Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The 1905 Street & Smith Building - 79-89 Seventh Avenue

In 1855 journalists Francis Scott Street and Francis Shubael Smith took out a $40,000 loan (a princely $1.2 million today) in order to purchase the newspaper they worked for, The New York Weekly Dispatch.  Four years later, when the loan was paid off, they changed the name of the publication to Street & Smith's New York Weekly.  A feature was serials--stories published in weekly chapters--which all but guaranteed repeat readers.  Many of those stories were written by Francis S. Smith himself.

In 1880 the firm made its previously-published serials available as popular  paperback "dime novels."  Their success prompted Street & Smith to introduce series of novels the following year, each based on a single hero--Buffalo Bill, Deadeye Dick, Nick Carter and Diamond Dick among them.

By 1904 the firm had diversified further, now publishing pulp magazines like The Popular, Tip Top Weekly, Top-Notch Magazine and the New Nick Carter Weekly.  That year, on February 20, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted "Street & Smith, publishers, 238 William st., may erect a new printing the northeast corner of 7th av and 15th st."  The article noted that architect Henry F. Kilburn was working on the plans.

The journal's caution in noting the firm "may erect" a building was well founded.  In June the previous year Street & Smith had purchased a large lot on East 33rd Street and hired Kilburn to design an 11-story plant; but the project fizzled.  The Record & Guide, however, felt this location was better suited.  "This new site of Street & Smith on 7th av is directly in line with the Pennsylvania terminal, having easy and short transportation to that assured improvement."

Construction was well underway by September and Engineering News placed the cost at $225,000; more than $6.5 million in today's dollars.  The hulking seven-story red brick structure was completed early in 1905.  Critic Russell Sturgis was tepidly pleased with the design.  Writing in the September issue of the Architectural Record he said although it was not "exceptionally happy in design," it "has great merit."

Critic Russell Sturgis pointed out the fire-escape, "so properly called for by our laws," as being "treated as an architectural feature."  Architectural Record, September 1905 (copyright expired)

Sturgis was especially critical of the white stone entrance porch at the northern end of the Seventh Avenue elevation which, without a counterpart, left the design out of balance.  There was, he said, "a great need of something to echo or repeat the note of that porch at the other end of the front."  But the critic was placed that Kilburn had broken up the mass of the wide surfaces with protruding piers.  "The presence of the piers is a most fortunate thing."  Nevertheless he pointed out that "the corner pier is a little too much broken up" by the windows.
Architectural Record, September 1905 (copyright expired)

From the Seventh Avenue plant Street & Smith published an array of weekly magazines and inexpensive novels.  Its Smith's Magazine targeted the female reader with "beautiful art studies" in full-color pages; and The Popular Magazine for Boys and 'Old Boys,' published sports stories.  And then in 1916, the first of its sensational crime and adventure magazines, Detective Story appeared.  (It was, incidentally, the first detective fiction magazine in the world.)  The printing presses on the second floor were in operation 24-hours a day.

Two employees tackle a mountain of paper in the background of this 1906 photo of one office space.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
The rationing of paper by the War Industries Board severely affected the firm's output during World War I.  Once its stock was used up production was greatly diminished.   And so in 1918 Street & Smith scrambled to fill back orders by increased production made possible by new, modern presses.

A Trip to Mars was published in 1915.

The firm assured its readers "We have just about caught up now, thanks to some new machinery we have installed which turns out paper-covered books very fast.  Therefore, you can get a very good assortment of the S. & S. novels from your news dealer, including the famous Horatio Alger books."  It added "That boy you know will be mighty glad to have you make him a present of one or two of the Alger books."

In addition to Alger, Street & Smith published works by authors who would go on to fame, like Isaac Asimov, Theodore Dreiser, Paul Ernst, Jack London and Upton Sinclair.  Recognized illustrators like N. C. Wyeth, J. C. Leyendecker and Harold Winfield Scott, just to name three, worked on the various publications.

Workers in the shipping department wore ties and vests.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New-York

A more academic work was the 1919 History of the World War.  Street & Smith advertised "The most portentous crisis in the history of the human family has just passed.  The World War was conceived in greed and will be consummated in justice.  It will prove a blessing to mankind, because it spells emancipation to countless unborn generation from enslaving political and social evils...Therefore, we ask you to consider History of the World War by Thomas R. Best which has been written from the American standpoint.  It is purely history--not vituperation."  The volume was priced at 25 cents.

Typesetters worked in much neater and seemingly more organized surroundings.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The post-war years were profitable for Street & Smith, and in 1922 it expanded to the east with an abutting building on 15th Street.  

In 1928 the firm took made an innovative marketing move by hiring the Ruthrauff & Ryan Advertising Agency to produce a radio program to promote Detective Story Magazine.  Called "The Detective Story Hour," it was introduced and narrated by a sinister voice known as "The Shadow."  His tag line became familiar to radio listeners across the country:  "The Shadow knows...and you too shall know if you listen as Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine relates for you the story of..." whatever story was featured that week.

As it turned out, The Shadow's character was so successful that it detracted from the Detective Story sales.  Street & Smith decided the best way to handle the problem was to introduce a new magazine featuring The Shadow.

Top-Notch targeted young male readers.  August 1931

The 1930's were the apex of Street & Smith's success.  It published 35 different magazines in 1934 and had an editorial staff of a dozen.  But as the decade drew to a close, interest in pulp magazines was on the decline.  Starting in 1940 the firm began replacing the discontinued pulp publications with comic books, like The Shadow, Super-Magician Comics, Bill Barnes/Ace Ace, and Doc Savage Comics.

But the heydays were over.  In January 1941 The New York Sun reported that Street & Smith had sold the West 15th Street property.  And then, on December 22, 1943 the same newspaper reported that the firm had "disposed of the last of their holdings."  Because it no longer needing the entire hulking printing plant, the article said "The publishers will continue occupancy in their present location, taking a lease of four floors."

The executive offices moved out of the building, prompting renowned syndicated columnist Walter Winchell to explain (while getting the facts slightly wrong), "Street and Smith, the famed publisher (who have been at 79 Seventh Avenue since 1880) are moving back to civilization at 500 Fifth."

The panel above the entablature of the portico no doubt originally announced the name of Street & Smith.

In 1961 the former printing plant was taken over by Hudson Vitamins.  The first floor was used mostly for the packing and shipping departments; the second for offices and the research laboratories, manufacturing was done on the third through fifth floors.  Along with additional manufacturing space on the sixth floor were the bottling and inspection departments. A seventh floor addition, completed in 1968, was for office and storage space.

Hudson Vitamin Products ran this advertisement for its allergy pills in numerous magazines in 1972.
Hudson Vitamin Products left at the end of the 1970's when plans were laid to convert the upper section to apartments, just three per floor, and a sprawling retail space at ground level.  The alterations were completed in 1980.  

Home furnishings retailer Jensen & Lewis moved into the store space and would be a familiar presence for decades.  It lasted at the address through 2014.

In the meantime, despite its several incarnations, almost nothing has changed to the exterior appearance of the Street & Smith building and its off-balance entrance.

photographs by the author


  1. I've sent the link about this article about this very important building in the history of fiction and magazine publishing out to numerous groups, news blogs and individuals. Thanks!!!

    1. Great! I am sure few people are aware of what the building was and its role in American popular culture.