Saturday, September 1, 2012

The 1898 Dreicer Building - Nos 436-468 5th Avenue

The white marble Dreicer Building, engulfed by the much later Lord & Taylor building, is rarely noticed by passersby -- photo by Alice Lum
The jewelry company founded by Erastus Barton in 1810 at No. 166 Broadway had come a long way by 1898.   Now known as Black, Starr & Frost it had a reputation equal to Tiffany & Co. for its high-quality jewelry, sterling silverware, clocks, watches and related goods.

As the shopping district catering to the carriage trade crept uptown, so did Black, Starr & Frost.  It had moved five times and now was preparing to do so again.    In 1893 the looming Waldorf Hotel opened on Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street signaling the encroachment of business into the residential neighborhood.   The jeweler would be close behind, opening its new marble home on April 1, 1898, years before the arrival of Tiffany and B. Altman & Co. who would follow suit nearby.

The new building replaced two broad mansions at Nos. 436 and 438 Fifth Avenue, at the southwest corner of 39th Street.   Seven-stories high, the rusticated Beaux-Arts structure was at the same time opulent and refined.   The Fifth Avenue and 39th Streets facades were equally impressive.  Juliette balconies with ornate French railings projected from the sixth floor.  One floor above, a stone balcony wrapped the building supported by paired, scrolled brackets.   Surrounded by the mansions of New York’s wealthiest citizens, the white marble oozed class.

sketch from Black, Starr & Frost's cenntenial pamplet (copyright expired)

In the meantime, another jewelry firm was making its mark.  In 1868 Jacob Dreicer opened his jewelry business at No. 1,128 Broadway.  At the time, socialites festooned themselves in pearls, essentially ignoring colored gemstones.    Although Dreicer and his son became important pearl dealers—one 30-inch string of perfectly-matched pearls put together by the firm sold for $1,500,000 and single pearls from the store went for as high as $130,000—they were instrumental in establishing the popularity of colored gems.  Decades later The New York Times would say “The father and the son are credited with having done much to overcome these prejudices and to have aided in creating in this country a taste for beautiful gems and exquisite art in jewelry.”  A single diamond, known as the Duke of York diamond, was sold for $125,000.

Black Starr & Frost sold this up-to-the-minute Art Nouveau silver ewer here in 1910.
Even before Black, Starr & Frost edged its way into residential Fifth Avenue, Dreicer did so.   The Times noted “Jacob Dreicer was among the first to perceive the possibilities of Fifth Avenue’s development as the greatest exclusive retail shopping street in the world.  In 1885 he purchased the old Wall home at 292 Fifth Avenue, then in the heart of the fashionable residential section of New York City, and converted it into one of the finest business buildings on the avenue.”

Son Michael Dreicer continued in the family business, but actively involved himself in real estate as well, focusing mostly on the development of Fifth Avenue.   In April 1904 he shocked real estate investors by paying $1 million for the 39th Street corner where the six-year old Black, Starr & Frost building stood—the highest price ever paid for Fifth Avenue property.  Dreicer explained that he purchased the property as an investment for his children.   In order to keep it in the family, “Mr. Dreicer is said to have arranged matters so that none of his children can dispose of a share in it without the consent of all the others,” reported The Times.

photo by Alice Lum
The purchase no doubt annoyed brothers F. V. and J. H. Burton—known in real estate circles as the Burton Brothers—who by now had managed to buy up the entire block, except for the 39th Street corner.  The brothers were the largest holders of realty in the Fifth Avenue area.  Brownstone mansions still filled the block, wrapping around the stately building, presenting a ripe plum for development.

Dreicer leased a portion of the building, still occupied by his rival jeweler, to the esteemed publishing firm D. Appleton and Company.   The firm was founded in 1825 by Daniel Appleton and by now was one of the premier book publishers in America, with a major focus on educational publications.    The American School Board Journal remarked that year that “D. Appleton and Company’s new location is but two blocks from the site of the new consolidated library of New York, now in process of construction.  The vicinity of this great library will doubtless become in time the literary center of New York.”

It didn’t happen.

 An Appleton banner hangs from the building in 1904 -- photo The American School Board Journal, January 1904 (copyright expired)
Shortly afterward, Black, Starr & Frost was on the move again.   In July 1909 the jeweler purchased the Charles T. Cook mansion a few blocks north at 5th Avenue and 48th Street, and exactly one year later moved into its new building designed on the site by Carerre & Hastings.

In October 1912 Lord & Taylor decided to abandon its grand Victorian emporium on Broadway.  The department store leased from the Burton Brothers all the property on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 38th and 39th Streets “except the Dreicer building on the Thirty-ninth Street corner,” said The Times.   Construction on its new building designed by Starrett & Van Vleck began the following year and was completed in 1914.  The impressive 10-story Italian Renaissance structure engulfed Dreicer’s.

In the meantime, in February 1912 A. A. Vantine & Co. had leased the entire Dreicer Building.  Its subsidiary, Aitken Company, took over Black, Starr & Frost’s former retail space.   Aitken had established itself as one of the select dry goods stores in the city, having done business from Broadway and 18th Street for four decades.

Vantine & Co. operated Vantine’s “The Oriental Store.”  Exotic gifts like Chinese porcelains, Japanese tea sets, Turkish rugs and lacquered ware were sold here.  With the change in tenants, Michael Dreicer announced planned renovations for the building that would add five stories at a cost of $100,000.  Although plans were filed with the Building Superintendent on April 20, 1912, they were never carried out.

Vantine's sold a dizzying array of "Oriental delicacies."
Vantine’s remained until May 1921 when it subleased the building to Ovington Brothers, dealers in china goods.  When the arrangement was announced in June 1920, Dreicer commissioned architects Hutton & Buys to renovate the lower floors.  The remodeling, which cost Dreicer about $20,000, updated the two lower floors with Corinithian pilasters, a Greek key frieze and expanded window openings.  The renovations were completed by June 1921 when Ovington’s took over the space.  An advertisement in The New York Tribune boasted “A new landmark appears upon the scene.”

A 1921 Ovington's advertisement shows the renovated lower floors.
The high-end store filled the building with exclusive goods aimed at moneyed customers.   The first floor displayed Venetian glass, Nancy glass, smoking items, Florentine leather and other gifts.  On the second floor were clocks and Italian marbles, tapestries, bronzes and silver.  The china department was on the third floor, crystal on the fourth and home furnishings were on the fifth.  Here women could sort through tea wagons, mantel mirrors, lamps and shades, and other items for the home.
Through all the renovations, the upper stories with their carved marble ornamentation, French railings and exquisite cornice survived untouched -- photo by Alice Lum
The following month Michael Dreicer died.  At only 53 years old, he had amassed a tremendous fortune not only through his jewelry business; but through his extensive real estate holdings.   He bequeathed an art collection valued at more than $1 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In March 1935, with Ovington’s now gone, Beyda & Co., dealers in linens, took over the store, mezzanine and basement.

The corner property that Michael Dreicer snatched up before the Burton Brothers could buy it was finally absorbed when, in 1986 Lord & Taylor’s parent company, Associated Dry Goods, signed a lease for the entire building.    The ground level Lord & Taylor fa├žade was reproduced around the 39th Street corner, including the vast show windows with their Roman upper sections.  Only the rear section retained its rusticated first and second floors.

Lord & Taylor continued its street level facade around the corner of the Dreicer Building; but retained the Corinthian pilasters of the 1920 renovation-- photo by Alice Lum

In a bustling city where busy pedestrians rarely look above street level, no one notices that Lord & Taylor’s mammoth store is really two buildings.  The white marble home of a Victorian jeweler that once sat among brownstone mansions is largely overlooked.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your post. thank you for sharing your thoughts and time........