In 1878 the residential nature of West 23rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was doomed. The block was lined with refined mansions erected only 10 or 20 years earlier. But the shopping district called the Ladies’ Mile between 14th and 23rd Streets on Sixth Avenue was about to turn the corner.
Stern Brothers demolished three brownstone houses that year to erect its large department store. At the time New York's furniture dealers and manufacturers were mostly congregated around 13th and 16th Streets near Sixth Avenue. A year later decorators and “manufacturers of artistic furniture,” D. S. Hess & Co. broke ranks, deciding to move from its store at No. 56 West 16th Street to the West 23rd Street block.
The firm commissioned David and John Jardine to design its new offices and showrooms. The brothers, who had gone into partnership in 1865, had designed the imposing B. Altman Department Store on Sixth Avenue at 19th Street just four years earlier.
The move by D. S. Hess & Co. would spark a migration of furniture dealers onto the West 23rd Street block. Before the turn of the century respected manufacturers R. J. Horner and George C. Flint would arrive; turning the north side of West 23rd Street into a furniture district.
In the meantime, however, the house at No. 35 West 23rd Street had been converted for business as early as 1868. It was home to S. Goldberg’s artists’ materials shop. He advertised that year, offering “All kinds of paints, brushes, canvas and materials required by artists at the lowest prices.”
No. 35 and its neighbor at 37 West 23rd Street were demolished in 1879 and plans for the new building were filed in January 1880. The Real Estate Record reported that they called for a “five-story brick store…with one-story extension on rear.” The cornice, it was noted, would be galvanized iron. The anticipated cost of the structure was $30,000—more in the neighborhood of $705,000 today.
D. & J. Jardine freely dipped into several styles to produce the Hess building. Fundamentally neo-Grec, it was splashed with touches of Queen Anne and Eastlake. The showrooms of the first and second floor, where furniture and decorative household objects were shown, had vast expanses of glass. The openings of the second floor were separated by reed-thin engaged cast iron columns. Separating this level from the upper floors was a decorative cast iron cornice of palmetto leaves.
|The exquisite cornice incorporated full-relief sunflowers along with the date the project began.
Grouped openings of the upper floors visually formed two three-story, slightly recessed arches capped by toothy-brick eyebrows. Incised decoration of the pilasters, so popular in Eastlake-style decoration, provided would-be capitals. Between the two sections was a single vertical row of windows. The visual climax was reserved for the cornice. The date the project began, 1879, was boldly centered between rows of cast iron sunflowers—iconic of the Aesthetic Movement—in full relief and bending towards the sidewalk, separated by palmetto leaves.
|Now painted, the brick facade was originally a warm red color.
D. S. Hess & Co. would not remain in its new store for long. Although it retained possession; in 1884 it moved northward and offered a five-year lease to another furniture manufacturer and dealer, Freeman, Gillies & Co. Established in 1874 at No. 20 West 14th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the firm had outgrown its relatively small store.
On March 2, 1884 Freeman, Gillies & Co. advertised its removal sale. The ad in the New-York Tribune said the “Manufacturers of Fine Furniture, offer their entire stock of First-Class Furniture at greatly reduced prices on account of removal to our new buildings, Nos. 35 and 37 West 23d-st., on or before May 1.”
A year later on June 7, when the firm was well settled in, its name had slightly changed to Freeman & Gillies. The New York Times noted “The furniture trade is an extensive one, and a goodly number of firms are engaged in it. Standing out most prominently before the public, however, is that of Mssrs. Freeman & Gillies, of Nos. 35 and 37 West Twenty-third-street…The growing needs of their business recently necessitated a change, and they accordingly recently removed to their present more commodious and spacious stores.” Like many furniture dealers, Freeman & Gillies offered a full line of items for home décor. The newspaper mentioned “They have always on hand a complete stock of foreign and American wall papers, curtains, hard-wood mantels, and interior decorations.”
The firm not only sold, but designed its furniture. On December 1, 1888 a Freeman & Gillies advertisement in The Evening Post promised “In fine upholstered Parlor Furniture we show many styles which cannot be seen elsewhere. Purchasers desiring stylish and durable furniture can save time and money by calling on us.”
The five-year lease signed by Freeman & Gillies was, unfortunately, short-sighted. Customers were barely becoming aware of the new store before the lease ran out. In June 1889 an advertisement appeared in Life magazine announcing a liquidation sale. “Freeman & Gillies, furniture makers…on account of expiring lease, are offering their entire stock of furniture at a genuine reduction from former prices.” The ad called special attention to the furniture “especially made for summer residences.”
Rather than attempting to relocate, Freeman & Gillies dissolved in 1890. D. S. Hess & Co. immediately got out of the real estate business by selling the building on February 22, 1890 to Josiah Belden for $200,000. By now the West 23rd Street block was as well-known for its china and glass shops as for its furniture dealers. Belden would lease to a variety of smaller tenants, including, ironically, S. Goldberg, who was now selling “china for decorating of the latest designs.”
|Among the furniture stores on the block in 1895 was George C. Flint's at No. 43. The Hess building is seen at far right. King's Photographic Views of New York, 1895 (copyright expired)
Also in the building in 1897 was the bookstore of publisher G. W. Gillingham Company. Among the modern volumes the firm offered that year was a translation of Guy de Maupassant’s Mme. Tellier’s Girls. When self-proclaimed arbiter of public decency, Anthony Comstock, walked into the shop on April 9, bad things were about to happen.
Comstock had founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873. His obsession with stamping out what he defined as immoral led George Bernard Shaw to coin the term “comstockery” in reference to arbitrary censorship due to perceived obscenity.
Comstock asked for a copy of Mme. Tellier’s Girls and when he had paid for it, demanded to see John H. Cook, president of the company. Cook was flabbergasted when Comstock demanded all the plates and copies of the work; accusing the publisher of “printing an immoral book.” The Sun, the following morning, reported “Comstock produced no warrant, nor legal paper of any kind, and apparently acted only on the authority which he assumes on these occasions.”
Despite his protests that the book was, indeed, not immoral, Cook recognized the power Comstock wielded. He surrendered 400 copies of the book and all his printing plates. He nevertheless railed against Comstock to the press. “I think Comstock’s action was entirely unwarranted in law or fact,” he told reporters. “His past actions show, I think, that he is incompetent to be a censor of literature.”
The building was not totally without a furniture-related concern during this period. Upstairs C. T. Vetter & Sons ran an upholstery business at least until 1903. At the time, at 13th Street and Sixth Avenue, the “big house-furnishing store of Sheppard Knapp,” as described by The Times, was doing business. While the other furniture dealers had moved northward, Sheppard Knapp had stayed put.
Founded by Sheppard Knapp in 1862, it was well known for its furniture and carpeting. In 1907 a devastating fire raged through the store. Although repairs were made; in March 1910 the company signed a lease on Nos. 35 and 37 West 23rd Street. Moving northward was a good decision; but sadly for Sheppard Knapp & Co. it did not go far enough. By now the grand emporiums of the Ladies’ Mile were essentially abandoned as were the furniture stores of West 23rd Street.
On June 29, 1912 an article titled “Exaggeration Costly” in Dry Goods Economist hinted at panic among the Sheppard Knapp & Co. officers. A few weeks earlier the company had advertised a sale on expensive carpets. “Wilton, Brussels and Axminster” carpets were offered at “$15.00 and $20.00 each.” The magazine recognized the offer to be “extraordinary. Twenty dollars is a low price for anything that looks like a Wilton rug, at wholesale, let alone at retail, therefore an Economist man was sent to see the goods and learn the facts.”
What the reporter found was that, indeed, Sheppard Knapp & Co. offered a few Wilton rugs at the bargain basement price. But they were quickly sold out. The sneaky ad resulted in its intended goal—to lure shoppers into the store. But they left disappointed and angry at the subterfuge. The Dry Goods Economist summed it up, “It is not a question of forgiving, but of forgetting, and the public memory is sometimes remarkably long.”
On December 2, 1913 Sheppard Knapp & Co. filed for bankruptcy. The New York Times explained that the company’s problems were directly related to the movement of other stores to the Herald Square neighborhood. “The misfortunes of the concern are attributed to the extension of the Jersey tunnels to the Thirty-fourth Street shopping district, and the diversion of trade uptown.”
Even before the Sheppard Knapp & Co. stock could be moved out of the building, the upscale S. Herbert Cut Glass Co. signed a long term lease. “After the improvements are made they will occupy it as their salesrooms,” reported The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide on November 1, 1913.
The store’s relocation from No. 48 West Broadway was partially responsible for an article in The New York Times on March 1, 1914 entitled “Twenty-Third Street’s Busy Retail Block Destined for Great Wholesale Centre.” The newspaper commented that the block, “which for years was one of the busiest and most popular shopping centres in New York, has been virtually deserted in so far as its former commercial interests are concerned.” But now, it said, “No block in the city has shown so rapid a revival of trade activity after the desertion of its old interests.”
Furniture no longer played a part in the 23rd Street block; but it had become the undisputed center of the wholesale glass and china trade. Along with S. Herbert Cut Glass Co. in the building was the Pittsburgh Lamp Brass and Glass Company. The firm would remain here into the 1920s, selling art glass lamps.
Edward Boote took space in the building by 1918, offering tableware like “Cauldon china, Wood & Sons’ earthenware, and Gibson & Sons’ teapots.” Villeroy & Boch china and glass merchants moved in, as did E. Torlotting, dealers in “Gouda Art Pottery and Bohemian glassware.”
John B. Salterini, designers and manufacturers of ornamental ironwork opened its showroom here. The firm’s foundry and offices were located in the still-gritty East 44th Street neighborhood near the East River.
In 1921 Crockery and Glass Journal commented on the Pittsburgh Lamp, Brass & Glass Co.’s new items in the 23rd Street showroom. In addition to the company’s “new Astra glass portables, an achievement in glass manufacture of which the concern has reason to feel proud,” the magazine noted “they are showing a complete line of popular priced lamps with metal bases and hand painted shades, which promise to outrival all past productions.”
For awhile it appeared that garment shops would take over the building. In 1919 S. Herbert Cut Glass had leased the entire top floor to the Victory Shirt Co., and in 1928 the Gibraltar Shirt Corporation was operating here. Instead, the garment district established itself north of 34th Street and little by little, as the middle of the century approached, the West 23rd Street block again was abandoned as a high-end shopping district.
By 1950 the glass and decorative ironworks showrooms were gone. In their places small novelty operations like World Trading Corp. moved in. Throughout the 1940s it advertised wholesale items like “Fur dogs, First quality, assorted colors” for $3 each.
On August 6, 1953 The New York Times reported that “Changing hands for the first time since 1935, the five-story store and loft building at 35-37 West Twenty-third Street was sold.” Jack Speigler and Harry Pilchman purchased the old structure and immediately hired architects Wechsler & Schimenti to replace the first floor with a modern storefront.
The building continued to house novelty companies, like Paris & Co. which offered a dozen iridescent pearl sets for $10.80. “This is the hottest number in the industry today!” promised an ad in Billboard on April 7, 1956. Mastercraft Inc., an “importing concern,” would remain in the building until 1965.
For a while the ground floor returned to its original purpose of selling furniture; albeit not so high class anymore. Roberts Furniture Clearance Center offered second-hand office and home furniture “one-of-a-kind below wholesale” in the 1970s.
Then in 1982 No. 35-37 was converted to a commercial store at ground level and one sprawling apartment per floor above. The little building with the not-so-illustrious past was about to get an memorable resident.
Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe had created ripples in the artistic world with his sometimes controversial black-and-white images that ranged from celebrity portraits to nudes and sadomasochistic depictions. Often homoerotic, his work sparked a nationwide debate over the appropriateness of public funding for his art.
Mapplethorpe’s lifetime companion, art curator Sam Wagstaff, purchased the top floor of No. 35-37 for a reported half million dollars and presented it to him as a gift. The space where young women sewed garments for the Victory Shirt Co. suddenly warranted a layout in House & Garden magazine. Patricia Morrisroe in her 1995 Mapplethorpe: A Biography, wrote “The photographer’s creation of ‘little altars,’ which merged religious and occult items, had been part of his decorating scheme since Pratt, but now that he had more money to invest in his props, glowing Jesus statues and plastic devils had been replaced by ivory crucifixes, marble satyrs, a bust of Mussolini, and an Ed Ruscha screen printing consisting of the word ‘EVIL’ in black and red.”
Sadly, Robert Mapplethorpe’s stay here would be short-lived. He died on the morning of March 9, 1989 at the age of 42 from complications of AIDS. In 2000 a penthouse was added above the former Mapplethorpe loft, creating a sumptuous duplex apartment.
|The second floor, once a showroom for turn-of-the-century furniture, is a luxurious loft apartment --photograph http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2013/01/20/swanky_flatiron_loft_on_the_market_for_45_million.php
Today an urgent care clinic operates out of the ground floor space where D. S. Hess & Co. showed off its “artistic furniture.” Above, the full-floor apartments sell in the neighborhood of $4.5 million; evidence that the West 23rd Street block has turned the corner once again.
non-credited photographs taken by the author
many thanks to reader Tom Jessell for suggesting this post
many thanks to reader Tom Jessell for suggesting this post