Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Flamboyant Knickerbocker Jewelry Bldg -- No. 574 6th Avenue

Apparently unconcerned with its small stature, the building exhibits its immense architectural ego.

At the turn of the last century, a few of the major players along 6th Avenue’s shopping district had already defected; moving northward to Herald Square and Fifth Avenue.  But the Ladies’ Mile was still the main retail area and its potential did not escape the notice of Louis J. Seleznick.

On August 22, 1902 The New York Times reported that “Louis J. Seleznick of Pittsburgh, Penn., has leased from G. L. Morgenthau…the building at the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and Sixteenth Street…The lessee is a jeweler, and will occupy the building after extensive alterations have been made.”

Apparently Gustave L. Morgenthau and Louis Seleznick came to an agreement for a grander project than “extensive alterations.”  On May 23, 1903 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide announced that Morgenthau would build a four-story brick store on the site.  The plans estimated the final cost at $15,000—about $300,000 today.

The Guide reported that “The Knickerbocker Jewelry Co., are the lessees, and when completed the building will be opened as a unique jewelry store.  The interior will be handsome, the finish and details being quite elaborate.”

It was most likely Seleznick who chose architect Simeon B. Eisendrath who had been practicing in Pittsburgh.  The commission to design the new building at No. 278 Sixth Avenue (later renumbered 574) would be one of the architect’s first New York City projects.

While he had the advantage of a corner site; Eisendrath had to deal with the Sixth Avenue elevated train that ran up the middle of the street.  He turned the challenge into an asset, utilizing the elevated perspective of passing shoppers to his advantage.

Well dressed shoppers and a boy in knickers navigate the street vendors along 6th Avenue's Ladies' Mile.  The 6th Avenue Elevated runs down the center of the avenue -- photo Byron & Co., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWLJP6U0&SMLS=1&RW=1366&RH=579#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWLJP6U0&SMLS=1&RW=1366&RH=579&PN=2

Construction was completed early in 1904 and the resultant jewelry store building was as ambitious as its owner.  Four stories tall, it featured rusticated brick piers on the avenue elevation that exaggerate the structure’s verticality.  At street level, projecting shop windows showed off silverplated hollow ware and jewelry.  The second story—at eye level to passing shoppers on the train—was an expanse of show windows.  Above it all Eisendrath’s design exploded in an over-blown Baroque cornice of molded sheet metal.  The ostentatious, self-confident little building vied for attention with the grand emporiums along the avenue.
The baroque cornice originally extended down the 16th Street side.

Inside, the double-height showroom was 21-feet high, surrounded by a mezzanine gallery.  The upper two floors were designated for offices and showrooms.  When Seleznick threw open the doors to his new Knickerbocker Jewelry store in 1904, he was relatively unknown.

Shortly after its opening, a reader wrote to the United States Investor asking “Will you give us information regarding the Knicerbocker Jewery Co., corner 6th avenue and 16th street, New York city?”

The publication’s answer was of little help.  “Comparatively little information is obtainable regarding this company, which was incorporated as recently as November 21, 1903…It is believed by outsiders that it is doing a very fair business, both local and outside, and being located in the shopping district, ought, under ordinary circumstances, to operate successfully.”

Expanses of glass at the second story were intended to catch the eye of passengers on the elevated train.

Seleznick launched a clever marketing scheme soon after opening.  In April 1904 he placed advertisements in the local papers asking readers to vote for the most popular fireman, alderman, policeman and teacher in the city.  “You Can Vote For Your Favorites as Often as You Please,” promised the ad; which added that that the ballots were free and available at the store.

The most popular teacher would receive a solid gold watch; the winning policeman an “extra heavy solid gold watch;” the most popular fireman would “be presented with a genuine mahogany chest of sterling table silver containing 43 pieces;” and the alderman would win a “genuine white diamond ring, weighing over a carat, set in 14k.”

Although there was already a well-known Knickerbocker Building in the city, Seleznick referred to his new Sixth Avenue building as the Knickerbocker Building in his ads.  As much a showman as a businessman, he touted his new business as “The most magnificent jewelry store in the world” – no doubt to the notice of long-established Manhattan jewelry houses like Tiffany & Co., Gorham, and Dreicer & Co.

Seleznick advertised competitive prices and late store hours.  He operated a second store in Brooklyn -- The Evening World, December 7, 1907 (copyright expired)

Perhaps it was another bit of showmanship that prompted advertisements of a sweeping close-out sale in January 1905, not yet a full year after the store’s opening.  An auction was advertised to begin on Saturday, January 21 “and will continue daily until everything is sold.”  The advertisements touted $200,000 “in high grade goods” that included “diamonds, gold jewelry, sterling silver, cut glass, bric-a-brac, watches, clocks, leather goods, etc.”  The company said that “this great sacrifice” would also include twelve showcases, 2 large safes, the office furniture and store fittings.  For the convenience of ladies, chairs would be available.

Despite the 15-year term of the lease, the auction announcement said the sale was “on account of the disposal of our lease.”  Sale or not, the Knickerbocker Jewelry Co., continued to operate its store from the showy little building – at least for a while.

The ornamentation of the elaborate cornice, like rolling, breaking waves, was repeated in the cast panels below.

A few months later Louis Seleznick noticed that his inventory was shrinking.  He suspected that one of his salesmen, 25-year old Samuel Folodarr, was responsible.  When the jeweler accompanied police to Folodarr’s apartment at No. 248 East 13th Street on June 5, he found his missing jewelry, including 30 watches.  The loot was valued at $1000—a significant $20,000 in today’s money.

Ever the wheeler-dealer, in 1907 Seleznick organized a syndicate which leased all six floors of the 42nd Street wing of the Bryant Park Arcade Building.  The structure was still under construction at the north east former of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street.  The syndicate announced that it would sublease stores and offices in its portion of the building. 

The deal would result in Seleznick being sued by Julius Meyer who signed a sublease for nine stores in the new building on May 1, 1907.  For some reason Seleznick chose to change the spelling of his name to Lewis for the transaction. 

Meyer visited the Knickerbocker Jewelry store and proposed to Seleznick that he should move his operation to the new Arcade Building—a tangled arrangement whereby Selenick would lease a store from his own tenant.

The crafty jeweler indeed leased one of the stores from Meyer; then charged him a commission for finding a tenant.

Seleznick’s decision to move north was a sound one.  By now the Ladies’ Mile was essentially abandoned by the grand retail emporiums.  The neighborhood was being taken over by small factories and shops, many of them affiliated with the apparel and millinery industry.

In 1918 Morgenthau leased the building to Martin Weil “for a millinery establishment.”  By now the projecting show windows at street level had been removed; and in 1925 entirely new shop fronts were installed.  During this renovation the interior gallery mezzanine was removed.

By the 1930s all evidence of the building's high-end past was gone -- photo by from collection of the New York Public Library
Throughout the 20th century the building served a variety of businesses; none so grand as the Knickerbocker Jewelry store.  Today on the first floor, where well-dressed women carrying parasols shopped for silver tea sets and jewelry, a diner serves hamburgers and scrambled eggs.  Above it all Simeon B. Eisendrath’s exuberant baroque cornice still stands out after more than a century.

non-historic photographs taken by the author

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