Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The 1886 De Vinne Press Bldg -- No. 395 Lafayette St

An addition on the 4th Street side begun in 1890 (far right) is nearly seamless -- photo by Alice Lum
Theodore Low De Vinne was not only perhaps the foremost printer in the United States in the second half of the 19th century, he was obsessive about his craft.    His father, Theodore L. De Vinne had founded the De Vinne Press and instilled in him the love of books.  The younger De Vinne was an ardent scholar in the history and art of printing, a perfectionist and a collector of rare books and manuscripts.    On a wintry evening on January 23, 1884 he and seven other like-minded gentlemen formed the Grolier Club, an exclusive men’s club devoted to the love of books.  He would later address the members here, complaining of modern printing practices saying that “in his younger days he had been taught that anything that was difficult, eccentric, or striking was fine printing, but that idea has now largely been outgrown.”

De Vinne’s business was exceptional.  His partner, Roswell Smith, was company president and publisher; De Vinne filled the role of printer.  Among their steady commissions was the highly popular Scribner’s Monthly (which changed its name to Century Magazine in 1881), and St. Nicholas Magazine.   In 1884 De Vinne was living in Jersey City with his family, an easy ferry ride to his office on Murray Street in Manhattan.  But the success of the firm made a new printing plant and offices necessary.

That year De Vinne and Smith procured land on the northeast corner of Lafayette Place and Fourth Street.  It was a neighborhood that sixty years earlier had been one of the most exclusive residential areas in New York.    Residents with names like Vanderbilt, Delanos and Astor all lived here.  Now numerous printing-related firms had moved into the area, perhaps lured by the nearby Astor Library.  Publishers Crowell, Wiley, Funk, and Wagnall already had their offices in the neighborhood, as did the American Bible Society and, until 1881, Scribner & Co.

The two streets at the site of the future De Vinne Building were still lined with brick Federal-style homes, their stoops and porticoes lined up along the block in an orderly precision.  The corner’s faded refinement was about to meet the industrial age head on.

The new building sat squarely among rows of elegant Federal mansions -- photo courtesy of the Cornell University Library
For the new printing house the pair called upon the architectural firm of Babb, Cook, and Willard.   It was given the task of producing a massive factory-like building with interior strength to uphold the heavy presses, yet which would be, hopefully, attractive externally.  The firm outdid themselves.

Construction began in 1885 and was completed just a year later.   Eight stories high, the Romanesque Revival building immediately set the bar for industrial architecture in New York.  Constructed of warm orange-red brick with terra cotta trim before the advent of the steel frame it was monumental in character.  Undeniably industrial, it was nonetheless handsome.  The heaviness of the building’s bulk was relieved by multi-story arches, several band courses, and a gently rising gable.  Thin brick quoins wrapped around the curved corner.  
photo by Alice Lum
Over a century later the De Vinne Press Building would be deemed by the AIA Guide to New York City “Roman brickwork worthy of the Roman Forum's Basilica of Constantine,” the Landmarks Preservation Commission would say it “established a milestone both aesthetically and structurally for America commercial buildings,” and architectural historian Talbot Hamlin would count it “among the best building of the 1880’s and 90’s.”

Intricate terra cotta and ironwork embellished the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum
The architects had to consider the threat of fire in designing the edifice.  As a printing house there would necessarily be excessive amounts of flammable materials inside:  paper, grease and benzene among them.   The interior structure consisted of heavy brick arches (arches would support the heavy machinery on the floors above) and iron beams.  The arches were supported by substantial iron columns with flaring capitals.   The Century would describe solid five-foot thick piers in the sixth floor plate room.  Wood was used sparingly, mostly in the window frames.

Below street level was “the vault” where stereotype plates and paper were stored, the machine repair shop was located and the boilers and coal pit were housed.  Here, too, was the web press used to produce the illustrated pages of Century Magazine.   The special press used continuous rolls of paper rather than sheets.   To aid in lighting, the sidewalk along Lafayette was constructed of geometric blocks of glass—circles, hexagons and squares—called “patent lights.”   The patent light panels were hinged so they could be opened to admit air into the stagnant vault.  The Sanitary Engineer would praise “This is probably the best lighted vault in the city.”

The entrance floor was tile-lined with glass walls to the press rooms.  The cat was, most likely, on hand less to provide company than for rodent control -- Century Magazine November 1890 (copyright expired)
There was little interior decoration in the no-nonsense structure.   Theodore De Vinne’s office on the second floor was one of the few slightly-ornamented spaces.  More a library than an office, it was lined with bookshelves to hold his volumes of printing articles, copies of his own works (De Vinne was an author as well, publishing works such as “The Invention of Printing,” “Historic Printing Types,” and “The Practice of Typography), and other books that most would find ponderous reading at best.

Each floor was scientifically arranged for specific purposes—job composing rooms, electrotype foundry, press rooms, etc.  On the sixth floor was the bindery where young women worked on the Century Company’s magazines—folding, cutting, collating and wire-stitching pages, then wrapping them in paper covers.

Women work in the bindery on the sixth floor -- Century Magazine November 1890 (copyright expired)
Although the building was not officially opened until July 1886, some of the printing was taking place here as early as April.   The new structure cost De Vinne and Smith $200,000 (about $4.5 million today).   Unknown to most, Smith footed the bulk of the cost with De Vinne providing only a quarter of the capital. 

The building was a critical success.   It was praised for its distinctive architectural appearance and its efficient interior layout. 

Architect George Babb created two decorative terra cotta panels to flank the entrance.  The one on the left depicted an ancient tablet that quoted Prometheus.  In Greek it read “and further I discovered for them numeration, most striking of inventions, and composition, nurse of the arts, producer of the record of all things.”   Next to the tablet a swirling ribbon read “IMPRIMATUR.”

The terra cotta plaques can be seen on either side of the entrance -- Century Magazine, November 1890 (copyright expired)

This plaque would become the De Vinne printer’s device, with the altered ribbon now reading “THE DE VINNE PRESS.”

The De Vinne mark was painted into the ceiling of the Great Hall of the Library of Congress in 1890 -- photo by Djembayz
Before long the building would be the scene of one of De Vinne’s most important projects—the printing and publication of the “Century Dictionary.”   Considered today Theodore De Vinne’s greatest accomplishment, the dictionary would entail 24 parts in six volumes.  Publication took two years, from 1889 to 1891.  Roswell Smith personally invested $1 million in the first edition and the extensive project required De Vinne to design a complex stand that could hold dozens of type cases.  A trade journal reported that the “new stands and cases which have been arranged by Mr. De Vinne” enabled the compositor to “reach more than seven hundred boxes without moving from his stand.”

Every page required proof reading by various experts prior to electrotyping.   Additional space in the building was set aside just for the storage of the project's immense quantity of type as well as the composed sheets.  (This included 6,000 fragile wood-engraved illustrations.)

The space required by the dictionary project alone may have instigated the matching addition along West Fourth Street.  In 1890 Babb, Cook & Willard was called back to design an eight-story annex.  Completed in 1891, it is nearly seamless.

The finished dictionary was, thankfully for the partners, a financial success.   Subsequent volumes were added—“The Century Cyclopedia of Names” in 1894, “The Century Atlas of the World” in 1897 and a two-volume appendage  to the dictionary in 1909.

On January 17, 1902 Theodore Low De Vinne was given a tribute even greater than the honorary degrees he had received the previous June from Yale and Columbia Universities.   He was the guest of honor at a dinner held by the New York Typothetae, consisting of master printers, in celebration of the 196th birthday of Benjamin Franklin, whom The New York Times called “their patron saint.”

Among the souvenirs were “a neat volume containing the menu, the members, the speakers, and sketches of Franklin and De Vinne, and a bronze medal containing a reproduction of a primitive printing press and the heads of Franklin and De Vinne,” reported the newspaper.   To have one’s image cast alongside that of Benjamin Franklin was the ultimate mark of respect among master printers.

When his printing firm had moved into the building on Lafayette, now much farther uptown, De Vinne moved his family to Manhattan; first to No. 150 West 59th Street, then to a mansion on 76th Street in 1890.  It was here that he died surrounded by his extensive collection of books on February 16, 1914.  His personal library of almost 2,000 volumes was sold at auction at the Anderson Galleries six years later.

The focus of Theodore De Vinne’s interests was evident when his estate became public.   Among his assets, which totaled over $1.5 million, was a stamp collection worth $10,000.  The New York Times added “His jewelry was valued at only $25.”

In 1922 the De Vinne Press ceased operation.  The mighty presses, many of them invented expressly for Theodore Low De Vinne, went silent.  The massive building was purchased in 1982 by Edwin Fisher and is now home to the Astor Center, an event venue owned by the Fisher family.

The great metal letters from 1886 announcing the firm's name still survive -- photo by Alice Lum
Some architectural historians attribute the design of the building to Walter Cook, who had studied in Munich and was familiar with the round-arched buildings derived from the Rundbogenstil.   No matter which of the partners is responsible, the De Vinne Press Building is universally accepted as the firm’s masterwork and a groundbreaking concept in industrial architecture.


  1. I love that building and first became aware of its existence when working with my dad at Columbia Dentoform then on E.21st Street. He sent me there to pick up some machine parts for the factory that produced the dental models for every student inthe world to practice on.
    I later lived on E. 3rd Street and drank often at Swifts on E. 4th Street and almost always paused whe passing to regard this beautiful edifice

  2. For the publishers device, logo, mark, colophon, could you, please, give us an exact copy of the Greek and its translation?