In 1850 Joseph Sandford erected five upscale homes on the east side of Fifth Avenue, between 19th and 20th Streets. Among them was No. 123, a 22-foot wide mansion that rose four stories above an English basement.
It became home to dry goods merchant Samuel Holmes and his family. Holmes's wealth was evidenced in his support of Yale College. He endowed scholarships of $5,000 each; and in 1868 gave the school $25,000 towards the construction of a new hall for the theological department--a gift worth about $430,000 today. The Holmes family's interest in religion and theology was further reflected in son Stephen, who also lived in the house. He was assistant minister at St. Ann's Episcopal Church by the late 1860s.
After nearly two decades in No. 123 Fifth Avenue, the Holmes family left in 1872, moving to Connecticut. The mansion was sold at auction on Thursday, December 5 that year, advertised as "the very valuable four story high stoop brown stone front House...in perfect order, with all the modern improvements."
Joseph Curtis, who dealt in photographic supplies, briefly leased the house, which was resold in 1874. The Fifth Avenue neighborhood was already changing as the commercial district inched northward. The mansion became an upscale boarding house; an advertisement in 1875 offering "Elegantly furnished Rooms, without board preferred; also Parlor Floor entire, with private table if desired." There were four boarders in 1876; Ellen J. Smith, "widow of James Smith;" the widow of printer Joshua K. Lees; metal dealer Gordon W. Burnham; and attorney Henry Hartman.
No. 123 was offered for sale on July 31, 1880 "to close an estate" and was purchased by Elizabeth Floyd. An heiress (her father had made his fortune in the shipping industry), she was highly involved in real estate and owned properties throughout the city. Floyd converted the basement to a shop and added an extension to the rear.
The new store had two tenants, "fine furniture" dealers Bein Brothers & Company; and Jacob B. Woolley, importer of "Japanese goods." Both merchants handled high-end items and on April 30, 1883 Woolley had on display what he described as a "very beautiful, enameled Japanese plate."
A salesman, Frank Dugan, was suspicious of a shopper that day. "When he saw me he turned away," Dugan later recalled. When the stranger left, the plate was missing. Jacob Woolley was understandably upset at the loss. He later testified "I felt a little sore over it, and took a walk down Fourteenth Street." To his surprise, his stolen item was on display in a shop. "I saw the plate in a Turk's window...I went in to the Turk and said to him, 'You have a nice plate there in the window.'"
When the shopkeeper refused to say where he had obtained the item, Woolley found a policeman. On threat of arrest, the merchant confessed he had purchased it from "a Frenchman." When the sticky-fingered Frenchman foolishly returned to Woolley's store a few days later, he was nabbed.
Jacob Woolley appeared in the newspapers two years later; and this time he was on the other side of the law. On December 11, 1885 Charles P. Jones surrendered to police. The captain of the ship Oxfordshire knew he was wanted on charges of smuggling "ivory curios, carvings, plaques, and bric-a-brac" from Asia." The $1,100 in goods had been taken ashore and a messenger was directed "to take them to J. Wooley [sic], no. 123 Fifth-avenue," according to The New York Times. But "before this could be done the goods were seized."
A few months after the ignominious affair, Elizabeth Floyd embarked on more renovations. She commissioned esteemed architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh to convert the parlor floor to retail space and add a cast iron storefront. Hardenberg's storefront, however would have little in common with the fluted Corinthian columns and pilasters appearing throughout the downtown districts.
A marriage of Beaux Arts and Northern Renaissance styles; it framed the two-story retail space with delicate pilasters that culminated in Renaissance-style male masks rather than capitals. An arch with lacy filigree spandrels fronted the parlor floor. It was marked by a lavish cartouche with a snarling mask, draping beads, leaves and scrolls.
|The Renaissance-type masks and griffins were strikingly similar to those used by Hardenberg in his Dakota Flats (below) two years earlier.|
Sharing the ground floor store with Jacob Woolley now was the newly-formed Belcher Mosaic Glass Company, organized in 1884 by Henry F. Belcher. His highly expensive stained glass panels were magnificent and brilliantly colorful. He held at least 22 patents for his process, by which thousands of glass pieces, most triangular, were laid out then sandwiched tightly between layers of asbestos. A molten lead alloy was poured in to fill the gaps. When the exterior surfaces were removed the complete, intact window emerged. The firm closed in 1890; most likely due to the expensive process.
Among the tenants on the upper floors were Mary Scott Rowland and her husband John, who was described as an invalid. The double-duty space was their home as well as Mary's studio. She offered well-heeled women the chance to regain their youthful appearances. Among her clients was Arabella Huntington, the wife of multi-millionaire Collis P. Huntington.
In October 1891 Mary A. White, the head of the dressmaking firm White, Howard & Co., consulted with Mary Scott Rowland. According to Rowland later, "Mrs. White was then over fifty years of age, but she did not wish to appear so old." Yet despite her successful business to New York's carriage trade; Mary White claimed she could not afford the $500 fee (admittedly it was expensive, about $13,500 in today's dollars). The pair negotiated and Mary Scott Rowland agreed to give her a series of treatments for half price in exchange for Mary White's referring new customers.
Mary White was terrified that friends or clients would catch her coming or going at No 123 Fifth Avenue. Therefore she arrived at 7:00 for her treatments. "This," reported The Times later, "Mrs. Rowland says, was very annoying, and put her household to much trouble."
There was no contract other than their verbal agreement. "The treatment consisted principally of the manipulations of the facial muscles," wrote the newspaper. Mary White came three or four times a week for six weeks, after which, according to Rowland, "there was not a wrinkle in Mrs. White's face and she appeared to be no older than thirty-five."
The problem was that now Mary White neglected to pay. Mindful of her client's fear of being discovered, Mary Scott Rowland did not send a bill; but reminded her of the debt each time they met. White repeatedly promised to "send a check the next day." And then she died.
Understandably, the executors of the estate scoffed at Mary Scott Rowland's claim. She had no contract, the treatments had been done in secret, and she had never presented an invoice The case, described by The Times as "a peculiar litigation," ended up in court in 1893. Highly publicized, it no doubt caused Mary A. White posthumous mortification.
|Mary Scott Rowland manufactured her own cosmetics. The Sun, October 3, 1897 (copyright expired)|
Mary Scott Rowland was more well-known for her work in getting convicted bank burglar James Dunlap pardoned a year earlier. He had been sentenced in 1878 to 20 years in State prison, but according to a newspaper in 1889 his "attitude is one of penitence" and "his physical condition is pitiable."
Mary came to his defense, working for five years on his pardon. Finally, on December 30, 1892 The New York Times reported "Mrs. Mary Scott Rowland and James Dunlap, the pardoned Northampton Bank burglar, arrived in this city late yesterday afternoon. They were driven in a coach to 123 Fifth Avenue, where Mrs. Rowland lives and has rooms in which she sells perfumes and those mysterious preparations used for the beautifying of ladies' complexions. Mrs. Rowland and Dunlap were heartily welcomed by her husband."
The newspaper noted that in Dunlap's pardon, no name "has figured so largely than Mrs. Rowland has" and described her as "a plump little woman, below the average height, has blonde hair, large expressive eyes, and a good-natured and rather attractive face." The reporter wondered if Dunlap might resume his criminal ways. Referring to crooks in the Tenderloin District, he asked her "Is Dunlap likely to resume friendly relations with these men?"
"No. He does not want to know them," she said flatly.
Many were skeptical. In May 1893 the Minneapolis Journal wrote that Dunlap had opened a World's Fair Restaurant; but added "It is pretty hard for a man to reform when he is once started on a downward career." And, sure enough, James Dunlap was soon in the Joliet, Illinois prison for robbing another bank.
Jacob B. Woolley was still in the downstairs store in 1894 when the city proposed laying street car tracks down Fifth Avenue. The Evening World reported his negative feedback on April 14. "He says that Fifth avenue trade is of a carriage kind and would be ruined by street cars. Besides, he added, business or no business, New York ought to have one avenue not given up to traffic and of which it might feel proud."
Portrait artist and conservator William Sittenham took space in 1893. In 1898 he leased the entire building and unofficially christened it the Sittenham Building. His gallery offered not only Old Masters; but contemporary works which could not justifiably be termed "fine art." On December 9, 1901, for instance, he opened a five-day showing of "water color sketches made in Venice and Holland, together with decorations on china." Sittenham's announcement noted "They are the Summer's work of Mrs. Mary A. Neal."
|The same year that Mary A. Neal's watercolors were being exhibited Velva Von Derenburg had her voice studio upstairs. New-York Tribune, January 20, 1901 (copyright expired)|
By 1903 The Pianotist had opened its showrooms in the building. Its ingenious device, called The Invisible Piano Player, converted any piano into a player piano. An advertisement boasted "The Pianotist is an invaluable aid to the hostess and a source of entertainment and enjoyment to all...By means of the Pianotist thousands of pianos that have been silent for years may now discourse the sweetest music at the will of the owners." John Philip Sousa endorsed the mechanism, calling it "a wonderful invention of great musical merit."
|A shirtwaist-wearing model demonstrates the treadle model. Parisian Illustrated Review, January 1901 (copyright expired)|
In 1906 the upscale dress store Murray & Schwab moved in. The New-York Tribune called theirs "a smart, new shop" on October 21 that year and listed among its offerings "beautiful hats, toques and turbans for all functions, from the leading Paris modistes, rich, exclusive fur garments" and "coats [and] fur sets in costly skins."
|Three of the fall fashions available at Murray & Schwab in 1906. New-York Tribune, October 21, 1906 (copyright expired)|
The building would see a variety of other businesses come and go--like importer Wally Wolff, who left in 1916; and the Eagle Beading Co., Inc. which was here into the early 1920s, for instance.
|Around 1920 the stoop remained and the upper floors still retained their residential appearance. photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
The Fishbein-Fuchs Corporation purchased the building in 1922 for $100,000 (about $1.4 million today). The restaurateurs necessarily needed to make modifications to accommodate their business.
When the active leases ran out in 1926, architect A. L. Seiden was commissioned to modernize the building and create the two-story restaurant space. The Victorian facade of the upper floors was stripped off and immense show windows were installed, surrounded by limestone; and the stoop was removed. The spartan decoration was limited to paneled spandrels between floors and a blank dist below the shallow pediment.
Henry J. Hardenbergh's distinctive cast iron storefront, thankfully, remained in stark contrast to the modern 1920s upper portion.
New tenants upstairs within the next decade were mostly apparel manufacturers--Royal Society Clothes, Blair Hall Clothes, Inc., and Vogue Tailoring, among them.
Although Lower Fifth Avenue experienced a downturn in the last quarter of the 20th century, it revived in the 21st. No. 123 is now home to boutiques and apparel shops. When a taxicab crashed into the building around 2013, the southern column of the cast iron frame was badly damaged. A restoration by Forerunner Creations of Brooklyn recreated the damaged elements in aluminum, as well as any corroded elements elsewhere.
Despite some alterations to the storefront (including the picking out of details in rather flashy gold paint), it is a remarkable survivor--its ornate design creating a head-scratching contrast to the 1926 upper stories.
photographs by the author
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