Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The 1899 Park Row Bldg -- No. 15 Park Row

photo by Nyjockboy2

As the 19th century inched closer to the 20th, New Yorkers embraced the exciting modern age that gave them the phonograph, electric lights and telegraph.  But the advances in construction, like the elevator and steel-framed construction which allowed buildings to rise ever higher, were causing some concern.

On October 8, 1896 Engineering News reported “The rage for phenomenally high office-buildings still continues unchecked in New York city, and there seems to be at present some rivalry here as to who shall build the highest structure.”  The journal turned its attention to “the highest building thus far designed in New York city,” the Park Row Building.  Slated to replace the old International Hotel opposite the leviathan Post Office, it would rise 26 stories with two four-story towers at the corners.
The steel frame is evident in construction photographs --photograph Library of Congress

“This will be an office building, with stores on the street floor, and a restaurant at the top,” explained the paper.  The office of architect R. H. Robertson had already released water color drawings which depicted a soaring tower that diminished the structures around it.  A building nearly 30 stories tall created a problem for both the architect and the engineer.  Robertson was charged with creating a visually-appealing edifice that required the viewer to unaccustomedly crook his neck backward to take in all in; and the engineer, Nathan Roberts, had to figure out how to support the mammoth weight.  There was also the problem of the plot; what Engineering News called “very irregular.”
Engineering News published the oddly-shaped floorplan on October 8, 1896 (copyright expired)

Robertson attempted to reduce the visual height of the Park Row Building by dividing it vertically into three sections, and horizontally into six.  He drew the eye to the central section by lavishing it with ornamentation.  Balconies, cornices, columns and sculptures broke up the vast surfaces.  The copper-crowned cupolas of the corner towers created the final touch and would be seen by ships entering the harbor and as far away as New Jersey.  Somewhat strangely, Robertson focused attention only to the Park Row fa├žade; leaving the other elevations essentially blank.

More was made in the press about the engineering of the building than its design (perhaps luckily for Robertson—the New-York Tribune would call the structure “hideous but daring”).  Especially noteworthy was the foundation necessary to uphold the 6,316,000-ton structure.  “Many acres of good timber had to be cut to furnish the thousands of great pine piles, many of them forth feet long, that were driven into the sand of the site to support the monster,” reported the Tribune.  

The skyscraper seems to have been mostly conceived by politician William Mills Ivins, who purchased the site.  He then transferred title to a syndicate, the Park Row Construction Company.  Years after its completion New Yorkers would often call it the Ivins Syndicate Building.  But William Ivins’s association with the project would be short-lived.  Millionaire August Belmont held the majority interest in the Park Row Construction Company and he suggested that Ivins retire early on.  It was the first of many incidents of drama that would surround the Park Row Building.

Construction began on October 20, 1896 and would continue for three years—partly because of labor problems and strikes that sporadically stopped progress.  

The Park Row Building diminished its neighboring structures.  To the left is a portion of the Post Office -- photograph Library of Congress

By March 24, 1898 the Park Row Building was topped off and that day an American flag was unfurled from its highest point.  “Several hundred persons watched with eager interest while a professional steeple climber made his perilous ascent to the towering height,” reported The New York Times.  “He climbed the pole with the flag on his shoulders, and, after making it fast, proceeded to paint the staff.  The watching crowd cheered lustily as the National colors unfolded, and continued to gaze at the daring painter as long as he remained in sight.”

As the building neared completion leases were signed.  On Christmas Eve 1898 the Astor House Pharmacy rented one of the ground floor stores.  Somewhat surprisingly, while Park Row was the center of the newspaper industry, many of the new tenants would be from unrelated areas.  On January 20, 1899 the City leased four entire floors to house the Department of Bridges, the Department of Street Cleaning, the Water Department, the Bureau of Encumbrances, the executive officers of the public baths, the Bureau of Public Buildings and Offices, the Commissioners of Public works, and the Bureau of Sewers.

The 391-foot tall Park Row Building opened its doors on July 20, 1899.  The New-York Tribune wrote “A skyscraper of this magnitude will have its own electric light plant; a gas plant; waterworks system; artesian wells; fire department, with hose lines and chemical extinguishers; its own police department too, with detectives watching for petty thieves, pickpockets, beggars and peddlers.”  The newspaper noted that its height is “about seventy feet less than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.”

The skyscraper had cost $2.4 million to construct and was now the tallest building in the world.  Scientific American boasted “This modern building…will accommodate the floating population of a fair-sized country town…There are in the whole building 950 separate offices.”  The magazine estimated the number of persons in the building at any period of the day at 8,000.  “If we assume that on an average five persons would call at each office during the day, for each person employed, we get a total of about 25,000 souls making use of the building at the course of every working day of the year.”

This shot clearly shows the absence of ornamentation in the rear and side elevations -- photograph Library of Congress

It would not be long before the building’s long history of drama began.  The syndicate signed a one-year contract with the Ice Trust to deliver 1,000 pounds of ice daily.  The Trust enjoyed what The Evening World called “powerful connections with Tammany Hall” and assumed it automatically had a long-term deal.

When the contract expired on June 1, 1900 the syndicate put out bids to other ice suppliers.  The Evening World explained that the Ice Trust believed that through its ties to Tammany Hall “it could get the ice privilege without a contract [and] refused to bid.”

But the proprietor of the restaurant in the building, which had its own ice plant, won the contract.  The only tenants he could not supply were the city agencies.  The Ice Trust had a binding contract with Tammany Hall to supply ice to all city departments.  Therefore, starting on June 1, 1900 the Trust dumped 500 pounds of ice on the sidewalk every day.  “In the meantime the city employees have been drinking warm water, and are very indignant,” said The World on June 8, 1900.

Among its hundreds of respectable tenants, the Park Row Building seemed to attract bunko agents and shady characters.  On November 20, 1901 detectives raided Room 711 where brokers Grey & Co. ran a “bucket-shop” scam.  Two years later a massive swindling operation was conducted here by James B. Kellogg, described by The Evening World on March 6, 1903 as “the suave, get-rich-quick concern promoter.”  Kellogg used aliases to rent multiple offices in the building.  These included E. E. Rice & Co. in room 2033, “Colonel Wilcox, in room 2023, and “Charles Pearson & Co., room 2033.  He ran seven other companies from offices here before being arrested.

Then on May 21, 1904 readers of the New-York Tribune were shocked to read of an illegal gambling operation in the building.  “Another surprising raid was in the Park Row or Syndicate Building…which Douglas Robinson, brother-in-law of President Theodore Roosevelt, is the manager.  Twenty prisoners were captured and thirty-three telephones and three telegraph instruments ripped away from their fastenings and carried off by the police.”

Artist J. Massey Rhind executed the sculptural details  Scientific American, December 24, 1898 (copyright expired)

At the time of the raid, the Associated Press had its offices here as did the Legal Department of the New York City Railway Company.  The executive offices of the Interborough Street Railway Company (of which August Belmont was president), and the Metropolitan Street Railway offices were also in the building.

In 1907 politician Percy Nagle’s offices were in the building.  Campaigning was an especially contentious that year and one day in September Nagle was approached in a restaurant by a concerned friend.  He warned Nagle that another politician, Joseph L. Burke, “says he is going to kill you.  You want to look out for him.”  Nagle brushed off the warning.

On the afternoon of September 27 Nagle and some friends were standing in the corridor of the Park Row Building when Burke appeared with a number of men.  The two men exchanged heated words, followed by Burke’s striking Nagle.  A miniature riot ensued in the hallway and one of Burke’s men suggested they “shoot the dub.”

Suddenly Nagle felt the muzzle of a revolver at his neck and heard a loud click.  The gun had jammed.  “Nagle turned white and grabbed the revolver,” reported the New-York Tribune the following day.  “A crowd soon surged around the men and hurried the combatants from the building.”

Edgar H. Holbrook, a life insurance salesman, had either very bad luck or a death wish.  On January 8, 1898 he fell from the New York Life Insurance Building.  He survived that fall.  Now, on Wednesday August 31, 1910 he visited the Park Row Building on business.  The New-York Tribune wrote “It is not known how he came to be either on the roof or the twenty-sixth floor.” 

Holbrook plunged from the 26th floor, landing on the roof of the six-story building next door.  His body “was so badly crushed as to be unrecognizable.  The man’s terrible death caused many stenographers and other women employes in the tall building to become hysterical.”

In gruesom detail the newspaper said “In the drop of more than 500 feet Holbrook’s body acquired a terrific momentum, and when it struck the top of the elevator shed it crashed through a heavy iron screen, a sheet of heavy glass and some half-inch planking.

“These obstacles were not sufficient to prevent Holbrook’s body from dropping on top of the elevator drum, which was in motion at the time.  The body was so mangled that it became wedged tightly in the elevator machinery and stopped it.”

When the Park Row Building had first opened, Professor Herschel C. Parker of Columbia University, an amateur mountain climber, suggested that the facade could be climbed.  He compared the building to the Matterhorn’s cliffs and ledges.  “They are as awful to scale as the outside of the Park Row Building would be.”

Nearly two decades later the professor’s prediction was put to the test.  On May 26, 1918 41-year old Harry H. Gardiner, who went by the professional name “the Human Fly,” started up the building.  A reporter from The Evening World described him as “an aviator by profession and that being a Human Fly is simply a side line.”  Gardiner’s climb was for the benefit of the American Red Cross.’

Harry Gardiner would be arrested for his skyscraper climbing today.  photo The Evening World, May 27, 1918 (copyright expired)

Fifty-thousand crammed the streets around noon as Harry continued upward.  Harry was annoyed when firemen appeared and unfolded a large leather net.  "But people in the windows above began showering money down into the net—contributions for the Red Cross."

Gardiner was not content with reaching the roof.  He continued up the flagpole until he had touched the golden ball at its tip.  When he returned to street level two hours after he had begun, he told the crowd “I have done my bit; now see to it that you do yours,” nudging the onlookers to contribute to the cause.

Suicides by jumping made the newspapers over the decades; but none would be so publicized—or questioned—as that of known anarchist Andrea Salsedo.  Accused of bomb making, Salsedo was arrested on March 7, 1920 and secretly held in the Department of Justice’s 14th floor offices.  Nearly two months later he was still confined here, until his body was found smashed on the sidewalk on May 3.

Officials claimed Salsedo feared retaliation by other anarchists.  The Tribune explained on May 4 “It was said that Salsedo had expressed the belief shortly after his arrest and confession in March that he would be killed by persons whose names he had mentioned in his account of the bomb plots.”

His wife was not so sure.  On January 4, 1921 Maria Salsedo filed suit to recover $100,000 in damages.  She said that during his eight weeks confinement he “was beaten, threatened and abused, and that the treatment he received broke him down mentally and physically and finally drove him to kill himself.”  There were others who felt the death was not a suicide at all; but that the anarchist had been thrown to his death.

By 1929 the Park Row Building had lost its luster.  Its title of tallest building in the world was lost in 1908 and by now other skyscrapers surrounded it.  The architectural firm of Clinton & Russell was commissioned to do a facelift of the lower floors.  The ploy succeeded for decades until at the turn of the 21st century it was once again just an outdated building that was not producing financially.

In 2000 a gut renovation was begun that converted the main building to apartments.  The commodious three-story cupolas were not included in the plan.  Until 2013.  Then they were offered as part of a single massive apartment including the 26th and 27th floors, a large private terrace and two balconies.  The price for the unfinished space, reported to be one of the largest penthouses ever offered in Manhattan, was a significant $20 million.
The three-story cupolas are part of the expansive penthouse, which includes an original elevator cage.  NYCurbed.com
The exterior of the Park Row Building is little changed since the 1929 remodeling.  Although no longer the stand-out it was in 1899; it is an important pioneer of the skyscraper age in New York City.

many thanks to reader P. Alsen for suggesting this post

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