Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Bicycle Academy, Silversmiths, and Electric Guitars -- The 1896 No. 144 West 14th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1894 William J. Cabury, rector of the Church of the Annunciation on West 14th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, joined with scores of businessmen in protest against the proposed 14th Street elevated train.   The structure would block out the sunlight to the street and the ruckus created by the passing trains would be intolerable.

Reverend Cabury had more to worry about than an elevated train.

Fourteenth Street had been for decades a fashionable residential neighborhood.  The extra width of the street caused it to be airy and sunlit.  Merchant Richard P. Dana had built his home at No. 146 in 1854 and next door at No. 144 was Jaques Arnold Bernheimier.  A decade later Calvin Cross was living in the Bernheimier house.

Reverend Cabury’s Gothic Revival church had been built in 1846.  By 1877 the church had acquired No. 144 as its rectory and Cabury was living here when he protested the train.   But there was a far more serious issue facing the church.  It was in deep financial trouble.

By the 1890s West 14th Street was heavily commercial.   The 6th Avenue elevated train, erected in 1880, gave birth to a shopping district along 14th and the wide, brick or brownstone mansions were one-by-one razed or converted for commercial purposes.   As the residents moved away, the Church of the Annunciation lost its congregation.

On February 25, 1895 the church building and the four-story brownstone residence were lost in a foreclosure sale; sold for $50,000 to Joseph L. Buttenwieser.

Buttenwieser was an established wheeler-dealer in real estate and his interests, understandably, did not lie in the salvation of a church building only 50 years old with no supporting congregation.  Within the year the existing structures were gone and in their place was an attractive Renaissance Revival-style loft building.

Buttenwieser had commissioned the firm of Brunner & Tryon to design the building.   The seven-story loft was constructed of limestone and buff-colored brick with classical terra cotta detailing.    Costing around $250,000, it featured a row of eight soaring arches from the third to sixth floors, above which were sixteen one-story arches. 

Arnold W. Brunner had a background as a watercolorist and was a skilled draftsman.    The façade of No. 144 West 14th Street reaped the rewards of his training with exquisite detailing.
Brunner added cartouches flanked by delicate palm fronds between each pilaster -- photo by Alice Lum

Two years after its completion, Buttenwieser sold the building to Frederick Hill Meserve, executive director of the Deering Milliken Company.  Meserve passed the deed on to his uncle, Seth M. Milliken in 1899 and the family would hold at least a partial interest in the property until the middle of the 20th century.

No. 144 filled with a variety of tenants.   R. H. Macy & Company established a factory here in 1898 with two departments; one for manufacturing American flags and the other for “ladies silk waist and silk underwear.”   Silverman Brothers produced suspenders here and a variety of silver and jewelry concerns moved in as well.

Not intended to be a dreary factory building, it was covered by the architects with classical ornamentation -- photo by Alice Lum
Stern Brothers silver company (not to be confused with the Stern Brothers dry goods firm) moved in, and Graff, Washbourne & Dunn were silversmiths here for half a century before being bought out by Gorham Silver in 1961.  Lenox Silver Corporation and the electro-plating company of Cohen-Epner were tenants. 

But the building was not home merely to factories and jewelry makers.

The large, open floor plan made a perfect location for Karmel Brook’s bicycle academy.  As early as 1897 Brooks had opened his indoor academy here, and pupils were instructed on an oval track.  Bicycle racks lined the walls and all was going smoothly for Brook’s enterprise—until Mary L. Smith walked in the door.

The 45-year old Mrs. Smith felt it was high time to learn to ride a bike.   After her third lesson, on March 17, 1897, she felt she was proficient enough to negotiate the track unassisted.  After her second lap she veered into a bicycle rack and broke her right shoulder.  The doctor bill amounted to $138 and Mary Smith sued Brook for $7,500 insisting she would never use her arm again.

She told the judge that the bicycle racks were too close to the track, rendering the academy unsafe.   Brook, on the other hand, testified that Mrs. Smith “was entitled to only half an hour’s instruction, and she staid on her wheel in order to steal a ride after her time for instruction had expired.”

Feeling that the jury might be prejudiced by the fact that a middle-aged woman was bike riding at all, Justice Smyth instructed the jury to consider only whether the neglect was Mrs. Smith’s or Brook’s.  “This lady,” he said, “has long since reached the age of discretion, and if she desired to learn to ride a bicycle it was a matter for her own good taste, and she had the right to do so whether she was forty-five or one hundred and forty-five years old.  You have nothing to do with that.”

No. 144 continued to attract a diverse list of tenants.  In April 1935 Epiphone signed a lease that would extend nearly two decades.  The company designed and manufactured stringed musical instruments and was dubbed by The New York Times as “one of the world’s largest” of its kind.   The company’s success prompted it to double its space in the building only two years after moving in.  Here Epiphone produced the first “solid-body” electric guitar in 1941, designed by legendary jazz guitarist Les Paul.

photo by Alice Lum
The building was purchased by Pratt Institute in 1999.  The school immediately commissioned a renovation by architects Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn.  The rehabilitated structure has served as the Pratt Manhattan campus since 2001, encompassing instructional classrooms, labs, a library and offices as well as a respected public art gallery.

Although the doors could be more sympathetic to the structure, the entrance is intact -- photo by Alice Lum
While moderate changes to the façade occurred over the decades, the building has survived with no major damage to the original design.  Even the stately original main entrance at street level—traditionally one of the first elements to be removed or modernized—remains.    The building was designated a landmark in 2008.

1 comment:

  1. I complete agree with you mate, While moderate changes to the façade occurred over the decades, the building has survived with no major damage to the original design.