The old five-story building at No. 377 Fourth Avenue (renamed Park Avenue South in 1959) was purchased by William W. Heroy, president of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co., early in October 1912. His intentions for the property had nothing to do with glass, however.
One month later, on November 5, The Sun reported "Still another silk house has decided to join the ranks of those who are making Fourth avenue one of the greatest textile centres in the world." The article explained that The Hartley Silk Manufacturing Company had leased "the eight story building which will be erected at 377 Fourth avenue by William H. Heroy." The Real Estate Record & Guide added that the 21-year lease "dates from the completion of the structure."
The 22-foot wide plot architect Henry P. Knowles was given to work with had originally been intended for a private house. On February 22, 1913 the Record & Guide entitled an article "The Narrowest Building in the Silk Trade" and said it would be "the narrowest mercantile structure put up since the reconstruction of Fourth avenue began." Knowles took advantage of the skinny proportions to emphasize the versatility of his tripartite composition.
The Record & Guide explained that the exceptionally-high cast iron storefront "was required by the tenant, the Hartley Silk Manufacturing Company." Mixing Beaux Arts and Arts & Crafts elements, Knowles contrasted the white South Dover marble facade with tapestry brick in the central section, where mossy-green Arts & Crafts tiles lined up in the spandrels. A French-style balcony fronted the eighth floor, and a stone balustrade crowned the roof line. The upper floors would each be an ample 10-feet high.
|Knowles released this rendering early in 1913. Real Estate Record & Guide, February 22, 1913 (copyright expired)|
Hartley Silk subleased some floors. Initial tenants were Stern & Pohly, silk manufacturers; the European & Asiatic Importing Co., Inc., and the Champlain Silk Mills, "spinners and dyers of silk yarns and silk noils." The firms used the building as their salesrooms; their mills being located in New Jersey or upstate New York.
|Silk Manufacturing and Its Problems, 1913 (copyright expired)|
The February 1914 issue Silk magazine commented on several developments in the building. "A handsome private office for the use of Robert E. Kizer is being added to the well-appointed suite now occupied as a place of business by the European and Asiatic Importing Co.," it said; and added "The Champlain Silk Mills are now well established in their new offices at 377 Fourth Avenue." But a separate, single-sentence article was shocking:
The Hartley Silk Mfg. Co., which operates at Sidney and Trumansburg, N.Y., and Towanda, Pittson and Topton, Pa., with salesrooms at 377 Fourth Avenue, has gone into bankruptcy.
The move was voluntary, apparently to give the firm the opportunity to reorganize. That was realized the following year after the firm's creditors settled for 75 percent on the dollar. The new organization went by the name of the Hartley Silk Co. and continued on leasing and managing the Fourth Avenue building.
|American Silk-Journal, April 1914 (copyright expired)|
By 1916 other silk firms sharing the building were Berg, Garsson & Company, Lion Silk Mills, and the Progressive Silk Mills. But one tenant was noticeably unrelated. Henry Alkan signed a lease that year under Henry Alkan & Co. He and his brother Milton moved their Standard Comb Manufacturing Company into the fourth floor. The factory would be the scene of terror three years later.
William J. Meyerriecks had just been discharged from the U.S. Navy after being at sea for 19 months. Now in his civilian clothes, he walked up Fourth Avenue on February 3, 1919 on a job search. Just as he neared No. 377 Fourth Avenue a massive explosion blew out the plate glass windows of the Standard Comb factory, large shards crashing to the sidewalk on the opposite side of the thoroughfare.
Meyerriecks looked up to a scene of chaos. The New-York Tribune reported that "Flames were licking from the windows," and The Sun said "A man appeared at one of the windows, was embraced by a curling flame and slipped down and inside."
The former sailor ran through the adjoining building to the rear yard where he pulled down the fire escape and clambered up. The Sun said he climbed five stories "in about three shakes of a cat's tail." At that level in No. 377 were two hysterical, screaming girls. He urged them not to jump, that he would save them. And then he performed an astounding feat of heroism.
The New-York Tribune reported "The gap between the buildings was too wide to jump. It was spanned by a cable of a dozen or fifteen telephone wires. Meyerriecks swung out on the cable and hauled himself across, hand over hand." He put the arms of 18-year-old Ida Erenburg around his neck and started back along the telephone cables.
By now firefighter Otto Zischka was in the other building and took the girl. The Sun continued "Then Meyerriecks hitched back again, his palms blistered by the tear of rough insulation, his shoulders aching under the unaccustomed strain, and the other girl launched herself at him, and gripped him tightly." Fireman Zischka grabbed Elsie Distell from his shoulders on the other side.
Meanwhile, both Henry and Milton Alkan refused to leave until the last minute. The Sun reported that they were both "burned because they stayed behind and helped women employees to the stairs and did their best to stop the panic."
Several of the nearly two dozen employees were burned and one almost instantly killed. Bookkeeper Michael Levine had been blown against a wall by the force of the blast. The impact knocked him out and he was later "found burned to death where he had fallen."
Employees blamed the explosion on the soldering of metal parts to the celluloid. It was not the flames that injured 29-year-old firefighter William, Schalle, but the inhalation of toxins released by the burning celluloid. He died at Bellevue Hospital two days later.
The following year in October the Fire Department gave medals of heroism to two of the firefighters for rescues, including those of Ida Erenberg and Elsie Distell.
While the building continued to house mainly silk firms, by 1923 Breezy Stories magazine was being published here. It was the first of the book and magazine firms who would later essentially take over the structure.
In 1930 the second floor was leased by brothers Edward J. and Charles O'Malley for their used book store. O'Malley's Book Store, popularly known simply as O'Malley's, would become a destination and resource for book lovers nationwide.
By then the silk trade had moved on. In 1930 J. W. Cooper & Co. marketed its Gym Boat from its offices here. The firm's sole product, the device was essentially what we would call a rowing machine today.
|Workouts were best done in a shirt and tie in 1930. The Rotarian, November 1930|
O'Malley's was visited by a human interest writer in 1953. His August 20 article in the Greenfield, Maine Recorder Gazette called it a "perfectly wonderful bookstore. It is a cozy second-story shop lined with thousands of books, most of which have long since been out of print." The writer assured that if the book you wanted was not on the shelves--"and it probably is"--Charles O'Malley would get it. "If you asked him for the Book of Kell, he'd likely have it in the shop for you in a couple of days."
O'Malley related the story of a "large TV tycoon" who had visited a few days earlier. He wanted only books printed prior to 1897--the copyright expiration date at the time. The bookseller lamented the customer wanted the vintage stories only so he could plagiarize them into television shows.
Publishing firms were taking over the building by the time of that interview. Jubilee: A Magazine of the Church and Her People was here at least by 1957 and would remain for decades. Later Thorson's Publishers, Inc. called the address home.
Edward J. O'Malley, Jr. died of a heart attacked in February 1970. The bookstore held more than 50,000 volumes at the time. The New York Times writer Alden Whitman wrote on February 19 "Over the years thousands of bibliophiles climbed the creaky stairs or rode the uncertain elevator to O'Malley's to browse or buy, certain that the stocky, ruddy-complexioned, blue-eyed Mr. O'Malley had the book they wanted or could acquire it somewhere, some how." Whitman went on to say the bookseller seldom disappointed his customers, who included "Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thornton Wilder, P. G. Wodehouse, Frank Sullivan, S. J. Perelman and Geoffrey Hellman."
It was the end of a chapter. Charles O'Malley, now 62, said he no longer cared to carry on the business alone. "I think I'm going to sell out. It's just too much for one man alone."
Throughout the rest of the century the varied tenant list included the Financial Marketing Group, Inc.; Advertising Services ABS; and the headquarters of the National Bowling Association, all here in the 1980's.
The Harley Silk Company's vast cast iron storefront has long ago been obliterated, and the rooftop balustrade disappeared years ago. Sadly years of grime disguises the white marble and nearly obscures the wonderful green Arts & Crafts tiles of what was once a startlingly skinny structure.
photographs by the author
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