In the first years following the Civil War the block of West 23rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was still lined with the homes of affluent New Yorkers. The wealthy homeowners had names like William Schermerhorn, George Frederick Jones, Benjamin Nathan, James Constable and Aaron Arnold.
But by 1880 change had come. Retail concerns had spilled onto the wide street, driving homeowners to newly-fashionable neighborhoods to the north. The William Schermerhorn house, at No. 29 West 23rd Street, abutted the family home of Richard Arnold and his sister Henrietta. These residences, along with the old James Constable house, were demolished by Richard and Henrietta as they planned a modern commercial building on the sites.
Richard Arnold was a partner in the highly successful Arnold, Constable & Co. dry goods store. Henrietta had married his partner, James Constable. The brother-sister team would add to their personal fortunes through real estate dealings, like their planned 23rd Street building.
They commissioned architect William Schickel, responsible for the Fifth Avenue addition to their massive Broadway store, to design the building. Construction began in 1880 and was completed the following year. Schickel produced a six-story brick structure trimmed in stone that was meant to impress.
The neo-Grec facade presented itself as two matching buildings; the separate retail spaces at ground level clearly defining the separation. Stone ornamentation in the form of slender colonnettes, pier capitals, and banding added to Schickel’s dignified design. Atop it all, an elaborate combination cresting-balustrade sat tiara-like—the architectural eye candy of the new structure.
The New York Times described the interior, which it said was “attractively finished in light hard woods, relieved by rows of white pillars supporting the centre of each floor. There are passenger elevators in the front and rear, besides an additional one now being put in near the middle of the building.”
Richard and Henrietta’s building stretched from No. 27 through 33 West 23rd Street, and northward through the block to 24th street. By now the Consumer Cooperative Movement had reached the United States. Founded in 1844 in Rochdale, England, the movement was based on the idea that consumers could save money by cutting out the middleman. Members would buy goods from their own organization, eliminating the need for the retailer’s mark-ups.
The western half of the new 23rd Street building was leased to the Co-operative Dress Association, Ltd. On August 2, 1881 The New York Times announced that the organization had taken possession “of the new and handsome business building, Nos. 31 and 33 West Twenty-third-street.” The group agreed to an annual rental of $20,000—about $475,000 today. The newspaper mentioned that “The building occupies the site upon which formerly stood the residences of the original members of the firm of Arnold, Constable & Co., of whose combined estates it constitutes a part.”
|The delightful altered mansion to the right of Nos. 27-33 West 23rd was once the home of John Gardner Ambler.|
The new Co-operative Dress Association had accumulated $210,000 in capital from its members. It hired John Wales, formerly a member of Spaulding, Wales & Co., a Boston dry goods firm, to set up the emporium. His duties were the “laying out spaces for counters, selecting his forces, and looking over the market preparatory to purchasing his stock.” The Co-operative’s president, Kate Field, “is also making strenuous efforts insure the success of the enterprise,” noted The Times.
The Co-operative Dress Association reserved the basement for storage and packing, the ground floor as its retail store and the sixth for as “a work-room.” The second floor was relegated to the dress department, and the third floor to “ladies’ undergarments, laces, embroideries, silks, and all varieties and shades of dress goods, hosiery, gentlemen’s furnishing goods, buttons, and notions, hair work, shoes, stationery, china and glass ware.” The millinery department was on the third floor as well.
Fatigued shoppers could take the elevator to the fifth floor to the reading room, reception room and lunchroom. The New York Times added “The building was very handsomely and expensively fitted up inside and contained, besides a restaurant, and elegant Directors’ room, a fine reading-room, and costly library.”
Readers of the New-York Tribune may have gotten a hint that things were not going so well for the Co-operative Dress Association four months later. An advertisement on December 11 not only listed highly-discounted prices just two weeks before Christmas, but added “Members and Public Invited.”
The merchandise offered by the association was in line with the upscale tone of the retail neighborhood. When the new season’s fashions were introduced on April 5, 1882 The Times reported on the dress department, which encompassed the entire second floor. “The stock includes several dresses from Worth, Grange & Magenties, Felix, Dusizian, and other Parisian modistes, and many beautiful costumes made by the association itself. The prices range from $40 to $350.”
While members (who paid $25 for their membership) shopped for Paris creations at a lower cost than could be found on Sixth Avenue or Broadway, they could have no idea of the troubles bubbling up behind closed doors. In the spring of 1882, just months after the Association opened, John Wales resigned. In November a number of employees were laid off and the salaries of the others were cut. According to The Times, that month “the Secretary of the association emphatically denied to a representative of [Bradstreet’s] that the association was in trouble. He admitted that business was dull and that the association was a little behind on some bills, but claimed that it was perfectly sound and able to pay all it owed three times over.”
Then, on December 27, 1882 The Times reported “The doors of the large store of the Co-operative Dress Association, Nos. 31 and 33 West Twenty-third-street, were closed all day yesterday, and the most vigorous pounding failed to secure the attention of the porter. The experiment in a sort of socialism had failed—partly because of Kate Field’s very un-socialistic salary of $10,000, equal to half the rent paid on the building.
Kate Field was not only unapologetic, but placed the blame for the association’s collapse on the shoulders some of its creditors. The store closed, she said, “to save our property for the benefit of all creditors from a lot of dirty little claimants, who had no bowels of compassion, and were getting out attachments against us and threatening to take all our assets, to the exclusion of larger and more generous claimants against the property.”
The Co-operative Dress Association was replaced in Nos. 31-33 by Le Bouillier Brothers. The dry goods store offered a variety of items from women’s and children’s apparel to upholstery fabrics, curtains and draperies, “fine table-scarfs and piano-scarfs, in silk plush, and Smyrna rugs of all sizes.” A newspaper summed it up in October 1883 saying “there are few things which a lady can desire which are not to be found displayed in the establishment.”
In the meantime, the eastern portion of the building, Nos. 27-29, became home to publishers. Putnam’s took the ground floor for its bookstore and maintained offices upstairs. Another publisher, E. P. Dutton & Co. was in No. 31-33 by 1886, and the publishing firm of Henry Hold & Co., was at No. 29. That year Holt published Life of a Prig which the Pall Mall Gazette deemed “delightful” and “extremely clever.”
|Putnam's Sons advertised a few of its new publications on April 14, 1900 (copyright expired)|
Upstairs, on February 25, 1892, Franz Hanfstaengl, Fine Art Publishing House opened a small gallery. The firm, “which deals in photogravures and color prints,” opened with an exhibition of paintings by Munich artists. Sharing the building by 1894 was publisher G. W. Dillingham. A consummate businessman, when Dillingham was asked in February that year to what he attributed his great success, he replied “Study, work, and judicious advertising, but the greatest of these is advertising.”
The retail space at No. 31-33 was home to the White & Spate carpet manufacturers by 1896.
On March 5, 1911 The New York Times reported on the newly available editions from New York City publishers, including Henry Holt & Co., E. P. Dutton & Co., and G. P. Putnam’s Sons, all of whom were still in the 23rd Street building. The article noted, however, “To-morrow Messrs. G. P. Putnam’s Sons move from 27 West Twenty-third Street to Forty-fifth Street, one door west of Fifth Avenue…but their present retail store, in Twenty-third Street, will be kept up.” The move signaled a change and later that same year E. P. Dutton moved to No. 681 Fifth Avenue.
In July 1912 architect S. E. Gage completed plans for a $20,000 renovation to the 31-year old structure. The building was still owned at the time by the Richard Arnold estate. Upon completion J. Dryfoos & Sons, manufacturers of petticoats, moved in. Here a working staff of 10 men and 50 women manufactured the ladies’ garments. Another manufacturer, the Idelia Manufacturing Co., had been in the building “for a long term of years,” when it renewed its lease in November 1913.
Only two years after Gage had designed the renovations of Nos. 27-33 West 23rd Street, he was called back. On February 7, 1914 the Dry Goods Economist reported that Loeb & Schoenfeld “has leased for ten years the six-story building, with basement and sub-basement at 27-33 West Twenty-third street…This building will be vacated during the coming spring, and at that time the structure will be entirely remodeled.” On April 18 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide announced that Gage had filed plans for another $30,000 renovation; and a week later explained that the changes were being made for the new lessee.
Loeb & Schoenfeld had been founded in 1883 by Jacob Loeb and Max Schoenfeld. The firm manufactured embroidered curtains in their “large and finely equipped plants” at Camden, New Jersey and Lebanon, Pennsylvania. American Carpet and Upholstery Journal opined that the company’s “novelty embroidered curtains with embroidered braided effect” were “absolutely different from anything else offered on this side of the Atlantic.”
In reporting on the firm’s upcoming move, the Dry Goods Economist noted “The fact that this Twenty-third block between Fifth and Sixth avenues is now in a state of transition from a retail to a wholesale trade center gives the concern a modern building meeting all their exacting requirements, including accessibility, light, area, shipping facilities, etc. at an exceptionally attractive rental and more than double the size of the one they are about to leave.”
The trade paper felt that the move “in all probability means the reconstruction with a short time of that part of Twenty-third street as an important and attractive addition to the city’s wholesale dry goods district.”
|A 1917 advertisement depicted the coordinated linens, upholstery, draperies and wallpaper available through Loeb & Schoenfeld -- Good Furniture (copyright expired)|
Another drapery firm, Charles Weinberg Co. subleased the top two floors, a full 35,000 square feet, in 1914. The Manhattan Trading Company took the entire fourth floor in 1919.
In 1924 Loeb & Schoenfeld had recently renewed its lease when the building was sold for $1 million to Nymco Holding Corporation. The firm would still be in the building in 1928 when Emil Erdreich, a cashier for the New York Merchandise Company found himself in trouble.
The 21-year old was also a psychology student at the nearby Washington Square branch of New York University. The New York Merchandise Company was a wholesale manufacturer and importer of variety merchandise. He had worked for the firm for some time when, in November 19, 1927, he devised a scheme to make extra money.
Detectives would later say “it was Ederich’s practice to gain his employer’s commendation by arriving early at his office.” But the cashier’s reasons for getting to the office before anyone else were less commendable. “He would obtain a few of the firm’s numbered checks, and making them out on the firm’s stamping machine take them home to be signed that evening.”
Ederich would then take the large checks to a telegraph office and have the funds wired to a fictitious person in a nearby city. He would then go there to collect the money. The young man’s plan would most likely have succeeded had he not grown too greedy.
On January 6, 1928 The New York Times reported that the forgeries “were not noticed until officers of the merchandising company in going over the December checks found too many drawn in favor of unknown payees.”
Emil Ederich was sitting in his New York University classroom on the night of January 5 when detectives walked in and arrested him. He was charged for forging $30,000 in checks—more than $410,000 in today’s dollars. Police reported that $27,500 in cash was found in a smoking cabinet in his home.
In 1937 the building was sold once again, this time to the Consolidated Trimming Corporation. The firm, founded in 1880 by William John Rosenberg, moved its drapery and upholstery trimmings factory into the building and continued to lease out other space. The new owners had barely settled in when trouble arrived.
On November 5, 1937 65-year old paymaster George Young walked to the bank with an armed guard, 55-year old Amin Schrieber. The guard was an advisable precaution since Young was withdrawing nearly $12,000 in cash for payroll.
As Young and Schrieber returned to the lobby, they were pounced upon by three hold-up men. The gunmen took Schrieber’s handgun and fled with the money envelope from George Young. What they did not realize is that the two veteran cash-carriers were prepared for just such an attack. Before leaving the bank they had taken most of the cash--$8,020—and concealed it in their clothing. The robbers ran off with the remaining $3,780. It was a large enough amount not to raise the thugs’ suspicions; leaving Young and Schrieber with the majority of the Consolidated Trimming Corporation’s payroll.
In June 1939 the massive 50,000 square foot first floor was leased to A. Cohen & Sons, a “large silverware and novelty concern.” The firm had operated from No. 584 Broadway for two decades.
The New York Merchandise Company was still in the building in the mid-1940s. In June of 1954 Consolidated Trimming Corporation sold the property to a syndicate, but announced it “will continue to occupy the fifth and sixth floors.” A. Cohen Sons was still selling silver and jewelry from sidewalk level and would stay on here into the 1960s.
In 1993 Truro College converted the building as a trade school for adults. Today the ground floor houses a digital printing concern. Hopefully the panels of flat metal here merely cover and have not destroyed the original storefront. The upper floors survive essentially intact from the days when a brother and sister sacrificed their family home for progress.
photographs by the author