As the Madison Square neighborhood developed in the pre-Civil War years, a fine four-story home was built at No 40 East 23rd Street. But as the 1860's drew to an end the once-elegant residential block was becoming increasingly commercial. In 1869 the massive Young Men’s Christian Association building, designed by James Renwick, Jr., was erected at the corner of East 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue (later renamed Park Avenue South). Only one home stood between the new structure and No. 40, which had already been converted to house a store at ground level.
|No. 40 East 23rd Street is seen at far right, two doors from the YMCA building in 1869 -- Harper's Weekly (copyright expired)|
The Association expanded and had outgrown its behemoth building by 1886. The upper floors of No. 40 had been leased to artists who enjoyed the unblocked northern light—among then Herman Fueschel and John C. Wiggins. But by now had been razed for a modern office and store structure.
The five-story building that replaced the old residence was faced in red brick on the upper three floors, with a two-story cast iron and glass storefront below. Three-story piers accentuated the verticality of the 23-foot wide structure. The cast metal lintels, spandrels and cornice kept costs low while providing a highly-attractive façade.
The Y.M.C.A.’s International Offices and Foreign Missions offices moved into the building in 1887. The group administered branches in other countries. “The difference between the home and the foreign fields in our Association work is simply one of geography. The principles remain the same,” it explained.
In 1892 the International Committee listed more than 36 foreign countries with Young Men’s Christian Association branches. They could be found in such exotic locations as Madagascar, Tasmania, Hawaii and Syria.
The International Committee was put in charge of forming an “athletic league” in 1895. The purpose, it announced, would be “to promote not the interest of mere sport or skill, but the best development of the body, because of the relations the body sustains to the man.”
The Athletic League went on to organize inter-association, international, State and district athletic and gymnastic competitions. Trophies were provided as prizes for the contests. The International Committee noted “Only those sports which are not antagonistic to rational physical training shall be used in competitions.”
In the meantime, the lower two floors were leased to commercial tenants. In 1893 Ernest Knaufft’s art school was here; and the ground floor retail space was home to Schmitt Brothers, a popular furniture store.
|The Sun, December 16, 1904 (copyright expired)|
On March 25, 1898 Schmitt Brothers Furniture Company was acquired by Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company for the “Manufacture and sale of furniture, bric-a-brac, objects of art, interior woodwork, curtains, draperies, upholsteries, and other articles and materials for interior furnishing and decorating.” The store, nevertheless, retained its well-recognized name.
On April 15 that same year the Young Men’s Christian Association offices moved from the 23rd Street building to new quarters in the Bancroft Building behind the Marble Collegiate Church. Schmitt Brothers Furniture would stay on until 1913.
When Schmitt Brothers moved out, the Hartford Lunch Co. leased the entire building at an aggregate rental of $100,000 for “a long term of years.” The former furniture store was converted to a lunchroom and the four upper floors were rented to the Joint Board of Cloak and Skirt Makers’ Union “to be used as executive offices.”
Within three years the lunchroom had either moved on, or was simply sharing the ground floor space with the barber shop of Joe Cascio. In either case, the barber found himself in court on October 23, 1916 in a bizarre case that riveted newspaper readers.
Louis Horowitz had sued Cascio for assault following a shampooing that went terribly wrong. The Evening World reported that afternoon that Horowitz “charged that Cascio had inveigled, induced and lured him to submit to a ‘crude oil shampoo’ and instead of crude oil had applied carbolic acid to his scalp.”
According to the New-York Tribune, “The barber poured some dark liquid on his head and his hair began to sizzle. The pain was so great he had to leave the chair and run to a nearby drug store for treatment.”
The World took up the account, reporting “In consequence, as Mr. Horowitz showed the court, a fine crop of burns and blisters had been raised on the surface where a fine growth of hair had been desired.”
In his own defense, Cascio pleaded that it was not his fault, “but that of a druggist from whom he had in all good faith bought what he had believe to be crude oil.” The judge found no evidence of criminal intent and dismissed the complaint.
World War I caused a massive upheaval in the garment industry. Fuel rationing orders from the Fuel Administrator resulted in factories being shut down. In January 1918 the Joint Board of the Cloak and Skirt Makers’ Union was inundated with pleas from out-of-work members trying to find employment. Louis Langer, Secretary of the Board explained to reporters “We have 50,000 members and about 40,000 of them have been idle most of the time for the last three months. I have been answering calls all morning, but I haven’t been able to offer any encouragement.”
The Evening World reported on January 18 that “Without exception the leaders replied that the only thing to do was to act like good soldiers, accept the hardships as incidents of war and get among the best they could.”
Women were perhaps the most affected. “Many of these workers are women whose men folks were sent away as soldiers under the Draft law, having waived or been refused exemption on the ground that the women were self-supporting.”
Following the war’s end, the Joint Board returned to fighting for fair treatment by the employers. In 1921, after garment manufacturers violated the terms of a two-year old contract, the unions took action. On the morning of November 13, 1921 a meeting of labor leaders was held in the offices here and a general strike of 50,000 women’s garment workers was called for the next day. The strike crippled the industry and garnered national attention to the workers’ cause.
In the 1940s the ground floor space was home to P. Lewis & Co., a bookstore run by Dr. Phil Lewis. Immediately above were the offices of the Citadel Press, a then-small publishing firm. Lewis was one of the four partners in that firm.
On March 16, 1946 The New York Times noted that the building had been leased to the 40 East Twenty-Third Street Corporation “for occupancy as a wholesale book establishment” for a term of 21 years. At least one office was rented to a non-book dealer, however. In 1948 Universal Toy advertised its “Give Away & Slum Items,” including “grab bag items, cartoon books, comic books, joke novelties for carnivals, fairs, etc.”
In 1956 the Bizarre Book Service advertised in Popular Photographs as “specialists in out-of-print books,” and prompted collectors to write in for hard to find volumes.
In 2002 the second floor was converted for a driving school and the upper three floors became residential. Although the storefront has been obliterated, the upper floors retain their striking mid-Victorian appearance.
photographs by the author
photographs by the author