Thursday, August 15, 2019

The P. F. Collier & Co. Building - 416-424 West 13th Street

Collier's logo, executed in stone features a winged globe topped by a flaming torch--the symbol of enlightenment and education.  On either side are a quill pen and a fountain pen, the tools of writers.

In 1819 John Jacob Astor I acquired an enormous parcel of land on the west side of Manhattan along the Hudson River.  It and the surrounding neighborhood first saw real development following the Civil War; and by the 1880's the neighborhood that is today known as the Meat Packing District was a hive of activity.  The Astor family partitioned its real estate holdings here in 1878, with William Backhouse Astor, Jr.  receiving the section that included Little West 12th and West 13th Streets between Washington Street and Ninth Avenue.  Upon his death in 1892 the property passed to his son, John Jacob Astor IV.

At the turn of the century the neighborhood was filled with factories and warehouses that took advantage of the riverfront location.  And so it may have come as a surprise to many who read in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide on July 21, 1900 that Astor would "build for P. F. Collier & Son, the publishers...a 3-sty building fronting on 13th and Little West 12th st."

Born in Myshall, Ireland on December 12, 1849, Peter Fenelon Collier saved his money as a schoolbook salesman and with $300 purchased the printing plates to Father Burke's Lectures.  Published in 1872, its first year's sales hit $90,000--more than $1.9 million today.  It set him on the road to founding the P. F. Collier publishing firm, which focused mostly on religious books for Roman Catholic readers.

In April 1888 he added periodicals to the blend with Collier's Once a Week.  By the time negotiations were underway for a new headquarters on West 13th Street, the name of the magazine was Collier's Weekly: An Illustrated Journal and it was one of the most popular weekly publications in the country.

And so why Peter Collier chose this industrial location, far from any other publishers, is puzzling.  But despite the industrial neighborhood, Astor sought out the esteemed architectural firm of Trowbridge & Livingston to design the sprawling complex which would house the firm's offices, printing plant, bindery and shipping facilities.  (The firm would work for him four years later designing the lavish neo-Baroque St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue.)

Construction proceeded with lightning speed.  On March 30, 1901 the Record & Guide reported "The contract was received February 1st and the building will be ready for occupancy August 1st.  Another quick job."  

Trowbridge & Livingston created a neo-Classical style structure of orange-beige brick, cast iron and limestone of three tall stories--its two facades being mirror images.  Rusticated stone on either end united the design.  Between, full-height brick piers were given simple stone capitals, creating, in fact, the decorative effect of pilasters.  Cast iron infill made large expanses of glass possible, filling the workrooms inside with natural light.

The Little West 12th Street facade was designed as a mirror image of the West 13th Street side.  If the entrance portico was ever executed, it has been lost.  Real Estate Record & Guide March 30, 1901 (copyright expired)

Astor paid for the $400,000 P. F. Collier & Co. building "under a contract of lease."   The firm had been named P. F. Collier & Son in 1898 after Robert J. Collier joined the firm.  The scale of its business was evidenced when the 35,000 square-foot building soon proved inadequate.  In May 1904 the firm leased the seven-story Abingdon Warehousing Co. building directly across the street, at No. 419 West 13th Street, "for a storage warehouse."

Along with its popular articles and fiction stories, Collier's Weekly was a pioneer in investigative journalism.  It earned a reputation as a force in social reform, unafraid to name names.  It was a practice not looked on favorably by those whose names appeared in print.

One of those was Colonel William D'Alton Mann, editor of Town Topics.  The newspaper printed scurrilous stories of society figures, quite often not true.  To prevent their being published, millionaires would pay Mann exorbitant bribes.  If the articles did get published, a respectable person's reputation could be ruined.

Alice Roosevelt was scandalized by Town Topics in 1904.  An article said she wore “costly lingerie” for the “edification of men” and was guilty of “indulging freely in stimulants.”  The article went on to say that rumors around Newport suggested she and a “certain multi-millionaire” engaged in “certain doings that gentle people are not supposed to discuss.”

Collier's Weekly commissioned well-known artists like Frederick Remington who created this 1905 cover.

In an editorial article Robert J. Collier vehemently attacked Mann’s sleazy operations and exposed his underhanded operation.  And in a separate Collier's Weekly article on August 5, 1905, editor Norman Hapgood went up against Mann's partner, Joseph M. Deuel, who happened to also be a magistrate in the Court of Special Sessions.

The Morning Telegraph called the Hapgood's article, entitled "Public Conscience," a "scathing indictment of Justice Deuel, who was specifically charged with violating his oath of office in engaging in business while in his magisterial position." In addition, according to The Evening Post, Deuel was accused of "being part owner and editor of a paper which subsisted on scandal."  The judge asserted that the article had "exposed him to hatred, contempt and obloquy." 

Both men fought back.  On August 19, 1905 Robert J. Collier was served with two libel suits of $100,000 each filed by Mann; and on September 13 Joseph Deuel had Hapgood arrested in his office in the Collier Building on a charge of criminal libel.  Both publishers pleaded not guilty.

The flaw in Mann's and Deuel's defenses was that everything that the Collier's articles said was true.  Collier and Hapgood both won their cases.

Peter F. Collier rubbed shoulders with Manhattan's wealthiest citizens.  He posed in his fox hunting garb for this cabinet card. photo by George Grantham Bain from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York  

Peter Fenelon Collier died on April 23, 1909.  The Irish immigrant had come a long way; The New York Times calling him "well known in society here and abroad."  He had been attending the annual horse show at the Riding Club when "death overtook him as he was descending the stairs to the street."  Robert Joseph Collier took over the operation of the firm

Labor problems between management and union workers were a constant issue for business owners.  But when 150 bookbinders walked off the job at P. F. Collier & Son on September 18, 1912, it was less about their problems with management then squabbling among themselves.  Earlier that year "a disagreement in the ranks of the International Brotherhood of Bookbinders" had resulted in a schism.  One group broke off to form the National Brotherhood of Bookbinders.  All the Collier workers defected to that group.

Perhaps unaware of the gravity of the situation, Assistant Superintendent of the bookbinding department, Floyd E. Wilder, hired three new employees--members of the International Brotherhood.   When they walked in, the others walked out.  Wilder seemed optimistic, however.  He told a reporter from The New York Press that he was "confident the warring factions will come together shortly and frame a peace pact."

At the time Jerome T. Caffrey had been a Collier employee for several years.  The 47-year old was a foreman who supervised 95 men.  The higher-end books produced in the plant required expensive materials--leather for the covers and gold leaf for edging the pages, for instance.  It was the gold leaf supplies that concerned Collier executives, because for five years there had been noticeable shortages.

As with any other day, on October 10, 1912 Jerome Caffrey was walking along West 13th Street on his way to work.  This day would be different, however.  Investigators had been secreted within the bindery to discern who was responsible for the shortages.  Before Caffrey reached the Collier building, he was arrested.  The Daily Standard Union reported his total take at $30,000 in gold leaf--around $785,000 in today's money.

In the first decades of the 20th century it was common for young boys to leave school in order to find work and earn money.  Often the additional income was necessary to keep impoverished families afloat.  Collier & Son addressed the issue in the spring of 1915 by proposing an in-house classroom so young employees could continue their education on off-hours.  On May 1 the Board of Education approved "the organization of a continuation class in the establishment of P. F. Collier & Son."  The teacher was to be paid $1 per hour.

In 1919 Crowell Publishing Company purchased Collier's Weekly.  The New-York Tribune reported on July 26 that "No change in the personnel of 'Collier's Weekly' are contemplated at present."  The article noted that the magazine currently had a circulation of 1 million.  The purchaser promised "Its editorial police will remain independent" and the magazine's name would not change.

But in 1924 Crowell relocated the printing facilities to Springfield, Ohio.  On May 27 The New York Times explained that the decision was partly because the West 13th Street building faced "prospective condemnation...for the extension of Gansevoort Market."  The firm also cited "the excessive postage involved in mailing from a seaboard city under wartime postal rates."  The article noted that "The editorial and business departments will remain in New York."

Then, in 1929, the P. F. Collier & Co. building was sold to the General Electric Company.  A year-long renovation resulted in factory, storage and office spaces throughout the three floors.  Simultaneously the firm erected an annex nearby at No. 414 West 13th Street. 

The Little West 12th Street facade.
World War II stretched the resources of the Maritime Commission Educational Unit in Washington D.C.  Therefore military trainees were provided on-site training in the field.  According to the 2014 book Braving the Wartime Seas, "Cadet-Midshipmen in advanced training also made numerous field trips in these early years to compensate for areas in which the Academy lacked expertise or equipment.  For example, in August and September 1942, groups of Cadets visited...General Electric's service shop on West Thirteenth street in Lower Manhattan."

General Electric remained in the building until 1964, when it was again renovated for a printing establishment on the first floor, a luggage factory on the second, and a clothing factory on the third.  But the renaissance of the Gansevoort Market and Meat Packing Districts was on the horizon--sparked by the opening of High Line Park.

In 2018 the Collier Building was transformed to a restaurant on the ground floor and offices and showrooms above.  Mostly unchanged, Trowbridge & Livingston's dignified publishing house looks as out of place today as it did in 1901.

photographs by the author

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