Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The 1912 U.S. Rubber Co. Bldg. --1790 Brodway

photo by Alice Lum
As the 19th century drew to a close, new-fangled machines that sputtered and coughed along country roads and city streets annoyed pedestrians and spooked carriage horses.   The horseless carriage was considered a novelty, a toy for the wealthy, and a fad that would disappear when the novelty was gone.  In the decade prior to 1900 there were only 300 motorcars in the entire country.

But the automobile was a novelty that was not going away.

In 1910 The New York Times predicted that U.S. manufacturers would crank out around 200,000 automobiles that year.   The stretch of Broadway from Times Square to around 72nd Street—only a few years earlier the center of the carriage industry--was lined with businesses related to the motor car.   It was familiarly referred to as “Automobile Row.”

Subordinate businesses boomed as part of the automobile-making process.  Former dry goods manufacturers were now making canvas car tops, and upholstery and apparel makers turned out dusters and car blankets.  Milliners busied themselves with designing hats for country jaunts that tied below a lady’s chin to prevent their blowing off.  And there were rubber tires and inner tubes.

Charles R. Flint, an original partner in the W. R. Grace Company, had been dealing in rubber since 1878.  While the automobile business was in its infancy in 1892, he organized nine firms which made rubber footwear to consolidate, forming the United States Rubber Company.   Before long the company was making 70 percent of the country’s rubber boots, galoshes and related footwear.

The enterprising Flint recognized the potential of the growing auto industry and in 1898 founded the Rubber Goods Manufacturing Company to make, along with other industrial rubber products, tires.  A year later the company was acquired by United States Rubber.   The subsidiary was renamed The United States Tire Company.

The burgeoning giant purchased its own rubber plantation covering over 90,000 acres in Sumatra in 1910, guaranteeing a constant source of raw materials.  It was time for United States Rubber to make a presence along Automobile Row.

The same year that the company purchased the plantation, C. B. Rice was operating his automobile showrooms at 1790 Broadway at 58th Street, just south of Columbus Circle.   Here he sold Baker Electric Vehicles.  But he wouldn’t be there for much longer.

By August of 1911 Rice’s building was gone and construction was underway on what The New York Tribune called “A Broadway Skyscraper.”   United States Rubber leased the land from Mary R. Fitzgerald and began construction of a soaring 20-story building.  On August 6 The Tribune explained that “The building was projected primarily to afford adequate quarters in a convenient uptown location for the offices of the United States Rubber Company, as well as selling space for the United States Tire Company.”  The newspaper added that “The design of the fronts shows a rather free Renaissance treatment.”

The “rather free Renaissance treatment” was designed by Carrere & Hastings whose masterful New York Public Library had just been completed that year.  The white marble tour de force firmly established Thomas Hastings and John Merven Carrere as among the foremost architects of the day.

In actuality, the style was Beaux Arts and, like the Library, was clad in gleaming Vermont marble.  Long piers between the windows stressed the verticality of the skyscraper.  The architects rounded the corner giving the structure a nearly bow-like appearance.   The building was crowned by a deep copper cornice.
Carerre & Hastings rounded the corner of the white marble building and added a deeply-overhanging copper cornice -- photo by Alice Lum

The New York Tribune said “Because of the height of the building it was realized that the entire façade could not be embraced at a glance.  The architectural scheme is essentially a two-part design, with the lower part more elaborate than the upper.”

The U.S. Rubber Building was actually higher than most contemporary structures with the same amount of floors.  “The height of the stories is greater than is customary in office buildings, permitting of higher windows and therefore better light,” said the newspaper.   U.S. Rubber cleverly promoted itself in the interior fittings—the floors were covered in “masonry, marble or rubber tiling throughout.”

Beautiful veining marks the Vermont marble facade -- photo by Alice Lum
Thoroughly modern, the building offered tenants the latest in office technology.  “The mechanical equipment of the building includes complete independent heating plants, with vacuum circulation, standpipe equipment for fire protection, vacuum cleaner plant for the entire building and electrically operated elevators of the gearless traction type,” reported the Tribune.

United State Tire Company established its showrooms on the street level and U.S. Rubber reserved the 14th through 20th floors for its offices.   The floors in between were leased, mostly, to industry-related firms or organizations.  The Society of Automobile Engineers established its headquarters here and by 1916 the H & N Carburetor Company was in the building.  The firm marketed its Duplex Carburetor promising buyers a 50% savings in fuel costs.  “Why Use Gasolene?” a March 12, 1916 advertisement in The Sun asked.   The Duplex Carburetor “will operate any gasolene motor on kerosene or gasolene with equal efficiency…with more power, speed, mileage, flexibility and economy.”
The building dominated the Columbus Circle area upon completion -- photo NYPL Collection
Also in the building were the offices of the Metropolitan Dealers’ Motor Truck Exchange, Inc.  All the while U.S. Rubber marketed its other products—like the enormously popular KEDS rubber-soled shoes with canvas tops—from No. 1790.   By the 1930s more diverse tenants were leasing space, like the National Air Rifle League that promoted annual marksman tournaments to teenaged sharpshooters.

In 1940 United States Rubber sold the building to a holding company, keeping only a select few offices here while the bulk of the firm moved to No. 1230 6th Avenue.   Shortly afterward, on October 13, The New York Times reported that The National Council, Inc. “and its various affiliated organizations” had leased the 8th to 14th floors; about 45,000 square feet of space.   After significant interior alterations, the Council’s medical-related organizations moved in.

By the time of this photograph, the General Motors Building edged out the U.S. Rubber headquarters in height -- photo NYPL Collection
Among the new tenants were the National Tuberculosis Association, the National Health Library, the American Nurses’ Association, the National Committee for Mental hygiene and the National Heart Association.  At a time when racial equality was still beyond the horizon, The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, Inc. promoted the welfare of Black nurses and worked to fight racial discrimination in nursing.

photo by Alice Lum
The tenant list was not composed only of medical-related organizations.  Through the 1940s the Paper Cup and Container Institute was headquartered here and the Department of State leased three full floors.  In 1951 United States Rubber closed its last offices in the building--at the same time that the property was sold to the West Side Federal Savings Bank.  That year the Department of State took its fourth floor.

West Side Federal Savings Bank took over the space originally used as tire showrooms.  After several years it decided to update the first two floors of the building, giving it a sleek new look.  In 1959 architect Herbert Tannenbaum was commissioned redesign the bank’s storefront.  Although Tannenbaum urged the owners not to destroy Carrere & Hastings’ graceful arcaded design, the bank demanded a modern, stainless steel and polished gray marble façade.   Years later the architect would tell The New York Times “The original marble base was jackhammered off.”
In 1959 West Federal Savings Bank destroyed the marble-arched base, replacing it with stainless steel and polished stone -- photo by Alice Lum
The upper floors became home to the NCAAP in 1967.  After having its national offices at No. 20 West 40th Street since 1945, the organization took the 11th and 12th floors “to provide for an enlarged professional and clerical staff.”  From here the NCAAP also published Crisis Magazine, a periodical aimed at exposing and fighting racial inequality and discrimination.

At the same time the Hearst Corporation was here publishing magazines like Esquire, Marie Claire and the popular Avon Books; as was Mills Music, Inc., later Columbia Artists Management, Inc.

In 1985 the bank sold the building to 1790 Broadway Associates.  The new owners restored the lobby which had been mostly obliterated by the bank and cleaned the façade.  Preservationists were excited when plans were announced to reproduce the Carrere & Hastings ground floor arcade, using original plans and consulting with Herbert Tannenbaum.

Unfortunately, it never happened.  Today the white marble Beaux Arts beauty sits on a rather brutal, if innocuous, base.  But above, the grand home built for a tire company remains beautifully intact

 many thanks to reader Marlon Buenck for requesting this post.

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