In 1877 Mrs. Mary Bell spent a considerable amount--$80,000—for the brownstone mansion at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 32nd Street. The house had been built by Thomas Rigney and purchased by Isaac Underhill Coles in 1861. When Mary Bell purchased it from the Coles heirs, the house sat in the most prestigious residential district of Manhattan—just one block south of the mansions of John and William Astor. The exclusive neighborhood explained the hefty price—nearly $2 million in today’s dollars.
Two years before Mary bought the house, the adjoining home at No. 322 Fifth Avenue had been purchased by banker David Stewart. Following his death, his widow married the eminent artist Albert Bierstadt and the newlyweds continued living in the home.
By 1903 the area was nearly unrecognizable. The Astor mansions had been replaced with the hulking Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and many of the brownstone residences around Mary Bell had been converted for business purposes. The coming invasion of commerce was even more clearly evident south of 22nd Street where developers like Henry Corn purchased and razed old mansions to erect modern loft and retail buildings.
Recognizing the inevitable, Mary Bell purchased the Bierstadt house in 1903 for $400,000. She now controlled a plot, including her private stables to the rear, which was estimated to be worth $1.25 million. The shrewd woman partnered with Henry Corn and on January 22, 1904 The New York Times announced “Henry Corn will erect for Mrs. Mary Bell an eleven-story store, loft and office building at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-second Street.”
The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide announced the following day said “Robert Maynicke, who will draw the plans of the new building, estimates its cost at $700,000…Mr. Corn is to pay a fixed percentage as rental.” Mary Bell had already agreed to lease the building to Corn for 21 years at an aggregate rental of $2 million. In addition to her lofty position in society, the widowed Mrs. Bell was proving herself to be an astute businesswoman.
In February, even before plans were finalized, the high-end jeweler and silversmith, Reed & Barton, signed a long-term lease for the ground floor and basement. It signaled a migration of Manhattan’s jewelers, including Tiffany and Gorham, from Union Square to Fifth Avenue. The total rent Reed & Barton agreed to pay over the 21-year lease was $1 million; or about $1.3 million per year today.
By April 30, as mentioned in the Record & Guide, the vintage brownstones were in the process of demolition. Finished just over one year later, the completed structure commanded attention. Robert Maynicke had created other structures for Corn; but this was one of the most ambitious.
The three-story base featured rusticated piers which framed cast iron openings. At the second floor, thin free-standing columns supported elaborate broken pediments. Stone balconies at the seventh floor broke up the unembellished middle section. Maynicke adorned the topmost two floors with columns, festoons and wreaths; and crowned the structure with a deeply-overhanging cornice trimmed with copper antefixes. By curving the corner, Maynicke not only produced a gentle elegance, but provided additional sunlight into the interiors.
Following the jeweler’s move into its new quarters, the building became known as the Reed & Barton Building. On October 22, 1905 the New-York Tribune commented on a few of the items available in the store.
“When Shakespeare wrote ‘Who steals my purse steals trash’ he had never seen the vanity boxes at Reed & Barton Company’s, 5th-ave. and 32d-st. These little gold and jeweled purses, which are carried in the hand, with a chain around the wrist, hold, besides my lady’s carfare, her powder puff, her cards and memoranda, a pencil and a mirror. Trash, indeed! They are quite indispensable, and thimbles and pansies with little faces looking from among the leaves.”
|On October 22, 1905 the New-York Tribune pictured a Reed & Barton vanity purse. (copyright expired)
The newspaper added “Little table novelties are to be found by the dozen in this store, and there are some that every good housekeeper will be glad to hear about. A little silver holder for a jelly jar is cut to show the jelly, and there are condensed milk and cheese jar holders that look at lot nicer than the cans and jars.”
Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine described the sales floor. “The floors of the store are of Terrazzo, with borders of Mosaic. The ceiling and walls are in tints of ivory and light green, respectively, while the show cases are of highly polished mahogany and plate glass.”
|The cut glass department (above) dazzled with cut punch bowls and other items. Silver hollow ware was displayed in polished wood cases (below) photograph Architects' and Builders' Magazine February 1906 (copyright expired)
“In addition to the superb line of sterling silver and electro-plated table and toilet wares of their own manufacture, departments devoted to diamond and gem jewelry, watches and clocks, and gold jewelry, canes and umbrellas, leather goods, finished in ebony and mirrors, and lighted by hundreds of electric lights. This feature is considered by connoisseurs to be one of the most magnificent cut glass rooms in existence.”
|Looming one block north, on the site of the old Astor mansions, is the massive Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. A glass-and-metal hood protects Reed & Barton's entrance. -- photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
On the upper floors a wide variety of tenants took space in the modern building. The office of the recently-established New York Yankees baseball team was here; as was Toch Brothers, who moved in in December that first year. Run by Maximilian and Henry M. Toch, the paint and varnish firm had been in business since 1848. In announcing the move, the Record & Guide mentioned “Their products, which consist of a full line of paints, varnishes, and the R. I. W. Damp Resisting paints, are considered standard by many of the leading architects and engineers throughout the United States.”
Dentist G. Gordon Martin was among the very first to move in. The Evening World, on May 11, 1905, said “These offices are no doubt the most elaborate for dental use ever fitted out in this country. There are laboratories and private offices as well as the newest appliances for the use of the expert dentists, each a specialist in his own line. It may be said right here that this venture in behalf of Dr. Martin should not be confounded with dental ‘institutes,’ ‘parlors,’ and the kind who call attention to their announcements by a set of grinning teeth.”
Another early tenant was William G. Young who operated his Fifth Avenue Stenographic Bureau here; an employment agency for female stenographers. Now long after Young established his office in the building, tragedy struck.
Young’s wife, Beatrice, was described by The Sun on August 20 that year as “a slim brunette who has a good complexion and wears eyeglasses. She is about 31 years old.” Beatrice had been “acting queerly” for about a year, according to her husband; and then in July 1905 had accused him of assault.
About the same time as Beatrice’s accusation, William Young had placed Mrs. Kathleen Morgan in the Hotel Imperial. Now Beatrice decided that her husband was having an affair with Kathleen—whom The Sun said was “a good looking blonde, about 30 years old.”
Around noon on August 19, Beatrice walked into the hotel and found Kathleen Morgan taking dictation from Frank Wiggins, the assistant manager. Despite that room being “well filled with men and women,” Beatrice pulled out a revolver and shot the stenographer.
Mrs. Morgan fell to the floor and “there was a great hubbub in the writing room and all over the hotel.” As men constrained her, she cried “She wanted to kidnap my child, she tried to steal my child.”
Kathleen Morgan, fatally injured, merely uttered, “Poor woman, she must have been crazy.”
Several textile companies signed early leases, including woolen goods dealers R. B. Patterson Company and William Branchi & Co. In August 1905 the Branchi firm was scammed out of $12,000 in goods by 26-year old Philip Wahlheimer and his 35-year old brother George. The crooks ordered the goods under the name of J. F. Miller then had the shipments diverted.
By the time the Reed & Barton Building opened for business automobiles were appearing on the streets of Manhattan. French auto maker Renault opened an office here, offering luxury vehicles to wealthy Fifth Avenue residents.
|Although the copper ornamentation of the cornice has been lost, the exuberant Beaux Arts decoration remains.
The potpourri of tenants included the salon of "face specialist" Madame Mayne. The New-York Tribune touted her work on October 1, 1906. “The necessity of a reliable specific that will destroy growths of hair on women’s faces forever and yet leaves the skin smooth and unhurt has long been felt.” The newspaper said that Madame Mayne had made such a preparation and “is ready to give a free demonstration at her offices to inquirers.”
On November 13, 1906 The Sun reported that Ernest Triblehorn “has removed his office from Madison avenue and Ninety-first street to No. 320 Fifth Avenue.” The highly-successful real estate agent was wealthy enough to own a $2,500 automobile—worth in the neighborhood of $67,000 today. A month after opening his office in the Reed & Barton Building, he found himself looking for a new car.
On October 8 he was traveling through The Bronx when his gas tank sprung a leak at 208th Street and Woodlawn Avenue. Suddenly there was an explosion and both Triblehorn and his chauffeur, Joseph Guzman, jumped from the automobile.
“In an instant the auto was afire,” reported The Sun the following day. “A still alarm was turned in to the fire company at 212th street and Webster avenue. They turned out, but the machine was nothing but a pile of scrap iron when the fire was out.”
Disgusted, Tribelhorn and his driver boarded a trolley car back to the city. Before he left, he told bystanders that “any one who wanted the machine could have it.” The Sun reported “At an early hour this morning a dozen farmers were still wrangling over the pile of blistered steel.”
By 1907 the first of a long list of architects, Renwick, Aspinwall & Tucker, had moved in. They would be joined in the building within a few years by Charles A. Rich, Arnold W. Brunner, Harry Allan Jacobs, Jerauld Dahler, S. Ben Algernon and others.
Gabriel Millner, a spirited female attorney, was in the building by November 1907 when she represented Laura E. Skeels in her fraud suit against the indomitable Mrs. Augusta E. Stenson and the First Church of Christ Scientist.
An ardent early feminist, she represented a group of women reformers in March 1909 in their push to restrict the rear cars of express subway trains for the exclusive use of women. The complaint charged that “many women are not strong enough to contend with the crowding of the men; that women are compelled to use the subway during rush hours; that in the non-rush hours many women are accompanied by children, and that the women constitute nearly 25 per cent of the passengers carried on the express trains.”
Perhaps Gabriel Millner’s most unusual case was that of Henrietta Sarah Fox-Strangways. Born in England, her parents had died while she was a child and she was reared by a wealthy aunt, Mrs. Jane Clarke, in Ireland. Now, in the early months of 1910 Henrietta Fox-Strangways had fallen on hard times.
She came to Gabriel Millner’s office to arrange credit, saying that her aunt had died two years ago and she was due to inherit a small fortune. Gabriel tried to find financial assistance for the woman, and she contacted a relative in Canada as well. By the time a return letter arrived on Monday March 7, Henrietta Fox-Strangways--desperate and despondent--had been admitted to Bellevue Hospital, having taken poison.
The relative wrote that she “was prepared to do anything possible to rescue her,” Gabriel rushed to the hospital to give Mrs. Strangways the news. She found her client semi-conscious. Despite the good news, “the patient was too weak to rally. She died an hour later,” reported The New York Times.
Gabriel Millner returned to her office in the Reed & Barton Building. In her brief absence, a letter had arrived from the office of the British Consul, informing her that Henrietta Sarah Fox-Strangways’s inheritance—about $10,000—had been released. The letter had arrived about 30 minutes after the poison Henrietta had dejectedly consumed killed her.
In 1907 another high-end custom automobile firm moved in. An advertisement in The Sun on February 16, 1907 said “There are but three foreign cars wrought entirely and completely by the manufacturer. Two are French. One is The Zust, An Italian Car.” At a time when motorists were arrested for driving more than six miles per hour, The Zust boasted “60 miles an hour—hour after hour.”
Harry M. Stevens, Inc. moved into the building in 1915. Founded in 1887, the catering firm sold food and novelties at sporting venues like ballparks and race tracks throughout the country.
The Reed & Barton Building was purchased in 1917 by Dr. Denniston M. Bell. Toch Brothers was still headquartered here in 1918 when, prompted by the war abroad, Henry M. Toch penned a letter to President Somers of the Board of Education. He said he was “convinced” that a mandatory First Aid Course should be taught to every public high school or public college student “and no diploma given unless an examination is passed.”
“Terrible as this war is it brings some important lessons. First aid to the injured is an essential of the highest order, either in peace or war, in air raids or explosions.”
At the time that Henry Toch pressed his case for First Aid in schools, the Reed & Barton Building was filling with underwear firms. In 1919 the French Lingerie Co., Nelson & Levene, Stohn Brothers and Windsor Undersilks were all tenants.
|Nelson & Levene was a wholesale underwear firm, hence the "window pieces" advertised here. The Corset and Underwear Review, February 2920 (copyright expired)
By 1921 Reed & Barton had moved northward and the Bank of United States established its headquarters in the building. It would remain until 1928 when the location at No. 320 was reduced to a branch bank. With the removal of Reed & Barton, No. 320 became known as the Bell Building.
Toch Brothers was still going strong in the building. In 1922 Maximillian Toch developed a deodorizing process “intended to neutralize fumes of garbage.” On March 30 he and his co-inventor, Otto B. Shulhof, described it to the special committee appointed by Mayor Hylan “to study the city’s problem of refuse, ash and garbage disposal.”
Shulhof asserted that “they could take a half-gallon can of limburger cheese and make it odorless in fifteen minutes,” said the New-York Tribune. “Chief Kenlon objected to having the demonstration in his office. Street Cleaning Commissioner Taylor was requested to find a suitable place, preferably on some city dump, to conduct the experiment.”
Whether the pair’s deodorizing treatment was ever purchased by the city is unclear.
The building was still attracting architects and the same year that Maximillian Toch offered to deodorize limburger cheese, No. 320 was still home to Charles A. Rich as well as architects Charles E. Hubbell, Charles A. Luckhurst, Algernon S. Bell, and Frederick Mathesius.
For two decades, beginning in the 1930s, the Mosler Safe Company occupied the street and second floors. Then, in January 1956 the firm, the largest manufacturer of safes and bank protective equipment in the world, purchased No 320. The New York Times noted “Now called the Bell Building, the twelve-story structure will be renamed the Mosler Building after renovations have been made to the exterior.”
Mid-20th century taste in architecture tended toward clean geometric lines. Robert Maynicke’s Beaux Arts building was stripped of its balconies, the metal entrance hood, the exceptional Edwardian corner show window, and the copper cornice crown.
Only five years later John Mosler, Executive Vice President of the firm, announced that the company would move to Park Avenue in January 1961. The Fifth Avenue building was purchased by Jack Brause, real estate investor, in May that year and, once again, it got a new name: the Brause Building.
The following year in May the Bank of Tokyo Trust Company took over the ground floor and mezzanine. Three years later Harry M. Stevens, Inc. surprised some New Yorkers when it leased the fifth floor of No. 521 Fifth Avenue in March 1965. The company that had sold millions of hot dogs to baseball fans had been in No. 320 for a full half century.
The Bank of Tokyo Trust Company moved to No. 360 Madison Avenue in 1979. Although denuded of some of its Edwardian ornamentation; the proud structure avoided any more serious alteration through the area’s brief decline prior to the turn of the century.
Today a chain pharmacy is housed in the old Reed & Barton showrooms. Where wealthy women shopped for cut glass decanters and silver vanity purses, tourists drop in for Rolaids and soda.
non-credited photographs by the author
non-credited photographs by the author