|The Chickering piano manufacturers may have added the enormous facsimiles of their 1867 Paris Exhibition medals simply to annoy the Steinway firm down the street -- photo by Alice Lum
In the last decade of the 19th century West 57th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues was a tony residential street with Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s massive chateau at the corner. The brownstone-fronted residences were home to some of New York’s wealthiest citizens. This was evident in 1893 when No. 29 West 57th Street sold for $120,000—about $3 million today.
That house would be home to Howard Gould and his wife in 1899 and, by 1910, to Mr. and Mrs. John S. Rogers. Mrs. Rogers had been Catherine A. C. Dodge prior to the wedding.
But by the time the Rogers were living here the neighborhood was drastically changing as the grand homes were sacrificed to commercial interests. In 1919 a Department of Buildings law was passed that, according to The New York Times, “liberalized the restrictions that formerly obtained at the turning of private homes into apartment houses." The houses at Nos. 27 and 29 were internally joined and converted to upscale “studio” apartments targeted for the growing population of artists in the area.
On December 2, 1920 the joined houses were home to a variety of artistic tenants. Mrs. Harold Boswell Reid lived here. She was a concert operatic singer and the former wife of David Howard, “British peer.” Her current husband was a Canadian manufacturer. Art student Annette Bracy lived on the third floor. There were theater people in the building like 20-year old motion picture actress Mrs. Victor Lescomb and Betty Jones, a actress formerly of the London stage who was also 20-years old.
Mrs. Lescomb had just arrived in New York on the Cunard steamer Aquitania from London where her husband, Victor Lescomb, was connected with Lloyd’s of London.
On Sixth Avenue was the mammoth entertainment venue, The Hippodrome, and building resident Dr. Martin Potter was veterinarian there. Potter had been with the Hippodrome for 15 years, beginning when he supplied the horses for the epic production of “Ben Hur” there. When the show toured England, he appeared before the King. Like Mrs. Reid, Dr. Potter was well-to-do and owned a stable of race horses and a country home in Stamford, Connecticut.
In May the year before, an application was made to the Building Department for interior alterations. The once-imposing staircases in both houses were removed between the first and second floors to afford more living space. A passageway between the two houses at the second floor enabled residents to access the automatic elevator in No. 27. Without the staircases, the small elevator was the only way in or out.
It was a bad idea.
Around 5:30 on the morning of December 2, 1920 Annette Bracy awoke to find her room filled with smoke. She hurled a book through the window glass and screamed “fire.” Her screams awakened Mrs. Oceani Coyle who owned the buildings and the two women rushed through the hallways arousing the tenants. In the meantime Irving Coyle, her husband, ran to Sixth Avenue and 57th Street and turned in the alarm.
The residents rushed to escape the burning building; but were trapped. As the flames swept through the aged buildings, five residents were burned to death—Mrs. Harold Boswell Reid, the opera singer, and her 30-year old sister, Mrs. Jessie Jenkins; the silent film actress Mrs. Victor Lescomb; Betty Jones and Dr. Potter.
Firefighters found a grisly scene. “The body of Mrs. Lescomb was the first discovered. It was found, badly charred, lying on the third floor landing, which she had reached from her fourth floor suite in an effort to get to the fire door on the landing below. The bodies of Mrs. Reid and her sister were found outside Mrs. Reid’s top-floor apartment. Deputy Chief Ross found the body of Dr. Potter also just outside his door, while the badly burned body found on the third floor landing was identified as that of Miss Betty Jones, a friend of Mrs. Lescomb,” reported The New York Times.
Astonishingly, a few days later while searching through the debris police found Mrs. Reid’s jewelry in the ashes. “Up to the time of the finding of the gems a theory had obtained the fatal fire had been started by a robbery to cover the theft of the jewels,” reported The Times.
“The jewels found included two large diamond rings, a pearl necklace, three pearl rings and two diamond-studded combs…The jewels were unharmed by the flames, and they will probably be turned over to Mrs. Reid’s daughter, Miss Helen Howard, who is a student in a private school at Fifth Avenue and Eighty-fifth Street.” (That would have been the Marymount School in the Jonathon Thorne mansion, purchased by the school that same year.)
Further west on 57th Street at the time was the handsome Steinway Building which included Steinway Hall, a concert hall erected specifically to show off the manufacturer’s pianos. Further south on Fifth Avenue and 18th Street was the competing Chickering Hall, a similar auditorium built in 1875 for performances flaunting the Chickering piano.
Over half a century earlier Chickering had been awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. It was an impressive feather in the Chickering cap and one the manufacturer would long bally-ho.
By the time of the tragic fire on West 57th Street, the entertainment district had moved far north of the 2,000-seat Chickering Hall. The charred site of Nos. 27 and 29 West 57th Street was purchased and architects Cross & Cross were commissioned to design a new office and showroom building.
The 13-story building was completed in 1924. What would have been a tepid design was heated up by ambitious ornamentation in the form of giant caryatids at the upper floors and, hiding the elevator housing, overblown bas relief reproductions of the 1867 medals. In his New York From the Air, author John Tauranac suggests that the medals were used not only to beautify the water tower, but to nettle Steinway.
|photo by Alice Lum
Unlike its former home or the Steinway Building down the street the new Chickering Hall would not contain a true concert venue. Instead a suite of “model rooms” displayed pianos and allowed potential customers to hear them.
The building was home to the American Piano Company. The firm not only produced its own pianos, but was the major stockholder in the piano firms of Foster Armstrong, Mason & Hamlin, Knabe and Chickering. Also at No. 29 was a variety of tenants, including Dr. J. Roswell Hasbrouck, Dr. J. K. Hoornbeek and Dr. R. Salmon, dentists who occupied a suite of offices on the 12th floor. In 1926 Dr. Hashbrouck hired 19-year old Gladys Richardson as a dental attendant. The girl lived with her mother and sister at No. 22 East 89th Street in the fashionable neighborhood just off Central Park.
|Giant golden caryatids, some winged, hold musical instruments--photo by Alice Lum
A year later, in January, Gladys’ co-workers noticed that she was “despondent;” possibly over their boss’s upcoming January 8 trip to Bermuda. With the doctor gone, Gladys would be temporarily out of a job.
On Sunday morning January 30, three weeks after Hasbrouck left for his extended vacation, Gladys left her home with her pet bulldog, Bunny. Before leaving she threatened suicide, according to her mother.
Gladys never returned home and that evening Mrs. Richardson went to the dentist office in the Chickering Building, but it was locked. The following morning when Dr. Hoornbeck arrived shortly after 8 a.m., he smelled a strong odor of gas coming from the Hasbrouck offices. Using surgical instruments he picked the lock.
On the floor Gladys lay dead. The Times reported that “Close to her face was the end of a tube hanging from a jet with the gas turned on full. Lying near the body of his mistress was that of “Bunny” a brindle bulldog, its nose pressed against a crack in the door.”
Only four years after moving in the American Piano Company moved out. The firm consolidated the retail departments of the four piano companies under its control and opened new showrooms on Fifth Avenue and 47th Street in the Ampico Tower Building. “The change…involves the discontinuance of Chickering Hall erected four years ago,” said The Times.
The building was leased by The Curtiss Flying Service, Inc. Suddenly the Chickering Hall became the Curtiss Building and the musical instrument industry was replaced with aviation. The Curtiss group took up four floors in the building—three through five and the thirteenth. Transcontinental Air Transport moved in as well, and the second floor was rented to WRNY radio station.
|The sloping facade of the modern 9 West 57th Street building politely steps back to afford a better view of the Chickering structure -- photo by Alice Lum
The building had an unusual visitor on November 11, 1935. Around 9 a.m. someone noticed a full-grown blue peacock feeding with the pigeons on the roof of a five-story building at No. 40 West 58th Street. Police officer William Burke climbed to the roof and two other policemen, John Duffy and John Leonhardt went to nearby roofs. The peacock was wise to the lurking cops.
It flew to the top of the Bergdorf-Goodman building, followed by the men in blue. “The policemen climbed after it,” reported The New York Times, “but another flight took the peacock to a window sill on the thirteenth floor of the Chickering Building, 29 West Fifty-seventh Street.”
The wild goose chase—or in this case peacock chase—intensified. “A full-grown, full-winged blue peacock flew over the fashionable shopping district at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street yesterday morning and started three patrolmen, three men from the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, two attendants from the Central Park Zoo and reporters and photographers on a chase that lasted three hours and ended on top of the Plaza Hotel,” reported The Times the following day.
After hours of being chased, the peacock solved its own problem. It flew over Central Park and landed among the zoo’s peacocks—all females. The bird was held there awaiting its owner—presumed to be a penthouse resident in the area.
In September 1936 WRNY was joined by two other radio stations—WHOM and WSAB, both owned by the New Jersey Broadcasting Company. The stations spent $75,000 constructing and outfitting sound studios and equipping the two floors of space with new equipment.
The building earned a new name again in January 1938 when about half of it was leased to the Aeolian Company. For over a decade it would be known as Aeolian Hall.
On November 1, 1942 Mayor Fiorella La Guardia was on air in the studio of WHOM urging Italian-Americans to vote for the American Labor Party candidate for Governor, Dean Alfange. The mayor spoke in Italian and passionately defended the socialist-founded group. “The American Labor Party is the party of protest. We shall protest to protect our interests. This is not an election of personalities.”
The building was sold in 1946 to the Roman Catholic Archbishopric of New York to house the offices of Catholic Charities. The church resold it in 1950 to I. Jerome Riker for $1.3 million. The British automobile manufacturer, Austin Company, moved into the ground floor and the structure once again was renamed: Austin House. Riker resold it just two years later for $2.2, about double what he originally paid.
It was here in 1965 that Virginia Dwan opened her art gallery, one of Manhattan’s most progressive dealers in modern art at the time. Two years later, in November, she launched the first private exhibition of Robert Smithson’s sculpture.
|Some critics found the regilding a bit too glitzy -- photo by Alice Lum
During the latter part of the 20th century the spectacular horn-blowing caryatids and the window spandrels were regilded, prompting some critics to use words like “garish” and “gaudy.” But Cross & Cross’s exuberant design, with the colossal Crosses of the Legion of Honor high above the street, is a conspicuous beauty on the block.
Little wonder a peacock would choose it as a place to roost.
UPDATE: The building was demolished in 2016.
UPDATE: The building was demolished in 2016.