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


  1. The first 2 floors are very off putting. Very sad. Don't fit the building at all.

  2. Standing across the street from it right now and just such a shame the condition the first two floors are in. Active advertisement, hope someone comes and brings back the glory of a marble facade. Great article and history, thank you for the research!