Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The John Newcomb Stable -- 348 West 52nd Street

In the mid-1870's John Newcomb ran his auction business from No. 907 Eighth Avenue, at the southwest corner of 54th Street.  Any bulky items, like furniture, or large lots of goods would be delivered to the purchasers.  Newcomb's trucks and horses were housed in a two-story brick stable nearby at No. 348 West 52nd Street.  The block was a mish-mash of structures with several similar two- and three-story stables, tenement buildings and a few old residences.  

The 25-foot wide structure following the standard stable configuration.  A centered, two-doored carriage bay was flanked by a window (today converted to a doorway) and an entrance.  The architect of the utilitarian building added interest by slightly protruding the central section of the second floor where the loft opening received bales of hay and other supplies.  Small stone brackets below the stone bandcourse emphasized the projecting section.  A handsome bracketed cornice echoed the architectural detail.

Newcomb was still here in 1880 when on June 27 he advertised in The New York Herald for a "competent young man as porter or night watchman, good references, John Newcomb, private stable."  One of his drivers was hoping to elevate himself from a cartman to a coachman three years later.  In his April 1, 1883 advertisement in the same newspaper he described himself as "a Protestant young man, 28 years old, perfectly sober and reliable.  Please call or address private stable 348 West 52d st."

By the summer of 1889 Robert Hill had taken over the 52nd Street stable and converted it for his wholesale grocery business.  Although the location was far north of the established grocery district in what is now known as Tribeca, Hill succeeded.  On August 22, 1889 his advertisement in The New York Herald sought a "salesman who understands the grocery business."

Like John Newcomb, Hill needed a private stable for his drays and horses.  His was conveniently located two doors to the east, at No. 344 West 52nd Street.  His business grew to the point that in July 1905 he purchased a second stable at No. 511 West 52nd Street from Mrs. Isabella Widder.

That year Hill's crew included an unlikely character.  In the fall of 1905 Hill and other businessmen suffered labor problems when the drivers went on strike seeking shorter hours and higher pay.  Rather than concede to their demands, Hill simply replaced them.  Among those he hired early in November was Bradley Curzon.

Curzon had been living in the Mills House #1 on Bleecker Street, a sort of hotel which aimed to get unemployed men back on their feet.  But despite being down on his luck, Curzon stood out from his co-workers.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted on November 22, 1905, "He looks very different from the usual driver.  He wore a long, gray raincoat, a light tweed suit, a vest of fancy pattern, and spectacles fastened with a silk cord."

Strike breaking could be a dangerous venture in the early 20th century, sometimes ending in replacement drivers being beaten or even killed.  Curzon was luckier--he was accosted not with a club, but with theft of goods.  On November 21 he was driving a dray along West 47th Street, when a fired Hill employee, Louis H. Spero, jumped on the truck and grabbed two bags of sugar and a bag of starch and ran off.  Curzon's yells of "Stop, thief!" caught the attention of Patrolman Zorn who nabbed Spero.

The nattily-dressed Curzon accompanied the officer to the 47th Street police station to make a complaint.  The desk officer took note of his attire, then of his name, and jokingly said "That's a distinguished name you have.  You might be a relative of Lord Curzon."  (The renowned Lord George Curzon of Kedelston was Viceroy of India.)

Bradley Curzon surprised everyone in the room when he replied matter-of-factly, "I am.  I am a cousin of Lord Curzon."  He did not explain how he had come to be in such impecunious circumstances.

Robert Hill not only sold grocery items, he produced some of them as well.  A Health Department inspection in 1907 passed his O.K. brand and Export brand canned tomatoes as being "free from preservatives and artificial coloring matter."

Hill's success and sterling reputation led to his name being used in a scam in 1908.  "A rather tall, light complexioned man," as described by The American Produce Review, went to an upstate New York dairy and ordered 17 barrels of butter, even offering more than the going price.  He presented his business card which identified himself as "J. W. Harper, manager dairy department," of "Robert Hill, wholesale grocer and importer."  The address on the card was No. 383 Eighth Avenue.  

The dairy manager looked up Hill's credit listing "and found that he was rated $25,000 to $125,000 with good credit."  He failed to notice that the address listed was No. 348 West 52nd Street, not the Eighth Avenue location.

Storekeepers around No. 383 Eighth Avenue (which, incidentally, was a store that sold flags and "lodge paraphernalia") noticed a stranger loitering around the block for about a week.  When a delivery wagon pulled up one afternoon with a load of butter, the man signed for it.

After waiting a reasonable time for Hill to pay his bill, the dairy called him.  Hill informed the caller that he had no one by the name of J. W. Harper in his employ, "and that he would do everything possible to aid in detecting the man who was using his name."  Nevertheless, the dairy was taken for $265, nearly $7,500 today.

Grocery men city-wide were most likely stunned when they read in the New-York Tribune in April 1919 that Robert Hill, Inc. was bankrupt.  On April 12 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Hill had leased No. 348 to the Middleton's Stone Ginger Beer Co., Inc.  "The tenant will make extensive alterations," said the article.

Middleton's Stone Ginger Beer Co. was run by brothers Hubert J. and James G. Middleton.  Bottled to resemble alcoholic beer, their product was one of several beverages that took advantage of the newly-ratified 18th Amendment that would outlaw alcohol.

By 1925 the ginger beer company was replaced at No. 348 by the Ellis-Davidson Co.  Distributors of "sanitary supplies," it listed among its products "disinfectants, deodorants, insecticides, sanitary supplies to hospitals institutions, etc."

Ellis-Davidson Co. was not merely about antiseptics and soaps.  The firm had a side-line in perfumes, as well.  On March 15, 1925 it advertised for a "Young Girl, experienced in wrapping and bottling perfumery."  The same day another advertisement sought a "Stenographer--Must be good penman, neat appearance."  Ellis-Davidson Co. remained in the building until June 1934 when it moved to No. 38 West 21st Street.  

The Briefstein Lumber Co. next took over the building.  It would remain here for years.

The original, inward-opening carriage bay doors are still intact in this photo taken around 1940.  Before the building was painted, its limestone trimmings, like the ears of the upper floor openings, were obvious.  photo via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services.
The Hell's Kitchen neighborhood around No. 348 continued to be gritty throughout most of the 20th century.  But gentrification arrived by the late 1990's.  The change was no more in evidence than at No. 348 West 52nd Street when, in 2003 Therapy, a trendy gay bar, opened here.

Both the business and the building were threatened in 2019 when the structure next door at No. 340 was deemed structurally unstable by the city.  Therapy was ordered closed until that building could be stabilized and then safely demolished.  The timing could not have been worse--just days before the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the Pride-related festivities that would draw world-wide crowds.  (Happily for the bar, it was allowed to open in time for the event.)

At some point the stable building was extended into the rear yard to accommodate the manufacturing inside.
Where once delivery horses once munched oats, and where Robert Hill canned tomatoes, Hell's Kitchen patrons now sip drinks and enjoy shows; no doubt completely unaware of the long history of the building.

photographs by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment