Friday, November 1, 2013

The 1893 G. Gennert Bldg -- Nos. 24-26 East 13th Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1889 East 13th Street just off Fifth Avenue was changing.  The block had shared the fashionable reputation of not only the elegant avenue, but of Union Square, just a block to the north.   Since the time of the Civil War refined homes had lined the East 13th Street between Fifth Avenue and University Place; but by now commerce was quickly overtaking the neighborhood.

The house at No. 24 East 13th Street still clung on in 1889 and was home to Francis Doyle.  The 22-year old man stopped into a nearby saloon at No. 58 University Place before 9:00 a.m. on August 26 that year.   He would regret his early morning drinking.

Ernest Schultz was the bartender that morning and he toyed with a 38-calibre revolver behind the bar.  The New York Times reported the following day that “Schultz was snapping the hammer of the revolver and at the third snap the revolver went off, the bullet striking Doyle in the heart.”  The bartender was arrested and Doyle was removed to the New-York Hospital. Francis Doyle recovered, but he would not remain much longer at No. 24 East 13th Street.   

Thirty-three years earlier Gottlieb Gennert and his brother arrived in America from Braunschweig, Germany.   In 1854 they established a photographic supply house on Maiden Lane--one of the first  in America.  The Gennert brothers quickly became well known for daguerreotype mats and cases and other photographic supplies.

Around 1860, as the daguerreotype lessened in popularity, the brothers made a dramatic career change.  They took their knowledge of sugar beet refining to Chatsworth, Illinois, where they founded the Germania Sugar Refining Company.   Then, following the Civil War, Gottlieb returned with his wife and four sons to pursue his true passion—photography.

Living in Jersey City, in 1869 he opened a photography shop in Manhattan.  G. Gennert became one of the foremost experts in photography in the country.  The Photographic Journal of America said of him “Mr. Gennert needs no introduction to our readers.  He has been established since 1854 as an importer and manufacturer of photographic materials and apparatus, and is one of the acknowledged leaders in that line of business.”

G. Gennert was doing business at No. 54 East 10th Street; however by 1892 the firm, now run by his sons Maurice G. and Gustav C., had severely outgrown the space.  They purchased Doyle’s house on East 13th Street and the property next door at No. 26 as the site of their own building.  Completed a year later the Beaux Arts structure exuded Belle Époque opulence in a store-and-loft building.

Balconies, polished granite columns, arched French windows and elaborate spandrel decorations created an especially attractive 1890s commercial facade -- photo by Alice Lum

The G. Gennert business was established in the street level, second floor, and basement and leased out the upper floors.  The Photographic Journal of America praised the “handsome business structure” saying “As to the building itself, it can honestly be said that it is a model one in every sense of the words.”

The periodical said of the six-story structure, “It is of handsome and artistic exterior, the materials used being light buff brick and terra cotta trimmings.  Polished granite pillars lend dignity and impressiveness to the first floor.  In solidity of construction and in perfection of lighting, this building surpasses any other of its class yet erected in New York.”
photo by Alice Lum

Gennert had two electric elevators installed in the building.  Girders were carried on cast iron columns footed in concrete 12 feet below street level.  The substantial construction did not escape the note of The Photographic Journal which mentioned “To those who are familiar with the flimsy construction and gloomy darkness of the older business structures of New York, the Gennert Building will come as a revelation, with its solid iron pillars, massive beams, and floods of light.”

The solid construction would prove essential a few years later.  In the spring of 1905 vibrations on the sixth floor of the building became so strong and worrisome that tenants threatened to leave.  Ongoing investigations finally pinpointed the source—the Carey Printing Company building 190 feet west of the Gennert Building.  The massive printing presses on the upper floors of that building were sending vibrations through the intervening three- and four-story houses and into the Gennert Building.  A court order resulted in the Carey Company adjusting their presses to eliminate the vibrations.  In the meantime an engineer’s inspection of the Gennert Building showed “that the building was in excellent condition without evidences of undue settlement or cracks.”  The Engineering Record, Building Record and Sanitary Engineer attributed the structure’s resistance to the vibrations to its being “considered to be a well constructed, mill type, loft building.”

In 1893 while Gennert’s building was being constructed the City assessed the property at $25,000.  His fine-looking edifice greatly enhanced the value.  A year later when the structure was completed and filled with tenants, that tax valuation had doubled to $50,000. 

G. Gennert managed to keep itself on the cutting edge of photographic technology.  In January 1894 Wilson’s Photographic Magazine noted “metol is rapidly making its way to the front rank among developers…Mr. G. Gennert, 24 East Thirteenth Street, New York City, the importer of metol, has therefore arranged to send all who apply for it, and enclose ten cents for postage, a free sample.”  The magazine added “It is well worth a trial.”

An advertisement featured a sketch of the new building  (copyright expired)
Gennert not only imported and sold photographic equipment and materials, he invented some of them.   In May 1896 The Brochure Series of Architectural Illustration made note of the Architectural Montauk Photographic Camera made by G. Gennert which was given as third prize in the “Brochure Series Competition.”  The model was for serious photographers, selling for $65—about $1,500 today.

Gennert devised and sold an entire line of "Montauk" cameras like this one.  photo from The Brochure Series of Architectural Competition, May 1896 (copyright expired)
Gennert published a general catalogue of the photographic apparatus and supplies offered at his 13th Street store.  In 1900 The New Photo-Miniature advised “Readers who would be well informed of what is new and desirable will do well to send five cents for copies of these attractive lists.”

The catalog included a depiction of the new building -- copyright expired

Gottlieb Gennert died in 1901; but the firm continued to offer revolutionary products under his sons’ supervision.  The following year The American Amateur Photographer noted that Gennert had introduced a “sensitized collodion emulsion for three-color and general reproduction work.”  The magazine said that “Up to the present time negatives for these processes have been made by the old wet collodion method.  The new emulsion does away with the troublesome silver bath, is six times more rapid than wet collodion, and is orthochromatic.  The introduction of this specialty has long been desired, and it will undoubtedly meet with general appreciation among those for whom it is intended.”

The oval widows above the side entrance doors epitomize Belle Epoque taste -- photo by Alice Lum

Upstairs, tenant Otto Heinigke of Heinigke and Bowen was as well-known as his landlord.   The firm produced high-end stained glass and mosaic works for commercial, religious and residential buildings.  Otto Heinigke had studied art at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, originally intending that easel painting would be his life’s work.  But after working with the stained glass firm of Roger Riordan, he decided on stained glass and mosaics.  In 1890 he partnered with Owen J. Bowen who had worked with both Louis Tiffany and John La Farge.

Heinigke and Bowen's advertisement appeared in the Catalogue of Architectural Exhibitions in 1901 (copyright expired)
Within only a short time the firm was doing work for the preeminent architects of the day, including McKim, Mead & White; James Renwick; John Russell Pope; Cass Gilbert; Adams Cram; York and Sawyer and others.   The firm would be responsible for all the stained glass in the Library of Congress and the Woolworth Building, as examples.

In July 1905 The Architectural Record commented on the leaded glass windows Heinigke and Bowen executed for George Gould’s summer house in Lakewood, New Jersey.  “Perhaps no one has ever given more thought and attention to the leading of white glass than Mr. Otto Heinigke, of Heinigke and Bowen…He shows that charming and interesting effects can be obtained without color, or by an exceedingly spare use of it, and great refinement and style gained by a careful study of lead lines alone.”
One of the magnificent windows produced for George Gould's summer estate -- photo The Architectural Record, July 1905 (copyright expired)
By now photography was a major industry and G. Gennert and other independent firms were fighting the mammoth Eastman Kodak Company for a slice of the business.  When Kodak was charged with controlling the industry, Gustave Gennert appeared as a government witness on June 25, 1914.

He testified that “The Eastman Kodak Company controls 80 per cent of the country’s photographic business and the independents have the rest.”  The New York Times reported that “Mr. Gennert also raised a storm of protest from the Eastman attorneys when he testified that in 1911 he went to Europe to procure raw materials for making a collodion printing paper, only to find that none of the large firms would sell to him."

“The whole reason for the refusal of this European paper trust was that I was not concerned with the Eastman Company,” he said.

The bitter battle between Gennert and Eastman Kodak would rage on for years.  On August 14, 1921 The New York Times reported that “G. Gennert, manufacturer and importer of photographic apparatus brought a ‘treble damage’ suit for $6,000,000 in the United States District Court yesterday against the Eastman Company.”  The suit accused Kodak of a “scheme and design to injure and ruin the business of plaintiff by illegal and monopolistic methods.”

G. Gennert moved on to West 22nd Street by 1931.  Throughout the next few decades its handsome building would see the comings and goings of several small offices and manufacturers; yet apart from a necessary but unsightly fire escape, little of the outward appearance of the building was changed.
Close inspection reveals handsome spandrel ornamentation and fluted columns beneath an unfortunate paint job -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1974 a renovation created eight apartments per floor above second floor with a sports club in the basement, first and second floors.   The Beaux Arts façade of balconies, blind balustrades and polished granite columns still commands a second glance from passersby on East 13th Street.


  1. Do you know who Gottlieb Gennert hired as the architect for 24-26 East 13th Street?

    1. Yes. That should have been in the article. Sorry. It was De Lemos & Cordes.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. The architect was named in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide

    4. Thanks again. Your post was very helpful.

  2. Thanks for this article. Gottlieb Gennert is my 3rd great uncle and this was wonderful to read about his accomplishments.