Monday, April 30, 2018

The Lost Richard Tighe House - 32 Union Square East


Soon after its owner died in 1896, a violin store appeared in the basement level of No. 32.  The upper floors retain their 1841 appearance.  Note the interesting attic window shutters.  Early New York Houses, 1900 (copyright expired)

On May 1, 1834 Samuel Ruggles leased plots on what had been the farm of Cornelius Tiebout Williams and began development of Union Square--an exclusive residential enclave similar to his Gramercy Park.  Ruggles paid $50 per lot and personally built brick houses on some of them; leasing the others to those who preferred to erect their own homes.

On February 12, 1841 he sold the 26-foot wide house on Lot 18 (later numbered 32 Union Square) to Richard Tighe for $14,000; a little more than $400,000 today.   The plot formed an L to 16th Street where the private stable was located.  Nine years later Tighe purchased the lease on the land from Cornelius Williams's heirs for $6,500.  He now owned the entire property outright.

The Tighe house was typical of upscale Greek Revival style mansions.  Four stories tall, it featured fluted brownstone columns on either side of the entrance and a cast iron balcony at the parlor level.

The second son of an Irish baronet, Tighe was born 1806 and was educated in Trinity College in Dublin.  He arrived in New York City in 1838, "bringing considerable money with him," according to the New York Tribune later.   Tighe was a shrewd businessman and investor and his personal fortune quickly grew.  For years he was a director in the Manhattan Fire Insurance Company.

His purchase of the new Union Square house was no doubt prompted by his marriage to Caroline Chesebrough that year.  The bride came from a socially-impressive family, and was the daughter of Robert J. Chesebrough, president of the Fulton National Bank.  Nevertheless, even from the start of their marriage the couple rarely entertained.

Following his elder brother's death, Tighe received the title of baron; but he embraced his Americanism and insisted on being called "Mr. Tighe" rather than Sir Richard Tighe.

Little by little the Tighes isolated themselves within their stately cocoon.  The New-York Tribune said decades later "The close couple never entertained or went into society, though Tighe's own standing in Ireland and that of his wife in this city could easily have procured them an entrance into the most fashionable society of the day."

Following the end of the Civil War Union Square saw the gradual invasion of commerce.  Upscale businesses like Tiffany & Co. overtook the mansions, either converting them for business or razing them.  On Christmas Day, 1888 The New York Times remarked "There is only one strictly private residence on Union-square and that is the handsome brick house next to the corner of Sixteenth-street...When [Tighe] bought, Union-square was a place of residences.  The belief that it would always remain so was pleasing to him, for he liked the neighborhood and often declared that he would never live anywhere else.  Having settled his mind on this, he viewed the encroachments of business in the lower part of the square with some complacency, although on the whole regretting it."

But the changes outside his windows did not affect life within.  "Nor did the continued absorption of residences for trade purposes worry him much, for he was not interfered with," explained the article.

That is, until the altered house next door was leased by the Travelers' Publishing Company.  Tighe looked out his parlor window to see a steam engine on the sidewalk.  The contraption was waiting to be installed in the basement where it would power the company's presses.  Now, he decided, he was being interfered with.

"Mr. Tighe regards this arrival as a menace to his peace of mind and to his slumbers, and he has served notice on the company that, if the engine is started, he will take every means within legal reach to stop it," wrote The Times.  Through his attorney Tighe claimed that the steam engine would damage his walls and "deprive him of his nightly rest."  He additionally claimed there was a covenant on the property restricting it to use as a residence.

The attorney for the publisher pointed out that "in the open market his house would yield him more than enough to buy him a fine residence in a fashionable section."  The Times said he "scoffed at the suggestion" and ordered his lawyer "to serve notice of war on the publishing company."

Tighe lost his battle, however.  The judge ruled commerce should not be "retarded in a commercial neighborhood for the benefit of a man who insists on staying in Union-square despite its changed conditions and character."

By now Robert and Caroline Tighe showed other signs of eccentricity.  Despite their vast wealth, they lived frugally, never buying new clothing or otherwise spending money.  Decades later Andrew Warner, president of the Institution for the Savings of Merchants' Clerks, would recall "He kept a fine team of horses, and it was an odd sight to see him, in his garb of poverty, riding with his wife behind that pair of dashing animals."

Concerned over the fate of their money, they repeatedly wrote new wills, sometimes in pencil.  When a relative pleased or displeased them, a new will would be made.

The New-York Tribune reported that after Caroline died in 1891 "a large number of such wills were found in the drawer of a bureau once used by Mrs. Tighe."   Richard inherited her estate.   His newfound solitude only increased his bizarre behavior.

"He discharged most of his servants, closed up most of the rooms of his large house and drew himself into his shell completely," said The Tribune.  Although the 16th Street carriage house still contained horses and a fine carriage, they were almost never used.

"Few servants were kept for such a big establishment, and the daily life of the household was so frugal as to border close upon miserliness.  Tighe always dressed shabbily, and denied himself every little luxury, so that hardly any one suspected the size of the fortune he was quietly piling up."

Every morning Tighe would leave his mansion and walk to the same bench in Union Square.  A park policeman, Stephen Frahn, told a reporter in May 1896, "I thought he was a 'bum.'  He used to sit on that bench over there in the shade by the hour.  He looked as though he hadn't a cent in the world.  His clothes made you wonder how they hung together.  I never saw him talk to a man more than a second or two."

Even in the winter Tighe wore his tattered summer-weight suit.  "His pants were light, and didn't get as far as his ankles, and he wore low shoes.  There wasn't much heat, either, in his coat--a hard-looking, almost worn-out, square-cut thing," said a Union Square regular, William Halpin.

Tighe's daily ritual included a walk to the Society Library on University Place.   He was a shareholder in the institution; but he was not there to check on his investment.  Instead he spent an hour or two reading the daily newspapers--saving him the expense of buying them.

When Tighe fell ill on May 6, 1896 there was little hope that the 90-year old would recover.  He died in the time capsule he called home within 24 hours.   On May 12 The San Francisco Call reported "The first funeral in many years that has taken place from a house in Union square was held Saturday..The only dwelling-house in the famous square is No. 32, where Sir Richard Tighe, or Mr. Tighe, as he insisted on being called, had lived alone for years.  The funeral was strictly private and only a few friends were present."

On May 30 The New York Times summed up the odd character saying "He could have called himself Sir Richard Tighe, Irish baron, and he could have drawn his check for many thousands, but he preferred to drift to death in his ninetieth year, the strangest figure that ever haunted Union Square, lean of person, with the face of a starveling, disheveled, almost beggarly, as to clothing, secretive of information concerning himself, seldom exchanging more than a dozen words at a time with a human being, and finding his sole pleasures in gazing by the hour at property he owned and in reading the newspapers."

Strong boxes in various institutions were unlocked.  Stacks of railroad securities, bonds and real estate titles were discovered.  Tighe's estate was finally calculated at more than $2 million; more in the range of $60 million today.

The recluse's last will provided "three trivial legacies," as described by the New-York Tribune, to servants, then divided the rest into 100 equal shares benefiting relatives of his wife.  Nothing was left to his own family.

Not surprisingly, distant Tighe relatives and other claimants emerged to contest the will.  As one case was put to rest, another would arise.  Among the most bizarre was the claim of Thomas A. Tighe, a janitor in a Harlem apartment house.  On November 12, 1899 the New York Journal & Advertiser reported "Tighe is somewhere between thirty and forty years old.  Already he is spending his coming fortune in his day dreams."

The janitor claimed that Richard Tighe was his grandfather; that before coming to America he had married (although he could not give a name for his mysterious grandmother) and the couple had a son, Michael.  The son, according to Thomas, came to New York in 1858.  Despite his colorful and detailed history, there was little to back up his claims.

In the meantime, the executors leased the basement level of the mansion to a musical instrument shop.  The upper floors were rented as a residence.

Finally, in April 1900 the estate was settled.  Thomas A. Tighe, incidentally, was not included in the list of beneficiaries and his daydreams of a fortune disappeared as he returned to his mop and broom.

On April 4, 1903 the Record & Guide reported that the house and the stable were sold as separate parcels to the same buyer.  Within the month architect W. G. Pigueron filed plans for the nine-story office and loft building that survives on the site.

photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Saturday, April 28, 2018

An Oil Well, Bissell Carpet Cleaners and Art -- Nos. 518-520 West 22nd Street


Above the sidewalk shed, a green Pacman, the work of French urban artist Invader, has clung to the facade for decades.
On September 18, 1866 William H. Smith's two brick stables at Nos. 518 and 520 West 22nd Street were completed.   The Superintendent of Buildings's semi-annual report listed Smith as both owner and builder.  While no architect was named, Smith may very well have filled that position as well.

The handsome structures were designed to appear as one.  Mirror images of one another, they were a utilitarian take on the Italianate style.  Wide carriage bays that sat within arched openings were graced with unexpected fan lights--an elegant touch to an industrial building near the riverfront.  Smith saved money by executing the dentiled lintels in brick rather than stone.  The peaked parapet was given a blind roundel that helped unify the design.

Added later, a cast iron cap on the lintel of the western doorway announces the address.
If Smith indeed intended his new buildings as stables, that plan seems to have quickly fallen to the wayside.  As early as May 5, 1865 an unnamed tenant was manufacturing his portable houses in No. 518.  An advertisement in The New York Herald promised they were "suitable for the oil or mining regions."

Portable houses had been around for more than a decade and were used as temporary work sheds, offices and housing in places like the oil fields of Pennsylvania and the mines of the West.  This particular endeavor may have been a side line of the oil mining firm of Wed. W. Clarke & Co.  The firm was described in the 1864 All About Petroleum as "Among the most successful managers in this business."  The booklet noted that the firm "have already centered with them the enormous capital of $34,500,000!!! of oil property and constant additions [are] being made."

At the same time that the portable houses were being made, Wed. W. Clarke & Co. erected a full-size oil well at No. 518 West 22nd Street.  In a letter to the president of the United States Sanitary Commission on April 29, 1865 the firm noted:

For the purpose of answering the great number of inquiries made daily at our office, as to the modus operandi of obtaining Petroleum, we have thought it worth while to cause to be constructed a full-sized working model of an oil well, with engine, derrick, tank, drills, and indeed all the accompaniments complete...and now on exhibition at No. 518 West Twenty-second-street, near Tenth-avenue...The Broadway and Twenty-third-street stages and the Tenth-avenue cars pass within a block, and are a pleasant substitute for a tedious journey of one thousand miles to and from the oil country.

Wed. W. Clarke & Co. charged 25 cents to see their oil well, the proceeds which were donated to the United States Sanitary Commission for its "noble care of our sick and suffering soldiers."

The cover of the "American Petroleum Polka" sheet music (dedicated to Miss B. Villa Clarke) pictured a Wed. W. Clarke & Co. oilfield in Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, including several portable houses.  (copyright expired)
Portable houses continued to be made at No. 518 through the War.  By 1870 parts of both buildings had been taken over by the American Ornamental Glass Company.  The firm made the decorative glass panels used in railroad parlor cars, hotels, and oyster saloons.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on June 9, 1870 touted "Embossed glass, done on plate or double thick glass, one-third lower than regular trade prices.  Orders executed at short notice."

In the meantime, the property's owner scrambled to fill the vacant spaces.  On March 8 that year an ad offered "To Ice Dealers--To let, the premises known as 518 and 520 West Twenty-second street, near Tenth avenue, well calculated for the ice business."

It appears no ice dealers took the bait and an ad a month later read "Manufactory to let--Large, well lighted lofts, in the new Building, 520 West Twenty-second street, near Tenth avenue, calculated for a fringe and tassel manufactory or any light business."

John North ran his mechanical engineering and machinery business at No. 37 Greene Street at the time.  He not only moved his business into the combined 22nd Street buildings, he bought them.  North was not only an engineer and machinist, but an inventor.  Among his best-known inventions would be a machine for making railroad spikes, one for folding the leaves of books, and a type-setting machine.

The Workshop: A Monthly Journal, 1870 (copyright expired)
North ran into trouble three years later as he was headed to work.  The gritty neighborhood of stables, factories and riverfront saloons was frequented by hoodlums like Edward, alias Paul, Murphy.   On the 12th of February 1873 the two would make their acquaintances.

Only a few days earlier Murphy had assaulted Charles Korn on 10th Avenue, knocking him to the pavement and robbing him "of a quantity of combs, valued at $2.80," according to The New York Herald.  Now the thug targeted John North on the same street.

North was carrying a carpet bag and Murphy approached him and "asked to carry his valise," according to The New York Times two months later.  "The complainant declined the offer, and Murphy followed him as far as Eighteenth-street, where he struck Mr. North in the face, at the same time running off with the valise."

John North took chase and, perhaps hoping to end the pursuit, Murphy tossed the carpet bag to the sidewalk.  If that was his intention, it did not work.  Murphy was arrested and appeared in court for both offenses.

A reporter from The New York Times was in the courtroom on April 9 and his headline the following day read "WARNING TO HIGHWAYMEN."   In passing sentence, Recorder Hackett alluded to the frequency and seriousness of Murphy's crimes "and said that he would show all such robbers that they would get no mercy in that court."  Murphy was sentenced to 20 years in the State Prison.

Within a few years John North moved his operation to Connecticut.  The 22nd Street building became home to the factory of the furniture and decorating firm C. H. George & Co.   The high-end manufacturer and decorator was in direct competition with society decorators like Herter Brothers and its showroom was at No. 152 Fifth Avenue.

On February 14, 1885 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide's column "Home Decorative Notes" said "In furniture the public taste demands reproductions of the past" and offered, "particular attention is given to specialties in drawing-room furniture by C. H. George."

Full-service decorators, the firm went so far as supplying artists who decorated the interior walls of mansions.  On August 28, 1887 a journalist from The New York Times noted "I was shown several beautiful designs for frescoing ceilings at the art rooms of C. H. George & Co., on Fifth-avenue.  They were drawings of work being done in a fashionable up-town residence...Pure art, or rather the reproduction of ancient designs, characterizes this particular branch of decoration to-day, the work being done by C. H. George & Co. bearing a high order of artistic merit.  I was also very favorably impressed with their wall papers and silk fabrics, which have been selected with rare good taste and judgment."

The importance and influence of the firm in domestic taste was evidenced when Joseph Burr Tiffany applied for work in the Fifth Avenue store as a sort of research.  A December 28, 1912 article about Tiffany in the Music Trade Review recalled that after his schooling, "he took up the study of applied arts with Tiffany & Co.  From there he went into the studio of John LaFarge to obtain a thorough knowledge of color schemes...His further desire for an intimate knowledge of the beautiful took him to the warerooms of C. H. George so that he might study stuffs and rare fabrics."

C. H. George & Co. stopped doing business in November 1877 (although they retained their telephone number here, "21st st 36," through 1888).

A variety of firms filled the building throughout the next decade.  In 1894 Wm. P. Hampson's brass castings factory employed 6 men who worked 57 hours during the week and 9.5 hours on Saturdays.

The Bissell Carpet Cleaner firm occupied a full floor of the combined buildings in 1895.  It was run by J. Sloane Bissell, Jr. and T. C. Burgis of whom New York, 1895 Illustrated said "These gentlemen clean and renovate carpets by means of a patented material, the invention of Mr. Bissell, and without having to take up the carpet or rug from the floor."

Not all of the cleaning was done on site, however.  The article noted that "desirable carpets are taken up and renovated at the works, while refitting and relaying are specially attended to.  The firm has done work of this kind for all the leading first-class hotels and restaurants."   Bissell Carpet Cleaner employed between 25 and 35 cleaners depending on the season.

Another tenant at the time was the St. Louis Beer Company.  The firm suffered bankruptcy in November 1896.

The wide-flung tenants continued to come and go.  In 1900 Robbins Mfg. Co. was in the building, manufacturing "disinfectants," while the Hinkle Iron Co. made decorative ironworks.  They were joined in 1903 by Frank H. Boyle & Lawton, ornamental metal makers.

The American Couch Co. was here as well.  A "Mr. Plunkett" was frank about the quality of its furniture when he told the American Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer in May 1904,  "We have a fine line, nothing better, and a nice business this year."

In 1915 William J. Kennedy Co. leased the property for 21 years.  In reporting the deal on May 1, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted "the lessee will alter the building for the manufacture of boilers and machinery."

from the New York Division National Guard War Record 1917, copyright expired
Despite William J. Kennedy & Co.'s 21-year lease, the Anton Louy Co. took over the property in 1919.  The firm commissioned architect David M. Ach to do substantial renovations to a "reinforced concrete factory and garage."  It was most likely at this time that the western carriage bay was altered, losing its attractive arch in the process.

Sometime before Schottland Glass Display moved into the building the eastern carriage bay had been converted to a storefront.  photograph by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1957 the Schottland Glass Display Corp. operated from the buildings, and would remain here for around two decades.  Then in 1988 a substantial renovation resulted in an auto body repair shop on the ground floor and a foundry above.  It was most likely this renovation that removed the eastern carriage bay, transforming it into a tunnel of sorts to the rear yard.

The building experienced a renaissance of sorts in the last decade of the 20th century.  In February 1999 the Comme des Garcons boutique moved from Soho into No. 520.  The artsy trent continued when, by 1997 art dealer Pat Hearn opened her gallery here, sharing the ground floor with Paul Morris and Tom Healy's Morris-Healy Gallery.

In 2001 a renovation resulted in one apartment on the second floor and a duplex in the third floor and penthouse (hidden from view from the street).  After having moved out for a period, Comme des Garcons reopened in No. 520 in December 2013.


As the rampant development sparked by the Highline park overhead increasingly gives the Chelsea block a trendy, modern personality, William H. Smith's 1863 stables hangs on as a relic of a much grittier time 155 years ago.

photographs by the author

Friday, April 27, 2018

The 1867 Kingsland Building - 315 Church Street



In 1866 the Civil War had ended and New York City's young men returned to the workplace.  Wealthy attorney Daniel C. Kingsland wasted no time in getting in on the building boom that immediately followed.   Before his death in 1873 he erected several commercial structures within the emerging mercantile district just south of Canal Street.

Among the earliest was Nos. 315-317 Church Street.   He commissioned Isaac F. Duckworth to design the structure; an architect who had early-on embraced cast iron construction.  Faced with an L-shaped plot--its Lispenard Street side about half the width of that on Church Street--Duckworth created two near-matching facades.  The restrained French Second Empire loft building rose five stories.  Above the storefront adorned with Corinthian pilasters, each floor was sharply delineated by its own cornice.  The shallow pilasters and the elliptical openings echoed the design of the base.  Close inspection reveals delicate rope molding framing each window.   The subtle differences of the two facades--other their widths--appeared at the top.  The triangular pediment on Church Street announced the date of construction and Kingland Buildings; while the arched pediment on Lispenard read "Erected 1867."

Rope molding runs around each window.  The stub of what was an ornate finial survives on the pediment.
Factory buildings often included interior "hatchways," or shafts by which bundles could be hoisted up.  They were sometimes the cause of serious accidents, as was the case here on October 2, 1878.  The New York Times reported "Jacob Schwartz , a lad 15 years old...was found in a mangled and dying condition yesterday afternoon on the first floor of No. 38 Lispenard-street, having fallen from an upper floor through the hatchway.  He died before an ambulance could be summoned."

Like most buildings in the area, the Kingsland Building filled with garment makers.  Around 1884 McCoun & Lee, which had operated from the corner of Franklin and Elm (later Lafayette) Streets for years, moved in.  Its significant operation required 50 sewing machines and two "sets of knitting machines."   Listed in directories under the generic heading "cloak manufacturers," it more specifically added "cardigan jackets, jerseys, etc." to advertisements.

The company would coin a term that became permanently ingrained in the American lexicon.  In 1917 the American Cloak and Suit Review mentioned "We first come across the word blouse, a line of which was shown in 1888 by McCoun & Lee, 315 Church Street."  Even at the time of the article, the word was still catching on; and "shirtwaist" or "waist" was much more commonly used.

The Lispenard Street cornice is slightly different from its Canal Street couterpart.

Demeanor among Victorian factory owners was not always gentlemanly.  Such was the case in 1895 when David L. Fineman, a partner in Simon & Fineman, read newspaper accounts of Gustave Meyers's testimonies before several Grand Juries regarding a rash of recent factory fires.  Meyers fingered several arsonists, including Isaac Zucher, a close friend of Fineman.

Irritated, Fineman sent a message to Meyers, suggesting that he had a job opening for him.  When Meyers showed up on June 15, Fineman and a salesman, Thomas Hall, attacked.  They savagely beat the unsuspecting man.

Meyers had Fineman arrested that afternoon.  No stranger to a courtroom, Meyers appeared the following day against David L. Fineman.  "He had several cuts in the face and on his head which he said he had received during the conflict," reported The New York Times.   And when he saw Thomas Hall sitting in the courtroom, he had him arrested as well.

Fineman, of course, had his own version of the affair.  He purported, according to the article, "Meyers had been pestering him by calling at this store.  When he came yesterday he told him to get out, and Meyers called him a foul name.  Then he kicked Meyers out of the store."  He asserted that Hall had not be involved at all, and had merely go in search of a policeman.

Both men were held on $5,000 bail (nearly $150,000 each in today's dollars) awaiting trial.

Charles Lewis & Brothers, dealers in woolen goods, had been in the building since its opening.  Partner George Lewis, too, had a violent confrontation that year.   On November 16 he walked around the corner to No. 49 Lispenard Street.  He stepped onto the elevator with three young men.

The The Sun reported that shortly after the elevator started upwards, the youths "began skylarking, punching each other and annoying Mr. Lewis.  When he remonstrated with them, [Joseph] Sheehan flew at the old gentleman and blackened his eye."

The feisty man fought back, but Sheehan's comrades jumped into the fray.  "A general rough-and-tumble ensued, in which the merchant was very roughly handled," said the report.  In the excitement and confusion, the elevator boy was distracted and the elevator hit the top of the shaft, throwing everyone to the floor.

Joseph Sheehan was arrested for assault and Lewis was taken to the Hudson Street Hospital where his wounds were dressed and he was sent home in a coach "suffering much shock and bruises and concussions," according to The Sun.

But, as might be expected, when the youths appeared in court on November 18, the judge heard a different story.  Sheehan, who worked in the Lispenard Street building as a shipping clerk, said he had entered the elevator with a load of packages.  An unknown boy knocked over the packages and when the two got into an argument about it, the elevator operator, Hugh Clark, inexplicably struck Sheehan.  Sheehan punched back.

According to The Sun's recount, "Lewis, who is a friend of Clark, went to the engineer's assistance and grabbed Sheehan by the throat.  Sheehan's throat still shows the marks of finger nails.  Then Owen Fitzgerald and John Meehan, who work in the same place with Sheehan, ran down stairs to Sheehan's rescue."

George Lewis had not appeared in court; but when he heard that the case had been dismissed, he was no doubt miffed and a bit embarrassed.

He and his brothers would have much more to worry about in the summer of 1898.  It all started when Charles, the senior member, died unexpectedly.  "At 4 o'clock yesterday morning he arose and complained of the heat.  He died in a few moments," explained The Sun on June 16.  The 50-year old was the was the main force in Charles Lewis & Bros. and most in the industry believed it was his money that kept the firm operating.

With seeming callousness, worried creditors pounced.  Three days after Charles's death, the first sued for an outstanding loan of $7,350.  "Friends of the firm in the trade think that there will be enough assets to pay all claims and leave a handsome surplus for the partners," said The Sun.

But other panicked creditors piled on.  On July 20 The Sun noted that so far the executions had reached $13,251 and "Two of the merchandise creditors began replevin proceedings yesterday to get their goods."  More creditors joined the rush to retrieve their money or goods, until there was no hope the firm could survive.

Its more than three decades of doing business on  Church Street ended for Charles Lewis & Bros. on July 26, 1898, just 11 days after Charles's death.   A Sheriff's sale that day liquidated the stock and netted $5,700--a mere fraction of the amount the creditors claimed.

At the turn of the century Charles Robinson's shirt waist factory was in the building.  Among his employees in 1901 was 18-year old Louis Finkelstein, who tried his hand at the stock market.  Instead of making his fortune, he lost what little money he had.  To make up for his substantial losses, he stole finished garments.

Finkelstein would bundle up quantities of blouses, then drop them down what was probably the same hatchway where Jacob Schwartz had met his doom in 1878.  At the bottom, Louis Cohen was waiting.  Cohen ran a rag-picking business which was a front for selling the stolen goods.

The scheme could only work for so long, of course, and on July 15, 1901 both men were arrested.  Finkelstein was charged as an accomplice and Cohen for "operating a 'fence' of large proportions at this home."  A Charles Robinson representative inspected the booty at the police station, and valued it at between $3,000 to $6,000--as much at $175,000 today.

Turn of the century factory work was often grueling.  Other employers in the building at the time were New York Millinery & Supply Co., whose three men and two women worked 53 hours per week; and the Novelty Skirt Co., which employed 10 men and one woman.  Their week was slightly longer at 54 hours.

Cloak makers Edelson & Shipiro occupied space by 1904.  The following year 50 of its employees, members of the United Garment Workers of America, went on strike.  When another manufacturer, Max Lacher on Canal Street, helped out by filling some of its orders "while it is in a crippled condition," as described by The New York Times, the strikers became enraged.

Early 20th century labor disputes often became violent, and on July 20 all 50 strikers stormed the Lacher factory.  The mob was too large for the sole policeman on the beat to handle, and reinforcements from the Leonard Street Station were called in.

"The strikers tried to escape and half of them got away.  They swarmed out of the windows, up and down the fire escapes, and over the roofs to adjoining buildings....The police gathered in twenty-five and took them to the station, in several patrol wagon loads."  The men were held on a charge of rioting.  The Times article ended saying "The police said the strikers wrecked Lacher's establishment."

In April 1911 the Kingsland estate sold numerous properties, including 315 Church Street, at auction.  The new owner found several new tenants, including Barish & Schwartz, which moved in that year.

By 1915 the Caledonian Publishing Co. was here, producing books as well as the popular The Caledonian, An Illustrated Family Magazine.  Also leasing space was the Plato Art Co.  While the printer was best known for its wall calendars, advertising calendars and almanacs, that year it came out with a unique invention--the "Mirrored Hand."

The Automobile Trade Directory, 1915 (copyright expired)

Automobile operators wearing this mirror on the back of their driving gloves could get a rear-view glance by simply raising that hand and glancing at the image.  An ad promised the invention would prevent distractions.  Apparently it was not long before someone realized that mounting the mirror on the car frame worked better, causing the Mirrored Hand to be a short-lived venture.

William E. Wright & Sons, Co. moved in in 1917 from just around the corner at No. 40 Lispenard.  Wright had started out selling cut fabric door to door, until he invented an item that would become a staple for garment manufacturers--bias tape.  He opened a store in 1897 and moved his operation into 315 Church Street in 1915.  The firm's astounding success was reflected in his lease--William E. Wright & Co. took all four floors above the storefront.  Later that year it augmented its marketing by publishing a pamphlet which illustrated uses for bias tape.

Wright & Sons' moving announcement pictured both the old and new locations.  Dry Goods Economist, January 27, 1917 (copyright expired)

William E. Wright & Sons was still here in the early 1920's; but by the 1930's the building was home to the Baker Linen Co., wholesalers of hospital linens.  That firm would remain at least until mid-century.

By the mid 1970's, the ground floor of No. 315 (left) had already been sadly modernized.  photo by Edmund V. Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The changing face of the Tribeca neighborhood was perhaps best exemplified when former factory space became offices in the last quarter of the 20th century.  Here the International League for the Repatriation of Russian Jews established its headquarters in the early 1980's.   In the early 1990's the ground floor was home to Biblio's Bookstore and Cafe, where poetry readings were sometimes held.  By 1995 Bierenbroodspot Gallery had moved in.

Other tenants at the turn of the century were MIA Records, which moved from Houston to New York in 1999; and Mucca Design, here in 2005, and OBRA Architects, USA, in 2007.  In 2010 T & T Plastic Land, Inc. was a "source for canvas carrying bags; also an extensive supply of props," according to Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera.

Today, above the ghastly ground floor modernization, the peeling paint of the Duckworth's cast iron facade disguises luxury residences--another element in the ever-changing personality of the Tribeca neighborhood.

photographs by the author

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Oscar Lowinson's 1909 830 Sixth Avenue



In 1890 the old brick-faced houses at Nos. 476 and 478 Sixth Avenue had long since been converted for commercial purposes.  Four business operated from No. 478--Mary Laconture's dress making shop, Abraham Brothers's paint and oils store, James D. Keeley's plumbing business, and James W. Westerfield's "stove and range" operation.  Next door was the real estate office of E. J. Lemon & Son, run by Emanuel E. Lemon and his son, Joseph.

Following Emanuel Lemon's retirement the firm became J. E. Lemon & Co.  In November 1906 Joseph purchased No. 478 and relocated the office into the building.   Two years later he set architect Oscar Lowinson to work to remodel the former house.  On December 15, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported "Plans have been filed...for making over the old-fashioned four story and basement dwelling house, with store, at No. 478 Sixth avenue into a modern loft and store building, rebuilding the front in ornamental pattern of iron, with brownstone trimmings and large glass windows."

The $8,000 in renovations resulted in a stylish mixture of the Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts styles.  Most eye-catching was the sinuous cast metal cornice which followed the scalloped shape of the French-inspired openings below.  Perched above were unusual finials--nested stone orbs on copper pedestals.  If Lowinson had in fact originally contemplated using brownstone, he changed his mind.  While the limestone he used for the base and piers was more expensive, it was a more appropriate choice for the architectural style.

Quite possibly matching finials graced the corners of the cornice as well.
Furriers Semmel & Meisler operated from the second floor by 1911.   Early in October that year a suspicious-looking man wearing a raincoat with his hat pulled down entered.  Saying he represented a burglary insurance company, he said he was there to inspect the wiring of the workrooms and storerooms.  When Psachje Semmel asked him for credentials, the visitor could only produce a few blank application forms.  He was told to leave.

It appears that the "inspector" was, in fact, casing the shop.  Semmel & Meisler did have a burglar alarm and it proved its worth about two weeks later.  Policeman Fitzgerald was doing his rounds early on the morning of October 28 when he heard the clanging from within the building.  He called for assistance by rapping his baton on the pavement, drawing the attention of Policemen Murphy and Gorman and Detective Bauerschmidt.

While the two patrolmen stood guard in front of the building, Fitzgerald and Bauerschmidt went to the rear where they found the drop ladder of the fire escape pulled down.  The pair climbed to the top floor where the iron shutter of the Roth Embroidery Company had been forced open.  The entered.

The lock on the company's hallway door had been broken.  On the third floor the officers found the door of the Brilliant Sign Company forced open.  Like Roth Embroidery Company, it had no burglar alarm.  Inside Fitzgeralnd and Bauerschmidt found a two-foot hole which the crooks had chopped in the cement floor.  A rope dangled down into the Semmel & Meisler space.  The two cops shimmied down the rope into the darkness.  What they found was astounding.

The Evening World reported "On the floor at the bottom of the hole lay a saw, a brace and two bits and a heavy pair of scissors for cutting metal.  Near by was a bottle of bromo seltzer, some sandwiches and some grapes, and all over the floor were bundles of furs that the thieves had evidently prepared to be taken when one of them accidentally touched the burglar alarm and they were compelled to flee, leaving their plunder."

The food was evidence that the thieves had intended to take their time in picking out their booty.  They had chosen only "the choicest skins" and had carefully wrapped enough packages to fill a wagon.  Police surmised that "the thieves planned to carry the bundles up to the fourth floor and down the fire-escape to the ear, where a wagon would have met them to haul away the plunder."

It was assumed that this was the same gang who had pulled of a nearly identical heist a few nights earlier.  In that case a hole was dig through a cement floor to get into Samuel Saxe's fur shop at No. 24 West 24th Street.  The made off with 1,000 mink pelts.

The ground floor store was home to the West Side Loan Office, a pawn shop.  On September 7, 1912 a young woman entered with a bracelet which she pawned for $4.  Twelve days later she returned, this time with a diamond ring for which she was given $10.   Pawning her precious jewelry was a hint of problems in the woman's life.

Wilhemina M. Hadlow was about 27 years old and for a little over a year had lived in a furnished room at No. 64 West 91st Street.  She had been a clothing designer (of women's waists) but for some time had been out of a job.

Part of the money from her pawned jewelry was spent on September 21 for a $3 stateroom ticket on the Hudson River steamboat Adirondack to Albany.  Before she left her 91st Street room she filled a trunk with her clothes and had it shipped to Mabel Peterson in Thompson, Connecticut.  She then left New York City for good.

On board the Adirondack Bert Dewey noticed her crying.  He managed to engage her in conversation and she told him she was "suffering mental anguish which she could not withstand."  He later told authorities she said "she would never reach Albany."  She handed him a letter and asked him to mail it when the boat docked.  "Dewey counseled her to keep the letter until she arrived and mail it herself," reported The New York Times.  "He also obtained from her a promise that she would take breakfast with him in Albany."

Concerned, he went to her cabin door that night.  Hearing her moving around, he assumed she was alright.  But when the steamer reached Albany, there was no sign of Wilhemina.  The letter she had asked Dewey to mail was found torn up in her stateroom.  Another letter, addressed to Mabel Peterson, was found in the steamer's letter box.  It stated she was sending her "some clothes.  I won't want them any more, and thought you would like them."  Investigators surmised she had jumped overboard somewhere between Catskill and Hudson, New York.

In 1918 Joseph Lemon received orders from the City to make extensive safety improvements in the building.  He and Oscar Lowinson had continued to work on projects together, and he consulted the architect on this expensive and, most likely, unexpected renovation.  The City demanded a new rear fire escape, an interior fire staircase enclosed in fire-resistant materials, replacement of the inward-opening street level door with one that opened outward (to facilitate escape in case of fire), and double fire doors to the interior staircase.  A separate violation required the installation of a fire alarm system.

Lowinson filed a request with the Board of Standards and Appeals requesting a "variation of the requirements" that would relieve Lemon of the renovations.   The Board ruled on February 28, 1918 on both counts:  "denied."

The building continued to attract furriers into the 1920's.  Fur Trade Review, April 1922 (copyright expired)

In 1925 Sixth Avenue was renumbered, giving No. 478 the new address of No. 830.

As the fur district moved north of 34th Street, No. 830 drew a variety of new tenants.  The ground floor store was home to the Gem Luggage Shop by 1928.  On the afternoon of January 31 that year Joseph Vernazza was the only employee on duty, but he was more than enough to thwart an armed robbery.

The New York Times reported "A hold-up man dashed out of the Gem Luggage Shop, 830 Sixth Avenue, at 2:30 o'clock yesterday afternoon, leaving his pistol on the floor and probably happy to be able to run."  When he decided to go up against Vernazza, the newspaper said he "had picked a tartar."

The man had come in asking to see a bag.  When Vernazza turned, the supposed customer struck him over the head with his gun.  Instead of knocking Vernazza out or dazing him, the blow merely angered him.  He wrested the weapon out of the man's grasp and the would-be robber ran.

Vernazza told the reporter "I'm sorry he got away.  It would give me pleasure to kill such a man.  I could kill him with my bare hands," and simulated the motion it would take to do so.  The pistol had made a gash on his head, which was covered by a bandage.

"It's nothing to what I could do to that fellow if I could catch him," he seethed.

For more than a decade, beginning around 1939 the Atlas Personal Finance Corporation was in the building.  The Sixth Avenue neighborhood had increasingly grown as the center of Manhattan's Flower Wholesale District, and by 1958 DeMarco & Vlachos, Inc., wholesale florists was operating from No. 830.

By 1977 more flowers were sold in Manhattan than any city in the world except Amsterdam.  But as the 21st century neared, developers increasingly eyed the Flower District for new apartment buildings, hotels and office buildings.   Little by little the flower merchants were forced out until today there are only a handful of holdouts.

The upper portion of the building next door--the original location of E. J. Lemon & Son--retains the residential appearance of the original houses.
The striking 1909 facade is surprisingly intact, including the stone entrance with its heavy scrolled brackets and the banded piers that frame the modern show window.  The oxidized copper cornice has stained the white stone blue.  The building is unprotected by landmark status, so its continued survival is solely in the hands of any future owner or tenant.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The 1911 Stern Building - 28-30 West 23rd Street




By the turn of the last century the Stern Brothers Department store had been enlarged twice.  It sat mid-block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues on West 23rd Street, the northern edge of shopping district known today as the Ladies' Mile.  The store's tremendous success had necessitated two large, architecturally seamless wings on either side of the original 1878 structure.

Next door was the Queen Anne-style Conover Building, erected for J. B. Conover & Co., a prominent manufacturer of "grates, fenders, fireplaces, wood mantels, and tiles."  Following that firm's bankruptcy in 1893 Stern Brothers expanded into the building; but that, too, proved insufficient.

After J. B. Conover & Co. left their building (left) Stern Brothers pasted its name above the ground floor show windows. The original Stern Brothers store is the central, slightly higher building.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1910 Stern Brothers commissioned the well-known architectural firm of Maynicke & Franke to replace the six-story Conover Building with a twelve-story "annex" that would extend through the block (taking the place of four brownstones on 22nd Street).  Unlike the earlier expansions, the building would make no attempt to meld with the main store.

Entire faced in limestone, the annex, was completed in 1911 and towered over the main store.  It flexed its individual personality with monumental, two story columns at street level.  Their colossal size, intricately decorated fluting and ornate Scamozzi capitals provide a stately presence.  A full-width stone balcony above the third floor introduced the relatively unadorned central section.   Smooth, engaged columns at the 11th and 12th floors support the heavy brackets of the slightly arched cornice.



The dignified structure cost more than $18.5 million in  today's dollars.  It came with another horrible expense as well--the loss of a worker's life.   James Thompson was doing electrical work as the building neared completion on May 19, 1911 with a mason on the seventh floor lost his grip on a brick.  The Sun reported "The brick from the seventh floor smashed his head and he died before an ambulance arrived."

The wider 22nd Street elevation is understandably less grand.
Even before plans were laid for the annex Stern Brothers was well aware that department stores were abandoning the Ladies' Mile.  The migration had started when Roland H. Macy announced plans to move to Herald Square in 1901.   Therefore, according to the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide in 1913, "The new building was of the loft construction type, as it was recognized that a removal would probably soon be advisable."

And, indeed, a removal was soon to come.  In August 1913 Stern Brothers announced it would be relocating to 42nd Street.  Within the year the firm had hired Starret & Van Vleck to alter the the relatively new annex "for loft and store purposes."  The extensive renovations--including removing the excessive elevators (necessary to a department store but not a loft building), adding new beams, reinforced concrete floors and iron staircases--took a year to complete.

Now called The Stern Building, the remodeled structure quickly filled with tenants.  Walker & Heisler signed a lease for the store and basement--fully 50,000 square feet, in July 1915.  The well-known carpet store had been on East 16th Street for many years.  The $16,000 annual rent was substantial--more than $33,500 per month today.

A major tenant was Chicago-based mail order firm Montgomery Ward & Company.  In May 1915 it leased the eighth through the 11th floors for its buying offices and factory space for its "women's wearing apparel and millinery."

Another well-known tenant would be the W. T. Grant Company, which signed a lease in June for the fourth floor.  The firm operated "25-cent department stores" nationwide.  The Record & Guide reported "The space will be used for general offices and for the buying and distributing of merchandise."

Another of the intial leasers was the World's Market Corporation, which took the 12th floor and subsequently simplified and revamped buying trips of out-of-town merchandise buyers.   Now, rather than rushing from building to building, buyers could visit 75 showrooms in one location.   The World's Market was opened in March 1915.

The American Angler explained a few weeks later, "The floor is laid out with rows of big, roomy, mahogany showcases, equipped with easy rolling glass doors.  A buyer may examine any garment in a moment and replace it so that it is always fresh and clean.  On the 22d Street side of the floor is a series of private booths occupied by manufacturers who prefer to show their goods in private.  The booths are elegantly furnished and most of them have mirrors and wardrobes."

A 1915 advertisement blurred the abutting buildings--an early form of photo-shopping. Dry Goods Economist, February 6, 1915 (copyright expired) 
Because the sales staff was furnished by World's Market Corporation, not the manufacturers, the buyers were not pressured.  "Our salespeople display the lines you want to see, without preference," said an ad.  On March 14, 1915 The New York Times supported the claim, saying "The merchandise is shown and the orders are taken by the sales force employed by the corporation.  In other words, there are no commissions paid by manufacturers to tempt the sales force to thrust goods on the buyers."

At the time Americans were just getting used to paying the new Federal Income Tax, ratified in 1913.  Now the Stern Building received an unexpected tenant.  The New-York Tribune reported on September 18, 1919 that the second floor had been leased to "the United States Government, Department of Internal Revenue."

The department not only oversaw the collection of income tax, but the enforcement of Prohibition.  The State Director of Prohibition, Charles R. O'Connor, shared the second floor with the Federal agents.  His office was responsible for, among other things, "the granting of many permits of one kind or another," according to The Sun on February 22, 1920.  "It is at this office that physicians and druggists are given their permits, as well as the manufacturers who want to use non-beverage alcohol."  O'Connor's agents also did investigations, making sure, for instance, that a hair-tonic manufacturer was using his alcohol for hair-tonic.

The Federal offices were understandably besieged at tax time.  On February 15, 1920 the New-York Tribune reported "The Collector is prepared to handle a flood of returns in the next four weeks--the last day for filing returns is March 15."  The office anticipated "close to $1,500,000,000" in payments, according to the article.

Later that year the IRA moved downtown.  In 1921 the Stern Building received several new tenants, including A. Barsa & Bro., manufacturers of silk kimonos, which took two floors; the Dexter Folder Company, which leased space for its executive offices and showroom; and the Reuben H. Donnelly Corporation, which took the fifth floor.

Although the Reuben H. Donnelly Corporation published a variety of items, it was best known for its Classified Telephone Directory--later known as the Yellow Pages.  It would remain in the building throughout the 1920's, as did the W. T. Grant Company and in the Walker & Heisler carpet store.

As disturbing changes in German politics were taking place in the 1930's, the Paris Decorators Corporation had its general offices in the Stern Building.  The interior decorating firm had nine branch stores in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Newark.    In September 1933 it closed its German office.  Seven months later The New York Times ran the headline "Decorators Ban Reich Goods" and explained that the firm "announced yesterday that it had discontinued all purchases in Germany."

For decades thieves city-wide had taken advantage of the fact that workers were paid in cash.  They carefully watched the movements of employees, learning their routines of trips to the bank.  The rash of payday armed robberies during the Depression years prompted the New York Police Department to offer an armed escort around 1934.  The Divineform Brassiere Company, Inc. chose to take its chances.

On July 1, 1936 The Times reported "Shortly after 2:30 yesterday afternoon three men, at least one of whom was armed, followed Max Ladenheim, manager of the company, into an elevator, forced him and five other passengers to raise their hands, took an envelope containing between $2,300 and $3,000 and escaped."   Police officials did not hide their annoyance, telling reporters that The Divineform Brassier Company "had failed to take advantage of protection offered."

At the time of the robbery Universal Camera occupied a floor in the building.  Photography and home movies were a popular national hobby.  The firm not only manufactured still cameras, but had perfected the portable 8-mm. movie camera. 

The company cleverly pushed its Mercury model camera in the summer of 1941 by staging a photography competition.  It offered $1,000 in prizes for the best pictures; the catch being that they had to be made using only that camera.

When the United States entered World War II, Universal Camera Corporation turned its focus on making military binoculars.  Workers were paid $20 to $30 a week for what was termed "war jobs."  The work also exempted them from military service under the Selective Service's "work of fight" order.

Five men hired in the fall and winter of 1943-1944 took advantage of the exemption.   They soon left, taking jobs that earned them much more, but did not bother to notify the Selective Service.  All five were arrested on March 27, 1945 for avoiding the draft.

Following the war Universal Camera Corporation returned to developing and making cameras.  In October 1947 it introduced its new 16-mm. sound projector, the Tonemaster.  It touted the "8-inch dynamic speaker, heavy-duty five-tube amplifier, [and] built-in microphone."

Two years later two employees, David Whittaker and Norma Holt, would be the victims of a bizarre and horrible crime.  The 33-year old Whittaker was the assistant to Universal Camera's president, Otto Githens.  He lived in the London Terrace Apartments a few blocks west on 23rd Street and was carrying on an affair with the married 30-year old Norma Holt.

Norma's mother, Mrs. Elsie Thomas, lived in Hollywood, California.  She received a call from Norma on the night of March 9, 1949.   The call was coming from David Whittaker's apartment and a gun was pointed at Norma's head.  Mrs. Thomas later said "I knew something was wrong when I heard Norma sniffling.  She would never worry me unless something serious was the matter."

Norma's husband, Emory, suddenly grabbed the received.  He told his mother-in-law, "I'm very sorry for what I'm about to do."  Mrs. Thomas told investigators "I pleaded with him, but he said, 'It's too late, mama.'"

Mrs. Thomas then heard a three gun shots.  "I dropped the phone and fell over in hysterics."  She made a frantic call to a friend in New York, telling her to call the police.

The New York Times reported "The scene they beheld when they entered with a passkey from the superintendent was reminiscent of a Hollywood melodrama, except that this was real-life tragedy."

David Whittaker was seated upright on the sofa with bullet wounds to the head.  Next to him was Norma Holt, "wearing a printed silk blouse and blue skirt."  She was shot through the heart and in the head.  "Slumped over a chair and an end-table near the sofa was the body of Mr. Holt, his fingers still gripping the pistol, with a bullet through the heart, fired, the police said, by himself after killing his wife."


Throughout the rest of the century the building continued to house a variety of businesses.  In 1986 the upper floors were converted to offices.  When the Home Depot took over the the former Stern Brothers Department Store building in 2004, it was internally joined with the Stern Building at ground level.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

From Rudy Vallee to Ghostbusters--55 Central Park West


The color of the brick gently changes from dark to light, giving the impression that the sun is always shining on the facade.
For decades The Courtney and The Georgian Court had stood at the southwest corner of Central Park West and 66th Street.  Like other resident hotels along the swanky street, their residents enjoyed spacious suites.  A 10-room, 3- bath apartment in The Courtney rented for up to $4,500 a year in 1922--about $5,500 a month today.

The Beaux Arts style The Courtney  (with the mansard) and The Georgian Court catered to turn of the century upper class residents.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

But the 1920's saw Manhattan's lavish private homes and fussy Victorian resident hotels losing favor to modern apartment buildings.  Scores of smaller buildings were razed and replaced by Art Deco behemoths.  On April 6, 1930 The New York Times noted  "Central Park West will witness the opening this year of about half a dozen new structures all covering large plots."

Among those was 55 Central Park West on the site of The Courtney and The Georgian Court. Its trendy Art Deco design came from the drafting rooms of Schwartz & Gross for the 55 Central Park West Corp., especially formed for the project by Victor Earle and John C. Calhoun.

Schwartz & Gross released this rendering in 1930.  (copyright expired) 
Completed in the fall of 1930, the 19-story brick and stone structure epitomized the Jazz Age.  The warm yellow stone of the base stair-stepped to four floors above the entrance at on the 66th Street side.  The Oz-ready geometric piers that clung to the facade gave dimension and dynamism.  The top-most floors detonated in a white mountainscape of spiky stepped finials and piers.

Upper West Side apartment buildings, unlike their East Side peers, were routinely given names--like The Dakota and The Ansonia.  The new Central Park West buildings followed suit, including the San Remo and El Dorado.   But Earle & Calhoun were content with the address, 55 Central Park West.

Months before its completion well-heeled tenants had lined up to sign leases.  The building was 75 percent leased in July.

The wealth of it residents was was evidenced the following year when Charles E. Douglas's 65-foot yacht exploded in Gravesend Bay.  On October 20, 1931 the captain of The Hat, Victor Belding, was filling one of the fuel tanks when the explosion occurred, destroying the vessel.  Douglas placed its value at more than $800,000 in today's dollars.

Living in an eight-room apartment on the 17th floor was Edward R. Brevoort and his wife, the former Mary Waldie.  Like the wives of most moneyed businessmen, Mary spent her summers away from the city, being joined by her husband one the weekends and periodic longer stays.

Mary was on Cape Cod in the summer of 1932.  The household staff was cut back to one maid during the summer months and she "slept out," meaning she did not live with the couple.  She was therefore not there at 6:00 on the morning of August 18 when doorman Stanley Dawson "was startled by the thud of a body in the rear courtyard," according to police.

He discovered the body of the 60-year old Brevoort, in his pajamas, beside a window screen.  The impact was powerful enough to wake other tenants.  The suggestion of suicide at the time was something that was strenuously denied by upscale families.  That may have led to investigators releasing an amazingly detailed conjecture of events preceding Brevoort's death.

Police told reporters "His bed had been slept in.  Walking through the apartment, he had apparently felt dizzy, stepped toward the window for air, and toppled out, carrying the screen with him."

The year that 55 Central Park West was completed famous band leader and singer Rudy Vallee married the relatively unknown motion picture actress Fay Webb.  The newlyweds moved into the new building. 

On September 23, 1932 the upstate New York newspaper The Irvington Gazette reported "''Barney' Huston, of East Clinton Avenue, popular Rye patrolman, had the privilege last Friday night of ticketing Rudy Valee [sic], noted orchestra leader and crooner."  The officer had been sitting in his patrol car on the Boston Post Road when Vallee sped past him on the way home from Connecticut.

"The orchestra leader was brought to Rye headquarters and posted at $15.00 bail for speeding at 45 miles."  Vallee gave his name as Hubert P. Vallee.  He did not bother to show up at court the following Monday, forfeiting his $15.  The newspaper clearly sided with Officer Huston.  "Poor Rudy seems to have no end of trouble if it isn't with his wife, it's a cop, but in this instance with a good one who believes in doing his duty.  Rudy or no Rudy."

The trouble with his wife mentioned in the article referred to reports of marital discord that had hit the newspapers a month earlier.  Only a year into their marriage, The New York Times reported on August 30, 1932 "a Reno divorce is likely unless difficulties that have arisen between them can be harmonized."

Rudy Vallee and his new wife would enjoy brief wedded bliss at 55 Central Park West -- original source unknown

Both the crooner and his wife were using attorney Hyman Bushel.  He told reporters the "several court actions" brought against Vallee by Fay were caused by "a question of not getting on together" and a "wide divergent in temperament."  The Times article noted that Vallee was on tour and said "Mrs. Vallee is staying at the Vallee apartment at 55 Central Park West with her father and mother."

Fay Webb Vallee left New York and in 1935 Vallee sued for divorce, contending that she was carrying on a dalliance with dancer Gary Leon.  The courts sided with Vallee, giving Fay little compensation.  She filed several appeals in California and New York to no avail.

Rudy Vallee's name had appeared in newspapers for another legal matter in the spring of 1934.  On April 2 a maid, Nora Sullivan, took Beauty, a black Pomeranian, for a walk in Central Park.  She was one of 34 other women who were fined $1 each "for allowing their pets to roam unmuzzled."  Like Beauty, the other 33 dogs were Pomeranians.  The women appeared in court and complained that "muzzles are not made for Pomeranians."

The judge was not moved.  According to The New York Times Magistrate Aurelio barked "Get a muzzle anyway, even if you have to make it yourself."  The article pointed out that Beauty was "a dog owned by another Vallee servant, not the crooner's shepherd, Windy."

Photographer Edmund Vincent Gillon successfully captured the architectural beauty of the upper section, which Real Estate Magazine once described as looking like an Alpine mountain.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Vallee was not the only celebrity in the building at the time.  Opera star Lily Pons was a resident during the 1930s, and Ginger Rogers took an apartment here at the same time while appearing on Broadway. Like Rudy Vallee, Pons had a pet; but unlike his German shepherd, hers was far more exotic--a Brazilian jaguar named Ita.

The diva had received the animal as a gift when it was just three months old.   She treated it like a house cat and Ita traveled with her in railroad cars and hotel rooms.  Eventually, however, Pons was convinced to give Ita to the Bronx Zoo.  The Times explained on March 16, 1934, "But Ita disliked visitors.  She didn't mind Miss Donna McKay, the singer's secretary, or the French maid, because she grew up with them.  Lately, however, she had begun to snarl at visitors and her restless tail gave danger signs."

Ita rode to the zoo in the front seat of Pons's limousine with the chauffeur.  The singer and her jaguar had a sad parting and Pons was specific regarding the cat's diet.  She told keeper Max Lendsberry "Ita must be fed twice each day.  She likes only raw meat, run through the chopper."

Another high-profile resident was former broker Charles A. Stoneham.  His colorful and sometimes shady career included ownership of the New York Giants baseball team and the New York Giants soccer team.  By the time he and his wife, Johanna, moved into the building his name was still stained by two Federal indictments in 1923--one for perjury and the other for mail fraud--both of which he was cleared of.  And his involvement in the "Soccer Wars" of 1929 which led to the disbanding of the American Soccer League also tainted his reputation among sports fans.

In the early 1930's Stoneham showed symptoms of Bright's Disease, a kidney disorder better known today as nephritis.  He went to Hot Springs, Arkansas in the winter of 1935-36 and died there on January 6.

Other residents were no doubt shocked when Harry H. Rein was arrested on November 18, 1937, charged with the theft of $119,000 in securities.  The stock trader, whose office was at No. 70 Pine Street, was accused of forging signatures to liquidate bonds.  Loudly protesting his innocence, Rein was released on $10,000 bail awaiting trial.  And he quickly found another money-making scheme.

Renting a desk in another security trader's office, he and securities dealer Clarence Woodruff Valentine and his office manager, Jack Sullivan, set up a betting operation.  They gathered thousands of dollars in bets on the Roosevelt-Wilkie election.  Then they disappeared.

On November 4, 1940 investigators for the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission started a search for the men, who made off with $16,800 in winnings they owed to Roosevelt supporters.

In the meantime, Louis Baumgold had serious servant troubles.  The wealthy jeweler was a partner in Baumgold Brothers, one of the leading diamond importing and cutting firms in the country.  Two of the family's live-in servants in 1937 were housemaid Josephine Kotva and chauffeur Joseph Gerschner.

On January 30, 1938 Baumgold called the police to report he had been burglarized.  Missing was $9,500 in silverware, jewelry and costly linens--a significant $165,000 haul today.   The investigation into the case did not take especially long.  On February 21 the 36-year old chauffeur and the 30 year old maid were arrested.

Interestingly, it was a jury member and not Gerschner's brazen crime which drew press coverage.  On May 14, 1938 the Indiana Recorder ran the headline "New York Has First Colored Woman Juror" and reported "A decided advance in the struggle for equal rights was registered here this week when Mrs. Virginia G. Pope, a Negro housewife, was chosen as a juror in the Court of General Sessions."  It was the first time in the 225-year old court history that a black woman had served.

When the nation was pulled into World War II with the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, resident Rae Simon threw herself full-force into fund raising.  And she did not allow her age to get in the way of her efforts.  Three years later, on June 10, 1944 The Times reported "An advance campaign for the Fifth War Loan begun by Mrs. Rae Simon, who is 77 years old, and one of the city's most successful house-to-house canvassers in previous drives, already has resulted in the sale of $4,000 worth of war bonds."  So far she had collected more than $250,000 in bond sales.

The article added that during the current drive, "Mrs. Simon plans to solicit every tenant in the apartment building in which she lives at 55 Central Park West."  But, of course, the well-mannered widow did not knock on doors indiscriminately.  "She writes to all her prospects and arranges appointments before making her bond sales calls, she explains."

The crafty Mrs. Simon started her appeal telling each prospective donor, "Take your watch out.  I promise not to stay more than three minutes, five at the most.  If it is longer, you are detaining me."  One resident of the building purchased a $5,000 bond as a birthday present to her.  Her largest single sale was $10,000.

She told a reporter that bond selling was a privilege for senior citizens "because we older people want to take a part in the war and this is one of the few ways in which we can serve and feel that we aren't has-beens and really are accomplishing something."

Only a year later Mrs. Simon had topped the $1 million mark in sales.  In April she embarked on what she called "Spring training" for the Seventh War Loan, in which she served as a "Blue Star Brigadier."

Earlier that same year the owners of 55 Central Park West had commenced a conversion of about 26 apartments of the 115 apartments into "cooperative suites."   Prospective buyers paid around $381,00 for the spaces.   But tenants sued and a "controversial test case," as described by The Times, dragged on for months.  Finally, on September 2 the Office of Price Administration ruled.  The newspaper said it "has forbidden the owners of the fashionable apartment building...to evict a group of tenants and convert their suites into cooperatives units."  The ruling was based on OPA regulations that insisted to 80 percent of participants in any cooperative must be former tenants."

The cooperative conversation eventually went through, with some existing residents purchasing immediately and other apartments converting as tenants moved out.

When location scouts searched for a building to represent The Shandor, home of characters Dana Barrett and Louis Tully in the 1984 Ghostbusters, 55 Central Park West was a strong contender.  And, although Don Shay, in his Making Ghostbusters, admits it was "our second choice," it won out.

It was the building, not its celebrated residents, that was the star in the 1984 Ghostbustersimage via new.avclub.com
Also known in the film as "Spook Central," it lacked the upper section called for in the script, so eight additional stories and the temple were added through matte paintings.

By then well known residents included Donna Karen, Marsha Mason and screenwriter Ringgold "Ring" Lardner Jr.    Composer Jerry Herman purchased a top floor apartment in the 1970's and did major renovations, including removing walls.  He brought in his Mason & Hamlin grand piano on which he had written the score to Mame.  It would be the beginning of a somewhat bizarre period in the apartment's history.

Calvin Klein visited Herman in 1983 and was reportedly so enamored with the apartment he offered the composer $1 million at once.  Herman told a journalist "It sounded like an offer I couldn't refuse."  And he didn't.

Like his predecessor, Klein made changes, one of which got him into hot water--both literally and figuratively.  He installed a hot tub on the roof which drew the ire of the co-op board.

Then in 1989 Klein put his his beloved apartment on the market for $3.9 million.  Motion picture producer Keith Barish signed a contract and a check for the $390,000 deposit, then changed his mind.  Instead, Klein's close friend David Geffen bought it for even more money, $4.3 million.  He never moved in.

Almost unbelievably, he sold the space a year later for $4.6 to Keith Barish, who had changed his mind again.  And equally unbelievably, Barish never moved in either.  He purchased Marsha Mason's apartment next door, thinking he would combine the two.  But once again he changed his mind and sold both to...yes...Calvin Klein.

Klein removed all but the load-bearing walls to create a Soho-esque loft space.  The designer held on to the still gutted apartment until September 1998 when Diane Sawyer and her husband, Mike Nichols offered $7.5 million (plus another $1 million to the co-op board for the rooftop terrace rights.  But they lost out.

Instead another resident, Steve Gottlieb of TVT Records outbid them.  But fourteen years later, in 2012, the apartment was still vacant and Gottlieb had yet to finish renovations due to fights with the co-op board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.   He continued to live on the 18th floor and to use the penthouse for parties.   Finally, after putting more than $5 million into "infrastructure improvements," he placed it on the market in 2012 for $35 million.


Schwartz & Gross's 55 Central Park West is a handsome link in the chain of snazzy Art Deco apartment buildings that line the park--buildings that defined America's concept of wealthy New Yorkers' lives in the Depression era.


photographs by the author