Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The 1890 Romanesque Wilbraham Hotel -- 1 West 30th Street

photo by Alice Lum

 The number of unmarried men in New York City skyrocketed between 1870 and 1890, when approximately 45 percent of the male population was single.  Finding respectable accommodations was difficult for these men.  Most boarding houses or apartment houses did not accept single men. 

As late as 1898 one observer commented that “the bachelor was not considered to be entitled to much consideration; any old thing was good enough for him…Anyone who was old enough and had the means to marry and yet did not, was not thought to be entitled to anything better.”

Bachelor flats began appearing in 1880 – apartment buildings specifically intended to house single respectable men.  The Real Estate Record & Builders Guide in 1890 noted that the bachelor flat “is a product of our modern life.  It is not a social fad, ready to disappear directly.  It has ceased to be a novelty.  It has come to stay, for it filled a gap in the life of every unmarried man who has become weary of the boarding house, the furnished room, or the hotel.”

Scottish-born William Moir had made his fortune in the jewelry business and his elegant cast iron store at 23rd Street and 6th Avenue was well known among the ladies of the upper classes.   Moir recognized the potential of the bachelor flat concept.  In April of 1888 he purchased through real estate broker Herbert A. Sherman the brownstone townhouses at 282 and 284 5th Avenue. The transaction cost the jeweler $245,000.

Although this section of 5th Avenue was still quite fashionable, the mansions here were slowly being replaced with high-end men’s clubs and exclusive retail shops.  Moir commissioned the brothers David and John Jardine, also born in Scotland, to design his “fireproof” residential hotel.  

The architects produced drawings for a six-story medieval-looking, Romanesque Revival influenced structure in red Philadelphia brick, Belleville brownstone, white limestone and cast iron.  However, in June 1889 an amendment was filed with the Department of Buildings increasing the height to eight stories, including a lavish mansard roof.  A month later an additional amendment was approved allowing a penthouse with servants’ rooms ad kitchen.
The rough-cut brownstone seventh floor and the imposing mansard were not included in the original drawings -- photo by Alice Lum

Competed in May 1890, it included a high-end, two-story retail space on the first floor with apartments above.  The Wilbraham was intended for financially-comfortable tenants.  Each apartment had a parlor and a bedroom and, the ultimate in luxury for the time, private bathrooms.  Typical of bachelor flats, there were no kitchens – residents ate in the communal dining room on the top floor.

The Wilbraham was the latest in residential design with electric lighting (and gas for those times when the unreliable electricity would fail), an internal communication system allowing residents to speak to the superintendent, an Otis elevator and steam heating.  Housekeeping services were also provided.
Intricate ornamentation like this heavily-carved capital cover the facade -- photo by Alice Lum

The Real estate Record & Guide was impressed calling it “the most elegantly appointed among the bachelor apartment houses in New York City” and “certainly the ‘crack’ apartment house of its kind…quite an imposing piece of architecture.”

That imposing architecture included monumental rusticated columns, medieval-style carvings, a large stone arched entrance with WILBRAHAM carved into a stone banner above, and the imposing slate tiled mansard (now covered in copper).

The Wilbraham as it appeared two years after opening -- King's Handbook of New York
Reflecting the elite tone of the area, china and glass merchants Gilman Collamore & Co. took over the retail space, explaining in their moving notice that the neighborhood of their former store at 19 Union Square had recently become “degraded.”

The exclusive shop was described by "King’s 1890 Handbook of New York City" as having “a veritable art exhibition in their usual display of fancy glass-ware and fine china.  The firm occupies a handsome sandstone and brick building…Their grand display-rooms are so laid out and arranged as to promote the artistic effect of the exceedingly choice stock of goods.”
The Jardines alternated thick, rough-cut blocks with narrower ornamented courses to create the piers -- photo by Alice Lum

Wealthy socialites stepped from carriages to survey Sevres, Royal Dresden and Royal Berlin china and “the products of the best English and German factories.”

Meanwhile high-toned bachelors filled the apartments.  The ever-feisty Colonel Thomas Ochiltree lived here, eating the steak smuggled in by a friend against his doctors’ orders when he was bedridden with an enlarged liver and weak heart.   Ochiltree fell into “a state of collapse” having eaten the steak.
Upon being revived, he instructed his physician that “it was a good way to go to the next world with a fine bit of meat between one’s teeth.”  As his condition slowly improved, he insisted that it was the steak – despite the period of unconsciousness—that brought him back to health.

Another Civil War Colonel Henry L. Swords lived here as did “The Copper King” Fritz Augustus Heinze and Judge William Frierson Cooper.

Although in 1902 "Appleton’s Dictionary of New York and Vicinity" said “Many buildings are now devoted especially to apartments for bachelors, among which are the Benedick, east side of Washington Square, the Jansen, Waverly Place, and the Wilbraham, 30th Street and 5th Avenue;” the Wilbraham had began accepting women in the early days of the century.

Upon the death of Mrs. Fannie S. Steel in 1910 The New York Times noted “For several years Mrs. Steele made her home at the Wilbraham Apartment Hotel, Fifth Avenue and Thirtieth Street.”

Apparently quite satisfied with the location, in January 1908 John J. Gibbons, head of Gilman, Collamore & Co., purchased the building from Moir’s widow, Emily, for $1 million.  It was described by The Times at the time of the sale as “one of the first and finest bachelor apartment houses erected in the Fifth Avenue section.”

Gibbons expressed his belief that this part of Fifth Avenue “by reason of its accessibility, will continue to be the best for high-class retail trade.”  Gilman, Collamore & Co. would continue to do business here until 1920.

In 1927, the Gibbons estate sold the building which by now had more female occupants than male.  The Great Depression hit the new owners, 1 West 30 St. Corp., hard and the group lost the property through default to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in 1934.  The firm set about modernizing and improving the aging hotel.   

Architects Emery Roth and D. Everett Waid were immediately brought in to do renovations.  The penthouse was enlarged to create two new apartments, six apartments with kitchens were fashioned and office space was carved out on the second floor.  The New York Times pointed to the renovations as proof that “Fifth Avenue south of Thirty-fourth Street has not entirely lost its charm.”

In 1944 Metropolitan Life sold the building to Maxwell Handelsman “for investment purposes,” initiating a string of sales throughout the 20th Century that included a 1984 name-change to The Tiffany.

Thankfully, the apartment building’s name has been returned to The Wilbraham.
Evidence for the need of a full restoration can be seen in the piecemeal facade repairs -- photo by Alice Lum

The building which the AIA Guide to New York City calls “lovely and lusty” remains as it was designed:  retail space on the ground floor and residential units above.  The intricate carvings of knotted geometrics and medieval faces are well worth a pause when passing the Jardines’ commanding structure.

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