Saturday, February 2, 2013

The 1912 Haskins & Sells Bldg. -- No. 35-37 W. 39th St

photo by Alice Lum
Eva McDonald Valesh and Charles Waldo Haskins were born fourteen years and worlds apart.  Their very dissimilar lives would come together more than half a century later on New York’s West 39th Street.

Haskins was born into a wealthy Brooklyn family on January 11, 1852.  “New York State’s Prominent and Progressive Men” would note in 1900 “The names of Haskins and Waldo are both indicative of New England ancestry, and in this instance the indication is correct.”  Haskins' earliest ancestors America settled in Boston early in the 18th century.   His great grandfather, William Emerson, was a chaplain in the Revolutionary army and uncle of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Eva McDonald, on the other hand, was born in 1866 in Orono, Maine in a family with little to spare.  Her father, John, was a carpenter and as Eva grew she shouldered many of the household responsibilities.  Of the eight children, five were boys and Eva’s mother left much of their care to her.  When she graduated high school at the age of 15, it was expected that her life would continue much as it had.

Neither Eva nor Charles Haskins would follow their families’ expectations.

Haskins was educated in private schools, then the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.  His family intended that he enter a career as a civil engineer.  Instead, he got a job in 1869 in the accounting department of Frederick Butterfield & Co. of New York.   By 1886 his expertise and reputation had grown to the point that he formed a partnership with Elijah W. Sells.  The “public expert accountants,” known as Haskins & Sells, examined the accounts of bankers, investors, railroads and large corporations. 

In 1893 the firm was chosen to investigate the accounts of the Executive Department of the United States Government.  When the project was completed two years later, it was deemed “in many respects the most important undertaking of the kind in the history of the country.”

In the meantime, Eva McDonald was not staying home and tending children; but moving and shaking the political world in Minnesota, where her family had moved in 1877.  She was elected to the office of State Lecturer and created a scorching presence as one of the first women’s rights advocates in the Midwest.  The editor of the Great West, Dr. Everett W. Fish, said of her “To say that her fiery temper got the better of her would perhaps be a slight excuse” and said she had “a spirit that would drive an ironwood fence post through frozen sod.”

Regarding McDonald's outspoken stance on women's rights, historian Barbara Stuhler points out in her “Women of Minnesota” that “For those with education, economic security, and family backing, the price may not have been so high, but Eva McDonald had few advantages beyond what she seized for herself.”

In 1900, while Haskins & Sells was riding high in the accounting field, the American Federation of Labor appointed Eva as a full-time women’s organizer.  She traveled back and forth from Minnesota to New York as invitations to lecture poured in from women’s clubs.  She became the foremost women’s labor expert, and remarked that she was “besieged by women of leisure and wealth who wanted to know what they could do to help working women.”

Surprisingly, Eva’s fiery passion was temporarily squashed when she married broker Captain Benjamin Franklin Cross in 1910.  The daughter of a carpenter found herself married to playboy son of a wealthy Rhode Island family.  She soon found, however, that “idleness didn’t agree with me.”

Using Cross’s money, she founded The American Club Woman Magazine, and organized the War Children’s Relief Fund.   She used the magazine to popularize women’s rights ideas and reshape national perception.  Claiming “the influence of one million readers,” an advertisement stressed that “The American Club Woman Magazine is read by the most progressive and intellectual women in the country.  It is a power in forming public opinion.”

For her magazine offices, Eva choose the newly-built structure at Nos. 35 and 37 West 39th Street.

In 1911 the block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues on 39th Street was rapidly changing from one of high-end brownstone rowhouses to commercial structures.   Four years earlier Andrew Carnegie had demolished three of the homes to erect the impressive Engineering Societies Building.   Now the real estate developing firm of Brunswick Realty Company set out to erect a soaring office building on the site of two neighboring four-story homes at Nos. 35 and 37.   The company hoped to ride the coattails of its impressive neighbor, marketing its planned building to potential tenants as the Commercial Engineers Building.

photo by Alice Lum
Robert Zobel headed the realty company, and he hired his brother Frederick C. Zobel to design the new structure.   Completed in 1912, the 12-story Renaissance Revival building gushed colorful terra cotta ornament on the lower and upper portions.  Three two-story arches enveloped ornate cast iron entranceways.  The terra cotta, which was inlaid with marble discs, dripped with festoons, shields, and wreaths.  Above the third floor the building suddenly canted, providing a wonderful visual surprise and offering an ornate terra cotta balcony and additional light to the upper floors.

Although Zobel’s firm hoped for an engineering-focused tenant list; it became a mish-mash of unrelated businesses—including, of course, Eva McDonald’s magazine.

Zobel's surprising angles and lush terra cotta detailing set the building apart -- photo by Alice Lum
Through her periodical, Eva fought tirelessly for women’s suffrage, equality and safe conditions in the workplace, and other women’s rights.  A poem published in The American Club Woman Magazine, entitled “The Battle of Woman” included the lines:

She will suffer and yield and do her part,
She will give all duty may mean;
But she fights the battle of life in her heart,
Where the battles are fought unseen.

In 1913, now known as Eva MacDonald Valesh, she formed the Woman’s National Fire Prevention Association, with its offices in the building.  She claimed “Women have the reputation of losing their heads in a panic, and women can do better work in fire prevention than men.”  The New-York Tribune quoted her saying “The fire loss in our country is enormous and criminal and it’s largely up to the women to lessen it.”

She said the goals of the new organization were to encourage housewives “to clear out all accumulations of waste materials tucked away in odd corners in closets and kitchens and attics, and we shall give prizes to the women who have followed our instructions and whose homes are found to be most carefully arranged with a view toward fire protection.”

She also targeted that risky practice of cleaning one’s white gloves with gasoline.  “Another thing we shall encourage women to stop doing is dabbling gasoline on their gloves before going out.  I’ve kept careful statistics of the fires resulting from the careless use of gasoline in the house for cleaning, and I find it is by far the most prolific cause of the death of women from fire.”

A reporter asked how she intended to train factory girls to keep their heads in a possible stampede in the case of fire.  “Well,” she answered, “one of our members suggested letting a mouse loose and then organizing a fire drill, but I think that’s rather foolish, don’t you?”

photo by Alice Lum
Along with Eva MacDonald Valesh’s ventures in the building came a variety of tenants.  In 1914 the Film Exchange took “a large space” here as did the Chautauqua Planing Mills Company.  Mumm Champagne and Importation Company, and importers Renkin & Yates Smith moved in.

But one tenant no doubt raised the ire of the self-described “emotional” Eva MacDonald Valesh--the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.  Organized in 1911 it was headed by Josephine Dodge.  The group firmly believed that suffrage would negatively impact women’s ability to create social reform.  While Eva published her magazine, the NAOWS put out its own newsletter, Woman’s Protest, that ranted just as loudly against suffrage.

Around 1917 yet another group joined the fray.  The Man Suffrage Association Opposed to Political Suffrage for Women leased room 305.  Not long afterward the New York City League of Women Voters moved in.  The groups battled on until May 1919 when 19th Amendment was passed, assuring the right to vote to all citizens, regardless of gender.

The Vanderbilt Dental Clinic was in the building, too, that year and the New-York Tribune reported that the clinic was “cleaning and caring for the teeth of sailors and soldiers without charge.”   The area was filling with millinery firms, as reflected in other new tenants.  Ogus, Rabinovitch & Ogus, ran a chain of millinery stores throughout the country from here, and S. Schloss milliners was in the building in 1919, as well.

The following year Charles Waldo Haskins would make his mark on the 39th Street building.  On May 15, 1920 the New-York Tribune reported that “Haskins & Sells, certified public accountants, with offices in the United States, England, China and Cuba, have purchased for their own use…the twelve-story office building, 35-37 West Thirty-ninth Street.”  The asking price for the property was $750,000.

The firm kept its downtown offices at No. 30 Broad Street as a branch office.  But as the new carved stone frieze with the name HASKINS & SELLS announced, this would be the firm’s headquarters.  But only five years later the company sold the building; although it kept its headquarters here until approximately 1930.

The central terra cotta panel between the lower arches was removed and replaced with the carved marble inset  -- photo by Alice Lum
The building continued to fill with a mixture of tenants, many of them related to the apparel and millinery industries as the Garment Center expanded into the area.  Haskins & Sells, by mid-century, had become part of what would eventually be known as Deloitte-Touche and left West 39th Street.   But as the building was sold and resold repeatedly, the proud marble announcement "Haskins & Sells" remained.

In 1988 the aging structure received a full renovation including all mechanical systems and a new lobby.  The upgrades attracted a new tenant base, including the architectural firm International Design Group which leased the 4,000 square foot 12th floor.

Frederick Zobel’s innovative design and sumptuous terra cotta lower and upper terra cotta facades receive little attention.  The 39th Street block is rarely seen by tourists, and workers in the area rush by without looking up.  But the handsome building that played an important part in the history of women’s rights deserves a sightseeing detour.

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