Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Elaborate No. 574 Fifth Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
A week before Christmas in 1879 the parlor of W. B. Shattuck at No. 574 Fifth Avenue was bedecked with flowers and other elaborate decorations for the wedding of his daughter. “A huge wedding-bell of white flowers was suspended above the heads of the bride and groom in the front parlor,” reported The New York Times.

“This was flanked on either hand by a bell of red roses suspended from the ceiling. Besides these unique floral pieces, the mantel was banked deep with flowers; wreaths and festoons of smilax and flowers wound themselves about the candelabra and columns, and wedding-bells in crimson and white roses swung above the entrances to the drawing-room and dining-room, in which latter a wedding breakfast was spread.”

The Fifth Avenue wedding “has been a topic in society for the last five or six weeks,” said the newspaper. Indeed, the parlors were filled with the best names of New York society: Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mr. and Mrs. William Astor, Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Rhinelander and Mr. and Mrs. H. Mckay Twombley among them. European nobility had come—including the Baron and Baroness de Thomsen, Baron and Baroness Blanc, and Marquis de Talleyrand.

Among the wedding gifts in an upper room of the mansion were displayed a solid gold tea service, a George III silver gravy tureen, a 16th century Dutch floor clock, and a silver table service. The Times called the groom, Francis Burrall Hoffman, son of Colonel Wickham Hoffman who was Charge d’Affaires at St. Petersburg, “a young gentleman of fortune, whose figure is familiar in the circle constituted by old New-York families.”

It was the sort of affair that was not uncommon behind the doors of the grand brownstone mansions of Fifth Avenue in the decade after the Civil War. But it was all to change.

Although it would be a few years before hotels and retail establishments would encroach on the residential neighborhood, the exclusive men’s clubs were filtering in. By 1885 the American Yacht Club and Atalanta Boat Club had established their clubhouse in the five-story Shattuck house and would remain until Miss A. A. Chevalier made the mansion a private home again.

In 1890, the year that Miss Chevallier held a meeting of the New York Society for Parks and Playgrounds for Children (of which she was president) in her parlor, William Waldorf Astor demolished his brownstone residence at the corner of 33rd Street. The Waldorf Hotel that replaced it was the first domino to fall that would lead to the end of Fifth Avenue as a fashionable residential neighborhood.

Eventually Miss Chevallier moved on and the house became home, for a few years, to the Engineer’s Club at the turn of the century. Then in April 1903 Jesse C. Woodhull purchased the 25-foot wide house for $230,000, with plans to “extensively alter” it for business purposes.

Woodhull commissioned architect Augustus N. Allen to refurbish the structure. Two months later The American Architect and Building News reported that the renovated building would be a “six-story shop and studio building” with a limestone façade. The renovations cost Woodhull $50,000.

The upper stories exploded in exuberant ornamentation -- photo by Alice Lum
The completed building looked nothing like the Shattuck mansion hiding behind the limestone façade. The architect created a Northern Renaissance Revival style store and loft that was amazingly similar to that completed by the Parfitt Brothers three years earlier at 166 Fifth Avenue. Highly ornamented piers and pilasters separated the windows of the four middle floors. Above a deep cornice the sixth floor an elaborate gable erupted from a steep mansard roof, encrusted with urns, finials and a decorative hooded niche.

Allen's renovation was a near-match to the Parfitt Brothers' earlier No. 166 Fifth Avenue (above) several blocks to the south --photo by Alice Lum
A year after its completion, Woodhull sold the building to investor Emma V. V. Rapallo for $350,000. Ladies’ apparel companies were filling No. 574 Fifth Avenue, like millinery importer Suchow and La Victoire Waist Lining Company. The eminent opera diva Madame Calve gushed on in a 1904 advertisement for La Victoire, saying “Your invention is a wonderful one and an invaluable improvement in grace and curves. It is in all points perfect, and saves the busy woman of to-day the time and fatigue of several fittings, which is not necessary with your lining. It enables any tasty trimmer to succeed in making a perfect fitting waist.”

Elaborately embellished pilasters and colunettes separated the upper story windows -- photo by Alice Lum
In keeping with the exclusive retail tone of Fifth Avenue, Edelhoff Brothers & Co. opened its store in the retail space here on November 1, 1905. The company dealt in “diamonds, jewelry and fancy goods.”

By January 1907 Emma Rapallo decided to cash in on her investment and sold the building to C. Grayson Martin for $410,000. Within three months Martin turned the property over for $425,000, satisfied with a quick $15,000 profit.  Rudolph M. Haan, who ran the St. Regis Hotel, was the purchaser.

The blocks of brownstone mansions along this stretch of Fifth Avenue were no more. The New York Times’ Bryan L. Kennelly remarked on the transformation in 1910. “Fifth Avenue is no longer a social centre, at least that part of it between Twenty-sixth and Fiftieth Streets. The highest class of commercial life has forced itself into this section, so that to-day it is not only the shopping thoroughfare for the wealthy of all the cities of the United States. What wealthy Western family would be satisfied with any other than Fifth Avenue’s stamp on its purchases? And what wealthy New York family would think of purchasing elsewhere?”

The top two floors of No. 574 had been the studio of renowned female photographer Aime du Pont since 1904. Ms. Du Pont advertised herself as the “photographer for smart society,” and in December 1910 she put on an exhibition of photographs of “five hundred fair women.” The photographer opened the show with a private viewing on December 6 during which tea was served. The New York Times reported that “the collection of photographs includes many society women of New York and Newport and all of the grand opera stars.”

In the meantime, Edelhoff Brothers was replaced by jewelers and silversmiths Udall & Ballou Co. in the street-level store. The firm, which also had shops on Belleview Avenue in Newport and East Flagler Street in Miami, would be here into the 1920s.

New Yorkers were stunned, on June 28, 1913, when The Evening World reported that after a small but smoky fire in the basement of the building it was discovered that over $100,000 worth of mounted gems were missing from a safe in Udall & Ballou. The jewel theft made headlines for days as the slippery crook evaded the investigation of the Detective Bureau’s Inspector Paurot.

Everyone who had been in the building that day – policemen, firemen, watchmen and shop employees—were questioned. Then on June 30 William Heck, a 21-year old employee, was questioned at Police Headquarters by none other than Police Commissioner Doughtery. After an hour and a half of questions, Dougherty left the room to bring in Detective Casassa who, said The Times, “has a reputation for being able to draw out the truth where others fall.”

Heck tip-toed to an open window and jumped ten feet to the ground below, being careful to remember to take his straw hat with him first. The young man, whom the commissioner said looked like “a little well dressed jockey,” clambered under a passing truck, held onto the frame and escaped.

Beck was captured a day later and confessed not only to the major heist, but several smaller thefts from the store, as well. The young man explained that he was in debt and needed money. “My liking for silk shirts, fine underwear and good clothes couldn’t be satisfied on my salary of $14 a week,” he explained.

Unfortunately for Beck, he got none of those items in prison.

Throughout most of the 20th century Fifth Avenue was home to the most prestigious of stores. In 1921 The Architectural Record noted “Fifth Avenue is one of the half dozen streets of the world. A part of the world seems to stream through it, and worldliness, magnificence, luxury and fashion and city life are its very essence. The shops partake of this spirit, exist because of it, and contribute to it, and Fifth Avenue merchants compete successfully with thousands of shops in New York and in other cities.”

The dignified storefront in 1921 -- The Architectural Record (copyright expired)
Nevertheless, the upper floors of No. 574 were less exclusive. That same year the Welding Promotion Company established itself here. The firm printed promotional calendars exclusively for welding companies.

In 1922, the year that The Mirror signed a 25-year lease on the entire building from Haan, Charles Frey’s salon advertised “discolored or over-bleached hair corrected with Charles Frey Instant Hair Restorer.” Free demonstrations were offered by Madame Berthe, “specialist.”

In 1930 the top floor was still a photographer’s studio, but now occupied by Lumiere Studio, run by Samuel Lumiere. A burglar on September 12 ransacked the office making off with personal items and jewelry owned by the office manager Aurelia Dittmar. Ms. Dittmar estimated the loss at $4000. The police set the amount closer to $1000.

Even the mansard roof, nearly invisible from the street, had ornamented panels -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1937 Spencer Chemists, Inc. leased the jewelry store space and basement, becoming the first drugstore on Fifth Avenue above 34th Street. Throughout the next ten years the building would be sold three times.

Beginning in the 1960s the Israel Government ran its tourism offices from here for decades. Today an Italian fast food shop operates from the much-altered ground floor space. Where diamonds and emeralds once glittered, manicotti and pizza are now served to hungry tourists.

The fanciful building, once a grand brownstone mansion, is surprisingly unchanged above street level; a delightful discovery for passersby who care to look up.


  1. I am looking for some on the inside of and in the 1872 is when it was made

  2. Building will be lost shortly, it seems. Sad.

  3. Has there been any opposition sounded to its demolition?

  4. Demoition This buiding still stands.

  5. Surprisingly this building is still standing, as though the developers own it they don't own the parcel between it and the rest of the site. I hope that doesn't change and the holdouts stay put, but that may change sadly.

  6. The facade of this building should be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere instead of the planned mindless, careless and foolish demolition planned by Extell. Will developers ever understand that they also have a role in making this city beautiful, not just to expand, develop and obtain more dollars per square/footage. You can choose to leave behind the city a better place or leave it a bland, soulless and joyless place. NYarch

  7. This building is still standing as of November 6, 2019.

  8. As of August 24, 2020, protective netting is covering the 574 (& 572) Fifth Ave along with signs indicating that demolition is the scope of work.

  9. The building is now under demolition.

    1. a travesty. Thank you for the update.

    2. Gotta love the city doing nothing as usual

  10. Did they really destroy this building? What the...?