Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The B. Altman & Co. Bldg -- No. 361 Fifth Avenue

In 1902  R. H. Macy & Co. made a surprising, and somewhat shocking move.  The department store on 14th Street was the anchor to the Sixth Avenue shopping district known today as The Ladies’ Mile.  Stretching to 23rd Street, the area was home to massive commercial palaces, many a full block wide.

But that year Macy's abandoned the Ladies’ Mile and moved twenty blocks north, to Herald Square.  It was a bold move that signaled the eventual end of The Ladies’ Mile.

Benjamin Altman’s department store which engulfed the block from 18th to 19th Street was among the most prominent.  But two years after Macy’s move, it became apparent that Altman had quietly been amassing property for a new site, as well.  Altman’s choice of location was even more shocking than Macy’s had been—squarely on elegant Fifth Avenue and diagonally across from the exclusive Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Altman had informed the tenants of the old dwellings—including the Oxley Enos chandelier Company—that they would have to be gone by May 1, 1905.  On December 24, 1904 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that Benjamin Altman had requested sketches “from a number of architects.”

In fact, Altman seems to have been ahead of Macy's in his plans to abandon The Ladies’ Mile.  The New York Times reported that he had purchased the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 35th Street, “nearly nine years ago, at a time when that neighborhood was very different from what it is to-day.”

The Times reported that while neither the architect nor plans had been approved, “the assurance is that it will be an ornament, architecturally, to that part of Fifth Avenue, and that it will embody every known appliance for the accommodation of the public and for the easy and rapid handling of business.”

Altman decided on Trowbridge & Livingston as his architects.   They produced a stately Italian palazzo clad in French limestone.  Critics approved.  Following opening day on October 15, 1906 The New York Times wrote “The architecture is classic, in so far as it can be applied to a mercantile house.  The doorway and entrance columns are handsomely decorated…The store adds materially to the beauty of Fifth Avenue.”

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The new Altman store offered the many amenities that well-to-do shoppers had come to expect.  “The firm takes particular pride in the waiting room on the fourth floor,” said The Times.  “This room, arranged for the convenience of customers, is large and is fitted up with writing desks and chairs designed for the comfort of shoppers.  Comfortable telephone booths have been provided.  All the woodwork is mahogany.”

B. Altman & Co. changed the face of Fifth Avenue and within only a few years other upscale retailers built nearby.  On October 30, 1909 real estate operator Frederick Johnson made note of the changes in shopping.  He told reporters that “the high-class trade, which once went to London and Paris, was now being provided for in New York,” and he added that it was the Fifth Avenue and 34th Street area that would “take care of the cream of the shopping of the whole of the United States.”
Well dressed Edwardian shoppers come and go.  Note the handsome capitals, now lost.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Unlike many retailing moguls, Benjamin Altman—who had left school at the age of 12 to work in his father’s store—was unusually sensitive to the conditions of his employees.  Perhaps remembering his own childhood, he established a free school in the building for the staff.   And he installed an employee cafeteria with affordable prices which the company subsidized.

When Trowbridge & Livingston designed the building in 1904 the plans included the entire block to Madison Avenue, despite the fact that Altman did not own the Madison Avenue frontage.  But by the fall of 1910 that had changed.  On October 8 the Record and Guide reported on Altman’s acquisition of the final plot and the probability that the store would be enlarged.   The Guide noted “With the improvement of the Madison av. Block in the near future, Mr. Altman, while owning one of the most valuable blocks in the city for retail purposes, will also have one of the largest stores.”

Interior appointments were elegant, like this staircase with bronze railings and mahogany woodwork.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The resulting $1 million Italian Renaissance addition would rise 12 stories and meld seamlessly with the original structure. Much of the upper floor space was dedicated to employee areas.   The entire 12th floor was given up to the “employes’ home.”  It would include “airy lunchrooms, a cafeteria, and kitchens equipped with the most modern manner,” according to The New York Times.  There was also a medical suite with a consulting physician, a surgical room, and two hospital wards containing seven beds.  “A physician and two nurses were engaged at the expense of the firm, to be in attendance in the medical suite,” informed the newspaper.

The 11th floor included a recreation room for employees “especially for women and girl employes.”  It was to be furnished “in a cozy fashion” and would offer books and magazines.  The roof, too, was intended for the use of employees.  There was a smoking room for men, a solarium and open-air promenade “to be used in good weather.”

The Sun reported that “The total cost of the enlarged Altman store, together with the land, it is said, will be in the neighborhood of $12,000,000.”

The Madison Avenue addition was completed in October 1914, doubling the size of the store.  Customers’ comfort was augmented by “providing on the fifth floor a writing room for women, furnished in blue velvet, with a carpet of the same rich tone.  Within each reach an information bureau, telephone booths, and the general store offices were arranged,” reported The New York Times on October 4.

The bachelor retailer would not live to see his addition completed.  On Tuesday October 7, 1913 he died in his mansion at No. 626 Fifth Avenue at the age of 72.  Shortly after 3:00 that afternoon a messenger arrived at the store with the news.

Managers moved from counter to counter, quietly informing the clerks and directing them to stop making sales.  Customers were ushered out of the store and the doors were locked behind them.  Benjamin Altman’s funeral was held in the Temple Emanu-El on Friday morning.  The store remained closed through the following day.

Tributes to Altman did not fail to remember his treatment of his employees.  The New-York Tribune wrote “In Benjamin Altman died one of the greatest of this city’s long line of great merchants.  His name stood for all that is best in the civic and commercial world—character and honorable dealing, humanitarian regard for the interests of his employes and public spirit.”

His “humanitarian regard” soon became even more apparent.   On October 15, 1913 Altman’s will was made public.   To ensure that his principals continued, he created The Altman Foundation, funded by the capital stock he held in the store.  The Foundation would manage the operation of the store.  “The Foundation will always vote a majority of the stock,” explained his lawyer, John L. Cadwalader.  The will, he said, was “designed, in part, to carry on his business in the manner he had mapped out for it.”

Altman’s will left no employee out.   He bequeathed $10,000 each to his two secretaries—more than a quarter million dollars today—and various amounts to employees who had been with the store for 20, 18 and 15 years.   Those associates received checks for $2,500, $1,500, and $1,000.   Newer associates were included, as well.  The will “provides for compensation for everybody not included in the above-named classes,” said Cadwalader.  The checks totaled more than $1 million.

The same year that the Madison Avenue extension opened, B. Altman’s took a dramatic step in defending its carriage trade clientele against competition.  For the first time ever, a major Paris dressmaker showed her line in New York.  Jeanne Paquin’s entire new spring line was paraded before the press, retailers and dress manufacturers in the Ritz-Carlton on March 4.

The New York Times reported that “by the time the exhibition began the ballroom actually was jammed with upward of 900 dress manufacturers, and dressmakers, milliners, designers, saleswomen, and dressmakers’ models, who, it was heard whispered, had come out to get points as to how the mannequins [the French models] wore the frocks they displayed.”

There was no doubt a general gasp when, just before the first model walked down the runway.  A placard was placed on the stage “announcing that B. Altman & Co. had purchased the entire exhibition of gowns and hats.”

A bizarre and tragic accident occurred a few months later.  On the morning of August 15, 1914 Mrs. William Hinman left her Brooklyn home to meet her mother, 85-year old Hannah Van Dusen, for a day out together.   The two women enjoyed a ride along Riverside Drive for the views and fresh air, then boarded a bus to Washington Square.

They were sitting on the top level of the bus where the air and views were better.  As the bus neared B. Altman’s, it was detoured to Madison Avenue because of pavement maintenance.  The driver made a turn onto East 35th Street, just as an automobile approached.   He quickly made a sharp turn to avoid the car.   In doing so, the bus tilted somewhat “toward a bronze canopy that covered the entrance to B. Altman & Co.’s store.”

What happened next was terrifying and unbelievable.  “The passers-by heard a shriek, and looked up to see an aged woman, her hair caught in the projection of the canopy, lifted bodily off the top of the bus and dropped to the sidewalk, which she struck on her head.  When picked up she was dead.”

As the bus tilted, Hannah Van Dusen’s hair had become entangled in the canopy.  Her daughter screamed as Hannah was torn from the seat.  “Other passengers on the bus turned in time to see Mrs. Van Dusen dangling for a moment in the air before she dropped.  There was a chorus of outcries, and a panic as all the passengers on the crowded bus sprang up and ran toward the steps.”

Officials went through a reenactment and made measurements.  It was determined that “any one of the knobs, hanging down about eighteen inches apart around the edge of the canopy would strike the railing on the top of the motorbus.”  The law provided for a clearance of 13 feet.  The decorative canopy did not last much longer.

The unfinished arch above the 35th Street entrance is all that remains of the canopy that resulted in Hannah Van Dusen's death.  Note the Art Nouveau influences in the design of the entrance. 

For years employees of the store took full advantage of the many opportunities.  In June 1919, 71 pupils of the Continuation School received diplomas.  The school was conducted and accredited by the Board of Education.  Newspapers noted that “The orchestra of B. Altman & Co. furnished music.”

The high class of the store’s clientele was evidenced by the items it offered.  On October 17, 1915 the New-York Tribune made note of one especially attractive accessory.  “A deep note of splendor is struck by the exquisitely colored ostrich fan, which is uncurled, but droopingly curved at the long ends.  Shades that are not often seen are found in these fans.  They cost $40.”   The cost of the item, included in what the newspaper deemed “Feminine Frailties,” would equate to about $975 today.

In 1888 Altman’s had hired 14-year Richard Jackson as a “cash boy.”   He took advantage of the Altman School to learn business principals and he read books in the New York Public Library’s branch in the store.  He was successively promoted, first to a messenger, and by 1905, was moved into the advertising department.

The former cash boy became a Director of the corporation in February 1916.  The Horatio Alger-type story, however, was not unusual.  On February 3, 1916 the firm’s president, Michael Friedsam, pointed out that every one of the 12 Directors “has been a cash boy, an office boy, or a driver.”

As war erupted in Europe, B. Altman & Co. did its patriotic part.  Booths were set up in the store for the selling of war bonds and in 1914 it was announced that “all employes who were members of the National Guard or the Naval Militia, and as such might be called into the field for maneuvers or other camp work, would not lose either salary or vacation while performing those duties.”

The Altman Fund continued to provide for the store’s employees.  On Christmas Day 1921 The New York Times reported that every one of the 4,000 workers in the big store had received a “Christmas surprise.”

“Christmas gifts in cash amounting to about $400,000 were distributed yesterday among all the 4,000 regular employes of B. Altman & Co. by the Altman Foundation,” reported the newspaper.  “The remembrances came as a complete surprise to the workers in the great mercantile establishment.”  The average envelope contained $100.

The B. Altman & Co. interior decorating and furnishing department was handsomely arranged in room settings.  In 1923 the department received a great honor when it was selected to redecorate and refurnish the Governor’s Mansion in Albany.  The $75,000 project would perhaps be handled differently today; but in the 1920s more emphasis was put on modernization than preservation.

Much of the antique furniture was removed and donated to the Brooklyn State Hospital.  The Times noted “Some of the furniture that was taken away was old when Roswell P. Flower lived at the Executive Mansion.  There had been very little new furniture bought since that time.”  Flower was Governor from 1892 to 1894.

Throughout the decades B. Altman & Co. vied with the other grand emporiums of Fifth Avenue—Lord & Taylor, Saks, and the nearby Macy’s, for instance—in one of Manhattan’s most beloved traditions.  The Christmas windows attracted thousands of visitors every year and red velvet ropes were required to organize the lines of starry-eyed children and grown-ups alike.

But Christmas windows, uniformed elevator operators, and an atmosphere of civilized shopping would come to an end in 1989.  In November that year the store held its final sale.  The New York Times reported “the crush was so great that management turned off the escalators to control traffic.”  The mass of bargain hunters crushed the soul of at least one long-time patron, who left the store lamenting, “I can’t see it like this.”

The Times admitted that “The grand emporium is a vanishing species.”  The 880,000 square foot structure had been purchased by KMO-361 Realty which proposed using 650,000 square feet for the New York Resource Center and the remaining space for the New York Public Library’s Science, Industry and Business Library.

Architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates and Emery Roth & Sons oversaw the conversion.  Today, despite several regrettable losses such as the first floor column capitals and the fourth and fifth story lintels, the limestone palazzo looks much as it did in 1906 when well-heeled ladies alit from their carriages.

The beautiful mahogany paneled Fifth Avenue foyer survives intact.

On a side, note, Benjamin Altman’s altruistic fund did not fade away with the department store.  When the store closed, the Foundation had given away more than $235 million.  It continues today quietly donating money to various worthy causes.    In 2004, for instance, it gave the Friends of the High Line $145,000 in three grants and added another $25,000 in 2010.

non-credited photographs by the author


  1. "In 1902 dry goods merchant Roland Macy made a surprising, and somewhat shocking move ... to Herald Square."
    I think that's incorrect: Roland Macy had passed away several decades earlier. As this site says (I think it's an official blog associated with Macy's Visitor Services department):
    "R.H. Macy died in 1877 and, in 1895, the company ownership passed from his family to Isidor and Nathan Straus, brothers who, with their father, had leased the basement of the store in 1874 and established a famous china department there. The Straus family continued to build on R. H. Macy’s legacy of ‘firsts’ throughout the early years of the 20th century."
    Other sites, including Macy's main Web site, provide a similar history.

  2. Altman's closing resulted from changes in the tax law, which no longer allowed The Altman Foundation a non-profit, to operate a commercial business. The foundation survives to this day.

    1. That’s only partially correct. The stores had to be sold off from the foundation which they were in 1985. It was a bad investment corporation that both them and Bonwit Teller and both went into backruptcy in 1989. I was a buyer there at the time.

  3. I worked for B Altman’s in NYC as a buyer. Hearts and spirits broke when it was announced the store would close and be no more. I still work in NYC and pass the building often. I always smile to myself remembering all the memories of working there. B Altman’s and Bonwit Teller both closed that year due to bad mismanagement of their new owners.

    1. It is too bad that the store was not divested by the foundation and placed in "Employee Ownership" in the manner of several large corporations....Chicago and Northwestern Railroad was at one time employee owned before it merged with Union Pacific Railroad.
      I worked at B.Altman as a section manager from 1978-1986 and did see the handwriting on the wall starting in 1985 when the new ownership went through the store terminating employees throughout. I have a feeling there was a person in HR known as "CHAINSAW" the way he fired people

    2. I was a senior asst buyer for housewares / kitchen shop from 1980 to 1985. I also knew that when the company was sold, the “family” atmosphere changed and I got out as soon I could. My heart broke when they closed Xmas 1990.

    3. I worked at Altmans in the buying department for Housewares and Delicacies Nov. 79- Jan 80 at age 23. I was actually in the Flying Squad, assigned to fill in in different departments as needed. Delicacies needed help with Christmas. I remember Tom, the Head Buyer, his boss Mr. Walsh. I worked directly with Dana who was the assistant buyer for Delicacies and she bought the Godiva, Perugina, Belgian chocolates, etc. Another guy who was older, worked with the English jams like Dickensons. Ann who was the asst. buyer for housewares, like Anchor Hocking. I dealt with large orders from the companies who were sending out Christmas Baskets or Hampers. I recall Virgin (this is 1979) sent out 300 food baskets of varying sizes to people in the US). The other things I remember- spotting Jack Lord shopping on the 5th floor...I rode the escalator up and down watching him! Going to lunch with Dana and a buyer at the 21 Club, taking home a banged-up tin of Earl Grey tea they couldn't sell. Taking inventory of Godiva ballotins in that dank basement that smelled of insecticide they sprayed on all the boxes from overseas. Making sure the chocolate in the refrigerator display case didn't bloom (turn white) -while still edible, it didn't look good. Yeah I took a few of those home too.

  4. How well I remember shopping at B Altman’s with my late mom as a kid.What a stunning store.We used to have lunch in the lovely restaurant.My mother was so upset when B Altman’s and Bonwit Teller closed.She told me a story that when she was pregnant with me she went into Best & CO’s beautiful store on 5th Avenue and the cashier told her they were closing.My mom could not believe it.NYC is a shell of itself.I will be moving away soon and won’t miss it.Ryan

  5. I worked at Altman's from 1974 thru 1984.Started in September of 1974 at 18 yrs old.After year 1 I was transferred to the fur storage dept and had a blast for 9 yrs.Became a NYPD officer but the memories of B.Altman's are priceless