Saturday, September 29, 2012

The 1913 World's Tower Building -- No. 110 W. 40th Street

photo by Alice Lum
While still in his 20s, young Edward West Browning began investing in Manhattan real estate during the 1890s.  In 1908 he dipped his big toe into the waters of development by erecting a loft building in the Chelsea neighborhood.  If his first stab at building was unexceptional; his second would certainly draw attention.

On April 10, 1912 The New York Tribune reported that Browning planned to build “a thirty story office building…at Nos. 110 and 112 West 40th street, to be known as the World’s Tower Building.”  The structure would be the tallest building in the world constructed on a plot only 50-feet wide—the width of two residential plots.

The Tribune was impressed by the solution architects Buchman & Fox devised to avoid the unsightly blank brick walls normally unavoidable on high rise buildings.  “By an ingenious scheme of setting back the side walls it has become possible to carry out the design of the front on all four sides of the structure, thus obviating the usually unattractive appearance of the side walls of these high buildings.”

Four years earlier, a few blocks away at Broadway and 57th Street, Francis H. Kimball had designed the nearly-matching Gothic-inspired headquarters for A. T. Demarest & Co. and the Peerless Motor Car Co. covered in white terra cotta.  And as Browning was purchasing the lots on 40th Street, the 60-story Woolworth Building was going up; a triumph of terra cotta and Gothic Revival.

Buchman & Fox would turn to the newly popular style and material for the World’s Tower Building.  “The four exteriors are to be built of ornamental terra cotta throughout the entire height,” said The Tribune, “and all the windows in gold bronze.  All four sides are completely pierced throughout with windows.”

Some of the offices and suites were custom-designed for the prospective tenants and the building was planned with the latest conveniences.  “A mail chute will be provided for the convenience of the tenants,” said the newspaper.  “High speed elevators will be installed, similar to those to be used in the Woolworth Building.”

Completed early in the Spring of 1913, the building with its marble and bronze lobby was instantly successful.   Browning installed himself here and suggested to reporters that he would come and go from his apartment and office by airplane—taking off and landing on the roofs.  That never happened.

King's Views of New York in 1915 called it the "tallest office building ever built in the world on this size plot, also one of the most handsome -- copyright expired.
 By the first week of July the tenant list included the Motor Boat Publishing Company, which took half of the 20th floor, the Erickson Self-Cleansing Filter Company, The World Syndicate Company, Inc.,  and Acme Utilities.  Realty firms like Kirknew Realty and John A. Fellows Realty were already here, as was the Zeta Psi Fraternity headquarters.   The fraternity referred to its new quarters as “ample room and a pleasant environment.”

The building had no blank side walls, a nearly unique feature -- photo by Alice Lum
The days when California would woo the motion picture industry away from the East Coast were still to come and the World’s Tower Building lured tenants related to the film and entertainment industries.    Among the list of tenants that first year was the American Federation of Musicians, the Eclectic Film Company, and the Great Northern Film Co. which released its epic “Atlantis” that year—a 9-reel “masterpiece” that cost $60,000 to produce. 

Lavish terra-cotta ornamentation created a tapestry-like surface -- photo by Alice Lum
By the following year there would be numerous film companies in the building and it caused concern to inspector Oscar J. Mendel of the Bureau of Fire Prevention.    In November 1914 he charged 32 film handling corporations here “with violating the law relative to storing films and other inflammable material.”

Early in 1910 Mrs. William H. Baldwin, Jr. invited representatives of several social-welfare organizations to a meeting in her Manhattan residence.  Her purpose was to establish cooperation among the agencies and to eliminate duplication of efforts in working to improve the conditions of black residents.  The meeting resulted in the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes and when the World Towers opened, the organization took offices here, adding to the broad array of tenants.

Gaping fish-creatures originally upheld the entrance canopy with their mouths -- photo by Alice Lum
Clark & Gabby, sellers of office furniture and cabinet supplies, took the entire first floor retail space in 1916 for its store.    A year later, Edward Browning gave up hands-on control of his building by leasing the entire property to the newly-formed World Tower Corporation.  The Sun reported that the lease of “the tallest commercial building in the world” would net Browning $105,000 a year for the next 21 years.

The same year that Browning leased the World Tower Building, the United States was pulled into the great war in Europe and Russia was plunged into a bloody revolution.   Both would knock on the doors of No. 110 West 40th Street.

Bearded men in medieval garb struggle to uphold a cornice decorated with cabbages and leaves -- photo by Alice Lum
With so many film companies in the World Towers Building, it was a natural place for the Division of Films of the Committee on Public Information to establish its offices.  The purpose of the division was, frankly, the dissemination of propaganda through motion pictures.

In July 1918 The New York Times reported on the government’s series of war films “Following the Flag to France.”    Charles S. Hart, director of the Division, told the newspaper about the first of the series “Pershing’s Crusaders,” an 8-reel film that told “in pictures the story of the arrival in France of the first 500,000 men of the American Army and what they have accomplished.”   The series was filmed “by order of General Pershing under the direction of the General Staff,” said The Times.

The General personally approved each of the films and was said “to be keenly interested in its patriotic purpose.”   In the fervor of patriotism that washed over the city, R. H. Macy & Co. purchased 1,000 tickets to “Following the Flag” for its employees and James A. Hear & Son bought out the theatre for two nights in August.

Neither the military nor the government was especially apologetic about the purpose of his group.   Major William F. Snow of the Surgeon General’s office, War Department, wrote to Douglas Fairbanks, requesting him  to appear in a picture aimed at American servicemen.  In part he wrote “Will you do for the United States Government, as a patriotic contribution?...This picture to be most effective in presenting its propaganda must be intermixed and sugar coated with unalloyed and educational entertainment.”

photo by Alice Lum
Charles Hart had a knack for stirring patriotic passion.   On May 10, 1918 he wrote to Walter P. Landlar regarding a film still in the works.   Hart told the producer that for the Chicago premiere he wanted  a “big trumpet finish in which we have six or seven cornetists garbed in the uniform of the Allies, coming out one at a time playing a short part of the National Anthem of his country, while his flag drops down behind him and then when all are in line have the entire squad play the Star Spangled Banner, in which the entire audience joins, assisted by the quartette which I understand you have secured.”

While Hart was busy producing patriotic films, the Friars Club had less weighty items on its agenda—albeit with similar goals.  In its “monastery” in the World’s Towers Building it continued its tradition of good-hearted entertainment.   On November 10, 1918 Police Commissioner Richard E. Enright was the guest of honor at a roast, attended by heavy weights like the Secretary of State, Francis M. Hugo; Major Fuller Potter and Colonel Alexander S. Bacon.  $20,000 was raised that evening for the benefit of the War Fund Campaign.

photo by Alice Lum
Earlier that year, in March, Ludwig Christian Alexander Karlovich Martens had appeared in newspapers pronouncing himself “the official representative of the Bolsheviki in the United States.”    The New York Tribune reported that his stated purpose was “to re-establish trade relations between Russia and the United States, and that the Soviet government was prepared to spend $200,000,000 in gold in this country as soon as the Allied blockade around Soviet Russia was lifted.”

Martens said he was a friend of Lenin; although investigation revealed he had been in the country for years and was a vice-president with the engineering form of Weinberg & Posher, Inc. with offices in the Equitable Building. 

Nevertheless, on April 8, Martens leased a suite of offices for the Russian Soviet Government Bureau in the World’s Tower Building and announced that “he was open for business.”   The offices took up half of the third and half of the fourth floors.  Martens said his bureau would immediately start actions to “obtain control of all the property, title to which rested with the old government of the Czar, and with the later governments of Milukoff and Kerensky.”

In the meantime the official position from Washington was the “Martens had not been recognized.”

It would not be long before the self-proclaimed envoy was required to appear before the State Department’s Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate Seditious Activities, commonly known as the Lusk Committee.  The Bureau’s offices were raided and evidence removed.  Martens, appearing before the committee, admitted he was in the United States “to promote Communist propaganda” and, according to The New York Tribune on November 19, 1919, “expressed his willingness to leave the country voluntarily.”

And he did.

photo by Alice Lum
The American Federation of Musicians staged a strike that year and deemed their offices in the World’s Tower Building the “war council” after it recruited related unions into the cause.  Among these was the Chorus Girls’ Union, represented somewhat incongruously by actress Marie Dressler—most definitely not a chorus girl.  Other celebrities like actor Ed Wynn joined the fight.

The strike was mirrored a year later in 1920 by that of the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry.  The workers not only sought to negotiate better hours, wages and working conditions; but wanted a say in the cost of film production, the price of the finished motion pictures, and the “placing of the trade union seal upon every real of film that goes out of a laboratory,” said The Tribune.

The newspaper added on July 24 that “The strikers’ headquarters in the World’s Tower Building…was a sweltering conference place for some one hundred of the young men and women strikers who crowded in there yesterday.”   Thirty motion picture studios in Manhattan, the Bronx, Long Island and New Jersey ground to a halt due to the strike.  It would be the last major labor dispute before the industry was essentially gone from the East Coast.

photo by Alice Lum
On June 28, 1921 a major thunderstorm ripped through Manhattan coupled with 56-mile an hour winds.   While pedestrians ducked for cover from the storm, a bolt of lightning struck the cornice of the World’s Tower Building.   Hunks of terra cotta showered onto the street.  The New York Tribune reported “Huge chunks of cement were hurled through the skylight and ceiling of the four-story building at 104 West Fortieth Street.  One piece tore its way through the roof and floors of the building into the Knickerbocker cafeteria.”

Luckily no patrons were hurt in the cafeteria, as chairs and tables were destroyed.   Pedestrians dodged falling fragments and Charles A. Birch-Field, president of Birch-field & Co., narrowly escaped injury.  The newspaper reported “He was sitting in a chair under a skylight on the west side of the tower building when a big chunk crashed through the glass.  He had leaped out of the chair just in time.”

One of the original tenants from 1913, Paul von Boeckmann, was leasing space in the building when the lightning hit.   While other tenants drew newspaper attention through propaganda, strikes and Bolshevik activities, von Boeckmann went about his business quietly and unnoticed.  He would continue to do so for several years to come.

Von Boeckmann was a lecturer and the author of numerous publications regarding “mental and physical energy, respiration, psychology, and nerve culture.”    From his office here he mailed out his books, like the 96-page “The Care of the Nerves” to readers of magazines like Popular Science who invested a dime for their nervous health.  Von Boeckmann promised that the ten-cent price would result in learning “how to soothe, calm and care for the nerves.”

In the building at around the same time were Justin Block who offered the patent for his “Hygienic Paper Toilet Seat Cover; very cheap to manufacture;” and Amcor which offered the patent for the “individual marcel waver”--a must-have for every stylish woman of the 1920s.

Although Edward Browning continued to construct apartment houses and grow his substantial real estate fortune, his name became welded in the public’s mind to his penchant for teen-aged girls.   It all culminated on June 23, 1926 when the 51-year old developer married 16-year old Frances Belle Heenan, known as “Peaches.”  Within the year she filed for divorce, accusing him of keeping a live goose in the bedroom, forcing her to remain nude in the apartment, and tossing telephone books at her.

The courts decided that Peaches had abandoned her husband “without cause,” and “Daddy” Browning, as the press tagged him, was innocent of any charges.  He died in 1934 leaving $6000 of his many millions to Peaches, now a vaudeville actress.

In 2008 the World’s Tower Building was cleaned and renovated.  The damaged terra cotta was not replaced, but was treated with a sealant that hid the defects.  The result is a crisp white façade wonderfully unchanged after a century of use.

photo by Alice Lum

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Goliath 1891 Terminal Warehouse Bldgs -- 11th Avenue at 27th Street

photo by Alice Lum
The Chelsea neighborhood of 11th Avenue and 28th Street in 1890 bustled with activity as trains moved up the avenue to the freight yards of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.  Only a decade earlier much of the land was still part of the Hudson River.   But by now the shoreline had been extended with landfill and a lumber yard occupied a portion of the block between 27th and 28th Streets on the river side of the avenue.

Brooklyn-born William Wickes Rossiter had three brothers and, like him, all were eminently successful.  Walter K. Rossiter was Assistant Secretary of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, and Clinton L. Rossiter, was President of the Brooklyn Heights Railroad.  But it was E. V. W. Rossiter who would be most instrumental in William’s new business, The Terminal Warehouse Company.   E. V. W. Rossiter was the Treasurer of the New York Central Railroad—the railroad that ran down the middle of 11th Avenue and the only with a direct rail link into Manhattan.

In 1890 William W. Rossiter purchased the entire block from 11th to 12th Avenues, and 27th to 28th Streets and began construction of the mammoth Central Stores complex of the Terminal Warehouse Company.  George B. Mallory designed a 7-story brick behemoth the somewhat resembled a hulking fortress.  Using what has been called the “American Round Arch” style, he melded what was actually 25 separate buildings into a unified structure.  The gigantic edifice, completed in 1891, enclosed a full 24 acres of warehouse space within what the AIA Guide to New York City would, over a century later, call “somber monumentality.”

A freight train exits the giant arch onto 11th Avenue -- King's Handbook of New York 1895 (copyright expired)
The painted brick walls of the $650,000 warehouse rose to a corbelled brick cornice, with towers capping each corner.  Enormous gaping arches that dominated both the 11th and 12th Avenue facades were not added for design appeal.  They allowed the New York Central trains to enter the warehouse on the 11th Avenue side and the Erie and Lehigh Railroads to access the 12th Avenue entrance.   Filled with freight, the cars of the Erie and Lehigh would then be loaded onto transfer bridges and floated to the New Jersey side.

The warehouse advertised space for items from as small as "mirrors" and "pictures" to carriages.  Moving and packing services were offered, "freezing rooms" that prevented damage from moths or other insects to furs, woolens and carpets, and lighterage--the transfer of cargo from ship to shore.

An 1895 advertisement reflected the long list of services -- King's Handbook of New York (copyright expired)
Among the diverse goods received at the warehouse in February 1897 was an entire carload of pottery from the Mayer Pottery Manufacturing Company in Trenton, New Jersey.   The pottery was consigned to “C. Leonard.”  But Mr. Leonard would never take possession of his goods.  Instead it was taken by Philadelphia detectives.

C. Leonard was, in fact, Dr. Walter H. Keyes who claimed to be the head of the Mississippi Medicine Company.  The pottery was purchased using funds obtained “under false pretenses and converting partnership property to his own use,” according to the Pennsylvania police.  The scheming doctor was arrested and his pottery confiscated.

Enormous iron letters below the striking brick corbels advertise the Terminal Warehouse's cold storage.  Hinges survive in the recessed spaces that once permitted the iron shutters to close flush with the facade -- photo by Alice Lum
Later that year,  on April 30, just six years after his ambitious project was completed, William Wickes Rossiter died.  The 49-year old executive had complained of stomach pain and was taken to the Seney Hospital in Brooklyn for an emergency appendectomy.   When the operation was started the surgeons realized the real cause for the pain.  Rossiter was suffering from advanced intestinal cancer.  He died after spending two days in a coma.

The resourceful plan of constructing the Central Stores as separate buildings within one proved itself when fire broke out on September 20, 1900.  It was the first fire since the buildings’ construction and, according to The New York Times the following day, “Two floors of Sections 1 and 2, forming the Eleventh Avenue front, were ravaged, but the other twenty-two sections escaped damage owing to the solid construction of the building and the intrepidity of the firemen.”

Unfortunately, the “ravaged” sections included some irreplaceable items—some of which were destroyed not by the flames, but by the deluge of water from the hoses. 

For decades the Schmitt Brothers were among the preeminent antiques dealers in Manhattan, operating from No. 523 Madison Avenue.   When wealthy Queens resident John J. Halleran died in 1897, the firm purchased his 50-year collection of ceramics, antique furniture, books, paintings, bronzes and silver.    Schmitt Brothers had the entire collection in storage on the 7th floor and it was all lost.  The firm valued it “on an artistic basis,” at $50,000.

Also lost in the fire was $30,000 worth of furniture by the Thonet Brothers manufacturers—famous for their bentwood rockers and chairs.   Ehrich Brothers, the large department store on 6th Avenue at the end of The Ladie’s Mile, lost $20,000 in “suites of furniture and toys” on the fourth floor.

The warehouse had been built with special accommodations for large, hand-painted canvas stage scenery.   Polish-born actress Helene Anna Held who would within a few years become the mistress of Florenz Ziegfeld and a millionaire in her own right, had stored the scenery for her play “Papa’s Wife” here.   On the same floor was scenery for “Barbara Frietchie,” stored by actress Julia Marlowe, an English actress well known for her Shakespearean roles.  The scenery was all lost.

The popular actress Anna Held lost scenery in the 1900 fire -- photo Library of Congress
The smoky fire had burned for over five hours and several firemen were overcome by the smoke; however the building was little damaged.  “The Terminal Warehouses can be put in repair in a few weeks at a cost of not more than $30,000,” reported The Times.  “The masonry is intact in the sections where the fire was.”  The newspaper added “The warehouses will do business as usual to-day, as the fire did not extend beyond the sections which were partly destroyed.”

On November 19, 1904, electrical workers from the Edison Company accidentally severed a cable while working in a manhole at 8th Avenue and 35th Street.  Unfortunately the cable connected 96 fire alarm boxes to the Fire Department, which were rendered inoperative for about four hours.  Even more unfortunate was that the Terminal Warehouse caught fire again on that day.

When Police Officer Peter Hogan saw smoke coming from the iron shutters of Warehouse 18, he rushed to the fire box  at 11th Avenue and 29th Street.  When no firemen appeared after five minutes, he ran to 10th Avenue and 27th Street.  He pulled that alarm box.  When no firemen appeared again, he ran to 12th Avenue and 31st Street, pulling that alarm.

Finally the frustrated policeman called the station house from the police signal box and his sergeant phoned Police Headquarters.     An officer at Headquarters telephoned the Fire Headquarters, which telephoned Engine 34 on 10th Avenue.

By now a second alarm was necessary.   But once again the construction of the building held.  “Only the fire-proof character of the building is believed to have averted a great conflagration,” reported The Times.

The fire destroyed $5,000 worth of merchandise intended as trading-stamp premiums stored by the Sperry & Hutchinson Company.

Renowned architect Stanford White traveled the world in search of interesting architectural and interior design items to embellish the mansions and buildings he designed.  These artifacts were shipped to New York and stored at the Terminal Warehouse until they were matched with the right client and the right building--that is, until Harry Kendall Thaw fatally shot White at Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906.

On December 10, 1907 the American Art Association held at auction at the Warehouse.  The New York Tribune listed among the articles “antique marble and stone mantels, sarcophagi, fountains and other valuable objects.”    An antique Italian marble fountain carved in the shape of a shell and resting on an elaborately-carved base brought $525.  T. Jefferson Coolidge, who had traveled from Newton Centre, Massachusetts for the sale, took home a haul.  He spent $410 on a Renaissance stone mantel, $320 for an Italian Renaissance marble sarcophagus, $105 for three antique stone vases, $90 for five jars and two vases, and $75 on two frames of wall tiles.

Joseph Pulitzer’s wife was on hand, purchasing stone lions, red pottery finial ornaments and a pair of mounted crocodiles.  The reptiles cost her $5.   Among the other famous New York names who had come to the warehouse and freight district that day were architect Thomas Hastings and I. N. Phelps Stokes.  The auction realized over $92,000.

photo by Alice Lum
In 1906 the competing 6th Avenue department stores of Adams & Co. and its next-door neighbor Hugh O’Neill—both a full block wide—joined forces to create the massive O’Neill-Adams Company.   By 1914 the firm stored its incoming furniture in ten floors of the Terminal Warehouse. 

Another giant retailer, John Wanamaker, had leased at least one entire building since 1898.  In October of 1915 the store signed a two-year lease on two full buildings of the complex, approximately 120,000 square feet.

In 1929 the enlarged sections of the warehouse can be see to the right in this rear view from 12th Avenue.  The train tracks in the foreground led directly to the Hudson River and "transfer bridges."  -- NYPL Collection
By 1983 the 11th Avenue rail line was long gone and the West Side freight area, once vibrant and bustling, was essentially a memory.  The Terminal Warehouse had been altered several times, noticeably losing its corner towers and gaining floors in some sections.  That year a group of investors purchased the massive Terminal Warehouse for $12.3 million and converted over half of the building into a colossal mini-storage operation.  In the huge arched space facing 12th Avenue where trains once picked up and unloaded furniture and pottery, The Tunnel nightclub was opened.

As the 21st century dawned, the scruffy far-west section of Chelsea was reinvented by art galleries.   By 2012 over 200 galleries had found homes in the warehouses and lofts along the district’s cobblestone-paved back streets.  Where the Tunnel nightclub had been, the long corridor now sheltered art galleries.  And in May 2012 DeLorenzo 1950 leased around 4,000 square feet on two floors for its furniture store.
Where freight trains once passed, now art collectors and furniture buyers enter modern glass doors -- photo by Alice Lum
Having survived fires and urban change, the goliath brick warehouse building breathes new life as the once-gritty neighborhood of freight trains and trucks is reborn as a trendy destination for art lovers.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The 1897 Astor Building -- No. 583 Broadway

photo by Alice Lum
Broadway between Prince and West Houston Streets in 1848 was still lined with stately Federal-style homes of New York’s gentry.    At least four of them were owned by the wealthiest man in the United States—John Jacob Astor, who lived in No. 583.

The 84-year old Astor died in the house that year, leaving an estate of  around $20 million—approximately $110 billion today.   To his granddaughters Sarah Astor, Liza Astor, Louisa and Cecelia he bequeathed “the four houses and lots fronting on the westerly side of Broadway, between Prince street and Houston street, now known as numbers 579, 581 583, and 587, extending in the rear to Mercer street.” 

The elegant residential neighborhood would not last for long, however.   In 1852 the magnificent Metropolitan Hotel replaced a row of homes across the street as the neighborhood quickly became one of exclusive retail emporiums and even restaurants.   But the high-tone status of the area remained and the commercial buildings were often constructed of gleaming white marble.

Astor’s houses were long gone by 1896 and the business structures at Nos. 583 through 587 were now owned by the real estate firm of Weil & Mayer.   The millinery and dry goods district was entrenching itself in the area.

Taking advantage of the potential, that year the company demolished the buildings and commissioned architects Cleverdon & Putzel to design a retail store and loft building on the site.   The prolific team was responsible for loft buildings, apartment buildings and rowhouses throughout the city.

Completed a year later in 1897, the building was named with a nod to the property’s original owner:  The Astor Building.   Twelve stories high, it was a lush mixture of buff-colored brick, terra cotta, cast iron and stone.   Double-height fluted Corinthian columns above the ground floor separated expansive bays.   Reflecting the relatively-new Beaux Arts movement, the upper floors gushed forth in elaborate ornamentation.

The second and third floors prompted the AIA Guide to New York City call the design "magnificent."  -- photo by Alice Lum
The new building filled with apparel and hat manufacturers.  C. E. Bentley Company, called by the New York Times a “pioneer in the art needle industry” manufactured lace and embroidery here, and sold related products such as floss and thread.  The owners, brothers Charles and Chester Bentley, were nearly wiped out by a fire in 1901.   Damage to the structure was quickly repaired and the firm remained here for years.

Also in the building at the time were Julius Franklin’s “wrapper and dress skirt factory;” H. Goldfarb who made “fancy hats, ready-to-wear hats, and tailored and ready-to-trim hats;” and Nathanson & Brownstone, makers of “Brownstone Clothes.”  

Polished granite pilasters separate the complex arched shop windows and entrances -- photo by Alice Lum
By 1909 C. E. Bentley had a competitor here--Stein, Doblin & Co. was manufacturing and importing embroideries “and novelties.”  In the ground floor retail space that year was Hanauer, Arnstein & Siegel which advertised that “We are showing a beautiful line of Children’s Broadcloth Coats with felt bonnets to match.”

The clothing store would be replaced around 1917 by the Eclipse Light Company’s electric light showrooms.  The firm would stay here at least throughout the war years, offering modern wall sconces and hanging fixtures and one amazing new gadget:  the electric vacuum cleaner.   Although it drifted away from Eclipse’s main product line, The Apex Electric Suction Cleaner was marketed as a must-have for the modern housewife.

In the 1920s women’s hat makers Oettinger & Goldstein, Inc. and Waldorf Hat Works were both here, as was the Rainbow Shirt Corporation.  Spinnerin Yarn Co., Inc. occupied space in the 1940s as did My Girlie Hat Company.

Although in 1942 the ground floor store became home to an office furniture and equipment store, the upper floors continued to house garment and hat factories through the 1950s.  1958 was an especially nerve wracking year for the garment workers here.

On March 19 a fire had roared through the nearby 623 Broadway, killing 24 textile workers.  That tragedy was still on the minds of garment workers a month later.

The Ginsburg Manufacturing Company operated a lingerie factory in the basement of No. 583.  Most of the firm’s workers were Hispanic women who worked in less-than-ideal conditions below street level.  On April 21 around 11:37 in the morning, one worker sitting at her sewing machine complained of headache and dizziness.   Another woman nearby said she, too, felt ill.

Before long foreman Steve Karcinski had his hands full.  He took the two women to the rear of the basement and gave them smelling salts.  But then, according to The New York Times, “women began collapsing all over the basement.”

“It was like a chain reaction,” the foreman told reporters.  “After one went, another went, and they all started to go.”

Dr. Emmanuel Shiffman was called, who initially thought it was a case of mass hysteria.  When the firemen of Engine Company 13 arrived, they began removing the women on stretchers.  Some were taken across the street to the firehouse while others were removed to the Ginsburg offices upstairs on the 9th floor.

It only got worse.

When Dr. Shiffman arrived there were only two women left in the basement.  “One was sitting in a chair screaming and throwing her hands about,” he reported, “The second seemed a quiet girl, in a kind of stupor.”

When he reached the 9th floor he found several girls “screaming hysterically.”  The scene was one of mayhem.  “One was sitting on a couch screaming,” the doctor said, “her eyes tightly shut, throwing her arms around in an offhand manner.  I shook her rather violently and then pressed the supra-orbital nerve.”

When the girl did not respond, the doctor got tough.  “I tried again and screamed at her in Spanish: ‘Now listen to me: stop it!’”

“Usually I get them out in five or ten minutes, but this was different.  As soon as I got one quiet, another would start yelling and then they would all scream.”

Eventually 14 women and 1 man were taken to hospitals.  The initial cause was found to be carbon monoxide escaping from a defective boiler.  Yet the poisonous gas did not explain the unbridled frenzy the women displayed.  Dr. Shiffman maintained that most of the women were “simple victims of autosuggestion,” since carbon monoxide induces stupor rather than hysteria.

Only a month later, on March 24, about 400 garment workers, most of them women, arrived to work to find they were barred from entering the building.  The Fire Department deemed ten of the twelve floors “fire hazardous” and the women milled about along the sidewalk for hours in the chilly air.

The building was filled mostly with manufacturers of women’s underwear, sweaters and that essential for 1950s teenagers, crinoline petticoats.  In the sewing rooms the Fire Department had found blocked exits and aisles, oily waste in paper barrels, iron bars at windows and “generally poor fire housekeeping.”

After fines were issued and the violations corrected, the women were admitted back into the building to continue sewing petticoats.

By now the Garment District was moving north to 7th Avenue in the 30s and the Soho neighborhood was becoming seedy at best.   In the 1970s The Astor Building sat vacant and neglected. 

The area slowly experienced a renaissance as artists rediscovered the vast and affordable sunlit loft spaces.  Galleries opened and one-by-one structures were reclaimed.  In 1993 The New Museum opened in the street level of The Astor Building.   The only museum in the city dedicated to exhibiting contemporary art from around the world, the edgy space was a destination for art lovers.   But the upper floors remained empty.

photo by Alice Lum
When the building’s owners decided to convert the space above ground level to a luxury hotel they began by knocking out most of the windows.  And then they defaulted on the mortgage and work stopped.   Rain, snow and pigeons entered the openings.   Sections of the detailed molded-zinc cornice broke loose and dangled precariously over the pavement, inducing city officials to remove parts of it.  The one-elegant building became an eyesore.

Then, finally, in 1995 The Astor Building was rescued.  Platt Byard Dovell Architects was commissioned to renovate the upper floors into 19 loft condominiums.  After sitting essentially abandoned for two decades, there would be only two apartments per floor on most levels—each over 4,000 square feet.   Architect Jim Colgate, a member of the community board’s landmarks and zoning committee, told The New York Times “Everyone wins when an eyesore of a building is transformed into a jewel again.”

As it did in 1897, The Astor Building soars above its neighbors-- photograph by the author

And a jewel it is.   The rich façade, along with its elaborate cornice, shines once again.   The New Museum moved on in 2004, yet the building is once again an important element in the fabric of an architecturally rich block.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The 1926 Warwick Hotel -- No. 65 West 54th Street

photo by Lyndon Jhackie

When the stage curtains opened and millionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst noticed a blonde, blue-eyed Ziegeld Follies chorus girl, his life would forever change.  It was the beginning of a long-standing love affair with Marion Davies that would alter the course of several well-known lives and the fabric of Midtown Manhattan.

Hearst was married with five sons.  Although his affair with the entertainer was public knowledge—she was his constant companion in the years to follow—his devoutly Catholic wife, Millicent, refused a divorce.

By 1926 Hearst’s publishing empire included 27 newspapers and nine major magazines like Cosmopolitan.   He now turned his attention to Midtown Manhattan real estate.    Among his first ventures was the construction of the 36-story Warwick apartment hotel at No. 65 West 54th Street.  It was located slightly east of the Times Square theater district and Marion Davis played no small part in Heart’s inspiration.   The entire top floor would be her apartment.

Contractor George B. Post & Sons collaborated with architect Emery Roth to produce a soaring brick and stone structure with red-tiled Tuscan towers high above Sixth Avenue.   The completed hotel, costing $5 million, rose 370 feet and contained 512 apartments.  It was touted as one of the two tallest apartment hotels in the world at completion.

The Warick was designed as both a residential and transient hotel and immediately began attracting celebrities from the entertainment industry—a tradition that would last for decades.  On July 1, 1927 The New York Times noted that “Mr. and Mrs. Irving Berlin have closed their apartment at 29 West Forty-sixth Street and will make their headquarters in town at the Warwick during the Summer.”

On June 16 Hearst threw a gala party for the nation’s newest hero, Charles A. Lindbergh, here.  Among those in attendance were the mayor, James Walker, and Charlie Chaplin.

Hearst and his right-hand man Arthur Brisbane continued buying up property between 54th and 56th Streets.  With the  Sixth Avenue elevated train soon to be torn down he recognized the desirability of the neighborhood without the noisy and dirty El.

He was well-acquainted with producer Florenz Ziegeld who was disgruntled with owner of the New Amsterdam Theatre, Abe Erlanger.   Hearst purchased the property on the corner diagonally-opposite corner the Warwick and bankrolled the new Ziegfeld Theatre.   Ziegfeld laid the cornerstone with much hoopla on December 9, 1926 and the curtain opened for the first time only two months later, on February 2.

The beautiful Marion Davies, seen here on a cigarette card, lived in the Warwick penthouse.--NYPL Collection

The venture was not merely about providing a good friend his own theater.  Hearst was aware that by establishing a major Broadway venue this close to the Warwick he would also attract hotel patrons. 

Millicent Hearst and her husband continued to have a "civilized" arrangement.  He supported her in a lavish lifestyle and she quietly let him lead his own life.    Even Millicent’s close friends recognized the agreement and were unafraid that by patronizing her husband’s hotel they would offend her.  The New York Times noted on September 24, 1929 that she had returned from California “accompanied by Mrs. John Guthrie Heywood.”  The article reported that Mrs. Hearst would go to “her country place Sands Point, Long Island.  Mrs. Heywood will be at the Hotel Warwick.”

In 1937 Hearst commissioned artist Dean Cornwell to paint murals on the walls of the main dining room of the hotel restaurant, The Raleigh Room.   For his $100,000 fee, Cornwell depicted Sir Walter Raleigh receiving the charter from Queen Elizabeth in 1584 as well as his landing at Roanoke Island.  When the artist and Hearst had a heated disagreement about his fee, Cornwell added images shocking to 1930s diners such as the naked buttocks of native Americans.

A promotional postcard highlighted the murals of the Raleigh Room.

That year Millicent Hearst herself used the Raleigh Room to host a large dinner for the benefit of the Musician’s Emergency Fund.   Among the guests were Mrs. Astor, Mr. and Mrs. Averell Harriman, Irving Berlin and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Doubleday and actress Elsa Maxwell.

Although long-term residents of the Warwick were often entertainers, socialites and others lived here as well.  Hungarian-born portrait artist Artur L. Halmi was a resident until his death in 1939.  Among the prominent Americans he painted were Muriel and Consuelo Vanderbilt, Mrs. Oliver Harriman, President William Howard Taft and Millicent Hearst.

While the Hearst Corporation sold the hotel along with several of the Midtown properties in October 1944, it continued to be a favorite—either as a stop-over or residence—for Hollywood and Broadway stars.    Silver screen legends like James Dean, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor stayed here and actress Linda Darnell leased a suite in 1950 as her New York home when not in Hollywood.

Darnell returned here in January 1951 to find her apartment ransacked.   Among the items stolen were jewelry and a mink stole valued at $3,000.

In the 1950s the Warwick was the New York base of the new sensation, Elvis Presley.   In a 1956 interview he conducted from the hotel he discounted the notion that rock and roll music contributed to juvenile delinquency.  “I don’t think that music would have anything to do with it at all,” he said.

In the same interview he admitted he would rather act than sing, “if I were a good actor—of course I’m not a good singer but if I were a good actor—I think that I would like that a little better.”

In February 1965 Loew’s Hotels purchased The Warwick.  After four decades the hotel was showing its age.    Designer Ellen Lehman McCluskey was hired to spruce up the somewhat dowdy interiors.  A six-month renovation involved 100 workers, 4,256 gallons of paint, 11,312 rolls of wallpaper and 23,478 yards of new carpeting.

Like Elvis had done, the invading British bands took suites at the Warwick and held their press conferences from here.   In August 1966 The Beatles hosted a series of press conferences during which they answered questions regarding the Vietnam War (George said “War is wrong, and it’s obvious”), the “more popular than Jesus” controversy (John scoffed “a lot of it’s just a lot of rubbish”) and the group’s sagging popularity.  When John was asked how he felt about the seeming loss pf fans’ attention, he replied “very rich.”  A year later it would be The Monkees who sat in the ballroom of the Warwick holding their press conference.

A 1970s poster depicted The Beatles at the Warwick Hotel.

In 1968 Faberge approached screen legend Cary Grant with a proposal to become the cosmetics firm’s “Good Will Ambassador.”  In return for occasional public appearances, the deal would give him a token salary of $15,000 with stock options, a seat on the board of directors and Marion Davies’ full-floor penthouse apartment.

Grant knew the hotel well—it is where he stayed early on in his career.  And it is possible that the offer of the apartment was the deciding factor.  Cary Grant accepted the deal.  He moved out of his apartment in the Plaza Hotel and into the Warwick.  He would stay in the remarkable space with its wrap-around terrace for twelve years.

When RCA flew a new rock singer to New York in 1971 to sign a contract, the record company wanted to impress him. It arranged a suite of rooms in the Warwick Hotel for the young David Bowie.   Reportedly Bowie looked out the windows of his apartment in the same building where Elvis Presley had once stayed and said “This is it, isn’t it?”  He knew that he had made it.

In 1980 the hotel was sold again and was renamed the Warwick New York Hotel.   During the several renovations since 1937 Dean Cornwell’s murals in the Raleigh Room had been painted over.  In 2004 they were carefully uncovered and restored.   In their honor the restaurant was renamed Murals on 54.

After nearly a century of serving the wealthy and celebrated, one famous resident was not so well-received by  New Yorkers.  In September 2011 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad checked in.   The outspoken and outrageous president had been refused rooms in several Manhattan hotels; but the Warwick announced “We are ready to cater to the needs of UN delegates and other representatives in support of this official event.”

The hotel that had been used to throngs of paparazzi crowding Sixth Avenue to get a glimpse of movie and rock stars now found itself besieged with protestors.   Throughout the stay of the Iranian entourage groups protested and a nearby rooftop was lined with a NYPD SWAT team and snipers.

A year later, in September, the Iranian president and the accompanying upheaval would be back to attend the 2012 United National General Assembly.

By now the latest major renovation was completed.   A downstairs bar was now named Randolph’s, with a nod to the hotel’s creator.  Here the carpet is woven with stylized rosebuds—the pet name Hearst used for Marion Davies and the name of the sled in the movie “Citizen Kane” based on Hearst’s life.

Throughout the hallways black-and-white photographs of the screen stars and other celebrities who stayed here hand on the walls.  And not a few of them are of William Randolph Hearst’s true love, Marion Davies.