Friday, July 26, 2013

Fouchaux's 1900 No. 39 East 19th Street

The brownstone-wide structure overshadows its next-door neighbors -- photo by Alice Lum
As the 20th century approached the glory days of Union Square as a fashionable residential neighborhood were gone.    Mansions circling the park were demolished to build tall commercial buildings and along the side streets residences were razed or converted for business purposes.
Already, in the 1880s, Dr. Lewis T. Warner had joined the trend when he converted his residence at No. 39 East 19th Street to a store and apartment building.  Following his death in 1898, the house—sitting squarely in one of the most exciting real estate districts for speculators and developers—was offered for sale.

In October 1898 “the old four-story house 39 East Nineteenth Street” was purchased by Jacob D. Butler, then quickly resold to John F. Scannell.   The brownstone home which had shared the block with the likes of Horace Greeley at No. 35 had come to the end of its road.  A week after the purchase, on November 5, the New York Daily Tribune reported that Scannell “will erect an eight-story fireproof building,” on the site.   The New York Times noted that the sale exhibited “a favorite field for improvement buying in the section just north of Union Square, between Broadway and Fourth Avenues.”

The district had good cause to be a “favorite field for improvement.”  Even before the old brownstone at No. 39 East 19th Street was demolished Scannell had “already leased the basement, ground and first floors to a restaurant for twenty years,” according to the New York Daily Tribune.  He commissioned architect Henri Fouchaux to design the new structure.

Unlike many Europe-trained New York City architects, Fouchaux had attended night classes at Cooper Union.  His diploma, signed by Peter Cooper, was one of his most cherished possessions.  The architect was busy at the time designing scores of houses in the burgeoning Hamilton Heights neighborhood far uptown, but added the 19th Street project to his workload.

Fouchaux’s limestone-clad neo-Renaissance loft and retail building edged up to the property line—a potential problem with city officials.  Every possible inch of rentable space was optimized, so when decorative elements were added they overstepped the boundaries.

On January 24, 1899 The Committee on Streets and Highways considered Scannell’s proposal to erect “two stone pilasters projecting three inches beyond the building-line” and “on the third story of the front thereof to erect, place and keep four stone columns, eleven inches in diameter, and six pilasters, eleven inches in diameter, all resting on a stone corbel and capped with a stone cornice, and not to project more than eleven inches beyond the building-line.”

Scannell’s request stressed that the columns and pilasters were “for ornament only, and in no way to increase the floor space of the building.”  Thankfully, for our later visual enjoyment, the offending projections were approved.
The first two floors were designed for Childs Restaurant, whose name was originally displayed between the intricate cast iron knots between floors -- photo by Alice Lum

Completed in 1900, Fouchaux’s building blended function with handsome design.  The two-story restaurant space was framed in cast iron, affording spacious window openings.  Two highly unusual cast iron brackets supported the second story lintel.  Above the entrance a cast panel originally advertised the Childs Restaurant, flanked by creative cast iron rope work that included intricate decorative knots.  The limestone façade included elaborately carved cartouches and an arched pediment (supported by the four projecting columns the Street Commission mulled over) that gave a pseudo-Palladian feel to the second story windows.

The slightly-projecting courses that provided rustication of sorts to the third through seventh floors performed cartwheels over the fourth openings, transforming into radiating voussoirs.

photo by Alice Lum
The new building filled with a variety of tenants:  P. F. Collier & Sons, publishers; cloakmaker Harris Blumenfield; Jalliet, “ladies tailoring; and E. de Grandemont, sellers of corset materials among them.   In June 1900 Luyties Homeopathic Pharmacy Company, headquartered in St. Louis, announced it had opened a “branch house” in New York here.   The company was experiencing heightened prosperity partly because of a mail-order tonic.

“The one thing that bids strongest to be a big factor in the earning of good dividends is our wonderful tonic-reconstructive, Manola,” a letter to stockholders reported.  “The sales of this excellent preparation have been something wonderful, considering the short time it has been on the market.  This splendid showing is due to its true value as a tonic reconstructive.”

Not all the customers of Manola used it as a reconstructive tonic.  When Daniel Coit Campbell, a farmer of Chesterfield, South Carolina was involved in a runaway wagon accident it triggered a court case and investigation.   Dr. Newsom testified on May 22, 1916 that, despite South Carolina's being a “dry territory,” “on the day of the runaway [Campbell] was mighty near drunk and had been drunk about all day.”
If the cod liver oil and Mani Nut extract did not make the user feel better, the 18% alcohol content almost surely would -- Homeopathic News, June 1900 (copyright expired)
Druggist W. G. White testified that Manola “contains 18 percent alcohol” and that Campbell had purchased a quantity of it that morning.  “When Campbell bought the Manola the witness had an idea what he wanted to do with it,” said court documents.

On March 15, 1906 Harry Blemenfield’s cloak and suit factory on the seventh floor caught fire around 4:45 a.m.  Fire engines rushed to the scene where, according to The Evening World, “fire was raging.”

The house of Dr. Warner, which No. 39 replaced, would have been similar to the brownstone that survives next door --photo by Alice Lum

The blaze caused consternation to the guests of the two nearby hotels.  “Next to this building is a Japanese boarding house and also the Continental Hotel.  The engines frightened the Japanese from their beds and they fled to the streets in Oriental costumes.  The guests of the Continental Hotel were also aroused.” 

Damage to the building was assessed at approximately $1,500.

By 1919 the Childs Restaurant’s lease ran out and Wilbur Veitch rented the store and basement level.  The Volunteers of America had been in the building for several years now, providing bread and coffee to impoverished New Yorkers.  The lines of desperate men, women and children gave rise to the well-known term “bread line.”

On February 24 1915 the Connecticut newspaper The Day reported “The bread line wends it way slowly into the zone of bread and coffee every evening from 5 to 7 o’clock.  Six hundred men and 40 women are fed each night.  Occasionally small children are brought with their parents.”

Especially heart-breaking was the 70-year old woman who had stood in line the night before.  “She said she had had nothing to eat for four days,” said The Day.  Rev. Alton M. Young, who ran the facility, gave her three cups of coffee, “all the bread she could eat and two loaves to take home.”

Sadly, the minister said the old woman’s plight was not unusual.  “Why, one day this week a refined, well dressed young woman came in here.  She said that she had come to this city from Philadelphia with $50, but her money was spent before she could find any work.  She was a milliner.  For nearly a week she had been walking around the city in search of employment.  We found a room for her and soon arranged to get her work.”

Various small manufacturers, like the Atlas Yarn Manufacturing Company which was here in the 1930s, came and went.   The building changed hands infrequently; once in 1920 when the Goroka Realty Company purchased it, and again in 1945 when William B. Cravis, manufacturer of washing machines, bought it.

Just as the Union Square neighborhood had changed a century earlier, it changed again by the end of the 20th century.   By the 1990s old loft and office buildings were being recycled as trendy restaurants and shops.   Young couples dined in the grand spaces of former banks and emporiums while factory space was renovated to luxurious apartments.

In 1990 No. 39 East 19th Street was converted to one spacious apartment per floor above street level.  Café Beulah opened in the former Childs Restaurant space.   Opened by former baritone opera singer Alexander Smalls, the restaurant quickly caught on.   Smalls called the food “Southern revival cuisine based on traditional low-country cooking” and Monte Williams of The New York Times said “The food is so highfalutin that the term ‘soul food’ isn’t even used.”

Café Beulah remained for nearly a decade, replaced in November 1999 by Caffe Adulis, a branch of the popular Eritean restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut.  The restaurant was redecorated and renamed Lumu three years later; to be replaced in 2004 by ORA, a Mediterranean-American restaurant.

Through it all most of Henri Fouchaux’s handsome neo-Renaissance design survives.   The cast iron ground floor entrance area has been replaced, but happily those carved pilasters that project three inches over the property line are intact.

No comments:

Post a Comment