|photo by Alice Lum
One of these was the impressive home of James Graham Phelps Stoke at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 41st Street. The newly-formed 299 Madison Avenue Co. purchased the old home, along with property to the rear, with intentions of building a modern building that would cost $110,000. The architectal firm of Hill & Stout were given the commission to design the new structure.
The company’s architects tackled the tricky building plot—25 feet wide on Madison Avenue and 100 feet along 41st Street. They placed the entrance squarely on 41st Street, creating a balance of the extended mass and avoiding the awkward proportion resulting from an entrance on the skinny Madison Avenue end. Despite the placement of the entrance, the developers retained the more esteemed address of No. 299 Madison Avenue.
The early example of what would become known as a “sliver building” was designed in a sort of neo-Gothic style. Twelve stories tall, its brown-toned brick façade was enlivened with terra cotta, Arts-and-Crafts style tiles, and columns of contrasting brick diamond patterns that charge up the piers like the electric bolts in a mad scientist’s laboratory. The slender Madison Avenue elevation was highlighted with a brilliantly-conceived copper-clad projecting bay decorated with Gothic motifs.
|The Sun published a photograph of the new building on April 27, 1913 (copyright expired)
The new building was ready for occupancy on May 1, 1913. Perhaps the most significant of the first tenants was the Fred F. French Company. The firm was a self-reliant all-in-one architectural, real estate development and construction company. As Fred F. French Company established its headquarters here, a variety of tenants moved in including architects and related construction companies, and realtors. The New York Realty Owners offices were here by 1914, followed by J. Romaine Brown Co., real estate who would stay into the 1920s.
|The 12th floor terminates in Gothic-inspired motifs -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1916 the street level retail space became home to George G. Benjamin’s “correct clothes.” The men’s outfitter called the space “far brighter and more accessible,” and assured customers that “men and young men will find it a distinct pleasure to visit this new store.”
As the U.S. became caught up in the First World War, printer’s broker William Simpson was doing business from the building. One of his clients was Dr. William J. Robinson whom the New-York Tribune tagged a “radical writer and lecturer.” The Russian doctor attempted to revive a blacklisted publication Voice in the Wilderness under the new title of I Cannot Tell a Lie. In the pro-German newspaper, he professed that Germany was invincible and called for America’s immediate surrender “lest America suffer the fate of his native land.”
The New-York Tribune reported that “Dr. Robinson claims the gift of clairvoyance, and in the assumed role of a prophet warms the people of the United States to begin setting their houses in order by suing for immediate peace.”
The confiscated publication resulted in Robinson’s arrest on a charge of violating the espionage act. Unfortunately for broker William Simpson, proofs of the Voice were found at 299 Madison Avenue and Simpson was arrested, held at a $2,500 bail.
|A course of terra cotta inset with colorful tiles wraps around to the brilliant copper-clad bay -- photo by Alice Lum
As peacetime neared, the building continued to lure architects and building firms. In 1919 architect Thomas C. Visscher had his offices here as did James L. Burley. Bowdoin & Webster’s architectural offices were in the building by 1921, the same year that George A. Bagge & Sons architects moved in. Samuel A. Herzog Contruction Company was doing business from the building at the same time.
But a new industry was finding No. 299 Madison Avenue convenient: aeronautics. Less than two decades after the Wright brothers had made their first successful flight, the nation was obsessed with human flight. Publications and gadgets associated with aeronautics were all the rage. In 1919 The Shotwell Electric Weather Vane Co. marketed its long-distance wind instrument. The directional indicator was connected to the weather vane by wires. “When he wants to know the direction of the wind over his building—or twenty-five of fifty miles way—he presses a button, and the light on the dial shows the direction of the prevailing wind wherever the vane is located,” boasted an article in Flying Magazine.
The publication said “People who fly for sport or travel need not fly unless the weather is favorable and they can save themselves the trouble of preparing for a flight.” The vane was reportedly “indispensable for aerodromes, the offices of field superintendents, postmasters, commanding and flying officers of Army, Navy and Marine Corps aerodromes—anybody interested in aeronautics.”
At the same time the Aeronautic Library was here. Not an actual library, the marketing firm sent publications like the “Textbook of Military Aeronautics” via mail order across the nation for years.
|Although it sits on 41st Street, the Gothic terra cotta entrance boldly announces its Madison Avenue address -- photo by Alice Lum
As the century progressed No. 299 Madison was home to a few gimmicky mail order firms. In 1921 The Scientific Library, taking the lead perhaps from the Aeronautic Library, hawked the “Five Hundred Opportunities for Profit and Distinction,” by Henry Woodhouse. For $1.00 the ambitious purchaser would learn of “inventions, discoveries and activities that created billion dollar industries” and “billion dollar industries to be.” In 1943 Eldore Cosmetics was here. The firm’s advertisement read “Men-Women! Send one dollar for 6 month’s supply of famous CVO Shampoo for healthy, beautiful hair. Thousands pleased!” And as late as 1963 B & R advertised in Popular Mechanics. For the same $1.00 price readers could received instructions on how to “Enjoy thrill, discover gold.”
Yet the tenant list was not all about $1.00 mail order schemes. In 1950 Fisher & Associates, Inc. was here. Construction research consultants, the firm offered expertise in community planning and development. Research was done on everything from improved building products and methods to insulation, siding and surfacing elements.
That same year on September 2 Liberty Broadcasting System established its national offices in the building. The ingenious radio network broadcast live recreations of Major League Baseball games by following the action via Western Union ticker reports. Life-like sound effects—the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd for instance—were added so that many radio listeners at home were unaware that the commentators were not actually watching the action.
The building continued to be filled with advertising agencies and real estate companies until the turn of the century. In 2000 boutique hotelier Henry Kallan completed a conversion of the building into the 60-room Library Hotel, including two additional floors on the roof.
Perhaps taking inspiration from its proximity to the New York Public Library and the Morgan Library, the hotel classified each floor and room on a Dewey Decimal system category of knowledge. The third floor is Social Sciences, for instance, and the fifth is Math and Science. Each room on a particular floor has a library of books—from 25 to 100 volumes--relating to that floor’s theme.
Kallan spent over $1 million on mahogany for the bookshelves in the new hotel. On the 14th floor, a Poetry Garden includes a greenhouse sitting room with wicker furniture and a wrap-around terrace with views of the Public Library.
The ingenious 21st century recycling of the 299 Madison Avenue building left the exterior happily intact. The warm blend of materials—including the wonderful patina of the copper bay—survives as originally designed while the interiors enjoy a reincarnation.