Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The 1860 Ball, Black & Co. Building -- 565 Broadway

The four-story 1893 brick addition deftly mirrored the original marble structure below -- photo by Alice Lum

By 1860 the fashionable shopping district of New York had migrated northward to the blocks on Broadway just south of Houston Street.  The magnificent St. Nicholas Hotel engulfed the entire block between Broome and Spring Streets and upscale merchants built impressive structures to lure wealthy shoppers—Tiffany & Co. had already been at 550 Broadway for nearly a decade.

It was time for Tiffany’s rival, Ball, Black & Co., to move north from 247 Broadway as well.   Among other articles, the company produced and sold jewelry, silver objects, clocks, decorative furniture and chandeliers.  Founded in 1810, the company was originally located at 166 Broadway and was considered the jewelry store of New York City.  As its successful business grew and as commerce moved northward up Broadway, the store had changed addresses three times.   Ball, Black & Co. was ready to move again.

John A. May was a manufacturer of umbrellas, but he dabbled in real estate as well.  In 1860 he commissioned architect John Kellum to design a building specifically for the use of Ball, Black & Co.  Completed a year later, it was a six-story show-stopper of East Chester marble.

Kellum craftily set the sixth floor back from the vision line so that it was invisible from the street, creating the necessary, classic proportions.   In 1868 William Leete Stone described the building as “magnificent” and “justly ranking among our finest specimens of architecture.”

Well-dressed shoppers peer into the enormous plate-glass windows in the 1860s.

The store was opened on July 1, 1860 “with great splendor and éclat.”  The structure was not only beautiful, but innovative.  Touted as the first “absolutely fire-proof” building in New York, the vaults below street level contained the first safe deposit system in the United States.  The single-sheet panes of plate glass imported for the first floor windows—14 feet, 8 inches tall and 9 feet, 2 inches wide—were thought to be the largest ever made.  Certainly they were the largest ever brought to the U.S.

Steele wrote “In proportion, in chasteness of design, in rich and elegant finish, and in perfect keeping, we know of no building in the whole length of Broadway that can equal it…The first story is pure Corinthian, carried out in its details from the base to the summit of the entablature.  The upper stories are Italian, but so ornamented as to be in keeping with the main story and to give a pleasing uniformity to the whole structure.”

The entrance doors were designed so that when opened they would form decorative sides to the vestibule.   They boasted carved moldings and green bronze rosettes, designed to the specifications of Ball, Black & Co.    Inside, the “Grecian style predominates, and is treated in a rich, chaste and original manner,” reported Steele.    “The fittings, which are very beautiful, are composed of panels of rightly-stained wood and gold.  A series of cabinets extend along the south wall, forming one continuous design by means of arches, under which are elegant vases.  The whole appearance is rich and elegant in the extreme.”

The first floor was exclusively for the sale of jewelry—diamonds and other gems, watches and silverware.  Ball, Black & Co. advertised that the “stock of diamonds in this store is among the largest in the world, offering a vast selection of the costliest gems of the finest water and the rarest cutting.”

A marble staircase took the shopper to the second floor where artwork and clocks were displayed.  Steele reported on “a gallery of fine paintings, rare specimens of the Italian, Flemish and German schools” and “a wilderness of rich clocks, bronzes, marble statuary, and splendid mantel ornaments of every kind, together with superb porcelain ware of Sevres, Dresden, and Berlin Royal Manufactories.”

On the third floor could be found chandeliers and gas fixtures.  Many of these were manufactured on the premises while others were imported from France and England.

The top three floors housed the manufacturing and workroom spaces.  Jewelry was made here, diamonds set, watches repaired and tableware was gold or silver plated.  The company employed over 300 works including designers, engravers, chasers and modelers.

Ball, Black & Co. designed and sold handsome silver ware like this coffee pot.

Two years after opening the new store, Ball, Black & Co. hinted at the wide array of merchandise in the store in an advertisement in Round Table.  The ad listed “rich jewelry, silver ware, watches of all first-class makers, Parisian bronzes, clocks and mantel ornaments, cabinets, pedestals and mosaic tables, etc., rich assortment of chandeliers and gas fixtures, extensive collection of modern oil paintings of the most celebrated artists in Europe.”

In 1872 the firm was proud to offer the new Railroad Watch recently invented by the American Watch Co. of Waltham, Massachusetts.   “Travelers by Railroad frequently find their Watches completely demoralized by the continuous jar of the train.  To overcome this difficulty has long been a problem with watchmakers, and it is now successfully accomplished,” boasted an advertisement in Appleton’s Journal.   “It is carefully adjusted, and may be entirely relied on to run accurately, wear well, and endure the hardest usage, without any derangement whatever.”

Certainly the promise of an end to demoralized or deranged watches must have been welcome news to 19th century travelers.

As the jewelry district followed its patrons northward, Ball, Black & Co. relocated in 1874.

Fluted columns, both square and round, are crowned with exquisitely carved capitals -- photo by Alice Lum

By 1890 the white marble palazzo was home to Banner Brothers, wholesale clothing merchants.  Banner Brothers manufactured and sold “medium and better grades” of men’s apparel, doing about $1 to $1.25 million a year; a sum amounting to about $23 million today.  Two years later the firm came under scrutiny by a United States Congressional committee looking into “the sweating system.”  Decades before the miserable sweat shops that would force inhuman conditions on sewing girls, impoverished immigrant women and children would do “piecework” in their crowded tenement rooms.   The committee was less interested in the fact that the conditions were poor, but that the “wages and prices in such manufacturers, as compared with the usual prices paid for like work not made in tenement houses on like clothing.”

When Herman S. Mendelson was called to testify on behalf of the firm, he was asked “Did you ever look up any of the places where your work was actually done to see the conditions under which it was done?” he answered, “No.”

To the follow-up question “Do you not consider it material to get the facts in such as case?” Mendelson replied, “It has never, within my knowledge, been known that any disease was brought about through the handling of manufactured goods in the city of New York in this way.”  Within the year Banner Brothers was no longer at 565 Broadway.

Charles and Moritz Freedman purchased the building in 1893.  The area, by now, was quickly becoming the center of the dry goods industry.  Manufacturers and merchants of women’s wear, they envisioned an enlargement of the small sixth floor—creating a full story now visible from street level.  Instead, however, they hired architects Little & O’Connor to raise the building four full floors.

The architects worked in light-colored brick, mirroring the corner quoins and the window pediments of the original structure.  The resulting $50,000 addition was hardly noticeable to the casual passerby.

Signs on the Freedman Brothers' enlarged building advertised "Cloaks & Suits" in 1895 -- King's Photographic Views of New York

While the Freeman brothers ran their garment business here, they leased space to other firms.  In 1899 Fred Kaufman, wholesale jewelers, moved from 41 Maiden Lane and would stay for a decade.  In 1900 Herzig, Kipp & Co., manufacturers of silk undershirts was here.

That same year the Freeman brothers went bankrupt.  Additional dry goods firms like Abrahamson Brothers, whose headquarters was in Oakland, California, and Hollins Manufacturing Company moved in.

In 1904 the street level was taken over by the Mechanics’ & Traders’ Bank as its Prince Street Branch.   Apparel manufacturers continued to fill the upper floors.  In 1912 Premier Notion Company was here selling collar stays; but the vast majority of tenants were women’s straw hat manufacturers.   Among these were H. F. Sawyer & Co., Williamson & Sleeper, and R. Cinelli Hat Company.

By 1905 the bank was now the Metropolitan Bank.  Signs are plastered up the corner of the building and along its facade. -- photo NYPL Collection

Weber and Heilbroner, “clothiers, haberdashers and hatters,” was here in 1920, as was Julius Mayer who dealt in “raw silk and thrown silk.”  Weber and Heilbroner advertised “Knickerbocker suits for the skating wear of a well-groomed New Yorker.  Coat, waistcoat and knickers—or coat, waistcoat, knickers and extra long trousers—for skating in winter and the links in summer.”

The bank on the first floor, now known as Metropolitan National, merged with Chase National Bank on November 22, 1921.  Chase continued to refer to the location as the Prince Street Branch.

Soho suffered a severe decline during the middle of the 20th century and buildings were neglected and abused.  No. 565 Broadway lost its cornice, but otherwise remained essentially unaltered despite its deteriorating marble.  Then in the 1970s and 80s a renaissance occurred as artists discovered the cheap loft space with ample sunlight.

Galleries filled the side streets and avenues and artist studios took over former manufacturing or warehouse space.  In 1979 Martin R. Fine commissioned restoration architect Joseph Pell Lombardi to converted 565 Broadway to residential cooperative apartments.   Schulte Galleries leased the ground floor.

In 1992 the lost cornice was reproduced, the same year that two floors of the building were leased as the set of the reality television show “Home of the Real World New York.”

photo by Alice Lum

Today, the ground floor of 565 Broadway is home to a Victoria’s Secret store.  Where women in voluminous hoop skirts once browsed among diamonds and silver coffee services, lacy bras and sheer negligees are displayed--a situation that might cause many a Victorian shopper to faint. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Marble Goddesses at Nos. 542-544 Broadway

In 1864, as the Civil War still raged in the South, the stretch of Broadway from Broome Street to Prince Street was perhaps the most exclusive business district in New York.  Ten years earlier the magnificent white marble St. Nicholas Hotel—touted by some as the most glorious hotel in the world—opened on the opposite side of the avenue, one block south.  Commercial buildings that reflected the high-tone nature of the neighborhood rose; many with street level shops meant to attract the hotel’s wealthy clientele.

One such building was erected at Nos. 542 and 544 Broadway that year.   At the owner’s direction, the now-unknown architect pulled out all the stops.  Six stories high, its white marble façade gleamed in the sunlight.  Paired, recessed windows graced by slender colunettes were separated by rusticated piers.  Corinthian columns supported a cornice at each level and above it all, five classical urns served as finials to the carved, scrolled brackets of the cornice.
Three of the original cornice urns have been lost over time.
It was the sixth floor, however, that made this building exceptional among its neighbors.  Here three marble statues of Roman goddesses – Panaceia, Athena and Ceres—stand on paneled blocks.  The sculptures stare imperially across Broadway.  And because their heads clearly do not touch the cornice brackets above them, they politely decline to do the work of caryatids; preferring to be art.
photo by Alice Lum
Among the first tenants were the makers of Hoff’s Malt Extract a “beverage of health.”   In 1867 the company’s advertisements in the New York Medical Journal directed patrons to the store “opposite Barnum’s Museum.”    The tonic’s astounding properties were flaunted as “analeptic, tonic, bitter, slightly exciting and diuretic.”

Reportedly Dr. Larcrau, first physician of the Military Hospital Val-de-Grace in Paris, advised the French Minister of War, “It is invaluable to have at one’s disposal a remedy more nourishing than tisane and less exciting than wine.”   The manufacturer’s advertisement added “Its use is efficacious in the atony of the digestive organs, dyspepsia, gastralgia, chlorosis, rachetis, acrofula, etc.”

The panacea also had “anti-aphrodisiac properties.”
Panaceia and Athena stand gracefully on their paneled marble pedestals -- photo by Alice Lum
By 1882 the street level store became home to Near & Gardner, well-known booksellers and stationers.  Henry Kollock’s guidebook, “The State of New York,” suggested the store to tourists as a place where they could “most readily obtain the weekly and monthly magazines, and seaside libraries…We know of no better place than Messrs. Near & Gardner’s store…both for its attractiveness and its cheapness, also for its locality, being directly opposite the best hotels in the city.”

Kollock described the new store as “completely filled with new goods of the above class.  We would like to say an additional word about the five cent music.  It is the same in size and quality of paper as what we used to pay twenty-five and fifty cents for, just as easy to read at the piano and organ, as the old style.”

Meanwhile, the upper floors held small factories and offices.  The American Express Company opened a branch office of its express package service here in 1871 and would remain past the turn of the century.

In 1884 Frank Seaman was publishing his Dio Lewis’s Monthly here.  The periodical prompted the Normal Teacher & Examiner to praise “Dio Lewis’s Monthly is the grandest Magazine we have ever seen.”  In 1886 both Marsh Brothers, manufacturers of trusses, and L. Sinsheimer, tobacconist, had offices in the building.  That year the successful Sinsheimer commissioned Schwarzman & Buchman to design a five-story brick cigar factory uptown at 100th Street and 3rd Avenue.

By 1889 the upper floors were mostly filled with dry goods and apparel merchants.  On the 5th floor was Louis Kaelter, a fur manufacturer.  Other firms were The Strong Pants Manufacturing Company; Felix S. Krotz & Co., dress goods; and Brown, Draper & Co., who dealt in woolens.    

On December 3, around 7:40 in the evening, a blaze broke out in the Kaelter’s fur company.  The highly flammable contents of the building created what The New York Times called a “lively fire.”

Eventually, the stubborn blaze was extinguished; but not before Kaelter suffered what would amount to about a quarter of a million dollars in loss by today’s standards and the firms below suffered serious water damage.

At the turn of the century, although commerce was moving northward and the grand St. Nicholas Hotel had been razed, the area still supported fashionable business.  The ground floor of No. 542 Broadway was home to Bernard Rice’s Sons, manufacturers and wholesale sellers of jewelry and silver goods with its own factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

In 1902 The Jewelers’ Circular made note of some of Rice’s high-end goods.  “Their new ‘Riceszinn’ offers a variety of designs in mugs, steins, vases, etc., having a soft, dull finish, and suitable for dining room decorations and practical uses.  Vases, decanters, liquer [sic] sets and like articles of iridescent glass, mounted with this ware, make very effective pieces.  Another line that is having a good sale is of silver plate in the ‘Butler’ finish; this resembles somewhat in appearance the ‘zinn’ wares, and comes in many beautiful pieces, as trays, cups, smoker’s sets, vases, etc.”

A year earlier Bailey Restaurant had opened a small branch in the building, sharing street level with Rice’s Brothers.  The popular Bailey chain now totaled six restaurants throughout Manhattan; but its move into the classy building at No. 542 Broadway would prove to be a mistake.

By 1903 the entire chain of restaurants went bankrupt due to the high rent paid for the Broadway location.  Henry R. Willis, attorney for the Bailey Restaurant Company said “the embarrassment of the company was due to the heavy rental of the restaurant at 542 Broadway, which is $9,000 a year.  The place, which was opened in November 1901, did not pay, and the landlord refused to cancel the lease.”

In the meantime, dry goods companies continued to lease space in the upper floors as the neighborhood changed.  In 1904 Daniel Strauss ran his chiffons factory here.

The building underwent a series of quick turnovers in 1909 when Philip Livingston sold it in January to the Fort Washington Syndicate.  The firm quickly resold it in March to Max Wolf.

On August 26, 1913 Harriet Cohen, a stenographer for the Standard Steam Specialty Company here was jailed in the Tombs where she would wait for more than two weeks to see a judge; spending “most of her days weeping,” according to a reporter.    Harriet was “an unusually efficient employee and commanded a good salary.”  But Harriet “craved luxuries which were inconsistent with her income,” according to The New York Times.  “She was fond of the opera, it was learned, and wanted costly clothes.  She entertained frequently, taking her friends in automobiles to fashionable restaurants.”

The newspaper reported that “because she longed for luxuries which her salary as a stenographer was not sufficient to buy,” she was “led astray.”  By “led astray,” The Times meant that she had forged $9,000 in checks against her employer.

At her hearing before Judge Crain in General Sessions, a character witness appeared.  Catherine Bement Davis testified that “she did not believe that Miss Cohen was a criminal in the true sense of the word.”  As head of the Bedford Reformatory, Miss Davis knew Harriet because she had been sent there three years earlier for forgery.

Apparently Harriet Cohen’s love for the opera and costly clothes stretched back a few years.

As the 20th century ground on, Broadway in the Spring Street neighborhood was no longer the stylish area of the 1860s.  The building was foreclosed in 1938 and sold by the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank to Philip Kunick, president of 542 Broadway, Inc.  By now the building was “in the center of the dry goods district,” as The Times put it and the Mutual Suspender Company was doing business here.

It was about this time that the first two floors were stripped of their white marble and Corinthian columns and given an industrial, pseudo-modern makeover.
A mid-20th century makeover stripped the marble facade from the first two floors.
The Soho neighborhood underwent a serious period of neglect before being rediscovered in the late 20th century.  Then artists began filling the vast loft spaces, attracted by the ample light and cheap rents.  Galleries appeared in cast iron warehouses and trendy shops took over retail spaces.

In 1981 No. 542-544 Broadway, from the second floor upward, was converted to “joint living work quarters for artists in residence.”    Today a clothing store occupies the street level where Rice’s Brothers once sold silver-plated smoker’s sets, and suspender and pants factories are now chic apartments.

photo by Alice Lum
And above it all, three marble maidens—silent witnesses to nearly 150 years of New York history--stare aloofly across Broadway.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Ultimate Family Feud -- The Lost Astor Houses 5th Avenue and 34th St.

William Waldorf Astor dealt a singular blow to his Aunt Caroline by razing his mansion and erecting the Waldorf Hotel next to hers in 1893 -- photo Mina Rees Library, The Graduate Center, CUNY
In 1827 William Astor, son of the original John Jacob Astor, purchased half of John Thompson’s farm north of the city.   It was a prodigious investment, as things would turn out.  Within a few decades Astor’s section of the land would become Fifth Avenue from 32nd Street to 35th Street; the most prestigious residential district in the United States.

Although William, who had the unfortunate and sometimes socially embarrassing middle name of Backhouse, erected a small brick dwelling at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, the family remained on elegant Lafayette Street.  Upon his death, the Fifth Avenue property was passed to his sons, William Backhouse Astor, Jr. and John Jacob Astor III.

The two brothers would erect grand brownstone mansions, separated by a garden, at Nos. 338 and 350 Fifth Avenue.   It seemed that only a garden could come between the millionaire brothers.   But then there was the matter of the wives.

John married Charlotte Augusta Gibbes in 1847 in Trinity Church.   Known as Augusta, she brought a sterling pedigree to the marriage that included a string of titled ancestors including King John.   Intelligent and educated, she included on her guest lists writers and painters and even an actress or actor.   Although she might entertain one or two hundred guests in the expansive ballroom and dazzle with dripping jewels and pearls; her main focus was on charities.  She was a driving force in the new Children’s Aid Society.

In the meantime William B. Astor married Caroline Webster Schermerhorn, the stout and snobbish daughter of a millionaire merchant.   Caroline’s roots went back to the original Dutch patroons, thereby providing her with social bragging rights.   The 22-year old bride was ambitious and determined and one of her first acts was to insist that her husband drop his “vulgar” middle name.

Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor in 1875, dressed for a ball.  The opinionated and determined socialite demanded to be THE Mrs. Astor.
Eventually, although the couple managed to have five children, William would spend little time in the mansion; preferring to while life away on his enormous yacht far from his wife’s demands and parties.

The sisters-in-law whose houses shared the block could not have been more different.  Caroline vocally admonished Augusta’s mixing with those beneath her social station and could not understand her obsession with charity.  Yet her heart was not all steel and ice.

On a Friday afternoon in September 1884, Caroline Astor sat looking out the window onto Fifth Avenue.  There, toiling in the heat was a gang of ditch diggers excavating for the soon-to-come steam pipes of the New York Steam Heating Company.  Recalling that they had been working the entire week and seeing the perspiration on their faces, she summoned her butler and asked him to bring the foreman to her.

When he was ushered in, Caroline told him to line the men up; she wished to give them a little money to purchase refreshments on their lunch hour as they “must be wearied by their continuous work in the warm weather.”

As she watched from the window again, over one hundred men filed up to the butler who deposited a dollar coin in their hands.  One worker who attempted to take his place in line twice was caught by the foreman and fired.

It was, however, an apparently rare act of overt kindness.

Unlike Augusta's, Caroline Astor’s guest list was stringently restricted.  No Jews or Catholics were invited to her ballroom or dining room.   One story tells of the time that August Belmont threatened to capsize the financial community if he and his wife were not issued an invitation to an upcoming ball.  Under pressure, Caroline sent the invitation.

When Mr. and Mrs. Belmont arrived at the Astor house, they were the only guests.

In January 1890 The New York Times commented on Caroline’s upcoming event.  “Mrs. Astor’s dance will probably be considered a ball, as upward of three hundred people have been invited to it, but she does not herself call it this, although it is really difficult to understand where a dance ends and a ball begins…Those who have been invited to Mrs. Astor’s are looking forward with pleasant anticipations to the entertainment, which is certain to be perfectly appointed and delightful in its atmosphere, as have been all of the similar entertainments which she has given in previous years.”

Indeed, the ball  that The Times anticipated was impressive.  The floors groaned under the weight of the flowers and potted plants.  Caroline Astor received her guests in the drawing room under her full-length portrait as they proceeded to the ballroom.   After the dancing, the party ate from gold-plated dinnerware.

If Augusta Astor gave little thought to the sister-in-law rivalry, her nephew certainly did.  When Augusta’s son, William Waldorf Astor, married and created a second Mrs. William Astor, Caroline struck.  She ordered new calling cards which read simply “Mrs. Astor, Fifth Avenue.”

William W. Astor would not have his wife disrespected and when his palatial mansion in Newport, Beaulieu, was completed, he had her calling cards printed “Mrs. Astor, Newport.”

Now the war was officially on.

Although Caroline Astor’s stubborn tenacity ended in her keeping the title “Mrs. Astor,” her nephew would deal the deciding blow in the battle.   Before leaving the United States to live in England, William razed his father’s grand mansion.

After briefly toying with the idea of building a stables next to Caroline Astor’s mansion, he constructed the hulking Waldorf Hotel in 1893.  Designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, it diminished Mrs. Astor’s house and forced her to share the block with travelers and businessmen.  After the nerve-racking construction that shook her staid home was completed, the avenue in front of her house was filled with noisy carriages and hansoms and the sidewalk bustled with rushing travelers.

Caroline Astor attempted to stay on and did so for a year.  Perhaps the last straw, however, was when a transient (called by the newspapers “a tramp”) named Garvin sneaked into the 34th Street servants’ entrance in November 1894, found a comfortable bed in a laundress’s room, removed his clothing and went to sleep.

The shocking incident caused a flurry of newspaper coverage and popular interest; including at least one song -- NYPL Collection
The invasion of the homeless man into Mrs. Astor’s house was fodder for the press for days.   When he was let go, Caroline’s son John Jacob Astor IV demanded that he be re-arrested and fined or imprisoned.  The backlash against the injustice was formidable and Astor’s reputation among regular citizens was tainted.

On November 4, 1894 The New York Times reported “The announcement that a huge hotel is projected for the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street has been received without surprise.

“The mansion which now ornaments the corner is the one occupied for so many years by Mr. and Mrs. William Astor and their children.  It has been the scene of numerous brilliant social functions.  A quarter of a century ago, the man who would have predicted its demolition within fifty years to make way for trade would have found no believers.”

Before long, “Jack” Astor had constructed a sprawling double French mansion uptown for his mother and himself.  The venerable mansion built by his father came down, to be replaced by another Henry J. Hardenbergh hotel, The Astoria.  The cousins swallowed their pride in favor of business interests and joined the two magnificent structures by a common walkway. The conspicuous display of wealth that strutted back and forth along this hallway earned its nickname of Peacock Alley.

The joined Waldorf and Astoria hotels dominated the neighborhood, dwarfing the majestic white marble A. T. Stewart mansion (center) -- photo NYPL Collection
The combined Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was, ironically, where the investigation into the sinking of the H.M.S. Titanic was held in 1912.  John Jacob Astor IV died on that fateful voyage.

The Waldorf-Astoria sat on the site of the Astor mansions for only a few decades; demolished in 1930 to make way for the 102-floor Art Deco masterpiece, the Empire State Building.    The Astor mansions, once the center of New York City social life and victims of family feuding, are now mainly forgotten.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The 1927 Barbizon Hotel for Women -- 140 East 63rd Street

The Barbizon Hotel for Women in 1927 -- photo Library of Congress
By the time the 1920s roared into Manhattan, women had gained a great deal of independence.  Female workers were no longer solely nurses, cooks or household help.  There were jobs to be found in the offices of soaring skyscrapers.  It was an exciting time for the modern woman.

But there were dangers in the big city as well--dangers called “wolves;” the smooth-talking decadent men who searched out naïve young girls. 

Girls needed protection and they found it at the Barbizon Hotel for Women.   It was a sanctuary where stringent codes of conduct and dress were enforced.   Girls applying for residence were required to submit three letters of reference.  There were no men allowed above the lobby level and chaperones were available at parents’ requests.
Multicolored, intricate brickwork patterned the ground floor -- photo by Alice Lum
Designed by Palmer H. Ogden, the hulking hotel replaced the magnificent Temple Rodeph Sholom at the corner of East 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue.   Ogden dipped into his historical grab bag to meld Italian Renaissance, Islamic and Gothic styles into a harmonious whole.   Numerous set-backs, required by the 1916 building law, created a 23-story ziggurat with arcades, balconies and colorful brickwork; all rising to a monumental central tower with three-story Gothic windows.

In 1926, as the hotel rose, The Chicago Tribune said “The building is especially designed for business and professional women with such unique features as gymnasium, swimming pool, studios and other conveniences usually found only in men’s clubs.”  Indeed, the owners, United Club Residences Corp. under the presidency of William H. Silk, referred to it as a “club residence for professional women.”
The lobby as shown in an early brochure --
The New York Times, on October 9th of the following year, admired Ogden’s design.  “The new women’s hotel at Sixty-third Street and Lexington Avenue, called the Barbizon, may also be counted a conspicuous example of color in architecture, though in this case the color is chiefly in the brick itself, varied from rose to a greenish shade, with bits of almost black, and trimmed with a stone distinctly yellow.”

photo by Alice Lum
The “club” atmosphere of the hotel, formerly relegated to men’s hotels, was innovative.  Two years after the building’s completion, The Times commented on February 24, 1929, “The Barbizon…is equipped for lovers of athletics.  Its basement is devoted entirely to sport.  At all hours of the day the laughter of girls can be heard intermingling with the rhythmic thud of the balls in the squash courts and the splashing of water in the pool.  Modern amazons in the making are learning to fence; swimmers of the future are being taught the crawl in the nether regions of the Barbizon.  The young woman of today is as devoted to exercise as any young man!”

“It has been said that in their clubs women have more liberty than men,” said article.  “They really do, in this respect at least—that they are permitted to invite members of the opposite sex to many of their social affairs and to pay calls in the public rooms set aside for the purpose.  For a woman’s club is here home, while a man’s club is more or less his refuge.”
The New York skyline from the Barbizon in 1932 -- photo Library of Congress
The newspaper commented with a hint of humor on the restrictions on the girls.  “it is not an uncommon sight to see a mother with her young daughter barely out of her teens at the desk asking for accommodations.  ‘She is going to be here for the Winter,’ says the parent, making more of an effort at boldness than her child. ‘Yes, she is taking her first job.  Will she be well chaperoned?’  While it is asked a bit anxiously, the youngster looks bored and silently expresses an aversion to the idea that she needs chaperonage.”
photo by Alice Lum
It was, according to Time magazine, “one of the few places in Gomorrah-on-the-Hudson where a girl could take her virtue to bed and rest assured it would still be there next morning.”

The Barbizon became the most exclusive and glamorous address in New York for young women.  Most of the 700 rooms were dorm-sized quarters intended for girls on a budget.   But the tenant list would include an array of soon-to-become-famous names; among them budding actresses Cloris Leachman, Joan Crawford, Candice Bergan, Ali McGraw, and Grace Kelly.

Writer Sylvia Plath lived here, later setting part of The Bell Jar at a residence hotel based on the Barbizon.   Liza Minelli, Cybill Shepherd, Candice Bergen, Dorothy McGuire, Peggy Cass and Barbara Bel Geddes called the Barbizon home, along with a seemingly endless list of others.
Sylvia Plath's room above, like the others, was small but tastefully decorated and furnished --
In 1931, amid the throngs of beautiful starlets, college girls and young professional women, an aging and lonely Margaret Brown—better known as Molly to posterity--appeared.  The self-reliant Titanic survivor was working as an actress and had lost most of her fortune to her children in an ugly court battle over J. J. Brown’s estate.

On October 26, 1932 the 65-year old Molly Brown died in her room at the Barbizon of a brain tumor.
Brick tracery, romantic arcades, balconies and soaring Gothic windows create a fantastic melding of styles -- photo by Alice Lum
The hotel’s reputation of harboring the city’s most beautiful women was enhanced in the 1940s.  Eileen and Jerry Ford launched the famous Eileen Ford Modeling Agency and, in an effort to keep their corral of cover girls free from scandal and out of the newspapers, they rented rooms for their charges here.    Decades later Eileen Ford would explain, “It was safe, it was a good location, and they couldn’t get out.”

Among the glamorous models who “couldn’t get out” were Delores Hawkins, Gloria Barnes and Jean Patchett.

Following suit, the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School used the Barbizon for the safe-keeping of its Gal Fridays-to-be. 

The Barbizon Hotel for Women was not all about young actresses who became movie stars and professional girls who met and married millionaires.  There was tragedy at the Barbizon for those girls who did not quite succeed.

Judith Ann Palmer was brought to the hotel by her wealthy mother, Mrs. Philip O. Palmer of Chicago on January 22, 1939.   On July 8 the 22-year old placed $30 in a dresser drawer and wrote a note saying the money should cover her funeral expenses.  She then wrote and note to her mother; then, dressed in her negligee, she shot a bullet into her right temple.

In 1957 Gael Greene, writer for the New York Post, wrote a series of articles exposing the heart-breaking existence of the girls whose lives fell short of glamor and instead were filled with loneliness and fear.

By the 1960s the reason for the existence of the Barbizon Hotel for Women was essentially gone.   After several owners, it became the Melrose Hotel in 2002 following a $40 million renovation.  The 700 small rooms were no more, now about half that many.
photo by Alice Lum
Then only three years later developers purchased the Melrose, converting it into luxury condominiums and switching the name back to The Baribizon.  The enormous hotel, where Betsey Johnson and Gene Tierney once slept in tiny rooms, now boasts just 66 sprawling apartments that the likes of Ricky Gervais call home.

While little of the original interiors are left, the exterior of the Barbizon is essentially intact--a wonderful example of 1920s eclectic architecture and a most interesting page of women’s social history.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Williamsburg on the Upper East Side -- No. 123 East 73rd Street

photo by Alice Lum
The first years of the 20th century saw a renewed interest in things “Colonial;” an interest that was reflected in domestic architecture.  Suddenly, interspersed among the marble and limestone chateaux and palazzos of New York’s wealthy were brick-and-stone neo-Federal and neo-Georgian structures like Andrew Carnegie’s 1903 mansion on upper Fifth Avenue.

In November 1902 William M. Benjamin purchased three brownstone houses at Nos. 119, 121, and 123 East 73rd Street.   The neighborhood was quickly changing into a highly fashionable one and within days he had resold the plots.  The old townhouses would not survive much longer.  No. 123 went to “a buyer who will erect thereon a high-class dwelling,” reported The New York Times.

The buyer was architect Robert Burnside Potter, a member of the firm Robertson & Potter.  He designed and erected a neo-Georgian brick-and-limestone mansion, construction of which began in 1903 and was completed a year later.  By secreting the fourth floor behind a wooden railing, set back in the mansard roof, the architects gave the appearance and proportions of a smaller building.

from Cyclopedia of Architecture, Carpentry and Building, 1909 (copyright expired) courtesy of Jim Kane
The title to the completed house was put in the name of Robert Potter’s wife, Elizabeth.  But it would soon become home to Dr. Frederic Grosvenor Goodridge who had married Ethel Iselin two years earlier.  Goodridge came from a socially prominent family and his new wife was descended from three Colonial-period families—Morris, Gouveneur and Philipse.  The 18th century-inspired home was therefore especially appropriate for the couple.

The splayed, slate-tiled mansard disguises the fourth floor. -- photo by Alice Lum

Colonial detailing – splayed keystones above the first and second story windows, a carved shell within the pediment over the doorway, a recessed and paneled entrance and a wonderful scrolled, broken pediment on the middle dormer—lent authenticity to the design.  An American basement was protected by a restrained wooden fence.

Mrs. Goodridge established herself quickly as an accomplished hostess.  Elaborate entertainments were held here for the cream of society.  On January 28, 1910 the house was the scene of a dinner dance.   Sixty guests were invited for dinner at 8:00 after which an additional 100 arrived for dancing and a midnight buffet supper.
from Cyclopedia of Architecture, Carpentry and Building, 1909 (copyright expired) courtesy of Jim Kane

The splendid home at No. 123 East 73rd Street proved, eventually, inadequate for Ethel Goodridge’s entertaining and later in 1910 they purchased two brownstone houses on East 78th Street where they constructed a double-wide mansion, also in the neo-Georgian style.
The 73rd Street house saw a quick succession of owners.   The Carlfen family, whose 20-year old son tragically drowned the first year they lived here; George W. Miller, whose  new Pierce Arrow motorcar would have been admired on the street; and then, in 1914, Stephen Peabody and his family.
The deeply-recessed doorway is framed by fluted pilasters.  Above, a carved shell sits within a classical pediment -- photo by Alice Lum

That year was a busy one, socially, for the family.  Dinners, teas and a dance at Sherry’s were hosted for daughter Pricilla’s debut.

Two years later, on April 26, 1916, daughter Mary Chester Miller Peabody married the 49-year old Augustus Rene Moen.  Moen listed himself as a real estate broker; however he was Director and Treasurer of the Ruland & Whiting Co., Director and Vice-President of the Fowler Mfg. Co., and Director and Treasurer of the Panstock Co.  Within two years  the newly-weds had two children, Edward and Mary, and were all living at No. 123 East 73rd Street.

But by the early 1920s the Peabodys and the Moens had moved on and the house was owned by attorney Frank Longfellow Crocker, the senior member of Crocker, Johnson & Shores at 5 Nassau Street.  The family owned a country estate in North Haven, Maine.   When daughter Elizabeth returned from school in Paris in 1922, her engagement to a Cleveland businessman was announced.

On November 5 The Times announced that Elizabeth’s wedding to Henry Gilbert Hold “took place quietly yesterday noon at the residence of the bride’s parents, 123 East Seventy-third Street, the Rev. Dr. Henry Evertson Cobb officiating in the presence of the families and a few close friends.”

It was a low-keyed function compared to the entertaining the house had experienced under Ethel Goodridge.

On January 16, 1931 an “international marriage of more than usual interest took place,” as The Times put it.  Barbara Schieffelin had a social pedigree nearly unmatched in New York.  The great-great-great-granddaughter of John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States, and a direct descendant of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, she married Charles Ion Carr Bosanquet of Northumberland, England.

The Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church was filled with the most notable names of New York society for the wedding.  Among them were the bride’s sister Margaret Louise Schieffelin Osborn and her husband Frederick H. Osborn, the most recent owners of No. 123 East 73rd Street.

Following the ceremony, the Osborns hosted a reception.  The house “was decorated with rosary ferns, white carnations and forsythia,” commented The Times.

Osborn came from a distinguished family, as well, dating to the 17th century in America and was the grandson of millionaire William Earl Dodge.  Although Osborn’s family made a fortune in the railroad business, he served in the American Red Cross in France as Commander of the Advance Zone during World War I.   By the time he purchased No. 123 East 73rd Street, he was a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, studying anthropology and population.  It was a course of life that would have resounding ramifications later.

The Osborns, who divided their time between 73rd Street and their Garrison, New York estate, were highly involved in progressive reforms.  Osborn was one of the founding members of the American Eugenics Society and was fundamental in the creation of Princeton University’s Office of Population Research.  He is credited with advancements in the understanding that environment plays a greater role than race in IQ levels.

In the meantime, Mrs. Osborn was making her own mark.  In 1937, the year that daughter Margery’s engagement was announced, she held a series of discussions in the home on “Education for Democracy.”

With the onset of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt selected Osborn to chair the Civilian Advisory Committee on Selective Service in 1940.   Before the year was ended, he took over as Chair of the Army Committee on Welfare and Recreation.  The Osborns left East 73rd Street for Washington DC.  By the end of the war, now a Major General, he had earned the Distinguished Service Medal, the Selective Service Medal, a bronze star, and was made Honorary Commander in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

At mid-century the house was owned by Mrs. Margery O. Erickson who converted it to two residences—a lower triplex and a separate duplex on the top two floors.  She sold it in 1952 to Evelyn W. Backer.  Backer held the property only for a year, selling it in August 1953 to Michel Pierre Fribourg and his wife.   The couple announced plans to live in the lower triplex after they returned from a scheduled European trip.

Fribourg was a Belgium-born American who came to New York with the outbreak of World War II to work in his family’s business (he had been headquartered in the London office previously).  He became a citizen, served in the US Army and had taken over the business, Conti-Group Companies, after his father’s death.

In 1964 he made himself famous.  That year he announced the sale of $80 million of wheat and rice to the Soviet Union.  Fribourg was humble.  “Anybody can get grain to sell to the Soviet Union,” he said, “Our business is basically built on ideas and imagination.”

The real significance of the deal, he felt, was that it proved that trade could create communication that simple diplomacy could not.
He was founding director of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Trade and Economic Council and the U.S.-China business Council.  His charitable works included the Fribourg Foundation, the ContiGroup Foundation and he contributed heavily to schools and hospitals.

photo by Alice Lum

Michel Fribourg died in April 2001 at the age of 87.  The new buyers of No. 123 East 73rd Street reconverted the house to a single-family residence.

Today the remarkable neo-Georgian house sits like a small sliver of Williamsburg, Virginia on a stylish side street of the Upper East Side; quite unchanged since its completion in 1904.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The 1900 Stuyvesant Fish House -- No. 25 East 78th Street

The Fish house shortly after completion -- photo Library of Congress
Stuyvesant Fish, son of Hamilton Fish, came from one of the oldest and most prestigious families of New York.   Although his time was mainly taken up in the railroad industry, he was also involved with financial and insurance institutions such as the National Park Bank and the Mutual Life Insurance Company.

It was his wife, the former Marian G. Anthon, however, who stole the spotlight in the Fish household.

The couple was married on June 1, 1876 and would go on to share one of the most harmonious and love-filled marriages of New York society.  The New York Tribune later said “Coming as she did from a distinguished line and marrying into a historical family of New York her position in the world of society was assured from the start.”

Mamie Fish, as she was known to her friends, was not your typical society hostess.  Her down-to-earth sense of humor and her love of tongue-in-cheek and memorable entertainments made her a contemporary legend.  The Fishes moved into 28 East 56th Street, then took over the old brownstone mansion at 19 Gramercy Park in 1887 which Mamie updated (the address was actually 86 Irving Place; but Mamie had the addressed changed to the more socially-acceptable Gramercy Park).

While the Astors and Vanderbilts were building mansions along the more conspicuous Fifth Avenue, the Fishes lived more privately, if not quietly, on the somewhat secluded park.  Then as the 20th century approached, the Fishes moved uptown.  Still eschewing Fifth Avenue, they commissioned Stanford White to produce a five-story Italian palazzo at the corner of Madison Avenue and 78th Street.

Completed in 1900 in was a far cry from the mansarded brownstone Victorian mansion on Gramercy Park.   The elaborate Italian palace, opening on to 78th Street, was faced with two colors of brick and trimmed with limestone.   It would be the scene of Mamie Fish’s entertaining which would prompt the The Sun to say “this house…has become socially famous.”

photo by Alice Lum
Mamie's dinner parties were often followed by an "entertainment."  Soon after moving in she hosted an unusually restrained and exclusive affair.  The Tribune noted on July 25, 1900 that “Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish will ask only forty people to her dinner on Saturday evening.  The dinner will be followed by a vaudeville entertainment, for which a number of invitations have been issued.”

The hostess went out of her way to avoid the stuffiness of society gatherings.  She sent invitations to a dinner in honor of the visiting Prince del Drago, only to shock and then amuse her diamond-and-pearl draped guests when they realized the prince was a monkey.

Stuyvesant Fish's bedroom.  The Gothic revival bed sat on a raised platform -- photo Library of Congress
The press adored her.   She continuously provided fodder for an amusing article.  On October 11, 1902, The Evening World wrote of her new “pet bee.”  When Mrs. Stuyvesant returned from Hot Springs, she was sent a miniature automobile filled with flowers.  “As she scented the fragrant blossoms she heard a buzzing and then from the heart of a purple orchid there crept this bumblebee.  Mrs. Fish didn’t scream,” the paper reported.

Because of Mamie Fish’s extraordinary sense of humor, the minor incident became a tongue-in-cheek story in which she, no doubt, had no small part in publicizing.

“When the maid would have drowned it the daring leader of New York’s most daring set put a crown upon its golden head and enthroned it as fashion’s favorite.  It lives in the toy automobile with the orchid for its throne.  It feasts on honey, for which it does not hunt.  It is growing fat and lazy as most kings do.  Some day it will sting its mistress and then its throne will rock and most likely fall.  But while it behaves itself no woman who deems herself a somebody in the social …will dare fail in homage.”

It was just one more way that Mamie Stuyvesant warned New York society not to take itself too seriously.

Stanford White created a mansion of subdued elegance -- photo by Alice Lum
Mamie had hired the up-and-coming dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle to entertain after one of her dinner parties.   Just before they went on, she informed the pair that she had promised her guests that they would be the first to see a brand new dance.   Irene Castle later remembered that “We went out and did all of our old routines down to the last step.”

The following morning the newspapers announced that the “new dances” were a great hit with Mrs. Stuyvesant’s guests.

Mamie’s wit was sometimes biting.  She was known for her sharp comments that kept guests in their places.  As guests filed into her Newport mansion at the beginning of the season one year, Mamie sighed “Here you are again, older faces and younger clothes.”    Back in New York she greeted a guest with “Oh, it’s you.  I had forgotten I had invited you.”

Marian Stuyvesant was not just about wit and pranks.  She had definite opinions that she was not afraid to announce; many of them decidedly conservative.  She was against the “mixing of classes” and saw no reason for women to vote.   The Evening World reported on February 4, 1909 that she had joined the National League for the Civic Education of Women, an anti-suffragette organization.  “The society leader says she has thought the matter over carefully and is strongly opposed to equal suffrage.”

She told The New York Times that President Theodore Roosevelt’s wife “dresses on $300 a year and looks like it.”

In 1914 Frederick Vanderbilt invited the Duke and Duchess of Manchester to tour South America on his yacht, the Warrior.  The craft, however, wrecked and the wealthy party had to be rescued and brought back to New York on a steamer.

Mamie helped to calm the tattered royal nerves by hosting a dinner party.  The Sun announced that “Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, whose dinners have been a feature of the winter, will give a larger dinner to-morrow evening at her home for the Duke and Duchess of Manchester…There will be sixty guests and after dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Murray Anderson will dance.”

The following day The New York Times added that “The dinner was followed by monologues and exhibitions of fancy dancing.”  One trusts that the diversions helped the Duke and Duchess to forget their ordeal.

Carved limestone combined with intricate brickwork resulted in the restrained ornamentation -- photo by Alice Lum
Mrs. Stuyvesant was opposed to the extremely late entertainments expected in society.   Dinners often did not start until midnight and dancing went on towards dawn.  To announce that it was time for her guests to go home, she would order the orchestra to play “Home, Sweet Home.”

The same year as the dinner for the shipwrecked party, Mamie invited 500 guests to the house for a ball.   Shortly after 10 pm, said The Times, “guests began arriving and were received by Mrs. Fish, who stood at the head of the stairs in the foyer on the second floor.  All of the second floor was used for dancing, there being two orchestras.  A buffet supper, which was served from small tables in the dining room and foyer on the first floor, began at midnight, and during the supper a Pierrot and Pierrette danced to music by four Neapolitan players.  The supper was continuous.  Shortly after 2 o’clock the orchestras played ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ and the ball was over.”

An older Mamie Fish was dressed for a ball.
In May the following year, Mamie Fish died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage at her country estate in Garrison, New York.  The Sun remarked that “She had occupied a unique position in society.  Her personality was most interesting, and one of her chief objects in life seemed to be to give pleasure to others.  Being a woman of great energy, she was apparently all the time devising some new form of entertainment for her friends.  Beyond that she had a very kind heart, and it was not only for those to whom she was under social obligation that she was thinking out plans for pleasure, but equally for those whose positions in life were less fortunate.”

Stuyvesant Fish lived out his life at No. 25 East 78th Street; but the grand entertainments were over.  He died in 1923 and the following February an auction of the Stuyvesant art and furnishings was held on premises.

In the sale were Brussels tapestries, a carved and gilt Louis XVI parlor suite with Aubusson tapestry upholstery, marble statuary, and Italian Renaissance dining room suite, early Italian paintings and Mrs. Fish’s silver.  The remarkable Gothic revival bed in Mr. Fish’s bedroom sold for $275—about $3,000 today.

The house was briefly used as office space; in 1930 Formes, a French periodical on modern art had its English edition editorial offices here.   Then in the 1940s it became home to the private Walt Whitman School.

In 1952 Frank Z.Atran, a textile manufacturer and philanthropist purchased the house and donated it to the Jewish Labor Committee as its headquarters; the Atran Center for Jewish Culture.  The group announced that “The headquarters will be devoted to combating discrimination, strengthening democratic institutions and furthering Jewish cultural activity in the United States.”

Three decades later, in 1985, The Limited purchased the building as its offices for $13.25 million.  Stanford White’s turn-of-the-century interiors were gutted and the firm praised itself for the “ultramodern interior.”

The house sold again, in 2006, to the Bloomberg Family Foundation, headed by Michael R. Bloomberg.  The price had risen to $45 million.

Despite the unforgivable destruction of the interiors, the Stuyvesant Fish house remains one of the grandest of Madison Avenue survivors.  And the wife of its original owner was one of the most interesting characters of New York social history.