Thursday, August 25, 2011

The 1881 Century Building -- 33 East 17th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Arnold, Constable & Company's marble palazzo on Canal Street was patronized by New York’s elite carriage at the middle of the 19th century.  In 1867, however, Aaron Arnold considered a move as the migration of the city’s wealthy slowly inched northward.   Thinking ahead of the other dry goods merchants, he purchased houses on the south end of fashionable Union Square on East 17th Street.

A year later Arnold purchased additional homes, this time on Broadway at 19th Street and here he began building his extravagant cast iron Italian-style emporium that would far outshine his Marble House downtown.

As the 1870s drew to an end, the other retailers had followed suit and the Union Square area was lined with elegant stores such as Tiffany & Co. and Lord and Taylor.  The Arnold family contracted German-born architect William Schickel in 1879 to design a commercial building for the East 17th Street site which would be leased out to various tenants.

The resulting building was completed in 1881 at a cost of nearly $300,000.  There was a retail store on the first floor with various commercial spaces above.  Schickel worked in the eye-catching Queen Anne-style.  The style was much less common for commercial buildings than for domestic architecture.  The style's picturesque dormers and balconies, turrets and small-leaded windows, was raging across America for family homes with wrapping porches on sweeping lawns.

photo by Alice Lum

Schickel successfully transposed the style into his building, using fish scale shingles on the gambrel roof, terra cotta panels with garlands and shells, and imposing chimneys on either end of the roof.  A two-story oriel added dimension and interest.  Constructed of red brick trimmed in Wyoming bluestone, the building formed an L through the block with another, less impressive, façade on 18th Street.

The handsome new building filled quickly with high-class tenants, one of the first being the publishing firm Century Company which leased the fifth floor, just below the attic.   In their September 1882 issue of Century Magazine, the company said their new offices encompassed “an area…equal to an eight-story building covering an ordinary city lot” and the building was “architecturally speaking…the finest on Union Square.”

Ornate carved stone ornaments the street level -- photo by Alice Lum

When Century Company hung a large sign below the cornice announcing its name, the building quickly became known as The Century Building.

The ground floor store and the cellar were taken by Johnson & Faulkner’s high-end furniture store.    Worthington & Smith, milliners, moved onto a higher floor; as did the haberdashery firm Earl & Wilson, sellers of men’s shirts, collars and cuffs; and publisher Thomas Nelson & Sons, which printed the Nelson’s Series of Teachers’ Bibles.  By 1887 the well-regarded architect George B. Post had his offices in the building, holding the committee meetings to erect the memorial to architect Richard M. Hunt here in 1899.

The tenants complained to the Arnold family in 1886 when G. W. Alexander’s book binding firm took up space on the top floor.  The danger of fire, they complained, was too great with the many flammable materials needed for the work.  Their protests went unheeded.

Then, on July 7, 1888, a workman left a gas jet burning beneath a glue pot when he left for home.  The glue boiled over, ignited, and set the floor ablaze.  The floor burned through and the fire spread through Century Company’s offices.   By morning the top floor and roof were totally destroyed and the firefighters had broken through every ceiling in the building to prevent the massive amounts of water to collapse them. 

In the cellar, where Johnson & Faulkner stored much of its furniture, was four feet of water, Century Company’s editorial and art rooms were gutted and their “elaborately decorated” offices were badly damaged.  Johnson & Faulkner suffered $75,000 worth of ruined furniture, Earl &Wilson had about $25,000 in damages and G. W. Alexander about $55,000.  The cost to repair the building was estimated at about $195,000.

The fire caused scandal as well.   Earl & Wilson employee John S. Little discovered two firefighters, John Murphy and William Connors of Engine Company No. 14, stealing shirts and collars after the fire was put out.

The highly-recognized names of the tenants  gave national prominence to the address.   On August 14, 1895 young Minnie Noe ran away from her Jeffersonville, Indiana home leaving a note that read “I have gone to make my fortune.”  She was found hitch-hiking by a neighbor, Hamilton Johnson, only about a mile away from home with a satchel and a pasteboard sign that said “33 East Seventeenth Street New-York.”

Here in December 1893 the Century Company displayed the exhibit it had presented at the Chicago World’s Fair.  In an effort to demonstrate “in attractive revelations of calm, decisive, nervous, and fantastic moods” of famous people, the firm displayed manuscripts–poems, letters, stories–by Lincoln, Grant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bret Harte, and others.  It included the Lincoln and Douglas letters from July 24 to July 30, 1858; Lincoln’s letter of acceptance of his nomination of President dated 1860; and his corrected copy of the inaugural address.  There were plaster casts of Lincoln’s hands and face, the pencil with which Robert E. Lee had corrected the terms of the surrender at Appomattox, the documents of Kennan’s Siberian expedition, 17th century manuscripts and a raft of other historical relics.

By 1920 The Century Building (center) was squeezed between taller structures -- NYPL Collection

On August 9, 1903 another disastrous fire broke out, this time starting in defective electrical wiring on the third floor occupied by Baker & Taylor, wholesale booksellers and publishers.    On the floor above was the Tavshanjian Rug Company and before long the fire burned through the floor and raged upwards, reaching Earl & Wilson’s shirt establishment.   Firefighters had the blaze under control before it made it to the Century Company offices.

Tavshanjian’s stock–including rugs dating to the 16th century–was either burned or soaked.  The firm estimated its losses at $55,000 the following day.  Devastated, the owners held an auction the company’s entire stock within two months.  It would be the largest sale in the history of the rug trade, amounting to just under half a million dollars.

The Century Company left 33 East 17th Street in 1915, moving to Fourth Avenue after 35 years here.  Baker & Taylor left soon afterward; however the old standbys of Johnson & Faulkner and Earl & Wilson–despite two damaging fires–remained on through the 1920s.

While various tenants came and went, the building remained remarkably untouched.  In 1913 a second row of dormers was added to the roof by S. Edison Gage and little-by-little may of the small-paned windows were replaced with large sashes.  But the commercial space on the street level was astonishingly intact.
In 1935 the Century's western neighbor had disappeared.  -- NYPL Collection

Although the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building a landmark in 1986, it was vacant at the time and remained empty for a full decade.  Then, in 1995 Barnes & Noble booksellers (appropriately) decided to move in.  A full exterior restoration was initiated by architectural firm Li/Saltzman.  The outstanding restoration of the façade and lobby won the 1996 Preservation Award for Restoration by the Municipal Art Society and the Victorian Society’s America’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to Preservation and Restoration.

Despite award-winning restoration, stonework shows years of pollution and weather damage -- photo by Alice Lum
In designating the structure, the Landmarks Preservation Commission called it “one of the most picturesque in the city.”

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