Friday, June 13, 2014

The 1885 Renovation of No. 242 Fifth Avenue

Early in 2014 a construction shed engulfs the street level.

There was some unpleasant business at City Hall in 1883 when it was discovered that city clerks and a few wealthy New Yorkers had committed fraud.  John B. Carroll lined his pockets with graft while about $12,000 of taxes and water rents went unpaid.  Another of the moneyed businessmen indicted was John C. Ely.

The New York Times reported on September 29 that year that “Mr. John C. Ely, who is mentioned in the indictment, is a large real estate owner in the north western part of the City.  He has an office at No. 191 Broadway, and resides at No. 242 Fifth-avenue, a handsome brown-stone residence, near Twenty-eighth-st.”

The “handsome brown-stone residence” was typical of the neighborhood near Madison Square.  Soon after the park opened in 1847 high-end homes began lining the surrounding streets.  By 1870, when the park was re-landscaped, the northward-flowing tide of mansions had reached 28th Street.  Frederick C. Colton, treasurer of the New York Bible Society lived in No. 242 at the time.

But now, in 1883 Manhattan’s millionaires had continued inching up the avenue and commerce was beginning to engulf the area.  It would seem that the tax-evading Ely leased the house from Lucy Slade; but in any case soon after his name appeared in the newspapers he was gone.

The Presidential Election pitting Democrat Grover Cleveland against James G. Blaine was nearing and on June 26, 1884 The New York Times noted that the Republican National Committee had leased No. 242 Fifth Avenue the day before.  The newspaper said “the building will be opened for the campaign as soon as possible.  It is four stories in height and spacious enough to accommodate the army of clerks and employes which will be required to aid the committee.  It is within easy reach of the hotels which cluster around Madison-square."

The new committee headquarters was opened, symbolically no doubt, on the Fourth of July.  Two weeks later the zeal of the Republicans caused  no small bit of annoyance and inconvenience to neighbors.  B.F. Jones decided that a huge banner with the portraits of Blaine and his vice-presidential candidate, Logan, should be stretched across the avenue for all to see.  The owner of the house directly across the avenue refused to allow the banner to be bolted to his mansion; so it had to be erected diagonally across the thoroughfare to an apartment house.

On July 28 The Sun reported that “At 8:35 last night a sudden gust of wind slapped the Republican candidates in the face, pulled the iron fastening of the banner out of the apartment house wall, and brought things down with a crash on the electric light wires that cross the street.  Mr. B. F. Jones’s wire cut half through the electric line.  The cut wire sputtered like a blue light an instant, and then all the tall globed burners in the avenue from Madison square up to Forty-second street went out with a puff, and left the street nearly pitch dark.”

An engineer from the electric company worked on the dynamos until around midnight trying to correct the problem; then sent out an inspector.  The cut wires could not be repaired until morning.  “Meantime policemen did patrol duty in the dark, and pedestrians couldn’t make out any of the house numbers,” complained The Sun.

When the election was over and the committee gone, the estate of Lucy Slade conceded to the commercialization of the district and hired architect George Harding to convert the mansion for business.  The brownstone façade and stoop were stripped off to be replaced by an up-to-date Queen Anne cast iron front. 

Completed in 1885, Harding’s handsome design focused on appropriate space for the high-end retailers now filling this section of Fifth Avenue.  The street entrance featured modern multi-paned arcade windows below a deep panel of glass tiles.  Immense expanses of glass, made possible by the cast iron, flooded the showrooms of the second and third floors with sunlight.  Above a small cornice and arcade of five openings sat an exuberant parapet featuring a deep pediment filled with intricate ornamentation tied up with a cast iron bow.

The building would become a favorite with exclusive decorating firms, art dealers and auction houses.  On March 25, 1886 The Times reported that “Several windows and other pieces of stained glasswork, designed and manufactured by Mr. John La Farge, are on exhibition at No. 242 Fifth avenue.  The fine effect of color in these pieces are evidence of progress in America in this branch of art.”

The exclusive antiques and decorating firm of H. B. Herts & Son moved here from the Washington Square area.  Stanford White would visit the store as he was furnishing the Metropolitan Club, completed in 1893.  Among his purchases were several clocks and a sideboard that came from the Newport cottage of E. D. Morgan.

Around the corner, at No. 6 West 28th Street, was another high-end antiques dealer, E. J. La Place.  Two years before Stanford White would shop for the Metropolitan Club’s furnishings, both stores were hit by a smooth jewel thief. 

Nettie Kirby Hamburger was the wife of alleged diamond thief Ralph Hamburger, alias Robert Howe, alias De Ford.  While Ralph Hamburger was locked up awaiting arraignment in 1891, his wife was busy on her own.  Nettie browsed through the expensive items in the shops on Fifth Avenue and the neighboring streets.  The well-dressed woman then dropped by pawnshops with valuable jewelry and other items as merchants realized they were missing stock.

A suspicious Detective Cottrell shadowed Nellie and recovered thousands of dollars of stolen merchandise including diamond earrings, a diamond brooch, two silver-mounted cologne bottles, a heart with nine large diamonds and other pieces.  Among the loot was a gold chatelaine watch for which H. B. Herts & Son had paid $900—over $22,000 today.  The Sun reported on July 29, 1891 that E. J. La Place was among the merchants who identified Mrs. Hamburger.

By now H. B. Herts & Son was operated by brothers Maurice A. and Jacques H. Herts.  Upstairs architect Charles De Rahm had his offices. 

In April 1901 H. B. Herts & Sons advertised “A Great Public Sale” at the American Art Galleries on Madison Square South.  The firm had signed a lease for a smaller space which would not be ready until the fall “and being compelled to vacate their present building on May 1st” had to liquidate their entire stock.

The inventory list hinted at not only the firm’s expensive stock; but at its carriage trade customers.  Included were Chippendale, Adam, Empire, Louis XV and XVI, Sheraton, English, Dutch and Colonial furniture; “rare old tapestries, English and Dutch silver, ivories, enamels, bronzes, beautiful clocks and clock sets, silks and brocades.”

For several years, at least from 1902 through 1909, Rupert A. Ryley “men and women’s tailor,” operated from the building.  Tailors on Fifth Avenue in 1902 catered only to the upper classes and Ryley and his wife summered in their own Newport cottage.  The “merchant tailor” held memberships in the Manhattan, Democratic and New York Athletic Clubs and was active in Republican events.

A dashing Rupert A. Ryley (upper left) was possibly wearing a suit he created -- photo from "The Great Sound Money Parade," 1897 (copyright expired)

In May 1902 as his customers prepared for the warmer months, Ryley advertised “golfing, sporting and outdoor costumes.  Riding habits and suits for men and women a specialty.”

Interestingly, in 1903 Auctioneers James P. Silo and A. W. Clarke advertised their sales here as being in the “Rupert A. Ryley Building.”  At the same time The Yale & Towne Mfg. Co. opened its showroom in the building.  The firm dealt in “artistic hardware of higher grades.”  In 1903 it invited is customers, “especially architects and their clients,” to avail themselves “of the improved facilities thus offered for the selection of locks and hardware for buildings of all classes.”

The fashionable address may have been ill-fitted for a hardware showroom, for Yale & Towne seems to have quickly moved on.

Haberdashery Dobbs & Co. moved into the building in 1908, taking the ground floor retail store.  Best known for their gentlemen’s hats, the firm offered items like “silk hats, opera hats, caps, canes and umbrellas.”  In the fall of that year Dobbs & Co. promised in an advertisement “The quality is superb and the styles are of unquestionable taste and propriety.”

A Dobbs & Co. advertisement in the New-York Tribune on September 30, 1911 shows the arcade entrance -- copyright expired
As automobiles began replacing carriages and the wealthy accepted the new trend, Dobbs & Co. was quick to cash in.  On April 19, 1909 an advertisement in the New-York Tribune offered “Owners’ watertight cloth coats and chauffeurs’ complete outfits, together with many practical novelties in Automobile Apparel.”  But it reminded customers of what had made it so successful: hats.  “Derbies and Soft Hats $6, $4, in a variety of smart shapes in exquisite taste and of superb quality.”  The $6 derby would cost about $150 today.

Dobbs & Co. moved next door to No. 244 Fifth Avenue around 1914.  In its place, Edmond P. La Place, who, with Herts & Son, had been robbed by Nettie Hamburger years before, moved in.  In announcing its new home, E. P. La Place listed “period furniture and faithful reproductions, Sheffield plate, antiques, interior decorations—curios, prints, period mirrors, oriental porcelain, tapestries, etc.”

E. P. La Place antiques would remain here until Edmond La Place’s retirement in 1921.  The entire collection was auctioned off on Wednesday, April 13 of that year.

In the meantime, Darling & Co. auctioneers was operating from the building.  The firm was renowned for liquidating the estates of the wealthy and famous.  On May 27, 1919 The Evening World reported that “Thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts, including rare bronzes curios and period furniture, as well as diamonds and other jewels, belonging to the late “Pommery” Bob Vernon, sportsman, horseman and champagne agent” would go under the hammer here the following day.

The first day of that auction netted $11,698 and the Tribune noted that “Evelyn Nesbit Thaw bought several Chinese vases, silver, rugs and trophies.”
The expansive windows exhibited valuable furnishings and artwork--just no nudes.

A month later Darling’s prepared to auction the estate of Princess de Chimay (who was Clara Ward of Detroit before her marriage).  The princess had married violinist Rigo “who was dear to the princess after she fled from her prince husband,” explained the Washington Times on June 27.  Rigo was the beneficiary of her estate and “it was announced that he will play his fiddle on the last day of the sale.”

The auction included about $200,000 of the princess’s personal effects, including furnishings from her “splendid home in Paris and in Egypt on the Nile.”  But it was her portraits that got Darling’s into trouble.

The Washington Times reported “Half a dozen portraits in the nude of the late Princess de Chimey…were placed on sale at auction yesterday…Louis Van Brink, the auctioneer, was quite unhappy because he could not exhibit these works of art in the window and draw a larger crowd.”

When the auctioneer had placed one of the portraits in the window (which Van Brink complained was “not so very nude either, for the princess was wearing a green girdle”) the vice society agents made a visit.  The auction house was informed that the painting would have to be removed from public sight if the managers “wanted to avoid trouble.”

In 1920 playboy millionaire Joseph Browne Elwell, whist expert and turfman, was found murdered in his home.  A pistol was found at the scene, along with a woman’s kimono.  Elwell’s housekeeper told detectives that the kimono “was the property of a woman who made occasional visits to the Elwell house.”  They were also interested in a life-sized painting of a “beautiful woman” that hung in the house who was unidentified.

The furnishings, artwork and personal effects of the Elwell mansion were auctioned at Darling’s in October 1920.  Somewhat astoundingly, at least to 21st century minds, the evidence in the still-unsolved murder mystery was included in the sale.

On October 2 the New-York Tribune reported “A high-backed upholstered chair and a silk kimono, embroidered in blue and black after a Chinese design, made their appearance yesterday in the show window of Darling & Co., auctioneers, 242 Fifth Avenue, and of all the hastening thousands who glanced casually at the rugs and porcelains and figures that formed the remaining decorations of the window there were few who even noticed that the chair and the kimono had been added to the collection.

“Fewer still knew that they constituted chapters in a murder mystery which set New York by the ears less than four months ago—perhaps the opening and the closing chapters.”

The chair was the one in which Elwell had been sitting when a bullet was fired into his head.  The Tribune mentioned both the kimono and the revolver, as well.  “The identity of its owner is as much of a mystery as that of the owner of the revolver with which Elwell was shot.  It was found in a room reserved for women who came to visit Elwell.  No one ever has claimed it and it is listed among his belongings which Darling & Co. are to sell at public auction.”

Although the Elwell auction included priceless items, like a Rembrandt, it was the evidentiary pieces that drew attention. Following the auction the New-York Tribune reported that the kimono had sold for $423.50, and the painting of “the woman in gray” was sold to a man from Fort Worth, Texas for $335 (about $3,300 today).

Following the death of Oscar Hammerstein in August of that year, his widow placed an enormous amount of furnishings and artwork in the hands of Darling & Co.  Along with “magnificent home furnishings” were Carrara marble statuary, sterling silver tea and coffee services, Napoleonic drawing room furnishings and rare bronzes and works of art.  Mrs. Hammerstein included some of her husband’s invaluable possessions.  “Among the articles on view will be a score of ‘Lucia’ in manuscript form, said to be a copy penned by the composer, Donizetti; an old violin, a Chinese vase eight feet tall and a life size bronze statue of Faust and Marguerite, listed as having won first prize at an exhibition at Le Brousse,” said The Sun on August 11, 1920.

A year later more of the impresario’s collection was auctioned here.  The Evening World reported on September 14, 1921 “A Steinway concert grand opera piano is one of the relics that are to come under the hammer.  It may have been the instrument upon which Mr. Hammerstein once composed an entire opera at a single sitting.

“A gold watch presented by the attaches of the Harlem Opera House, on May 8, 1890, has a catalogue number in the same sale.”  There was a massive two-handle sterling silver cup that had been presented to Hammerstein by the Manhattan Grand Opera Company on April 20, 1907.  It bore the signatures of the most illustrious opera figures of the day.  Included in the 28 signatures were those of Campanini, Melba, Calve, Bassi, Giaconia and Muzzio.

By now the high-end jewelers and art dealers had moved further north; taking over Fifth Avenue’s grandest mansions and pushing its millionaires even further up along Central Park.  The days of expensive antiques and artwork were coming to an end for No. 242 Fifth Avenue.
In 1922 the G. L. B. Manufacturing Company was operating here, manufacturing dresses.  Three years later the ground floor was updated and the charming arcade windows were removed.  The second floor was slightly altered at the same time.

Further ground floor alterations would occur in the 20th century and in the 1980s Bank Leumi operated a branch here.  Then around the turn of the 21st century the building was boarded up.  For a decade the structure sat empty and neglected.

Finally, in 2012 a group of investors, “the Pan Brothers,” purchased the building and announced intentions to convert it into four luxurious residential units above the first floor commercial space.  Work commenced in 2013 when the boards were pulled off and the rusting cast iron façade was restored. 

Above street level George Harding’s 1885 transformation of the old brownstone mansion is essentially intact.  And the wonderful cast iron bow in the triangular pediment is fresh again.

 photographs taken by the author

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