Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Merwin, Hulbert Building - 26 West 23rd Street

The 27-foot wide residence erected by William P. Earle at No. 26 East 23rd Street in 1853 was intended for a wealthy family.   It would sit among the mansions of millionaires like Benjamin Nathan, William Schermerhorn, James Constable and Charles A. Baudouine.  It is unclear if Earle, who was both an architect and a builder, lived in the new house.  It was one of many properties his family would own for decades.

Whoever moved in, they came to an amicable parting of ways with one servant soon after.  She placed an advertisement in The New York Herald on April 3, 1854 that read: "Wanted--By a respectable young woman, a situation as a seamstress, in a private family.  She understands perfectly all kinds of plain sewing and is very handy with her needle.  Can be seen for two days at her present employer's, No. 26 West Twenty-third street."

The decade following the end of the Civil War saw significant change along West 23rd Street.  One-by-one the ground floors of once lavish homes were being converted to commercial spaces.  In 1875 the upper floors of No. 26 were being operated as a boarding house.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on September 10 that year offered "A suit of elegant rooms.  Also single rooms to let, at No. 26 West Twenty third street, with first class Board, to families and gentlemen."

The following year W. H. Lee was running his furniture store from the English basement level.  Before the decade ended a cast iron facade would replace the brownstone, completely disguising the fact that the property had once been an upscale home.

In January 1887 William P. Earle modernized the structure by hiring N. Le Brun & Son to do interior renovations, including installing a shaft for a new elevator.  Three months later, on April 1, Merwin, Hulbert & Co. signed a lease for "the entire store, building and premises known and distinguished as No. 26 West Twenty-third Street."  The annual rent reflected the bustling commercial thoroughfare that West 23rd Street had become.  The $11,500 per year rent would top $300,000 today.

The firm was formed in 1876 by Joseph Merwin and William and Milan Hulbert.  It designed and manufactured firearms as well as importing firearms and related goods.  By the time the company moved into the 23rd Street building, it had diversified into sporting goods--like the rabidly-popular bicycle.

The firm not only marketed guns, but sporting goods like Indian Clubs and Boxing Gloves.

Joseph Merwin died in 1888, only months after signing the lease.  On January 1, 1892 the company name was changed to Hulbert Brothers & Company.  

The bicycling craze, known as wheeling, swept the nation.  Club of "wheelmen" were organized and wheelers of both sexes filled the paths and drives of city parks.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

On August 3, 1888 Merwin, Hulbert & Co. took out a full-page ad in The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review announcing that a representative of Gormully & Jeffrey Mfg. Co. of Chicago, "the largest Cycle Manufacturers in this Country" would be in its showrooms for the next two weeks.  The purpose of his visit was "to illustrate practically to all wheelmen who will call, the Great Superiority of the 'American Cycles' over all others."  The announcement urged "Wheelmen, give us a call while Mr. Schaaf is here"

Bicycling was not an inexpensive hobby.  This "Roadster" cost the equivalent of nearly $2,400 today.  Good Roads magazine, July 1893, (copyright expired)
By the spring of 1896 Hulbert Brothers & Co. had branched out into sports apparel as well.  An advertisement in the Corland Evening Standard on March 7 that year not only marketed the Mesinger Rattan Saddle ("correct for stead riding resting or scorching") and the Hulbert Pneumatic Brake, but the Hulbert Bicycle Skirt.  The ad promised that the innovative apparel could "change from riding to walking length in a second."

The diversification may have had to do with shaky business.  The Financial Panic of 1893 had caused the failure of banks and businesses nationwide.  In 1894 Hulbert Brothers had declared bankruptcy and in 1896 closed its doors.

The store now became home to society stationers Dempsey & Carroll.  The company provided high-end calling cards, menus, dinner cards (the beautifully-inscribed table tents or cards which announced which guests sat where), invitations and other indispensable paper goods to Manhattan socialites.  On May 8, 1900 the New-York Tribune commented "For the rush of June weddings which New-Yorkers will witness this year Dempsey & Carroll, the well known artistic stationers have prepared several new forms of fashionable invitation cards."

The Evening Telegram, October 13, 1900 (copyright expired)

In fact, the following year, on October 13, 1901, the newspaper said "to many readers of The Tribune 'marriage' has come to be associated with the firm of Dempsey & Carroll...Few persons have any idea of the scope and magnitude of this business or of the many stage through which, for instance, a simple order for a visiting card goes, and the care given at every point to its artistic execution."

That year Dempsey & Carroll published an illustrated booklet that guided the novice through the intricacies of social etiquette related to cards and stationery.  It included "the correct forms for marriage invitations, card and announcements, [with] examples beautifully engraved being given from the immense number prepared every season."

A rather unusual tenant upstairs at the time was Woodbury, who seems to have cautiously avoided the title "doctor."  His advertisement in The Evening Telegram on October 13, 1900 assured the reader that he had "studied the skin for 30 years."  His expertise was not only the curing "pimples, blackheads and eruptions" (which were "a sure sign of wrong living"), but the patient's inherit personality flaws.  

"A pug nose means a pert, saucy nature--one quick to take offence; suppose Woodbury changes the pug to a prepossessing aquiline?  A mole on the right foot indicates wisdom.  If Woodbury removes the mole will you know less?"

In August 1902 the estate of William P. Earle leased the building "for a long term of years" at annual rent of $25,000--or around $735,000 today.   The tenant was the Hyde Exploring Expedition company, marketers of Native American crafts.

The buying agents for the Hyde Exploring Expedition Indian Goods store negotiated with Native Americans, like the Louisana Chitimacha tribe, which produced baskets sold in the 23rd Street store.   The firm also published The Papoose here, a magazine that not only advertised its products, but ran articles about Native American life, culture and arts.

While, arguably, The Hyde Exploring Expedition exploited the Native American craftsmen, most notably the women who wove the textiles and baskets; The Papoose lobbied for their better treatment.  And yet the inherent racism of the early 20th century seeped into even those laudable efforts.  In the April 1903 issue, for instance, and article entitled "Am I My Brother's Keeper?" said in part:

The negro was here of our own bringing.  What of the Indian?  His was the broad land by right of ownership, and the coming of the white man wrested the land from his grasp by right or might.  Our great and good government takes care of the negro, appoints him to office, places him in high positions, gives to him authority over his onetime masters.  What of the Indian?  What return is given his for the rights wrested from him?...He is subjected to the humiliation of receiving alms at the hands of his captors.

Prices for authentic Native American goods were not cheap.  Navajo blankets in 1903 were priced at as much as $50; more than $1,400 today.  Baskets were more affordable, going for about $5.

Moccasins were marketed as "The Ideal House Slipper."  The Papoose, May 1903 (copyright expired)

The Hyde Exploring Expedition would remain in the building until 1907 when the Earle estate leased it to Ferrin & Co.  Run by Louis V. Ferrin and Louis A. Doullet, they sublet spaces to several tenants, such as the Van Orden Corset Co. and the Perrin Glove Store.

New-York Tribune, October 13 1907 (copyright expired)
The Perrin Glove Store provided ladies with the various types of gloves necessary for different social events.  In the summer of 1908 a pair of "20-button silk gloves" were priced at $2.25 (nearly $62 today); while 16-button gloves were slightly less expensive at $1.75.   The store also offered stockings: "Women's fine thread Silk black, tan and colors, double sole, heel and toe" for $2.25.

Both women's and men's winter wardrobes required furs and in 1910 the Hudson Bay Importing Co. moved in.   Founded in 1890, the company proclaimed "We sell furs and furs only."  

Because of that, the selling season for Hudson Bay Importing Company ran from about September through January.  As the selling season drew to an end in its new home, the firm announced its "clearance sale" on January 15, 1911.  "Everything must go and will go, and is sure to go.  We carry no furs over; $500,000 of the finest furs at clearance sale prices."

Included in the sale were "minks, sables, fishers, raccoon, ermine, fox, silver fox, &c., &c."  Still left in stock to be liquidated were a few Caracul Coats, "52-inch garments--the latest Parisian models--lined with heavy brocade; jewelled buttons" and Black Fox Sets, described as the "most magnificent shawl or animal scarf and beautiful pillow muff."  The coats had been priced earlier at $150 (about $4,000 today) and were now half price.

The store was restocked for the coming season by the end of summer.  A Hudson Bay Company ad in The Evening Telegram on September 24 announced "An Exhibition of Furs (new models) at their New Building 26 West 23d Street."

The firm remained here until December 1918 when it, like so many high-end retailers, moved northward along Fifth Avenue.  Its advertisement in The Evening Telegram that month announced its entire $650,000 stock would be sold for $325,000 in a three-day sale.

The building's owners, now Daby & Co., Inc., hired architect Harry Hurwitz to completely remodel the architecturally dated structure.  His plans called for "addition of one story, mezzanine balcony and general alterations."  The "general alterations" included an entire new front.

Completed in 1920, the $20,000 in renovations resulted in a clean, white terra cotta facade, now six stories tall.  Vast expanses of glass flooded the interior spaces.  Hurwitz gave the building a neo-Tudor touch with a crenellated parapet and heraldic terra cotta shield.

New tenants included the French Merchandise Company, which took the third floor in May 1920, and James M. Shaw, pottery, glass and china dealer.  Shaw's was typical of the stores along the block which had become the center of the china and glass district.  Next door, at No. 18, for instance, Charles Hall, Inc. took over the entire building the same year for his "china, glassware and general household goods," store.

Among the best known of these firms was Theodore Haviland & Co.  Founded by American importer David Haviland in the 1830's, it expanded into manufacturing when David moved to France in 1842.  The American set up his factory in Limoges, turning out high-end porcelain products which he shipped back to American to be sold by his brothers.

In 1891 Charles Edward Haviland and his brother, Theodore, had parted ways.  Two years later Theodore Haviland began his own firm, known as Theodore Haviland, Limoges.  The siblings and their respective companies were bitter rivals until Charles's death in 1921.

Theodore Haviland & Co. was in No. 26 at least by 1926 and would remain here for decades catering to the carriage trade, even while other china stores moved up Fifth Avenue.  Finally, in 1951, it too relocated.

The "H" in the shield was most likely added after Haviland moved into the building.
The 23rd street block was no longer a fashionable shopping area, as reflected in the new tenant at No. 26.  On February 23, 1952 Billboard magazine announced "Mills Sales Company, after 26 years, has decided to move uptown to the heart of the novelty and toy district.  Their new home will be located at 26 West 23d Street (fourth floor) where they will occupy larger quarters."  

Mills Sales Company dealt in cheap "novelties, gifts, sundries, toys and housewares."  It would remain here for several years, advertising in Billboard on June 23, 1956 as "Cut Rate Wholesalers since 1916."  That ad touted "magic rain bonnets in plastic pouch."  A dozen would cost the buyer $1.50.

A renovation completed in 1986 resulted in offices above the ground floor store.  Whatever Harry Hurwitz's store front was in his 1920 re-do, there is nothing left of it today.  Nevertheless, the surprising and romantic terra cotta commercial building survives essentially intact since then.

photographs by the author

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