Friday, August 31, 2012

A Colorful Blending of Styles --154 West 14th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Leslie R. Palmer was a busy man in the first decade of the 20th century.  An attorney, he was also a banker and active real estate developer and sat on the Board of Directors of the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Company.   In 1911, Palmer eyed the five old buildings of the Adams Express Company at the southeast corner of Seventh avenue and 14th Street as the site of a modern commercial building.

On New Years Eve of that year, The New York Times noted, “The plot is one of the choicest in the lower Seventh Avenue district, which is likely, in the next few years, to witness a marked business transformation due to the extension of the avenue south of Eleventh Street to Varick Street and the prospect of a subway improvement under Seventh Avenue.”

Indeed, scores of buildings were being razed as Seventh Avenue was being cut through Greenwich Village.   Additionally, discussions were underway for the Seventh Avenue subway which would transport thousands of workers and shoppers daily.

Palmer formed a syndicate called the Fourteenth Street and Seventh Avenue Construction Company and purchased the large plot from Adams Express Company for about $260,000.  Included in the sale was the old residence that survived at 51 Seventh Avenue.  The New York Times reported that Palmer intended “to tear down the present old structures and erect on the site a high-class twelve-story office and loft building.”

The developer would develop a close working relationship with architect Herman Lee Meader, who received the commission.    Meader would go on to design four more buildings for Palmer, who took advantage of this project to spotlight the work of the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Co.   And the architect did not disappoint.

In the last years of the 19th century, European designers and architects had revolted from traditional restraints.  By now, the ground-breaking styles had reached the United States.  For 154 West 14th Street, Meader created a taster’s menu of Arts & Crafts, Mission, Art Nouveau and Vienna Secessionist styles.

Completed in 1913 at a cost of approximately $350,000, the building was praised by The New York Times for its modern design as well as its bold use of color.  Meader used an aggressive palette of Arts & Crafts-inspired earthy tones—mustard, beige, white, celadon, green and cobalt—most noticeably in the sinuous Art Nouveau three-story base and in the eleventh-story Secessionist decoration.    The newspaper especially noted the expanses of glass and the absence of the customary cornice.

Sinuous, colorful art nouveau decoration covers the base -- photo by Alice Lum

The New York Times reported, “The corner of the ground floor will be a store, and the floor above will be planned as a showroom.  Both will have fronts mainly of glass.  The façade has been designed to supply all the light possible, and besides, making the windows as large as is practicable, the upper part will not depend upon the inevitable cornice to ornament the top story and cast dark shadows over the windows below.”

The 154 West 14th Street Building stood out among Manhattan structures.  While the modern architectural styles that Meader showcased here were embraced in other American cities such as Chicago, New York’s staid tastes still tended towards the accepted and safe.  

The 12th story with its intricate Mission-inspired motifs can be seen here in 1931 -- photo NYPL Collection

The nearby residential neighborhood had already been settled by Spanish-speaking immigrants, earning the designation of “Little Spain.”  In January 1918, just as the Seventh Avenue subway station opened at its front door, the retail space was leased to Jaime V. Lago.  Lago, whom The Sun referred to as a “Spanish banker,” opened his private bank to serve the Spanish-speaking residents.   The enterprising young man had started his bank only a year earlier while working as a bell boy in a local hotel.  A year later the Campania Hispano-Americana, a Spanish-language bookstore opened here.

In 1921, Lago, who by now had Anglicized his first name to Joseph, enlarged his banking space and the following year renewed his lease for 14 years at $3,600 a year.  Things were looking good for Joseph V. Lago.  That same year, the Corn Exchange Bank took the corner street level space, signing a lease of 21 years with an annual rent of $22,000.  

Vibrant Vienna Secessionist ornamentation wraps the facade beneath the ruined top floor -- photo by Alice Lum

Along with the banks were various tenants.  The Postal Telegraph Cable Co. took the eighth floor and in 1927 S. Bruner, Inc., jewelers was here.  June 21 would be a day long remembered by Max Wolf, one of Bruner’s salesmen.

Around 9:00 that morning, Wolf left the store with his sample case.  Inside were 192 gold wrist watches, 149 gold rings and 24 monogram button insets for the rings.  The goods were valued at around $4,000.  When he reached his car parked at the curb, he found it wedged in by a delivery truck.  Wolf sat the case on the sidewalk and worked his automobile little-by-little back and forth until he could finally pull out of the tight parking space.  And off he sped to New Rochelle to meet with buyers—leaving his case of gold watches and rings on the pavement.

Throughout the morning hundreds, if not thousands, of busy New Yorkers rushed past the case.  Finally, at approximately 2:00, George Bovens stopped to investigate what today would be called “an unaccompanied package.”  He immediately rushed the case to the Charles Street police station.

In the meantime, Max Wolf reached his first appointment.  Within minutes he was headed back to the city at a greater speed than he had left.  For his honesty, Boven received a gold watch from the jeweler.

In July of 1928, Jaime V. Lago’s streak of good fortune came to an end.  The 35-year-old banker was arrested and held on $5,000 bail for accepting deposits while knowing his bank was insolvent.  A shortage of $250,000 had been discovered by Superintendent of Banks Frank H. Warder.

Investigation found that Lago had skimmed the money to finance the maintenance of a “rooming house for fellow-countrymen at 317 West 14th Street and a bookstore,” said The Times, as well as stock transactions.

Other tenants came and went, including the New York Globe Ticket Company which moved in in 1930.  The United States Treasury Department took three floors—about 33,000 square feet—in July 1937 for the WPA Cartographic and Map Making Project.  The concern produced relief maps of New York City, models of tunnels, and maps of foreign countries.

In the mid-1950s, Hugo Gernsback moved his several companies into the building.  Called the “father of modern science fiction,” his businesses included the Popular Book Corp., Gernsback Publications, Inc., and Hudson Specialties Company.  It was around this time that the top floor of the building was stripped of its wonderful Mission façade of curved gables, winged cobalt blue disks, brackets and floral bosses.

Other important tenants were the related Vanguard record companies.  From around 1959 through 1966, The Vanguard Recording Society, Vanguard Stereolab, Inc., Vanguard Record Sales Corp. and the Bach Guild were here; among the preeminent record labels representing folk, popular and classical music at the time.

photo by Alice Lum

Herman Lee Meader’s phenomenal and brashly colorful blending of early 20th century architectural trends is as striking today as it was in 1913.  Equally impressive is that little of the original design has been destroyed or seriously altered.  The building stands as a rare and wonderful example of cutting-edge building design in the years just prior to World War I.


  1. I always found this motley assemblage vaguely repugnant. Nice to learn its history, though. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for researching and sharing. I have been visiting and sitting in Birch Coffee across the street looking across at the building for the last few years. I thought perhaps the building has some Masonic influence. Finally, after several years the scaffold at the lower floors has been removed allowing a fuller view of the building.