Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Ambitious Little 1896 Buildings at Nos. 519-527 Sixth Avenue

Thomson's three small buildings successfully pretend to be just one -- photo by Alice Lum

West 14th Street had ceased to be a fashionable residential area in 1896. The brownstone homes had been replaced by retail stores as the neighborhood around Sixth Avenue became a major shopping area.  And by now, the emporiums were gradually moving northward on Sixth Avenue, creating what was known as the Ladies’ Mile.

Albert Wyckoff recognized the trend and rather than erect a new gargantuan retail building like those going up on the Avenue, he planned three office buildings with small stores at the sidewalk level.

The Sixth Avenue elevated train had reached the intersection of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue in 1881 and while it signaled a boom to business, it also brought problems.  Property owners along the route filed suit against the Manhattan Railway Company for structural damages caused by the rumbling vibrations of the passing cars.

Architect Theo Thomson intended to thwart the tremors.

Theodore E. Thomson’s name was routinely abbreviated in publications like American Architect and Building News as Theo. E. Thomson and after some time he was being referred to simply by the shortened version. His works throughout the city were most often clad in heavy stone and brick and his structure for Wyckoff would be no exception.

Thomson placed his four-story brick and stone buildings—there was no steel framework—on a heavily-reinforced foundation.  Located at the southwest corner of West 14th and Sixth Avenues, the buildings pretended to be a single structure.  Their continuous Romanesque Revival fa├žade featured arched windows, a pressed-metal cornice and an eye-catching, slightly-projecting corner turret capped with a tiled cone.

photo by Alice Lum

The yellow brick was trimmed in rough-faced granite.  At street level were decorated doorways--the entrance to the corner retail space was ornamented with Corinthian columns. For those passengers passing above street level inside the elevated trains, the turret and robust stone stringcourses made the structure visually appealing.

The result was three relatively small buildings that combined into a nearly-monumental whole.  Thomson’s heavy, solid design it created a visually larger and more massive bearing—what the Columbia University School of Architecture described as a “mighty” presence.

Wyckoff directed the architect to create multiple rooms throughout the buildings to enable him to rent to a larger number of tenants.  The upper floors were leased to small offices and businesses while the street level was home to a variety of commercial tenants.

In 1907 a moving picture show was operating in 527 Sixth Avenue and by 1916 Child’s Restaurant was in the space.  Child’s had several “Dairy Lunch Rooms” around the city which, according to Rider’s New York City and Vicinity in 1916 “have set a standard in the way of sanitary service and excellence of quality at very modern prices.”

Child's Restaurants were clean and affordable -- vintage postcard

The neighborhood at the corner of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue gradually changed.  In 1936 the Sixth Avenue elevated stopped running and was soon dismantled, spilling sunlight into the ground floor shops for the first time in half a century.  In 1940 519 Sixth A enue was converted to apartments–two per floor, while Nos. 525 and 527 continued as business spaces.  There were twelve retail stores on the first floor.

Little by little the buildings were converted to residential use until, in 1954, only No. 527 rented to commercial tenants.

That year 527 Sixth Avenue had a one-family residence on the fourth floor, sales rooms on the ground floor and cellar, a beauty parlor on the second floor and offices on the third.

Today all three buildings have been converted to apartments above the ground floor.  The handsome brick-and-granite building suffered much abuse throughout the later years of the 20th century.  The conical turret cap has lost its tiles, all traces of the decorative doorways and the ornate corner entrance have been obliterated and the street level is defaced by a mishmash of garish store signs.

The conical turret cap has lost its tiles and the cornice is sadly maintained -- photo by Alice Lum

Nos. 519-527 Sixth Avenue, however, still retains the architectural integrity and powerful presence intended by Theo Thomson in 1896.

UPDATE:  Demolition on the buildings commenced in April 2023.

2 comments:

  1. They recently have taken down the cone, unfortunately. Gone. Not sure when it happened.

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  2. A friend just sent a link to this older post. Could you help with an update about the history of the now exposed murals on the brick side of the back building (on brick building next door on 14th st I think, the large mural on the upper section is very faded and another smaller one towards the center right clearly says HH Corset, both face east).

    The demo of this building is nearly complete- as of Aug 9th but there’s still time to see it. Thank you.

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