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


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  2. The restoration of the terra-cotta here is so much more successful than the horrible "restoration" done on the Woolworth building a few decades ago. This building shines and the facade is amazingly intact. The Woolworth facades are seriously marred and will probably be so for many many years to come. NYarch