Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Gothic Skyscraper at 18-20 East 41st Street

In 1912 the Fifth Avenue neighborhood around 41st Street was no longer the exclusive residential district of a generation earlier.  In 1902 the 10-story Knox Hat Building had replaced the mansion of Colonel Lawrence Kip at the southwest corner of 40th Street while directly across the street the cornerstone was laid for Carrere & Hastings’ masterful New York Public Library.

The Knox Building was an ebullient Beaux Arts concoction while the white marble Library was a more stately and reserved version of the style.  But now a new fashion was making itself known.  Only a few blocks away, at No. 110 West 40th Street, the Gothic Revival World’s Tower Building was rising—a 30-story office building clad in terra cotta.  Simultaneously a Gothic Revival masterpiece, Cass Gilbert’s iconic Woolworth Building, was being erected far downtown.  The style would soon appear just half a block from the Library.

On May 15, 1912 The New York Times reported that two more of the area’s once elegant homes had been purchased.  Judson S. Todd, of the Holland Holding Company, had purchased Nos. 18 and 20 East 41st Street for $275,000—in the neighborhood of $6.4 million today.  Todd commissioned brothers George and Edward Blum to design a 20-story office building on the site.

Known mostly for their apartment buildings, the Blums often worked in the trendy Arts and Crafts style.  But for the 41st Street project, they would turn to Gothic Revival.  Completed the following year, No. 18-20 East 41st Street was less elaborately-ornamented as either the World’s Tower or the Woolworth Building.  But it turned heads, nonetheless. 

The Gothic terra cotta elements included graceful arches, sumptuous floriform clusters and trailing fig-laden vines running down the centers of the two-story piers above the second floor.  In places, the brilliant white glaze was offset by a background of rich, deep blue tiles.  Faceted balconies running 13 stories up the façade were ornamented with heraldic shields. 

The newly completed tower was illustrated in American
Architect and Architecture
on July 29, 1914 (copyright expired)

An advertisement appearing in the New-York Tribune on January 4, 1914 clearly announced that this was an upscale office building.  “No Manufacturing Allowed,” it warned.  The ad touted the new structure’s advantages, including “four high speed elevators” and “light on four sides.”

Art Nouveau married Gothic in the sinuous ornamentation.

A number of medical and educational tenants were among the first to move in.  Dr. E. W. Roberts established his office in the building; and the two-year old Nitchie Service League moved in.  The League “gives scholarships in lip reading with the purpose of helping deaf persons to ‘hear with their eyes,’ and thus be enabled to take their places with the unafflicted,” explained The Outlook on June 20, 1914.

The Nitchie Legue also ran an employment service for the deaf, made loans for those in serious financial straits, and “conducts a club-room and gives entertainments at which persons hard of hearing may meet on equal terms.”

The Directory of Social and Health Agencies of New York City expanded on the goal of the entertainments.  “Among many other problems the League is trying to solve, is the one of bringing light into the lonesome lives of the deaf by aiding them to enjoy social life by means of teas, receptions, plays, contests, etc., for the deaf.  No limitations as to age, sex, nationality, race or sect.”

Four years later the School for the Hard of Hearing, run by the Nitchie League in the building, would find itself with a new group of students.  In 1918 soldiers were returning to the States having lost their hearing in combat.  The school established special classes for deaf soldiers.

Even more visible in the building were horse racing organizations.  The Turf and Field Club, the Jockey Club, United Hunts Racing Association, and the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association all had their headquarters here.  For years the rules of horse racing would be discussed and changed in The Jockey Club’s offices.  On April 13, 1916, for instance, rules were changed relating to the number of races a horse could participate within a day; the naming of foals (to prevent duplicate names); and a rule quite alien to non-horse types:

“It was the unanimous opinion of those present that the amendment to the rule doing away with the allowance of three pounds to geldings should not be considered retroactive.  It was, therefore, resolved that in future geldings would be entitled to the three-pound allowance in all stakes which closed prior to the passage of the rule,” explained The New York Times to readers who understood horse racing.

In 1914 New York City, Queens and New Jersey were still the center of the motion picture industry.  The newly-formed Motion Picture Board of Trade of America established its offices here in 1915.  Its purpose was to “further the interests of the motion picture industry in every legitimate way, giving special attention to legislation proposed or on the statue books considered unjust.”

Already in the building was the International Education League which endeavored to spread the teachings of the Church and Social Service Bureau through motion pictures.  The Duke of Manchester had invested a sizable amount of the $10,000,000 capital.  The New York Times, on September 24, 1914, noted “The Duke expected to sell his stock with ease, and through his own acquaintances to obtain valuable film rights in Eastern countries.”

But then war broke out in Europe, upsetting the League’s plans.  “The war caused such a scarcity of money that it is said not a single share of the stock was sold,” reported the newspaper.  To make matters worse, C. J. Hite, President of the Thanhouse Moving Picture Company,” said to be the practical man of the league,” had died just a few weeks before the Times article.

On September 23 the office was closed and the furniture carted away.  It was all too much for the Duke of Manchester who suffered a nervous breakdown in Philadelphia.

A long-term tenant was the London-based pharmaceutical firm Burroughs Wellcome & Company.  The firm manufactured “compressed medicine tablets” marketed under the brand name “Tabloid”—a blending of the words “tablet” and “alkaloid.”

A clever item was this traveling first-aid kid -- Flying, September 1915 (copyright expired)
Burroughs Wellcome & Company expanded into New York in 1912.  It would be a presence in No. 18-20 East 41st Street well into the 1920s.   By then the New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects had its headquarters in the building.  In 1925 landscape architect Harold A. Caparn suggested changes to Central Park.

He told reporters that the fact that just two men (Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux) could produce the vast project “is a little less than a miracle.”  But, he said, they were “only human” and “these two young men made, as I see it, two mistakes.”

Caparn offered that the Park should be pointed at the northern and southern ends, rather than following the grid plan.  He felt that modern traffic would not “butt into it,” but flow smoothly to either side.  He also complained that there was a “lack of shortcuts” for traffic to transverse the park.

Finally, he wanted to see the Central Park Reservoir removed.  “Central Park ought to be completed, and this cannot be done so long as the reservoirs are there,” he said.  During the 1920s the historic integrity of buildings and places like Central Park were, on the whole, under-appreciated.  Looking back it is somewhat surprising that none of Caparn’s suggestions were put in place.

Perhaps the building’s most unusual use of space was by The Homeland Company.  Beginning in the early 1920s the firm leased several floors in the building.  Here full model homes were constructed, complete with yards.  In 1928 Homeland Company added more space and on May 13 The New York Times announced “In the several floors which the company now occupies will be found typical models and pictures of homes which have already been built, together with blueprints and plans, showing varied types of architecture which ‘fit’ into given locations.

“On one floor will be a typical home with a garden layout, with walks and shrubs.  Around this, will be landscape paintings of actual homes in their Westchester settings, pictures of home communities and models of communities, complete.”

On another floor, said the newspaper, customers browsed among “specimen doorways, staircases, and ornamental windows, built-in home apparatus, such as bookcases, dresser closets, breakfast nooks which fold into the wall out of sight, kitchen cabinets, wrought iron hinges, lamps, copper and brass housefittings and furniture, shades, awnings, types of roofing, hot water heating devices and showers.”

The following year The Times noted that the Permanent Home Planners’ Exposition, which had been for three years at No. 441 Lexington Avenue, would be held at No. 18-20 East 41st Street.  Three floors of the building would present home builders with the latest in domestic architectural ideas.

The 20th floor of No. 18-20 was converted to a six-room penthouse apartment which, in 1930, was home to motion picture director Dudley Murphy.  On January 15 that year the apartment would be the scene of a mysterious death appropriate for one of Murphy’s movies. 

Designer John M. Barbour shared the apartment with Murphy.  In December 1929 the director had met Harriet Adler, the estranged wife of a bond broker, at the Algonquin Hotel where he frequently lunched with the literary group composing “the round table.”

Three weeks later Murphy and Barbour went to the theater.  Upon leaving they ran into friends who wanted to get a bite to eat.  Murphy joined them and Barbour went back to the penthouse.  There he received a call from Harriet Adler asking for Murphy.  When he told her Murphy was not home, she called back within 15 minutes; and then again.  The third time she accused Barbour of being Murphy, disguising his voice and said she was coming to the apartment at once.

It was after 1:30 in the morning when she appeared at the door.   According to The New York Times on January 16, 1930, “Half an hour later Murphy entered the apartment.  Both men said they offered to escort Mrs. Adler home.  When she insisted upon staying, they excused themselves and went to bed, according to the stories they told the detectives.”

At 9:15 Neutrice St. Louis, the maid, let herself in.  Harriett was still lying on the sofa and the men were both asleep.  Around 10:15 someone rang the doorbell, which awakened Murphy who, according to The Times, “shuffled into the living room in bathrobe and slippers.”  He tried to rouse Harriett Adler, but she was dead.

Suspiciously, the police were not notified until nearly noon.  They found a well-dressed corpse.  “Mrs. Adler was wearing a black satin dress, black mesh stockings and gray kid shoes…Upon one wrist Mrs. Adler wore a jade link bracelet, and upon the other a platinum wrist watch set with diamond chips.  She wore a diamond ring upon one of the fingers of her left hand.”

There was one thing that bothered Dr. Harry Weinberg, Assistant Medical Examiner.  “In some manner the string of pearls had been pressed against Mrs. Adler’s throat until they left tiny indentations in the flesh.  These ligature marks and a slight discoloration of the face hinted strongly enough at possible strangulation, Dr. Weinberg said, to make it wise to ‘avoid guess-work.’”

One detective offered an outlandish explanation that would relieve the well-known motion picture figure from suspicion.  “The only indication of any sinister circumstances was the imprint of the pearls upon her neck,” said The Times.  “The indentation was not deep, and Detective Mullarney said he believed the woman, in fainting, had caught her arm in the necklace and drawn it tightly about her throat.”

The lowest floors were obliterated in the late 20th century; but a sympathetic renovation approximates the original storefronts.

There were still medical firms in the building as the decades elapsed.  In 1940 Theodore Radin, Inc. was here, peddling cures for a variety of ailments.  But on May 17 that year the Federal Trade Commission ordered the firm to cease representing its medicines as “cures and remedies for asthma, hay fever, sinus discomfort and bronchial irritations, and that they are absolutely harmless, no matter how often used.”

The Commission said that the epinephrine and ephedrine in the firm’s products would cause tissue damage “from anoxemia” over a period of time.

Through the 1950s Young America Films, Inc. was in the building, the last instance of the long-standing motion picture industry presence at No. 18-20 East 41st.

As happened with so many structures, George & Edward Blum’s handsome storefront was annihilated at some point.  But before 2012 a sympathetic restoration was completed.  The renovated lower floors are the result of an admirable attempt to tie them to the original Gothic design above.

As was the case in 1914, No. 18-20 East 41st Street is heavily occupied by medical offices.  The striking Gothic Revival façade is worth a detour down the mostly-overlooked block.

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