Friday, January 24, 2014

The 1902 Higgins & Seiter Bldg --Nos. 53-55 West 21st Street

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel --

By the turn of the last century, the blocks between Fifth and Sixth Avenues below 23rd Street—once tony residential enclaves—saw drastic change.  Retail establishments spilled over from Sixth Avenue, the major shopping district for women; and small businesses set up in converted rowhouses.

Well-dressed females shopping for wedding gifts or enviable cut glass lemonade sets for themselves most likely instructed their carriage drivers to take them to Nos. 50 through 54 West 22nd Street.  Here Higgins & Seiter operated its china and glass emporium; considered among the foremost in the city.

The firm was organized just after the end of the Civil War by Colonel Charles Jacob Seiter of the 7th Regiment and brothers Barton B. and Arthur Higgins.  The partnership was formalized in 1887 and the three men filled their warerooms with the highest grade and costliest home items imported from Europe.

Business was booming for the retailer and in 1901 it opened a connecting annex directly behind its store, at Nos. 51 through 55 West 21st Street.  The firm had purchased three abutting brick-faced homes which were demolished to make way for its new store and loft building.  Designed by architect Mortimer C. Merritt, who 14 years earlier had designed the massive block-wide cast iron store of Hugh O’Neill just steps away on Sixth Avenue, it was a dignified mixture of styles.  Its six stories made use of buff-colored brick, terra cotta and stone. 

An advertisement called the store "the largest and most celebrated glass and china store in the world" (copyright expired)

Two stories of expansive show windows framed in white stone would have flooded the showrooms with natural light, igniting rainbows around the crisp cut glass inside.  The motif of a Greek key within the frieze above the second story was carried on with a charming mini-Greek temple nestled within the openings of the third floor.  Since the architect felt no conflict in introducing a Greek theme into its overall neo-Renaissance design, he found no problem in splashing a few Beaux Arts elements into the mix as well.

The new structure was ready for occupancy in mid-November 1901 and Higgins & Seiter opened its new showrooms to an eager public.  On November 24 the New-York Tribune reported “Higgins & Seiter, Nos. 51, 53, and 55 West Twenty-first St., and Nos. 50, 52 and 54 West Twenty-second-st., are one of New-York’s best china firms.  Their place of business has recently been enlarged by the addition of a new six story building, richly stocked with beautiful china and glass.”

The newspaper went on to describe the opening sale bargains.  “This week they will signalize the opening of the first and second floors of their new building by the exhibition and sale of Carrara marble, bronzes, marble pedestals, dinner ware, etc.  They will offer many handsome bargains in their cut glass department.  Inspect particularly their cut glass decanters, cut glass jugs, Limoges china, Wedgewood china and English Caldron.”  The New York Times would later opine that it had "as its customers some of the best known people in the city.”

A bride's basket, advertised in Harper's Magazine in 1905, illustrated why Higgins & Seiter called itself "The Great Present Store of the Metropolis" (copyright expired)
It would seem that there was no end to the success of the high-end retailers and about six years later they expanded again.  On January 13, 1907 The New York Times reported that Higgins & Seiter had leased the store and basement of the 12-story building adjoining its 22nd Street property.  The china and glass store now boasted an L-shaped emporium that stretched from No. 50 through 58 on West 22nd Street and through the block to three full lots on West 21st Street.

But while Higgins & Seiter was expanding, other retailers along the Ladies’ Mile were moving on.  In 1902 Roland Macy startled many when he moved his department store from 6th Avenue and 14th Street to Herald Square—far above the retail district.  It was the first domino to fall in what would be the end of an era.  Two years later Benjamin Altman reported that he intended to build “an enormous store” on Fifth Avenue diagonally across from the exclusive Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

On October 9, 1910 Charles Seiter suffered a heart attack while playing golf at the Siawanoy Country Club.  He was brought home to his Mount Vernon, New York home and his wife gave him bicarbonate of soda while awaiting the doctor.  Before he arrived, Colonel Seiter was dead.

Along with his bequeaths to his widow and six children, Seiter left the firm a life insurance policy of $50,000—over $1 million today.  Now the remaining partners had to decide how to invest that windfall into the company.

A miniature temple rests on a cornice embellished with a Greek key design -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel --

By now Higgins & Seiter was among the handful of exclusive retailers left along 6th Avenue between 14th and 23rd Streets.  The partners, too, decided to move northward.  In 1911 they abandoned their expansive store to move to Nos. 9 through 11 East 37th Street.  It would be a fateful decision.

If the expansive store on West 22nd and West 21st Street was no longer a good location for Higgins & Seiter, the company found out that it was not a good location for anyone else, either.  The buildings that once glittered with cut glass whiskey sets and offered bronze and marble statues for the home now sat empty and unrentable.  The vacant real estate was a heavy drain on the company’s finances.  To make matters worse when war erupted in Europe the inflow of elegant china came to a standstill.

Despite Colonel Seiter’s hefty bequest, and the lease of the 21st Street building finally in 1914; on February 20, 1915 The Times reported that “Higgins & Seiter of 9 East Thirty-seventh Street, one of the best-known and oldest china houses in the city, filed yesterday…in involuntary petition in bankruptcy.”

The 21st Street building was taken over by William R. Noe & Sons, manufacturers and dealers in “illuminating glassware, mahogany lamps and silk shades.”  The firm used No. 53-55 West 21st Street as a “large lamp, shade and novelty factory.”  William R. Noe & Sons would continue manufacturing lamp parts here through the 1920s, finally opening a Brooklyn factory in 1930.

On February 1, 1928 A. I. Shiplakoff purchased the six-story building for $125,000.  Space was leased throughout the Depression years to small manufacturers and it became the headquarters of the Pocketbook Workers’ Union.

The Pocketbook Workers’ Union would stay in the building for several years; carefully guarding the well-being of its members.  When the industrial Council of Leather Goods Manufacturers’ initiated an “open shop policy” in 1933 the Union revolted; calling for a general strike.

During the second half of the 20th century the Ladies’ Mile suffered neglect and abuse.  The grand emporiums lining Sixth Avenue sat desolate for years until a rediscovery of the area towards the turn of the century.  In 1992 the first floor of Nos. 53-55 West 21st Street—where wealthy women once shopped for Limoges tea sets—was converted to an “eating and drinking establishment.”

Other than the renovated street level, Mortimer Merritt’s handsome 1901 design remains unchanged.  Mostly overlooked on the side street, it is a fine example of the work a once-prominent architect who is now largely forgotten.