Thursday, November 7, 2019

The 1909 Redfern Building - 3 East 48th Street

For decades the family of Dr. Timothy Field Allen lived in the four-story brownstone at No. 3 East 48th Street, just east of Fifth Avenue.  Field's son, Paul, was also an eminent doctor, the personal physician of John D. Rockefeller.  Following Timothy Allen's death in 1902, Paul sold the family home to Anson R. Flower, whose mansion was just around the corner on Fifth Avenue.  There was apparently a deal by which Paul Allen and his family would remain as tenants.  He continued to live and operate his medical office from the house at least through 1906.

But then on October 29, 1909 the New York Sun reported that Mrs. Anson R. Flower had leased the house "to Redfern, the Fifth Avenue dressmaker and milliner."  The article added "A five story business building designed for the exclusive use of the lessee will be erected on the site."

Founded by John Redfern in Britain, Redfern Ltd. had shops in Paris, London, and Edinburgh, as well as Manhattan.  Wealthy women who patronized the store could be completely outfitted.  The shop offered gowns, dresses, wraps, millinery, and accessories.  

An 1885 advertisement depicted the firm's elaborate coat of arms that would be an important element in the new building. (copyright expired)

The firm hired the architectural firm of Thain & Thain to replace the vintage brownstone with a modern, limestone-faced building for its store and headquarters.

Completed within the year, the stately commercial take on neo-Tudor was intended to reflect the firm's British roots.  The storefront sat below a large elliptical arch.  The upper floors dripped with 17th century inspired elements--small paned windows with stained glass medallions and heraldic shields held by frightful beasts, for instance.  The parapet above the cornice included a large shield emblazoned with back-to-back R's and a freestanding sculptured Redfern coat of arms.

The Allen house would have been a near twin to the brownstone at the right.  photo by Wurts Bros from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Redfern customers may have felt transported to its Paris salon.  Ushered into the reception room, they were surrounded by dainty French furniture, oil paintings and crystal chandeliers.

The reception room gave little hint of a dressmaker concern.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Even the showroom areas were noticeably free of merchandise.  Imported Parisian fashions were most often shown on live models.  Other styles were custom designed for the individual customer.

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The upper floors housed the workrooms.  Here eleven men and eighteen women created the fashions exhibited downstairs.  

Ten years after moving into its new building it appeared that Redfern was doing well.  On September 28, 1919 the firm placed an advertisement in the New-York Tribune entitled "Boy Wanted."  The firm needed someone to "act as elevator runner and assist in light work in morning."  The ad insisted that the applicant be at least 16 years old and added, "Boy Scout preferred."

This Redfern ensemble appeared in The Theatre magazine in 1911 (copyright expired)
Just day days earlier another ad appeared, this one looking for a model.   Redfern was specific in its needs.  "A refined young lady, medium fair, about 17; must be slight figure and graceful carriage."

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
But things were not going as well as appearances would suggest.   The American branch was not successful and a decision was made to eliminate it as a society outfitter.  Instead it soon focused only on the manufacture of ready-made corsets.

In February 1920 George Gascoigne purchased the Redfern lease from Ida B. Flower.  He, in turn, leased the building to Joseph P. McHugh & Sons, furniture makers and interior decorators. 

An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on May 13, 1920 pictured "The new McHugh Building" now without the Redfern coat of arms on the parapet.  The caption promised "six entire floors of unusual wares for unusual homes."

The following month the firm launched a 25 percent off sale.  "In the new McHugh Building you will find many original and unusual wares made especially for the country home," said an advertisement.  It promised that "good taste does not mean expensive taste."  The sale price of an overstuffed sofa was $2,870 in today's dollars.

Unfortunately for Joseph P. McHugh & Sons the new location did not work out.  By the end of 1921 it was being used as headquarters for the New York Exchange for Woman's Work.  The organization had been formed in 1878 so that Civil War widows could make a living by selling hand-made items like knitted scarves and mittens.

The charity was backed by the wealthiest of New York's socialites.  On December 5, 1921, for instance, The New York Herald reported "A rummage sale for the benefit of the emergency fund of the New York Exchange for Woman's Work will be held at 3 East Forty-eighth street."  The article noted that heading the committee was Mrs. George F. Baker, Jr.

In August 1922 Harry Lichtenstein leased the building from Gascoigne.  In reporting on the deal the Record & Guide noted that he "after extensive alterations will occupy the building as a retail millinery and dressmaking establishment."

Lichtenstein's interior renovations resulted in showrooms on the first and second floors, factory space on the third and fourth, and offices on the fifth.

The Morning Telegraph ran a popular weekly column entitled "Looking Around With Hazel."  The journalist visited shops and (no doubt with a financial prompting) advised female shoppers on her findings.  On March 18, 1923 her column included:

I was with a friend of mine when she selected such a smart hat at Harry Lichtenstein's, Inc.  It was a blue straw, combined with flat crepe.  They had a marvelous selection from which to choose.  Do go in there and tell Mr. Lichtenstein that Hazel of The Telegraph said that he should show you some of the hats I saw.  3 East Forty-eighth street is the address.

Harry Lichtenstein remained at No. 3 until 1930.  In May that year the Scribner Realty Corporation signed a 21-year lease.  The firm now leased the floors to separate tenants, including "a hairdressing establishment" on the third floor and John T. Harris who installed his restaurant on the ground floor.  It was the first step in a long tradition of eating places.

After French chef Maurice A. Raviol signed a lease on the ground floor in in 1935, architect Louis Jallade was hired to update the building.  The arched storefront was removed, a cast iron insert replaced the handsome arcade-like row of windows on the second floor, and the charming Tudor style windows were replaced with plate glass.

Jallade's renovations did not affect the sitting beasts and shields along the fifth floor cornice or the mirror image R's in the parapet (ignore the streaks caused by raindrops).
The French restaurant Maison Maurice opened in June 1936.  The upper floors were leased to a variety of tenants, like the photographer Roxane Studios; optician Alfonse Laber, who would work from the second floor; and the National Silver Company.

On January 23, 1939 the New York Post told its readers about the photography studio, saying in part:

Despite the efforts of department stores, beauty salons and beauty editors, the average person knows very little about the technique of make-up, and virtually nothing about the special make-up needed before the camera's eye.  The Roxane Studios...are wizards at this particular branch of the art, for they freely admit that much of their best photography is the result of make-up they know how to apply to each sitter. Even babies require a gentle glow of color on the lips, or a touch of lip oil or at bit of cream to bring out the beauty of the eyes...their charge for a non-commercial picture is $30 for three prints size eight inches by ten inches in folders.

Designer Peg Newton moved into the building in 1940 when she revolutionized American women's concepts of fashion.  Fifteen years later she was still here.  On April 7, 1958 Gloria Emerson of The New York Times reminded her readers that when Newton opened her shop "there were few, if any, manufacturers who made clothes in anything but regular sizes."   Like Lane Bryant, who had recognized the need for "stout" sized fashions, Peg Newton sought to meet the needs of tall women.

Her annual fashion shows drew the attention of the press.  On October 7, 1947 The New York Times entitled an article "Tall Girls Styles Shown / Presentation by Peg Newton Makes Height an Asset."

At mid-century jewelry designer Vincent F. Polidori's workshop was also in the building.  

In 1954 the restaurant space became home to Michael's Pub, described by Jane Nickerson in The Times as "a public house in name only."  She added "The food is good, the wine sound and the surroundings ingratiating."  It became a go-to luncheon spot for Madison Avenue advertising agencies.  

The space would see restaurants come and go.  In 1957 it was home to Cafe Costi and by January 1978 P. J. Moran's was here.  Food critic Laurie Werner wrote in The New York Times on January 11, "P. J. Moran's at 3 East 48th Street is probably the most faithful to the old pre-Prohibition style.  If you can fight your way through the bar area near the entrance, a buffet awaits in the rear."

Moran's was replaced by a steak house, The Gathering, which was replaced by Mirabeau, described by The Times on September 16, 1988 as "a lively little bar and restaurant at 3 East 48th Street, formerly a steakhouse called the Gathering.  Today P. J. Moran's is back in its former home.

Once an elegant haunt of Manhattan socialites, the Redfern Building is easily overlooked today; its abused facade a mere hint of its former gentility.

photographs by the author


  1. In the photo of Redfern's reception room, the large painting looks like the work of German born artist Karl Heffner (1849 - 1925).

    1. Good eye! I had peered at that work but couldn't identify it. (Art history is not my forte!) Thanks!

  2. Thanks for your excellent research. It helped to identify a fashionable garment from the 1920's with a "Harry Lichtenstein" label.

  3. Vincent F Polidori - jewelry designer - pearls and novelties had his 2nd workshop there on the second or third floor until he died in 1958.