Monday, September 30, 2019

The Lost Franklin Simon Store - Fifth Avenue and 38th Street

The show windows were curtained in this 1922 photograph, suggesting they were being redressed or it was a Sunday.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Franklin Simon was born into a humble family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on February 7, 1865.  His father, Henri, was a wood carver and cigar maker and his mother, Helen, was a seamstress.  At about the age of 13 Simon got a job as a "cash-boy" at the Stern Brothers dry goods store on 23rd Street making $2.50 per week.  

By the 1890's Simon had greatly advanced within the company.  On a buying trip to Paris he met Herman A. Flurscheim, a Stern Brothers' supplier.  The business relationship became friendly and they soon planned to open their own business in New York, importing French fashions.

In 1901 newspapers reported that Franklin Simon had leased the brownstone mansion of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson at No. 414 Fifth Avenue.  She and her husband, banker Orme Wilson, were in the process of erecting a lavish mansion at No. 6 East 64th Street.  

The fledgling Franklin Simon & Co. renovated the house, replacing the facade and gutting the interiors.  Opening day was in February 1902; but things did not go as well as planned.  It would still be a few years before retailers like Tiffany & Co. and B. Altman & Co. invaded this area of Fifth Avenue.   Simon and Flursheim's new venture lost $40,000 that year--about $1.2 million today.  But things soon turned around.

As a matter of fact, in 1905 the store expanded, erecting an annex next door to the south.  On October 10 The New York Times reporting on its opening, saying "This addition runs from the basement to the fifth floor, almost doubling their space...They are making a special display of Paris models in dresses, suits, gowns, coats, evening wraps, &c, from the leading French houses."

Herman A. Flurscheim continued to live in Paris and choose the merchandise for importing; but he was definitely not out of touch with the New York store.  On July 7, 1908 The New York Times reported he would be boarding the steamship Kronprinzessin Cecelie the following day to return to Paris.  "With this trip he will have crossed the ocean 150 times."

As was the case with many large firms, Franklin Simon & Co. hosted annual outings and entertainments for its employees.  On January 2, 1909, for instance they had "a merry evening" at Alhambra Hall, as described by The New York Times.  "The occasion was a vaudeville entertainment given by the firm, followed after by a reception."  More than 650 employees were there.

On November 6, 1909 the Record & Guide reported that Franklin Simon had hired the architectural firm of A. J. Robinson Co. to make $500 worth of alterations to No. 414, including a bridge and new doors connecting the original building to the annex.

But the continuing success of Franklin Simon & Co. again necessitated larger space by the end of the following year.  On February 2, 1911 The Times reported that the firm had spent a staggering $900,000 ($24.5 million today) for the property between No. 414 and the Brick Church on Fifth Avenue and the West 38th Street property behind the store.   The article said the store "will erect a modern building on the Fifth Avenue plot, and will also erect a new ten-story building on the Thirty-eighth Street plot." 

Plans by architect Edward Necarsulmer were drawn up in March and on May 6, 1911 the Record & Guide reported that 400 tons of steel had been ordered for the $1.2 million project.  

Necarsulmer's annex to the south and the 12-story building to the west made no attempt at architectural congruity.  The original corner structure still hinted at its domestic beginnings.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The additions were opened in March 1912.  The 12-story structure on West 38th Street housed the firm's non-retail operations--offices, tailoring shops and the mail order department, for instance.  

On April 18, just one month after the new buildings opened, the RMS Carpathia steamed into New York harbor carrying the survivors of the RMS Titanic.  One of them, Margaret Hays, disembarked with two little French children, now orphaned.  She and officials from the Children's Aid Society embarked on a two-continent search to discover their identities.  In speaking to reporters on April 21 Margaret added "Will you also please state that the children were outfitted to-day without charge by Franklin Simon & Co. of 414 Fifth Avenue.  No request was made to them to do it, but as soon as they heard that the children were in the store they offered us whatever they needed."

Franklin Simon & Co. was not done growing.  On March 7, 1914 the Record & Guide reported the store had leased "for a long term of years" the Gattle Building on 38th Street.  "The securing of this space by Franklin Simon & Co. is another evidence of the growth of the retail business in this section of Fifth Avenue."

The history of the store was recapped by The Evening World following Herman A. Flurscheim's death in June 1915.  The article recalled that in 1902 "it occupied a single building at No. 414 Fifth Avenue.  Now it occupies practically the whole block front in Fifth Avenue, between Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth Streets, with several adjacent buildings in Thirty-eighth Street."  The article noted "The business will be continued by Mr. Simon under the same personnel as in the past."

After leasing the Orme corner for 15 years, Franklin Simon & Co. purchased it in August 1916.  In reporting the sale The Sun added "When leased that part of Fifth avenue was free of trade, Franklin Simon & Co. being the first department store to locate north of Thirty-fourth street."

Six months later Edward Necarsulmer was called back to totally redesign the Fifth Avenue buildings.  Working with a $24,000 budget--about $470,000 in today's money--he updated the facades; yet oddly enough still did not architecturally unify them.

In addition to perks like the annual parties, in 1919 a profit-sharing plan was added to the employees' benefits.  The first year's bonus equaled five percent of their salaries.  Franklin Simon & Co. made it clear that those employees who had been absent because of "war service" would share equally in the new benefit.

Expansion continued in January 1920 when Franklin Simon & Co. purchased the 12-story building on 37th Street abutting its 38th Street structure.  The additional 90,000 square feet were remodeled by architects Maynicke & Franke for six floors of selling space and the upper six for stock rooms, shipping, receiving and delivering.

Shopping at Franklin Simon was not an inexpensive affair.  A $19.75 beach costume in this 1922 ad would be equal to nearly $300 today.
In an article entitled "Correctly Hatting the Boy" in May 1920, The American Hatter explained that Franklin Simon & Co. separated its men's and boys' hat departments by a full five floors.  Franklin Simon & Co. felt that combining men's and boy's hat departments "is neither considerate of the man who comes to buy a hat, nor kind to the little fellow, who is often shy or frightened in the presence of strangers.  And few refined women like to be thrown in with strange men when they are shopping for children, especially if the little fellow is hard to please or may develop tantrums."

Edward Necarsulmer--now a partner in Necarsulmer & Lehlbach--was yet again commissioned to rework the Franklin Simon & Co. store in 1922.  On June 14 The New York Times reported "The new front will be of granite and Indiana limestone and the window frames and metal trimmings will all be of bronze."  The article promised "By the new plan the front will appear as one building with one large central entrance."

A handsome stone balustrade crowned the roof line.  The American Architect December 20, 1922 (copyright expired)

The result was finally what appeared to have always been a single structure.  A two-story rusticated limestone base morphed into granite at the upper floors, interrupted by vast expanses of glass.   The design won "First Prize of the Fifth Avenue Association for Buildings Altered in 1922" as reported in The Architectural Review on December 20.

Franklin Simon & Co. continued to break ground in employee relations and marketing.  In 1923 its catalog featured photographs of live models in addition to the expected fashion sketches.   Simon introduced a parking lot for customers, "blue light sales" (as customers looked on salespeople would marked down items with a blue pencil), and an outlet store that sold out-of-season goods off site. And by the mid-1920's an annual "fashion promenade," or live fashion show, was held in the store.

Franklin Simon died at his country home in Purchase, New York on October 4, 1934 after what The New York Times called "a two-year illness."  The policies he had instituted continued, including the lavish employee entertainments.

On February 12, 1936 The Times reported that the employees "will attend a Valentine Day ball Friday night at the Hotel Astor in a ballroom decorated to resemble a ship with lower and upper decks for dancing.  Stage and radio stars will appear in an entertainment program."

But without a president at its helm, the company was acquired by the Atlas Corporation later that same year.  The firm had already controlled Bonwit Teller, Inc. for several years.  Immediately following the take over came a rash of resignations among top management.

Nevertheless Franklin Simon continued as a major Fifth Avenue player.   On September 29, 1938 a complete remodeling of the street floor sales area was completed.  It included the removal of the old wall that separated the two buildings.

Then in September 1949 Atlas Corporation sold Franklin Simon & Co., Inc., called the "oldest specialty store in the country" by The New York Times, to City Stores Company.  The organization operated department and specialty stores along the east coast.  Four years later City Stores merged Franklin Simon with City Specialty Stores.

City Stores had also acquired the well-known furniture store, W. & J. Sloane, which had operated at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 47th Street since 1912.  In December 1961 the announcement was made that W. & J. Sloane would be relocating to the old Franklin Simon building.

The opening took place on January 16, 1962.  The Times said "and like any homemaker who has just moved, [it] presented an appearance of busy disarray."  In fact, the $2 million remodeling was still underway.

W. & J. Sloane had established a long-held reputation for providing quality furniture and period reproductions.  In the spring of 1965 they introduced a novel marketing scheme with its House of Years--furniture place in room settings.  The New York Times reported on April 27 "Fred Vestal, who designed the six-room house, chose timeless floral fabrics and rugs, rather than the currently popular op-styles, which the store also offers."  And three months later the store introduced another innovation--an art gallery.  Customers could now buy not only furniture to decorate their homes and apartments, but artwork.  The 3,000 square foot gallery opened with 150 original works.

On July 28, 1979 The New York Times reported that the City Stores Company had submitted bankruptcy petitions.  The article noted "W. & J. Sloane, one of the country's largest furniture chains, has its principal store at 38th Street and Fifth Avenue."  It signaled the end of Franklin Simon & Co. stores, but the firm announced it "would continue to operate its profitable 50-store chain of W. & J. Sloane.

But only two years later, on July 9, 1981 City Stores announced that it had agreed "to sell a portion" of the Fifth Avenue building for more than $10.5 million.  The following day The New York Times reported that the buyer, the Porterfield Corporation, would "transform that structure into a high-rise, multipurpose building with offices on top of a scaled-down Sloane store."

The ambitious plans lagged until, on January 12, 1984, The Times reported "After 140 years of selling furniture to Manhattanites who expected to find the best--and more often that not did--W & J Sloane is closing its flagship store at 8 West 38th Street."

The New York Times real estate columnist Richard D. Lyons commented on the 30-story granite and glass replacement building on January 17, 1990.  He said the new tower, which engulfs the blockfront from 37th to 38th Streets, would "help restore the high-toned look to an area that had become burdened with fast-food restaurants, cheap electronic stores, cut-rate rug bazaars and souvenir stands."

photo via 

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Emery Roth's 1938 Kensington House - 200 West 20th Street

As construction started on The Kensington House apartment building newspapers and magazines took note.  On March 27, 1938 The New York Times reported "The clatter of the riveter's hammer will be missing when workmen start putting up the steel framework this week for the tall apartment house to rise at the southwest corner of Twentieth Street and Seventh Avenue."  And The New Yorker, on June 11, 1938 called it the first structure ever erected in New York City "in practically complete silence."

The owner, H. A. Hyman was not only a real estate developer, but a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.  He had managed to convince the city to allow him to erect his building using no rivets, only welded steel.  The process had been used in Chicago for at least ten years; but the Tammany administration here had opposed it.  The Times noted "The absence of noise is of importance, not only for the workers but also for the neighbors, whose nerves often have been jarred by the sound of the riveting hammers."

Prolific apartment building architect Emery Roth had designed the 14-story structure.  He gave verticality to the cube-like building by arranging the various sized and shaped openings in full height rows.  The corner windows wrapped the facade, a modern innovation.  Brick bandcourses along the two-story base created the appearance of rustication; a motif carried on in colorful tiles around the entrance.  Two terra cotta friezes of Art Deco tiles girded the building above the second and twelfth floors.  Rather than a cornice, Roth ran brick panels above the top floor.  Shops on the Seventh Avenue side provided extra income.

Roth's office released the above rendering.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On September 11, 1938, just five months after ground was broken, The New York Times entitled an article "House of Welded Steel" and reported "Kensington House, the new fourteen-story welded steel apartment building at 200 West Twentieth Street has been completed and was opened last week...The new structure contains 200 apartments of two and three rooms and six shops."

Depression weary residents would enjoy recreational distractions.  "Among the features of the building are a sun deck on the roof, where handball, deck tennis, shuffleboard and other games may be played, and a photographer's dark room in the basement."  Some of the apartments featured sunken living rooms and an unusual feature was hand-painted murals "furnished for tenants desiring them," as reported by The Times.

The New York Times published a photo of an apartment with a "stepped-down living room" and a hand-painted mural.  November 24, 1940
Even before construction was completed would-be residents were lining up to sign leases.  A three-room apartment went for $75 per month--more in the neighborhood of $1,340 today.  On August 1, 1938 The Times noted "Kensington House, at 200 West Twentieth Street, is being filled up rapidly from the plans."  And on the same day the Record & Guide reported that the Good Tay Meat Market had leased two of the stores.

Among the early tenants was radio pioneer William H. Priess and his family.  During World War I he had been a communications officer, working on "telephone secrecy for the Army, and submarine detecting devices for the Navy," according to The New York Sun.  "For a time he was United States Department of Commerce radio inspector for the port of New York."  In 1931 he founded the International Television Radio Corporation.  When world war again broke out he again worked for the U. S. Navy.

Another was Leo Ritter and his wife.   When The Kensington House opened he was 65-years-old and was well known for his philanthropies.  The senior partner in the real estate investment firm of Leo Ritter & Co., he had helped found the Israel Zion Hospital in Brooklyn.  In 1944 he gave $100,000 to the Israel Zion Hospital's expansion fund.  It brought his total donations to the institution to $250,000--more than $3.5 million today.

Newlywed summer stock and radio actress Natalie J. Biro and her husband, an advertising executive, were also initial residents.  Natalie was described by the Long Island Star Journal as "an attractive, tall, statuesque blonde."  The couple move to Jackson Heights in 1940.

Unexpected tumult took over The Kensington House in January 1942.  It started innocently enough when Marie L. Wirtschaffer took Pudgy, her red chow dog, along on a stroll to a nearby market.  But, as explained in The Nassau Daily Review-Star on January 3, "The chow followed her out into the street.  Traffic was thick.  So she took him back to the apartment house and asked the elevator man, Daniel Fitzgerald to take him up to her apartment and to see he was let in."

The Wirtschaffer apartment was on the fourth floor, but Fitzgerald got off at the third floor by mistake.  Pudgy ran to what should have been his apartment and scratched impatiently.  "A stranger opened the door, but slammed it shut again before pudgy’s teeth could get busy with the supposed intruder.  Fitzgerald tried to seize the dog, and got a bad bite on the hand," said the article.  When Marie came home from the market there were 18 policemen in the lobby and Pudgy had just been carried away to the S.P.C.A. shelter to be checked for rabies.  The Review-Star ended its article simply: "A dog's life!"

A far more disturbing incident occurred on December 3, 1946.  Although Natalie J. Biro had not lived in The Kensington House for years, she returned that afternoon.  Unnoticed by any of the staff or residents, she went to the roof deck.  The Long Island Star-Journal noted that she "had been under treatment for a nervous ailment and recently suffered from insomnia."

Simultaneously 41-year-old letter carrier Alexander Cook had just finished his rounds and was headed back to Postal Station O.  At 2:45, just as he passed by The Kensington House, Natalie Biro plunged from the roof.  Her body struck Cook.  The actress died instantly.  According to the Star-Journal, Cook's "skull was crushed when the falling body hurled him ten feet."  He died 45 minutes later.

The residents of The Kensington House continued to be professional, drawing little attention to themselves.  In the 1960's and early '70's the elderly Rolle L. De Wilton lived here.  He was a retired editor at the Macmillan Company.  The Times noted that following the merger of Crowell-Collier Corporation and Macmillan, "he reviewed the company's correspondence from 1892 to 1960 and was instrumental in preserving 14,900 letters from 367 authors."  De Wilton died in his apartment on October 19, 1973 at the age of 89.

There was one occupant of the late 1960's who was less respectable, however.  On January 20, 1970 minutes of a Senate Subcommittee revealed that among the publications it investigated was Pleasure magazine, published by Fuzzy Wuzzy Publications, Inc, in an apartment here.  The magazine, which cost 35 cents an issue, marketed itself as a "Good to middlin' pornzine."

The Kensington House continues to be home to middle-class Chelsea residents; its Art Deco facade strikingly intact.

photographs by the author

Friday, September 27, 2019

The 1906 Farmers Loan & Trust Bldg - 435 Fifth Avenue

The upper mansard level was added four years after the building was completed.

The stately brownstone of J. Ives Plant on Fifth Avenue between 38th and 39th Streets was leased to Columbia College's Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity as its clubhouse by the early 1890's.  Unlike today, frat houses of the late 19th century closely followed the staid decorum of other men's social clubs, and the presence of this one among the residences of Fifth Avenue's elite caused no problems.

But commerce was well on its way up the avenue.  At the turn of the century "Doctor Gardner" opened his office in the old residence.   His "oscillation treatment" was guaranteed to cure catarrh, deafness, blindness, stomach troubles, asthma and hay fever.  And in 1904 the mansion next door, at No. 437, was demolished and construction was begun on the large Knabe Piano Company building, designed by C. P. H. Gilbert.

The Farmers Loan & Trust Co. recognized the trend and early in 1906 leased No. 435 from the Ives estate.  On February 10 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the institution had hired architect Edwin Wilbur to design a five-story loft building on the site, projected to cost $30,000--or about $864,000 today.  "The front will be of white marble, with sheet copper cornices, galvanized iron skylights and slate roofs, etc."

The Farmers Loan & Trust Co.'s uptown branch would, of course, occupy the ground floor.  Even before construction began Stadler & Stadler, upscale custom "tailors and haberdashers," signed a lease for the second and third floors.

Somewhat diminished by the Knabe Building which doubled its height, the Farmers Loan & Trust building retained the proportions of the still-standing residences on the block.  A glass and iron marquee hung over the ground floor bank entrance and each of the marble-faced upper floors was distinguished by a single, vast show window.  A carved cartouche surrounded by floral bouquets nuzzled up to the copper cornice.

The original appearance of the lower floors of the Farmers Loan & Trust building (next to the tall Knabe Building) can be seen in this 1929 photograph.  The hulking brownstone structure on the far corner is the Union League Club.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Oddly enough, just two years after erecting this building, Farmers Loan & Trust moved two blocks north, to No. 475 Fifth Avenue.  The institution nevertheless retained possession and late in 1910 hired architect Robert Telchman to add a sixth story.  The project was completed in 1911 and took the form of a full-height, slate shingled mansard with a prominent pressed metal dormer.  Telchman remodeled the lower show windows into a four-story faceted bay that projected slightly beyond the marble facade.

With renovations completed, the building again filled with tenants.  The former Farmers Loan & Trust space became home to the uptown office of the Union Trust Company of New York.   Stadler & Stadler moved back in, the second floor was leased to real estate brokers and agents Tucker, Speyers & Co., Benson & Hedges tobacco company established its headquarters here, and Bradley Studios took a floor.  

Bradley Studios was already well known for its array of services.  On May 6, 1911 it announced the opening of its new studio in the Evening Post, noting "The individuality of our photographic portraiture is unquestioned, our guarantee absolute...Oil Portraits, Miniatures, Sepia Enlargements by Artists of ability and reputation, the restoration and enlargement of daguerreotypes and other old pictures, and always--the guarantee."

The following year another merchant tailor signed a lease.  Ralph Van den Bergh Tenent was just 26-years old, but he had worked with tailors Schanz, Inc. for the six years since he arrived in New York from his native Cincinnati.  He now struck out on his own.

The city celebrated George Washington's 186th birthday in 1914 culminating in a large parade.  Throughout the week multiple events were held, including one at No. 435 Fifth Avenue.  On March 8 the New York Herald wrote "Members of the Fourth Company of the Seventh regiment and Captain Robert Mazet acted as escort [to the parade] and gave a salute to the flag with appropriate music.  Many of the members attended a Colonial costume dance given by Mr. and Mrs. J. Bradley at their studio, No. 435 Fifth avenue, recently when the minuet in costume was danced by Mrs. Raynor and Mrs. J. Spetmagel."

With the outbreak of World War I New Yorkers turned their attentions to relieving the suffering of its victims.  Multiple relief agencies for individual countries and districts were established.  By December 1915 the Dardanelles War Relief Fund was operating from No. 435.   The following year the Australian War Relief Fund opened its offices in the building.  It would remain through the end of the war.

Another war-related tenant came along in 1917.  The British military was aware of the many English residents of New York and on June 19 The Sun reported "Capt Geoffrey Harper Bonnell of the Royal Flying Corps, who is here in charge of recruiting for his corps, and who brought to earth Capt. Boelke, the German airman who killed forty allied air frighters, will establish new headquarters at 435 Fifth avenue.  The office was going strong two months later.  On August 12 the New-York Tribune reported "The Royal Flying Corps of the British army, which has headquarters at 435 Fifth Avenue, issued a call for cadets to train for commissions."

Not every new tenant, of course, was related to war work.  In December 1917 furrier Abram Ratkowsky opened his shop here.  An opening advertisement that month touted "Buy direct from the manufacturer and save money.  Fifth Avenue styles, but NOT Fifth Avenue prices."  Perhaps.  His Hudson seal coats retailed at $400--more than $7,800 in today's dollars.  Of course the war affected everyone and the advertisement noted "Will accept Liberty Bonds in payment for merchandise."

While it appeared that with a new store in the most fashionable shopping district in town things must have been going smoothly for Ratkowsky, there was significant trouble on the home front.  He and his wife, Anna, had six children; but his affections had transferred to another woman.

All the time he was planning his new business location, he was trying hard to get rid of his wife.   According to her later testimony, he "had her forcibly removed to Bellevue Hospital for the purpose of having her committed to an institution as insane."  Dr. Menas S. Gregory refused to admit her and, instead, turned her and the children over to the care of her father.  Ratkowsky took $5,000 of Anna's jewelry then taunted her by saying he had sold it for half its worth (it was not true, however he did keep the jewelry).

On May 16, 1918 Anna filed suit for separation, alleging "cruel and inhuman treatment and non-support of herself and her six children."  She testified that Abram's monthly income was "at least $2,000" ($400,000 a year today) but that he "squanders his money on another woman."

The bad press may have disastrously affected his business.  Just three months later, on August 14, the New-York Tribune entitled an article "Furrier Gives Up" and reported that "Abraham Ratkowsky, a furrier of 435 Fifth Avenue, after spending thousands of dollars in spectacular advertising," had declared bankruptcy.

In its December 1918 "Christmas Number," Scribner's Magazine published a list of perfect gifts and where to find them.  The journalist did not overlook No. 435 Fifth Avenue.  Included were "Smokers' Articles, Cigars, Cigarettes: Benson & Hedges," and "Daguerreotypes or Faded Portraits Recreated: Bradley Studios."

Another major parade passed by No. 435 on March 25, 1919.  The New York Times reported that 500,000 citizens turned out along the five-mile route--from Washington Square to 110th Street--to cheer the 27th Division returning from the war.  

A penny postcard pictured the Fifth Avenue crowds cheering the returning soldiers. 
A salesman, Cornelius Sapperstein, climbed to the roof to get a premier vantage point of the parade.  Focused only on the festivities, he did not notice how close he was to the skylight when he changed positions.  He plunged through the glass and fell all the way to the basement.  The New-York Tribune reported "He died before a physician arrived."

As the 1920's dawned most of the old tenants were gone.  Stadler & Stadler had moved to No. 785 Fifth Avenue in 1917.   But the Bradley Studio, now Frederick Bradley studio, remained.  The firm now provided photographic shots of architecture, interiors, and artworks.

Arts & Decoration, February 1925.

A new occupant in 1922 was the Wanamaker Beauty School.   The institution, which described itself in advertisements as "The World's Greatest Hair Dressing and Manicuring School" engulfed a full floor and would remain for several years.  

Other tenants in the late 1920's into the '30's were furrier Philip Siff, the Spur Travel Bureau, and, surprisingly, the office of orthopedic surgeon Dr. Eric Harold Sargeant.  In 1938 Sally Gowns took a floor.  Dressmaker Sally N. Robitzek specialized in bridal fashions and her prices would make prospective brides envious today.  An advertisement on May 11, 1939 in the Nassau Daily Review-Star listed "bridal gowns starting at $19.95 and veils from $14.95."  (That lowest priced gown would be about $361 in today's money.)

The property was still headquarters to Benson & Hedges and was, in fact, often referred to as the Benson & Hedges Building.  The firm would remain throughout the 1930's.   

In 1960 the Sommelier Society of America was established to train restaurant personnel in wines.  In 1981 it began offering wine tasting classes by members of the wine industry to the general public.  In the meantime, Jeanne Rafari - Paris operated an apparel store in the ground floor shop.  It offered "today's fashions in large sizes," according to a 1984 ad.

In January 1994 a renovation of the existing two-story restaurant was begun.  It desecrated the marble facade with an overlay of stone, disguising but not destroying the three-sided bay at the second floor.  At some point the slate shingles of the mansard were removed, leaving the once-proud structure rather tattered looking.

photographs by the author
many thanks to Nancy Battaglia for suggesting this post

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Church of St. Catherine of Genoa - 504 West 153rd Street

On April 28, 1888 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported "A new Roman Catholic Church is to be built at 10th avenue and 153d street.  It is to be called the Church of St. Catherine of Genoa.  Articles of incorporation have just been filed."  Archbishop Michael Corrigan had chosen the Rev. Father Edward F. Slattery to establish the new parish.  The Record & Guide pointed out that he "has been quite active in the organization of new churches."

Within two months an architect was hired.  On June 23 The Record & Guide announced "Thos. H. Poole will shortly commence the plans for the Church of St. Catharine [sic] of Genoa...under the direction of the energetic and popular Father Edward J. Slattery.  The building will be 150 x 85 in size and will probably be of limestone."

Fund-raising to build the church was given an enormous boost at the same time.  The day before the Guide's announcement The New York Times had reported on two enormous gifts received by Father Slattery.  "Father McGovern, an aged and rich priest, has given him $25,000 and John D. Crimmins, the contractor and ex-Park Commissioner, $25,000."  The total windfall would be equal to about $1.36 million today.

Construction did not get underway until late that year.  But Archbishop Corrigan was on hand to lay the cornerstone in the spring of 1889 and the building was completed and dedicated that fall.  

Poole's design apparently came as a surprise to newspapers and others who had foreseen a Gothic style church faced in limestone.  A pleasing marriage of styles, the red-brick facade sat on a water table of rough-cut limestone blocks.  The three entrance doors were sheltered by a highly unusual singled canopy upheld by wooden brackets.  Poole married Venetian Gothic with Flemish Renaissance Revival by juxtaposing a stepped gable with the sinuously arched stained glass windows.

A stone carriage step, necessary for ladies to disembark from their vehicles gracefully, sits on the sidewalk. The Catholic Church in the United States of America, 1914 (copyright expired) 

Slattery had purchased the three-story brick home of Henry V. and Margaret J. Steers at No. 506 West 153rd Street in 1888 to be used as the rectory.  He paid the Steers $13,500--a significant $386,000 in today's dollars.  Now that the church was completed Thomas H. Poole was brought back to replace the house with a property rectory.  Completed in 1890, its design surprisingly could not have been more different from the church.

Poole created a rather serious blend of Romanesque Revival and Renaissance Revival design for the rectory.  Not even the color of brick was harmonious with the church next door.
Newspapers nationwide took note of one of the first weddings in the Church of St. Catherine of Genoa.  On July 29, 1894 The New York Times reported "With a decided lack of display, the marriage of Miss Caroline Jones, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel S. Jones of Chicago, and the Viscount Benoist d'Azy of France, was celebrated yesterday morning, in the Church of St. Catherine of Genoa."

The weddings of American debutantes to titled Europeans were most often brilliant affairs.  But this one was purposely understated.  "The decorations of the church consisted of a few cut flowers and palms.  Only relatives were present," said The Times.  The Evening World went further.  "The invitations scarcely included an intimate friend, and except for the three or four friends who officiated nobody was present by relatives."

It seems that there may have been friction--both domestic and religious--concerning the marriage.  For one thing, Nathaniel S. Jones, did not show up.  "His business interests compel him to spend much of his time in Chicago, and he was unable to attend his daughter's wedding," said the article.  And although Pope Leo XIII had asked Archbishop Corrigan "to bestow the Papal blessing," he passed that duty to Father Slattery.  He was, according to the Church, "in the Catskills."

Nevertheless, the couple's story was a romantic one.  The Evening World called the groom, who was in line to become the Count Benoist d'Azy, "young, rich and handsome."  And The New York Times remarked "The marriage was the outcome of a case of love at first sight.  The Viscount was first presented to Miss Jones in Chicago about two years ago, and was immediately smitten with her charms."

New Yorkers of 1896 were less accustomed to unstable homeless people than those of today--at least within their churches.  And so when one came to the Church of St. Catherine of Genoa on Sunday, July 26 that year, upheaval ensued.

"An insane man created considerable commotion at the celebration of the mass in St. Catherine of Genoa's Roman Catholic Church...yesterday morning," said the New-York Tribune.  As the congregation filed into the church for the 8:00 mass, a "tall, shabbily dressed man," entered as well.  Richard Sadler, who was about 22-years old, entered a rear pew and dropped to his knees, apparently in prayer.  He remained in that position, hands tightly clasped, well after the service.  When the sexton approached him and asked if there was anything wrong, the man became enraged and let out a violent shriek.  "His cry greatly frightened the congregation and several women and children hastily left the church."

Later Father Slattery approached the Sadler "to pacify him," but the man "yelled madly."  Finally, at around noon policemen were called to remove him.  The Tribune reported "when the maniac saw them he became frantic...The lunatic fought desperately to resist arrest, and it required the combined strength of four men to unclasp his hands."  Sadler was taken to Bellevue Hospital for treatment.

Far different from the wedding of a future Count and Countess was the funeral of a saloon king on August 5, 1898.  Philip Milligan, known to his patrons as Phil, had operated his saloon and restaurant on Broadway near 33rd Street for more than a quarter of a century.  His was no low-class Tenderloin District dive, however.  The Times noted "His customers were high-class sportsmen, the gambling fraternity, and the 'sporty' elements of the Legislature and the Judiciary."  Phil Milligan's funeral garnered press attention across the city.

While talking to an assistant priest in the church on September 8, 1901 Father Slattery was suddenly "stricken with paralysis," according to newspaper accounts.  It was most likely a massive stroke.  The 52-year old priest was taken unconscious to his rooms in the rectory where he died within a few hours.  His body lay in state in the church until it was removed to St. Patrick's Cathedral for his funeral, conducted by the Archbishop, on September 11.

Slattery was temporarily replaced in the pulpit by Father Francis J. Heaney.   Only a month later he responded to a horrific accident in the subway excavation tunnel nearby at Broadway and 164th Street.  The New-York Tribune reported on October 19, 1901 "At 9:25 a.m. yesterday a mass of rock 63 feet long, 11 feet wide and 10 feet high, weighing about 150 tons, suddenly caved from the west side and roof of the Rapid Transit tunnel."  Five men were instantly killed and two others were injured.  The article noted "At noon Father Francis J. Heaney, of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine of Genoa...went down into the shaft."

Before the end of the year the Irish-born Reverend Patrick E. McCorry was appointed full-time rector of St. Catherine's.  The congregation continued to grow and he announced plans to enlarge the church in May 1904.  The Sun reported "A three-story extension, 53 feet deep, is to be built, the gallery enlarged and two new sacristies built in the rectory."  Architect John C. Kerby designed the alterations, which cost the congregation the equivalent of $116,000 today.

The size of the congregation was evidenced during World War I simply by the number of members who marched off to battle.  Service flags were a means to honor members of a company or other organization serving in the military.  The flags were emblazoned with one star for each soldier or sailor.   On January 20, 1918 Father McCorry blessed a service flag and an American flag, and then hoisted them into the breeze.  The service flag bore 310 stars.

It was no small ceremony.  The flag raising was preceded by a parade headed by a "children's protectory bank and a color guard from the newly formed Sixty-ninth Regiment," according to The Sun, and a Marine band.  A reception in the parish house followed.

On December 21, 1928 Rev. Patrick E. McCorry celebrated a half-century of priesthood.  Although he "refused any general celebration of the anniversary," according to The New York Times, the parishioners poured into the church for his 9:00 a.m. mass.  "The church was crowded, the more than 900 pupils in the parochial school, which he himself built, being present in a body."

Six years later, on September 1, 1934, Rev. McCorry died at the age of 81 in the rectory.  The Times explained "he had been suffering from a complication of ailments for four months."  His high requiem funeral mass was held in St. Catherine's four days later.

The face of the Hamilton Heights neighborhood and, subsequently, the congregation of St. Catherine of Genoa had greatly changed by the last decade of the 20th century.  

Among the families worshiping here at the time was that of William Batista, born in the Dominican Republic.  On October 21, 1995 The New York Times began its blood-chilling article saying "For some 20 years, William Batista had struggled to shield his family from Harlem's everyday dangers, working the night shift at a midtown Manhattan hotel and setting aside his earnings at home, for safekeeping.  Yesterday morning he returned home from work to find the horror he had never foreseen: his wife and teen-age son were lying face down in the master bedroom, both shot once in the head.  His daughter, whom he discovered in her room, had also been shot in the head."

Police and neighbors theorized that crooks had found out that Batista stashed his money at home, rather than in a bank, and the murders were the result of robbery.  More than $22,000 was missing from the apartment.

Batista had kept a tight rein on his children.  A neighbor said that William, who was 15, and Arelis, 18, were "very religious.  The only place they go out is to go to church."  Their father would routinely call St. Catherine of Genoa School to make sure William was in class.  And he would visit Mother Cabrini High School during recess to see his daughter.

Just as mourners were gathering at the Church of St. Catherine of Genoa for the triple funeral on October 23, shocking developments were being uncovered at police headquarters.  Two suspects, Lamar Sanchez and Jose Rodrigues had been arrested and charged with murder, robbery and weapons possession.  The chilling surprise was that they had been hired by Arelis Batista to kill her family.

The Times reported that the teen, who had been the former girlfriend of Sanchez, "let the killers into the apartment...and then became a victim.  The police said that she was bitterly angry at her domineering father and that she had hired the men to kill him."  Instead, aware of the hidden cash, they simply murdered everyone in the apartment and fled.

The diverse demographics of the neighborhood is reflected in the masses today--celebrated in English, in Spanish, and in French and Haitian Creole.  Thomas H. Poole's striking structure continues to be a vibrant presence in the Harlem neighborhood after 130 years.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Max Siegel's Art Deco 90 Seventh Avenue So. and 307 Bleecker Street

The building angles back to the nearly-matching Bleecker Street side.  

In the first years of the 19th century John Holdron lived in a wooden house on Herring Street, next door to the Ryder Family house where Thomas Paine boarded in 1802.  More than a century later, in 1931, things in Greenwich Village had significantly changed.  Herring Street was now Bleecker Street; in 1917 the city had gouged out a wide swatch of property steps away to create Seventh Avenue South; and the Great Depression continued to spread a pall over the country.

That year, undaunted by the financial crisis, the Allenad Realty Corporation purchased the site of the Holdron house, the abutting building at No. 307, and the properties at Nos. 88 and 90 Seventh Avenue South.  Max Siegal was hired to create two matching facades for an L-shaped building.

The principal of Max Siegel Associates, he was listed as an architectural engineer.  And so it is possible that it was one of his associates rather than he who was directly responsible for the handsome Art Deco designs.  

Completed within the year, the nearly identical elevations featured wide storefronts at street level, and two floors of vast, multi-paned openings on the second and third floors.  

It was most likely the Depression which prompted Siegel to execute the striking Art Deco decorations in contrasting colored brick and cast concrete.  Brown brick against tan created the impression of piers and panels  An Art Deco zig-zag band below the second floor openings and Aztec-inspired decorative blocks were made of concrete instead of carved stone or terra cotta.  The cost savings did nothing to detract from the handsome design.

The ground floor became an A & P Grocery store, above which was an office and a showroom.  On the third floor were two "housekeeping apartments," a term that meant they included kitchens.  Only a year later Siegel was back to convert the second floor to a "dancing and meeting room and cabaret."

That space was home to The Vagabonds, described by the New-York Evening Post as "a little group of serious culturists who foregather nightly."  The organization of poets had been founded by Joe Vallon (a "lineal descendant of Fancois Villon but better fed," said the Post) in 1926.  It moved into its new home on September 1, 1932.  Non-members normally paid 25 cents admission to poetry readings, which included coffee and cake.

Howard Cushman of The Evening Post reported "Last night, though, was something special--they'd let you in free if you presented an original poem at the door and read it later.  Some poets read five or six original poems, but they only got one piece of cake."

Joe Vallon explained why the "dancing and cabaret" license was necessary for a poetry club.  Beginning September 16, he told reporters, The Vagabond would host "a radio band for dancing."  Cushman ended his article with his own stab at poetry writing:

How odd to think that poetry
Should bud above the A. & P.

The Vagabonds were still here in 1935, although by now it appears the club had changed its name.  On July 23 that year the New York Post announced "Josef Vallon, secretary of the Patrons of Poetry, asks that all persons who write poetry get in touch with his organization through him.  His address is 88 Seventh Avenue South...where poetry recitals are held every Monday night."

Within two years the second floor had been taken over by another historical and literary group, the Thomas Paine Society.

Socialist Appeal, December 4, 1937 
In the 1950's the second floor space was home to the Tamawa club.  The Democratic Party political club was one of the several remnants of the old Tammany clubs, even using a Native American name as the old Tammany groups had.  In 1957 the young lawyer Ed Koch was recruited as a counsel for the club.  He was promised by his friends that Tamawa was undergoing reform.

The Bleecker Street elevation is nearly identical to the larger, Seventh Avenue side.
According to Jonathan Soffer in his Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, "But after a few months at Tamawa, Koch realized that the prospect of a reformed Tammany was an illusion."  After several months, Koch resigned.

Change came to the building in 1984 when a renovation resulted in an "eating and drinking place" on the ground floor."  It became home to the jazz club Sweet Basil, founded in 1974 by Sharif Esmat.  Already well-known, the club would become legendary.  In addition to its live performances, jazz albums were recorded here, including Cecil Taylor's Iwontunwonsi, the Jean-Michel Pilc Trio's Together: Live at Sweet Basil, and McCoy Tyner's Live at Sweet Basil.

The club offered dinner and weekend brunches.  While an evening here would be memorable, it could also be pricey.  In 1986 the cover charge was $10 (more like $23 today) and there was a one-drink minimum.   Nevertheless on April 18 that year The New York Times cautioned "reservations are a must."  Three years later New York magazine noted that the cover charge at "this small, dark club," was now $15.

The club closed in 2001; but its co-manager and music director, James Browne, announced his intentions to purchase the building and "reopen a new club called Sweet Rhythm."  

Close by, at the corner of Grove Street and Bleecker, The Pink Tea Cup restaurant had been a neighborhood destination since 1955.  It was forced to close in January 2010, but Lawrence Page, a "neighborhood savior" as described by Eater New York, purchased the rights to the name.  He did not have to look far for a new location.

In October 2009 Sweet Rhythm had closed its doors for good.  Page issued a press release on May 13, 2010 which began "New York City is 'getting its soul back' this summer in the heart of the West Village."  It called The Pink Teacup "one of New York City's oldest southern culinary institutions" and announced its opening at 88 Seventh Avenue South was scheduled for June 2.

The venture, however, failed.  In 2012 the women's apparel and accessory retailer WiNK announced it had acquired the space, along with the second floor.  The Bleecker Street side became a retail store and the Seventh Avenue South side a related cafe.  A press announcement touted the configuration as "the first location to integrate the sale of apparel and accessories, with home furnishings, art and coffee."

But the recent history of the site caused Eater New York to include the address in an article on July 7, 2013 entitled "Can A Restaurant Location Be Cursed?"  Maybe.

On February 23, 2016 The New York Times' food columnist Florence Fabricant reported that Suprema Provisions had opened here.  The store, she explained, "houses a cafe, wine bar, salumeria and grocery under one foot."  A month later, on March 21, Fabricant advised her readers that those seeking proper sardine forks could find them here.

photo via StreetEasy .com

The upper floors--where poetry was read and Ed Koch worked on political legal problems--is today a sprawling duplex apartment.  

photographs by the author