|Hiding behind the cast iron facade at No. 14 West 23rd Street is Edith Wharton's birthplace|
In 1857 comfortable brownstone residences were being built along West 23rd Street. During that year the three-story home at No. 14 was erected on the wide thoroughfare, just off the corner of fashionable Fifth Avenue. Here, five years later, Edith Newbold Jones was born and it was here she would grow up, absorbing the rituals and traditions of upper-class New Yorkers that would fill her writings later in life – often to the chagrin of her mother – as Edith Wharton.Just three years after Edith’s birth the Fifth Avenue Opera House was built in 1865 a block away at 24th Street. It signaled the transition of the 23rd Street area from one of staid upper-class homes to the entertainment district. In 1869 Booth’s Theatre, the palatial white marble Shakespearean theatre at the corner of 6th Avenue, would be constructed and the same year Bryant’s Opera house opened across the street.
As 23rd Street became increasingly commercial, No. 14 was renovated by architect Henry J. Hardenberg to a retail space in 1882.
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When, in 1892, James McCutcheon & Co. took over the building, George H. Billings was commissioned to modernize it. At some point during the two renovations two additional floors were added. Billings replaced the remaining brownstone façade with one of straight-forward cast iron that pretended to be nothing more than a prominent store. The use of cast iron allowed large windows that permitted sunlight to illuminate the selling floors.
McCutcheon had been selling fine linens to the carriage trade since 1864, making successive moves uptown as the shopping districts changed. The 23rd Street salesrooms were filled with imported handkerchiefs, table linens, towels and embroideries. In 1893 The New York Times wrote of the store, “Besides the general line of table cloths and napkins are dainty lunch sets of solid linen, white and in colors, pinks, yellows, and blues; also of silk and linen, white and in colors. Here, too, are tea cloths in variety, with napkins to match.”
By the turn of the century James McCutcheon had branched out into ladies’ undergarments, devoting a full floor to imported corsets and lingerie and employing a staff of custom fitters.
In June 1906 the company announced its intended fifth move – this time to Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets – as other neighboring retail stores, too, left 23rd Street.
No. 14 West 23rd Street sat empty for a considerable period until wholesale firms began settling in what had once been a bustling shopping area. Finally in February 1914 the wholesale china and glassware firm of Lazarus & Rosenfeld took over the lease. Two other wholesale china firms, L. D. Bloch and S. Herbert& Co., established themselves in the area, and a lace firm leased the building directly across the street at the same time.
|Down the street, Numbers 18 and 20 still reveal portions of the original brownstone houses that lined West 23rd Street when Edith Wharton lived in No. 14 (white building second from left).|
-- many thanks to the intrepid researcher Laura Farrell for clearing up confusion as to street addresses!
non-credited photos taken by the author