Friday, May 16, 2014

The Victorian Remnants at Nos. 162-170 E 60th Street

The remnants of five handsome homes somehow survive amid the Bloomingdale's Department Store complex.

In the early decades of the 19th century, women’s straight-gowned Empire styles gave way to more voluminous skirts. Then around 1860 the hoop skirt took hold. To be truly in fashion women needed the new-fangled contraption that supported yards of fabric spilling in a great circle from their waist to the floor.

Lyman G. Bloomingdale and his brother, Joseph, were quick to recognize the potential of the new fad. In 1861 they opened the Ladies Notion Shop on what was then the fashionable Lower East Side of New York. The brothers sold one item: the hoop skirt.

While the Bloomingdale brothers busily sold hoop skirts, the Upper East Side was developing.  Real estate speculation erupted in the form of row houses; and in 1868 construction began on six harmonious homes in the French Second Empire style—the latest in architectural fashion—stretching from No. 160 to 170 East 60th Street.  The four men who invested in the project most likely had a hand in the construction.  At least three of them were in the building trade—Nicholas Seger was a carpenter, George Herdtfelder was a mason, and Conrad Thiele was a stone supplier.  The forth partner, George Rothman, appears to have been a real estate operator as his name appeared repeatedly in real estate transactions at the time.

The brownstone-fronted homes, completed in 1869, were described by the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide as “four-story high stoop brown stone houses.”  Three bays wide, they featured the up-to-date obligatory mansard roofs of the French style and carved window enframements.  Merchant class families moved in.   Attorney Philip Smith purchased No. 170 in 1869; outspoken journalist and editor James McMaster bought No. 166; iron merchant Lewis Snow took No. 162 and wholesale butcher Philip Ottmann’s family was at No. 164. 

Fish scale tiles and delicate detailing survive above the industrial loading docks below.

The tranquil residential apple cart was about to be upset by Lyman and Joseph Bloomingdale, however.  By now the hoop skirt was out of fashion.  In its place came elaborate dresses with bustles and flounces. There were suddenly different gowns for different occasions – tea gowns for entertaining at home, the “seaside dress,” day dresses with high necklines and evening gowns with plunging necklines and off-the-shoulder sleeves.

The brothers reacted, renaming the business The East Side Bazaar in 1872 and selling a variety of European apparel, including undergarments and corsets, gentlemen’s furnishings and ladies’ dresses.

In 1885, while the grand emporiums were clustering together along 6th Avenue’s “Ladies’ Mile,” the Bloomingdale brothers made a daring move. They began construction of a new store at the corner of 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, far apart from the shopping district and directly behind the 60th Street homes.  By now the original owners had mostly moved on.  No. 170 was owned by Bernard S. Levy; No. 168 was sold in 1882 by William Smith to Meyer Katzenberg; and prominent clothing merchant Jonas Rosenberg lived at No. 164.

The Bloomingdale Brothers store, designed by Schwartzmann & Buchman, was six stories tall and an immediate success.  It catered mostly to the middle class and was a true department store—selling clothing, books, household items and even pianos.  Within a year of opening, the brothers bought up the three houses at Nos. 166 to 170 and converted them to an annex “not quite next door to the existing store,” as reported in newspapers.

The store continued to expand—taking over the surrounding real estate like kudzu.  On December 28, 1889 Jonas Rosenberg died in his house at No. 164 East 60th Street and within months Bloomingdale Brothers had acquired that house and the one next door at No. 162. 

No. 168 was, perhaps, the most impressive of the homes.

For years the retailer maintained No. 170 as Bloomingdale Hall.  The Olympic Lodge used it as its headquarters and through the 1920s meetings were still held at that address.  In the meantime, in 1893, the store commissioned the architectural firm of Buchman & Deisler to design the large addition on 59th Street.  Bloomingdale Brothers was rapidly engulfing the block—but No. 160 stubbornly held out.  And when the new store addition was built the owners of No. 160 went to court.

Joseph McGuire purchased the house in 1890 and set about adding a 35-foot extension and altering the interiors as a boarding house.  Court papers noted that while the Bloomindales owned Nos. 162 and 164; the buildings “still retain the outward appearance of four-story private brownstone dwellings.”  Not long after McGuire bought No. 160 construction began on extensions to those two houses as well as the new addition.  The noise and vibrations caused constant upheaval in the McGuire house.

The court case took five days, during which 61 witnesses testified. “One of the tenants, a Mrs. Reiger, testified that No. 160 East Sixtieth street rocked and vibrated just as a boat does when water is rough, and one Schaefer, who lived at 156 East Sixtieth street, two doors from the plaintiff’s premises, declared that the sound resembled a small-sized earthquake,” reported The New York Supplement.

McGuire lost his case and the family gave up.  In 1903 the house was purchased by the Goelet estate from the Gross estate and was soon headquarters of the East Side Taxpayers’ Association—still stubbornly refusing to be gobbled up. By 1909 it was the clubhouse of the Irish-American Athletic Club which stayed on at least through 1913.

Eventually, however, the powerful store would get its way.  In 1902 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that “Bloomingdale Brothers have purchased from Henry Silberborn No. 749 Lexington av., a 4-sty dwelling…They already own No. 751, adjoining, and Nos. 137 and 139 East 59th St., which abuts the Lexington av. parcel…In addition to that previously mentioned they own all the property in the block, with the exception of Nos. 743 to 747 Lexington av…and Nos. 152 to 160 East 60th st.”

One by one those holdout properties fell and in 1927 Bloomingdales purchased the last remaining property in the block, on Lexington Avenue.  Architects Starrett & Van Vleck received the commission to design the striking Art Deco addition that engulfs the Lexington Avenue blockfront.

While No. 160 was lost in the process, somehow its five 1869 neighbors survived—at least from the waist up.  A loading dock replaces the English basement and parlor levels; but a glance upward reveals the picturesque Victorian houses nearly untouched under a coat of paint.
Above the loading docks, carved out of the houses' former English basements and parlor floors, a cast metal sign announces the store's name.

photos by the author

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