In 1914 34-year old Robert Walton Goelet held sway over a
vast real estate empire. His was one of New York’s oldest and most prominent families and for generations the Goelets had accumulated
real estate, ever holding firm the family imperative never to sell
property. His father and uncle, Robert
and Ogden Goelet, had inherited and further amassed holdings equaled only by
the Astor family.
|photo by Alice Lum|
On March 10, 1886 the brothers had acquired property from
the Estate of Montague M. Hendricks on Fifth Avenue between 35th and
36th Streets. Five years
later, on June 2, they purchased the adjoining lot from Thomas Scott. The combined corner plot at Nos. 402-404
Fifth Avenue was in the most exclusive area of the city—two blocks north of the
William B. and John Jacob Astor mansions, and one block north of the palatial white
marble Alexander T. Stewart house.
To the possible disgruntlement of the wealthy neighbors, the brothers had three small commercial buildings erected on
the site. Construction began in 1889
and was completed a year later. The
combined hotel and boarding house was one of the first hints of the intrusion of
commerce onto the residential avenue. A
year later the Goelets hired McKim, Mead & White to remodel the structures
into a banquet hall for the Louis Sherry’s exclusive catering and restaurant
business. Sherry’s was, along with
Delmonico’s, a favorite among Manhattan’s wealthiest socialites.
But by now, in 1914, when Robert W. Goelet owned the
property, Fifth Avenue had changed.
Directly across the street was the white marble palazzo of Tiffany &
Co. and just to the south was B. Altman’s elegant department store. The grand Waldorf-Astoria Hotel sat on the site of the Astor mansions. Commerce had undeniably arrived on Fifth
Avenue, albeit in a dignified and high-class manner. Stewart & Co., dealers in women’s apparel
like “fancy suits” and “crepe de chine dresses for afternoon and evening wear,”
was doing business from the former Sherry’s location.
Goelet’s mother was the former Harriette Louise Warren and
her brother was, conveniently for Robert, architect Whitney Warren. Robert called upon his uncle to replace Nos.
402-404 with an upscale store and loft building. Warren’s firm, Warren & Wetmore, produced
one of the most intriguing structures along the avenue by planting one foot in
18th century England and the other firmly in Edwardian Chicago.
The architects’ eight-story building drew heavily on the Chicago
School of Architecture by using expanses of what are termed “Chicago windows.” The triparitite openings are comprised of a
large, central pane flanked by two narrow one-over-one double hung
windows. Thin colunnettes between the
openings rose pencil-like to the overhanging cornice.
|The Stewart Building in 1914. To the left is a former mansion, now converted for commercial purposes, and to the right is the staid Brick Presbyterian Church -- photo Museum of the City of New York|
Above the two stories of retail space, the modern age took a
back seat to English neoclassicism.
Warren & Wetmore joined with the New York Terra Cotta Company to
face the building in Josiah Wedgwood-inspired panels. The delicate blue and white tiles--reminiscent
of Wedgwood’s famous jasper ware pottery--featured classical urns and laurel
wreaths. The colunnettes were bundles
of reeds in terra cotta, fastened together with crossties. The cornice was a lush, yet delicate,
celebration of neoclassical designs.
Built by George A. Fuller & Company, most remembered by
New Yorkers for its headquarters now known as the Flatiron Building, the
structure went up with amazing speed.
Construction began on July 8, 1914 and was completed only five months
later, on December28, at a cost of $250,000.
|photo by Alice Lum|
The street level housed two large retail spaces. Stewart & Co. returned, taking the
southern space (and giving the building its name in the process); and Mark
Cross, a manufacturer and merchant of expensive leather goods, took the northern corner storefront.
For the next fourteen years Stewart & Co. would cater to
well-heeled women, offering items like a “lovely evening wrap for the matron,”
as advertised in October 1915. In 1927,
two years after the store merged with Arnold, Constable & Co., Stewart
& Co. gave its support to the Actor’s Fund of America. On November 28 five actresses worked as
saleswomen, much to the amusement and interest of shoppers. The New York Times reported that “Those who
will help sell feminine apparel today are Hazel Dawn, Mary Daniels, Josephine
Drake, Vivian Tobin and Polly Walker.”
Ten percent of the store’s sales that week was donated to the organization.
|By 1923 the entire blockfront was filled with commercial structures. -- photo Museum of the City of New York|
In 1929 the store moved uptown to Fifth Avenue and 56th
Street. In the meantime Mark Cross sold
its wide array of high quality items. Among
the products advertised In March 1920 were a leather “motor case” fitted with
white celluloid toilet articles, a folding writing pad and stationery box with
compartments for stationery (made of glazed calfskin leather), and a pigskin
bag for men with a leather lining.
|Stewart & Co. advertised the above "evening wrap for the matron" -- The Sun, October 17, 1915 (copyright expired)|
No sooner had Stewart
& Co. moved out than Emily Shops, Inc. moved in. By now Mark Cross Company held the lease on
the entire building from Robert W. Goelet and continued to occupy its corner
space. Emily Shops, “a chain specializing
in frocks and sportswear for women, according to The Times, agreed to pay Mark
Cross $150,000 per year.
|Every inch of the facade is delicately ornamented -- photo by Alice Lum|
Although Mark Cross moved out of the building in 1935 when
it opened its new store at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, Emily Shops
stayed on into the 1950s.
The spacious upper floors were home to a variety of business
throughout the 20th century. Gage Brothers & Co., milliners, had been among
the original tenants and would remain through mid-century. The building was a favorite among jewelers
like watch manufacturer Wittnauer who leased space for two decades, Longines
Watch Company, and jewelry manufacturer Swank.
|Feathery-ornamented piers with banded reeding rise to the cornice where even the underside is decorated -- photo by Alice Lum|
Publishing firms like Conde Nast publication and Ballantine
Books also made the Stewart Building home during the middle decades of the 20th
In 1975 the building was renovated for bank use on the first
floor, eliminating the former retail spaces; a “physical culture establishment”
on the eighth floor (a squash and racquet club); and a trade school. Although much of the original detailing of two
lower floors has been lost, the upper floors are pristinely preserved—what the “AIA
Guide to New York City” calls “a magnificence in tile.”
|photo by Alice Lum|
|Just above street level a delicate, lacy band girds the structure -- photo by Alice Lum|
I worked @ 404 Fifth Avenue for a year under the building management staff. Building was owned by Silverstein and Sons. My dad worked for them, managing the building staffs of their properties. When I was there the tenants that I remember were: Robert Fiance Beauty School on the 2nd floor; Seiko on the 5th floor (I think), a photography studio/agency had 2 floors, 6 and 7 and the 8th floor was the Fifth Avenue Racquet Club, a squash club. If anyone remembers the name of the photo studio I'd appreciate if you would post it. Thanks.ReplyDelete