Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Corn Building - 91-93 Fifth Avenue

photo by Beyond My Ken
New York, 1894, Illustrated commented on "a rising and well-known architect," Louis Korn.  The article said "He has made a first-class reputation for skill and reliability, and is fast making his way to the front in his chosen profession" and noted he had just prepared plans for "an eight-story fire-proof building, Nos. 91 and 93 Fifth Avenue, for S. & H. Corn."

At the time of the article brothers Samuel and Henry Corn were highly responsible for the ongoing transformation of lower Fifth Avenue from one of brick and brownstone mansions to modern commercial buildings as wealthy residents moved further north.  Louis Korn designed a Beaux Arts style structure faced in limestone and brick with terra cotta elements.  But what was more or less a typical design on the lower five floors became anything but above the fifth floor cornice.

Columned porticoes originally graced the entrances to the Corn Building. Architecture & Building, March 14, 1896 (copyright expired)  

Here floor-height caryatids sprung from bundles of leaves.  Unlike their Roman and Greek prototypes, the buxom figures wore no stolae nor other draping, but clasped their hands above their heads, exposing their nude torsos to Fifth Avenue.  Exquisitely designed and executed, they nevertheless must have drawn the gaze of  passing men while causing Victorian women to avert theirs.

The graceful if immodest caryatids upheld paneled pedestals which supported two-story engaged Corinthian columns.  A balustraded balcony ran the width of the seventh floor.  The sumptuous elements combined to make the upper portion of the Corn Building architecturally spectacular.

photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Although construction was not officially completed until a year later, important tenants were already operating from the address in 1895.  That year London-based publisher Longmans, Green & Co., moved in; and another British publisher, the Oxford University Press, established its American branch here the following year.

The esteemed publishing firms were joined in the building by the editorial offices of the Library of the World's Best Literature.  Published in 31 volumes, it was an anthology of serious literature, "ancient and modern."  Its advisory council included professors from esteemed universities and colleges throughout the world.

There were a few tenants not involved in the publishing industry.  The Collins & Aikman Co., "upholstery goods," was in the building by 1898 and in 1899 the auction rooms of Bangs & Co. were here.  Bangs & Co. was not totally removed from publishing; its auctions routinely focused on rare books.  In April 1899, for instance, it advertised an upcoming auction of "A collection of standard and scarce works in several department of literature.  First editions, Americana, etc."

The early tenants remained for several years.  Oxford University Press stayed on at least through 1906, as did Bangs & Co., and Longmans, Green & Co. was still here in 1911.

By then, however, apparel firms were taking over the Fifth Avenue buildings.  In 1909 cloak manufacturer Peller Brothers operated from the seventh floor.  When fire broke out in the factory on March 5, the Fire Department's new high pressure engines were successfully put to the test.

The New-York Tribune reported "Flames were issuing from the windows of the seventh floor...The firm's offices were ablaze.  The high pressure stream quenched the fire before there was a chance for it to spread beyond the offices."

The Wanamaker Diary, 1916 (copyright expired)
Louis Hamburger & Co., textile merchants, took 15,000 square feet in the building in 1913; in 1916 the umbrella firm B. O. Wright & Co. leased the fourth floor; and in 1919 S. & W. Shirt Co. moved in.  No longer known as the Corn Building but instead by its address, by now it was entirely filled with apparel and related firms.

No. 91-93 Fifth Avenue was lost to foreclosure in the last years of the Great Depression.  It was sold at auction on January 19, 1938. 

The decline of the Fifth Avenue neighborhood in the second half of the 20th century did not seriously affect the building's architectural integrity; although the handsome entrance porticoes were sadly shorn off.

Like so many of the avenue's structures, vast interior spaces sat unused and neglected.  As was the case in Tribeca, artists were drawn to the large, empty floors.  One of them was commercial photographer John Pilgreen, who took an entire floor here in 1976.  He described it later as "a big, dirty, drafty Manhattan loft;" but its 12-foot ceilings and unobstructed space made it perfect for setting up scenes for his clients.  He paid $600 per month for the 3,000 square foot space.

But by 1981 the district was seeing a renaissance.  That year the owner raised his rent to $2,000 per month.  As lower Fifth Avenue was rejuvenated, the photographers and artists were forced to move on.

By 1988 the ground floor was home to Brownie's food shop and bakery and in 1991 Arc International, upscale furniture, operated from the third floor.   The seventh floor where Peller Brothers once manufacture cloaks was converted to two sprawling apartments in 1994.

Donald Trump's T Management modeling agency moved in in 2001 after Peter Guzy, a partner in Asfour Guzy Architects remodeled the space.  To eliminate a closed-in feeling, Guzy used half-in-thick glass walls.

photo by Beyond My Ken
The lower two floors have been home to J. Crew clothiers since 2005.  And for nearly 125 years the naked ladies of the sixth floor have stared down on an ever-changing Fifth Avenue.

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