Tuesday, December 12, 2017

H. J. Hardenbergh's 280-284 Columbus Avenue

Although it was inventor and actor Isaac Merritt Singer who founded the Singer Sewing Machine Company; it was Edward C. Clark who made it a success.  The sewing machine was not a new idea when Singer began tinkering with the contraption around 1850; several variations had already been patented.  But his improvements in 1851 resulted in the first practical machine.

Clark had been Singer's attorney since 1848 and the two became business partners.  A marketing genius, Clark's innovative ideas--like accepting trad-ins for newer models--made the Singer Company an enormous success and the partners millionaires.

Edward Clark diversified into real estate development.  In the 1870’s he teamed with fledgling architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh and erected rental cottages for summer visitors to Lake Otsego near Cooperstown, New York.  It would be the beginning of a long and mutually-prosperous relationship, and one which would help set Hardenbergh on the road to becoming a leading architect.

Very quickly Clark turned his attention to the rocky, mostly undeveloped Upper West Side. 
He was outspoken in his intentions to make the West Side as affluent as the East.  He encouraged landowners to work together, mutually investing in property, and issuing restrictive covenants on construction. 
In 1879 Clark began construction on an extensive project--25 rowhouses on West 73rd Street anchored by a matching four-story apartment and store building at the corner, at Nos. 280-284 Columbus Avenue.
Clark's speculation was both aggressive and risky. Years later The New York Times would remind its readers the area "was in the heart of a squatter's shanty district, where goats and pigs were more frequently encountered than carriages in the muddy streets."
Hardenbergh deftly morphed the residential row into his apartment (or "flat") building on the corner.  The brick-faced Renaissance Revival style structure was touched with modern neo-Grec elements, notably the architrave upper window enframements, and Queen Anne details like the terra cotta rosettes within the cornice frieze and the nearly whimsical rooftop pediments.  And, as if that mixture was not enough, he added delicate French balconies here and there.

The entrance to the apartments, at No. 101 West 73rd Street, mimicked the private houses along the row.  The commercial tenants used the Columbus Avenue address.
Two years after the building (middle right) was completed, the Ninth Avenue elevated was extended as far as 81st Street.  The block between 72nd and 73rd, behind Clark and Hardenbergh's Dakota Flats, was being excavated when this shot was taken.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Interestingly, the ground floor commercial spaces were leased mostly by firms involved in the real estate and development industry.   Among the first were Slawson & Hobbs, real estate agents, here in 1890; builder G. J. Harlow, and prolific developers W. W. & T. M. Hall.  By 1893 builders Egan & Hallecy was here as well and would remain for years.
By 1896 those firms were joined by builder William E. Diller; Frederick H. Birch, real estate; Thomas J. Brady's commercial plumbing business; and Moquin & Offerman, coal dealers.

Hardenbergh deftly transitioned from commercial to residential by matching the facade of the apartments with the private house next door, once the first in the long row of residences.

Slawson & Hobbs, run by partners Frederick G. Hobbs and George L. Slawson, was a highly-visible real estate firm on the Upper West Side.  They were highly responsible for filling the rising rowhouses and apartment buildings with tenants.  At the turn of the century, for instance, they were the sole agents for the sprawling Ansonia and Victoria apartment buildings.  In 1902 they published a booklet entitled "West Side Apartments."
That same year, on January 4, the Record & Guide commented on the firm's full-service business, calling their offices "a plant."  "Slawson & Hobbs have made up a very complete plant, embracing sales, mortgages, building plans and other items of interest that facilitates very much their extensive and constantly growing business.  The firm's offices, at No. 284 Columbus av., near 73d st., are thoroughly equipped for the quick and satisfactory dispatch of business."
Hardenbergh's eclectic mix of styles resulted in a stylish Victorian design.
Like many of the other commercial tenants, Thomas Brady's plumbing business remained in the building for years.   In 1903 The Plumbers Trade Journal gave a hint of the activity within his office.  "Still as busy as ever is the condition which Thos. Brady, of 284 Columbus avenue, Manhattan, is to be found.  His trade at this time of the year is first-class and calls for a good deal of his personal attention, besides keeping three or four men very much on the go."  

After being in the building for 20 years, Slawson & Hobbs moved to No. 162 West 72nd Street in September 1910.  Five months later the Clark estate hired architect George H. Griebel to design a new storefront.

By now Thomas Brady's plumbing business had been replaced by that of John Boyd.   Like Brady, he handled large projects, like the conversion of a five-story private residence on East 46th Street to a commercial building in July 1912.  Interestingly, when Frederick A. Clark did renovations to the apartment building directly across Columbus Avenue in 1914, John Boyd not only did the plumbing, but was the architect of record.

In the meantime, the upper floors had been initially leased to well-to-do families, followed by more middle class tenants.  When war broke out in Europe, young J. B. Johnstone sailed off to fight with Company F, 112th Infantry.

Although peace was declared in November 1918, the soldiers were still deployed for months.  In order to provide them with a touch of home for Christmas, The Sun initiated The Sun Tobacco Fund, which provided soldiers with 17 packs of cigarettes and 23 "sacks of tobacco" each.  Now a lieutenant, Johnstone sent his written thanks to the newspaper and gave a detailed account of his much improved conditions since peace was declared.  His letter, published on January 28, 1919, said in part:

We are in a captured salient which the Americans took from the Heinies, and living in their quarters on a beautifully wooded hill.  I with another 'shavetail' have a stone cottage, with real beds, a stove which the orderly lights before reveille, a desk, chairs, wardrobe and all the comforts of a human being's home.  The mess is wonderful; pancakes with syrup galore, steak, fritters and doughnuts.
It was most likely the advent of the Great Depression that dealt a severe blow to the apartments.  On September 10, 1934 The New York Times reported that the owners, Cappa Realty Company, had leased the three upper floors "to Bertha Stegun for a rooming house.  The floors contain thirty-three rooms."

The accommodations in the "rooming house" were basic at best.  It could more accurately have been termed a flophouse.  In 1943 there were five stores at ground level, with two SRO rooms on the second floor with on "community kitchen," and eleven SRO rooms on each of the two uppermost floors.

Overall the building in 1941 looked little different than today.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Things seem to have improved somewhat by mid-century, however.  By 1950 Alice Margaret Chilton called the building home.  Formerly the wife of Boston architect Howland Jones, she was for many years a social worker for All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church on Henry Street.

The Columbus Avenue neighborhood experienced a renaissance in the last quarter of the 20th century as trendy restaurants and boutiques appeared.  In 1974 a renovation resulted in six apartments per floor above the storefronts.  Where builders and plumbers had once operated, The Cultured See opened its florist shop by 1976. 

In 1982 a unique clothing shop opened here, Vermont Classics.  Owners Pauls Neustate and Sheila Silverman offered "classic clothing handmade by people who live in villages and on farms throughout New England," as described in New York Magazine on September 20.  "There are hand-knitted sweaters, quilted pillows and bed coverings.  And there are raw-silk dresses made in small workshops, as well as factory-made classic New England clothing."

At the same time Robbyn Yoffee and Jane Bloom ran Tianguis Folk Art here.  No less unique, The New York Times on February 9, 1985 described its self-made summer line as "1950's inspired fashions for women who weren't yet born in the 50's."
The store spaces continued to house popular businesses like Exotiqa, which sold imported home furnishings and "trinkets" until 2000; and the seafood restaurant Ocean Grill.  Today fashion boutiques fill the Columbus Avenue storefronts.

In the meantime, the upper floors of Hardenbergh's stylish flat building have suffered little change.  It survives as a remarkable example of early multi-family housing in the then just-developing neighborhood.

photographs by the author


  1. The Clark family has a long and continuing relationship with Cooperstown, NY.

    "Jane Forbes Clark is Chairman of the Board of Directors of The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. [...] The Clark family has been a devoted steward of the Baseball Hall of Fame since Stephen C. Clark founded the Museum in 1936."


    "Edward Clark came to Cooperstown just prior to the Civil War, having married Caroline Jordan, a village native and the daughter of his law partner, Ambrose Jordan. In 1848, Isaac Merritt Singer became a client of Ambrose & Clark in New York, and when he invented the sewing machine, Clark dropped his legal career for a 50 percent stake in I.M. Singer & Company, eventually becoming its head. Clark had a flare for marketing. He gave machines at half-price to influential persons, such as ministers' wives, and apparently developed the idea of the installment plan to let families pay over time for the machines. Revenues tripled in a year.

    "Initially, Clark viewed Cooperstown as a summer home and built the lovely Fernleigh mansion there, but over time he fell in love with the village and, without ostentation, took increasing interest in its welfare, a concern that four succeeding generations of Clarks have shared.

    "One of Clark's four grandsons, Edward Severin Clark, affectionately known as "The Squire" in his day, might be thought of as the family's builder. It was he who had the idea of constructing a splendid resort hotel, The Otesaga, and later spent many hours chatting with guests in the lobby or on the lakeside verandah like a gracious host. Edward Severin also built the mansion that came to house Fenimore Art Museum and the splendid stone dairy complex that became The Farmers' Museum. He also endowed and built the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital, a respected medical center named for one of the country's first eminent woman physicians.

    "Following his death in 1933, his brother, Stephen C. Clark, Sr., a noted philanthropist and art collector, deeded the properties to the New York State Historical Association. Stephen Clark was also instrumental in establishing the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. These and other good works by the Clark family continue today through its charitable trust, the Clark Foundation, which supports the museums, the hospital, the Fire Department, Glimmerglass Opera, the beautification of Cooperstown and many other public projects, along with administering a scholarship program that has enabled large numbers of local young people to attend college."


  2. from reader G. Dunbar: I’ve had my apartment in this building since around 1978. I did not know it’s detailed history and am grateful to you for posting it here.

    I can add that when I moved in, most of the Columbus Avenue businesses were ‘original’ in that they appeared to be of an age that went back to the 1940s. I mean original in the sense that they predated the renovated apartments and the Columbus Avenue renaissance that I have enjoyed living in, and which was being formed, at the time I moved in, such as a double wide newspapeer/candy store and an upholstery shop on the corner. Only one store configuration seems to have changed and I think it is the double wide candy store that is now a triple wide clothing store. I recall the first ‘new’ kind of business replaced that upholstery shop and was called Design Observations, selling knick-knacks. They often displayed their Christmas Tree upside down, hanging in the window from the ceiling. It was all very modern nd somewhat exciting.

    In the early 80s, this block, on this side, was the regular location of street entertainers who took advantage of the huge crowds that were drawn to this part of the Columbus Avenue stroll. Many were comedians. I wonder how many of those were, or became well known. I’m sure they attracted crowds of 100 or so, sometimes.

    I haven’t yet checked to see if you have written about the Pioneer store across the street. It is unchanged, I’m sure, since it’s opening in the 1950s. Until very recently, it even had the same three managers for the whole time I have had my apartment.

    I live in a one bedroom, rent stabilized apartment of around 475 square feet with a separate kitchen and windows on both Columbus Avenue and at the back of the building. I also used to rent one of the one bedroom apartments on the corner, with two Juliet balconies. I have never been inside any other apartment all of which have a window or two only on Columbus Avenue. Traffic noise is very loud and the state of paving on Columbus Avenue has always played a role in the peacefulness inside the apartments.

    The building is very well kept and managed, and soon will receive new windows, conforming to the landmark status of this and every other building from 67th (?) Street to 77th (?) Street.

    1. Corrections and Updates:

      The shop that rented retail space at street level in this building, The Cultured Seed, is the one that used to hang its Christmas trees upside down. Here is a link (https://www.westsiderag.com/2018/02/01/throwback-thursday-a-flower-shop-that-was-out-of-this-world) to an article written by its former owner. I think Cultured Seed was created following the arrival of Design Observations.

      The three Pioneer supermarket’s managers finally retired (approximately) during 2017. One replacement is a man who has also worked in the store for well, many decades. It is still like a museum of unionized food commerce.

      The window replacement program is unscheduled, but rumoured to take place in 2018.

      G Dunbar