In 1889 8th Avenue above 23rd Street
had become a neighborhood of commercial structures and small hotels. That year a six-story structure was
constructed at Nos. 539-541 8th Avenue, stretching back along 37th
Street. Clad in light-colored brick and
trimmed in terra cotta and brownstone, its arches and decorative touches
reflected the highly-popular Romanesque Revival style.
Titled “The Policy King,” by the newspapers, Adams made a
fortune on the illegal gambling game “policy” which mostly targeted the poor
and desperate. The Sun called Adams “the
meanest man in New York” and said “policy
as Al Adams has conducted it has been a form of larceny so mean that those
engaged in it are held in a kind of contempt by other gamblers.
|photo by Alice Lum|
“Al Adams has built his fortune, not alone on the small
change of poor men, but on the nickels and dimes of working women and the cents
of children as well. He has absorbed
their homes, and in some cases the very clothing off their backs, and worse
than all he has created an army of gambling crazy men, women, and children.”
Adams used his ill-gained fortune to purchase and develop
real estate, like the new building at Nos. 539-541 8th Avenue. The upper floors, accessed at No. 301 West
37th Street, served as a residential hotel while the ground floor retail
space was taken by the newly-formed furniture dealers McClain, Simpson & Co.
While the carriage trade patronized high-end furniture stores
like George Flint or Robert Horner on West 23rd Street; McClain,
Simpson & Co. catered to the middle-class.
The store promised “one price,
and that the lowest,” and advertised in 1894 that it had priced its goods “to
suit the times. A little money will go
further in our stores than anywhere else.”
|A grinning monster stares from among incongruous garlands of ribbons and flowers -- photo by Alice Lum|
While struggling couples shopped for wicker rockers and oak
bookcases at McClain, Simpson & Co. the upper floors filled with tenants. Some, like the building’s owner, were less than law abiding. 37-year old John Flemming was living here in
April 1897 when he walked into the Christ P. E. Church on “the Boulevard and
Seventy-first street,” as reported in The Sun on April 18. (The Boulevard would later be renamed
|An advertisement in The World in 1894 featured a rocker for $1.87 -- copyright expired.|
Not realizing he was being watched by assistant sexton Oscar
Willing, Flemming tried to break into the poor box, using a screwdriver from
his pocket. When he was unsuccessful he
left, only to be followed by Willing who turned him over to a policeman.
In November 1899 D. W. McClain, Thomas Simpson and George C.
Walker decided to dissolve their partnership.
Al Adams purchased the business and turned it over to his son, Lawrence
P. Adams. The store continued selling
furniture under the original name and with the same policy. A 1901 advertisement told of “Bookcases in
solid oak, glass doors, adjustable shelves, from $8.45 up. Our elegant line of Sideboards is
unsurpassed. Solid Oak Serpentine
Drawers, with French plate beveled mirrors, as low as $15. Combination Bookcases, Hall Trees, etc., at
all prices. And then our Parlor
Suits! We have a bewildering assortment,
from $9.98 for a Suit of 3 pieces upwards.”
|Grotesque, paired demons grace the corners -- photo by Alice LUm|
As the previous partners had done, Adams stressed the
affordable prices. “We have the
assortment of goods that you need—good articles, cheap—and our terms of credit
are the most liberal and satisfactory in the city.”
The problem was that Lawrence Adams was not really interested
in selling furniture. The store managed,
but only with Al Adams’ financial help.
Then in October 1906 the Policy King committed suicide. Without the inflow of Al’s money, the store
went downhill fast.
|Lawrence Adams continued to sell to middle-class customers, as reflected in this 1905 advertisement -- copyright expired|
The Sun reported a few months later that “While Al Adams was
alive it is said the finances of the firm were all right, and he was quoted as
saying they could have $100,000 if necessary for the uses of the business.” Lawrence was not a businessman and,
according to the newspaper, was “interested in other affairs and the business
was in charge of a manager.”
On May 1, 1907 The Sun reported on the petition in
bankruptcy that was filed “against Al Adam’s son, Lawrence P. Adams.” Even now Al Adams stole the spotlight. Lawrence took the $66,000 he inherited from
his father and disappeared—destined to be not even a footnote in New York
On May 10, 1911 the executors of Albert J. Adams’ estate
auctioned off the numerous real estate holdings he had accumulated over the
years, most of which were corner properties.
Included in these was the building at 8th Avenue and 37th
The residential space upstairs would not last much
longer. On February 12, 1919 the
Imperial Dyewood Company leased 3,000 square feet as loft space. Then, with the city in the stranglehold of
the Great Depression and the garment district taking over this section of
Manhattan, the building was converted to offices, showrooms and factory space
During the second half of the 20th century the
neighborhood declined. Along with the
garment firms, tiny businesses carved spaces along the sidewalk level of 8th
Avenue—some of them a bit sleazy. Nos. 539-541 lost its street level façade
which was replaced by garish storefronts.
But above the mishmash of awnings and shops, and partially
hidden by gigantic four-story high advertising, Albert Adams’ demon-encrusted
|Four-story billboards mask much of the facade; yet the intricate cornice with its decorative rosettes can be fully seen -- photo by Alice Lum|
mighty cool looking building! Thanks for the share. BTW, you off taking pic's and getting information for new shares? No posts for 8 days...I'm getting anxious - missing my NYC architecture "fix"! :-)ReplyDelete
hmmm. I haven't missed a day. Wonder why you're not getting updated.ReplyDelete
Hi Tom - I'm getting the updates in my Google Feed Reader - so there may have been a delay there. I see 4 new posts there now that I will check out. Keep up the AWESOME work. I'll have to get a must-see list from you sometime as I want to bring my wife to NYC soon from VT for a weekend or weekday overnight date.ReplyDelete
There was a problem FeedBurner and the pipes were clogged up, as it were. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. You might want to scroll back through the blog list to see if you missed some.Delete