Friday, July 15, 2011

An 1893 Moorish Fantasy -- No. 256 Fifth Avenue

photo by Alice Lum

In the 1870s West 23rd Street from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue had taken over as the entertainment district of Manhattan. Opera houses, theatres and music halls dotted the thoroughfare, promoting the construction of hotels and commercial buildings in the area.

Charles A. Baudouine purchased the plot at 256 Fifth Avenue, between 28th and 29th Street and began construction of a retail store and loft building in 1892. Baudouine had been an important furniture maker whose high-end Rococo-style furniture graced the parlors of New York’s wealthy and rivaled that of cabinet makers like John Henry Belter.

He retired in 1856 and turned his interests to real estate. For this project he commissioned architects Alfred Zucker and John H. Edelman. The six-story building, completed in 1893, would be one of the most interesting and unusual in the entire area.
Intricate pressed terra cotta encases the facade -- photo by Alice Lum

With fanciful abandon, the architects combined historic styles into a conglomeration loosely termed Moorish Revival today. The light colored brick façade is slathered in matching terra cotta. Two-story columns are banded and laced, intricate arabesques twine around the second story windows and rounded arches are capped with Gothic points. The face of the structure was broken by an ornate projecting balcony at the sixth floor.

Among the first tenants were apparel merchants. In its February 1894 issue, The Clothier and Furnisher reported “E. A. Newell will move from his old store, where he has been for many years…to his new store at 256 Fifth Avenue, in the handsome, new white-stone building recently erected.”

Rupert A. Ryler Co., tailors, also moved in, advertising “all the latest novelties in fine special cloths, golf suits, knickerbockers, mufti, tattersalls, vestings, and a host of others.”
Terra cotta blends with brick to form texture and dimension -- photo by Alice Lum

The building’s prestige was heightened when esteemed portrait photographer Napoleon Sarony established his studio here. Many of the popular “cabinet cards” featuring theatrical stars were shot by Sarony and the building’s proximity to the theatre district was ideal.

In February 1905 Braun, Clement & Co., leased the store along with the basement and second floor. The firm sold “carbon prints,” reproductions of “old and modern masters in the leading public and private art galleries of Europe.” The store offered over 100,000 different images.

Harry Rapp ran his Market Representative Company here in 1916--buyers of dress goods and designs for apparel manufacturers most of which were in the West.  Yet the 45-year old Rapp was discouraged about his business and his wife had recently separated from him.

The defeated executive’s body was found on the shore of Block Island, Rhode Island after he failed to appear at his office for several days.

By this time the theatre district had shifted northward to Times Square and upscale manufacturers like Royal Copenhagen Porcelain made their home here.
photo by Alice Lum
Unfortunately, in the latter part of the 20th Century the unique storefront designed by Zucker and Edelman was ripped off, replaced by a flat polished stone façade identical to hundreds of others. Sometime before 2001 the sixth-story balcony was removed, leaving vacant slots in the decoration where the supporting brackets had been.

Voids remain where the brackets and sides of the sixth floor balcony once met the facade -- photo by Alice Lum
Despite this architectural vandalism, almost all of 256 Fifth Avenue remains intact; what the AIA Guide to New York City calls “a Venetian-Gothic phantasmagoria in terra cotta,”

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