greek Revival home with a two-story porches, front and rear.

Thompson created a Colonial Revival entrance with pilasters and flanking sidelights, a paneled door and leaded transom. The long, floor-to-ceiling windows on the parlor level gave added elegance to the interior.

photo NYPL Collection

The Commanding Officer’s Quarters became home, over the years, to renowned generals; among them
Walter Bedell Smith, Winfield Scott Hancock, Adna Chafee, Leonard Wood, Robert Bullar and Jonathan Wainwright.

In 1886 the house was enlarged with an architecturally cohesive wing at the southwest corner and, later, the exterior was redesigned with the porches being replaced by wide verandas -- creating a plantation house effect. Again, in 1936, the exterior was renovated when Charles O. Cornelius removed the peaked roof, replaced the rear wooden porch elements with brick and added decorative ironwork.

photo NYPL Collection

In 1966 the Army left Governor’s Island, turning it over to the United States Coast guard which headquartered its Third Coast Guard District and the Atlantic Area here, creating the largest Coast Guard base in the world. The Commanding Officer’s Quarters was renamed The Admiral’s House.

After addressing the United Nations General Assembly regarding "perestroika" on December 7, 1988, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev boarded a ferry to Governor’s Island to meet with President Ronald Reagan. The two leaders met in the Admiral’s House where the two worked out important steps to the end of the Cold War.

Ironically, the subsequent Peace Dividend between the two countries resulted in the closing of the Coast Guard Base in 1966. The Admiral’s House, constantly occupied since 1843, was emptied.

The Admiral’s House , although still eerily empty, is open to the public by the National Park Service.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The 1902 Knox Hat Building - 452 Fifth Avenue

Edwardian strollers before the New York Library with Knox Hat Building in the background -- postcard from author's collection

When Edward Knox returned to New York City, a Civil War hero, his father’s business was in trouble. Not only had the Knox Hat Company’s store on Fulton Street burned to the ground in 1865, but a trademark law suit had put the firm in serious financial difficulties.

Edward took over for his father with “the intention of making his name known wherever a hat was sold,” according to his obituary decades later in The New York Times.

Knox succeeded in his intention.

The second half of the 19th Century was a good time for quality hat sellers. No man would leave his home without a hat, whether a bricklayer or a financial mogul. There were specific hats for specific occasions and a gentleman’s closet would hold a silk top hat, a beaver business hat, a straw boater for casual recreation and other hats for other purposes. An entire set of etiquette regulated when to wear a particular hat, when to remove it, tipping it to greet a lady, and so forth. It was a time, as the AIA Guide to New York City said “when men were valued by their hats, or used them as a badge of social station and power.”

Rather than continue to rely on the quality of other manufacturers, Knox opened his own factory in Brooklyn. In the meantime he had opened a store in the fashionable Fifth Avenue Hotel, in addition to the one in the Singer Building on Broadway.

By the turn of the century, Knox was the premier name in hats in New York City and United States presidents came to him for their headwear. Before B. Altman, Tiffany or Lord & Taylor would make their incursions onto Fifth Avenue, Edward Knox broke ground. On the corner of 40th Street and 5th Avenue stood the brownstone mansion of Colonel Lawrence Kip who had died in 1899. Here Knox would build his new store and headquarters, opposite the site where the palatial New York Public Library would soon rise.

Through his military standing, Knox was familiar with the work of architect John H. Duncan.  Dunan, in addition to his many residential projects, had designed the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza and General Grant National Monument (which would become better-known as Grant’s Tomb).

photo NYPL Collection

Built between 1901 and 1902, the ten-story structure exploded Beaux Arts ornamentation on a huge scale. The two-story mansard roof with one- and two-story dormers is crested by intricate copper torch-and-anthemion decoration and dominated the limestone and brick building. An ornate balcony wrapped around the seventh floor. Because of the prominent corner site, Duncan’s magnificent structure was conspicuous for blocks down Fifth Avenue.

The Knox Hat Store occupied the first and mezzanine levels; the upper floors housing the offices of the Knox Hat Manufacturing Company and the E. M. Knox Hat Retail Company and other businesses. Not only had Colonel Knox (he had been elected colonel of the 69th Regiment in 1892) created a spectacular building on Fifth Avenue, he had simultaneously created immense prestige for his company and product.

Edward Knox died at the age of 75 in 1916. His New York Times obituary mentioned only in passing that he “was known as a leader in the hat industry for many years, and took charge of his company more than forty years ago, and brought it through its financial difficulties, making it one of the greatest in the world.” The article spoke, however, at great length of his extensive and distinguished military career for which the Colonel was best remembered by his contemporaries.

Knox’s will generously reflected his appreciation of his employees, giving sums of $1000 to $20,000 to employees like Catherine Maher, a store cashier; the largest sums to two particularly “old and faithful” employees.

Very few changes to the building were made throughout most of the 20th Century until, in 1964, the Republic National Bank purchased it. Kahn & Jacobs were commissioned to convert the Beaux Art beauty into banking and office space. With sympathetic care, the firm replaced the street floor windows with large panes of plate glass, removed the mezzanine level and slightly altered the 40th Street side.

In 2006 HSBC took over Republic Bank and carefully melded it with a modern glass tower to the side and rear. In the renovation modern plate glass sheets replaced the more appropriate paned windows; however overall the landmark was treated with loving respect.

Photo Nicholson & Galloway, Inc.

Façade Maintenance Design Architects oversaw a complete exterior face and roof restoration. This included completely replacing the 140-foot long, 8-foot high cooper cresting. The four enormous copper cartouches were removed and restored.

photo Nicolson & Galloway
The entire slate roof -- all 2,500 square feet of it -- was removed and replaced with Vermont Black slate and the entire façade was carefully cleaned.

In April of 2010 the building sold for $350 million.  That year the new owner, Israel Discount Bank, commissioned STUDIOS to create a new entrance to the tower.  STUDIOS principal David Must called the former lobby "cramped, dark and stepped awkwardly down toward street level."

The recreated entrance shows the full 30-foot height using what Must calls "a simplified palette of materials."

Today, a component of a larger, ultra modern whole, the Knox Building remains what The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission called “one of the finest Beaux-Arts style commercial buildings in New York City.” Looking south down Fifth Avenue, it is today, as it was in 1902, a remarkable and conspicuous presence for blocks.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Edward Berwind House - 828 Fifth Avenue

The New York Times called Edward J. Berwind “an outsider.”

In a lengthy article on May 26, 1907, the newspaper attempted to assure its readers that the native “New Yorker still owns upper Fifth Avenue.  All the talk of this section being overrun by outsiders is without foundation, if the best available data is to be believed.”

Yet, while the article listed one-by-one the elite New York-born mansion residents, it admitted that “Edward J. Berwind, at Sixty-fourth Street, a native of Philadelphia, represents Pennsylvania’s coal interests.”

The house at 64th and Fifth Avenue, like its owner, did not fit the social mold.  While other millionaires were hiring Richard Morris Hunt or Charles P. H. Gilbert to fashion chateaux and palazzi, Berwind commissioned the little-known architect Nathan Clark Mellen to design his red brick and limestone Edwardian townhouse.  Although the entrance is decidedly on 64th Street, Berwind managed to retain the more prestigious 828 Fifth Avenue address.


When his mansion was completed in 1896, Berwind was the largest holder of bituminous coal in the country and possibly in the world--the sole supplier of coal to the United States Navy and to several railroads. The residence's bowed Fifth Avenue façade, two-story rusticated limestone base, and unusual arched entryway with its polished granite columns set the residence apart from its neighbors.

A light moat was protected by a limestone wall pierced with scrolled bronze grills.  It no only added to the architectural interest, but prevented curious passersby from getting a too-close look inside.

Architectural critic Carter B. Horsley called it “a marvelously intriguing structure of great individuality that conveys a real sense of power.”

The interiors were decorated by the French firm of Jules Allard & Son.  It was, as architectural historian John Tauranac has said, “nothing less of a palace.”  The first two floors held formal reception areas–the Berwinds’ private rooms being on the third floor.  An opulent staircase swept up the central portion of the home, each landing serving as a majestic foyer to the rooms on either side.

On the first floor were a library, dining room and a formal reception area.  T
he entire second floor had only two rooms: the Louis V-style ballroom and an oak paneled sitting room in the bowed area overlooking the park.  A monumental fireplace supported by two muscular stone titans dominated the reception foyer.  

Berwind and his wife, Sarah Vesta Herminie, did much of their entertaining in their grand Newport mansion, The Elms.

Almost three decades after the Berwinds moved in, Sarah Berwind died on January 5, 1922.  Her personal estate of nearly half a million dollars went to charity and to her brother. While she left her jewelry, assessed at $376,944, to her husband, she left him no money because, according to her will, “he does not need it.”

Indeed he did not.

After his wife’s death, Berwind’s unmarried sister Julia moved into 828 Fifth Avenue, acting as hostess both there and at The Elms.

The elderly Edward Berwind died in July 1942, leaving an estate of over $34 million.  Julia Berwind remained in the mansion until 1945 when she sold it to the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences for around $300,000.  Although the Institute preserved the rest of the interiors, they sadly removed the grand central staircase which once felt the sweep of beaded Edwardian ball gowns and the patent leather shoes of tuxedoed gentlemen.

Subsequently, it became the headquarters of the American Heart Association until 1978 when the mansion was reconverted to residential use--at which time a modern glass penthouse was added to the roof.

Edward and Sarah Berwind’s magnificent interior rooms were sympathetically and cautiously translated into two full-floor apartments (on the first and second floors), two smaller duplexes, and four other apartments in the former servants quarters.


Scientist Joel Birnbaum lived in the 3,500-square-foot parlor floor apartment, with 18-foot ceilings and a vaulted foyer, from 1984 to 1999 before selling it for $9.5 million to real estate developer Howard Ronson.

When Madonna looked over the first floor apartment, she reportedly laid on her back on the floor, staring at the painted ceiling for fifteen minutes.  She chose not to take the apartment because there was no parking facility near enough to enter her home unseen.

The second floor apartment includes a 4,000-bottle wine cellar and the Berwind’s elegant sitting room.   Among the residents who have lived here are entertainer Donna Summer and designer Adolfo.

The penthouse addition  - photo

Apart from the apartment building-style entrance awning and the incongruous penthouse, 828 Fifth Avenue is in an amazing state of preservation and remains one of Upper Fifth Avenue’s premier architectural gems.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Ever-Growing Harvard Club - 27 West 44th Street

As the Civil War was coming to an end, four New York City alumni of Harvard University banded together to form a club. The golden age of men’s clubs was dawning, a time when no gentleman of the city would be without at least one exclusive club membership.

By the end of 1865 membership had increased to 16 and by 1886 it totaled 431. Meeting in rented dining rooms in tasteful restaurants was no longer feasible. In 1887, the same year that the Harvard Club incorporated, a four-story brownstone at 11 West 22nd Street was rented and converted to a 10-bedroom clubhouse complete with restaurant and comfortable clubrooms.

The Harvard Club continued to be a victim of its own success. Within a year membership had increased 25 percent. The new clubhouse was proving, already, to be insufficient. A plot of land at 27 West 44th Street was acquired in the fashionable neighborhood where other clubs were already establishing themselves. Club member Charles F. McKim, head architect of McKim, Mead and White, took on the project of designing the new structure.

At a dinner for 500 members and guests held at Delmonico’s, club president Edward King spoke of the anticipated clubhouse. The New York Times reported that King promised there “would be ample accommodations for the Harvard baseball nine, the boating crews, and the football team. This announcement brought the Harvard men to their feet, and three time three ‘rahs were given with a will. A score of pretty women in the gallery smiled their encouragement.”

Drawing inspiration from the early architecture of Harvard, McKim designed a neo-Georgian manor house of dark red “Harvard brick” and limestone. The dignified face featured splayed window lentils and inset plaques of bas-relief swags. The Harvard seal sits prominently above the second floor balcony. The symmetrical arrangement of small-paned windows, Doric columns and a central, arched window dominating the second floor bespoke of the taste and refinement of the members.

McKim’s interiors reflected the Colonial Revival style of the façade. Early-American turned banisters, broad brick fireplaces with white-painted mantels and paneled wainscoting reflected the 18th Century tone of many Harvard buildings.

Having learned from the rapid obsolescence of the last clubhouse, individual members purchased the lots at No. 31 and Nos. 26 through 36 in anticipation of necessary expansion. It was agreed that the land would be sold to the club at cost.

Indeed, in 1905 the first addition to Harvard House was constructed to accommodate the growing membership. Added to the rear, it included the magnificent, three-story Harvard Hall, a library, billiard room, grill room, a conference room and sleeping quarters.

The Harvard Hall

The club that could not stop growing was in need of additional space by 1915. McKim added a seven-story tower to the west end. The extension provided for a new formal dining room, banquet rooms, a swimming pool and squash courts, additional bedrooms and a bar; not to mention up-to-date amenities such as elevators and steam heating.

The new formal dining hall

Only a decade later the growing membership was taxing the capacity of the structure again. With no more land, the club initiated negotiations for No. 33 West 44th that dragged on for six years. Unfortunately, by the time the deal was finalized the Depression halted all plans for construction. As the Great Depression ended and World War II began, the swimming pool area was floored over to create more sleeping rooms.

The Harvard Club in 1930

After the war, the upper three stories of the house at No. 33 were demolished and the remaining two floors were renovated as an extension. An architect club member redesigned the façade to meld with the McKim exterior; with little critical acclaim.

The foundations of the staid club were shaken when, in January 1972, women were admitted to Harvard University for the first time. The question was obvious: if women were to become alumnae, would they therefore be eligible for membership?

A vote was taken on March 4, The Times reporting on the outcome the following morning. “The Harvard Club, the last of the city’s traditional all-male Ivy League university clubs, voted last night to stay just that way – a 107-year old monument to male exclusivity.”

That 107-year old monument was about to tumble, however. In January of the following year a second vote was taken with the overwhelming outcome of 2097 to 695 to accept women.

For over a half-century the Harvard Club has made no additions to its structure. The landmarked building that could not stop growing, just possibly has.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Mysterious Blackwell Island Lighthouse

In 1828 New York City faced the problem of a smallpox epidemic as well as a lack of facilities for the mentally ill, convicts and debtors. The city fathers purchased the East River island on which James Blackwell ran his farm. For $32,500 they acquired adequate land to erect a smallpox hospital, an insane asylum, a debtors house and a prison.

Seven years after he had designed the breath-taking Grace Church on Broadway, James Renwick, Jr. was given the commission for the Smallpox Hospital, completed in 1850, the Workhouse, and the City Hospital. In 1872 he was consulted again, this time for a lighthouse on the northern point of the island.

Renwick designed a 50-foot tall Gothic structure using the same gray gneiss use for the other city-owned structures. The stone was quarried on site by the prisoners, greatly reducing the costs of the buildings. The octagonal lighthouse used rough-cut stones to imitate a centuries-old building; its entrance sheltered by a modest Gothic arch.

At this point the myth and the history of the Blackwell Island Lighthouse become blurred.

Two years before construction began, in 1870, the warden’s report of the Lunatic Asylum clearly indicated that an "industrious bur eccentric” inmate had constructed a well-built seawall which reclaimed marsh land. The warden commented that the patient “is very assiduous, and seems proud of his work, and he has reason to be, for it is a fine structure, strong and well built.”

Some legends contend that instead of a seawall the inmate, who feared a British invasion, built a fortress.

Whichever (if either) story is correct, the structure had to come down to make way for the lighthouse.

Traditional folklore on Roosevelt Island (the last name given to Blackwell Island) goes on to say that the inmate, John McCarthy, was bribed or paid to destruct his own fortress; and then he was given the allowance to build Renwick’s lighthouse.

The legend becomes more muddled when the name Thomas Maxey, Esq. is added to the mix. Both Maxey and McCarthy are named as the builder (Maxey was apparently also an inmate); and there is the possibility that both are the same man.

An inscription in stone at the lighthouse reads:

This is the work
Was done by
John McCarthy
Who built the Light
House from the bottom to the
Top All ye who do pass by may
Pray for his soul when he dies.

Whoever built the Blackwell Island Lighthouse did a professional job. Additionally, the concept of a single man building such a structure is difficult to accept. Nevertheless, there is no surviving documentation to confirm or refute the legend.

The lighthouse was in use (although occasionally not working) until around 1940. In the 1970s, when most of Roosevelt Island’s historic buildings were falling into disrepair, a modest restoration was done using private donations. A complete restoration was initiated in 1998 through an anonymous donation of $120,000, making the light functional again.

The mysterious lighthouse was designated a New York City Landmark in 1975, at which time the Landmarks Preservation Commission said “The rock-faced stone and the sparing uses of boldly scaled ornamental detail give the lighthouse the strength and character of a medieval fortification. In its isolated setting the lighthouse is a prominent and dramatic feature of Roosevelt Island.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

The 1894 Hotel Gerard - 123 West 44th Street

Photo NYPL Collection

Once Charles Frohman built the Empire Theatre at Broadway and 41st Street in 1893 the development of the entertainment district in Times Square was on.

As the theatres cropped up, developers William Rankin and Alexander Moore seized the newly-created opportunity. That same year they commissioned little-known architect George Keister to design a smart, residential hotel that could conveniently house well-to-do tourists and long-term occupants involved in the theatre.

In 1894 Keister’s hotel was completed. The tallest building in the area, it was meant to impress. A sophisticated blend of styles – Renaissance, Gothic and Romanesque – it rose 13 stories with bay windows, arches and balconies. Prominent, steep gables, reminiscent of Hardenbergh’s Dakota Apartments of a decade earlier, flanked central, exuberantly-decorated dormers.

The 362-room Hotel Gerard attracted the well-heeled, as intended. In January 1898 Colonel and Mrs. Richard Henry Savage celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in the banquet hall. High-ranking military officials attended, as well as dignitaries from Russia, Siam, Austro-Hungary and Germany. The room was the site of similar impressive gatherings for years – such as the Baltimore & Ohio’s grand dinner for 250 in 1914.

Fortune, however, would not smile on the Hotel Gerard for long.

In 1916 a fire in the kitchen ousted 350 guests in their Edwardian night clothes into the street and caused $10,000 in damages. Some trapped guests clambered over the roof of the adjoining theatre and down through the skylight. The New York Times reported that “For half an hour after the fire the orchestra looked like a refugee camp.” The women, the paper said “were almost helpless through fear.”


Although the hotel remained a favorite among the theatre set – actors Albert Phillips, Arthur Burckly, character actress Josephine Williams (who lived here 25 years) and playwright Augustin Machugh all long-time residents – the hotel was attracting a seedier clientele.

In 1921 Harriet Pendleton Hunt, “of a well-known Cincinnati family,” was arrested in her room for passing a worthless $10,000 check. On October 29, 1923 a shoot-out among convicted bank robbers took place in the ninth-floor corridors. One escaped convict, 23-year old Thomas J. Gillen, was shot three times in the stomach while six others escaped.

More trouble came for the hotel, now called the Hotel Langwell, in 1928 when Metropolitan Opera diva Mme. Marie Rappold was drugged by a thief using a passkey to her room. She reported $75,000 worth of jewelry stolen. And in 1932 resident John Evans, whom The New York Times deemed “a thug,” was arrested for pistol possession and assault.

The hotel became the site of repeated suicides. Here William James Henderson, one of America’s most influential music critics shot himself; as did Washington Seligman, the brother of Mrs. Benjamin Guggenheim. Several female guests, by the 1940s, threw themselves from their hotel windows.

During the Depression, the Langwell was lost to foreclosure and sold by the Harlem Institution at auction in 1934 for $585,000. Twelve years later when it was sold again the building was cited for numerous fire hazards as the property continued to decline. Once again, in 1950, it was taken by foreclosure and sold for $700,000.

As the Times Square area eroded, the once-proud hotel fell into decrepitude. Apartments which at one time boasted libraries and sitting rooms were now broken up to tiny single-room occupancy warrens. On January 25, 1969 a raid on the Langwell seized over $1 million in pornographic tapes.

By the time Seymour B. Durst owned it in the 1970s, it was a squalid, welfare hotel called the 123 Hotel. The New York Times complained in June of 1973 that “the city's Human Resources Administration, through its welfare arm, is placing hundreds of drug addicts, mental cases and other unstable people into some 20 seedy hotels in the Times Square area, creating sanctuaries for thieves, pimps, prostitutes and muggers who, the police say, prey on pedestrians in the Times Square district.”

With the renaissance of Times Square in the 1990s came a reprieve. In 2007 the building was renovated and restored by Korman Communities as AKA Times Square – a post residential hotel of 105 suites, including duplex penthouses with terraces.

When the building was landmarked in 1982, the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission noted that “As in 1893, the Gerard dominates West 44th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.  The handsome facade with carefully executed brickwork and curving bays and the striking gables and dormers make the Gerard among the most prominent buildings of the theater district.”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

N.Y. County National Bank Building - 14th Street and 8th Avenue

On September 21, 1902 depositors in the New York County National Bank grew nervous.  The bank showed a deficit of $43,250 and its reserves were wiped out.

Bank president Francis L. Leland, however, refused to allow his bank to crash. Leland’s father, Francis Sr., had been president from 1857 until his death in 1885. The New York County National Bank was essentially a family business.

Extraordinary carved detail in the entranceway -- photo by Alice Lum

Within four years Leland’s bank had recovered so well that a new, imposing structure was planned for the southwest corner of 14th Street and 8th Avenue -- directly opposite of the classical white marble New York Savings Bank on the northwest corner.

The bank’s board selected the architectural firm of DeLemos & Cordes to design their new headquarters. The firm was responsible for the magnificent Siegel-Cooper Dry Goods Store and the Adams Dry Goods Store on 6th Avenue, and for the beautiful new Macy’s Department Store on 34th Street. Rudolph L. Daus, a graduate of the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts, was given the project.

photo NYPL Collection
Daus produced a limestone-clad neo-classical temple with Beaux-Arts touches. Enormous Corinthian columns support the majestic entranceway above a short flight of steps where a recessed arch rises the equivalent of three-stories. In the pediment above, a striking vigilant eagle in near full-relief cranes its neck beyond the cornice-line.

Four arched windows on the 14th Street side match the entrance.  Separated by Cornithian pilasters, each window arch incorporates classical pseudo-doorways where Daus included in the ornamentation caduceuses – so often associated with the medical profession – as a reference to Mercury, the god of commerce.

The two Roman temples, each commanding a corner of 14th Street and 8th Avenue, created an imposing composition; what the AIA Guide to New York City called “A rare occurrence for this city; a pair of classically inspired sentinels guarding the western corridor of 14th Street.”

Francis Leland died in 1916 and five years later the bank was taken over. The New York Times reported on November 8, 1921 “Louis G. Kaufman, President of the Chatham and Phoenix National Bank, announced yesterday that his institution has purchased control of the old New York County National Bank at Eighth Avenue and Fourteenth Street…” and that “the old New York County National Bank will not lose its identity wholly.”

photo Alice Lum
The bank did lose its identity wholly, however, in the 1930s when it was absorbed by Manufacturers Trust Co., later to be renamed Manufacturers Hanover Trust in the mid 1960s. The institution used the building until it merged with Chemical Bank in 1994. Afterwards the monumental building sat empty until it was briefly used as a theatre. Then, in 1999, Lee Harris of Hudson River Studios and John Reimnitz converted the space for Nickel, a men’s spa created by Philippe Dumont; and designed an addition for residential apartments.

Rudolph Daus’ impressive limestone bank was designed a New York City Landmark in 1988.