Monday, July 1, 2019

The Lost Gibson Restaurant Bldg - 57 Maiden Lane

The newly-remodeled building bore no resemblance to its former self.  The white lines are taped crop marks added to the photograph at some point.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Maiden Lane in the late 18th century was still lined with brick and wooden homes.  In 1790 the newly appointed Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, moved to New York, the new country's capital.  He wrote to a friend "My first object was to look out a house on the Broadway as being the centre of my business.  Finding none there vacant for the present, I have taken a small one in Maiden Lane, which may give me time to look about."   His residency at No. 57 Maiden Lane was short, just three months; but it was the scene of critical political events, including the dinner party during which the decision was made to move the capital to Philadelphia.

A century later things along Maiden Lane had drastically changed.  All traces of domesticity had long been erased as commercial structures replaced homes.  On the site of Thomas Jefferson's temporary home now stood a five-story office building, home to the Provident Realty Company of New-York.  But after its president, David Levy, committed suicide early in 1904, troubles ensued.  On June 26 the firm lost the property in a foreclosure auction.

It was purchased by James M. Fitzpatrick, who almost immediately resold it to James Gibson, Jr.  Gibson ran three well-known Gibson Restaurants in the area, one of them steps away at No. 51 Maiden Lane.  Now The New York Times reported that Gibson would use No. 57 "for restaurant purposes after extensive alterations have been completed."  The alterations would, indeed, be extensive.

On August 20, 1904 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Irish-born architect Frank H. Quinby was working on the plans.  "The entire building will be reconstructed, practically making a new structure.  There will be a new front and rear walls, new floors and partitions, new steam heating and electric lighting apparatus, and all other modern improvements."  Quinby estimated the cost of the all-encompassing project at the equivalent of $670,000 today.

Completed in just over a year, the transformation left no hint of the old business building.  Quinby had turned to the currently popular Flemish Renaissance Revival style which hearkened back to Manhattan's earliest roots.  Clad in red brick it was trimmed in limestone, including the quoins that ran up the sides and framed the openings of the fourth floor.  The obligatory, eye-catching stepped gable terminated in a sturdy brick and stone finial which held a flagpole.

The entire building was devoted to the restaurant and, perhaps surprisingly, the kitchen was on the top floor.  But now that his striking structure was ready, it appears that Gibson had a change of heart.  He never closed the restaurant at No. 51 and in 1908 traded the No. 57 to real estate operator Seth Sprague Terry for property on John Street.

On March 28 The Record & Guide reported that Terry leased "for a long term of years the building 57 Madison lane, now occupied by Gibson the restaurateur.  The new tenant is Reisenweber, who has a restaurant at 8th av and 58th st."

The uptown Reisenweber Restaurant was as well-known as Gibson's.  An advertisement in 1909 read "Remember: you can get all the famous Southern Dishes, Fried Chicken, Chicken Okra, Crab Jumbo, Boiled Rice and Candy Yams, cooked Southern style by 'Mose,' the celebrity negro cook from Dixie, at Reisenweber's."  The ad added "When downtown lunch at Downtown Reisenweber's 57 Maiden Lane."

Shortly after leasing the building Reisenweber made an advantageous arrangement with the alumni of Cornell University.  Well-to-do downtown businessmen preferred to eat at their private clubs, and on December 9, 1908 the Cornell Alumni News reported "Cornell luncheon headquarters have been established in New York city at Reisenweber's restaurant, 57 Maiden Lane.  The proprietors of the restaurant have tendered the use of all or part (depending on the daily attendance) of the third floor."  A week earlier the first group, more than 100, had gathered.  There were no dues and alumni were permitted to bring friends.

The article concluded "A good table d'hôte luncheon may be had for forty-five cents, and complete service à la carte is also provided.  Any Cornell men who visit the place during the noon hours will be sure to find a number of other Cornell men there."

The following year Reisenweber advertisements touted the Maiden Lane location as the "Most modern and up to date restaurant town down.  Cuisine and service excellent, prices moderate."  But less than two years into its lease, the restaurant left.  On February 2, 1910 the New-York Tribune reported that Ellsworth Childs had leased the building for three years.

Childs, in 1906, owned 15 casual luncheon restaurants in the downtown district.  That year his operation was consolidated into the Childs Restaurant chain, founded by his brothers Samuel and William.  The Childs restaurants targeted not only the businessmen of the surrounding firms, but the lower paid office workers and laborers.  Their lunchrooms emphasized cleanliness and hygiene at a time when such issues were not always considered important.

In July 1913 Seth S. Terry brought Frank H. Quinby back to alter the upper floors to lofts.  Terry advertised the renovated building on March 22, 1914 as being fireproof and having "steam heat and elevator."  The rent was listed at $9,000, or nearly $20,000 per month today.

The former Childs Restaurant space was leased "temporarily" to office desk manufacturer and retailer Jacob Barsky in October 1915.   Barsky's main store was at No. 1 Beaver Street and he ran another branch at No. 35 Union Square.  In July the following year he announced he would be consolidating the downtown stores into the Beaver Street location.

The next tenant would be a familiar one.  On January 27, 1917 the Record & Guide announced that Childs Co. had taken the entire building.  The article recalled "The building is four stories high, specially constructed for restaurant purposes and was originally the home of Gibson's Restaurant.  It was later occupied by Reisenweber."   But now Childs had to undo some of the latest renovations.  "After extensive alterations the Childs Co. will open there another of their famous restaurants."  This time it was architect J. C. Westervelt who made the alterations.

But if Childs moved into the renovated space at all, it was for a short time.  In June 1918 Terry leased the building to long-established wholesale jeweler Hammel, Riglander & Co.   

Hammel, Riglander & Co. announced its name in bronze letters above the first floor show windows. photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 

Seth Sprague Terry must have been highly frustrated when his latest tenant, once again, left after a brief stay.  On May 3, 1922 The Jewelers' Circular reported that Hammel, Riglander & Co. had moved from Maiden Lane to 209 West 14th Street.

The quaint building survived only six more years.  In 1929 a 19-story office building designed by the architectural firm of Clinton & Russell replaced it.  That building and those around it made way in 1984 for the massive brick structure designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee.  It was completed two years later.  A bronze plaque on that building testifies to Thomas Jefferson's residency at No. 57 two centuries ago.

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