Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Oppenheim, Collins & Co. Bldg -- No. 31 West 34th Street

In 1871, the year that Albert D. Oppenhein and his son, Charles J., went into the skirt manufacturing business in New York City, the block of West 34th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was lined with upscale brownstone residences.  The tone of the neighborhood was set by the imposing mansions of John J. Astor and his brother, William B. Astor, on Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets.   The socially-prominent families on West 34th included that of A. R. Van Nest, living at No. 31.  The Van Nest family was among the oldest of New York society.

By the turn of the century, however, things had changed.  The Astor mansions had been replaced by the hulking Waldorf-Astoria Hotel; and many of the 34th Street homes had been converted for business purposes, or razed entirely.  When the National Arts Club was organized in 1898, it took over the home at No. 37 West 34th as its clubhouse.  Here it exhibited paintings, sculptures, pottery, and other works of art.  Two years later it expanded into No. 39; the International Year Book noted “the improvements include a second gallery for exhibitions, which can be thrown together with the old gallery to form a single large hall, and a new art library.”

Although they had lost their stoops, Nos. 37 and 39 W 34th St were otherwise little changed at the turn of the century --Club Women of New York, 1904 (copyright expired)

In the meantime, Oppenheim, Collins & Co. ran its skirt factory at No. 58 Greene Street, employing 400 workers.  And it would have continued contentedly in the wholesale business had it not been for an ambitious young suit buyer from the Meyer, Jonasson & Co. dry goods store.  Isaac Levy had wanted to go into the retail business for some time; and he talked to Charles Oppenheim about expanding his business.

Later The New York Times would recall “Mr. Oppenheim considered the matter, and despite advice from friends who thought he should not branch out into an unfamiliar field, he decided to back Mr. Levy.”

By 1905 the National Arts Club had outgrown its headquarters on West 34th Street.  On Friday March 24 the Tribune reported that the club had purchased the former Samuel J. Tilden residence on Gramercy Park.   Charles Oppenheim wasted little time in acquiring the old houses which the club vacated.

On April 19, 1906 The New York Times reported the Oppenheim, Collins & Co. had purchased the land and “two old dwellings, at 33 and 35 West Thirty-fourth Street.”  The new retail firm had paid a staggering $1 million for the plots, which extended through to 35th Street.  “They will erect a building on the site,” said the newspaper.

Isaac Levy showed tremendous foresight in urging Oppenheim to choose the 34th Street location.  Although The New York Times said it was “quite outside of the retail shopping district;” only one block to the east was the new R. H. Macy & Co. store; and to the west, on Fifth Avenue, Benjamin Altman’s massive Italian Renaissance emporium was under construction. 

Oppenheim, Collins & Co. commissioned the well-known architectural firm of Buchman & Fox to design its new structure.  The fashionable location so near the Waldorf-Astoria meant that Oppenheim, Collins could spare no expense.  The estimated cost of half a million dollars would be equal to about $13 million in 2015.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide pointed out on January 26, 1907, “The fa├žade will be almost entirely of limestone.”  The New York Times chimed in the same day, remarking that it “will embody the latest devices in store construction.”

The completion of the 11-story edifice in September 1907 sparked interest in the block.  The Real Estate Record & Guide pointed out “Since the opening of the cloak and suit house of Oppenheim, Collins & Co., a marked change was immediately noticeable for demand of space in this block, and several large firms are seeking to obtain quarters in this section.”

Buchman & Fox had produced a stately Beaux Arts structure three bays wide.  Sitting on a two-story cast iron base, the somewhat restrained design of the upper floors sprouted carved cartouches, hefty scrolled brackets upholding a sumptuous copper-clad cornice above the ninth floor, and garlands and fruits in the spandrels.  The date of construction was proudly carved into the parapet.

Oppenheim, Collins & Co. initially took the two lowers floors as its retail space; while leasing out the upper floors.  But the astonishing success of the new department store soon proved that arrangement inadequate.

In May 1910 the firm purchased the two adjoining properties at Nos. 37 and 39.  The New York Times reported “Oppenheim, Collins & Co. intend immediately to improve the entire plot to correspond with their present eleven-story building.”   Buchman & Fox was called back to design the $300,000 addition.

The matching facades differed only in the two dates carved into the parapets.

The completed addition was a mirror-image of the original structure.  The sole difference was the new date carved into the matching parapet.  Oppenheim, Collins & Co. not only expanded along the sidewalk level, but took up four full floors of the addition.

The addition doubled the size of the building.  Next door (right) is the North River Savings Bank at No. 31 West 34th --photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The upper floors continued to be leased to firms like the Haas, Strauss & Co. cloak and suit manufacturers, who took the 7th floor in January 1913.  Also in the building was the showroom of the Royal Worcester and Bon Ton corset company.  That firm’s January showing of its spring 1915 line necessitated invitations.

Prices for these evening coats in 1915 would range from $1000 to $2400 (copyright expired)
In January 1915 The Corset and Underwear Review reported “Demonstrations of all the new models on living models which have been so successful a feature in the past, will be continued, supplemented by lectures on the characteristic features of the new Spring line by competent corset authorities.  Handsomely engraved invitations have been issued.”

In 1918 Maher & Kessler, manufacturers of girls’ clothing, moved in.  The American Cloak and Suit Review noted in December that year “They make a wonderful line of children’s dresses, including the well-known ‘Little Mary Mix-Up Dress.”

Oppenheim, Collins & Co. utilized a clever method of combating the shoplifting of its high-priced merchandise.  Among the throngs of shoppers were plain clothed female store detectives.  One of them, May Boyler, had almost more than she could handle when she approached two thieves on Christmas Eve 1914.

As May watched, Edward Greiner took three silk gowns from a counter and hand them to his accomplice, Mabel Hall.  Mabel stuffed the $400 dresses under her coat and the pair rapidly left the store.  May Boyler caught up with them at the corner of Fifth Avenue and asked for the gowns back; and then tried to take them.

“There was a fight, which attracted a crowd of Christmas shoppers,” reported The New York Times the following morning.  In the scuffle, May’s blouse was ripped off “and she was being severely handled when City Detectives McMann and Faylan arrested Greiner and Miss Hall,” said the newspaper.  Unable to post bail, both were locked up.

The firm's aggressive marketing including what today would be termed "plus sizes."  1923 advertisement (copyright expired)

For years the property next door to Oppenheim, Collins at No. 31 West 34th Street had been home to the North River Savings Bank.  But the classically-inspired one-story building eventually proved too small.  On July 28, 1921 The New York Times reported that the bank had outgrown the old building and purchased property at Nos. 202 to 212 West 34th Street.  “It is understood that the property now occupied by the bank…will be placed on the market for sale.”

Oppenheim, Collins & Co. was about to expand once again.  In December 1921 the bank property was sold for a remarkable $500,000.  The New York Times called it “a price which creates a record price for inside lots in the Herald Square section.”  Within the year a matching, six-story addition was completed.  The Oppenheim, Collins & Co, building now stretched from No. 31 to 39 West 34th Street.

A banner across the front of the bank building in 1921 announced the move.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The store had suffered a daring robbery earlier that year, on the night of October 1, 1921.  In the show windows was a display of valuable fur coats, a tempting target for burglars.  That night, while a terrific thunderstorm raged, a team of three crooks and two taxi drivers acting as accomplices waited until the street lights had been extinguished.  At around 5:30 in the morning they went into action.

A night watchman in the rear of the store heard a shop window crash.  He told detectives later that he fired shots from the center of the store as he ran to the front, “but it took no effect.”  By the time he reached the front of the store, the burglars had made off with two mink coats.  Witness said they saw the men grab the furs and escape in the waiting cabs.

The New York Times reported “Examination of the show window disclosed that one of the burglars had been an expert glass cutter.”  The heist netted the men $5,000 in stolen goods—equal to about $66,000 in 2015.

Theft, as with all department stores, would continue to be a problem for Oppenheim, Collins & Co.  A rather remarkable instance occurred on November 1, 1926; not so much because of the incident, but because of the unlikely pair of shoplifters.

Two weeks earlier 19-year old Mrs. J. Erickson, who lived at No. 471 Central Park West, quarreled with her husband and stormed off to a cabaret.  There she ran into a 70-year old “stooped man,” Arthur Murray, who lived just steps away from the woman, at No. 468 Central Park West.

The little old man was well-known to law enforcement.  He was first arrested in 1875 for petty larceny in Boston and to date had been convicted 15 times.  He recognized in the young, fashionably-dressed young woman an excellent partner in crime.

As was the case a dozen years earlier, female store detectives blended in with the shoppers.  On November 1 Katherine Schimick and Jean Smith were working as a team.  They watched Mrs. Erickson casually take a pair of silk stockings and pass them to an elderly man nearby.  He put them in his overcoat.  She moved on to the perfume counter where the operation was repeated.

When the pair was searched, other articles were found on them.   The teen-aged crook told police “that Murray had taught her to be a shoplifter.”  The New York Times reported “Mrs. Erickson had not notified her husband last night and bail had not been furnished.”

Even the Great Depression had little effect on the growth and the profits of the high-end department store.  When Isaac D. Levy died on September 9, 1934, Oppenheim, Collins & Co. had branched into several other cities and was recognized as a leader in the industry.  The New York Times said “he became known as ‘The prince of merchant princes in the realm of ready-to-wear.’”

The store continued to innovate.  As the opening of the New York World’s Fair neared in 1939, Oppenheim’s new president, Robert D. Levy, announced plans for air conditioning the store.  The system was scheduled to “be in operation soon after June 1, for the convenience of customers during the World’s Fair period,” he said.

Other merchandising ideas included a 50-voice choral group that gave free concerts during the Christmas season of 1943; and regular live fashion shows every season open to the public.

Women who had enjoyed undisturbed shopping for decades were no doubt shocked when in June 1948 the 34th Street sidewalk was blocked by hundreds of union picketers.  Oppenheim, Collins & Co.'s management was infuriated.  On July 1 Gordon Greenfield, secretary-treasurer of the firm, called the union committee members “card-carrying” communists when appearing before a Congressional hearing.  “Mr. Greenfield called Mr. Carnes, president of Local 1250…’a notorious Communist.’” reported The Times.

Despite the disruption outside, nearly all of the store’s employees reported for work during the three-month picketing.  In response, Oppenheim, Collins posted large placards in the store windows “The Issue is Communism.”

In 1950 Oppenheim, Collins & Co. was taken over by City Stores Company.  Simultaneously, that firm acquired another well known department store, Franklin Simon & Co.  Despite a $1 million upgrade to the 34th Street building in 1958; Oppenheim, Collins & Co. was struggling for the first time in its existence.   On December 23, 1960 it was announced that the store had operated in the red during the 39 weeks ending the previous October.

The 1960 renovation resulted in updated show windows and store front.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

City Stores Company tried to resuscitate the two divisions by merging Franklin Simon and Oppenheim, Collins in December 1961.   The Franklin Simon store was closed and the firm moved into the Oppenheim building.  Within two years the Oppenheim, Collins & Co. name ceased to be used.

Finally, on March 9, 1977 Morton Siegenfeld, President of Franklin Simon, announced that the 34th Street store would close.   In June 1978 brothers Howard and Yair Levy announced a $1 million remodeling and furnishing of the building to accommodate the women’s apparel specialty store, Extaza 34.  The New York Times reported that “Herman’s World of Sporting Goods will also open its largest Manhattan store in a section of the Franklin Simon building.”

When the Levy brothers’ 10-year lease was up, the building was broken up with four retail stores at ground level and small offices in the upper floors.  Another renovation in 2011 resulted an expansive retail store space on the first three floors, with offices and showrooms above.

Close inspection of the 35th Street facade reveals the Oppenheim Collins & Co. name still visible where the bronze letters were removed.
Buchman & Fox’s two-story storefront was lost decades ago.  The stark white modern front today is a result of the 2011 renovation.  But the upper floors are remarkably intact, looking as they did when a fledgling department store changed the complexion of West 34th Street forever.

photographs by the author

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