Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The 1911 Wheeler Building -- Nos 28-30 West 38th Street

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

In the first years of the 20th century William H. Wheeler set out to nearly single-handedly transform the block of West 38th Street, between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, from one of Victorian houses to Edwardian commercial buildings.  On March 25, 1911 The Sun said “Before the development of the section began most of the structures in the district were of the old fashioned brownstone front type, with here and there a small business building.  There were many milliners and dressmakers in the section, and these used their parlor floors and basements for show and workrooms.  Now, however, they have fine quarters in these new light and airy structures and the old time building is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.”

The “fine quarters” were the result of Wheeler’s rapid development.  He had recognized the potential of the block as the millinery and apparel district crept into the area.  As President of the Fifth Avenue and Thirty-eighth Street Realty Company, he demolished the old residences and replaced them with the modern loft and retail buildings.  At the time of The Sun’s article he had completed the Murray Hill Building, replacing four brownstones from No. 8 to 14 West 38th; the Wheeler Building at Nos. 28 and 30; and the day before had purchased Nos. 24 and 26 West 38th where he intended to build “a twelve story store and loft building.”

Wheeler’s architects of choice were Starrett & Van Vleck.  They already had been given the project for Nos. 24 and 26 West 38th.  It would abut the Wheeler Building that they designed in 1909 and which had just been completed that year.  The Sun noted “There is such a demand for desirable space in the neighborhood that all the room in the Wheeler Building, with a few exceptions, has been taken.”

Partners Goldwin Starrett and Ernest Van Vleck would become well-known for great Manhattan retail structures including Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Alexander’s and Abraham & Strauss.  Their design for the Wheeler Building is routinely touted by current realtors as Art Deco—it is not.  Designed nearly a decade before that architectural style came into fashion, the Wheeler Building incorporates the best of pre-World War I loft elements.

Starrett & Van Vleck placed ten stories of loft and office space on a two-story retail base.  A frame of carved fasces embraced the first floor stores with up-to-the-minute arcade windows and a cast iron second floor of vast showrooms.  Centered below the second story cornice a carved rectangular cartouche announced the building’s name.

Three unbroken piers stretch the height of the building, emphasizing the verticality of the 12-story skyscraper.  Expansive windows flooded the manufacturing spaces with natural light.  The intricate decoration of the piers, columns and window surrounds was contrasted by the starkly-blank blocks within the window spandrels.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com
The Sun had not exaggerated the interest in space in the Wheeler Building.  As construction barely got underway in October 1909, Julius Klugman signed a lease for the western retail store and the entire showroom above “for a term of years, at a rental aggregating $100,000.”  Franz Hanfstaengl Art Publishing Company quickly grabbed up the eastern store the same year.

As the building opened in 1911 the tenant list was perhaps more mixed than had been expected.  Along with apparel firms was the New York Telephone Company and Samuel French, publisher of plays.  The latter company would remain in the building for more than a decade publishing plays and selling small sets and scenery.

In 1913, the same year that the Paris Importing and Manufacturing Company took the entire tenth floor, tragedy struck the still-new Wheeler Building.  Michael Romer held the job of superintendent for both the Wheeler Building and the Kastles Building at No. 37 West 38th Street.  Early on the morning of May 3, 1913 he set to work repairing the Wheeler’s sidewalk elevator. 

While working on the hoisting mechanism, the elevator started and Romer was crushed.  A woman passing by discovered the body, still clutching a screwdriver, and her screams alerted a nearby policeman.  Before Policeman Grantz and other responding officers could remove Romer’s body, the factory girls began arriving for work.

“A great crowd of factory and shop girls on their way to work gathered and became hysterical while the body was being taken out,” reported The Evening World later that afternoon.  “The police had some difficulty in quieting them.”

Throughout the 1920s the Wheeler Building would attract numerous millinery companies.  The Clover Hat Company held the entire third floor; M. Kameny, “women’s hats,” had half of the first loft; and Simonds and Ash, The Oriole Hat Company, Helmar Hat Company, Bernard Waldstein and L. D. Sultzer Co., Inc. were all tenants. 

Another hat manufacturer, Frederick M. Loeffler, leased space on the 11th floor in 1922 and David Fink ran his jewelry business on the same floor.  On the afternoon of August 19 that year Loeffler and Fink took a break from work to play a game of cards with four other men.  While they played, four men rode the elevator to the 11th floor, donned masks, and knocked on the door to Frederick Loeffler’s loft.

“When Loeffler opened the door three men entered, drew revolvers and backed Loeffler and his companions against a wall,” reported The New York Times.  They took $100 from Loeffler, $75 from Fink and $100 total from the others.  The cash would amount to about $3,500 today.

The robbers retraced their steps, pausing long enough to take $5 from the elevator operator.  The Times said they “fled through the crowded street in a careening touring car, firing wildly as they went.  They disappeared into Sixth Avenue.” 

The Wheeler Building continued to attract millinery firms.  The Lindy Hat company and the Karok Hat Company where here in the 1930s.  At mid-century more apparel related companies like the American Veil and Novelty Company moved in.  On the same floor was Cameo Bridal Styles, Inc. run by Roman Rebush and his brother George.

Both bachelors, the Rebush brothers lived at No. 357 West 55th Street and were described by friends as “inseparable companions.”  Roman was three years older and at the age of 65 in 1958 he was partially crippled by a stroke.  

The brothers’ business apparently fell on hard times that year.  In January 1958 they borrowed $185 from Ben Warshaw who operated the American Veil and Novelty Company.  As they always did, on September 2 that year the small staff of women who worked for the brothers went home at 6:00.  About an hour later George dropped into Ben Warshaw’s office to pay him $25 against the loan.  Then a heart-wrenching chain of events followed.

Around 8:00 Roman Rebush stepped onto a radiator and leaped from the window.  About a minute later George followed.  A doctor from St. Clare’s Hospital pronounced both dead at 8:15.  In their office they had left a note which both had signed.  It read:  “We have no friends, no relatives, no money.  Bury us in potter’s field.”

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com
In 1980 the Wheeler Building was converted to residential co-op space above the first floor retail stores.  Respected preservation architect Joseph Pell Lombardi oversaw the conversion that resulted in two residential lofts per floor.

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