Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Unique 1915 No. 411 Fifth Avenue

The undulating roofline and lavish terra cotta decorations on rough stucco make the building unique in Manhattan -- photo by Alice Lum
On November 15, 1865, just six months after the end of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant along with his wife and personal aides stopped at No. 411 5th Avenue to visit Senator Edwin D. Morgan.  The influential Morgan had been Governor of New York from 1859 to 1862, served in the Union Army as General during the war, and since 1863 was a member of the U.S. Senate.

The Morgan mansion sat at the northeast corner of 5th Avenue and 37th Street in what was rapidly becoming the most affluent and desirable residential neighborhoods.  But the residential nature of stretch of 5th Avenue, home to millionaires with names like Astor and Stewart, would disappear as quickly as it developed.

By 1914 only a handful of stubborn homeowners remained.  The brownstone mansions had either been razed or converted for commercial use and so it was with the Morgan mansion.  Having completed the new Grand Central Terminal, Architects Warren & Wetmore began plans for a 12-story commercial building for developers Murray Hill Investing Company which would replace the two mansions at Nos. 411 and 413 .  It would be a structure like nothing seen in New York before.

The broad Edwin D. Morgan house, on the corner, and its neighbor at No. 413 would soon be replaced by Warren & Wetmore's unusual new building -- photo NYPL Collection
Unlike the nearby proper white marble Italian palaces that housed the B. Altman’s department store and Tiffany jewelers, this would be a fanciful and exotic flight of the imagination.  The architects splashed the façade with baroque ornamentation inspired by the colorful buildings of Spain and colonial Mexico.  Waves of terra cotta undulated across the roofline, sprouting finials and quirky decoration.  Bands of molded faces, urns overflowing with fruit, and along the third floor heads in full relief—maidens, soldiers and academics—crane outward for a look at the people below.   The figure farthest east down 37th Street, though, is different.  Unlike the others in ancient dress, this one dons a necktie and fedora—possibly a self-portrait of one of the architects.

Nearly hidden at the farthest point from 5th Avenue, a modern face is a mysterious anomaly -- photo by Alice Lum
Along straitlaced Fifth Avenue, the rough-finished stucco slathered over the upper eight floors was both unexpected and successful.

The building, still under construction in 1915, is a celebration of ornamentation.  Brainson Tailors is already advertising from its 8th floor space -- Architecture and Buildling, 1915 (copyright expired)
The $800,000 building was completed in 1915 and apparel firms quickly moved into the upper floors.  C. F. Rumpp & Sons, dealers in leather goods, took 5,000 square feet on the 7th floor and Brainson Tailor leased space one floor above.  Vogel & Saltzman, “manufacturers of high grade hand-blocked and tailors hats,” opened its showroom here as did hat maker D. B. Fisk & Co.

The National Enameling and Stamping Company was among the original tenants and would stay for over a decade.  And as the United States joined the war in Europe the American Red Cross took space here in 1917.

Warriors and maidens peer out at pedestrians from lavish ornamentation -- photo by Alice Lum
In April the workrooms of the Red Cross buzzed with activity as women from across the city rushed to prepare bandages to be shipped overseas.  The offices were kept open nights and Sundays as thousands of yards of gauze were cut into proper lengths and rolled.  Between April 20 and 29 ten cases containing 22,920 bandages were prepared.  “Many women gave up their duties as home and other engagements to prepare bandages,” said the New York Tribune.

On street level the retail store was home to the Columbia Gramaphone’s “Grafonola Store.”  Here shoppers wandered among hand-cranked phonographs in cabinets ranging from “English Chippendale” to Chinese lacquered models.

Among Columbia's array of phonographs was this exotic Chinese cabinet -- The New York Tribune, December 14, 1919 (copyright expired)
While Columbia marketed its phonographs on 5th Avenue, Ireland was in a state of turmoil.  The political revolution of November 1913 and the April 16 Easter Rising had brought independence fighter Eamon de Valera to international prominence.   In 1917 he was elected president of Sinn Fein.

In 1919 de Valera came to the United States and took an office in No. 411 5th Avenue.   His popularity in America was tested within a year.  He received a heated letter in December 1920 from the Friends of Irish Freedom who demanded that he release funds deposited in American banks intended for Irish relief efforts.

The group insisted that the funds “which we understand now lies idle in American banks in your name…be sent immediately to the suffering people in Ireland to relieve their distress and aid them in their work of restoration and reconstruction.”  The organization told the New York Tribune that the collected money “aggregated several million dollars.”

On New Years Eve 1921 Eamon de Valera returned to Ireland, evading notice by British authorities.  The headquarters of the American Commission for Irish Freedom at No. 411 5th Avenue was besieged with well-wishers “jubilant at this new evasion of British vigilance by the man whom Irish revolutionaries elected ‘President of the Irish Republic’ while he was a fugitive from British justice,” reported the New York Tribune.

The rough stucco is ornamented with countless decorations:  caryatids, portraits, medallions, baskets, garlands and more.  Note the infant faces incorporated into the molding along the roofline, totally invisible from the street. -- photo by Alice Lum
That year Max Fertig’s linens and laces store took over the former Columbia store, signing a 21-year lease.   At same time Bonwit Teller & Co took the second floor—a full 10,000 square feet, “who will connect it with their present space at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-third Street,” said The New York Times.  It was a busy year for No. 411 with silver makers R. Wallace and Sons Mfg. Co. taking space as well.  The firm would remain here until 1937.

In August 1922 around $2.3 million deposited in United States banks by de Valera’s office here was frozen by the courts.   The action was authorized by the Irish Minister of Finance, Michael Collins, “to prevent any possible irregularity.”  The New York Tribune reported that the De Valera government feared that “irregulars” would “use the funds to destroy that government through rebellion.”

Grinning faces form capitals of the ornate, swirling columns while others, gaping or stern-faced, line the cornice -- photo by Alice Lum
Six years later the building would again be the scene of history making.   For years the General Electric Company and the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing company had done research on the possibility of transmitting live images.  By 1928 the futuristic idea was close to becoming reality.  That year The Radio Corporation of America, later known as RCA, began construction of a transmission studio in No. 411.   The R.C.A. Photophone, Inc. already had a recording studio here and the new equipment room was adjacent to it.

On March 22, 1929 the Radio Corporation of America announced that “television images are now being broadcast daily from 7 to 9 P.M.”  The company’s vice president, Dr. A. N. Goldsmith said that the program was intended to give “experimenters an opportunity to look in on the development work, which, it is contemplated, will in due course evolve into a service to the public on a commercial basis similar to that of sound broadcasting.”
High above the corner, an immense work in terra cotta resembles the figurehead of a sailing ship -- photo by Alice Lum
Decades before the television set would be commonplace in America’s living rooms pictures were appearing on a screen at No. 411.  “Transmissions consist of pictures, signs and views of persons and objects,” said Goldsmith.  “Announcements are made frequently by transmitting a picture of the call letters of the station…occasionally actors from the sound movie studios will appear before the photocells of the transmitter.”

Among Irish political maneuvering and television pioneering, millinery and apparel firms still hung on in the building throughout the 20th century.  In 1938 the Pictorial coat and Dress Company was here as was Frank Allaixe’s millinery firm in 1944.   In 1968 the showroom of Fownes Brothers glove company was on the second floor.

A $6,000 renovation of the small lobby was carried out in 1959, eliminating most of the Warren & Wetmore design.   Around 2000 the façade was carefully cleaned, a modernistic front was plastered over the street level, and the original windows above replaced.  Even though the building lacks landmark protection, it has survived remarkably intact and lovingly—for the most part—preserved.


  1. What an awesome building...Thanks for posting about this find What would you classify this building as... beaux arts or...?

    1. it could loosely be called Spanish Baroque but it's pretty hard to pin down!

  2. Its ridiculous to go back in time and take a peek at buildings that were built quite some time ago... But still, not that ancient. But today they are in much more sturdy condition I'm assuming, back then buildings were built to break.

    -Adam Ahmed

  3. Love the building especially the masonry. Thank you for sharing your thorough research. I was compelled to share this link on my Facebook Page.

    Cheryl Cuddeback

  4. Thank you so much for sharing with us. Although this building is very old but looks still very strong. I am glad to see your post here. Good job.

  5. A look at station W2XBS in the RCA Photophone labs in 1929. Now WNBC-HD, it's believed to be the world's oldest continually licensed tv station.