Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The 1928 Birns Building -- 111 Second Avenue

In 1915 Saul Birnzweig was in trouble.  

The somewhat shady entrepreneur had gotten in on the wildly popular phonograph or “talking machine” craze.  Starting out selling the machines at No. 117 Second Avenue, he later had moved down the block to No. 111.  Somewhat suspiciously, he changed the name of his business several times—operating as the Atlantic Talking Machine Company, the Metropolitan Talking Machine Company, and as Saul Birns.

While his business was successful, he cooked up a scheme to make more money.  He ran newspaper advertisements in foreign languages targeting immigrants. They promised a high-quality phonograph plus records of songs in their native tongues on a 30-day free trial.  If the recipient liked the machine, it could be purchased on an easy installment plan.

But Assistant District Attorney Content protested “Birnzweig never sent any of the advertised machines or records on free trial…but when intended purchasers communicated with him, demanded a deposit of $5 to $8 in advance.”  After he received the deposits, “Birnzweig sent a cheap phonograph C.O.D. for about 70 percent of the purchase price and stated that the remainder of the purchase money could be paid in installments.”

Birnzweig, who soon went by the name Saul Birn,shipped phonographs that “were of foreign make and inferior to the standard ones made here,” said the Assistant D.A.  Birn was arrested on July 13, 1915.  The charges alleged “that foreigners living in all parts of the country were being swindled by means of a mail order scheme,” reported The New York Times.

Although caught, Birns profited hugely from his plan.  Later that year the Annual Report of the Industrial Commission stated that Birn was making about $125,000 per year on the ads, “and that he had provided an emergency deposit of $30,000 to be used for legal services should he be arrested.”

Birns was indicted and convicted but the Report was less than pleased with the results.  “He was fined $750, an absurdly inadequate punishment for a man whose swindling operations extended from ocean to ocean, and who for years had unscrupulously robbed ignorant and hardworking foreigners to the amount of over $100,000 per year.”  Birns’s profits from the scheme would amount to about $2.25 million a year today.

A year later Birns was still running the offers; but presumably was backing them up. The Evening World, October 23, 1916 (copyright expired)  

In the years after World War I Birns was investing in real estate, constructing modern apartment houses in the Lower East Side.  He told reporters he wanted to improve housing for the mostly Jewish families living there.  Given his record, his purely altruistic motives might be questioned.

Then, on May 19, 1923 The Music Trade Review announced that Birns intended to demolish his Second Avenue building and erect a skyscraper.  “What is without question one of the most ambitious building projects undertaken recently by any music merchant is the plan of Saul Birns, well known throughout the metropolitan talking machine trade as a live wire, to construct a twelve to fifteen-story building on the site of the property, which houses his headquarters at 111 Second avenue.”  The trade journal said “Mr. Birns stated that provision will be made for the display of his line of talking machines, musical instruments and pianos on an elaborate scale.  There will also be a large auditorium where musical events will be staged, and in addition, if present plans go through, there will be a radio broadcasting station.”

As it turned out, plans did not go through.  Instead, the ambitious project was scaled back to a five-story store and office building.  Begun in 1928 it was completed the following year.  Birns’s plan for an auditorium did materialize, however, on the fifth floor.  It featured extra-high ceilings and a row of arched windows on the avenue.  The multi-purpose space would be leased out for meetings, weddings and bar mitzvahs, dances and other social events.

Designed by architect Ralph Segal, the terra-cotta clad structure cost Birn $300,000; nearly $4 million in today’s dollars.  The handsome Art Deco palazzo design would have been equally appropriate for a department store.  Pseudo-balconies and Art Deco motifs smacked of the lavish movie palace architecture of the time.  The phonograph dealer-real estate developer emblazoned the parapet with his name: Saul Birns Building.

As the building neared completion, The Bank of the United States was granted authorization to open a branch here.  It would share the ground floor retail space with Saul Birns’s phonograph store, taking the southern end at Nos. 107 through 109.  The rather hefty rent, starting on November 1, 1928, was $15,000 per year, increasing to $22,000 by the expiration of the 21-year lease.

Unfortunately, it was a bad time to open a new bank branch.  In October 1929 the stock market crashed, sending the nation into the Great Depression.  The Bank of the United States did not survive and closed its doors the following year.  Twenty-three banks of the New York Clearing House Association arranged that depositors could receive loans up to 50 percent of their balances.  On December 22, 1930 those depositors thronged the sidewalks outside the Birns Building.

“Many of the depositors arrived far in advance of the opening house,” reported The New York Times the following day.  “About 500 were on hand when the branch at 107 Second Avenue opened, some of them having been there, according to the police, since 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Meanwhile, the auditorium upstairs, known as the Central Plaza Hall, was the scene of labor meetings and strike plans of various union organizations through the 1930s.  One especially interesting meeting was that of the National Labor Committee for the Jewish Workers in Palestine, held on April1, 1934.  That night Albert Einstein was the guest of honor and principal speaker.  “The proceeds of the affair, which will also include music and drama, will go to the Arlosoroff Memorial Fund to aid Jewish colonists in Palestine,” reported The Times.

Lieutenant Governor Charles Poletti addressed an all-day meeting of the Hias Council of Organizations here on December 14, 1941, one week to the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Poletti was frank in predicting a long fight and warned that “we must accept our individual responsibilities and sacrifices.”

The attendees that day, 2,900 delegates representing 1,157 national Jewish benevolent and labor organizations, had another enemy in mind:  Adolph Hitler.  Poletti told the audience “It may be a long fight, but we are confident that the forces of barbarism will ultimately be crushed.  Our  burdens will be heavy, but we will bear them courageously and cheerfully.”

The Acting Mayor, Newbold Morris, added his thoughts, saying that all Americans would “rather be dead than slaves of Adolph Hitler.”

The terra cotta facade features a wealth of Art Deco details.

Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, the Central Plaza Dance Hall was famous for its jazz concerts.  The room was alive with the sounds of the nation’s best-known jazz ensembles while patrons danced through the night.

In 1958 the Birns Building took on another role—that of television rehearsal studios.  On November 8 The New York Times said “This squat, five-story building on the lower East Side is normally used for weddings, dances and lodge meetings.”  But now, wrote Richard F. Shepard, “Some of the most able talent in show business rehearsed for some of television’s most expensive and promising productions yesterday in the Central Plaza.”

Frederic March and cast were rehearsing on the second floor for Columbia Broadcasting System’s production of “The Winslow Boy.”  On the two top floors, dozens of dancers were “whipping into shape ‘Kiss Me Kate’ for the National Broadcasting Company on Nov. 20.”  On other floors, daytime soap operas were in rehearsal.  “Although the building housed at the moment the hopes of television programs that cost, altogether, at least half a million dollars, it was just another day at the Central Plaza,” wrote Shepard.

Meanwhile, for decades the former Birns phonograph salesrooms downstairs had been home to Ratner’s kosher restaurant.  Shepard said “On the main floor, oblivious of the artistic endeavors above, waiters rattled their dishes and made the customers feel like equals in Ratner’s a vegetarian restaurant that has become a sort of downtown ‘Sardi’s’ in its own way at 111 Second Avenue.”

The original Ratner’s opened in 1905 on Pitt Street, founded by brothers Jacob and Harry L. Harmatz and their brother-in-law, Alex Ratner.  Austria-Hungarian immigrants, their restaurant specialized in Eastern European Jewish fare cooked by their wives.  Eventually the brothers went their separate ways, opening their own restaurants.

By now the Second Avenue Ratner’s was run by Abraham Harmatz.  The New York Times called it in 1974 “a gastronomic diadem in the crown of what years ago was called the Jewish Rialto.  Its blinzes and onion rolls, its pirogen and fish, its caloric pastries were adrenalin for the emotionally drained audiences issuing from performances of the many Yiddish theaters along Second Avenue.” 

The neighborhood around the Birns Building (still owned by the Birns family and managed by Bernard Birns) had drastically changed by the 1970s.  The New York Times explained on May 30, 1974 “With the disappearance of the once large resident Jewish population, much of Ratner’s business is in its last years came by taxi and automobile.  It was one of the last preserves of the Jewish waiter, a breed that was usually Jewish but could be Puerto Rican or Iranian, too, and was distinguished by frantically efficient service and a democratic air.”

Finally, after decades of doing business here, Ratner’s closed its doors on May 28, 1974.  The following day, Abraham Harmatz died, one day before his 66th birthday.  He had participated in the management of the restaurant for 45 years.

Following Ratner's, a grocery chain leased the store space.  photo by Edmund V. Gillon from the collectino of the Museum of the City of New York

In place of the famous landmark restaurant, a grocery store moved in.  New York University’s School of the Arts took over the top floor for its arts theater.  Eventually the school purchased the entire Birns Building and in 2012 did a major renovation.

Today Saul Birns’s ambitious building with its colorful past gleams again-a handsome survivor of a time when Second Avenue was lined with Yiddish theaters.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

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