At the turn of the last century the block of West 38th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was lined with brownstone rowhouses. By now the millinery district would reached this far north, engulfing the once fashionable neighborhood. As the homeowners fled, the businesses moved in.
That quickly changed, as well. The old houses were quickly snapped up by developers who razed them for soaring loft and store buildings. On March 25, 1911 The Sun made note of the changes. “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 a thing of the past.”
Developer William H. Wheeler seemed to be determined to transform the block of West 38th Street alone. At the time of The Sun’s article, he had replaced four brownstones at Nos. 8 through 14 with the Murray Hill Building; two at Nos. 28 and 30 for his Wheeler Building; and the day before had purchased Nos. 24 and 26 where he intended to build “a twelve story store and loft building.”
But Judson S. Todd would make his mark on the block as well. Like Wheeler, Todd and his Holland Holding Co. were a major force in Manhattan real estate. On January 21, 1912 The New York Times reported that Mrs. M. J. Parrott had sold Todd the two houses at Nos. 65 and 67 West 38th Street, and that Dr. J. E. Serre sold him the house next door at No. 63. The newspaper pointed out that Todd “last week purchased…the abutting property, 62 and 64 West Thirty-ninth Street.”
|In 1911 brownstones like these at Nos. 60 and 62 still lined West 38th Street. from the Collection of the New York Public Library
The developer now owned a large plot running through the block and he immediately put architect Frederick C. Zobel, to work on designs. The choice of architect was no doubt influenced by the organization of the Colony Construction Company, of which Zobel’s brother, Robert P. Zobel, was president.
Two months later plans were filed for a “twelve-story store and light manufacturing building” with an anticipated cost of $400,000—about $9.3 million today. “The façade will be of brick and terra cotta, and it will be fireproof through,” reported The Times.
The building was completed in 1913. Although the 38th Street side was wider that the 39th—62 feet as opposed to 46 feet—Zobel masterfully designed identical facades. Within the past decade terra cotta had been used to create elaborate Gothic Revival commercial structures like the Woolworth and World’s Tower Buildings. It now appeared on Zobel’s Colony Arcade. The lower three floors were embellished with Gothic arches, heraldic shields, and quatrefoils. Demanding the most attention, however, were the magnificently-executed pairs of spread-winged eagles that perched above the entrances.
The Colony Arcade Building quickly filled with tenants and, as expected, most were millinery firms. Shortly after its doors opened it was home to The Crest Brand Bandeau Co “makers of bandeaux and hat linings.” The Illustrated Milliner reported in June 1913 that “The offices and sample rooms are being tastefully fitted up and all the appurtenances of manufacturing this line of goods have been installed.”
|Jos. Levin Co moved in during the building's first year of operation. The Illustrated Milliner, June 1913 (copyright expired)
Simultaneously, Jos. Levin Co., Inc. was in the building, manufacturing tailored hats; as was Bonhotal Co. Once settled in, Bonhotal Co. advertised that its “early Fall lines” were ready, including “tailored and fancy hats” and 150 styles of “black and mourning hats.”
Soon other ladies’ hat manufacturers were here, including Richard Sentner; Sternberger & Marks; and H. Goldfarb (advertising “Every new idea in shape, material and trimmings—clever models with ribbons, gold and silver ornaments, fancies, flowers, ostrich, etc.”). A manufacturer not in the millinery industry was Harry Rothleder who leased space toward the end of 1913. The firm manufactured and sold furs in the building.
|Sentner's $36 price tag was for a dozen hats -- Dry Goods Economist, July 1914 (copyright expired)
Little by little over the years, as the Garment District crept into the area, the Colony Arcade Building would see more apparel firms. In the meantime, however, the enormous ground floor space—a full 20,000 square feet—was leased by Winifred T. McDonald “for a term of years” in October 1914. In reporting on the deal, The New York Times felt it was a reflection of the “growing importance of the Thirty-eighth Street block, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, due to the Lord & Taylor store at Fifth Avenue and the new elevated station at Sixth Avenue.”
|Cast metal spandrels carried on the Gothic motif.
The Times said “After extensive alterations the place will be opened as a restaurant and tearoom.” Winifred McDonald hired architect Patrick Reynolds to do the $7,000 in alterations. The tearoom and café was opened early in 1915. To separate the working men from the female shoppers and shop girls, the tearoom and café were separate from the “men’s grill.”
|Winifred T. McDonald offered music to her patrons -- The Sun, May 23, 1915 (copyright expired)
Later that year the 39th Street block was closed off for a 4th of July block party thrown by workers in the area. Hattie Meyer worked as a seamstress and the 35-year old participated in the Vacation Committee’s plans for the event. When the day came, she left her house at No. 228 East 12th Street dressed all in white with a red, white and blue badge, and excitedly headed off to the festivities.
“She had entered the block in West Thirty-ninth street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, where the celebration was taking place, when she became ill and started to fall,” reported The Sun on July 6. People passing by saw her drop to the pavement and helped her into the hallway of the Colony Arcade. “An ambulance was called from the New York Hospital, but before it arrived Miss Mayer died.”
The seamstress’s body was removed to the West 13th Street police station. The Sun said “The band kept on playing and none of the Fourth of July dancers knew of the fate of one of their committee members.”
Harry Silverstein was working for Freundlick & Sons in the building in 1916. Around 1:00 on a Saturday in February that year he was walking along Fifth Avenue nearby at 45th Street, when he noticed a necklace on the ground. The honest worker took it to a lawyer, David Lewis, and the pair searched the lost and found ads in The World. The newspaper reported on February 21 that “they noticed that a necklace answering the description of the one Silverstein found had been lost by Mrs. Emil Sperling, who lives at the St. Regis Hotel.”
The pearl necklace with a silver clasp had dropped from her neck while walking down Fifth Avenue. The attorney took the necklace to Mr. Sperling who handed him a $600 reward for Silverstein. “The necklace was valued at $12,000,” said The World. The garment worker’s honesty earned him what would be essentially that same amount in today’s dollars.
|The wonderfully detailed facade survives, even at street level.
The Movement established a “restricted zone” and encouraged manufacturers to avoid it. The mayor supported the program and initiated zoning restrictions for construction going forward from 32nd Street to 59th Street, from Third to Seventh Avenue. J. H. Burton, Chairman of the Save New York Committee, explained to Buildings and Building Management magazine that the movement was designed “to preserve the character of our shopping, retail and residence sections.”
The Movement made itself known in the Colony Arcade Building in 1916 when one of its largest tenants moved out. On November 14 that year The New York Times reported “Hollow & Perlow, one of the largest manufacturers of silk waists in the city, who moved uptown when the northward movement of trade began several years ago, have declared their allegiance to the ‘Save New York Movement,’ and will move out of the restricted zone.” The firm, “which employs a large force” had decided to move south to 25th Street.
|Millinery and apparel workers cram the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue in 1917 -- Buildings and Building Management, February 1917 (copyright expired)
“We are in hearty sympathy with the ‘Save New York Movement,’ and believe that this wonderful business section of New York City should not be marred or depreciated by the manufacturing industry,” said D. Parlow. “Success to the movement, which should be supported by every manufacturer who has the interest of the trade at heart, even if they do entail a sacrifice of choice location.”
In 1922 Robert P. Zobel sold the building to Brooklyn real estate operators Levy Brothers. The $1.25 million all-cash deal drew understandable attention. The New York Times noted that the building “is occupied almost exclusively by the millinery trade and shows a gross annual rent of about $150,000.”
While the Colony Arcade Building continued to be occupied by hat manufacturers, a vastly different firm moved in within a few years. The Radiovision Corporation was among the pioneering television firms. On July 9, 1928 it conducted a public demonstration at the Hotel Mayflower of the Cooley “Rayfoto” system. Invented by Austin G. Cooley, The New York Times reported that “The apparatus demonstrated transmitted and received four by five inch pictures in less than three minutes each.”
Later that year, in August, Radiovision Corporation announced the invention of “a new light cell, which…will greatly aid the realization of practical radio television.” During a demonstration of the cell, the company’s vice president, Edgar H. Felix said “it can be utilized to perform such functions about the house as turning on the hot-water heater, starting the furnace or closing the windows at sunrise.”
That never happened.
The building continued to house hat firms through the last quarter of the 20th century. Most amazingly, however, the ground floors of the handsome structure were never destroyed by modernization. The building was converted by in 2012 to a boutique hotel, the Refinery Hotel. Zobel’s eye-catching terra cotta façade survives astoundingly intact on a block that was almost entirely transformed during the first decades of the 20th century.
photographs by the author
photographs by the author