Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Salvator -- No. 363 W 57th Street

In the 1880s upper class New Yorkers flocked to Central Park to enjoy the open air and landscaped greenery.  But they were careful to avoid the neighborhood that nearly abutted the southwest corner of the Park.  For nearly two decades Hell’s Kitchen had been rife with crime and poverty.   In 1881 The New York Times described the district as “one of the most miserable and crime-polluted neighborhoods in this City” and said “there is more disease, crime, squalor, and vice to the square in this part of New-York.”

By now developers worked to replace dilapidated wooden and brick hovels with tenement houses for the mostly immigrant working class residents of Hell’s Kitchen.  James D. McCabe, in 1882, placed the monthly rent on a tenement apartment at between $10 and $30—a range of around $200 to $600 today. 

One of these was a five-story building at the northeastern fringe of Hell’s Kitchen.   Sitting at the northeast corner Ninth Avenue and West 57th Street, it was a mere 20 feet wide on 57th Street; but stretched 100 feet up the avenue.  The residential entrance was centered on Ninth Avenue, allowing for commercial space facing 57th Street.  Called The Salvator it was intended for working class families; but that did not mean it gave up architectural style.

The Salvator's entrance was centered on 9th Ave.  Above it, triangular pediments and a make-believe balcony decorated the otherwise spartan side of the building.  The cornice on this side has been lost.
The designs of British architect Charles Eastlake had reached New York by now.  He preferred angles and corners to the rounded arches and bulbous balconies of a generation earlier.  The Salvator’s 57th Street façade embraced Eastlake’s ideas—most notably in the protruding bay that rose the height of the building.  While the brick elevation of Ninth Avenue was relatively unadorned—there were carved pediments and a pretty pseudo-balcony above the entrance—the cast iron 57th Street façade was a riot of ornamentation.  Most likely all chosen from the foundry’s catalog, there was a sedate female face, a winged cherub’s head, festoons and fans.  The appearance of the Salvator announced that even tenants with little means could have dignity.

The ordered riot of ornamentation created visual overload.
The Salvator however, fell short of its promise.   Owned by Martin Mahon, the proprietor of the New Amsterdam Hotel, he kept an apartment there in addition to his suite at the New Amsterdam and his house at No. 74 Irving Place.  The Salvator apartment, it later became clear, was to keep his trysts secret from his wife.

Prior to 1896, Mahon sold The Salvator to  C. E. Johnson, a tailor, and his wife, Fannie.    Johnson ran his tailoring shop in the 57th Street store while Fannie ran the apartment house.  Many tenants, it appears, rented by the month rather than the year.

Martin Mahon retained his apartment in the building.  He later testified that the Johnsons “mortgaged it for $55,000, and he collected the rents and helped pay off the interest.”  Mahon denied that he used his out of the way pied a terre for scandalous meetings; yet “he admitted that he had met many young women there, and they had played and sang for him.”

Trouble for Mahon began when William A. E. Moore and his wife, Fayne Moore, took an apartment.  Moore was a conman and thief and his accomplice wife was attractive.   A dalliance between Mahon and Fayne Moore came to light after her husband was convicted for theft and assault, and she was on trial for first degree robbery.

The projecting bay would have provided luxurious extra light inside, as well as a quaint sitting area.

Jurors heard that Fayne Moore “had often sang and played for him” and that ten weeks before the trial, in December 1898, she had asked for his $20 diamond pin.   The 43-year old Mahon testified that he called on Mrs. Moore five times at The Salvator.  “I told her I was married, but I liked her company and tried to keep it,” he said.

An attorney asked “Had you an honest purpose in visiting that girl at Mrs. Johnson’s?” and Mahon insisted “My purpose was honest.  I liked to hear her play and sing.  I never knew the class of people who went to Mrs. Johnson’s, but I believe they were respectable.”

Fayne Moore’s singing and playing must have been quite extraordinary.  The New York Times reported that while on the stand “Mahon continued that he had taken Mrs. Moore driving, to the theatre, and to dinners; that once he gave her a piano and on another occasion had loaned her $15 at Mrs. Johnson’s.  He had let her take his diamond pin, and later loaned her a bracelet of diamonds and sapphires, which she told him she wanted to purchase from him.”

In addition to Martin Mahon, the court case would involve several tenants and Fannie Johnson.  Slurs and accusations were luridly reported in the press as Victorian readers clung to the sensational story.  In the meantime, William and Fayne Moore waited for the outcome in a joint prison cell.  “The Moores spent yesterday quietly in the Tombs, most of the time reading newspapers,” recounted The New York Times on December 12, 1898.

Shortly after the court case, the Johnsons sold The Salvator to real estate operator Charles Kneeland.   Following his death, his widow Adele sold the property at auction in 1901 to cover a $58,430 lien.  Johnson’s tailor shop was now the home of K. G. Carter’s furniture store.

The portion of Hell’s Kitchen around The Salvator was improving, as reflected in its residents.  Artist Jessie Leith was here in 1905 and urologist Albert Goldey lived here in 1918.  Nevertheless, incomes remained low.  John F. Murray was a long-term resident, from at least 1910 to 1919.  A Transit Inspector for the city, he earned $1,320 a year in 1917—about $25,000 in today’s terms.

Real estate men were shocked on March 22, 1919 when Paul Henry Zagat, president of the City Real Estate Improvement Corporation signed a 99-year lease on the aging building.  The aggregate rent was about $1 million.  “The property will probably be remodeled by the new owners,” suggested the New-York Tribune.

Jacob Robert Shapero lived in the building in 1920.  The 32-year old was a 1st Lieutenant in the Medical Department, Dental Section, of the U.S. Army Reserves.   Seven years later the Gaston family would call No. 363 West 57th Street home.  Harry Gaston was 14 years old and on February 27, 1927, an unusually nice winter day lured him and two friends on an adventure.

Harry and brothers John and George Conway, 14 and 12 years old respectively, set off to Pelham Bay Park.  Pre-planning was apparently not their forte; for they left with enough money to get to the park, but did not have the 15 cent fare for the subway home.

“The boys saw an automobile standing with others in front of Kane’s Pelham Bay Inn, and instantly their transportation problem was solved to their own satisfaction.  The three got into the car, the elder Conway boy took the wheel and off towards Manhattan they sped,” reported The New York Times the next day.

The car’s owner, Eugene Wager, heard the engine start up and ran outside just in time to see it disappearing around a corner.  He borrowed another car and gave chase.   Wager tried for two miles to catch up to his automobile; all the while afraid that there were armed crooks inside.

The chase played out like a scene from a silent movie.  At East Tremont Avenue and Eastern Boulevard, Patrolman Campbell jumped on the running board of the car Wager was driving.  A little further along Patrolman Tiedemann jumped on as well.  Half a mile later young Conway realized he was being chased by the police and pulled over onto a side street.

“Then, to the amazement of Wager and the two policemen, instead of armed men alighting, they saw three youngsters in short trousers pile out and run.  Campbell fired a couple of shots in the air and the fugitives halted.”

The would-be car thieves spent the night in the Children’s Society.

In the 1940s the elevated train ran up the still-gritty 9th Avenue.  An Irish bar, Finnigan's, is in No. 363, and a dentist office is on the second floor.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

It was apparently Zagat who rescued The Salvator when the row of similar structures along the 57th Street block was razed for the hulking Henry Hudson Hotel in 1929.  The lone survivor suddenly took on a very skinny appearance.  Thirty-two years into the 99-year lease, Eugene H. Zagat purchased No. 363, in June 1951.  The Times described it as “consisting of fifteen apartments, a professional office and six stores.” 

In 1961 Lou’s Corner Bar was in the ground floor space.  In an incident recalling the Hell’s Kitchen days of the 1880s, 35-year old Joseph Griffin met his death there on March 23.  Described by police as “a hoodlum with a long record,” he sat at the bar unaware of a heavy-set, six-foot assailant approaching from behind.

The man, estimated to be about 35 years old, pulled out a gun and shot Griffin twice in the head at close range.  As he staggered off his bar stool, the gunman fired three more times, but missed.  Then, somewhat amazingly The Times reported, “apparently as an afterthought, the gunman ordered the bartender, William Gallagher, to empty the register.”

The retail space where C. E. Johnson ran his tailor shop is now a corner deli.

Lou’s Corner Bar was gone by the 1970s, replaced by Antores Spiro’s cocktail lounge and restaurant.  Today a delicatessen engulfs the entire ground floor.  The cast iron façade, sorely neglected and in disrepair in the late 20th century, has been sanded and painted.  The narrow 20-foot 57th Street front is both delightful and slightly comical next to its behemoth neighbor.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Cathy R. for requesting this post 

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Samuel Shaw Mansion -- No. 280 West End Avenue

In 1887 developer William J. Merritt began an ambitious project on the developing Upper West Side just east of Riverside Drive.  Like many other real estate moguls who bought up long rows of property for speculative homes, he planned 18 high-end houses lining both sides of West 73rd Street between West End Avenue and Broadway.  Merritt’s completed residences were intended for well-to-do merchant class families—except for the mammoth mansion anchoring the northeast corner of West End Avenue and 73rd Street.

Designed by Charles T. Mott, the house took two years to build.  The somewhat somber looking Romanesque Revival mansion featured rounded, tower-like oriels at the corners which were connected by a long iron balcony at the third floor (no doubt a great temptation for Victorian children).  A matching, smaller balcony sprouted one floor above.  Merritt placed the three upper stories of brown brick on a sandstone base.  While the centered entrance was at No. 277 West 73rd Street, most future owners would prefer to use the address of No. 280 West End Avenue.

Merritt could not have hoped for a more prestigious buyer of the newly-completed mansion.  In 1889 the Harvard College Class of 1874 Fifth Report of the Class Secretary reported that Ulysses Simpson Grant and his family was “latterly” living at No. 277 West Seventy-Third Street.  Despite the General’s short-lived residency (the family had moved on within the year), the house would wear his name for decades.

Following Grant in the house was the electrical pioneer and inventor, Frank J. Sprague.  Among his important advancements was the invention of the trolley system.  He held the positions of Vice-President with the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company, and consulting engineer of the Edison General Electric Company. 

Following a meeting of the Electrical Club on February 26, 1891, during which he spoke, The Evening World wrote “Mr. Sprague is an alert-looking man, with a clear gray eye, and knows as much about electricity as any one hereabouts.  Electricity is a mine not yet half explored, and, if I mistake not, Mr. Sprague is a miner who will bring from it great things.”

Gruesome boars watch over the entrance.  Two bottle-glass windows survive above.
Sprague’s wife, Mary, had strong opinions about electricity as well—as least concerning the poles which supported electric wires.  The title to the mansion was in Mary’s name and she had no intention of having a falling telephone pole damage her property.

During a major winter storm in January 1891, most of the poles of the Metropolitan Telephone and Telegraph Company on 73rd Street between The Boulevard (later renamed Broadway) and West End Avenue crashed to the ground.  The poles were 70 feet high and 20 inches in diameter with 17 cross arms each, carrying ten wires.  When the heavy poles fell, one damaged the residence of D. S. Lamont and another crashed onto the stoop of W. L. Trenholm.

The Sun reported on January 28 “The poles which remain are being propped up and the company proposes to use them again.  Mrs. Sprague objects, contending that the wires should be put under ground.”  Mary sued the telephone company and won an injunction restraining the firm from erecting or maintaining poles or wires on the block.

Frank chimed in on the problem of telephone poles in the high-class neighborhood.  The Sun said that he felt “These are a serious obstruction to light and air, and one of them stands in front of his wife’s house on the corner of West End avenue and Seventy-third street.  He is afraid it will fall, as it was cracked and warped by the recent store, which leveled to the ground all of the poles on the street from the Boulevard to West End avenue.”

The house became home to Eli Perkins, a former Southerner who ranted in The Tariff Review in 1894 “Dog-on your Yankee patriotism!  We have Southern patriotism and brains, and now enough of you Yankees have voted with us to put us in power.  We are the nation, too, and you Yankees are out.”

By the turn of the century Perkins was gone and the socially-visible James G. Marshall and his wife had moved in.  The Scottish-born merchant and broker was a member of McIntyre & Wardwell.  Within only a couple years of Marshall’s purchase of the house, the firm would become McIntyre & Marshall.  The wealthy couple owned a country estate in New Jersey and was noted for their many thoroughbred racing and show horses.

While the Marshalls enjoyed a clear view of the New Jersey palisades from their western windows when they purchased the house; it would be short-lived.  In 1901 millionaire Charles M. Schwab purchased the entire block from Riverside Drive to West End Avenue, from 73rd to 74th Streets.  The Marshalls’ view would become one of a rising block-encompassing chateau.

In the meantime, the couple carried on with the activities expected of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.  Tally-ho parties, or coaching parties, were a favorite pastime of the upper-class and on May 13, 1903 James G. Marshall took the reins of a four-in-hand coach.  In the coach were his wife, Mrs. Helen Wood of Pittsburgh, Mrs. Theodore Hostetter, real estate dealer R. Lawrence Smith and two grooms.

The party was headed to Van Cortlandt Park and things were going merrily until the coach reached the top of the hill at 181st Street and Amsterdam Avenue around 3:30.  A street car came rapidly over the hill and smashed into the rear of the coach.  Mrs. Wood was thrown from the coach and severely injured.  One of the grooms, John Witherton, was tossed out in front of the street car.  Caught by a fender, he was dragged about 60 feet and was also seriously hurt.

Marshall told police that he was driving the coach at about no more than six miles an hour; but that the trolley was speeding along at as much as 12 miles per hour.  “The motorman, as I see it, must have willfully disobeyed orders,” he said.

Mrs. Wood had been at the top of the coach, directly behind Marshall.  As she was thrown to the ground, she briefly caught hold of a railing, which helped to break her fall.  Nevertheless, she struck the wheel and her face hit the ground first. 

The groom suffered worse injuries.  The New York Times said “Witherton was pushed along roughly by the fender, being mashed all the time against the cobblestones.  At last he was thrown off the track unconscious.”

In the meantime the female passengers of the trolley car “became frightened and many of the women screamed.”  The havoc was increased by the terrified horses which threatened to bolt away.  Police controlled the frightened animals and the injured were removed to the hospital.

Marshall decided not to press charges against the motorman.  He took the coach back to the stables, then took Mrs. Witherton to the hospital to see her husband.  “Mr. Marshall gave orders that the groom should be taken to his home, at 280 West End Avenue,” said the newspaper.

The Marshalls were summering at Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts in 1905 when the mansion was burglarized.  The New York Times ran a headline on September 2, 1905 “Thief in Old Grant House.”

The mansions of New York were fertile ground for burglars in the summer.  Many were totally closed and those that we not had only one or two servants as caretakers.  Twenty-seven year old Emil Edwards was a struggling sculptor and, armed with a glass cutter, candle and revolver, he headed for 280 West End Avenue on the night of September 1.

Entering through a third story window, he helped himself to a gold bracelet, two gold chains and two gold fobs, three pairs of opera glasses, a gold-and-silver vase, and other expensive items.  He almost got away with his hefty haul.

As he sneaked out of the house, he saw Policeman Leehane standing at the corner of West End Avenue and 73rd Street.  He ducked into the mansion’s sidewalk moat. A man approached the officer saying “Did you hear something drop?”

“Yes, it sounded like a bolt,” replied the officer.

He investigated and, looking down over the five foot wall, saw Edwards crouching in the shadows.  He ordered the burglar to “come out of there” and received the response “Guess I might as well; you’ve got the drop on me.”

At the 63rd Street Station House, Edwards admitted his guilt, saying “I was down and out; I’ve been hungry for three days.”

By April 29, 1909 when Marshall sold the mansion, Charles Schwab had stolen the limelight from Ulysses S. Grant.  In reporting the sale the New-York Tribune’s headline read “Deal Near C. M. Schwab’s Home” and noted that the $100,000 property “faces the home of Charles M. Schwab.” 

Marshall had sold the house to Samuel T. Shaw, the proprietor of the Grand Union Hotel.  He was nationally-noted for his art collecting and the walls of the Grand Union were hung with American art.  Among the artists he patronized were William M. Chase, Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson, Charles W. Eaton and Emil Carlsen.  By World War I it would reportedly be the largest collection of American art in the nation.

Shaw’s deep involvement in the art world was reflected in his memberships in the Society of American Artsts, the National Academy of Design, the National Art and the Salmagundi Clubs.  A year after moving into the 73rd Street house, Shaw purchased another mansion at No. 41 West 74th Street.  This would become the clubhouse of the Fakirs’ Club which he founded.  “The object of the club, which has been in existence for two years, is to encourage the embryo artist after he leaves school and before he enters the commercial world,” said the New-York Tribune on December 23, 1910, the day after the clubhouse’s house-warming.

While Shaw collected art and ran his hotel, his wife, the former Joan Baird, entertained in the house.  Receptions and afternoon teas were regularly reported in society pages until 1914 when Joan unexpectedly died.

Two years later, on October 4, 1916, The New York Times wrote “The many friends of Samuel T. Shaw, the patron of art and former hotel proprietor…will be interested to learn that he is to remarry.”  Now retired, he had proposed to the Italian-born widow Madame Amalia Dalumi Luzzatto.

“It will mark the culmination of a romance which began when Mr. Shaw took up the study of foreign languages, not so very long ago, principally of Italian.  Mme. Luzzatto, who gives private instruction in that language, was his teacher.”

As automobiles replaced horses on the streets of New York, the under-regulated and under-trained motorists caused havoc on the crowded streets.  On August 18, 1919 alone police reported that no fewer than 50 pedestrians had been struck and one killed by automobiles.  Among the injured was 25-year old Frank Festero, one of the Shaw’s household staff, who was “run down at Broadway and Seventy-second Street,” according to The Times.

In May 1920 Amalia Shaw embarked on a project to redecorate the Victorian interiors.  She commissioned architect Fred R. Hirsh to renovate the mansion.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on May 29 that the alterations would include “remove staircases, stairs, partitions, new cellar, stairs, addition, entrance hall, coal room, servants’ room, toilet rooms, reinforce ceiling.”  The ambitious project was estimated to cost the Shaws $20,000—about a quarter of a million dollars today.

The Grand Union Hotel had been closed in 1914 and in 1926 the American Art Galleries auctioned off the bulk of Samuel T. Shaw’s collection.  Some of the best examples of American art in the country, however, remained on the walls of No. 280 West End Avenue.

When Amalia Dalumi Shaw died in the house on April 1, 1940, Palmina Sestero and Amalia Sestero were living here as well.  The two women received generous bequeaths, leading to the assumption that they were relatives.  The Sesteros were still sharing the house in 1944 when The Times reported that “Mr. and Mrs. A. Ernest Sestero announce the engagement of their daughter Amalla Faustina to Allan John Melvin.”

Early in 1945 Samuel Shaw became ill.  On February 10 the 84-year old art collector died in the house on West 73rd Street.  The estate soon sold the mansion to Henry Goelet, who quickly resold it on January 6, 1946.  It was sold again in October to the 280 West End Avenue Corporation.  That sale brought the mansion's long life as a private home to an end.

Within the year it had been converted to two spacious apartments per floor.  While most mid-century conversions were unsympathetic to the interiors, this was not brutal.  Much of the architectural detailing was preserved.

Leaded and stained glass, Corinthian pilasters and an Italian Renaissance fountain survive --
The exterior of the mansion remains remarkably intact.  The light moat where a burglar once tried to hide from a policeman has been filled in and its five-foot wall lost; and other expected changes like replacement windows have been made.  Yet the Shaw mansion is a vivid reminder of a time when the imposing homes of wealthy New Yorkers lined the avenues of the Upper West Side.

non-credited photographs by the author

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The 1916 Silk Exchange Cafe -- No. 47 E 29th Street

The Arts & Crafts architectural details were obliterated in a 2014 makeover.

When the esteemed dentist, Dr. Elbert Todd, died in his handsome four-story home at No. 47 East 29th Street on January 8, 1902, the neighborhood was in flux.  Fifteen years after beginning his practice, Todd had purchased the house in 1876.  Sitting between Madison and Park Avenues, it was just a few blocks removed from the Fifth Avenue and Murray Hill mansion districts.

Dr. Todd’s first wife had died in 1881; but he remarried.  A grown son, Ezra Washburn Todd, was also a dentist.  At the time of his death, Todd’s 14- and 17-year old daughters lived in the house with him and his wife, Caroline.  Friends and family who pulled up to the East 29th Street house for the doctor’s funeral in stylish black carriages would have noticed that the private homes on the block were being converted for business purposes.

By now even Fifth Avenue had changed below 34th Street.  Not only had upscale shops like art galleries and dressmakers taken over the brownstone mansions; but many had been replaced by commercial structures.  Only four months after Dr. Todd’s funeral an advertisement appeared in the New-York Tribune seeking bachelor tenants for the house.  “Large rooms, newly furnished; bath on each floor; gentlemen only; house in charge of caretaker.”

For the next decade the Todd family continued to lease the house as a boarding house for respectable single men.  Then in October 1912 the Real Estate Builders’ Record & Guide announced that it had been leased to the Proudman Realty Co. “for business purposes.”

The altered building served as offices for tenants like John Arschagouni, a homoeopathic doctor.  But the upper-most rooms were apparently still being rented as living quarters.  Matylda Neiman, called “a pretty Russian girl” by The New York Times, was living here in 1913.  Although she was employed at the Martha Washington Hotel, she heavily augmented her salary by picking pockets.  When she was arrested on January 11 that year, the newspaper’s headline announced “Detectives Flock to See Pretty Girl.”

Matylda was an expert at her craft.  One detective estimated that her daily take was around $605—in the neighborhood of over $13,000 today.  Matylda answered flatly, “You don’t know that.”

But soon neither the pick-pocketing Neiman nor Dr. Arschagouni would be listing No. 47 East 29th Street as their address.  While the millinery and garment districts had inched north of 23rd Street on the West side of Fifth Avenue; the silk district was engulfing the neighborhood around the Todd house.  Silk merchants and jobbers bustled along the once-placid streets, hurrying to their offices and showrooms.

On May 20, 1916 the Record & Guide reported that Caroline M. Todd had commissioned architects Gross & Kleinberger to replace the old brownstone with a “two-story brick restaurant building.”  Before the first brick was laid, she had leased the property to the Silk Exchange Café.

The architects produced a no-nonsense commercial building clad in variegated brick.  A cast iron-framed storefront nestled within the brick piers.  The charm of the structure was in its creative brickwork, most notably the herringbone pattern between floors, and the grouped set of windows at the second story.

The herringbone pattern of the brickwork, the inset stone panels and the grouped upper openings created the charm -- Google Maps, May 2009

Perhaps it was limited funds that caused Caroline Todd to erect a two-story building rather than a modern loft and store structure.  Her restaurant would cost her just $12,000 to build; significantly less than a large commercial structure (nevertheless a substantial quarter of a million dollars today for the widow).  Or she may have simply been a shrewd businesswoman.  The Silk Exchange Café would thrive in the little building for years.

If the second floor was originally intended as part of the restaurant; that plan quickly fell through.  In March 1917 silk dealer Seville & Jonas leased that space for its offices.  Three years later Arrow Silk Mills, silk jobbers, was doing business there. 

Apparently the silk business was not all work and no play.  In 1921 Max E. Klein, principal of Arrow Silk Mills, was sued by William J. Smith Silk Company.  At the trial on February 6, 1922 Philip Getzoff was called as a witness for the defendant.

Getzoff was asked if he had visited Klein’s place of business on Saturday, January 31, 1920.  He testified that he had, and that along with Max Klein, there were six other men in there.  The attorney then asked Getzoff what the men were doing when he arrived.

“They were shooting a game of crap dice.”

In the 1920s journalist O. O. McIntyre fascinated readers with his syndicated column “New York Day by Day” in which he chronicled his observations about everyday Manhattan.  On January 1, 1926 he turned his attention to the Silk District, clearly describing the sweeping changes since Elbert Todd purchased his home exactly 50 years earlier.

“The silk district is in the upper East Twenties.  I notice a Silk Exchange café, a pool parlor and a shoe shine stand catering exclusively to the men who deal in silks.”

But by mid-century the silk district had essentially disappeared from the east side of Fifth Avenue.  The Silk Exchange Café became home to Design Techniques by 1954; a home furnishings retail store where fabrics and wallcoverings could be purchased.

Then in 1989 the little building returned to its original purpose.  Just around the block on Park Avenue was Park Bistro, described by The New York Times in November that year as an “immensely popular French restaurant.”  The owners branched out, taking over No. 47 (which it preferred to call a “townhouse”) and opening Park Avenue Gourmandises.  Where silk jobbers had lunched on corned beef  and crap games went on in the second floor, now trendier New Yorkers purchased “pastries, croissants, cheese and prepared imported foods.”

The gourmet store would remain in the building for years; replaced after the turn of the 21st century by Red Sky, a sports bar and restaurant popular for its roof deck.  But that, too, of course, would not last.  It closed sometime around 2013.

Through it all the tiny little café building had survived remarkably intact.  Then the overlooked relic of the Silk District received a cosmetic updating that effectively obliterated all of the structure's Arts and Crafts charm.

non-credited photographs by the author

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Fleitmann & Co. Bldg. -- No. 484 Broome Street

Long before construction on the hulking office and warehouse building at the corner of Broome and Wooster Streets was near completion, it had already been leased.  On September 27, 1890 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide announced that Frederick Southack “has leased for a term of ten years to Fleitmann & Co. the six-story iron and brick building…at an annual rental of $23,000.”

The Fleitmann brothers, Ewald and Hermann, arrived in New York from Germany in 1864.  They established their silk importing business at No. 490 Broome Street.  Now, a quarter of a century later, Fleitmann & Co was among the largest commission merchants in the city.  In addition to the massive building rising on the site of their original store, there were four branch offices in the city.

The Fleitmann building was designed by another native German, Alfred Zucker, who turned to the rabidly popular Romanesque Revival style.   Completed in 1891 it was a fortress as welcoming as it was foreboding.   Zucker challenged the observer to focus on any single component.  

Two yawning, three-story arches at ground level would have stolen the show, were it not for the cast iron-framed groupings of openings at the uppermost floors.  These sat on an arcade of squat engaged brick columns.  The architect put stone carvers to work producing ornamental details—rope carving, rich capitals, and an elaborate stone cornice, for instance—with special attention to the figural sculptures.    These ranged from the tradition faces that served as brackets below the third floor, to the whimsical.   Snarling winged beasts ( some ferocious, at least one looking more like a house cat), shared the façade with serpentine monsters devouring their own tails.

Disinterested faces stare down onto Broome Street.
Before Fleitmann & Co. could move in, the unfinished building was sold.  On October 18, 1890 the Record & Guide reported that William F. Weld “of Boston” had purchased the “six-story Tiffany brick front warehouse” for $326,000.  Weld paid the equivalent of $8.6 million today for the structure.

As with its satellite locations, Fleitmann & Co. leased some space at No. 484 Broome Street to related firms.  Later, in 1902, the New-York Tribune explained “The annexes of the firm are occupied by merchants who, trading under their own names and styles, are associated in their dealings in many ways with and financed by the firm of Fleitmann & Co.  These merchants in their respective branches of the trade deal in every conceivable kind of merchandise exploited in the drygoods business—gloves, millinery, specialties, linings, panne velvets, umbrella silks, tailors’ trimmings, tie linings, tie silks, clothiers’ linings, hatters’ satins and trimmings, mercerized satins and a variety of every species of fabric.”

Within the first few years in the new building, tenants would include M. Bloom, who advertised in The Sun on June 14, 1892 for “Experiences Girls wanted on sample cards.”  Others were Max G. Cavalli, “merchant;” William E. C. Bradley, “dry goods merchant;” and Anton I. Quanz, importer and exporter who lived at the Hotel Endicott.

The New-York Tribune published a sketch, completed with trolley rails in the street, on New Year's Eve 1902 -- copyright expired
As the turn of the century approached, Hermann Fleitmann returned to Hamburg.  He died there on March 27, 1899 at the age of 74.  Ewald continued running the business, assisted by Frederick T. Herman C.  and William M. Fleitmann.  Henry T. Fleitmann used the address, but he was more interested in breeding Scottish Terriers than in silk goods.

A 1898 advertisement listed the large assortment of goods the company offered  (copyright expired)

By now the Fleitmann & Co. partners had amassed sizable fortunes and the firm continued to expand.  The New-York Tribune said “No leading drygoods firm in New-York City is more closely identified with the wonderful march and progress of that branch of trade than Fleitmann & Co…As leaders in the domestic lines of drygoods the firm of Fleitmann & Co. is just as universally and favorably known as importers.  While carrying an enormous stock of domestic goods, the firm imports the richest and finest qualities of silks, ribbons, velvets, malines, chiffons, satins, woolens, worsteds, cloaking and broadcloths, the output of the greatest manufactories and the most renowned looms of Europe and Asia.”

A bizarre winged beast shares space with a self-devouring monster.

Running the massive Fleitmann & Co. building required several large boilers in the basement and a competent maintenance crew.  Charged with the responsibility of maintaining the boilers in 1901 was 50-year old engineer Richard Kruse.   Working with him on April 1 was 28-year old Henry Otten, a “fireman.”

That day Kruse was negligent; failing to notice the rising pressure in one of the boilers.  He was standing near the engine room door when the boiler exploded.  The engineer leaped for the door, landing on the floor outside.  Young Henry Otten was not so lucky.

“The fireman was on the other side of the boiler and not near enough to the door to escape,” reported The New York Times the following day.  “He was flung to the floor, and when found later lay dead within a few feet of where he stood when the cock blew out.”  Otten had been scalded to death by the steam and boiling water.

“The engineer was found outside and arrested by two detectives.  His face and neck were black when he was taken to the station house and technically charged with homicide.”

In 1905, while the Herman Fleitmann family was away for the summer, the “youthful highwayman” known as “Sand Rock” Smith visited their home at No. 42 West 77th Street.  He held up the maid at gunpoint.  The terrifying event caused the Fleitmann’s caretaker to take steps to prevent a similar crime.

In order to make the mansion look lived in, he lit the gas jets in some of the upper rooms before nightfall each night.  It had an unexpected effect.  On the night of September 4 residents in the high-end Manhattan Square Hotel noticed lights on in the second floor.  Knowing the family was away, they feared the house was being looted.  Calls came in to Police Headquarters.

Detectives from the West 68th Street station house surrounded the mansion.  Several climbed over the fence in the rear and up to the roof.   All the doors and windows were locked, so the police broke into the rooftop scuttle.    The cops swarmed through the house, but found nothing disturbed.

“Then a well-disposed person across the street told them that the caretaker had lighted the gas on his usual rounds for the night and that his care had caused the light and the alarm,” said The Times.  The caretaker’s clever ploy to fool crooks backfired, resulting in damage to the house by well-intentioned police.

The following year Ewald Fleitmann died.  In addition to his position with Fleitmann & Co. he was a director in several corporations and banks.  Before long the remaining Fleitmann partners would consider moving from their long-time headquarters.

On January 30, 1912 The Sun mentioned that “Fleitmann & Co. is dickering through Douglas L. Elliman & Co. for a long lease of the store, basement and first two lofts in the building to be the southwest corner of Fourth avenue and Twenty-sixth street, opposite the [Madison Square] Garden.”  The dickering worked out and Fleitmann & Co. moved into the new Hess Building.

For nearly a year its old headquarters building sat vacant.  Finally on December 13, 1913 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that Kaplan Wood Stock Co. leased the building “for a term of years at a slightly reduced rental.”  The paper noted that Kaplan Wood Stock “operates three large mills in Massachusetts [and] will occupy the building for storage of stock and show rooms after extensive alterations are completed.”

Despite extensive alterations and a lease of “a term of years,” the new tenants did not last a full year.  In September 1914 the 52,000 square foot building was leased to the American Tobacco Company.    The firm stayed in the old Fleitmann building for years.  It was sold in 1946 to the Art Craft Finishers.

The pine floors, industrial pressed ceilings and cast iron column capitals still remain --

As the 20th century drew to a close the Soho neighborhood had become filled with galleries and trendy shops.  The hulking Fleitmann & Co. building followed suit.  Today the sidewalk level houses chic shops, while sprawling residential lofts engulf the upper floors where bolts of silk and “cloaking” were once stored.

non-credited photographs by the author