Thursday, June 27, 2019

An Elegant "Taxpayer"--142 East 74th Street

The paired central windows on the upper Lexington Avenue side were altered in 1935.

The Italianate-style house at the southwest corner of 74th Street and Lexington Avenue had stood since 1875 when the Berstrum Realty Corporation purchased it in 1923.  The firm no doubt hoped to acquire additional, abutting properties and erect a substantial structure.  So in the meantime architect Charles B. Meyers was commissioned to design a "taxpayer" on the site.

Taxpayers, as they still are today, were small structures erected simply to provide enough income to cover the annual real property taxes.  Often, because they were deemed temporary, they were built cheaply.  But that would not be the case with No. 142 East 74th Street.

Meyers designed a pretty, two-story Colonial Revival structure with three stores at street level and offices above.  Faced in white iron-flecked brick, it was handsomely decorated with terra cotta elements that hearkened to the country's architectural roots.  The entrance to the second floor, capped with an arched transom, was placed at the southern end of the Lexington Avenue side.

The large openings of the second floor were framed by terra cotta pilasters.  They upheld entablatures crowned by swan-necked pediments which enbraced engaged urns.  The simple cornice was interrupted by a parapet decorated with a blind balustrade, swags and cartouches.   Classical urns stood sentry along the roof line.

Not long after the building was completed, the owners apparently abandoned any plans for a larger structure.  On July 9, 1925 the New York Evening Post reported "The Schulte Cigar Stores Company has purchased from the Berstrum Realty Company 142 East Seventy-fourth street, southwest corner of Lexington avenue, a two-story taxpayer."

While a cigar store apparently moved into one of the storefronts, the upstairs became home to the Medico Distribution Co., drug and chemical wholesalers.  

In 1934 a renovation altered the center windows of the second floor on Lexington, and it was probably at this time that the original three stores were converted to four.

By 1944 Farber-Wittman, Inc. operated its construction firm here.   Not only did the firm erect apartment complexes, but often acted as the managing agent as well.  The firm was on the second floor at least through 1947.

At street level shops came and went.  Although the location never officially had a Lexington Avenue address, tenants routinely used the address of 1043-A Lexington.

One particularly interesting retail tenant was Edythe Meserand who had begun her radio career in the press department of the National Broadcasting Company in 1926.   By 1952 when she retired she had become a major force in radio and one of the first female news executives.

Retirement did not slow her down and Meserand founded an advertising agency and opened a unique shop in No. 142 East 74th Street.  In 1956 The New Yorker wrote "If you have a message that you'd like to get off your chest but are too shy to come right out with it, the Little Shop of Edythe Meserand, 1034-A Lexington Avenue, will bake it into a round enamel-on copper ashtray--and in your own handwriting."

While the Little Shop produced novelty ashtrays, Marion Williams ran her upscale dress shop in one of the stores, and by January 1959 New Products was advertising "25 different salt and pepper sets."

It is unclear exactly when barber Paul Molé moved his operation, first opened in 1913, into the second floor, but he was here in 1964 when he received national attention.

On November 27 that year The New York Times reported "Parents who are wondering whether their youngsters should be wearing Beatle haircuts, crew-cuts or 'Oliver' bangs will receive advice this morning on the 'Today' show.  Paul Molé, a barber, raconteur and physician during World War II, will discuss these haircuts and the psychology for getting youngsters quietly into the barber's chair and out."

Fifty-five years later the Paul Molé barbershop still engulfs the second floor.  In the meantime, the ground floor shops continued to see a variety of tenants.  In 1972 two print shops, Hartwell Magicolor Printing and The Printers V Inc. had spaces and by 1974 A Touch of Whimsy offered original copper wire sculptures by Aryeh Stollman here.

The 1980's saw Pillowry renting space, a shop devoted to "pillows made of pure wool, kilims from Persia, Afghanistan, Turkey [and] textiles--needlepoint, old silk, damask and lace."  Another of the shops was home to Asena, an apparel boutique which carried items like Paris-based Japanese designer Kenzo's silk broadcloth jacket in 1989, priced at $335 (about double that amount today).

Harry Schule opened his antiques shop, Cedric & Company, here in 1991.  The Times wrote "Mr. Schule plans to change the contents of the shop periodically.  'Each change will be according to a theme,' he said.  'One time the shop will be Regency, another time Art Deco.  I am currently designing a line of mirrored Venetian furniture with an 18-century look that will also go here, too.'"

Che Che operated its handbag shop here by 2003.  Where to Wear New York Shopping Guide described it as a "brightly lit little glass box of a shop" and said "Che Che represents one Hong Kong family's full-on fascination with handbags.  From elegant evening clutches to fanciful sacs with hand-painted mermaids or zebras, every item is a beguiling mix of whimsy and function."

Today the four storefronts continue to house boutique-sized shops.  The Charles B. Meyers's little Colonial-style building, intended to be temporary, survives as a delightful presence on the busy avenue.

photographs by the author

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