Friday, November 22, 2019

The Sapphire Hotel - 337-339 West Broadway

When Mary McDonell sold the property at the northeast corner of South Fifth Avenue and Grand Street to Joseph I. West on January 23, 1871, it held brick buildings with stores on the ground floors and dwelling space above.  West paid the widow $32,000, or just under $700,000 today.

In 1876 The Metropolitan Elevated Railway Company began construction of an elevated train up the middle of South Fifth Avenue.  Completed in 1878, it included a station at the intersection in front of West's property.  It would cause a considerable fuss in the courts years later.

Fourteen years after purchasing the property, West took steps to improve it.  Peter V. Outcault was both an architect and contractor and West hired the one-man operation to design and build a two-story structure on the site.  Construction began on October 14, 1885 and was completed six months later, on April 29, 1886.

Just two stories tall, it held three stores on the ground floor with two lofts on the second "for business purposes."  The upper portion was faced in red brick with brownstone trim.  The lintels were incised with attractive neo-Grec carvings of a single flower flanked by stylized leaves.  A metal neo-Grec style cornice with rigid fluted brackets ran along the roofline.

A year later, on April 28, 1887, West sold the building to Ephraim Drucker for $44,000; in the neighborhood of $1.2 million in today's money.  Drucker's ground floor tenants were a saloon, which faced South Fifth Avenue, and a grocery store and cigar store on the Grand Street side.

Upstairs in 1892 was the A. J. Clark & Co. apparel factory.  The small operation, which made ladies' cloaks, employed just six men and one woman that year.   It shared the floor with the Automatic Overflow Cut-off Company.  On July 2 that year the Record & Guide advised "One of the best precautionary devices to prevent damage to property from overflow from service pipes and flooding of sinks, is the Automatic Overflow Cut-off."

Six years after having purchased the property, Ephraim Drucker decided to sue the elevated railroad for building its line nearly a decade earlier.  His complaint alleged that the firm had "without any offer of compensation" to Joseph I. West "wrongfully, knowingly, willfully and maliciously" violated West's property rights.  Now, it said, the railroad continued to run its steam locomotives and trains of cars "to the great damage of said land and buildings" with "the intent to oppress" Drucker.  The steam engines, he asserted, brought "noxious smells, vapors and gases" which rendered the atmosphere "less salubrious and healthful."  He sought $2,000 damages for every year since April 28, 1887 (the day he took title).  

At the time of the lawsuit the saloon was run by John Martin DeLora.  He employed, according to his testimony, "three men, two barkeepers and one who cleans up."   When asked he admitted "Women come in there and get a glass of liquor very seldom.  It is sometimes done."  But he quickly added "My place is not a resort for disreputable women, and never has been since I have been there."

Conditions in factories and shops in the 19th century were miserable.  Decades before electric fans or air conditioning the heat that built up was suffocating; especially in spaces like this two story building where the sun beat down on the flat roof directly above.  The situation was evidenced during a stifling heat wave in the summer of 1896.

On August 11 the New York Evening Telegram ran the headline "Death Roll Increased by Intense Heat" and published a nearly page-engulfing list of the dead and "prostrated."  Among them was 24-year old Frederick Hirt who succumbed to the heat "while working at No. 54 Grand street.  He was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital."

That same year South Fifth Avenue was renamed West Broadway, giving the front-facing store the address of Nos. 337-339.  The side entrances retained their addresses of Nos. 54 through 58 Grand Street.  

Surprisingly, the upstairs factories were converted to the Sapphire Hotel shortly after the end of World War I.  As might be expected, the less-than-opulent hotel was from time to time the scene of upheaval.  

Such was the case on January 17, 1924.  That night Charles Gau invited his brother, Anthony, and a friend over.  The New York Evening Telegram reported "Their joviality taking a turn, Charles and Anthony J. Gau and John Victor Nelson are said to have become involved in a three-cornered fight in which a bottle, a mandolin, and a ukulele were used as weapons."  Nelson got the worst of it and was transported to Bellevue Hospital with a fractured skull.  The article added that "Charles Gau's room in the Sapphire Hotel, West Broadway and Grand street, is wrecked."  The brothers were arrested and charged with felonious assault.

At the corner of the building hangs the sign "Sapphire Hotel - Cafe" in this 1939 photograph.  At No. 58 Grand Street is a delicatessen.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.
Another Sapphire resident suffered a humiliating and most likely expensive accident in Dobbs Ferry, New York in the fall of 1926.  Edgar Pine, described by The Yonkers Statesman as "an elderly man," took his motorcycle upstate on October 14.  At the "sharp curve" of Main and Cedar Streets there, his rear wheel skidded slightly.  When Pine turned his head to see the trouble, he ran the cycle into the curb.  "The contact threw him to the sidewalk, bruising his head, and damaging the machine," said the article.  The damage to the bike was apparently worse than that to Pine's head.  He was treated at the Dobbs Ferry Hospital and "was able to go home by train."

The Soho renaissance arrived at the corner of West Broadway and Grand Street by 1991 when Jour et Nuit occupied the one-time saloon space.  In June 1993 New York Magazine described the interiors as a "dimly romantic Moroccanesque stage set" and its cuisine as sophisticated, flavor-rich and "thrilling."

The space housed a series of eateries--Niota Indian restaurant in 1997; Town Residential's "international water bar" in 2013; and most recently the Japanese soufflé pancake cafe, Flipper's which opened in September 2019.

photographs by the author

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