Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Muslin Drawers and Compassion -- Nos. 45-51 West 21st Street

Until 1901 the Evangelical Lutheran Church stood on the north side of West 21st Street between 5th and 6th Avenues.  Smart brownstone residences lined the street, the last remnants of the block’s genteel history that was quickly coming to an end.

By now Fifth Avenue in the area was commercial and many of the 21st Street homes had been converted for business purposes.  Where the Lutheran Church had been were now two industrial loft buildings stretching from No. 45 to 51.

Meanwhile, further downtown on at Nos. 105-113 Wooster Street was the office and factory building of D. E. Sicher & Co.   The firm had begun in 1872 with three sewing machine operators and grew to be the largest women’s underwear manufacturers in the world.  By now it employed 3,000 workers who turned out “muslin drawers” and other feminine under garments.

When one of the loft buildings on West 21st Street was heavily damaged by fire in 1908, Dudley D. Sicher, president of D. E. Sicher, jumped on the opportunity.  On September 13 the New York Tribune reported that the company purchased both buildings.
Three days later The New York Times added its take.  “The removal of this concern…from Wooster Street to Twenty-first Street is a striking illustration of the northward migration from the older mercantile district,” it said, “and will probably be not without influence in bringing about other removals.”  The article projected that Sicher would spent about $100,000 to renovate the building and install its new factory.

The firm hired architects Goldwin, Starrett & Van Vleck to re-do the damaged building.   Completed in February 1909, it was an exceptionally handsome industrial structure.  Composed of red brick with limestone trim, it rose six floors from the pavement.  Two heavy stone entrances flanked the long salesroom space at street level.  The upper floors were dedicated to office and factory space.  Expansive windows on the second and third floors allowed sunlight to flood into the work areas.  Contrasting with the red brick were carved limestone pediments and window framing, and quoins.  

The New York Times printed a rendering of the building a year before its completion (copyright expired)
Dudley Sicher would earn a reputation through his concern of workers’ safety and conditions.  His input was evident here.  “In these workrooms many new devices will be employed both for disposing of waste materials and adding to the building’s sanitary and fireproof qualities,” reported The Times.
The new building also boasted its own “light, power, and ventilating plants.”

The workers who filled the upper floors of the Sicher Building were mostly untrained, uneducated immigrants; many of them girls in their late teens.  Working conditions for sewing girls at the beginning of the century were often brutal.  As labor unions rose up against harsh owners and managers, strikes crippled production.  The result was often vicious retaliation by management.

Unusual for factory buildings of the time, large windows on the second and third floor gave sewing girls exceptional sunlight.
Sicher, on the other hand, was compassionate.  In 1912 he pleaded with other factory owners to participate in collective bargaining and to recognize the union.  His own workers, accustomed to wages above scale, ultimately refused to join the labor organizations and Sicher’s factory paradoxically became a union shop in principle and an open shop in practice.  He introduced the idea of a company cafeteria and a “clubroom” in which workers had “community sings” to alleviate the monotony of their work day.
In the spring of 1913 the garment industry was hit with a general strike.  Rather than bristle at the workers’ insolence, Dudley Sicher was moved.   Years later he would recall that one of his earliest memories was of his father lugging a bucket of coal up five flights of stairs to keep his six or seven employees warm in the winter.  It was a legacy he would carry with him throughout his life.

On March 26, at a dinner of the Cotton Garment Manufacturers of New York, he read aloud a poem he had composed during the strike.  His hope was to inspire the other members “to recognize their obligations and responsibilities toward their employees.”
Sicher’s poem was entitled “The Dawn of a Better Day” and included lines such as:

Let us wipe the slate of the bitter score,
Let us turn the blotted page,
And grant that we owe our workers more
Than the dole of a “living wage.”
They give us more than their time and skill
In the health and strength they spend,
And earn the right to the kindly will
And helpful hand of a friend.
We must give them more than the coin we pay
Ere we hail the Dawn of a Better Day.

That same year Sicher was overtaken with an innovative and unheard of idea.   Strikes could be avoided, he decided, if the workers were educated.  Paid schooling for the immigrant girls was his solution.
“The idea came to me when the strike was on,” he told a reporter for The Evening World.  He explained that the Irish-American, German-American and “plain American” workers who had at least an elementary education “stuck by us—even sent a committee to assure the firm they had no complaint.”

“But the other girls, who came mostly from the pasture lands of Russia and Siberia, marched out the minute the strike was declared…I found out that the girls who walked out did so because they were undeveloped mentally and took their ideas from the mouth of some fiery agitator.”

Sicher convinced the Board of Education to conduct a test program with sixteen girls.  The first group of eight would attend classes in English, arithmetic, and “mental, moral and physical hygiene” for a week, earning their regular pay.  The two groups would alternate in work and school every week thereafter throughout the test period.

“The idea of the experiment is to help employees to help themselves.  We want to assist them in making their pay envelopes go further.  We desire to help the girls by training them for economic advancement.”

A year later, after the program had become fully-established, Lizzie E. Rector, principal of Public School 4 where the girls were taught, told The Sun ”If the employers of New York city would show the interest in this matter that D. E. Sicher has it wouldn’t require fire years to wipe out the illiteracy in this city.”

On June 4, 1914 Dudley Sicher hosted the first graduation exercises for the factory girls who wore white dresses and, according to a Times editorial, “were as proud as the graduating class at any commencement in the country.”  The excusably-proud Sicher commented, “this is the first attempt of the kind in New York City, possibly in the world and is the beginning of a great movement to hasten assimilation necessary to national unit; to promote industrial betterment by reducing friction caused by failure to comprehend directions and to decrease the waste and loss of wage incidental to the illiterate worker.”

The concept, in 1914, of paying workers to sit in school rooms rather than to sit at sewing machines was revolutionary, in the very least.  But it would not be the end of Dudley Sicher’s forward-thinking ideas regarding his workers.

In April 1917, just days before the United States entered World War I, the American Red Cross spoke to 500 of D. E. Sicher’s employees during the lunch hour.  The girls were invited to enroll in evening classes in hygiene and caring for the sick.

The New York Tribune reported that “Most of the girls, who are nearly all foreign born, accepted the offer enthusiastically.  If this experiment is productive of results, other factories in the city will be called upon.”

Fredericka Farley of the Red Cross told the girls that in “case of hostilities” their services could be invaluable.  “Should war be declared, the workers of factories and, in fact, all groups of trained workers, would be most useful to the government.  For example, this factory might be set to work of supplying the government with hospital garments.”

Dudley Sicher announced that since the course took one and a half hours, he would allow the girls to leave work forty-five minutes early with full pay.   As the country was pulled into the war, the girls received the rank of “nurse’s helper” and were eligible to help in government service for cooking, serving food or aiding the sick and wounded.

By 1918 Sicher had established a school on the factory premises for all employees, male and female.  Every morning for forty-five minutes employees who wished to participate received instruction in speaking and writing English, composing letters, fundamentals of arithmetic, history and civic government, good citizenship, use of the telephone and the telephone book, and finding one’s way around the city streets, among other useful information.  A teacher was provided by the Board of Education and the workers received their full pay for the time.

The New York Tribune praised the in-house school.  “[The worker] learns thrift, and subsequently orderliness.  Gradually he feels the thrill of power that comes through knowledge.  He hears the foreman talking to the boss and understands what is being planned for his welfare and the success of his business.  For the first time he appreciates the fact that he is a necessary part of an organization, and natural pride manifests itself in quicker movements and an eager alertness to get the most out of his particular job.”

War brought with it harder times and in 1919 Sicher predicted “that both merchandise and labor are going to continue to become scarcer for many months to come, and that pre-war prices in almost all liens of merchandise and commodities are not to be looked for for many years to come.”

Hard times did not cause the progressive manufacturer to waiver in his programs.  He continued with his aspiration of educating not only his staff, but the 20,000 immigrant garment workers in the city.

In 1927 D. E. Sicher & Co., the largest ladies’ lingerie manufacturer in the country, was also turning out “wool shawls, such as are now in vogue in this country, ladies’ hand bags, and men’s athletic underwear, both two-piece and union suits.”  That year Dudley Sicher decided to close his factory so he could devote his full energies to charitable causes.

The factory doors would not be closed for another year, however.  “Not until the last of the 500 employees had been placed with other concerns did Mr. Sicher close the factory,” reported The Times.

Dudley David Sicher died at his home at 15 East 80th Street on December 29, 1939.  He had spent the remainder of his life in philanthropic endeavors, donating his full-time positions with several organizations.  The mark left on the garment industry by the caring and compassionate Sicher was immeasurable.

The dignified factory building of D. E. Sicher & Co. filled with a variety of tenants as West 21st Street became decidedly industrial.    Towards the end of the century the ground floor became home to an enormous night club.  Today 20,000 square foot of the building is home to Duvet, a venue space and club.

In April 2011, as the Chelsea neighborhood continued its trendy metamorphosis, the architectural firm of Insite 123 Development signed a five-year least for nearly 3,000 square feet on the fourth floor.

The cast iron ground floor remains unchanged in 2011.
In the meantime, the handsome exterior of the D. E. Sicher & Co. building – where muslin drawers were sewn and immigrant girls learned English—is essentially unchanged.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Lost 1807 St. John's Chapel -- Varick near Hudson Streets

photo Library of Congress

In the first years of the 19th century, Trinity Episcopal Church owned vast amounts of land north of the city, granted by the British Crown in 1705.  The Board of Trinity moved to begin development of this unused land, known as the Church Farm, and on September 13, 1802 resolved to erect a chapel of convenience.

When, in March 1803, the Board announced the intended site, an uproar ensued.  Erecting a substantial church structure along Hudson Street to the north, it was widely felt, was foolish.  The area was undeveloped and boggy, filled with reeds and overrun with mosquitoes and snakes.    It was a rural area “where was skating in winter and hunting in summer.”

Trinity was undeterred.  The chapel was intended to be the focal point of what would become an exclusive residential neighborhood, centered on a private park. 

Architect John McComb had recently completed the design for New York City’s distinguished City Hall, with Joseph-Francois Magnin, which was currently being constructed.  The church gave the commission for St. John’s Chapel to McComb.

Construction began later that year and as the church rose, the previously-worthless Hudson Square was converted to an elegant park.  By the time the chapel was completed in 1807, St. John’s Park had become accepted as a fashionable area and elegant Federal mansions were being constructed.

The Chapel, the park and the surrounding residences created the most exclusive enclave in New York -- print The New York Mirror 1829 (copyright expired)

John McComb’s completed St. John’s Chapel was magnificent.  A near-copy of London’s St. Martin-in-the-fields, it cost a staggering $172,833.   The organ, ordered in Philadelphia, cost another $6,000.  In 1908 the Architectural Record would call it “in the straitest sect of the British Georgian of its period.”  A prominent double-height portico, supported by carved Corinthian sandstone columns sheltered the entrance.  Above, a glorious 214-foot tower rose. 
The church was among the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the United States -- photo NYPL Collection

“The interior of St. John’s, with its towering side columns and high, wide, sweeping arches, is in keeping with the imposing exterior,” the New-York Tribune commented a century after construction.

photo NYPL Collection

St. John’s Park, anchored by the chapel, became the most fashionable residential neighborhood of the city.  Well-dressed ladies strolled its paths and elegant carriages discharged the most respected citizens at the doors of surrounding homes.

St. John's Chapel and the park in winter around 1865 -- print NYPL Collection

Trinity Church was not only in the business of saving souls, it was in the business of business.  Two years after the end of the Civil War the church shocked New York City by selling St. John’s Park to the Hudson River Railroad Company.    The company immediately began plans to replace the refined private green with a freight terminal.

A stereopticon slide captured the destruction of St. John's Park, to be replaced by a freight terminal, around 1868. 

St. John’s Chapel, however, continued on even as its wealthy parishioners began moving away from the noise and dirt of the new rail yards.  On December 25, 1869, the New-York Tribune reported on the chapel’s holiday decorations.  “There are more than thirty trees in the church, which in some degree, wears the air of a little garden.  A running vine festoons the arches on the west end, and the capitals of the pillars are festooned with laurels.”  The article added that “There will be an interesting children’s festival in the church on Tuesday evening, 28th inst., when presents will be liberally distributed, and there will be a grand Christmas tree.”

The following year a similar event was held when approximately 2,000 children crowded into the chapel.  “Before the altar was a huge Christmas tree profusely decorated, and lighted by a calcium light,” reported the New-York Tribune on December 28, 1870.  “The gifts for the children, chiefly books and toys, were spread on tables in front of the altar.  The presents were valuable, liberal contributions, having been made by the vestry of Trinity parish, to which the chapel belongs, and by the congregants.”

One-by-one the grand brick homes were either razed or converted to warehouses and offices as their owners fled the neighborhood.    In 1890 The Real Estate Record and Guide noted that fashionable citizens thought “it vulgar to live among the packing boxes, and to inhale the odor of fresh fish and tarpaulins.”   John McComb’s refined Georgian edifice now sat among decidedly unfashionable structures.

In 1892 the vestry of Trinity announced its intentions to raze St. John’s chapel.  The remaining congregants, as well as indignant citizens who simply admired the chapel’s architectural beauty, rebelled.   An ongoing battle to save or destroy the church ensued that would last two decades.  At the forefront was St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Philip A. H. Brown who earned the sobriquet “The Fighting Vicar.”

On Sunday, May 2, 1896 Dr. Brown spoke of the church from its pulpit.  “It stands today, with its weather-beaten, but still magnificent porch, its thick strong walls, built to last for centuries, one of the finest specimens of this kind of architecture to be found in the country.  There are in this city many more costly church buildings, but I don’t know of any which so impresses me with the quiet dignity belonging to the House of God as does St. John’s.”

In 1908 Dr. Manning, Rector of Trinity Church, closed the chapel, saying it “was not good business or religion to continue services where the attendance was so small.”

With Dr. Brown’s death in 1909, the cause was taken up by other concerned citizens as Trinity moved closer to demolition.   In April of that year John Burke “and others” filed an injunction against the “Rector, Churchwardens, and Vestrymen of Trinity church, and others,” to prevent the destruction of St. John’s Chapel. 

Things worsened in 1912 when the Board of Estimate planned the widening of Varick Street – the portico of St. John’s Chapel sat squarely in the path of the road improvement. 

Yet, Borough President George McAneny took up the church’s cause with a brilliant scheme.  He proposed that the structure be preserved with the sidewalk simply running under the portico.  The plan was based on the identical treatment of St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s churches in Charleston, South Carolina.    The city was in agreement.   All that was necessary was the consent of the corporation of Trinity Church.

But the Church was still in the business of business.   The land on which the century-old structure sat—once virtually worthless—had become exceedingly valuable.     Writing in The American Architect in 1912, Ransom W. Haddon recognized the looming danger.

“It is a fact, unfortunate as true, that most of the people here in America take little interest in the few remaining good examples of early Colonial architecture that have escaped destruction…A good example is offered by St. John’s, one of the chapels of Trinity Church, in this city, now menaced by the proposed widening of Varick Street…Unless some action is speedily taken, this venerable building will soon be razed.”

John A. Handforth pleaded in a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, noting the priceless architectural integrity of the building.  “Of the churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren now remaining in the City of London proper,” he wrote, “only two, St. Bride’s and St. Mary-Le-Bow, exceed it in beauty as to detail, and neither is so finely proportioned as is old St. John’s.”
The widening of Varick Street inches closer to St. John's Chapel (background) in 1918 --photo gbfans.com

Intent on realizing the property value under the church, Trinity announced it would donate the building to anyone buying the land.  The chess game went on as the widening of Varick Street inched closer and closer to St. John’s Chapel.

And then time ran out.

On October 6, 1918, The New York Times mourned, “In the demolition of St. John’s Chapel New York has lost not only a revered landmark but one of the choicest specimens of Georgian church architecture in the United States…Architects have agreed that St. John’s had few if any superiors of its kind either in England or this country, and it has been said that neither the justly admired St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, Christ Church in Philadelphia, nor King’s Chapel in Boston surpassed it in simplicity of proportion or exquisite refinement of architectural detail.”
Within two years Trinity Church Corporation got its wish when it sold the land to Adolph Pricken of Coastwise Warehouses for a $2 million warehouse.

The AIA Guide to New York City perhaps best summarized the loss.  Speaking of the concrete-covered, traffic jammed area still called St. John’s Park, it said “…try to superimpose this image: gents in top hats and elegant women in long skirts strolling in a gracefully quiet park lined with staid houses, the chapel bells tolling in the evening.  All gone.  Our ancestors preserved many a New York treasure, but blew it here.”

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The 1886 Grammar School No. 8 -- 29 King Street

photo by Alice Lum
David I. Stagg was a busy man in the 1880s.  As Superintendent of School Buildings, he was also responsible for designing them and by now there was a flurry of construction as the public school system expanded.   On December 14, 1884 alone he submitted plans for two new school buildings and an addition to an existing one.

A year later he would be working on another building – Grammar School No. 8 in Greenwich Village.    Originally Public School No. 8, it was founded by the New York Public School Society and was turned over to the Board of Education in 1853.  That school building stood on the north side of Grand Street for decades but, as the New York Tribune explained, “The uptown march of population, however, began to leave No. 8 far behind.”

As commercial interests replaced residential neighborhoods, enrollment dwindled.  The population of Greenwich Village, on the other hand, was booming.  A row of Federal-style brick houses on King Street were razed to make way for the school and Stagg turned to the trendy Queen Anne style for his dignified, if unexpected, design.

Construction began in 1886 and was completed in August of the next year.  Three stories of brick sat on a substantial ground floor base of limestone.  Stone quoins and window pediments provided contrast with the red brick.  Numerous foliate-ornamented brackets upheld the cornice which was broken by a fanciful central parapet over a stone-framed bullseye window.  The new school, which cost a total of $250,000, could accommodate 1,200 students.

By the time the school was completed, Stagg was no longer Superintendent of Buildings.
The school stood out for the academic achievement of its students.  Of the fifteen who were presented diplomas in 1893, six of them were slated to enter the City College.   The student body, composed entirely of boys, reflected the mixed population of Greenwich Village.  On March 12, 1895 the New York Tribune noted “There are few schools in New-York where the intermingling of nationalities is so marked as in Grammar School No. 8, in King-st., between Macdougal and Varick sts.  In this school the American, Italian, Irish, German and Polish Hebrew pupils are pretty evenly divided and form an interesting study to the teachers.

“Being on the west side of the city, these pupils are from a comparatively well-to-do class of citizens, and present their several races in a more favorable light than in some other quarters,” the writer said.

He then proceeded to do what, by a modern viewpoint, was a rather racist dissection of the student body.  “The Italian pupils surpass their classmates in draughting and designing, but they are deficient in mathematics.  On the other hand, they are easily kept in order and seem to have great respect for their teachers, while their parents manifest a most earnest desire to have them perfect themselves in the English language.  The Irish are found to be quick in mathematics, while the Hebrews are proficient in general work.”

A limestone panel in the parapet announces the date of construction -- photo by Alice Lum
Although the building was only eight years old, its poor functional design was clearly evident.  While Stagg had produced an attractive façade, the interior arrangements and sanitary conditions fell far short of acceptable.   On January 5 of that same year The New York Times complained of the school’s outhouses, called “closets.” 

“Grammer School No. 8…suffers from lack of room, and has wretched closets, which endanger the health of the pupils and teachers.  There is not more than five feet of space between the rear of the school and a block of tenements…This space is utilized for the closets, which are of old construction and very bad.  The odors from the closets permeate the entire school building and are frequently unbearable.”

The problem was not limited to the sanitary arrangements.  The school was dark.  The Tribune said “Unfortunately, it is situated in the centre of a block and on the west side of it a five-story flathouse has been built, which shuts out much light from the lower floors of the school building, so that on rainy days it is necessary to burn gas.”

Dr. Moreau Morris of the Health Department inspected the school in January 1895 and reported “Has the old school sink closets, very offensive.  Should be changed for new automatic flush closets.  Over 1,200 children in attendance.”   Eventually modern plumbing would be installed in the school and the stench of 1,200 children using the outdoor privies alleviated. 

Darkness and unpleasant odors aside, Principal Elias Whitehead was bullish on his boys.  “I am very much interested in the spirit and ambition shown by the boys of No. 8,” he told reporters.  “The boys of foreign parents seem to vie with each other in their efforts to become thoroughly American.  When I read the roll of honor every Monday morning, I notice a very considerable percentage of Italian boys in the list.  They are all enthusiastic in their Americanism and will make the right sort of citizens when they grow up to be voters.”

Female students were permitted into the building beginning in 1889 for free evening classes.  The girls, who were required to be at least 16 years of age, could enroll in classes teaching “bookkeeping, penmanship, phonography, physiology, German, French or Spanish, arithmetic, freehand drawing, etc.”

By 1914 the demographics of Greenwich Village were no longer “comparatively well-to-do,” as they were in twenty years earlier.   Sections of the area were among the most impoverished in the city and some boys arrived at school hungry.   Social reformers targeted the Village with relief efforts such as Greenwich House where poor immigrant women were helped to better their living conditions.

Mrs. William B. Einstein who was President of the Widowed Mothers’ Fund Association started the Penny Lunch Program which included Grammar School No. 8.   For one cent the students could purchase a hot lunch in the cafeteria.  “For most of these children it is the only hot meal of the day,” she said.

Half a century later, in May 1958 the school became The Livingston School for Girls.  Despite its high-tone sounding name, it was the last hope for hard-core juvenile delinquents that regular public schools could not handle. 

The school was termed a “600” school, because its twelve teachers were paid $600 a year more than other teachers—a sort of hazardous duty pay.  The Livingston School was the city’s only public school exclusively for delinquent girls.

The principal, Dr. Esther Rothman, read to a reporter a list of typical reasons the girls—from 13 to 18 years of age—were sent to Livingston.  “Threatens classmates with bodily harm, punches boys, steals textbooks and property, shouts in class, throws temper tantrums, intercepts and destroys mail, uses vile language at teachers, smokes in school, wielded knife against teacher, chased girl with knife, struck boy over head with chair, pushed girl down stairs, throws furniture, rings fire alarm.”
To combat the psychological problems the girls faced, the staff attempted to give them a sense of self-worth.  Every girl, for instance, who made the weekly honor roll—based on punctuality, good behavior and five straight days without truancy—was given a corsage.  A local florist donated thirty-five of them every week.

Despite the unsightly window air conditioners, the Queen Anne building -- a relative rarity in New York-- is well preserved -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1981 Grammar School No. 8 was converted to 39 luxury apartments.    Behind the restored façade, which the AIA Guide to New York City called “a lively Queen Anne,” million dollar condominiums replace the school rooms where immigrant boys learned mathematics and drafting.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The 1872 Remnants of No. 172 Duane Street

photo by Alice Lum
A century before the area would be called Tribeca, architect, Jacob Weber designed a two-story loft and store building at No. 172 Duane Street. Accounts differ regarding the original purpose – most sources saying it was home to the World Cheese or Weber Cheese company; others putting an importer of rare lumber into the building. In any case, Weber outdid himself on the delightful design.

Construction was begun in 1871 and completed a year later. The cast iron façade did not apologize for its diminutive size. Three robust arches lined up on both floors with the square Corinthian columns of the street level boasting intricate fern-like capitals. Ornate spandrels, egg-and-dart decoration along the spans and a harmonious cornice of repeating arches set the little building apart from its neighbors.

The Duane Street neighborhood was decidedly industrial and by 1891 rag trader Berg & Myers was doing business here. Founded in 1886 by Isadore Berg and Edward N. Myers, the firm handled from 200 to 300 bales of woolen rags a week and by now was employing 25 to 30 full time workers. History and Commerce of New York, 1891, noted that “The premises the firm occupies are large and conveniently located, and afford ample storage capacity.”

Despite the fact that the periodical felt “Both gentlemen are favorably known in business circles, and noted for their upright, liberal and energetic business methods,” the Jewish businessmen ran into troubles.

Duane Street was lined with other Jewish-owned businesses, like Simon Rawitzer’s woolen rag company and Nathan Levy’s soda-water fountain. The men necessarily used the sidewalk to bring goods in and out of their establishments and in 1891 were the victims of extortion.

Three years later Isidor Berg testified before a State Senate Committee that he was frequently threatened with arrest.

“I got tired of being fined, so I spoke to a policeman on the beat about it, and asked him what I could do to avoid trouble. He told me he would send a man to see me.

“The man came around the next day, and said he thought he could arrange matters so I would not be annoyed. I asked him what it would cost, and he said $50 for the year.

“I told him that was too much, and offered $25, and the officer said he’d try it.”

Berg placed the $25 into an envelope as Officer Kelly instructed. “He was very careful to tell me it must be put in an envelope,” testified Berg.

A year later, Berg said, Officer Kelly returned. “He said he had ‘Come to renew the lease.’”

Berg & Myers soon moved on and in 1893 No. 172 Duane was home to Cordley & Hayes. The company would stay on for nearly two decades, selling goods made by Fibrotta Indurated Fiber Ware such as bottle coolers and ice cream freezers.

At the turn of the century it advertised its “Twentieth Century Ice Cream Freezers, which freeze cream without a dash or revolving can, together with Ice Water Receptacles, Rolling Stands for potted plants and many other articles in Fiber Ware.”

In 1907 Cordley & Hayes introduced an improved “XXth Century Bottle Cooler” which was “so shaped as to offer a larger surface to the action of the ice.” The cooler kept the ice from coming in contact with the drinking water and prevented “the evil of immersing ice in drinking water” and thereby contaminating it with “dirt and germs.” Cordley & Hayes assured that the new coolers were “recommended on the score of both health and economy.”

For a short time beginning around 1910 H. W. Covert Co. was here. The company sold fireplace throats and dampers, iron coal windows and other fireplace products.

Then in 1912 William O. Saxton purchased the building from the estate of Mary E. Brinckerhoff. Saxton was the founder and president of Saxton, Co., Inc., a commission merchant. Immediately Johnstone & Coughlan took the lease of No. 172 Duane Street. The company was a commission house which dealt in butter and eggs. In 1912 it boasted “You can’t help but look pleasant if you do business with us.”

The business was run by W. W. Johnstone and F. M. Coughlan and was pronounced by Milk Plan Monthly in 1915 as “one of the most progressive commission houses in the East.”

Although William O. Saxton died of a heart attack on December 14, 1935, Johnstone & Coughlan would remain at No. 172 Duane Street for most of the century.

By the 1990s Tribeca was no longer home to butter and egg dealers or rag traders. Although the second half of the century had been rough on the area – cast iron facades in the 1970s and 80s were rusted and brick buildings were grime-covered—by now trendy restaurants and high-priced residential lofts were replacing industrial space. The Landmarks Preservation Commission was considering the entire section as an historic district.

In 1989 No. 172 Duane Street was slathered in metal advertisements and the cast iron was abused and neglected. The new owner wanted a new, modern space and commissioned world-renowned architect Vincenzo Polsinelli to create it. At the time there were no landmark restrictions on the buildings and restoration or demolition was purely up to the discretion of the owners and designers.

Polsinelli later said that while the façade was in a “sinful state of preservation” he recognized its historic and architectural importance. The façade was dismantled and sent to Utah for restoration.

In the meantime, the 19th century loft was replaced by a sleek glass block-fronted building with no hint of history.

The cast iron facade was impeccably restored in 1991.  When it returned, its building was gone.  -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1991 the impeccably restored façade was set in place, six feet in front of the new building. Called by the Historic Districts Council “nicely designed and detailed to make a small building impressive,” it now served as a gateway. Polsinelli and the building’s owner received wide-spread congratulations for saving the cast iron front and incorporating it into the new design.

Yet preservationists held back a bit. Calling the practice “facadism,” – a term never meant to intimate applause—they mourned the loss of the original structure.

photo by Alice Lum
Alex Herrera of the New York Landmarks Conservancy said “An historic building is an entity. The idea of saving a façade and building an entirely different building behind it has been discredited.”

Hip hop impresario Damon Dash took a long-term lease on the building, labeling it DD172. Here he ran a video agency, web design firm, a magazine and an art gallery until June 2011.

The building’s owner now had new, more ambitious plans. He called back Vincenzo Polsinelli to create a four-story, 8,000-square foot single family residence behind the 140-year old façade. But by now the Tribeca West Historic District was firmly in place and changes required approval.

It was not forthcoming.

The architect is reworking his plans which, as originally designed, would “reduce the historic building to being a pretty little pendant on the large new structure,” as the Historic Districts Council put it.

In the meantime, the exquisite ruins of No. 172 Duane Street sit like a movie set in front of a building with which it has nothing in common.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

R. H. Robertson's Masterful St. Paul's Methodist Church -- West End Ave. and 86th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Many late 19th century architects rightly felt themselves the heirs to all that had passed before them. That philosophy led to the design of structures described as a “happy marriage of styles.” And so it was with Robert H. Robertson’s St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church on West End Avenue at 86th Street.

In 1895 St. Paul’s parish was already sixty-one years old, having been founded in 1834 in the then-residential Mulberry Street area near Bleecker Street.  Progressive from its beginnings, it was only the second “pewed” Methodist church in New York City.  Half a century later a writer for The New York Times would explain that “As such it naturally gained a certain amount of notoriety, ‘pews’ being then considered by the great mass of the Methodists in the light of an innovation, and as such to be resisted to the last extremity.”

Thirty-six years after moving northward to Fourth Avenue and East 22nd Street in 1857, the congregation decided to move one last time—now to the rapidly developing Upper West Side.

St. Paul’s white marble church building on East 22nd Street was “known for many years…as the most expensive Methodist Church edifice in the city,” according to The New York Times. The congregation sold it in 1893 for $304,000 and held services for a time in the chapel of the Methodist Book Concern on Fifth Avenue at 20th Street, along what was called “Pater Noster Row,” while its next move was discussed.

On May 12, 1894, the purchase of seven lots on West End Avenue for $125,000 was announced, along with plans for a “new church, schoolroom, and parsonage.”

Robertson stepped away from the Romanesque Revival style he had so successfully embraced in the 1880's, and dipped into an array of historic periods to create what was undeniably a “happy marriage of styles.”

Construction on the new church was begun in 1895 and the ambitious project was not completed until two years later. Inside the cornerstone, laid on June 27, 1895, were the 1857 cornerstone, a piece of the marble from the old church and various contemporary documents.

Working in buff-colored brick and terra cotta, Robertson used the barn-like prototype of an early Christian basilica as his central structure.  To it he added a soaring octagonal bell tower, inspired by German Romanesque churches, with Renaissance balconies at the belfry and deeply-framed roundel window.

photo by Alice Lum

At the opposite corner a shorter, square tower sat askew, and in between an Italian Renaissance entrance porch with arched openings and magnificent Corinthian pilasters completed the design.  (To add to the mix, The New York Times remarked that “The style is an outgrowth of a study in the Spanish Renaissance.”)

Inside, “the audience room is of octagonal shape with unequal sides,” wrote The New York Times. “There is a gallery on three sides, and the walls above the galleries are supported on a series of arches. The ceiling is an elliptical dome, with panel ornamentation.”  The church, finished at a cost of $300,000, was designed to seat 1,200 worshipers.

Dedication services extended throughout the last week of September 1897.  The New York Times reported that at the October 3 service, “over 800 people sat, closely attentive throughout the long service, which was not concluded until 2 o’clock.”

The imposing church with its tall tower dominated the residential area, causing Bishop Foster to comment in World Wide Missions that it was “without a peer among the church edifices of Methodism.”

photo the New York Tribune, October 3, 1897 (copyright expired)

St. Paul’s was not the only Methodist church in the Upper West Side.  Seven years earlier St. Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church had been completed, a hulking Romanesque Revival style building on West 75th Street and as St. Paul’s was being completed, Grace Methodist opened in 1896 on West 104th Street.  But while row houses were being built at a phenomenal rate and development of the neighborhood seemed unstoppable, eventually it would become evident that there were not enough Methodists in the area to fill these grand buildings.

photo by Alice Lum

Not everything associated with St. Paul’s would be as progressive as the concept of pews.  On April 3, 1927 the Rev. Dr. Clarence True Wilson of Washington D.C., “the leader of the Methodist dry forces,” addressed the congregation.  Wilson, who carried the ponderous title of "General Secretary of the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals of the Methodist Church," predicted the end of “liquor traffic.”

There will never be a line dropped from the Eighteenth Amendment or the Volstead act as long as there is a United States of America,” said the reverend. “We have got only about six Senators down there in Washington who are wet. But they make noise enough for sixty…Of the last group of wet Senators that were down there, do you know what became of every one of them? Every one of them was defeated and left at home.

The Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment on December 5, 1933.

By 1937 the over-optimistic building of the Methodist churches on the Upper West Side was painfully evident and on November 7 Bishop Francis J. McConnell announced the merger of St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church with St. Paul’s – resulting in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew.   St. Andrew’s building was sold to the West Side Institutional Synagogue.

Graceful angels in bas relief frame the round windows above the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum

Robertson’s exceptional building survives essentially unchanged, what the AIA Guide to New York City calls “a startling work” and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission calls “masterful.”  In designating the structure a landmark in 1981, the Commission noted that “St. Paul’s is among Robertson’s finest buildings and one of the most powerful and original statements of its period.”

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The 1849 Dr. Valentine Mott Mansion - 1 Gramercy Park

By the time Samuel B. Ruggles' ambitious vision of Gramercy Park was becoming reality in the 1840s, Dr. Valentine Mott had created quite a reputation for himself.  Born in 1785 in Glen Cove, Long Island, Mott came from a Quaker medical family.  After earning his medical degree at Columbia Medical College in 1806, he studied surgery in London under the renowned Sir Astley Cooper.  Mott showed such potential that Astley appointed him assistant in surgery almost immediately.  Three years later he returned to New York, recognized as a skilled surgeon at a time when operations were painful (anesthesia was uncommon at best) and often fatal.

The doctor was the first to successfully perform surgeries previously considered impossible.  The fact that Mott was ambidextrous and could operate with either hand no doubt contributed to his success.    He garnered international fame when he performed successful operations on arteries, including his 1818 surgery on a tiny vessel two inches from the patient’s heart.  It was the first time ever the daring surgery had been attempted. 

Two years later, with three other doctors, he founded the Rutgers Medical College.  Beginning around 1830 he devoted his time mainly to lecturing, attaining professorships at Columbia, Rutgers Medical College of New Jersey, and the University of the City New York.

In 1844 Gramercy Park had been landscaped and gracious residences began rising around it.  Ruggles intended his enclave to rival the elegant St. John’s Park where many of the city’s wealthiest citizens lived.  And he succeeded.

In 1849, the same year that Valentine Mott was elected President of the New York Academy of Medicine, he moved into the new house at 1 Gramercy Park, a dignified four-story Italianate brownstone mansion.   Mott and his wife, the former Louisa Dunmore Munn, reared nine children in the house.

 Life changed for the family when civil war broke out in 1861.  The carefree evenings of entertainments and medical discussions in the library drew to a close.

Dr. Valentine Mott posed in the studio of famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady -- Library of Congress

On October 10 that year, Louisa Mott opened her parlor to a group of women to organize the Ladies’ Union Aid Association.   Explaining the cause, she wrote “Owing to the melancholy circumstances which at this time overshadow the happiness and prosperity of our country, many families have been reduced to the extreme of poverty, who never knew the misery of want before.  This revulsion in the state of public affairs, though it bears upon all, falls most heavily on the poor, especially upon those deprived of their natural protectors, by absence or death, and who either from sickness or inability to obtain work, have been reduced to a state of suffering beyond the power of moral or physical endurance.”

The ladies organized a bazaar in December “where clothing for the poor will be provided, and articles of taste and elegance, suitable for the holiday season, will be offered for sale.”  Mrs. Mott hoped the money the bazaar made would “enable us to temper the storms of Winter to the afflicted, to give them the necessaries of life, and cheer their desolate homes with the genial light of sympathy.”

Perhaps the sole bright spot for the Mott household that year was a visit by the Prince de Joinville.   Valentine Mott had been “intimately acquainted” with the prince’s father, Louis Philippe, according to The New York Times and in 1841 the prince had been entertained by Mott.   Before leaving for Washington on September 17, 1861, “a visit was paid by the Prince and part of his suite to old Dr. Mott, in Gramercy-park,” reported The New York Times.

Mott’s son, Thaddeus, enlisted in the Union Army and was assigned as captain of artillery.  He would subsequently earn fame for his valor and military expertise.    For his part, the 75-year old Valentine Mott dedicated his full attention to the war effort, offering President Lincoln his services.    As consultant to the War Department, he gave advice on the administering of anesthesia in battlefield hospitals.

Valentine Mott died in his bed at 1 Gramercy Park on April 25, 1865; a little over a week after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  The story is often repeated that Mott died from the shock of the president’s death; a possibility given the doctor’s history of a nervous system disorder and his advanced age.

Harper's Weekly accompanied Mott's obituary with the above sketch.

Harper’s Weekly joined the major newspapers around the country in eulogizing Mott.  “He was one of the most eminent among our citizens, and will be remembered not only as a very skillful surgeon but also as a kind and philanthropic man.”  Sir Astley Cooper added “He has performed more of the great operations than any man living, or that ever did live.”

By 1882 the house that welcomed a prince had become a boarding house.  The New York Tribune ran an ad for “No. 1 Gramercy Park—to rent, with board, the entire second floor and one room on third floor delightful city rooms for summer.”

Respectable boarders continued to rent rooms for several decades.  A 1905 advertisement mentioned the “privilege of park,” referring to the gated and locked Gramercy Park and in 1909 the Tribune advertised “large corner rooms with or without private bath; table board optional.”

In 1907 the house still retained its brownstone stoop -- "Old Buildings of New York" (copyright expired)

Then, on November 4, 1917, The New York Times bemoaned the alteration of the house.  “Gramercy Park has just witnessed another change in the row of old fashioned residences on the west side of the square…Number 1 Gramercy Park, on the corner of Twenty-first Street, and the adjoining house have been altered into studio apartments.  The high stoops have been removed.”

In place of the brownstone stoop, a rather handsome portico was added.  In the modernization the stone frames of the windows were shaved flat, as compared with the once-matching house next door.

Where the “high stoop” had been, the entrance was lowered to the English basement, below street level.  An attractive brownstone portico was added and the original doorway became a window.   The apartments became home to financially-comfortable tenants like William G. Sickel, vice-director of the Hamburg-American Steamship Line and artist W. T. Benda.

In 1925 the stoop had been removed, but the stone framing of the windows was still intact -- NYPL Collection

Beginning in 1939 the house underwent a rapid series of sales.  That year the estate of Dr. George F. Cottle sold it to Frederick H. Meeder of the Dion Realty Company.  Two years later Harry Marks, president of the Delnor Realty Corporation purchased it for about $50,000.  At the time of the sale The New York Times remarked that “The exterior of the brick building retains the characteristics of the early days, but the interior was rebuilt some time ago and provides accommodations for ten families in two-room and three-room suites, in addition to an artist’s studio on the top floor.”

Marks sold the property in July 1945.  The buying syndicate purchasing the house “plans more extensive alterations in the near future,” reported The New York Times.

In 1959 the house still had ten apartments—two each on the first through third floors, three on the fourth and two (one including an artist studio) in the basement.   Today luxury coops are home to residents such as Tatiana von Furstenberg, daughter of fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and Prince Egon of Furstenberg; and interior designer Sara Story.  Story purchased her 3,000 square foot, three bedroom apartment from children’s book author Sarah Kilborne for just under $1.5 million.

The exterior of the Mott house was used in the 1991 film “Delirious” as the home of actor John Candy’s character Jack Gable.   While the wide stone stoop and window details were sadly removed; the mansion of the 19th century’s most celebrated surgeon remains, externally, essentially preserved.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The 1886 Department of Docks' Headquarters - Pier A

Pier A, seen here before the 1919 installation of the Memorial Clock, was used to greet visiting dignitaries -- photo Battery Park City Authority
In 1884 the New York Department of Docks was just 14 years old when it began plans for a headquarters building.   Established by the State Legislature in 1870 the department  was charged with the formidable task of developing the waterfront.  This included building of piers, wharfs and seawalls; a complex project that was laid out by Chief Engineer and Civil War hero General George McClellan.

At the same time that the Department of Docks was considering its new headquarters, the New York Police Department was in need of a station house to accommodate its one steamboat, the Patrol.   An impressive building built on a pier was conceived – but there was a problem.  The pier was not part of McClellan’s 1871 plan and, therefore, not part of the State’s approved apportionment. 

The State Legislature amended the plan in 1884 to allow for the construction and on July 3 the Board of Commissioners approved the erection of the pier.    The pier itself was an engineering feat that took a full year to complete.  Not until September 1884 did the construction of the building begin.

Completed in 1886 it was an attractive, late Victorian delight of brick and terra cotta with iron trusses supporting the tin roof.    A wood-frame tower over the river was used as a look-out  by the police, who occupied the north section of the pier.  The Docks Department occupied the rest of the building for its offices and storerooms of maps and records.

To protect the workers from the onslaughts of winter weather, the building was highly insulated.  Two layers of tar paper, mineral wool between the studs and a layer of tongue-and-groove paneling prevented the worst of winds and cold to permeate the offices. 

During the first winter, in 1886, a ferocious winter storm pummeled the city.   The offices of Pier A were unaffected.   Chief Engineer Greene reported “It was found in the severe blizzard in the first few days in March that all the rooms could be kept at a temperature of 85 degrees, with a pressure of 60 pounds in the boiler, which is licensed to carry 100 pounds.”

He did not mention how the officer worker could bear to work in the extreme heat.

To accommodate the Department’s increasing need for space, in 1900 a three-story addition was built at the shore-end of the pier and in 1904 an additional story was added towards the shore end.  The additions were frosted with Beaux Arts ornamentation—wrought iron lamps, scrolls and leafy decoration.  The result, rather than an accumulation of mismatched architecture, was a charming structure that could have been plucked from a child’s electric train set.   Painted in three colors, the sections blended harmoniously into a quaint Victorian whole.

Department of Docks employee Joseph J. Madden was working at his desk on September 21, 1917 when he heard cries from the waterfront.  Below, a boy named William Murphy had fallen into the river and was being pulled out by the tide.  Madden dived, fully dressed, into the water, swam 200 feet to the drowning boy and “brought him with great difficulty to a float, to which both were assisted,” according to the Report of the Secretary of the United States Treasury.     The worker was awarded a Silver Congressional Medal for his bravery.

At the end of World War I, Daniel G. Reid presented the city with the country’s first memorial to the servicemen lost in combat.     The memorial was in the form of a ship’s clock and bell, erected in the tower of Pier A.  The Jewelers’ Circular noted “The clock itself is a very interesting mechanism and as far as known it is the only clock of its kind in this country.”

The bell weighted 1,000 pounds and struck ship’s time, “the only public clock in the world striking ship’s time” according to Greater New York magazine at the time.     The clock was dedicated with great fanfare at noon on January 26, 1919 and was presented to Dock Commissioner Murray Hulbert for the city, and Mayor General David C. Shanks on behalf of the army, by Rear Admiral Josiah S. McKean.

The glass dials were illuminated at night, turned on by an automatic mechanism.  According to The Jewelers’ Circular, “The clock is guaranteed by the makers to operate within a variation of 30 seconds per month.”   To maintain the dignity of such a prestigious memorial, which the Annual Report of the Department of Docks and Ferries stressed was “the first memorial of the World War erected in the United States,” Pier A was given a $2,280 paint job.

Famed photograph Berenice Abbott capture Pier A in 1936 -- NYPL Collection
In 1959 the Department of Docks left Pier A, passing it on to the Department of Marine and Aviation for use as the headquarters of the FDNY fireboat fleet.  Five years later Fire Commissioner Edward Thompson announced plans for “a face lifting.”

“Instead of an eyesore, it will be a fond sight for the people passing through the harbor,” he said.  The New York Times reported that in the planned renovations, “the old building’s metal exterior would be removed and replaced with aluminum siding.”

And so it was.  The Beaux Arts scrolls and pilasters were trashed in favor of aluminum siding; certain to be less of an “eyesore.”   The tower clock, erected to the memory of military men who died in service to their country, no longer worked and its original purpose long forgotten.

The 1964 "face-lifting" removed the pilasters and other ornamentation -- photo Library of Congress
On Christmas Day, 1976, The New York Times reported on a $180,000 restoration plan with little enthusiasm.  The city was in financial despair and the newspaper apparently felt the money could be better spent.  “The plan to rehabilitate the pier is something of a financial anomaly, owing in significant measure to the city’s money problems.”

Tongue-and-groove wainscot and other interior details survived through the 1960s -- photo Library of Congress
As it was, the city’s financial problems were the sole reason that Pier A stood at all.  Plans had been underway to demolish the pier to make way for office towers and a new marine facility.  But as the city’s fiscal crisis worsened and with several million square feet of vacant office space in lower Manhattan, the plans to build office towers were abandoned.

photo Library of Congress
While the city vacillated in its development plans, historic preservationists were less hesitant.   In 1975 they were successful in having Pier A listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  With this designation the restoration costs would be shared, with matching grants from the Federal Government and the state.  The Department of the Interior and the New York State Department of Parks and Recreation each contributed $90,000 earmarked for restoration of the clock tower, roof, underwater pilings, arched windows and upgrades to the electrical and mechanical systems.

Calling it an “elegantly ramshackle pier,” The Times noted it was the oldest functioning pier in the city.  “Seen from a distance, the elongated green, gray and red structure that points to Ellis Island across the Upper Bay looks like a piece left out of an erector-set model next to the compact and towering skyline of lower Manhattan.”

Fire Commissioner John T. O’Hagan said somewhat poetically, “Aside from its strategic importance as a marine fire-fighting facility, it is a beautiful building which adds a touch of grace to New York’s skyline.”

Designated a New York City Landmark in 1977, Pier A sat quietly, but neglected, at the base of the island.   In the 1980s it was closed off by a construction fence where, less than a decade after its restoration, it began to deteriorate.

In 2008 the Battery Park City Authority took over the structure.    In 2010 a $30 million overhaul was planned, including a surrounding plaza; but immediately problems arose.  There was no money set aside for the plaza, the general contractor and construction manager dropped the project and the budget was slashed.

During renovation, the pier was found to be seriously rotting -- photo by Julie Shapiro for DNAinfo.com

Finally in 2011 plans were revealed showing a proposed oyster bar and other food venues, including a “boutique” hot dog stand.    The long-delayed project started up again; yet workers removed nearly all of the windows, leaving the interior open to wind and rain.  George Calderaro, a member of the Historic Districts Council board said “This is a city, state and national landmark that is being egregiously mishandled.”

In 2012 restoration continues -- photo by Julie Shapiro for DNAinfo.com
By January 2012 the cost of restoration had risen to $36 million and the structure was found to be in drastic disrepair.  “There was a significant amount of water damage, rot and structural deterioration,” said Gwen Dawson, Senior Vice President of Asset Management for the Authority at Community Board 1 meeting.

Restoration of the charming Victorian pier continues; but wanton neglect nearly took away an irreplaceable landmark.