Friday, May 10, 2019

The 1903 Oxley Enos Co. Building - 91-97 Seventh Avenue

On July 15, 1901 Architecture magazine applauded the arrival of electric lighting in the home and, in particular, one manufacturer of fixtures.  "In improvements of a mechanical nature, artificial lighting shows a rapid advancement in the past thirty years.  The advent of the Oxley & Enos Mfg. Co. marks the opening of a distinct epoch in the re-union of science in lighting and art in illumination."  Coincidentally, on the very same day the Record & Guide reported that the American Gas Fixture Co. had consolidated with the Oxley & Enos Manufacturing Co., to form The Oxley-Enos Co."

No doubt in anticipation of the merger, the firm had already laid plans for a larger plant.  The July issue of The Brickbuilder announced "Clinton & Russell are preparing plans for a six-story factory building to be erected at Seventh Avenue and 16th Street, for the Oxley & Enos Manufacturing Company."  

The partnership of architects Charles W. Clinton and William Hamilton Russell was only seven years old at the time.  The firm would go on to design scores of New York City structures.  For the Oxley Enos building, they focused on function rather than form--and yet produced a striking industrial take on the Romanesque Revival style.

The Clinton & Russell draftsman who produced this rendering in 1902 placed a top hat on the head of every pedestrian other than a policeman.  Architecture July 15, 1902 (copyright expired)

Faced almost entirely in red brick, the building's no-nonsense tripartite design wore little ornamentation.   The arched openings of the ground floor included entrances on 16th Street and none on the avenue.  Two show windows at the corner displayed Oxley Enos products being manufactured inside; but there was no showroom.  That was located in the fashionable Fifth Avenue shopping district, at the corner of 35th Street.

The structure's central section featured four-story arches; and a regimented arcade along the top floor sat above a projecting stone course.  A simple cornice with brick dentils ran long the roofline.

Architectural critic Russell Sturgis was both pleased and disappointed.  Writing in The Architectural Record in February 1904, he said it "eschews color and brings us back to a gravity of design."  But the arched Romanesque motif was ruined by the corner, ground floor windows, he felt.  "The two show-windows, of course, mar the effect."

The Architectural Record, February 1904 (copyright expired)

Named the Enos Company when founded in 1852, the firm originally produced gas lighting fixtures.  And while The Oxley Enos Company now focused on high-end electric lighting fixtures, it had wisely not yet given up gas fixtures.  An advertisement in 1903 explained:

We manufacture Artistic Gas and Electric Fixtures from original designs, and are always pleased to furnish sketches or estimate from Architects' designs.  Reproductions of all the old Models of the French Palaces in the Louis XIV, XV, XVI and Empire Styles.  

The Oxley Enos Co.'s showroom on Fifth Avenue.  Architecture magazine, 1904 (copyright expired)
Shockingly, in 1911 The Pottery & Glass Salesman announced that Oxley Enos Co. had filed a petition in bankruptcy.  If the firm had hoped to reorganize, that never came to pass. 

Instead, on November 13, 1912 The Sun reported that The Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company of St. Louis had leased Seventh Avenue factory building.  The annual rent was $17,000, or about $454,000 today.  The article noted "The building is to be entire remodelled for use as a cigarette factory."  The architectural firm, Francisco & Jacobus, focused their attention on the interior.  The only apparent change outside was the introduction of a Renaissance Revival style doorway on Seventh Avenue.

The new doorway was an attractive example of a quickly-waning style.

As Manhattan's male workforce went off to war, the cigarette factory looked to women to work in the factory.  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on June 13, 1918 was titled "Girls Wanted" and offered $9 weekly "to learners."  The jobs entailed 48 hours during the week and half a day on Saturday.  (The weekly wages would be equivalent to about $150 today.)  Another ad promised that the job was "light, interesting work" and "easily learned."

Within the year the British-American Tobacco Co. Ltd. had taken over the cigarette factory.  It too, needed female workers and its want ad in The Brooklyn Standard Union on September 28, 1919 was entitled "Girls Wanted" and now offered a $12 weekly starting wage.  The hours had not changed.

Only two years after taking over the building, British-American Tobacco rethought its manufacturing.  On February 22, 1921 The New York Herald explained that the firm "manufactured 50,000,000 cigarettes a week, not one of them smoked in America, as they were turned out exclusively for the export trade."  But now the firm realized that American production was costly.  "Its cigarettes for export hereafter will be manufactured in China," said the article.

In its place came The Evening Telegram newspaper owned by Frank A. Munsey,   Munsey signed a $50,000 per-year lease and set about to make "extensive improvements to adapt the building perfectly to its new purposes."  Included in the renovations were passenger elevators and "fine office apartments."  

Where cigarette-making machinery had been, Munsey brought in printing presses, stereotyping machinery, and outfitted an up-to-date composing room.  The exterior was left unchanged.

The Liggett & Meyers' Seventh Avenue entrance is evident in this 1921 photo.  The New York Herald, February 22, 1921 (copyright expired)
About 150 current and past employees of The Evening Telegram attended a farewell party to its old building on Saturday night, April 9, 1921.  "Miss Evelyn Scotney of the Metropolitan Opera Company sang 'Auld Lang Syne' and 'Comin' Through the Rye.'  Frisco, Miss Sophie Tucker and several others appeared," reported The New York Herald.

Interesting, in 1923 space was being subleased to the Socialist group The Labor Publication Society.  Run by notable labor and Socialist leaders like James H. Maurer and Max D. Danish, it published Labor Age here.

The Evening Telegram was sold by the family of Joseph Pulitzer in 1931 to Scripps Howard.  The name was changed to the World-Telegram.  Other printing plants were added over the years.  Another name change came in 1950 when the newspaper became the New York World-Telegram and Sun.  It survived until 1966.

A renovation of the old plant in 1976 resulted in stores on the street level and apartments above.  It was possibly at this time that a regrettable monochromatic coat of gray paint cloaked the contrast of red brick and white stone.

photographs by the author

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