Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Kellner Brothers' Building - 137 West 19th Street

In the decade prior to the outbreak of the Civil War the wagon factory of Fulmer & Wood was located at No. 137 West 19th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.  Later, the three-story brick building was converted to a livery stable, run by Peter Stewart.  In April 1891 he transferred title to the property to his sons, Charles and Peter, Jr., (presumably partners in Stewart's Stable), as "a gift."

from New-York: Past, President and Future, 1851 (copyright expired)
As the decade drew to a close the area around West 19th Street had seen incredible change since the time of Fulmer & Wood's wagon factory.  Elegant brick homes, reflecting the exclusive Fifth Avenue neighborhood, had risen; only to be converted to rooming houses or businesses as commerce pushed up Sixth and Fifth Avenues.

In 1897 Robert Lipold embarked on massive changes to the old brick stables.  His architect, Edward B. Chestersmith, filed plans on May 7 which called for adding three stories, the "front wall removed and rebuilt," and interior renovations.  The cost was projected at $25,000, or about $781,000 today.

The transformation was completed the following year.  Chestersmith had clad his Romanesque Revival-style building in yellow brick, trimmed in stone.  The ground floor featured a cast iron storefront flanked by piers interrupted by bands of undressed stone.   The arched openings of the nearly identical second and third floors were separated by brick pilasters and (at the third floor) engaged stone columns which wore chunky carved capitals.  The cast iron framing within the large two-story arch at the fourth and fifth floors enabled large expanses of glass that admitted sunlight and ventilation into those spaces.  Deep, arched brick corbels supported the deeply-overhanging cornice.

Lipold had borrowed a significant amount from Mary Marrin to buy the plot and to erect the building.  He apparently stretched himself too thin on the project.  In 1897 the builder was granted a mechanic's lien on the property for unpaid work; and then in May 1898 Mary Marrin foreclosed.  She acquired No. 137 at the October 6 foreclosure auction for $79,443; about $2.48 million today.

The following March she signed a three-year lease on the entire building with Charles L. and Henry B. Kellner.  Their business, Kellner Bros., manufactured and sold household furniture as well as floor coverings.

The Tammany Times, September 30, 1893 (copyright expired)

It briefly appeared that the three-year-old building would not make it to four years in the fall of 1901.  Sixth Avenue was Manhattan's premier shopping thoroughfare and in 1895 Henry Siegel had erected his massive Cooper-Siegel Department Store.  Touted as the largest in the world, it engulfed the entire blockfront on Sixth Avenue from 18th to 19th Streets, stretching back nearly to Fifth Avenue.

Siegel added to his retail empire by purchasing the Simpson Crawford store directly across the avenue.  And then on November 9, 1901 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that he planned a six-story addition "to the store recently purchased from William Crawford."  Siegel had already bought eight structures along West 19th Street, and the article opined "Nos. 137 and 139 have not yet been, but will very likely be included in the deal."

If Marrin ever seriously considered Siegel's offer of between $25,000 and $35,000, she did not sell in the end.  Kellner Bros. moved to the corner of Sixth Avenue and 15th Street following the end of its lease, and Mary Marrin leased No. 137 to two tenants.

The Burchell Auction house dealt in much larger commodities than paintings or household goods.  Its advertisement in The Evening Telegram in 1906 urged potential clients to "sell your house, hotel or factory at auction."

The upper floors were leased to Louis Schramm for his storage warehouse and moving firm.  He had come from his native Germany at the age of 17 in 1854.  The New York Times later remarked "His first job here was bundling kindling wood."  In 1893, after purchasing a single horse and a wagon, he started his moving business.

Within only a decade his operation had grown to require the several floors in the 19th Street building.  He would go on to found the large Chelsea Fireproof Storage Warehouses, Inc., and have a fleet of 50 "motor vans" and a total of eight warehouses.  (Perhaps his firm's greatest claim to fame, according to The Times in January 1947, was "the distinction of being the first of its kind to ship four households of furniture by plane from New York to California.")

Schramm and Burchell left in 1908 and Mary Marrin leased the building for 10 years to George Alessandro.  He seems to have continued using the structure as a storage warehouse.

In March 1912, following Mary Marrin's death, her heirs aggressively sold off her many commercial properties.  No. 137 West 19th Street was purchased by Edgar R. Bloxham.  

He may have originally intended to use the building for his own business, the Manufacturers' Transit Company, Inc., but at the end of Alessandro's lease, he leased it to Thomas Stelle.  In announcing the sale on August 31, 1918 The Sun reported that Steele, owner of the Willow Warehouse Company, would use the 17,000-square-foot space "for storage purposes."  

The building continued to house warehouse firms for the next two decades.  In 1922 Kritzer's Furniture Warehouses leased the building from Edgar Bloxham; and in 1933 Dempsey & Berger took over the building.  The New York Sun reported on November 20 that "alterations are to be made in the warehouse."

But change came three years later when Ever Ready Machinists leased the building.  Listed as a "manufacturer of machinery and parts," it converted the warehouse lofts to a "new plant."  The firm manufactured large machinery here, advertising in 1937 for "presses, cutters, milling, type, &c."  Ever Ready Machinists remained until 1944 when the building was sold to an investor.

The renaissance of the neighborhood teetering on the cusp of Chelsea and the Flatiron District caught up to No. 137 West 19th Street in 1998 when the building was converted to a retail store on the first floor, offices on the second and third, an art studio on the fifth and sixth, and an "accessory caretaker's apartment" on the sixth.

The store was home to Tenthousandthings at the turn of the 21st century, where home furnishings items like bathroom fixtures could be found.  It was followed by industrial designer Karim Rashid's shop in 2004.  Described by Time magazine as the "most famous industrial designer in all the Americas," the store offered his furniture, lighting and other home furnishing goods.  The store remained at the address until July 2009.

Today the shop is home to Cowlicks Japan a combination hair and massage salon staffed by Japanese-trained stylists and Shiatsu masseurs.

Little changed, Edward B. Chestersmith's handsome Romanesque Revival structure is difficult to appreciate today--its facade heavily veiled by a virtual cage of fire escapes.   

photographs by the author

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