Monday, February 12, 2018

The Lost Thorley's "House of Flowers" - 562 Fifth Avenue

Around 1919 lush greenery spills from boxes bolted to the facade (even the corners) and along the third floor balcony.  Note the round glass canopy at the corner entrance.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

On May 23, 1890 The New York Times reported on the death of Fletcher Harper, a member of the publishing firm Harper & Brothers and a son of Fletcher Harper, one of the original four brothers who founded the firm.  In its article, the newspaper revealed the Harper family's confusing tangle of Johns and Josephs.  "Five members of the house now remain, Philip J. A. Harper, the senior partner, and a son of James Harper; Joseph W. Harper, son of J[ohn]. Wesley Harper, Joseph Henry, a nephew of Fletcher, and John Harper, son of Joseph Abner Harper, who has recently retired."

Despite their close business connections and unlike many wealthy families whose members lived near one another, the Harpers' homes were widely distributed throughout the city.  

Joseph Wesley Harper, the son of John Wesley Harper, was born in Brooklyn on March 16, 1830 and was graduated from Columbia College in 1848.  The New York Times explained later that he "resided in Brooklyn for many years,"and because there "were several Josephs in the family, and as they were intimately associated, there was necessity for distinction.  And so, to his partners, business associates, and intimate friends, he became 'Brooklyn Joe' Harper."  That appellation stuck even when he moved his family to fashionable Fifth Avenue.

The Harper house at the northwest corner of 46th Street was described by The Times as "a beautiful one."  The Italianate brownstone, built before the Civil War, was 27 feet wide on the avenue and stretched back 76 feet.  A stone stoop rose to the parlor floor and, most likely, a cast iron or stone balcony fronted the parlor windows.  In the 1870s or early '80s the mansion gained a slightly curved mansard roof.

Harper and his wife, the former Carolina A. Sleeper, had two sons, Henry Sleeper and William Armitage, and a daughter, Josie.   Following Josie's socially-noteworthy wedding in St. Thomas's Church to Navy Lt. Bradley Allen Fiske on February 15, 1882, a glittering reception had been held in the mansion.

The Times reported that the church was thronged with a large and "select" assembly and that the reception guests "represented some of the best families in the City."  The article went on, "The house was beautifully decorated with flowers, the staircases and doorways being festooned with smilax and cut flowers, as well as the reception-rooms.  There was music and dancing, and supper was served in the dancing hall."

The Harper mansion was filled with what that newspaper called "many treasures of literature and art."  The fact that the writer put literature before art was appropriate.  Joseph's publishing profession, of course, put him in contact with famous authors; but his love for literature went beyond business.  He was a member of the Century Association (which preferred not to be known as a "club") the goal of which was "to promote the advancement of art and literature."  His Fifth Avenue library was well-known and he was renowned for his "expertness as a judge of literary merit."

The Harpers, like all moneyed families, owned a variety of horse-drawn vehicles, including a dogcart.  The buggy earned its name from its original purpose for hunters.  With just two wheels, it had a seat for one or two persons in the front, and a section in the back for carrying dogs.  The back area evolved to a seat for passengers.

An entire family squeezed onto this dogcart for a photo.  original source unknown.
Harper took the dogcart for an afternoon spin in Central Park on December 10, 1891.  It nearly ended his life.   His lightweight buggy was no match for the carriage of Mrs. Ewell; so when the two vehicles collided Harper was thrown to the ground and seriously hurt.  Apparently so was his dogcart.  The New York Times reported "He was taken to his home, 562 Fifth Avenue, in Mrs. Ewell's carriage."

Caroline, like nearly all socialites, involved herself in charitable causes.  In 1894, for instance, she supplied the New York Society for the Relief of the Ruptured and Crippled, "3 girls' wrappers, 2 boys' shirts, 3 pairs of shoes, and one pair of slippers."

By the time Caroline gave the marginally generous donation to the Society, Joseph had purchased the two abutting brownstone houses at Nos. 564 and 566.  The move may have been an effort to forestall commercial development, as millionaires like William Rockefeller and the Astors would soon be doing.  If so, it would prove to be a futile strategy.

Harper retired at the age of 64 in 1894, handing over his post in the firm to his son, Henry.  He continued as a trustee at Columbia, a vestryman at St. Thomas's, and maintained memberships in the exclusive University and Metropolitan Clubs.  His retirement, however, would be short-lived.  He suffered a fatal heart attack in the house on July 21, 1896.  His funeral was held three days later.

If Joseph had intended to fight the intrusion of commerce, Caroline seems less inclined.  In August 1897 she sold No. 564 to Matilida E. Goodwin, and the following May sold her No. 566.  The four-story homes were quickly replaced by a six story commercial building known as the Euclid Building.

In 1901 Caroline Harper's mansion (left) was being engulfed by commerce.  The two houses she had sold were replaced by a business structure. 

Caroline appears to have stuck it out into 1908; but just before Christmas that year she leased the old home to Charles Thorley for $27,000 a year for 10 years.  Thorley's rent would equate to more than $690,000 a year today.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted "Mr. Thorley will occupy the lower portion of the premises for his flower business."

Thorley's was more than merely a "flower business."  Having started out at the lowest rung of the commercial ladder, a newsboy on Vesey Street, his business empire now included real estate (he was instrumental in transforming Longacre Square from a carriage making district to what is now Times Square) and one of the most important floral establishments in Manhattan.

He had opened his first flower shop on 14th Street in 1874 at the age of 16.  The teen astutely watched the trends and made the trendiest blossoms available to young men hoping to impress their sweethearts.   His became the go-to spot for the perfect bouquets.

Charles Thorley was the first to add satin ribbons to flowers--an innovation that became requisite, still in fashion today.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Times later recalled "Emboldened by that success, he began to give scope to the originality, the touches o creative genius that soon were to make him the favorite flower merchant of the Four Hundred." 

A tinted postcard shows double-decker buses passing Thorley's House of Flowers.   Across the avenue, to the right, is the 1901 Windsor Arcade.
By now he had decorated the mansions of New York's elite for weddings, funerals, dinners and balls for years.  His was the only shop used by the J. P. Morgan family, for instance.  During Easter Week in 1912, Thorley sold more than $45,000 in flowers, mostly orchids (more than $1 million today).  He told a reporter that "Easter is getting to be more and more a festival of flowers...and its celebration is changing."

He said that "Easter eggs are going out," and that society was now interested in expensive tropical flowers, noting that "Easter lilies are no longer fashionable."  He continued "During the forty-eight hours of the 'Easter rush,' I sold more than $22,000 worth of flowers.  That was an increase of easily $5,000 over last year."

Thorley's success was due not only to his "shrewdness in business" and artistic bent; but to his incomparable service.  Years later The Times provided an example.  "For instance, there was the New Yorker who dropped into his House of flowers to say that a certain American girl was even then expected at a certain Vienna hotel and her favorite roses must be there to 'say it with flowers' when she arrived.  It was a simple, typical everyday request.  The flowers were delivered on time 5,000 miles away."

Thorley leased portions of the upper floors to other business.  The dressmaking shop of Smith & Kelly was here in 1910.  One of the partners, Ida M. Smith, got in trouble with customs officials when she returned from a buying trip to France on the steamship Amerika that September.   She attempted to walk off the ship without declaring $1,100 in Paris gowns in her trunks.  And she might have gotten away with it if a female inspector had not discovered expensive embroideries hidden under her skirts.  She was arrested for customs fraud.

A staunch supporter of the Fire Department, Thorley also leased offices to the National Fire Prevention and Engineering Company, headed by former Fire Chief Edward Croker.   The friendly relationship between the FDNY and Thorley was tested, however, in 1918.

Perhaps because of his own early struggles, Thorley employed a large number of blacks in his shop.  (The poet Langson Hughes, incidentally, would work for Thorley for a brief time in 1922.)   One of them, a bodybuilder and boxer, Wesley Williams, aspired to be a fire fighter.  According to author David Goldberg in his 2017 Black Firefighters and the FDNY, The Struggle for Jobs, Justice, & Equity in New York City, "Williams's composite test scores placed him at the top of a list of hundreds of applicants, but his appointment remained uncertain due to his race."

Thorley threw his substantial support behind his employee.  He had made significant financial donations to the Tammany Hall organization throughout the years and he voice caught the attention of political bigwigs.  According to William later, Thorley not only wrote a strong letter of recommendation, he informed the Fire Commissioner "that regardless of how they felt about it, I was going to stay in the fire department.,"

Thorley was seven years into his lease when Caroline Sleeper Harper died on April 10, 1915.   As the lease neared expiration, the estate sold the property to real estate operator Felix Isman.  He doubled the rent on what was now being called "the Thorley Building" from $30,000 to $60,000 a year.  Charles Thorley responded by moving out.

Before his lease ran out on May 1, 1920, he purchased over the former mansion of John D. Wing at No. 16 West 49th Street.  The Record & Guide reported he "will alter [it] to house his business for a time at least."  The guide noted on May 31, 1919 that his Fifth Avenue florist shop would be taken over by "a new confectionery firm."

photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
That never happened.  Within the year the shoe firm of I. Miller & Sons took over the lease.  It replaced the venerable mansion-turned store and erected a 12-story commercial building on the site.  It was recently demolished awaiting the erection of a new structure.

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