Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Marble Palazzo for a Piano Store -- No. 433 Fifth Avenue

Although the millionaire Theron Butler had died in his brownstone mansion at 433 Fifth Avenue in 1886, the house was still referred to as the Theron Butler house 24 years later.

By 1910, when the former president – now known popularly as Colonel Roosevelt – returned from his sweeping European tour, the days were numbered for the staid old home. On June 13 the piano manufacturer Hardman, Peck & Co., signed a 21-year lease for the property from the Butler Estate on which to build its new showroom and offices; agreeing to rent ranging from $17,000 to $23,000 a year.

Six days later the Roosevelt family borrowed the mansion from Mrs. Alexander from which to view the massive parade welcoming “Colonel Roosevelt” home. The Roosevelts lunched, surrounded by Butler’s art collection including works by Corot, Millet, Bonheur and Rousseau, then watched the parade pass under the windows.

“Few of the crowd seemed to realize that they had an opportunity of seeing the Roosevelt family at Mrs. Alexander’s house, 433 Fifth Avenue. Yet there, balancing himself on the edge of some board sloping to the sidewalk, was Quentin Roosevelt. In the centre window Mrs. Roosevelt, Mrs. Alexander, and Miss Alexander sat and chatted, while behind them glimpses could be obtained of a tall young man, who was identified as Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.” reported The New York Times.

“Miss Alexander” was Eleanor Butler Alexander, Theron Butler's granddaughter. Before long she would be the wife of young Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

The next month plans were filed for the Hardman, Peck & Co., building. They called for “a six-story building of brick and stone, fitted with stores and showrooms.” The estimated cost of the structure was $50,000.

Before long the Theron R. Butler mansion was no more.

In its place rose a white marble Italianate palazzo designed by Harry Allan Jacobs. The 1911 Architectural Record glowed “The piano house at 433 Fifth Avenue, by Harry Allan Jacobs is one of the unqualified success of the year in the list of new business buildings.”

Flowers vined from the arcade and a theatrical drapery framed the shop window in 1911 -- photo Architectural Record (copyright expired)
At the second floor, Jacobs placed a triple-arched arcade that gave the façade depth and shadow. By placing the main cornice above the fifth floor, rather than atop the sixth, he downplayed the top floor and visually lowered the building’s height. Bas reliefs of musical instruments flanked the three windows below the cornice. A charming juliette balcony gave dimension at the fourth floor, over which the firm’s name was announced in a long panel.

A lighting fixture was suspended from the center of the arcade and a bas-relief panel over the doorway depicted children playing musical instruments -- photo 1911 Architectural Record (copyright expired)

The Record deemed it “one of the most exquisitely graceful buildings ever dedicated to a commercial use,” and said that of all the Italianate structures on Fifth Avenue this was “the most charming.”

Inside, heavy molded plaster ornamented the arches and ceilings.

Inside the Hardman, Peck pianos were displayed in a setting similar to a Fifth Avenue mansion. A graceful winding staircase curved up the rear wall beneath an arched stained glass window. Grand archways embellished with molded plaster separated show areas.

The 1911 issue of Bricklayer pointed to No. 433 as an example of the "extremely attractive small buildings" being built on 5th Avenue -- photo Bricklayer Magazine (copyright expired)
Hardman pianos rivaled Steinways and the firm enjoyed not only the patronage of the Metropolitan Opera Company and the famed tenor Enrico Caruso, but it was the chosen piano for the White House during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt term of office.

After more than a half-century in their building, Hardman, Peck & Co., moved to their new location at 33 West 57th Street in 1934. The bronze letters on the façade were removed, to be replaced with VIRIBUS UNITIS at some point thereafter. The reason for the Austrian imperial motto to appear on the building (which is loosely translated as “with united forces”) is unclear.

VIRIBUS UNITIS replaced Hardman's name mid-century -- photo by Beyond My Ken
In March 1958 Bill Meyer-Fifth Avenue, Inc. bought the building for a home furnishings retail store and wholesale showrooms.  But by the end of the century, the once-elegant piano showrooms were used as a discount merchandise store.  Hulking air conditioning ducts clung to the ornamented plaster ceilings and inexpensive backpacks were piled on the sill of the stained glass window.

A graceful staircase still winds upwards below a stained glass window.
Although the retail space is now used as an apparel store, the interior is still badly neglected.  Outside, the elegant marble palazzo has changed little.  The fifth floor cornice and balcony have been lost, the Austrian motto has been removed and the graceful arcade has been glassed in to maximize floor space inside.  Yet No. 433 remains an elegant fixture on midtown 5th Avenue.

non-credited photographs taken by the author


  1. I have a relative who was once a president of Hardman, Peck. & Co. What a shame that such an elegant building has fallen into such a sad state. The stained glass window is gorgeous and the staircase that winds up the wall beside it is sheer elegance!

    I guess it could be worse and the building could have either been "improved" by horrible modernization or torn down in the name of "progress", but it's like watching a slow death, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Will a knight on a white horse appear with deep pockets to restore this jewel to it's former glory? I certainly and fervently hope so!

  2. If I had the money or ever won the lottery I would purchase the building and invest to restore the building to its orignal natural beauty. I would enjoy living in a 6 story home like that in Manhattan!!

  3. My father owned the building in the 60's-70's and there was rumor it had been Roosevelt's home. Seems like there was a tenuous connection, but that Teddy didn't really live there.

    1. In the 1970's when i was a very young mortgage broker I once financed the building for your father. The tenant was "Kaufman's Fine Imported Shoes" I believe.
      Andrew J. Singer