Monday, July 25, 2011

Emery Roth's Art Nouveau No. 557 8th Avenue

The street level has been obliterated and the cornice has been shoddily repaired, however Emery Roth's stunning little building retains most of its decorative elements.

 On February 8, 1902 Matthew Hettrick sold the little one-story building at the southwest corner of 8th Avenue and 38th Street. Changes were happening in 1902 – motorcars were seen more frequently, more and more buildings were being illuminated by electric lights, and a new art form was taking hold: art nouveau.

While the sinuous, flowing lines of art nouveau--as reflected in Tiffany Studios lamps, silverware and stained glass-- challenged the staid, traditional Victorian styles; it was unable to get a foothold in Manhattan architecture.

Emery Roth’s refreshing confection that would replace Hettrick’s mundane building was an exception.

Roth was a member of the architectural firm Stein, Cohen and Roth. The first owner of the property for whom he designed the building is unclear; however Roth produced for him a dramatic and unconventional building that stood out among its drearier neighbors.

Plans were filed with the Department of Buildings for a three-story “dwelling and office” building. Completed in 1903, it was an modest structure with exuberant detailing. Cream-colored brick was trimmed in carved brownstone and pressed galvanized metal. To enhance its presence, Roth designed a bold and ambitious cornice that caught the eye of the passerby.

Surprisingly, Roth chose carved brownstone rather than opting for the versatile and relatively inexpensive terra cotta for the repeating elements.
 Two bay windows at the ends of the 38th Street facade, somewhat out of place by holding firmly to their Victorian roots, added dimension. The rest of the design gave in to the new age with abandon. The second story windows were framed in brownstone, capped with undulating, sensuous art nouveau swirls. Shallow brick pilasters rose between the windows to the third floor.

The decorative bays with pressed metal ornamentation added dimension to the long 38th Street facade.

Between the windows at the third floor were maidens’ heads in deep relief, each sheltered by a shell. Below the heads, brownstone garlands stretched from window to window in a continuous line.

A corner entrance would have served the shop; the hotel entrance was at the western-most end of the 38th Street side.
Roth beveled the corner, allowing for a more dramatic entrance way while providing extra sunlight to the rooms above. In all, it was a architecturally theatrical treatment of what normally would be a commonplace commercial building.

Inland Architect reflected “In a district of dry loft buildings, this little building calls out for attention like a scoop of ice cream on a hot summer sidewalk.”

Sadly abused, the hotel entrance still shows touches of both art nouveau and Victorian detailing.
The “dwelling” Roth’s plans called for was most likely a hotel from the onset; certainly it was run as one soon after completion. Managed as a residential hotel, its tenants were for the most part long-term. The commercial space at street level was originally a jewelry store, run by Emil Moescher who lived with his wife in the rear.

In 1906 the building was sold and would remain in the same hands for nearly half a century.

On August 15, 1908, the distraught Moescher, who was suffer from stomach cancer, struggled with his wife in their apartment. He managed to get control long enough to shoot himself in the mouth, ending his miseries.

Moescher’s jewelry store soon after was converted to a saloon.

Because of its proximity to the theatre district, the little hotel quickly became a favorite among actors. Among them was Charles Hendrix who was living here in 1908 when he got into a dispute over a glass of beer with Patrick McCafferty, the bartender at a Third Avenue saloon near 22nd Street. To settle the argument, McCafferty drew a knife and fatally stabbed the actor in the stomach and slashed the back of his head.

The carved brownstone beauties stare down from under their protecting seashells
Among the 14 residents in 1910 were shoe salesman Philip Blass, married acting couple Phyllis and John Ellis, and 49-year old London McCormack listed simply as “widower.” Among the thespians who often called No. 557 home were, reportedly, Buster Keaton and his family.

Until 1919 John J. Quigley held the liquor license at No. 557. That came to a halt on October 28 of that year when the Volstead Act ushered in the age of Prohibition. Apparently believing that if you can’t beat them, join them, Quigley became a Prohibition Agent.

While ownership did not change, the United Cigar Stores Co., leased the building for a period of ten years, from April 11, 1930 through December 30, 1940.  Understandably the commercial space during this time was a tobacco shop.

Three years after the end of World War II the little building changed ownership for the first time since 1906 when the Lenger Realty Corporation purchased it.

The flashy little building had a moment in the spotlight when in 1951 the exterior was used as the fictional Actors’ Hotel in the short-lived ABC series “Actors Hotel.”

Today Emery Roth’s marvelous, showy building at No. 557 8th Avenue has lost its sidewalk level. A modern brick renovation erased any traces of the architect’s original storefront. Above, the metal cornice is patched and dented. Yet, despite its unfortunate treatment, the ostentatious building still retains the bulk of its original design and still outshines its neighbors at it did in 1903.

Although Mary Beth Betts of the Landmarks Preservation Commission once said “it’s the kind of building we would take a serious look at,” it remains unprotected and under-appreciated.

 A pizza shop and a DVD store occupy the space where Emil Moescher's jewelry store was.  The elaborate metal cornice has lost much of its detail and suffered shoddy repairs.
One of only a handful of art nouveau structures in Manhattan, it is a rare and wonderful example in a desperately tenuous situation.

photographs taken by the author


  1. Thanks for the info on what has long been a personal favorite.

  2. I agree -- this is one of my favorites and way too often overlooked.

  3. Any pictures of the old first floor storefronts avaible?

  4. 557 8th Avenue in 1988 was Pete's Pizza .

  5. We just moved our Pilates Reforming NY studio into the 8th Ave side of the 3rd floor. I love this building! The 2nd floor tenant, The American Swiss Ballet School is now below us. We want to take care of it and share the history of this building. Joseph Pilates lived and worked at 939 Eighth Ave from 1926-1967 when he died. Historically I feel close to him now as I am sure he passed this building occasionally!

  6. I love this building. Always walk by it on my lunch breaks. Thanks for digging up all this info!