Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Mercantile Bldg--Nos. 31-33 West 31st Street

Just before the turn of the last century the 31st Street block between Fifth avenue and Broadway still clung, at least in part, to its residential character.  In 1895 No. 31 was the home of Mrs. Fay Pierce, and next door at No. 33 lived Dr. Russell Bellamy.  The two four-story brownstone houses would survive only a few more years.

Already the homes in the area were being razed or renovated for commercial purposes, and three blocks south West 28th Street was popularly known as Tin Pan Alley because of the many songwriters and publishers who populated the old buildings.  The trend seeped onto West 31st Street and on April 23, 1895 The Evening World reported on “a meeting of the ladies interested in securing cheap popular music for the people of the city…at the residence of Mrs. Fay Pierce.”

Within two years music publishers were operating out of Mrs. Pierce’s former home; the most famous being Milwaukee-based Charles K. Harris who opened his New York office here in 1897.  The composer, lyricist and arranger had scored tremendous success with hits like “After the Ball.”  Among his first publications from No. 31 was “The Organ Grinder’s Serenade” sung to popular acclaim by Charles E. Witt.

The sheet music for "The Organ Grinder's Serenade" still placed Harris in Milwaukee, with the "Home Office" at 31 West 31st.  (copyright expired)
On February 16, 1900 No. 31 West 31st Street was lost in foreclosure and sold at auction.  Elizabeth A. Wilcox acquired the old house, along with No. 33.  It did not take the enterprising woman long to “improve” the property.  In June 1901 Stone, An Illustrated Magazine reported that Elizabeth Wilcox “will erect a ten-story mercantile building” on the site.

She commissioned the architectural firm of Israels & Harder to design the building.  Charles H. Israels and J. F. Harder were well known for their apartment and tenement building designs, and they had submitted entries into competitions for more lofty structures as well—like the U.S. Custom House and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Riverside Drive.

Working with a rather narrow plot, the architects produced a pleasing store and loft building of modern design.  A two-story cast iron base framed the retail space.  More glass than metal, the store levels allowed sunlight into the showroom areas.  The squat-looking third floor was faced in pinkish terra cotta and its cornice upheld two five-story arches outlined in textured terra cotta enframements.  The spandrels between floors featured deep panels and elaborate rosettes.  The motif was carried on to the top two floors where the terra cotta frames of the three sets of openings at the 9th and 10th floors fooled the eye into seeing three two-story arches.

Construction was competed at a dizzying speed and on November 30, 1901 the finished building was sold.  Elizabeth A. Wilcox sold the new structure for $275,000 to Salina A Gilson.  The price would be a substantial $7.7 million in today’s dollars.

Known sometimes as The Mercantile Building, No. 31-33 filled with a variety of tenants, not the least of which spilled over from Tin Pan Alley.  In 1903 Charles Harris was back, having moved permanently to New York City and establishing his office here.  Others were The Boyle Agency ("International, Vaudeville and Dramatic"), W. L. Lykens’s Vaudeville Agency and B. A. Myers and E. S. Keller, General Vaudeville Agents.  Among Myers & Keller’s prominent clients was actress and singer Edith Helena (Mrs. Edith Seymour Jennings) who was famous world-wide for her more than three-octave range.

Brickwork laid in three dimensions harmonized with the intricate terra cotta.

Shortly after opening his office here, Charles P. Harris hired Abraham Gapner, a young orphan, as an office boy.  On April 28, 1903 the boy walked into the National Park Bank and presented a check for $26.34 endorsed by Harris.  The cashier was not convinced everything was on the up-and-up and refused to cash the check.  So Gapner said he would return to the office and have things straightened out by telephone.

A few minutes later the bank’s telephone rang.  “This is Mr. Harris.  Pay the check to Abraham Gapner, my boy,” said a youngish voice.  The bank official was not fooled.

The New York Times reported “In the meanwhile, however, Detective Bernard of the department store whence the check was sent to Mr. Harris, appeared on the scene, and when the boy returned to the bank he was arrested.  According to the detective, Abraham confessed that he found the check in Mr. Harris’s mail, indorsed it with Mr. Harris’s name, and finally used the telephone to instruct the bank officials to pay the amount to himself.”

When asked why he had committed the crime against his employer, Abraham explained he wanted “Spring clothes because everybody else was wearing them.”

Salina A. Gibson did not retain possession of the building long.  In March 1905 she sold it to Robert S. Minturn for “about” $285,000, garnering a $10,000 profit over two years.

Among the tenants Minturn received in the deal was Conrad Schickerling who, The Times said in 1906, “calls himself a manufacturing jeweler.”  Schickerling rang the Shickerling Manufacturing Company here.  But the 38-year old would find himself behind bars in June that year.

Deputy Assistant District Attorney Vandiver told a judge on June 15 that Schickerling was “a member of a gang which had swindled Maiden Lane jewelers out of diamonds worth $200,000.”  In one instance, Schickerling visited Edelhoff Brothers & Co., at No. 574 Fifth Avenue on January 24.  He told Gustave A. Edelhoff he needed “a lot of diamonds to complete a lorgnette chain” ordered by the President of the State Bank, Oscar L. Richard.  Edelhoff handed over a bag of diamonds “on memorandum,” the I.O.U among jewelers at the time.

After several days without hearing from Schickerling, Edelhoff went to his office in the Mercantile Building.  After several such visits, Schickerling finally admitted he had pawned the diamonds for $6,000.

Edlehoff’s lawyer told the court that he had “received intimations that several other firms had been swindled in a similar manner by a gang of clever thieves.”  The New York Times wrote “The lawyer said the full details of the swindles would be brought to light in the examination of Schickerling.”

Along with Tin Pan Alley offices and a crooked jeweler, architects took space in the building.  Israels & Harder liked their own design enough that they immediately moved in; and on May 3, 1902 the firm of Little & O’Connor moved from No. 15 West 34th Street into the building.

Mary F. Howleson worked here in 1906 as a milliner.  The unmarried women traveled to England that summer.  On July 1 her steamship the New York arrived in Southampton and she boarded the ill-fated London & Southwest steamer express to London.  She never made it there.

Traveling at 70 miles per hour, the train derailed at a sharp curve.  Twenty-seven passengers lost their lives, including Mary Howleson, in what was called “one of the worst railroad disasters that has ever occurred in Great Britain.”  The Chicago Livestock World reported “Reckless speed caused by rivalry of two competing lines is said to have caused the disaster.”

B. Butler Boyle was inspired later that year to write to Samuel L. Clemens.  Mark Twain was immensely popular and Boyle knew he would be a huge box office draw.  As the author recalled in his Autobiography of Mark Twain, on August 24, 1906 Boyle wrote him, “I should like to suggest to you a tour in vaudeville.  I shall be able to arrange a tour in which we could give you three consecutive weeks and one week of rest.”  The agent proposed “We would simply want a sixteen to twenty minute monologue or lecture as you might choose to call it, and twice a day.”  In his attempt to lure the writer he added “I am very sure that I can secure for you a very tidy sum per week.”

Hand-in-hand with the publishers and agents was The Hawn School of the Speech Arts which offered instruction in “oral English from conversation through the drama.”  Henry Gaines Hawn also instructed “special courses for preachers and platform artists.”  At the same time the Stanhope-Wheatcroft Dramatic School was in the building.  The school garnered extra income through the sale of its textbook, Diction for Singers at $1.50 per copy.  Adeline S. Wheatcroft’s acting classes lasted a full six months.

The wonderful two-story cast iron storefront survives intact.
By 1909 women were flexing their independence and seeking voting rights and better workplace conditions.  The Committee on Amusements and Vacation Resources of Working Girls in New York established an office at No. 31 West 31st Street.  The group complained “Of the 300,000 working girls in New York, only 6,784 obtain vacation outings through the churches, settlements and societies devoted to this end.”  The committee was determined to improve the situation.

The group blamed “the present high cost of living and the low wages and irregular employment of the average girl” on the lack of affordable down time.  It provided lists of reasonably-priced lodgings for working girls, and societies that provided for vacations at the shore or in the mountains at small costs.

The Charles K. Harris Music Company was still at No. 31 when, on January 30, 1910, The New York Times announced it had bought out the Shubert Music Company.  It was a noticeable move in the music industry.

That same year the two-story retail space was the home of Franz Hanfstaengl who dealt in reproduction artworks.  The price of Hafnstaengl's prints started at $1.50.  On March 14, 1910 the firm advertised “There is no more suitable or acceptable gift than a fine Carbon Reproduction or Photogravure of the old or modern masters, a fac-simile or a fine art book.”  The ad played on the shopper’s vanity.  “A selection of one of these also stamps the giver as a person of good taste.”  It would be the last year Hanfstaegnl offered its prints to the public from this address.

Five days after the advertisement appeared in the New-York Tribune the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that Richardson & Boyton Co. was moving its offices and showroom into the building.  The makers of plumbing parts and cast iron appliances had been in business at No. 232-4 Water Street for half a century.  The Guide called the move “a significant step” and added “The uptown movement is carrying pretty much everything with it.”  Richardson & Boyton Co. would remain in the building until 1921.

Richardson & Boynton advertised cast iron boilers, furnaces and "perfect" cooking ranges in 1916.  The Sun, May 21, 1916 (copyright expired)
As World War I raged in Europe, New York’s garment district was inching into the 31st Street neighborhood.  In 1917 Levy & Frankel, Inc., manufacturers of dresses, moved in and the following year Pincus & Herschkowitz signed a lease.  In the 1920s they would be joined by Krentzman Knitting Mills, Inc., makers of “knit goods, sweaters scarves, etc.,” and Sherwin Taller, “boys’ shirts,” which took the entire ninth floor.

Richardson & Boyton Co. was replaced at street level by Bloch Publishing Co. in 1921.  The firm, founded in 1854, was reportedly the oldest Jewish publishing company in the English speaking world.  The bookstore and offices would remain at 31 West 31st Street through the 1960s.  As well as providing a retail outlet for Jewish publications, it staged exhibitions, like the one in 1934 of old and rare Hebrew books.

Having worked in his father’s Cincinnati publishing firm since 1878, Charle E. Bloch opened the New York business in 1901.  The New York Times would later say that “in the years that followed [he] brought out hundreds of books of Jewish interest, including Bibles, prayer books and religious school textbooks.”

In 1937 the 75-year old issued a statement deploring the lack of interest in Jewish literature among Jews.  “No support is given to the Jewish publisher sufficient to warrant investment in many splendid books on Jewish literature.”  Following his death on September 2, 1940 his sons carried on the business.

It was perhaps the decades-long tenancy of Bloch Publishing that resulted in the survival of the lower façade of Nos. 31-33 West 31st Street.  Although the street level is disgraced with gaudy advertising awnings and the original show windows and entrances have been replaced; the wonderful cast iron framing is intact, as are the many-paned transom above the side entrance.

There was little interior decoration to be lost in the utilitarian lofts.  photograph
As is the case with so many former office and loft buildings, the upper floors have been converted to apartments.  One, on the ninth floor where Sherwin Taller constructed boys’ shirts in the 1920s, was recently sold for $2.2 million.  The handsome façade of the Tin Pan Alley relic survives as a example of the work of the often-overlooked Israels & Harder.

non-credited photos by the author


  1. Hi Tom: So glad to see this post! Among those early tenants were McTeigue, Manz & Co — Walter P. McTeigue and Gustav Manz (with Sophie Bachem as silent partner) — who supplied fine diamond and carved jewelry to Tiffany & Co, and other Fifth Avenue firms. You'll find their letterhead at Will add a link to your post. Best, Laura