Friday, June 22, 2012

The 1892 G. Schirmer Publishing Bldg. -- No. 108 East 16th Street

Unfortunately, a modern black iron fire escape nearly veils the amazing facade -- photo by Alice Lum

Gustav Schirmer was born in Saxony in 1829, but at the age of eight, he settled with his family in what the University Musical Encyclopedia would call “the American metropolis”—New York City.   Life for immigrant boys in 1837 was not one of carefree play and school.  Schirmer was immediately put to work in the music house of Scharfenberg & Luis.

The boy learned the trade and in 1854 became manager of the Kerkeig & Breusing publishing house.   When the opportunity was presented to purchase the business in 1868, he joined with B. Beer and formed Beer & Schirmer.  After Beer’s death the name was changed again to G. Schirmer.

By 1891 Schirmer had positioned his company as one of the leading music publishers in the nation.  It was time for a new headquarters that would reflect the firm’s success.  The publisher contracted German architect William Kuhles to design the structure, and Kuhles did not disappoint.

The 33-foot-wide building stretched back 160 feet and rose six stories.  Kuhles created a mirror image façade separated down the middle by a slightly-projecting pier.  Melding the highly popular Romanesque Revival style with a touch of German Renaissance, the facade was composed of a variety of materials.  On December 19, 1891, American Architect and Architecture touched upon the matter saying, “First-story front piers are of polished and rough granite.  The upper part of front, buff bricks and Indiana limestone.”

Architecture and Building published a sketch of the new structure in 1891 -- (copyright expired)

The two-story arches that encompassed the first and second floor retail space were adorned with cast iron colonettes and cast garlands.  The chunky capitals of the first floor piers, upon close inspection, contain carved lyres that reflected the firm’s business.   The motif was repeated in the elaborately-carved spandrels of the arches where a virtual still-life of musical instruments appear.

An intensely-staring "green man" serves as a keystone, while musical instruments fill the flanking spandrels -- photo by Alice Lum

Kuhles kept the German stone cutters busy with a profusion of carved decorations from sidewalk to the eye-catching dormers—stone capitals, fluted piers and grotesque keystone faces.

It would be one of Kuhles’ last designs.  A year later he died, to be followed by Gustav Schirmer’s death the next year in 1893.

Schirmer’s sons, Rudolph E. and Gustave, took over the business.  The upper floors not used by the Schirmer firm were leased as loft space.   The most well-known tenant was another publishing company, Edgar S. Werner who would be here for many years. 

Decorative iron cresting lines the slate-tiled mansard.  Stone carvings appear at every turn, including the two S initials in each dormer, signifying the publisher's name -- photo by Alice Lum

Werner published, for the most part, books and pamphlets dealing with recitation and elocution, along with Werner’s Magazine—a Journal of Express—Vocal and Physical.  Among  the publications Werner printed and distributed from here were How to Read.  A Manual of Elocution and Vocal Culture; Guttmann’s Gymnastics of the Voice, and Cure of Stuttering and Stammering; and Recitations.

In 1895 Werner published Lillie Eginton Warren’s book Defective Speech and Deafness.  Popular Science reported that in it she addressed topics such as “Dull Pupils; Invented or ‘Pathological’ Language; Lisping; Careless Speech; Stuttering; Stammering; and Cleft Palates.”

The lofts were not taken solely by publishing houses.  Another of the original tenants was Andrews-Demarest Seating Co. which manufactured wood-and-cast-iron institutional folding chairs.

Andrews-Demarest provided churches and auditoriums with ready-made seating -- Pratt Institute Monthly 1896 (copyright expired)

In the meantime, Schirmer’s continued to grow as a leading music publisher, and the two-story retail space was a destination for musicians and music lovers.  There was also a musical circulating library—the largest in the country—that allowed musicians to borrow music rather than purchase it.

Unlike most other music publishers, G. Schirmer made a specialty of publishing the works of American composers.  On staff were two experts, Dr. P. Goetschius and Dr. Theodore Baker, who served as literary advisers.  By 1906 G. Schirmer was publishing 18,000 titles.

Celtic braid girds a pilaster capital below a stylized lyre -- photo by Alice Lum

The Schirmer brothers were, by now, very wealthy men.  Gustave and his wife owned a comfortable home at 117 East 35th Street and a country estate in Princeton, New Jersey.   The well-rounded publisher was not only an accomplished violinist, he was an astronomer, a botanist and had acquired a national reputation as a patron of the arts.

In July 1907, Gustave prepared to join his wife who was traveling in Germany with their daughter and two sons when he was suddenly stricken with appendicitis.   He was taken to a private hospital where he was operated on and where he died shortly afterwards.

The control of G. Schirmer publishing was now in the hands of Rudolph.  Two years later, with the business having outgrown its headquarters, he sold the building on East 16th Street to George Leerburger and Zade Metzler.

Later, in 1916, Rudolph Schirmer married the opera star Ann Swinburne, a particularly appropriate match.  On August 20, 1919, having suffered a prolonged illness, the publisher realized his death was imminent.  He requested that his wife and a friend, R. B. Gring, sing an air from Beethoven while he quietly died to the music.

The East 16th Street building continued house a variety of manufacturers.  During World War I and for several years afterward, the Clothing and Equipage Division of the Quartermaster Department of U.S. Army was here.  The Department supplied uniforms to the troops.

In 1920, the Individual Towel & Cabinet Service Co. was here, offering hospitals and other institutions the “Individual towel cabinet service [that] assures each person a clean towel every time at a cost much less even than that of paper towels—without the bad features.”

At the same time the Re-Be Soap Company was in the building, manufacturing liquid soap.

Boys at midcentury sent their allowances to Panther National, Ltd. with order forms clipped from Boys’ Life magazine.  The distributor offered everything from a set of 12 different “whittling and carving knives” for $2.00 to a balsa wood chest of 12 hand-tied fishing flies for $1.00.

It was about this time that the owners modernized the street level.  Unlike most “improvements” during this period, however, the façade was not demolished, but covered over with metal panels. 

In 1998, Alfredo De Vido architects was called in to reverse the 1950s updating.   The false façade was removed, the stonework restored and a new entrance installed.

The Schirmer Building's distracting neighbors, including a brutal parking garage, coupled with the fire escape, cause the structure to be often overlooked -- photo by Alice Lum

In 2001 the Talwar Gallery opened here, exhibiting the contemporary works of artists from the Indian subcontinent or of artists with Indian origins born outside of the country.  The retail space where G. Schirmer once sold sheet music and books is now home to Italian Wine Merchants.  Not your ordinary wine store, New York Magazine said of it, “this place feels more like a designer showroom than a wine shop.  Only one bottle of each wine is on display; the rest are stored in the cellar.”

Today, other than a distracting industrial fire escape that zig-zags down the façade, the G. Schirmer publishing building looks nearly exactly as it did when Gustav Schirmer’s first customer walked in the door in 1891.


  1. Remove the fire escape and you have a real architectural stunner

  2. What a great post! Thank you for doing this. I am Gustav's great-granddaughter, and this is such a treasure.