|No. 23 (left) and No. 21 were once mirror images. The unapologetically modern roof addition to No. 21 was added in 1992 -- photo by Alice Lum
John Jacob Astor built his one-story office building at 81 Prince Street in 1835, well north of the commercial district. The site he chose, just off the corner of Broadway, sat in a high-end residential neighborhood.
Astor’s building, which mimicked a Greek temple, was built to be impregnable. Massive masonry walls were enforced with iron bars, the roof was constructed of iron as were the doors. For added security, iron gratings covered the windows. Decades later The New York Times would remark “nothing short of an earthquake could tear the masonry asunder.”
William Backhouse Astor continued running the Astor real estate empire from the building until his death in 1875, when the business passed to his sons William and John Jacob III. By now the scope of the family enterprise was such that adjoining buildings were being used as offices and the original structure became a storeroom for papers and documents.
If architect Thomas Stent had no commissions other than Astor projects, he would have been a busy man. In 1880 the brothers had him begin plans for new offices on West 26th Street, as well as a hulking commercial building to replace the old Prince Street structure.
By February 3, 1881 the new 26th Street buildings—one for John Jacob Astor and one for his brother—were completed. The New York Times reported “Their new office is at Nos. 21 and 23 West Twenty-sixth street. A handsome two-story brick building has been there erected, the massive granite cornice and trimmings of which give the structure an appearance of solidity, and make it an ornament to the neighborhood.”
Although the two buildings were mirror images of one another, the Astor brothers would from now on maintain strictly separate offices and dealings. “On two burnished plates of brass modestly appear two names—‘J. J. Astor,’ ‘William Astor,’” said The New York Times.
Stent had created charming Victorian Gothic structure of brick and granite with terra cotta ornamentation. John Jacob Astor III ensconced himself in No. 21, bringing his father’s old mahogany desk from Prince Street. “It is one of the most conspicuous pieces of furniture in the office in spite of the smartness of its modern associates,” said The New York Times.
|Decorative terra cotta plates contrast with the stone base -- photo by Alice Lum
The “smartness” of the interiors included up-to-the-minute trends in late Victorian décor. The Aesthetic Movement had reached New York from England—a trend that stressed simple forms and uncluttered surfaces, and also borrowed from Asian designs. Stained glass panels and decorative tile floors were among the latest in interior design.
John Jacob Astor III died in 1890, leaving an estate valued at approximately $200 million, to his 42-year old son William Waldorf Astor. For nearly two years the two Astor real estate concerns were somewhat confusingly run by William B. Astor and his nephew William Waldorf Astor.
|Intricate brickwork, carved details and terra cotta accents created a visual feast -- photo by Alice Lum
In April 1892 William Backhouse Astor died of lung congestion in Paris. His funeral at Trinity Chapel on West 25th Street was sparsely attended. “The church was not crowded,” noted The Times. “There was not the expected outpouring of society, and many of those most closely associated with the Astor family in social life here and abroad were conspicuous by their absence. There was also a noticeable absence of mourning raiment among those who occupied the privileged pews.”
William B. Astor’s business passed, now, to his son John Jacob Astor IV. The cousins endured one another, their relationship strained by William Waldorf Astor's feud with his controlling aunt Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, John’s mother. The families lived in brownstone mansions side-by-side but in 1893 the battling had become more than William could bear. He razed his father’s house and began his last major real estate project before leaving the country to live in England for good. He built the hulking Waldorf Hotel on the site as the final blow to his aunt.
William W. Astor continued to run his real estate business long distance through local officers at 21 West 26th Street, while John Jacob operated from No. 23. In 1905 The New York Times noted that John Jacob Astor could be found at the office “at least three days” at week. Here was located an immense cabinet holding a series of maps of the city.
“By means of these maps…the trend of urban progress is studied, and the future possibilities of various districts are forecast and existing conditions diagnosed,” said the newspaper. By predicting the development of the city Astor was able to build hotels, tenements and commercial buildings where they would be most needed, before other developers recognized the potential.
The differentiation between William Astor’s and John Astor’s real estate businesses was clearly marked. The New York Times was taken to task when it said on November 3, 1911 that the Uncle Sam Lodging House on the Bowery--reported as a firetrap--was a holding of the John Jacob Astor estate. The following day the newspaper quickly corrected itself. “It is not part of the John Jacob Astor estate, which is administered from the office at 21 West Twenty-sixth Street,” it said, but “part of the holdings of the William Astor estate, which is administered from the office at 23 West Twenty-sixth Street.”
A year later John Jacob Astor IV would be lost at sea on the H.M.S. Titanic.
John Astor’s son, Vincent, commissioned the architectural firm Peabody, Wilson & Brown to give No. 23 a neo-Federal facelift in 1922. Only two years later he sold the building for $30,000 to Frederick Vanderbilt Field, a Communist who wrote for the Daily Worker published by Political Affairs Publishers, Inc.. In an ironic twist, the building that had served as operations central for one of the nation’s most capitalistic enterprises now became headquarters for a collection of Communist organizations.
|Vincent Astor's re-do of No. 23 resulted in a prim, neo-Federal facade starkly contrasting with its busy Victorian neighbor -- photo by Alice Lum
Political journalist Frank C. Waldrop wrote a column for the The New York Daily News, on July 17, 1944 with the headline “Why Are They Shy?” He focused his attention on the various committees headquartered at No. 23 West 26th, saying “Some of them aren’t pinks, they are blushing Reds. But all of them are very, very shy of identification of their true colors. Wherever possible, they speak of themselves as ‘democrats,’ using the small ‘d.’”
Waldrop pointed his finger at Charlie Chaplin, Bela Lugosi, Paul Robeson and Orson Wells as being affiliated with groups in the building. As a matter of fact, the Hungarian-American Council for Democracy used Lugosi’s name on their letterhead and Robeson had close ties with Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., a leading black communist. He was also the chairman of the Council on African Affairs which maintained its permanent headquarters and research library in the building.
|The 1922 facade included details like Flemish bond brick, paneled shutters with wrought iron shutter dogs, and six-over-six paned windows -- photo by Alice Lum
Before long 23 West 26th Street became the headquarters of the American Communist Party. The notoriety of the building and its organizations resulted in a series of fire bombs, at least one of which caused a fire in the offices.
While No. 23 was causing a political uproar, No. 21 underwent a stark change of ownership itself in 1952. That year John Jacob Astor, in London, sold the building to the Volitant Publishing Company which printed “cheesecake” magazines. The firm published Laff, Sir and Hit magazines and owner Armand Lopez told Popular Photgraphy magazine that he sold over 700,000 issues per month.
Meanwhile, next door, The Daily Worker caught the attention of Communist headhunter Senator Joe McCarthy who called for the revocation of 2nd class privileges for the publication. Then in May 1957 Frederick V. Field sold No. 23 to the 23 West Twenty-sixth Street Corporation for $60,000, who immediately leased it to Charles Dirba.
“Mr. Dirba would not disclose yesterday whether he had subleased the house to the Communist party,” reported The Times on May 3. “That’s a business secret,” he told the reporter. Secret or not, the newspaper made its own assumptions and reported “The Communist party of the United States is carrying on its campaign against the capitalistic system from the former offices of Vincent Astor.”
The writer added, “Workmen are decorating in a decidedly unproletarian manner the new national and state headquarters in a lovely old three-story Georgian house at 23 West Twenty-sixth Street.”
|Stained glass panels in No. 21 are reminiscent of the work of Aesthetic designer William Morris -- http://writershouse.com/content/history.asp
Through it all No. 21 retained its Victorian Gothic charm—inside and out. In 1979 it was purchased by Writers House, a literary agency. John Jacob Astor’s office became the conference room and the massive vaults where deeds and cash were stored now safeguard the archived books of the firm’s authors.
As the agency expanded, so did the building. In 1992 an additional floor was added by architect David Mandl on the roof. The addition was described unapologetically to The New York Times by owner Albert Zuckerman as “frankly modern.”
|Wooden banisters adorn a cast iron staircase in No. 21 -- http://writershouse.com/content/history.asp
Still growing, more space was necessary by 2001 and Writers House purchased No. 23 for use by its foreign rights department and offices. The two buildings were back together again.
Casual passersby would never know that the two buildings were built simultaneously or that they were once identical. But each retains its architectural charm, outshone only by the incredible histories that took place inside.