Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The 1892 Zeimer & Co. Dry Goods Bldg - 547-549 Sixth Avenue

The West Side Hotel opened at the southwest corner of Sixth Avenue and 15th Street around the end of the Civil War.   Owned by the Kelly family, it was leased to hotel-keepers Davis & Soule by 1874.  A serious parting of the ways soon happened and Joseph A. Davis had Warren Soule arrested.  He testified in March 1877 that, while he leased the hotel proper, he owned the "stock and fixtures of the bar and furniture at hotel known as 'West Side Hotel, No. 225 and 227 Sixth avenue, New York, valued at $25,000."  

Despite the somewhat pricey furnishings of the hotel (Davis's assessment would equal nearly $620,000 today), there were shady dealings going on at the West Side Hotel at the time.  After Thomas E. Crimmins suspected that his wife, Jennie, was carrying on an affair with C. P. Gurney, he and his millionaire brother, John C. Crimmins, hired private investigators to track her.  On December 31, 1878 they testified in court.  James M. Dixon said in part "I saw them enter the West Side Hotel, corner of Sixth avenue and Fifteenth street, on the evening of November 19, 1878, by the private entrance on Fifteenth street; they went in twenty minutes of eight, and came out about twenty minutes past eleven."

In 1889 the Kelly Estate leased the hotel to "Messrs. Coogan Bros. for twenty-one years, at $12,000 per annum and taxes," as reported in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide on May 4.  Obtaining the lease was not a problem for James J. Coogan.  He was the administrator of the Kelly Estate and handled its substantial real estate holdings.   Operating a hotel would be a new venture for him and his brother Edward, who ran a retail furniture business.

James J. Coogan purchased the property in 1891.  By now the reputation of the West Side Hotel had continued to decline.  Just two months earlier the Brooklyn newspaper the Daily Eagle called it "a resort of questionable character."  On the other hand, the Sixth Avenue neighborhood was seeing the rise of opulent department stores, quickly turning it into one of the city's premier shopping thoroughfares.  

Coogan saw an opportunity.  On April 2, 1892 the Record & Guide reported that they had leased the old hotel property for 11 years at an astounding annual rental of $30,000--around $845,000 today.  "The property will be improved for business purposes."

One month later the Record & Guide announced "Leinau & Nash are the architects for the five-story and basement brick and stone store building, to be built on the southwest corner of 6th avenue and 15th street...The first two floors will have hardwood trim...The work of tearing down is now going on."

The architects were tasked with designing another impressive dry goods store along the Ladies' Mile, Zeimer & Co.   The newly formed firm opened its doors in the newly-completed building in September 1892.

Leinau & Nash had created a handsome brick and limestone emporium that could hold its own among the sprawling retail palaces further north on the avenue.   Above the store front, now sadly lost, the second floor boasted expansive show windows that caught the eye of women passing along on the Sixth Avenue elevated.  Only slightly smaller were the show windows of the third and fourth floor, set within two-story arches.  The especially attractive fifth floor was faced in limestone.  Pilasters were decorated with effusive carvings of ribbons and wreaths.  They framed pairs of windows which were separated by engaged columns.  The frieze below the bracketed cornice was embellished with swags and wreaths, held in the beaks of spread-winged eagles.

The sale price for a boy's wool double-breasted suit was about $100 in today's money.  October 14 1892 (copyright expired)
The fledgling store was composed of Israel Zeimer, Albert C. Westheimer, Jacob H. Flashner, and Noel Feldstein.  To help them get started Israel's father, Samuel Zeimer fronted the money for the rent, signing the lease personally.  A partner in the highly successful millinery firm of Zeimer & Feldstein, he also promised to provide the new store the bulk of its millinery.

The feminine shoppers of Sixth Avenue responded to the new store.  The Evening World reported "Their prospects were excellent, and the establishment was soon classed with the largest on the avenue."  But Zeimer & Co.'s neighbors--the grand stores like Seigel-Cooper, B. Altman and Hugh O'Neill--made for formidable competition.  And then the Financial Panic of 1893 dealt the firm a coup de grâce.

On August 7, 1894 The World reported "Considerable surprise was manifested in the dry-goods circles to-day when it became known that the big retail firm of Zeimer & Co., at 225 and 227 Sixth avenue, had failed."  The article explained "Zeimer & Co. apparently prospered until about six months ago, when on account of the business depression they began to lose money...Recently it was decided that the best thing to do for the benefit of their creditors was to make an assignment."  No doubt the fact that the firm owed Samuel Zeimer $37,000 in the rent he had paid and in merchandise (over a million in today's dollars) was a deciding factor in shutting down the store.

In the meantime, James J. Coogan was having his own problems.  Lienau & Nash had projected the cost of the building at $80,000.  But in fact, the final bills amounted to $103,000--about $2.93 million today.  Coogan claimed fraud and refused to pay the difference.  On July 25, 1893 the contractors placed a lien on the property.  A court ruled against Coogan.  And then, in December 1897 Edward Coogan sued his brother and for defrauding him out of the third interest in the building, "amounting to many thousands of dollars."  Edward claimed that when Zeimer & Co. failed, James had sold the fixtures and furniture and kept the money for himself.

The building became home to the John H. Little & Co. furniture and carpeting store.  The firm signed a petition in January 1900 along with stores like Siegel-Cooper Company; Adams & Co.; Simpson, Crawford & Simpson and R. H. Macy & Co.,  It demanded that the Manhattan Railway Company do something about its clanking, rattling elevated trains.  The document insisted "that the noise can be stopped at a trifling cost by partly submerging the rail in a non-resonant substance."

John H. Little & Co. was far more successful in the corner building than Zeimer & Co. had been.  It remained here until early in 1914 when it moved to West 14th Street.  

The building was quickly leased to another furniture store, Fishfield Furniture Co., which had operated for years on West 14th Street.  The store opened on St. Patrick's Day 1914 and, like John H. Little & Co., engulfed all five floors.

A ten-piece oak dining room suite cost the equivalent of $5,150 in today's money.  The Evening World, March 16, 1914 (copyright expired)
"Fishfield" was a melding of the owners' names--Jacob Fischlowitz, Abraham Fischlowitz, and Louis Newfield.   Although it had been in business for years, like the ill-fated Zeimer & Co., a global economic downturn--the Financial Panic of 1914--caused its downfall.   On July 23, 1916 the New York Press announced that the firm had declared bankruptcy.

Despite the economic conditions, the building was once again immediately leased; this time to the Franco-American Ferment Co.   The firm manufactured supplements touted as providing beneficial bacteria.  Among its products were Lactobaccilline Tablets, "a pure culture of the Bacillus bulgaricus.  These tablets give rise to the production of considerable quantities of lactic acid, which tends to restrain the growth of putrefactive organisms in the intestines," and Lactobaciline Liquide, "A pure culture in tubes of the Bacillus bulgaricus grown in a neutralized sugar bouillon."  It promised the same results as the tablets.  There were also the Lactobacilline Suspension, the Lactobacilline Milk Ferment, the Lactobacilline Glycogene Liquide, and several others.

The Western Druggist, December 1917 (copyright expired)
In 1926 Sixth Avenue was renumbered, giving the building the address of Nos.  547-549.  At the time it was the home of the Sterling, Inc., makers of the Sterling piano.  The factory was located in Jamaica, Queens.  

Shoppers looking for a player piano as Christmas 1929 approached found an attractive deal in the Sterling showroom.  An advertisement proclaimed "Nationally-known player--you'll recognize the name instantly as belonging to one of the top-notchers!"  The $450 instrument was marked down to $219 with three years to pay.  "A wonderful player, with a fine mellow tone and in a stunning mahogany case."  The company went so far as to promise delivery on Christmas day, "if you desire!"

The 1929 Sterling player piano was offered at half price that Christmas season. Long Island Daily Press, November 1, 1929  

When the Sixth Avenue elevated train was demolished in 1938 Sterling Piano still occupied the building and would remain for several more years.  The removal of the el was indicative of the many changes in the immediate district since it was the premier shopping street in the 1890's.   

The building once again became home to a furniture store in 1967 when renovations were done for "furniture display" on every floor.  And then, in 1973, another alteration resulted in 10 apartments per floor above the ground level, now brutally disfigured.

While New Yorkers lavish their attention on the showy retail palaces a few blocks north on Sixth Avenue, Leinau & Nash's 1892 dry goods building is an overlooked step-sister.

photographs by the author

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