Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Prohibition Headquarters - Nos. 45-47 West 27th Street

Although its core was Beaux Arts; the design took on burly turn-of-the-century motifs like pilasters in the form of fasces and a chunky parapet -- photo Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

In the years just following the end of the Civil War, the neighborhood around West 27th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was a respectable residential one.   In 1870 “The Gentleman’s Directory” made note of the boarding house at No. 45 West 27th Street, saying it “is presided over by Jenny Mitchell, a very agreeable and entertaining lady, who has four highly accomplished young lady boarders.”  It called it “a first class house” with “elaborate furnishings.”

As the turn of the century neared, however, the area had decidedly changed.  Sitting on the western edge of the notorious Tenderloin District, it filled with brothels, gambling houses and saloons in the 1890s.  It was perhaps just that reputation that prompted the French Church of St. Esprit to purchase both houses at Nos. 45 and 47 for $59,000 in March 1899.  The church continued to operate the buildings as rooming houses; no doubt with a strict eye on who boarded there.

Change came again to the neighborhood in the first years of the 20th century.  Prompted by aggressive police crack-downs on illegal businesses and by the northward movement of the commercial and entertainment districts, the shoddy old hotels and antiquated houses were being replaced with up-to-date business buildings.

In 1910 Architecture and Building News reported that the two houses at Nos 45 and 47 had been replaced with “a building,” the architect of which was H. T. J. Fuehrmann.   Henry Fuehrmann had been chosen by the Manhattan Office Building Co. in 1909 to design a 12-story loft and retail store structure on the site of the old houses. 

Fuehrmann’s completed structure was a no-nonsense business building of buff-colored brick with limestone trim.  The vaguely Beaux Arts styled structure included a Greek key bandcourse above the two-story second granite and cast iron base, and terra cotta ornament at the bases of the long piers that hinted at Viennese Secessionist influence.
photo Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

As the Garment District crept northward the building filled with a number of apparel firms.  In 1913 Schroeder & Co., manufacturers of “juvenile dresses,” took an entire floor.  Also in the building were the Irene Underwear Co.; Rudinsky Cloak and Suit Co.; Karl Light, makers of cloaks and suits; and H. D. Fertel, “coats, neckwear and muffs.”

But more importantly, with the enactment of the Volstead Act, the building became Prohibition Enforcement Headquarters.   Prohibition agents made few friends in the underworld and his profession brought a violent and sudden end to the life of agent James F. McGuinness.

On Christmas Eve 1920 McGuinness’s body was found in shallow water in Newark Bay “with a bullet through his head,” according to the Bisbee Arizona’s Daily Review.  The newspaper said he “committed suicide, police [in Bayonne, New Jersey] stated tonight.  The family of the dead man, who was a prohibition enforcement officer, believe that he was murdered.”

Indeed Mrs. McGuinness’s cousin, Joseph P. Tumulty who happened to be secretary to President Wilson, told reporters “I am certain from the information now at hand that McGuinness met with foul play.  Every fact of his home life negatives any other idea.”

McGuinness was found with a 38-calibre Colt revolver in his hand; but at the 27th Street headquarters, S. M. Sewell, acting enforcement supervisor said it was definitely not the weapon the agent used in his work.  Mrs. McGuinness “substantiated this by saying that the gun which he carried in his work was in his drawer at home,” said the New-York Tribune.

A neighbor, James C. O’Neill, who was connected with the bureau of investigation with the Department of Justice spoke of a “dark stranger, about five feet eight inches in height” who went to the McGuinness home the night of the agent’s death.  O’Neill said “there were men who had become his enemies through his refusal to aid them in evading the prohibition act.”

“I think that Mr. McGuinness was killed in an automobile in New York and his body taken to Bayonne and stretched out at the edge of the bay,” opined O’Neill.  “That gun might have been placed in his hand also.  I know that he was a happy man, in good health, without anything to lead him to suicide.  He had money enough too, because he was getting his wife a seal-skin coat for $200 and had bought $40 worth of toys for his children.”

McGuinness was in charge of about 150 agents and had recently been made chief of a squad of about 20 men. 

That the Prohibition Headquarters was in the neighborhood which, only two decades earlier, had been the center of vice and crime in New York City was ironic.  The agents worked tirelessly to rid the city of illegal saloons and clubs.  On December 7, 1921 the New-York Tribune noted “Raids of well known resorts where liquor is said to be sold along Broadway will continue until the district is bone dry, according to a statement yesterday by Chief Enforcement Agent R. Q. Merrick.”

On the day prior to the article, more than twenty raids had been executed.   Arrests were not always confined to drinking establishments.  “On Sixth Avenue near prohibition headquarters, 47 West Twenty-seventh Street, agents arrested Lee A. Williams, a negro driver.  He had a barrel of real beer on his truck, they say.  The beer and truck were seized."  The enterprising man operated a sort of mobile saloon.  "Williams said he was working for himself and that his office was on his truck.”

A month earlier the headquarters was the scene of a string of suspicious robberies that the New-York Tribune hinted could be an inside job.  “A systematic robbery, said to have  been continued under the administration of three prohibition directors, of important documents and records from the prohibition enforcement headquarters at 47 West Twenty-seventh Street...Many of the records stolen are reported to have been necessary to prosecute certain cases now pending in Federal courts.”

The Headquarters was also responsible for controlling illegal narcotics.  In September 1921 Giovanni Ceppellaro was suspected of drug trafficking.  Armed with a search and seizure warrant, agents raided his office on Mulberry Street where they found a large safe made of wood and camouflaged to look like iron with a coating of shoe polish.  In the safe were paper bags containing $20,000 worth of drugs and $50,000 in jewelry.

Organized crime battled the agents as fervently as the agents battled them.  In January 1922 it was discovered that the telephone trunk leading into the switchboard at the Prohibition Headquarters had been tapped for months.  “Bootleg or other interests, it developed, have been in a position to hear all conversations of prohibition officials and enforcement officers,” reported the New-York Tribune.  “This may account for mysterious ‘tips’ which have reached big concerns about to be raided.”

With amazing nerve, the criminals listening in to the agents had set up their office in the same building--possibly even using the government's own instruments.  “Indications are that the listening-in station was on some floor below,” said the newspaper.  One telephone was missing from headquarters, as well.  “In checking up the telephone instruments assigned to headquarters the lineman found himself one instrument short.  No one could account for the missing telephone.”
photo Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

On December 5, 1933 the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and Prohibition was suddenly history.  It was the end of the line for the State Headquarters of Prohibition, as well.  The exciting period at No. 45-47 West 27th Street was over.  For the rest of the century the building housed apparel and novelty firms and drew little attention to itself.  Today, although retail stores have been gouged into the street level, the old building where “dry agents” fought bootleggers is little changed above the first floor. 

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