Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Converted 1847 House at No. 684 6th Avenue

The building gives no hint to those passing Starbucks today that it was once a brick residence.
By the middle of the 1840s residential neighborhoods were creeping northward towards 23rd Street.  A decade earlier rows of dignified Greek Revival mansions along Washington Square planted the seed of a refined neighborhood that spread up 5th Avenue.  Along 6th Avenue more modest homes were being built.

Richard Upjohn’s lovely Church of the Ascension had been completed in 1841 just above Washington Square on 5th Avenue, quickly followed by his wonderful Gothic style Church of the Holy Communion on 6th Avenue and 20th Street, completed in 1846.  The two churches reflected the rapid development of the area.

A year after the Church of the Holy Communion opened and one block to the north, William Winslow built his wide three-story brick clad home at No. 684 6th Avenue.   But the quiet neighborhood of respectable homes along the wide avenue would not last very long.

By the end of the Civil War things were changing.  In 1869 Edwin Booth opened his colossal granite Shakespearean theater at the corner of 23rd Street and 6th Avenue.  Dry goods stores and other retail establishments, like Wiliam Moir’s 1870 cast iron jewelry store building on the opposite corner of Booth’s Theater, gradually replaced the houses.   By the 1880s, 6th Avenue had become the center of the shopping district known as The Ladies’ Mile.   The residences that were not demolished to make way for the block-wide retail palaces were converted for business use.

And so it was for the former home of William Winslow.

By the 1870s it had already been converted to the dry goods business of John Byrne on the street level, with boarders living above.   In April of that year Byrne took in a boarder, Richard Burns, whose stay would be both short and memorable.  Within 24 hours the new tenant had taken off with $91 worth of clothing from the store.

“It appeared that he decamped with the property after one day’s residence with the complainant as a boarder,” reported The New York Times on May 3, 1870.  The felonious tenant was sent to the State Prison for four years.

While 6th Avenue between 14th Street and 23rd Street filled with gargantuan department stores along most blocks, it was perhaps the charming Church of the Holy Communion that prevented the monster emporiums from obliterating the small former residences north of 20th Street on the east side of the avenue.    Along with them, No. 684 continued to adapt.  Although the little building could not compete, its store owners happily rode the coattails of the great retailers like Cooper Siegel Department Store and Adams Dry Goods.

In 1900 owner Alex Hess commissioned architect David P. Miller to install a proper storefront to the building.   Not long after he sold the building to Frederick Klingman who, by 1905,  had the good fortune to lease the store to Singer Sewing Machine Company.  Perhaps it was through an arrangement with Singer that Klingman remodeled the entire building.

That year he hired respected architects Buchman & Fox to completely redesign the fa├žade.   Any hint of Winslow’s brick home that had survived was now obliterated.   Expansive upper story windows framed in cast metal flooded the interiors with sunlight.  Fluted Ionic pilasters separated the openings and supported a simple cast cornice.  Paneled brick pilasters ran up the sides. 

Buchman & Fox's clean new look, done possibly to placate Singer, replaced any trace of the house.
Singer Sewing Machine would not stay long, however.  In 1908 P. Genninger leased the street level and Mrs. A. Zoller took the upper floors.   In 1912 Adolph A. Hageman owned the building, leasing the storefront to Johnson J. Pusey.

Three years later, in February, Hageman leased the store and basement again; this time for a 16-year term.  Optician J. H. Maguire moved his practice here from his former East 23rd Street office.

They heyday of the Ladies’ Mile was over by the 1920s.  Throughout most of the 20th century the once-grand emporiums along 6th Avenue sat vacant or were used as manufacturing or warehouse space.   A renaissance began in the 1980s and one-by-one the massive department stores were renovated to be used once again as retail space or residences.

In 1996, reflecting the trendy new neighborhood, a new aluminum storefront was installed on No. 648 which made no attempt to sympathetically co-exist with the historic upper floors.   But above street level the squat little building looks much as it did when parasol-bearing women in shirtwaists shopped for laces and bonnets along the Ladies’ Mile.

photographs taken by the author

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