Saturday, November 30, 2013

The 1870 Germania Life Insurance Bldg -- No. 357 Bowery

photo by Alice Lum

On the Fourth of July in 1870 The New York Times noted that the Germania Life Insurance Company proposed to build “one building for offices” at No. 357 Bowery.  The site was in the center of what was called Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.  Here immigrants, mostly German, crowded into tenement buildings and the streets around the Bowery and Third Avenue teemed with German music and social halls, beer gardens and theaters.

The Germania Life Insurance Company was founded in 1859 by wealthy German-born New Yorkers.   Its new headquarters, completed within three months of The Times’ announcement, was designed by Carl Pfeiffer, himself a German immigrant.   The architect had recently designed the nearby Metropolitan Savings Bank on the Bowery and within a few years would be responsible for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in the heart of the city’s mansion district.

The hefty red brick structure, costing $15,000, sat above a high basement.  Ornamentation was reserved and nearly somber, relying mostly on creative brickwork.  The building’s most eye-catching feature was its steep slate-shingled mansard with its angular triplex dormer.   Germania Life Insurance’s first floor office was flooded in natural light that entered through the cast iron store front.
Slate shingles originally covered the mansard roof -- photo by Alice Lum

Although The Times described the firm’s proposed headquarters as “for offices,” the upper floors would include small apartments for working class renters.   It is possible that Germania Life purposefully misrepresented the building to side-step tenement building laws—like the inclusion of fire escapes.

The apartments quickly filled.  Three months after the building’s completion there were nine tenants—among them butcher William Bennett; insurance agent William Clifton (possibly involved with Germania); actress Geneva Withers; and Fred Stevens, who manufactured whips.   Before the decade was up the increasingly mixed ethnic nature of the neighborhood was reflected in the tenant list:  Wah Hing and Chung Kong ran a laundry business; Frank Goebels was a Prussian-born photographer; barber Henry Schalaifer was a German immigrant who lived here with his wife; John and Margaret Brown were from Ireland.  A tailor named William was in the building in 1877.

Even though Germania Life Insurance built and owned its handsome building, it merely leased the land on which it stood from the Doughty family.  Ten years after construction was completed, the firm moved northward one block to No. 367 Bowery.   The offices at No. 357 were taken by a dentist, most likely Dr. Adolph Faber who was still here in 1890.  The doctor ran into trouble over a false tooth on May 29, 1886.

On Friday May 28 Mary Nelson dropped off her damaged tooth for repairs.  She came back the next day, accompanied by friends Annie Lawlor and John Hogan.  She was visibly upset when the dentist informed her the tooth was not quite ready.  The trio verbally assaulted the dentist and left, promising to return within the hour.

The threats were such that an policeman was called, who hid behind a screen in the doctor’s office.  Sure enough, Mary and her cohorts returned thirty minutes later.  The New York Times reported that “Mary Nelson then claimed that the tooth did not fit, and Hogan told the dentist in vigorous language that he had a mind to put a bullet in his head.  He relented of that purpose, however, as he had left his pistol at home, but tried to put the dentist through the window of the store.”

As Hogan struggled to toss the doctor through the window glass, the officer emerged from behind the screen and attempted to arrest Hogan who “assaulted him and tore the wreath from his hat.”  Hogan was nevertheless arrested and held at $500 for assaulting the policeman; the women were both fined $10 (about $225, today) by the judge.

The original double doors and the storefront through which Dr. Faber was nearly ejected still survive -- photo by Alice Lum

Two years after the ugly affair in the dentist’s office, the Bauer family lived upstairs.  Valentine Bauer was a dealer in “wines, liquors, and beer,” and his little daughter Julia repeatedly was listed as the head of her class in Primary School No. 6.  The Bauers would be in the building for at least a decade.

Along with the Bauers in the building was trussmaker John J. Nabra who suffered a paralytic stroke in 1896 that resulted in partial paralysis and blindness.  Miraculously, Nabra slowly regained his eyesight and, according to The Sun, “despite his right side being helpless, became able to attend to his business again.”

Two years later, however, tragedy struck.  The 54-year old experienced a violent headache late in February 1896.  As the pain increased, his eyesight began failing.  The thought of losing his sight again was apparently too much for the man to take.  “With his failing sight his mind had weakened,” the newspaper said.

The New York Times noted that the headache increased daily.  “It bothered him only slightly at first, but grew worse.  But he kept on attending to the store duties until Thursday [March 5].  Then he had to take to his bed.  The pain became agonizing and his eyes grew noticeably filmy.”

As his eyesight continued to fail, so did his mind.  He refused help and when medicines were offered, he hurled them away.   By Thursday night Nabra was once again completely blind.  “He talked to himself after a mumbling fashion,” said The Times, “but what he said could not be made out.”

On Mrs. Nabra’s request, two doctors from the German Hospital came to the apartment and examined him.  They declared him “not a fit subject for their treatment” and left.    The frantic woman then called for Dr. Charles Lellmann who advise the patient be sent to Bellevue Hospital.  “The ambulance surgeon said that the sick man was insane and took him to the insane pavilion at Bellevue,” reported The Times.

The Sun ran the headline on March 7, 1896 “Stricken Blind and Mad – Mr. Nabra Loses His Sight and His Senses on the Same Day.”

As the new century dawned, there were 22 tenants in the building.  German-born George Baumiller was a hat maker and lived here with his wife Catharine and their seven children. Another trussmaker, Gustav Barth had moved in with his Hungarian born wife, Catherine, and her brother and sister.  There were five Russians in the building at the time—a reflection of a new wave of immigration.

At the same time, commercial tenants were beginning to take space.  In 1903 the N.Y. Copying House moved in – makers of photographic enlargements.  The former insurance office-turned dentist office was now a saloon.  In February 1904 excise investigators swept the city for businesses selling liquor on Sunday.  Their notes reported that “Otto Schmidt’s place closed on Sunday,” as the law required.

Schmidt’s saloon included a pool table and, as turn of the century mothers and fathers were apt to warn their sons, such places were traps for na├»ve young men.  Max Jacoby, described by The Sun on December 19, 1904 as “a young German,” was scammed out of $102.50 here by “trick and device in a game of fifteen ball pool.”

Jacoby later told a judge that he had gotten into a conversation on the Bowery with a stranger who invited him to play pool at No. 357 Bowery.  “There he became acquainted with the ‘lemon gag,’” said the newspaper, “which has superseded three card monte on the Bowery and which is usually operated for the benefit of foreigners.”

As the men played pool, a stranger approached who bragged that he could beat anyone at the lemon game—a pool game by which the winner puts the yellow ball in the pocket.   Jacoby, who made his living as a clerk, was urged by his new-found friend to play the stranger “for $2.50 a side.”  He did.  And he lost.

Now the friend prompted Jacoby to double the bet and that he would help him win.  Jacoby left the bar and withdrew $100 from a bank.  When he returned the manager came to the table and offered to hold the stakes.  When Jacoby gave the manager his $100, the other player told his friend to go get his money for him.  After the game was played, all three men—the opponent, Jacoby’s new friend, and the manager—ran from the saloon.

Jacoby realized at that point that the “manager” was a fraud and that he had been taken.  He also learned a valuable life lesson.  After the men were apprehended and appeared in court with Jacoby and he testified, the judge asked him “If you had won, would you have made a complaint?”

“I didn’t win,” replied Jacoby.

“You must come to court with clean hands.  The prisoner is discharged,” announced the judge.

By now there were fewer residents and more commercial tenants in the building.  In 1906 the Globe Hat Frame Co. was here and only Gustav and Catherine Barth were still living upstairs.  In 1908 Adolph Wahrman got in trouble when investigators found he was employing a child under 16 years of age “without Board of Health certificate.”   That year Charles Barkhauser was operating the saloon in the building.

There was a brief resurgence of residential tenants by 1910—three families were living here including Alfred Sheppard, a cook, and five German immigrant boarders—two waiters, a cook, a horseshoer and a brushmaker—and the Russian-Jewish Harbeck family, Harry a clothing manufacturer, his wife Ida and their three children.  In 1918 James S. Hull was here.  He was the keeper of the Marble Cemetery on Second Avenue nearby.

The address can still be read in the ghost of a painted sign that probably stretched the width of the second floor -- photo by Alice Lum

But by 1920 there were no residents left and the building was entirely commercial.  Among the tenants were M. Perlman & Co.; L. Becker & Sons (Louis and his sons Jacob and Morris); and the National Crockery Company.

In 1926, the Doughty family sold the property and three years later it was resold to the Laraia and Pellettiere families.  They replaced the original rear extension with a full-height addition that extended to the property line and installed an Otis freight elevator.

The Lairas were manufacturers of beauty and barber equipment and in 1931 the building was mainly taken over by the Rocco Laraia & Company (briefly renamed Laraia & Pellettiere in mid-century).  Although it shared space with minor tenants throughout the decades—a mirror company, a wire products manufacturer, a roofer and an upholsterer—Rocco Laraia & Company would be the main occupant of No. 357 Bowery into the 1970s.  In 1964 a renovation was done inside the building resulting in the Department of Buildings describing it as “factory, storage and office space.”

As the Bowery neighborhood was rediscovered by artists and musicians in the 1970s, the former factory spaces were quietly used as residences once again.  One artist resident, Ingo Swann, partnered with Warren E. Spieker, Jr. in 1979 to purchase the building. 

Swann was more than a mere artist.  Also an author and psychic he became well known for co-creating Remote Viewing with Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff.   The process, which interested the Central Intelligence Agency, involves subjects mentally viewing a location with no more information than its geographical coordinates.
photo by Alice Lum

Today the landmarked building has returned to its original purpose—commercial space on the first floor and apartments above.   While a bit time-worn, it retains an astonishing amount of its original architectural elements—such as the original wood and glass entrance doors and the 1870 storefront.  It is a remarkable survivor of a time when German was the prevalent language on the surrounding streets.


  1. In the book, "Man of Miracles: The Transcendent Ingo Swann", there is mention that he knew (psychically) when the google camera would be coming by his street and he sat on the steps of 356 Bowery and has his photo in the google archive. Is this photo available?