Monday, July 22, 2019

The Lost Charles Schumann Sons Store - 716 Fifth Avenue

The Architectural Record, May 1912 (copyright expired)

In the first years of the 20th century the family of Andrew C. Zabriskie lived in the brownstone-fronted home at No. 716, one door away from West 56th Street.  Next door was the imposing corner mansion of wealthy cabinetmaker and decorator Charles Baudouine.  

At the time the commercial section of Fifth Avenue was still mainly below 34th Street.  Charles William Schumann's upscale jewelry store, for instance, was located in the Mortimer Building at the corner of 22nd Street.  But before long, one-by-one the homeowners along Millionaires Row would be pushed northward.

In 1910 the Zabriskie house (with the second floor bay), was the last house on the block still unaltered for business.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In his 1891 book Art and Gems, Charles William Schumann took the opportunity to boast about his opulent store and business.  "Messrs. Schumann's Sons carry at all times a superb stock of diamonds, watches and jewelry...They cater to the very best class of trade and carry none but strictly fine goods.  They number a large proportion of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families of New York among their regular customers."

Charles Schumann died on November 4, 1903 at around 78-years old.  His three sons, Charles, Jr., George H. and William took over the operation of the store.  Although William was disabled, using a wheelchair to get around, he played a role in the business for several years.

As posh art galleries, jewelry shops and restaurants invaded the mansion district, Charles Schumann's Sons followed suit.  In April 1910 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Andrew C. Zabriskie had leased his high-stooped home to Charles Schumann's Sons.  Included in the deal was another house at No. 2 West 56th Street--effectually forming an L-shaped plot.

The New-York Tribune explained on June 19 "The five story building on the Fifth avenue frontage of the plot will be replaced by a building for the exclusive use of the lessees.  The store and basement of the 56th street house are to be connected with the Fifth avenue structure, and its upper floors will be used for living purposes."

It did not take the Schumann brothers long to act on their project.  Within a month of signing the lease they had hired the architectural firm of Maynicke & Franke to design "a two story marble building at No. 716 5th av." and to renovate No. 2 West 56th Street around the corner.  Maynicke & Franke was well-known for its commercial designs; but this jewel of a structure would be like nothing they had done before.  In fact it would be like nothing in New York City.

The Art Nouveau style had first swept Europe in the 1890's.  Its sinuous flowing lines, inspired by natural forms like vines and flowers, found its way into all areas of decorative arts--from jewelry, textiles and pottery to furniture and architecture.  New Yorkers mostly shied away from the full-blown Art Nouveau structures like those found in Paris.   But now Maynicke & Franke would create an exception.

Writing in The Architectural Record in May 1912, critic C. Matlack Price preferred the American translation of the style's name.  "Departing from the traditions of earlier French architecture, and exemplifying with remarkable accuracy of feeling the type known as 'Modern French' is a jeweler's shop at 716 Fifth avenue, designed by Maynicke and Franke.  It is difficult, indeed, to realize that a facade so thoroughly and essentially 'Modern French' could have been produced in this country, for every detail is in accord with the feeling of that much-discussed and much-abused type of architecture."

To be sure, the Charles Schumann Sons building could have been plucked from the boulevards of Paris.  The ground floor show window, slightly curved at the upper corners, was divided by a wave of bronze which erupted into a sweeping glass marquee reminiscent of swirling can-can dancer's skirt.

Directly above it an undulating iron railing sat upon a marble balcony which fronted a commodious set of French doors.  They were crowned by an ambitious arched pediment.  The French motif was completed by two marble urns that perched upon paneled pedestals.

The store had barely relocated into its new home before it was the intended target of two clever thieves and the scene of considerable excitement.  At around 3:00 on July 12, 1912 two men walked into the jewelry store of Dreicer & Co.  The New York Times described one as "wearing a shepherd plaid suit and carrying a silver-headed cane" and the other as "less distinctively dressed, but carrying the same kind of a cane."  One man asked to see rings while the other looked over necklaces.  "A minute or two after they had gone," reported the newspaper, "the clerk who had been showing the necklaces found that two of them were missing."

Detectives were called in.  Armed with descriptions, they "hailed the nearest unoccupied taxicab and ordered speed."  They canvassed the avenue until the two culprits were spotted.  In a possible attempt to avoid being followed, the men ducked into the Central Park Menagerie, where they casually looked at the animals.  But then one made a critical mistake.  "Finally they saw one take a necklace out of his pocket and weigh it in his hand."

The detectives followed the pair down Fifth Avenue to Charles Schumann's Sons.  After waiting a few minutes, they followed them in.  "They found the pair looking over a tray of rings and placed them both under arrest."  When one protested, the policemen asked one how much money he had--the answer was $14.  "Well, how do you come to be buying $500 rings?"

The man was searched and had on him two necklaces, "one of platinum and pearls, worth $375, and the other of platinum, worth $42."  The stolen items would be worth more than $11,000 in today's money.

On October 23 that same year George H. Schumann died.  The jewelry business that his father had founded in 1849 would not last much longer.  On August 30, 1914 The New York Times reported that "The small white marble building at 716 Fifth Avenue...formerly occupied by Schumann's Sons, jewelers, has been leased by the French perfumery firm of D'Orsay, Incorporated."

The Parisian-style building could not have been more appropriate for a French perfume store.  But, sadly, it did not work out.  After exactly one year into D'Orsay's 15-year lease, The Metropolitan Trust Company took it over.  In announcing the deal the Record & Guide reminded readers "The D'Orsay firm rented the building last fall from Schumann & Sons who had originally leased the property from the Zabriskie Estate for twenty-one years."  The article added that the financial firm intended to open an uptown branch in the building.

But that was not the only intention for the building.  The Art Nouveau style was not only falling from fashion, but it most definitely did not reflect the serious business of banking.  The Metropolitan Trust Company commissioned the architectural firm of Holmes & Winslow to convert the structure to what The New York Times, on October 24, 1915, said would be "an artistic two-story structure."  The article noted "The facade of the building will be extensively altered and work is now under way.  The front will be of white marble in a classic design."

The trade journal Trust Companies published Holmes & Winslow's rendering in its July 1915 issue. (copyright expired)

Sadly, while New York City had had essentially only one exuberant Art Nouveau building, it had dozens of bank buildings of "classic design."  The remodeled facade, while attractive, was in no way special.  Classical pilasters rose two stories beside the entrance and great arched window.  A Roman parapet sat above the cornice.  Inside, the banking room rose the full height, lighted both by the Fifth Avenue window and a "decorative skylight."

The remodeled building opened on March 6, 1916.  The Metropolitan Trust Company announced the new branch saying that "Personal accounts of men and women residing in the uptown district, will receive special attention at our new Fifth Avenue Office."

Nine years later on May 10, 1925, The New York Times announced that the Chatham and Phoenix Bank had "absorbed the Metropolitan Trust Company and acquired its branch at 716 Fifth Avenue."  It would retain a branch at the location only for three more years.

On January 19, 1928 the New York Evening Post reported that the bank had subleased the building to the Ming Sun Company, "Chinese art goods."  But once again, it was a short-lived residency.  In July 1931 auctioneers Brill & Brill sold the entire stock of imported Chinese items.

Next to lease the building was Pillori, Inc., which signed a lease in April 1932.  The firm imported goods like "Italian linens and laces, Venetian glass, Florentine hand tooled leather."  But it too failed to make it at No. 716 Fifth Avenue.  Bing & Bing was back in February 1933 to liquidate the stock.

Long Sang Ti tried its hand at selling Chinese art objects here.  The store lasted until June 1939 when, once again, Brill & Brill was at the familiar location to auction off the entire collection of "Imperial jade, coral, amber, ivory, agate, rock crystal, carnelian, amethyst, apis lazuli, screens, bowls, silks, teakwood furniture, embroideries, Mandarin coats and wood carvings."

Frances H. Zabriskie now leased the building to James Robinson, Inc., dealers in old English silver.  Before moving in the structure was remodeled again.  Architect Van G. Pruit created a neo-Classical facade with carved swags within recessed panels and a blind balustrade along the roofline.  
Pruitt's rendering was slightly different from the finished product.  The New York Sun, September 7, 1939
As always, the Fifth Avenue Association annually judged the architectural changes along the Queen of Avenues.  On March 22, 1940 No. 716 Fifth Avenue was awarded a gold medal.  But the architect may have been just a bit miffed at the association's presentation.  The gold medal was given to Frances H. Zabriski, while Pruitt received a certificate of merit.

The little building survived for four more decades; home to the executive offices of the Custom Shop Shirtmakers by 1980.  

Then, on February 15, 1985 Michael Blumstein, writing in The New York Times said "They are two small, dignified buildings on the west side of Fifth Avenue, Nos. 712 and 714.  Pedestrians pay them little heed, as their stores are shuttered and their offices empty.  But these buildings, between 55th and 56th Streets, are at the center of an enormous battle being fought by two of Manhattan's most powerful interests: its real-estate developers and its preservationists."

Steadsol Fifth Associates had assembled the parcel of Nos. 712 through 716 along with the No. 716's rear lot to 56th Street with the intention of erecting a 44-story office and residential tower.  The plan would involve the demolition of Nos. 712 and 714.

No. 716 is second from right.  photo by Keith Meyers for The New York Times February 15, 1985

The facade of the former Coty Building at No. 714 was preserved thanks to its three-story art glass windows by Rene Lalique.  No. 716 was demolished.  A new stone, four-story facade that pretends to be a remodeled mansion stands on the site of one of New York City's most remarkable architectural treasures, sadly not recognized as such in 1915.

No. 716, at the right, is designed to appear to be a converted Gilded Age structure. photo via


  1. It still surprises me now that Art Nouveau had been so popular in French architecture in the late 19th century. I agree with you that sinuous flowing lines and natural floral forms were suitable in decorative arts like jewellery and pottery. But architecture should have been business-like and not flowery. So what made Schumann Sons go for the only exuberant Art Nouveau building in town?

    1. We can never know why the decision for the design was made. It may have been prompted by a desire to connect the store's goods with Paris--the center of fashion.

  2. Indeed, this was a magnificent little building, but I don't believe it was the only exuberant Art Nouveau building in town. I think both the interior and original over the top exterior entrance of the New Amsterdam theatre on 42nd St would definitely be at the very top of any NYC Art Nouveau building list, plus the original NY Post Building downtown is another wonderful example of the style and while not extensive, there are a few other extant examples to admire in NY. NYarch.

    1. You are absolutely right about the New Amsterdam. Robert Kohl's New York Post Bldg is a magnificent example of the Art Nouveau substyle, Vienna Secession; but I can't comfortably place it in the same category with this sinuous, pure Art Nouveau building. There are others, of course, like the 1903 Belleclaire on Broadway and Emery Roth's wonderful 557 8th Avenue--but this building is the purest example of Parisian Art Nouveau in NYC I know of.