Friday, May 24, 2019

Soon to be Lost - The Rohe & Brothers Building, 527-531 West 36th Street

photograph by Renee Stanley

In 1872 the massive Manhattan Market opened on New York's West Side.  Engulfing the block between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues, from 34th and 35th Streets, it was the largest market building in the world--offering fresh meats (a butchery was on site), fish and produce.  It was a welcomed neighbor for Rohe & Brother, which had erected its sprawling provision packing house and lard refinery at No. 533 through 541 West 36th Street two years earlier.  Simultaneously an architecturally matching warehouse and stables building had been erected on West 35th Street.

Although a block apart, the main plant (center) and the warehouse (left) were designed to match. from the collection of the Library of Congress

In 1897 The National Provisioner noted that the packing and refinery property "has been added to a number of times...The building is a substantial one of brick, and extends from 533-543 West Thirty-sixth street, to 534-540 West Thirty-seventh street.  The abattoir [butchery] is located at the foot of Fortieth Street, North River, and occupies four lots."  Charles Rohe had died in 1888 and his son, Charles, Jr., became a member of the firm.  Charles Sr.'s other son, Julius, by now supervised the packing house and the manufacturing of goods.  Florian's sons, Albert and Oswald Rohe, worked in the store and main office.

Florian Rohe as he appeared in 1897.  The National Provisioner, January 30, 1897 (copyright expired)

The National Provisioner noted that "the secret of the success of Rohe & Bro. is the splendid business ability which characterizes its movements and the bond of fraternity which exists between employees and employers."  The Rohes recognized the importance of good employee relations and a contented staff.   A separate article in the journal reported on the 11th annual employee ball.  Many, if not most, of the factory workers were German immigrants and the event was a brilliant change to their day-to-day lives.  "The entire office staff of the house of Rohe & Bro., from the office boy to their traveler and salesman, was present, while the large force of employees, numbering many hundreds, together with their wives and sweethearts, were delighted participants in the night's proceedings, all actuated by a loyal regard for the interests of the firm."

On January 19, 1898, The Butchers' Advocate and Market Journal reported that year's ball, held in the Lexington Avenue Opera House.  "When the orchestra, led by Professor Rode, started the grand march, about 300 couples were on the floor, and these quickly fell in behind Mr. Albert Rohe and wife, who led the army of gay marchers through a series of evolutions more beautiful than any ever seen before in this city."

Two months later, on March 5, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that George D. Bogert had sold the "old buildings" at Nos. 527 through 531 West 36th Street to Rohe & Brother for $24,750; just under $860,000 today.  The property abutted the main lard refinery and packing plant and The New York Times noted "the buyer will erect a factory on the site."

That would not happen, however, until 1902.  On March 29 that year The National Provisioner reported "Rohe & Brother now have their specifications in for their new packing house at 527-531 West 36th Street."  The firm had hired the architectural firm of Werner & Windolph to design the structure, which was projected to cost about $1.8 million in today's money.

Somewhat surprising was the architectural style of the new two-story addition.  It may have been that Charles Rohe (his uncle, Florian, was deceased by now) directed Werner & Windolph to match the old factory; or perhaps the architects themselves chose to meld the two.  Either way, the design, out of style for years, seamlessly carried on the design of the 1870 Rohe & Brother building.  Only the delicate corbel table that ran below the cornice broke ranks with the original structure.

Upon the building's completion the Rohes incorporated "the packinghouse firm of Rohe & Brothers," as reported in Industrial Refrigeration in April 1903.  The article mentioned "The company will do a general meat packing business."  It was an interesting and unusual move.  By 1908 there were three corporation names.  Charles was listed as head of Rohe & Brother;  Albert as head of Rohe Bros.; and William of Rohe & Bro.  All three, legally separate firms, were listed as "large refiners and provisions."

The sons of the firm's founders never abandoned its interest in employee contentedness.  On June 29, 1904 The Butchers' Advocate and Market Journal reported on the employee summer outing at Bachmann's Pavilion on Staten Island.  "How those Rohe & Brothers' employees did enjoy themselves!  They danced and bowled and ran races and absorbed the product of Mr. Bachmann with a strenuousness that would make a lazy man tired just to look at."

The two-story building at Nos. 527-531 held the company's offices.  Working past nightfall could be risky, given the sketchy Hell's Kitchen location and that threat came to pass on the night of January 22, 1913.  The Elmira Star-Gazette reported "Five men dashed up to Rohe & Brothers' wholesale meats, provisions and oils plant at 527-531 West 36th street, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, last night in a taxicab and at the point of revolvers held back two inside and two outside employees of the firm."  The Morning Call of Patterson, New Jersey entitled its article "Wild West Game in New York" and began "The west side of Manhattan, where automobile holdups and robberies are not by any means unknown, experienced last night its most spectacular Wild West holdup and robbery about 7:30 o'clock."

Charles Rohe, Jr. was the principal of the firm following Florian Rohe's death. Empire State Notables, 1914 (copyright expired) 
While the employees were held at gunpoint, one of the robbers jumped over the wire cashier's cage and snatched up $700 in cash, a considerable $18,300 today.  The gang escape in the waiting taxicab and although the four employees rushed out in pursuit, they were unable to get the license plate number in the darkness.  The Elmira Star-Gazette said "None of the employees could give much of a description of the robbers, further than that all were 'tough looking,' and all wore caps."

In 1914 Rohe & Brother was, according to Chicago's The Day Book, the "largest New York provision packer."  The firm was, for instance, the major United States exporter of lard to Venezuela.  

In 1930 the Rohes sold off all the firm's property in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood except for Nos. 527-531 West 36th Street.  The Sun explained on May 6 that year that the building was still used as Rohe & Brother's executive offices.  But that would not last long, either.

Architect William H. Fuhrer renovated the building in 1936 for the bottling plant of milk dealer Hershey Farms, Inc.   It was run by Max Doner, who chose not to use union employees for its delivery drivers.  It was a daring decision at a time when unions used strong-arm tactics to force businesses to comply with their demands.

A 1940 tax photograph reveals the ground floor changes for Hersey Farms, including an architecturally disparate pedimented entrance.  The main Rohe & Brother plant has been demolished.  photo via NYC Department of Records & Information Services.
On March 19, 1942 nine labor leaders, involved with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen & Helpers of America, Local 445, were indicted on extortion.   The New York State prosecutor charged that between December 1935 and November 1940 the defendants "feloniously, wrongfully, willfully and extorsively obtained the sum of $7,125.00" from Max Doner "by the wrongful use of force and fear induced by threats" to injure both him personally and the property of Hershey Farms, and to induce strikes.

Hershey Farms remained here until 1959 when the building was once again renovated, this time for a storage warehouse.  In 1970 it was converted for use by Scheuman Lumber.   A later occupant was Steven & Francine's Complete Automotive Repair Inc. who shared the building with its owner, the Convention Center Hardware & Supplies, LLC. 

By 2012 the once gritty district had been discovered by developers and the upscale Hudson Yards project, formerly unthinkable, was on the table.   The old Rohe & Brother  building sat within the four-acre Hudson Park and Boulevard project--Phase II of the larger Hudson Yards development.

The buildings at the right of this photo have all been demolished, stranding the Rohe & Brothers building as in a wasteland.  photo via Commercial Observer, November 2012.
Faced with eventual eminent domain Convention Center Hardware and Supplies placed it on the market in November 2012 for $10 million.

Any architectural historian who might pass the vacant and boarded up building today would date its construction at around 1870; not knowing that its anachronistic design was based on its 32-year old next-door neighbor.  But they would have to be quick.  The unlikely survivor has a short life expectancy.

many thanks to Renee Stanley for prompting this post

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