Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sports Film History and Modeled Clay --Nos. 244-246 West 23rd Street

photo by Alice Lum
Jacob Hirsch recognized the potential of West 23rd Street in the mid-1890s.  The center of Manhattan’s entertainment district, the wide street was dotted with theaters, music halls and opera houses.  Yet interspersed among them were the mid-century brownstone residences of tenacious residents who refused to move out.

With the commercial district of the city moving ever northward, Hirsch purchased the four-story brownstone house at No. 244 West 23rd for $23,200 in November 1891.  He then patiently waited (or perhaps not so patiently) for an adjacent house to come on the market.  Finally on May 12, 1894 he bought the near-matching house next door at No. 246 for $30,000.  He now had a sufficiently-wide plot for a commercial building.

Meanwhile Isidor Hoffstadt had erected a six-story business building at No. 248 on the land abutting the property in 1893.  He quickly sold that building In December 1894 for $86,000 and the aggressive developer purchased Hirsch's property for construction of a “seven-story fancy brick business building”, as reported in The New York Times.

Between the two speculators, the complexion of the block was rapidly changing.  At the same time that Hoffstadt bought the two lots at Nos. 244 and 246 from Hirsch, Hirsch was purchasing the “two marble front three-story and basement dwellings” across the street at Nos. 241 and 243.  The newspaper remarked that “This property will doubtless also soon be converted to business uses.”

Hoffstadt’s new building was a welcomed splash of color.  A high stone base supported six floors of contrasting red brick and limestone.  Resourceful brickwork resulted in imitation rough-cut stone pilasters at the second floor, banded three-story pilasters at floors three through five, and fluted pilasters at the top two stories.  Elaborate panels of classical urns of fruit, wreaths and garlands connected the arches.

While Hoffstadt could have used molded terra cotta for the repeating panels, instead each was carved in stone -- photo by Alice Lum
Among the first tenants in the building was the Veriscope Company which took the entire fifth floor.   The motion picture company drew national attention on March 17, 1897 when Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Jim Corbett, winning the heavyweight championship of the world.  Veriscope had three hand-operated cameras at ringside to capture the Carson City event.

The 11,000 feet of film were edited into the first motion picture sports event.  The event was screened for admission-paying fight enthusiasts in theaters across the nation with live “lecturers” narrating the action.  It reaped large profits for the boxing sport and Veriscope.  But not everyone was happy with the concept.

Religious and conservative groups lobbied Congress to enact a ban against such films.  Editorial pages debated one another.  The New York World insisted that the motion picture camera was “a triumph of science over the poor, imperfect instrument, the human eye, and proves the veriscope camera is far superior."  The New York Times countered “It is not very creditable to our civilization perhaps that an achievement of what is now called the ‘veriscope’ that has attracted and will attract the wildest attention should be the representation of the prizefight.”

Nevertheless, the proposed legislation was defeated, partially due to Veriscope Company’s aggressive publicity campaign.  The film, “The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight,” was the first blockbuster motion picture in American history, grossing around $750,000 with profits of around $120,000.

Brick layers successfully created fluted pilasters -- photo by Alice Lum
In June The Times noted that the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight was showing at the Academy of Music and that “the demand for the pictures has caused the employees of [Veriscope Company] to frequently work overtime.”

One of those working overtime was the Secretary and bookkeeper, 56-year old Charles P. Schribner, whom The Times said was “particularly interested in the brief windfall” and “among the most zealous of all.”

The man would often work after hours and on Sunday when the building was closed and the elevator operator was absent.  Because he was somewhat overweight, the newspaper reported that “to save the laborious climb up the stairs to the fifth floor he had been in the habit of being his own elevator operator.”

On Sunday June 6 Schribner finished his work, opened the elevator screen and reached in for the rope to the elevator.  As the car passed him, he attempted to grab the rope again to stop the elevator, lost his footing and plunged down the shaft.   Within minutes the man whom The Times said was “only moderately situated financially” was tragically dead.
Graceful panels of classical urns separate the pilasters.  An unfortunate coat of red paint hides the limestone banding. -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1888 John Ward Stimson founded the Institute for Artist Artisans of New York—where young students were trained in earning a living by designing wallpaper, carpeting and Christmas cards.  “The necessity of schools for artisans was very clearly seen” by Stimson reported The Times ten years later.  “He was a voice crying in the wilderness, but the voice was not strong enough to enlist the aid of capital.”

In the Fall of 1897 Stimson transferred the school to a group of artists and “art lovers” who incorporated it, hired a staff of instructors and moved into a full floor of No. 244 West 23rd Street.   By 1898 the enrollment of young people who studied drawing from life, designing, clay modeling, still life painting, costume and “antique” classes topped 100.   The eight-month courses cost $50 for day classes and $25 for nights.

“The pupils are apt to be young women with comfortable homes, who hope in time to support themselves by work in some line of applied art, or young men preparing themselves to be supervisors of labor rather than artisans.  Indeed, there are not a few who in the New York Institute see a good preliminary school on the way to a career as painter or sculptor,” said The Times.  The Artist-Artisan Institute would remain in the building well into the 20th century.

In 1898 Isidor Hoffstadt lost the building to foreclosure and Jacob Hirsch purchased the property back for $105,487.

The first decades of the new century saw a broad range of tenants.  Van-Ness Cooper Company was here in 1904, “manufacturing chemists” who marketed Lacto-Lithiated Strontium Compound which was guaranteed to cure Bright’s Disease.

One of the longest lasting tenants was the Angle Mfg. Co., makers of oil lamps.  For years the firm would advertise its highly decorative and unique lamps saying they produced “a light that’s near to sunshine than any other artificial glow” and were “entirely free from danger.”

In 1917 the company waged war on the electric bulb.  It warned the consumer of the “over-brilliant white light from electricity,” and cited an unnamed Cleveland eye doctor who reported on its danger.   Angle’s advertisement cautioned that electric light was “responsible for ninety percent of the eyestrains and headaches which endanger sight and health.”
The Angle Mfg. Co. promised that the Angle Lamp "will not disappoint in any way."
At the same time Peerless Printing Company was here, publishing Every Boy’s Magazine, and the U.S. Slicing Machine Company that promised its system of slicing was the “secret of making money on meats” and would draw trade to butcher shops.  The company offered a free book touting its slicing machines entitled “Make More Money in Your Meat Market.”

Other firms in the building included the American Bronze Honor Roll Company and the American Fabric Products Company which manufactured automobile robes and seat covers “for Fords and other popular cars.”

In 1914 the ground floor retail space was home to Cushman & Dennison, stationery dealers.   On June 3 a fire started in their storeroom in the cellar and spread up a pipe casing to the third floor.  Here the fire spread through the Engle Manufacturing Company.  By the time a second alarm was sent, many of the rear windows had blown out.  Ten firefighters had to be carried out, overcome by exhaustion and smoke, and two others were injured in the blaze that cost $10,000 in damages.

In 1922 Mergenthaler & Son leased the third floor and for over four decades the New York Mergenthaler Linotype School would operate here.  The building was purchased in 1938 by the Brodwin Piano Company, Inc.  Established in 1914 by Harry Brodwin, the firm established its “office and modern factory” in the building where it would stay for several decades.

Chelsea residents now live in the spacious rooms where sports film history was made -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1982 the upper floors were converted to twelve large cooperative apartments.  While the interior spaces where young artisans learned to model clay and the first sports films were edited are obviously vastly altered, the striking exterior remains essentially unchanged.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful history. I believe though a minor correction is needed. I think the Brodwin piano co. may have been there since 1938, not 1956. I think you saw the same article I did that said he left the bronx in 1932 to west 23rd st. Where it gets dicey is the next sentence says "In six years he built his business up to such proportions, he purchased 242-246 west 23d. I think you went six years from when the article was written (1950) and not from when he moved to (115) west 23rd .