Monday, May 15, 2017

The Lost Pottier & Stymus Bldg - 375-377 Lexington Avenue

photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Auguste Pottier was 24 years old in 1847 when he left Paris to accept a position in America.  He joined the cabinet making firm of E. H. Hutchings & Son.  In 1859, with only $1,000 to invest between them, he and William P. Stymus formed Pottier & Stymus.

During the 1860s important furniture firms like Herter Brothers and Charles A. Baudouine expanded into interior decorating--designing full suites for wealthy clients.  Pottier & Stymus became a major player, producing costly, top quality pieces in historic revival styles--neo-Grec, Renaissance Revival, Egyptian Revival and Gothic, for instance.  They were the first to apply gilt, bronze fittings (like paw feet), and to introduce furniture inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl.

By the opening of the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, Stymus & Pottier had established themselves as a leading force in the decorating industry.  Their exhibition left no doubt as to the craftsmanship and quality of their furniture--not to mention its expense.  The National Cyclopedia of American Biography noted "The most notable feature of their furniture exhibit at the Centennial was a bedstead and bed of the period of Louis XVI which cost $12,000 to manufacture.  The bedstead was of amaranth wood, inlaid with American carved walnut.  The entire piece of furniture was made up of innumerable carvings representing arabesques, flowers and birds."  The cost to make the bed would equal about a quarter of a million dollars today.

One piece in the exhibit, a carved walnut Renaissance Revival cabinet never made it to the selling floor.  It was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art before the Centennial ended.

This Egyptian Revival armchair was manufactured around the time of the Exhibition.  It reflects the intricacy of Pottier & Stymus workmanship and design.  The free-standing arms terminate front and back in gilded and ebonized pharoahs' heads.  Gilded bronze pads guard the feet.  Art Institute of Chicago
This chair relied on carving and craftsmanship rather than inlays (note the intricate double rows of turned spindles supporting the armrests).  After being displayed at the 1876 Exhibition it was part of the Pottier family's private furnishings.  Auguste Pottier donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1888.  Metropolitan Museum of Art

At the time of the exhibition Stymus & Pottier had been in their joint factory-showroom building at Lexington Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets for four years.  They leased the property from the wealthy Goelet brothers, Robert and Ogden.

Their success was such that when the former Rutgers College building facing Fifth Avenue between 41st and 42nd Street became available in 1882 Pottier & Stymus purchased the property for $226,500, and erected what The Times called a "fine building" as its showrooms.  The Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide was concerned.  Despite the high-end nature of the business, the Guide warned on May 13 1882 that a commercial establishment would "soon make that section of Fifth avenue...unfashionable."

The second property became essential after disaster occurred on March 1, 1888.  The New York Times reported that "nearly one-half of the companies composing the fighting force of the [fire] department" had responded to the Pottier & Stymus building on Lexington Avenue.  The blaze in the  "immense" building, described by the newspaper as "a substantial structure of brick, six stories high," resulted in six alarms.  "This has never before occurred in the 23 years of the present department's existence."

The following day the newspaper reported "This is now a mass of ruins."  There were 100 craftsmen at work that afternoon, all of whom escaped but reportedly lost all their tools.  Victorian workmen were responsible for providing their own implements, and this was a crushing loss.  The company estimated the loss to its stock and equipment at $150,000.

The day before the fire papers for reorganization had been filed downtown.  Auguste Pottier, now 68 years old, passed the role of president to his nephew Adrian Pottier.  Auguste took the position of vice president; while William P. Stymus and his son stayed on as partners.

To get back on its feet a public auction of the 152 pieces of furniture in the Fifth Avenue showroom was held the following month.  The New-York Tribune remarked "Many well known people were in the room."  Some, like millionaire shipbuilder William H. Webb were "heavy purchasers."  Among the several pieces he bought was a mahogany Louis XVI bedroom suite for the bargain price of $330 (about $8,500 today).

The Sun, April 17, 1888 (copyright expired)

In the meantime, Robert and Ogden Goelet prepared to replace the "fire-destroyed factory," as described by the Record & Guide on May 19.  They commissioned architect Joseph M. Dunn, who had earlier worked with James Renwick, Jr., to design a five-story "fireproof" building with an approximate cost of $75,000.  By June 30 Architecture & Building had increased the projected cost to $90,000.

Dunn created a striking commercial Renaissance Revival structure of brick, iron and terra cotta.  The less glamorous factory section stretched eastward along 41st Street behind the more visible Lexington Avenue showroom building.  Gaping arches were joined by prominent eyebrows, their spandrels decorated with terra cotta medallions announcing the address numbers and date of construction.  The corbelled brick cornice took its form from a medieval fortress.

Perhaps remembering the massive fire, King's Photographs Views of New York mentioned that "The buildings are of brick and iron and completely fireproof."  The book added that Pottier & Stymus, was "world renowned" and said "The superior grades of furniture and woodwork which they manufacture have made them famous."

Pottier & Stymus decorated the bedroom of San Francisco millionaire James C. Flood's estate, Linden Towers original resource unkown

By now the firm had decorated the homes of some of America's wealthiest citizens, including William Rockfeller, Henry M. Flagler, George Westinghouse (both his Pittsburgh and Lenox, Massachusetts mansions), Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford and Henry J. Crocker.  It had also furnished and decorated major hotels like the Savoy, the Plaza and the Hotel Waldorf

In the spring of 1892 the firm was back in full-swing, advertising openings in May for "cabinetmakers, chairmakers, machine hands, carvers, varnishers, decorators, and upholsterers."

In 1895 King's Photographic Views of New York included a modern automobile in its depiction of the building.  (copyright expired)
On the morning of March 11, 1895 the firm's head bookkeeper, George Carpenter went to the bank and withdrew $2,600 in cash for that week's payroll.  He put the money in the office safe, and then went downstairs to the salesroom.  When he returned to about a half hour later, he bumped into his assistant coming out of the mensroom.  George W. Wolf told his boss he was going to lunch and left the building.

Shortly afterward, Carpenter opened the safe to find it empty.  The satchel that had contained the money was found in the mensroom.  The Times reported the obvious: "Suspicion at once fell upon Wolf."  When he did not return from lunch, an associate went to his house.  His wife said she had not seen him since he left that morning.

And she would not see him for some time.   Detectives tracked him to Cincinnati, then to Louisville where he had again slipped away before they arrived.  Acting on a hunch, detectives staked out his Jersey City residence.  Nine months after the theft, he showed up.  He was arrested on September 11 as he left the house.

At headquarters, Wolf spilled his story, saying he was "tempted to do wrong by Edward A. Davies, a printer by trade."   Davies was arrested the same day, but unlike Wolf, refused to make a statement.

Instead, he attempted suicide.  About an hour after he was locked up, a guard heard a groan coming form his cell.  "When he called to the prisoner, Davies did not move, and on opening the door Briden found him lying in a pool of blood in a semi-conscious condition."  Davies had broken the face of his watch and used the sharp pieces of glass to slash both wrists.  The Times reported "He will recover, but he is not likely to be able to appear in court for several days."

A massive urn can be seen through the showroom window in 1904.  Next door is the Murray Hill Theatre.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

In January 1909 Pottier & Stymus purchased an entire block of land in Long Island City as the site of its new factory.  The New-York Tribune announced the firm would "erect an immense woodworking plant which will employ a minimum force of six hundred men."

With the factory moved out of Manhattan, only the showrooms remained in the Lexington Avenue Building.

While Pottier & Stymus displayed fine furniture downstairs, wounded servicemen were given lodging in the building.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

The vacated factory was taken over by the YWCA in December 1918 to accommodate wounded servicemen returning from Europe.  The six-floor "Hostess House" opened on Christmas Day.  The New-York Tribune reported that it had sleeping accommodations for 56, and noted "There is a comfortable lounging room, with books and magazines, where relatives of the boys may sit about and rest."

Doughboys with canes and crutches, relax in the Hostess House.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

At the same time, Pottier & Stymus was undergoing severe financial problems.  Despite its former reputation and success, it was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1919.

The firm's name was removed from the building as it became home to a variety of businesses over the next decades.  In the 1920s the Railroad Cooperative Building and Loan Association had its headquarters here; moving slightly north to No. 411 Lexington Avenue in 1925.  At mid-century the building was home to the office furniture showrooms of Itkin Bros.

The end of the line for the Pottier & Stymus Building came in 1956 when the entire block was razed to make room for the striking Socony-Mobil Building, designed by Harrison & Abramowitz with John B. Peterkin.

photograph by John Rockerbie

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