Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Unrecognizable Smyth House --No. 44 West 34th Street

All traces of the original 1850s residence have been obliterated -- photo by Alice Lum

In the 1850s, while most of Manhattan’s wealthy citizens were living below 14th Street, brick or brownstone rowhouses began sprouting further uptown.   The neighborhood of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street--what had been the farm of John Thompson  only three decades earlier—was being settled by families of means.

Among these urban pioneers were Thomas M. Smyth and his wife, Elizabeth.  Their home at No. 44 West 34th Street was typical of the period, a dour brick structure with a wide stoop above an English basement.   Only a few years before brothers William and John Astor would build their matching, freestanding mansions down the block at Fifth Avenue, Thomas Smyth died.  In 1860, Elizabeth followed.  Her obituary in The New York Times called her the “relict of the late Thomas M. Smyth” and noted her funeral would be held in the house on Saturday, November 17.

The transformation of the neighborhood would be dramatic, swift, and temporary.  With the Astors came most of New York society.  By the 1870s Fifth Avenue was lined with extravagant mansions like the white marble palace of A. T. Stewart on the northwest corner of 34th Street.  For two decades the area would be the most exclusive residential neighborhood in the country.

For years during this time civil engineer James L. Greenleaf, an instructor in Engineering and Drawing at Columbia College lived in No. 44.

And then it all changed again.

In 1893 William Astor razed the mansion his father had built and in its place erected the hulking Waldorf Hotel.  It signaled the encroachment of “commerce” onto Fifth Avenue.  Rapidly millionaires abandoned their grand homes, fleeing northward up the avenue.  Among them was James Greenleaf.  The houses were either demolished or, at least for now, renovated for business use.

The house at 44 West 34th Street had already been used by a Democratic political organization as its headquarters when, in 1895 it was purchased by banker Charles H. Leland.  On June 18 he filed plans for altering the former dwelling at a cost of $16,000—a hefty $400,000 today.

Completed, the renovation left no trace of the former residence.  Five stories tall, it melded a variety of materials into an attractive and up-to-date commercial structure.  Above the retail space at street level, two floors were fronted in expansive cast metal show windows.  Swags and other decorative elements were embossed into the metal panels.

photo by Alice Lum

The upper two floors were treated as a unit, connected by long double-height arches separated by pilasters.  This upper portion, clad in Roman brick, gave nobility to the structure.  Brownstone trim and contrasting brick, along with the painted metal frames and spandrels, added visual interest.

Creative brickwork and contrasting colors were deftly used in creating a handsome facade -- photo by Alice Lum

On one of the upper floors was a large meeting hall which in May 1897 became the gathering place of the newly-formed Daughters of the Confederacy.  Only three decades after the end of the Civil War and squarely in the center of Yankee territory, their bravado seems surprising.  But their first “social meeting” was held here on May 19, a few days prior to unveiling the monument of the Confederate Veteran camp of New York at Mount Hope Cemetery.

The New-York Tribune noted that “The occasion took the form of a musical and was opened with a piano solo, “Maryland,” by Mrs. Newcombe, who insisted that the chairman should inform the ladies that she was eighty years old.  An encore was called for and Mrs. Newcombe played an old air that she learned when she was ten years old, and which she played after the Battle of Gettysburg for some wounded Confederate soldiers who had hobbled on crutches into her room.  It is a lively piece and made the soldiers feel so much like dancing that they were soon on their feet keeping time to it, notwithstanding the crutches.”

There were many other musical entertainments and before refreshments were served, Mrs. Henry J. Gielow of Alabama “gave an original sketch called “Mammy’s Reminiscences,’ being an exact and most amusing account of her last visit to her own ‘mammy.’”

While the ladies were reminiscing about Dixie, Professor R. D. De La Cortina was teaching languages on an upper floor.   He had established the Cortina Academy of Languages in 1882.  Along with his regular classes, the professor offered free courses in Spanish and French in the evenings.  “The school is designed for persons unable to pay for tuition,” noted the New-York Daily Tribune on October 2, 1897.

The Academy would stay on in the building for decades, offering classes for both sexes taught by “native specialists.”   By 1910 the school had devised the “Cortinaphone,” a variation of the Edison wax-cylinder photograph.   While students could still attended classes in French, German, Italian, Spanish “and all other modern languages,” a Cortinaphone could be taken home for a week’s free trial.

Advertisements promised that the instrument provided “Language outfits for study without teacher. Quick, easy, satisfactory method.”

The Cortinaphone afforded self-instruction -- New-York Tribune January 30, 1910 (copyright expire)
In the meantime the building filled with a variety of tenants.  Architectural firm Barney & Chapman established its offices here around the turn of the century, and in 1904 Leland leased the basement, store and second floor to the Apollo Company. 

The Apollo Company had been on Fifth Avenue where it displayed its player pianos. The 34th Street store was roomier and, as a May 1904 advertisement in the New-York Tribune noted, was “near the Waldorf.”

The ad boasted of the new store.  “Every day people tell us: ‘Why, I didn’t know the Apollo has a home like this!’  It didn’t, till lately.  The old home on Fifth Avenue was crowded.  Couldn’t see the Apollo half right.  Now you can.  Forty-four West 34th Street is somewhere near large enough for the business we are doing.”

The firm promise that its player piano was better than those of its competitors.  “The best is the Apollo.  Better construction to begin with, and the simplest—a child may play it.  Touch is perfect, and the expression easily governed.  But it’s too big a subject to go into here,” said an advertisement.

Beginning immediately the Apollo Company noted its location as the “Apollo Building, 44 West 34th Street.”  Interestingly enough, the Cortina Academy of Languages advertised its address as the “Cortina Bldg., 44 West 34th Street.”

Where player pianos were once displayed, unsightly advertisements are plastered on the windows.  The pressed metal panels survive. -- photo by Alice Lum

Two years after Apollo moved in J. G. Goldsmith seemed to have big ideas for the site.  One by one he began buying up the adjoining properties.  When he bought the building in July of 1906, The New York Times noted that “He already holds Nos. 46 and 48, and, with No. 44, he now has a frontage of 75 feet on Thirty-fourth Street, just east of Broadway.”

If Goldsmith had grand designs on replacing the structures with a large commercial building, they never materialized.

In 1912 George F. Sultzbach and his son Isidor moved their men’s clothing business into the building.  Sultzbach Clothing went under the trade name “George” and would be here for several years. 

Isidor and his wife lived with his parents in their large home at No. 601 West 115th Street.   While their husbands were busy at work on West 34th Street on July 15, 1913 the Sultzbach women and a friend, Rosa Gerson, took a drive along the Bronx Park Road.

Their touring car was approached by northbound automobiles at a particularly narrow point in the road where there was a steep incline.  “The chauffeur of the southbound car turned his machine out to one side of the road to make way, and when he did so his car skidded to the grass on the side of the road, struck a tree and overturned,” reported The New York Times.

The passengers were all expelled from the vehicle.  The crash was so loud that, luckily, it attracted the attention of a nearby policeman, Patrolman Gross.  He found "one of the women passengers lying unconscious beside the overturned car and another badly bruised and cut," reported The TimesRosa Gerson suffered a fractured skull and lacerations and both she and the elder Mrs. Sulzbach were taken to Fordham Hospital.

The injured women eventually recovered; however the Sulzbachs now had the uncomfortable duty to explain to Max Scott what had happened to his motorcar.  Scott was a fur dealer who had given Mrs. Sultzbach ”the use of his automobile during his absence in Europe.”

Professor Cortina was still in the building and was by now also operating the Concordia Publishing Company here.  The firm printed “test books for all modern languages.”  As World War I erupted, the Academy produced foreign language booklets for doughboys.

“The technical vocabularies and the conversational exercises in the little Cortina French-English Military Manual prepared by Jean A. Picard (The Cortina Academy of Languages, New York) should be very useful to soldiers who already know some French,” said The Sun on August 25, 1917.  “Those who do not are referred to other text books and to a phonograph system of instruction devised by the same firm.  The lists accompanied by pictures that show the objects and parts designated by the words and the selections of modern war slang are especially useful.”

In 1916 apparel firms moved in, including the Royal Art Embroidery Co. and Bloodgood Tuttle.  The same year the Delilah Company leased space for its clinic.  It touted itself as “specialists in the removal of superfluous hair, warts, moles and facial blemishes.”  The company promised “No pain, no scar, permanent results.”

As 34th Street continue to change, No. 44 was little effected.  In 1919 Mrs. N. Richards opened her dress operation here, under the name Alpheus, Inc.   A major renovation to street level came in 1945 when the Bank for Savings opened a branch office, obliterating any remaining first floor architecture.  Then, through the 1950s a Red Cross Shoe store was here.

The renovated Smyth house is largely overlooked.  In May 1990 the owners thought it a good idea to “propose to legalize two apartments on the 5th floor,” according to Department of Buildings records.  Today the ground floor retail space no longer bears any relation to the upper floors, which are remarkably intact and somewhat sadly ignored.


  1. Eric Stott here... I was surprised to find that Cortina is still in business!

    1. Wow. That is surprising. I wonder if I can pick up a Cortinaphone!