Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The 1905 Revillon Freres Bldg -- Nos. 19-17 W. 34th Street

The lower floors of the Revillon Freres building, now the Martin Building, have endured repeated remodeling.

When the Revillon Brothers started their fur company in 1723 New York City was still governed by the British and the area around what would become Fifth Avenue and 34th Street was countryside.  Nearly two centuries later much would have changed.

By the end of the 19th century, the French firm Revillon Freres was a leading retailer and manufacturer of luxury furs and accessories.   In 1890, its first store was opened in New York on Broadway.  It was an instant success as women of the city’s carriage trade sought out custom-made coats and wraps in exotic furs.  The company quickly erected its own building on West 28th Street.  But that, too, would soon prove insufficient.

As a reflection of its high-end product, Revillon Freres included an automobile in its 1900 advertisement (copyright expired)

When the Astor Family razed their brownstone mansions on Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets to erect the hulking, combined Waldorf and Astoria Hotels, the quietude of the exclusive neighborhood was shattered.   Within only a few years the brownstone mansions in the immediate area were razed or converted to commercial use, and by 1905 broad 34th Street was lined with high-end stores.

The two impressive brownstone mansions at 19 and 17 West 34th Street were about to go.  Owned by James W. Pryor and Henry P. Loomis, they sat mid-block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, and were being crowded out by retailers.  Pryor was the first to relent.

In the place of 17 East 34th Street rose an 11-story store and loft building designed by Francis A. Minuth with a single tenant:  Revillon Freres.  On February 11, 1905 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that Revillon Freres had leased the building for “a term of years.”  The limestone-clad building stretched through the block to 35th Street.   Foliage-carved spandrels, carved bands between floors and Beaux Arts decoration added interest to the Italian Renaissance-inspired structure.    The two-story base featured shallow limestone bands.

Within a year the building was enlarged to the west with the acquisition of the Loomis’s house and the erection of a matching extension.

Below an openwork balustrade on the 35th Street side are four carved faces, two smug looking women and two aghast men.

The wealth of Revillon Freres’ customers and the expensive nature of its wares were evident shortly after the new store opened.   The firm offered cold storage to its clients and Belinda Carbonneau placed a few items in their warehouse for safe keeping.  In 1905, she called for her furs.  To her dismay, and that of Revillon Freres, her items were gone.

“The furs and wearing apparel alleged to have been lost consisted of a $6,000 seal-lined Hudson Bay fur coat, a $200 seal-lined coat, a robe of eagle feathers lined with lavender cloth, and an ermine stole,” reported The New York Times.   The first coat alone would be worth about $120,000 in 2012.

On February 2, 1908, the store advertised less expensive, ready-made Russian pony coats, short seal skin coats and imported cloth coats (fur lined) with prices up to $400.

A  year later a New York socialite ordered a matching muff and stole and waited eagerly for its completion.    The Moscow agent of Revillon Freres carefully selected the matching Russian sable pelts and shipped them to New York.  The muff was valued at $5,000 and the stole at $4,000.

The wealthy customer was promised delivery of her completed furs on October 21, 1909.  On October 20 the stole was completed and work continued on the muff late into the night.   The man working on the muff went to supper and became ill at the restaurant, so he went home rather than completing the muff.   But, said The New York Times, he “determined to go back to the workrooms early next morning and complete it.  When he did return the nearly completed muff was missing.”

The theft was not only an expensive loss for the company, it was a disastrous blow to public relations.  High end retailers, then as now, were less than eager to tell a society leader that her long-awaited purchases were lost.  “It was impossible to duplicate the furs here,” said The New York Times, “and so the agent in Moscow was notified and new furs were selected and sent here, while the unsuccessful thief search went on.”

As the stock ledgers were examined, other thefts were noticed.  Police and private detectives scratched their heads as they “scoured the city [and] they could get no trace of the missing muff or thieves.”   Law enforcement officials gave up all hope of finding the perpetrators.

That is, until  Mrs. George E. Knox entered a Cleveland fur dealer’s shop and offered a mink and ermine set valued at $500 “for a very small sum.”   The dealer recognized the pieces as the work of Revillon Freres and suspected foul play.  While the woman waited, he quietly summoned the police.    A traveling salesman for Revillon Freres was brought in who recognized the stolen set.

Mrs. Knox, who also went by the name of Mary Ingram, was the wife of George Knox, a former elevator boy at Revillon.  When police found pawn tickets in a trunk in their room, he confessed to the robberies, telling police the “jig is up.”  Before long the jig was up for Thomas Mullins, former Captain of elevator boys in the building, who was part of the three-person ring.  At the time of their arrests, police estimated the value of the stolen pieces at $25,000.

The exquisitely carved oak leaves and acorns in the spandrels of the 35th Street entrances, along with the decorative ironwork, hint at the original appearance of the 34th Street facades.

Revillon Freres continued its tradition of relocating uptown and on January 3, 1912 The New York Times reported that negotiations were underway to sublease the 34th Street building.   “It was stated that the Revillon concern would move to new quarters in the Fifth Avenue vicinity near by, probably taking one of the new loft buildings above Thirty-sixty Street,” the article said.

Indeed, by 1918 Revillon Freres had relocated to Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street.  Bedell Company, women’s “cloak and suit” store, took over the former Revillon Building, adding to the growing number of department stores like B. Altman and Macy’s in the immediate area.  Upper floors were leased to wholesale garment dealers like Rotary Frocks, Inc.

Bond Thomas managed Bedell’s until just after the new year in 1920.  He returned to his home in Plainfield, New Jersey after having felt ill for about a week.  The retailer went to bed and never got up.  “For two weeks it has been impossible to arouse him,” reported the New-York Tribune on January 25.  Diagnosed with “sleeping sickness,” he was examined by specialists, including his brother who was a member of the faculty of Johns Hopkins Medical College, and his brother-in-law, Dr. Simon Flexner.

“But the results of their treatment do not encourage them,” said the New-York Tribune.  “Nourishment is given to the patient, but his condition is regarded as critical.”

On February 21, 1922, Martin Bulagur, president of Rotary Frocks, pulled off an ingenious but dangerous ploy here.  While he was working with buyers from Chicago, two men entered his showroom introducing themselves as buyers from Montreal.   While Bulagur finished up with the Chicago buyers, the two men waited in another room.

When Bulagur entered the room to work with the Montreal buyers, he noticed several dresses were missing.  “Bulagur then did some thinking,” reported the New-York Tribune.  He questioned the men about the contents of a large duffel bag they had with them and when they started for the elevator he went into action.  “He trust his right hand into his hip pocket, called for them to halt and told them they’d better stay halted,” said the newspaper.

The corny finger-in-the-pocket trick worked.  The thieves believed Bulagur had a handgun and remained frozen until police arrived.  The Montreal buyers were revealed to be from the Bronx.

In 1928, architect Joseph Urban was commissioned to update the façade of the Bedell store.  The banded limestone was replaced with four floors of sleek Art Deco polished black granite.   Panels of streamlined zig-zag motifs and waterfall light fixtures contrasted with the dark stone.   The entrance was protected by a lavish two-story Art Deco bowed screen.

Below eight stories of Victorian facade, Joseph Urban brought the retail space squarely into the Roaring 20s -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Meanwhile, on West 35th Street the old Revillon Freres façade lived on.

The wonderful Art Deco façade of Joseph Urban was demolished only a few years later.  By the 1940s it had been replaced with a hideous, nondescript slab as Lerner Shops took over most of the building and installed arcade windows at street level.

A gruesome slab replaced Urban's fabulous Art Deco facade by 1943 -- photo NYPL Collection

With the 21st century, the block along West 34th Street experienced a renaissance as national chain retailers renovated old store spaces.  Banana Republic took over the lower floors of what was now called The Martin Building and the façade was once again revamped.  Interestingly, Banana Republic’s entrance includes a two-story bowed section reminiscent of Urban’s design.

On the 35th Street facade, a cartouche with the Revillon Freres monogram sits among carved oak leaves.

But a walk around the block reveals the Francis A. Minuth's original 1905 Revillon Freres façade at Nos. 30-32 West 35th Street.   A lavishly-carved cartouche beneath the third floor cornice holds an entwined RF.  The carved ornamentation from sidewalk to roof is intact—giving a visible sense of what the exclusive furrier’s 34th Street store must have looked like.

The banded base and Beaux Arts carvings of the 35th Street facade survive.

non-historic photographs taken by the author


  1. Wow that Art Deco facade renovation with the black granite and cascading light fixtures is outstanding. What a shame such a knock-out design was replaced by utter blandness.

  2. Thank you Tom, interesting piece this about Revillon! greetings from Amsterdam, marion van der Fluit

  3. Really cool, I work here now and reading about the building's history was great. Thank you