Friday, December 20, 2013

The 1888 Schermerhorn Building -- Nos. 376-380 Lafayette Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1888 Henry Janeway Hardenberg was doing well for himself.  The 41-year old architect’s practice was nearly two decades old and he had designed impressive New York City structures like the Dakota Apartments, the Western Union Telegraph Building, and a number of residences on the Upper West Side.  His massive Waldorf and Astoria hotels, the regal Plaza Hotel and other iconic structures were still to come; but for now he focused on the corner of Great Jones and Lafayette Streets.

Until recently, the mansion of William Colford Schermerhorn had stood on the property.  The American Architect and Building News called Schermerhorn “one of the most conspicuous members of the group, now rapidly diminished, of representatives of the old Knickerbocker families who…form an aristocracy of which this country may well be proud.”  Intensely interested in art and architecture, Schermerhorn was an officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and had founded the Architectural Department of Columbia University.

Schermerhorn and his wife, Anne, lived in the commodious residence until 1860, when they moved northward to 23rd Street off Fifth Avenue.  William donated the old family mansion to Columbia University for its Law School.

In 1887, with business buildings crowding in, Hardenberg was commissioned to design commercial structure for the site.  (William Schermerhorn was apparently pleased with the results; for four years later he demolished the mansion of his brother, Edmund, and rehired the architect to replace it with a mercantile building.)
photo by Alice Lum

Completed in 1888, Hardenberg’s building was a chunky block of brick, brownstone, and granite in a most interesting take on Romanesque Revival.  Squat columns, as if being squashed by the weight of the building, supported the hefty six-story pile.   The severe contrast between the four-story bays of dark brick and the buff colored brick of the upper floors and ends of the building relieved the visual heaviness of the design.

Carved brownstone further enhanced the façade in the form of decorative panels, finials, and delightful large heads above the capital of the piers.  Between the second and third stories Hardenberg introduced Gothic to Renaissance with carved arches topped with ornate finials.

photo by Alice Lum

A few months after its completion the Real Estate Record & Guide deemed the new Schermerhorn Building “a creditable work” and “as things go, it is very good indeed.”

The building filled with a variety of tenants, including a boy’s clothing manufactory.  But the name of none of them would become so closely linked with the building as that of Bishop-Babcock-Becker.

Delightfully squat columns uphold the hefty structure -- photo by Alice Lum

In 1915 the Cleveland-based firm signed a lease for the store and basement of the Schermerhorn Building “for a long term of years.”  The firm sold restaurant and soda fountain supplies and on August 1, 1916 its new showroom was completed.  It invited customers through The Brewers’ Journal while naming its extensive list of goods:

“We want you to see our splendid new offices, and the handsomest and largest soda fountain and carbonator display room in the world.  In our conveniently located new home, at 376-380 Lafayette Street, we have over 20,000 square feet of floor space—nearly 12,000 feet for displaying the famous ‘Red Cross’ Soda Fountains, ‘Eureka’ Carbonators and Soda Fountain Supplies and Fixtures.  Several thousand feet more are used for displaying ‘Eureka’ Automatic Bottle Fillers, Bottlers’ Equipment and Supplies, Beer Pumps and Beer Drawing Apparatus of all kinds.  ‘Eureka’ Water Pumps and Systems, ‘Reliable’ Vacuum and Vacu-Vapor Heating Equipment, Oxy-Acetylene Welding and Cutting Apparatus, etc.  You will surely find something of interest in the many lines of BBB products.”

Bishop-Babcock-Becker sold its solda fountain equipment for years in the building -- The International Confectioner, February 1917 (copyright expired)
By 1918 the telephone had become an integral part of doing business.  The Standard Appliance Co. of America offered solutions to irritating problems which the new technology brought with it.  Listed in directories as a “manufacturer of telephone mufflers, etc.,” the firm invented, manufactured and sold gadgets to both muffle and amplify telephone conversations.

 Close inspection reveals a smorgasbord of visual delights -- photo by Alice Lum

That year The American Architect noted that “By way of saving time, energy and temper, the Standard Appliance Co. of America…has placed on the market what seem to be two very valuable devices.  These are the Privaphone and the Weilaphone.”

The Privaphone was a horn-like attachment that was placed over the mouthpiece.  According to the magazine, it had “for its object the elimination of the telephone booth with all its attendant inconvenience and discomfort.”   When the telephone user desired his conversation to be private, he simply fit the Privaphone over the mouthpiece and spoke into the horn.

“Your conversation is then as difficult to hear as if you were enclosed in a booth, and you may say what you want and when you want regardless of who is present,” said the publication.  “If you have long enough been embarrassed by discussing, or obviously avoiding, personal and confidential matters while telephoning within the hearing of others, privacy may be yours, and without the discomfort, wasted space, and installation cost of a booth and additional extension, and without leaving your desk every time you want to use it.”

On the other hand, the firm’s Weilaphone, amplified incoming calls.  The American Architect felt it was especially useful for long-distance calls.  “It is not an attachment, which would be against the rules of the telephone company.  One places the receiver on the base of the Weilaphone, which amplifies the sound.  To this is attached a rubber tube which branches out in two parts to reach to the ears.  This directs the sound into both ears as nature intended; it shuts out extraneous sound; it gives freedom of both hands.  For these reasons it would seem well worth while for architects to investigate.”

Both gadgets were priced at $10—about $100 today—but the magazine thought “the convenience they give would doubtless soon compensate for this first expense.”
A medieval archer's slit, or loophole, adds interest (or defense in case of unlikely attack!) -- photo by Alice Lum

Like Bishop-Babcock-Becker, the Standard Appliance Co. of America would stay on in the building for years.  Its Privaphone was apparently a marketing success for the company was still selling it in 1923.
When the above shot was taken, the building was home to the Department of Public Welfare -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

Following the onset of the Great Depression the Schermerhorn Building became home to the Department of Public Welfare; including the Mendicancy Service of the Emergency Relief Bureau.  With staggering unemployment that accompanied the Depression, the bureau worked tirelessly to help the poor and out-of-work.

In 1934 the Emergency Relief Bureau estimated that 6,500 panhandlers had been arrested in the city.  The Department of Public Welfare established 20 locations that summer where the needy could apply for assistance.  Cards were printed that listed the locations and New Yorkers were urged to give panhandlers these cards rather than money.
photo by Alice Lum

After suffering a gritty period of neglect in the 1960s and ‘70s, the East Village neighborhood experienced revitalization.  In the mid 1980s the building was home to the Jazz Center of New York.  In 2013 the space where Bishop-Babock-Becker showed off its soda fountains became home to Lafayette, a 150-seat, two-level restaurant designed by Roman and Williams.
photo by Alice Lum

Henry J. Hardenberg’s wonderful Schermerhorn Building has been deemed by the AIA Guide to New York City “a gem,” and “outstanding” by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.


  1. outstanding indeed. Do you have images of the Schermerhorn mansion or neighborhood before commercialization?

    1. I haven't been able to find a depiction of that particular Schermerhorn house. Sadly

  2. Fabulous building - amazing details and love the two tone brickwork.

  3. The taupe colored paint on the "squat" columns (shown in the fourth picture) was added recently. I'm pretty sure those columns were unpainted until Lafayette opened this year in the ground floor space. How did they get away with that on a landmarked building? Did the Landmarks Preservation Commission approve of painting over the stone columns?

  4. One of Hardenbergh's best. I think his works were the first I fell in love with

  5. Beauty of a building! Not sure if I like the squat columns but overall, look forward to checking this site out! Thanks, Tom

  6. Thanks for another outstanding, informative post.