Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Peerless Motor and Demarest Buildings -- Broadway and 57th Street

The A. T. Demarest Building occupied the corner site while the Peerless Motor Car building embraced it in an L-shape -- photo by Alice Lum

In the first decade of the 20th century what had been the carriage-making district of Broadway from Times Square to approximately 72nd Street was becoming known as “Automobile Row.”  The horseless carriage was rapidly taking over America’s roads with manufacturers cranking out around 200,000 automobiles a year.  By 1910 the industry-related buildings would stretch as far as 110th Street.

Among the smart carriage builders had been Demarest & Chevalier whose high-end showrooms were located in the fashionable 5th Avenue and 33rd Street neighborhood, across from the Waldorf Hotel.   Around 1902 the firm cautiously began manufacturing automobile bodies as well. 

The elderly Aaron T. Demarest died on July 13, 1908 after having eaten tainted clams.  His partner, Gabriel C. Chevalier, recognized that the age of the carriage was quickly passing away and that same year decided on a move to Automobile Row.

Simultaneously the Peerless Motor Car Co. of New York, a branch of the Cleveland automobile manufacturing firm, planned its new showroom and headquarters.  Peerless Motor Cars were the top of the line—luxury automobiles built for discriminating and wealthy consumers.

On December 8, 1908 The New York Times reported that A. T. Demarest & Co. had leased a nine-story building—yet to be erected—on the southeast corner of Broadway and 57th Street.  “The United States Realty and Improvement Company,” said the article, “will erect the building from plans by Francis H. Kimball.”  The New York Times remarked that “Originally in the carriage building business, the Demarest concern now finds it advantageous to locate in the new automobile district, north of Times Square.”

Demarest signed a 20-year lease with a staggering aggregate rent of $1 million.

In a somewhat “and by the way” note, article added that “An ‘L’ –shaped parcel adjoining this Broadway and Fifty-seventh Street corner was sold recently to the Peerless Motor Car Company through the same brokers.”

A month later Francis H. Kimball filed plans for the new building, a “nine-story garage,” for A. T. Demarest & Co.  The projected cost of the structure was $150,000.  The New York Times remarked in February 1909 on the rapid building along what it termed the “automobile belt.”    The newspaper remarked on the proposed buildings of Peerless and Demarest saying “the one to be built and owned by the future occupants, and the other controlled under a long lease that for all practical purposes amounts almost to ownership.” 

The automobile had changed the complexion of Broadway.  The article noted that developers, a decade earlier, had other plans for the real estate, “…but at just about that time came the remarkable expansion in the automobile industry, and these Broadway concerns have become the sites, not of apartment houses, but of salesrooms and garages…To-day the automobile business has become so firmly established in this section that it is not likely to be displaced easily.”

Architect Francis Kimball paid deference to the hulking Gothic-style Broadway Tabernacle adjacent to the building sites and planned both to complement it.   Designing the two structures so harmoniously that they are most often mistaken for a single building, he frosted the facades with Gothic- and Romanesque-inspired motifs.    Plans moved ahead in a blurring pace with construction on both structures commencing early in March 1909.  Within three months the Demarest was completed, followed by the Peerless building in September.    The remarkable fa├žade, produced by the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Co., was praised by Architects’ & Builders’ Magazine.

A magnificent three-story bay continues the Gothic motif on the Peerless building -- photo by Alice Lum

“Carried out in white terra cotta, the Gothic treatment is suitable in keeping with the design of the church, and makes a bond between the business structure and the house of worship, which would hardly seem a possibility were it not before our eyes.”

Peerless immediately published a description of the showrooms as a reflection of its high-end product.  “The salesroom occupies the ground floor, and is designed to be in keeping with the Peerless cars, in dignity and richness.  The walls and columns are of Botticino marble.  The panels and side walls are of Greek Skyros, and the base of Pennsylvania Serpentine marble.  The border of the floor is in Verde Antique and Old Convent Sienna.  The Mosaic floor is of Sienna marble sawed in slabs and broken by hand, to get a novel effect. “

This 30-horsepower 1909 Peerless Landaulet sold for a jaw-dropping $5800 -- NYPL Collection

In order to prevent an unwanted glare of electric lights, the lamps were concealed behind marble caps to diffuse the light.  The entire ceiling of the showroom was gold leafed.    Two huge elevators moved automobiles between floors and a turntable at the 57th Street entrance easily changed the direction of the cars.

A Peerless automobile leaves the 57th Street entrance in 1910 -- from The New York Home of the Peerless (copyright expired)

Unlike its neighbor, Demarest & Co. did not manufacture complete automobiles, but luxury car bodies.  In 1911 The New York Times reported on the luxurious and colorful bodies being shown.

“Demarest & Co. will place the 38 horsepower English Daimler Silent Knight show chassis in the space this morning.  The other cars they are displaying are three Italas and three Renaults.  All the bodies having been built in their own shops.  One Itala is a 30 horse power with a green limousine body, another is a 20 horse power show chassis, and the third is a 15 horse power dark blue folding front landaulet.

“The Renaults shown in the Demarest space are a 12-16 horse maroon extension front landaulet, with one-fourth windows at each side in front; a 14-20 horse power green landaulet, with a detachable top over the driver’s seat and folding window pillars arranged so the body can be changed into an open one for touring, and a 20-30 horse power maroon limousine.”

To emphasize the exclusive nature of the Peerless automobile, the company would often advertise it parked in front of a mansion or other high-end setting, as in this 1909 ad -- NYPL Collection

Business in the upscale Peerless showrooms was upset just before noon on March 6, 1912 when a series of explosions sent six manhole covers, one-by-one, flying high into the air along Broadway from 57th to 54th Street.  The cast iron covers crashed down onto the pavement, shattering the concrete sidewalks, but amazingly no one was hurt.   The Peerless Motor Car windows were not so lucky.  Three of the large plate glass sheets were smashed.

photo by Alice Lum

Around 1915 Peerless Motor Car left its L-shaped building and two years later A. T. Demarest & Co. did the same.   In May 1917 Chevrolet Motor Co. of New York leased the Demarest building, only to purchase it the following year.   Chevrolet became a division of General Motors that year, in 1918, transferred the property to GM.   Almost simultaneously, General Motors purchased the Peerless building next door. 

Architect Henry J. Hardenbergh was commissioned to combine the two buildings into one.  While the exterior remained unchanged, the two structures became the headquarters of General Motors Corporation.    Although GM erected another headquarters building in Detroit in 1922, it retained the 57th Street building as its New York headquarters until 1927.  The street level showrooms continued to be used to showcase its many makes—Cadillac, LaSalle, Chevrolet and Pontiac among them—until the early 1970s.

Intricate terra cotta elements appear throughout the facade -- photo by Alice Lum

The Hearst Corporation had already leased offices in the building for several years when, in July 1977, it purchased the property.   From here some of America’s most popular periodicals would be published:  Town and Country, Esquire, Popular Mechanics, and Bazaar among them.   

After nearly three decades in the building, Hearst relocated in 2008.  After sitting mostly vacant for two years, it was sold by the publisher in 2010 to a Beirut-based investment group.   The investors, an affiliate of M1 Group, announced a $45 million renovation.   Today the exterior of the landmarked Peerless and Demarest buildings—now a single structure—is beautifully preserved; a reminder of the time when motorcars ruled this section of Broadway.

photo by Alice Lum

1 comment:

  1. As usual, a fascinating post.

    When I was a child- early 1970's- GM was headquartered in a building it owned at Fifth Avenue between 58th-59th Street, site of the much lamented Savoy Plaza Hotel (dating myself, I even remember the hotel- a sickly sweet drink at Trader Vic's, then located there, was a bi-annual post dentist treat. Go figure).The atrium of the GM building, now occupied by a TV studio and FAO Schwarz, was given over to a huge showroom of GM vehicles. I was car crazy at the time, and spent hours there imagining the cars I would buy as an adult. Cars also seemed to come in a million colors back then- many dreadful, I know, but the more outlandish the better to my 12 year old eyes.

    Now, all the car dealers in Manhattan seem to be along a particularly grim stretch of 11th Avenue, housed in equally grim warehouse type structures. It does take some of the fun and excitement out of car shopping, which, real or fantasy, was one of the favorite activiites of my youth.