Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The William Knabe & Co. Building - 437-439 Fifth Avenue

photo via

By 1904 the age of commodious private homes along Fifth Avenue below 42nd Street was essentially over.  It was a circumstance that did not escape the notice of Horace A. Hutchins.   

The self-made man was born in Cleveland, Ohio where, according to The Successful American in January 1903, he "started out in life at the bottom of the ladder."  His break came in 1872 when Standard Oil Company bought his refining business and offered him a job.  By now he had amassed a large fortune and turned to real estate development as a side line.

In 1904 Hutchins purchased the dwellings on the southeast corner of 39th Street and hired esteemed architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design a vast commercial structure on the site.  In reporting the plans on December 10, 1904 The American Architect and Building News noted "Work will begin May 1, 1905."

C. P. H. Gilbert created a striking Beaux Arts structure faced in tan brick that might well have been mistaken for an upscale hotel.  The two-story rusticated limestone piers of the base gave way to a pair of engaged columns on either side of the marquee-covered entrance.  The six-story midsection featured balconies above the third floor openings.  The upper portion was introduced by a stone balcony with iron railings that wrapped the Fifth Avenue and 39th Street corner, and the eleventh floor took the form of a stupendous mansard roof with elaborate dormers.

Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, February 17, 1906 (copyright expired)

As construction neared completion, on February 17, 1906 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the building had been leased.  "Messrs. Knabe & Co. will occupy the ground floor and basement for their piano warerooms," it said.  The article mentioned that the structure "will be called the Knabe Building."  

As the piano firm settled in, Horace A. Hutchins sold his new structure to the Paris-based real estate firm, Raimon Company, in October 1906.  The price, $1.25 million, would be more in the neighborhood of $36 million today.  The Record & Guide noted that real estate men regarded the price as "a fair value for this location," and added "The predictions of many old time operators that 5th av would eventually be the leading business thoroughfare now seem to be rapidly materializing."

The offices in the upper floors were leased to a variety of firms.  In 1907 publisher and dealer in old books Francis P. Harper moved his operation from No. 14 West 22nd Street into the building.  In reporting on the move in its February 16 edition, The Publishers Weekly advised "Mr. Harper's specialty has been in rare, curious and out-of-print books, early Americana and Rebellion literature, and he is among the leading experts in this line."

The American Automobile Association took offices here as its headquarters at around the same time.  And the real estate operator W. M. Ostrander, Inc. took the entire top floor that year.  Incorporated in 1905, The New York Times later said the firm dispersed "attractive literature regarding suburban real estate from the company's well-furnished offices."   

Lippincott's Magazine Advertiser, January 1907 (copyright expired)

On June 30, 1907 W. M. Ostrander placed an advertisement in The Sun entitled "Don't Invest a Dollar in Real Estate Before Reading My New Magazine, 'Ostrander's Money Maker.'"  The guide cost 5 cents a copy or 50 cents for a year's subscription.  (Perhaps Ostrander should have read his own publication, for two years later the firm went under.)

Tenants in the building were shocked by a gruesome accident that summer.  James R. Huntley had been called to repair a battery that operated the elevator bell.  As he worked, he "was struck by a descending elevator and crushed between the bottom of the car and the floor of a sub-basement," reported the New-York Tribune on June 28, 1907.  "He was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where it was said last night that he would probably die."

On December 26 that year the offices of the American Automobile Association were the scene of outraged members of "all of the automobile organizations both in club and trade circles," as described by the New-York Tribune.  The Park Board had enacted an ordinance excluding any vehicles with chains on their wheels not only from the city's parks, but "all the streets, driveways and roads under the jurisdiction of the Park Board."  The Tribune said the enactment "has met with the prompt disapproval and protest of every automobilist."

The Edison Monthly, February 1911, (copyright expired)

Automobile racing was just emerging as a popular upper-class pastime at the time.  When one set of rules for the Vanderbilt Cup race was set down by the American Automobile Association while the Automobile Club of America devised another set, it prompted "protests from the French and English clubs," said the New-York Tribune on May 27, 1908.  The day before that article a meeting of the racing board had been held in the American Automobile Association's offices and, according to the newspaper, "so far as can be judged, the fight is on for the control of automobile racing and touring contests in this country."

For generations American socialites depended on ropes of pearls to express their wealth and social status.  But now cut stones were quickly replacing them.  Eduard Van Dam, who also had jewel cutting shops in Amsterdam and Antwerp, was in the Knabe Building by now.  The Evening World said on September 24, 1908, "that owing to an increased demand for diamonds he has place a full force of men at work on full time in his New York house and that the two in Europe are similarly busy.  He said that the diamond industry would soon be in full operation."

Other tenants at the time were Mrs. Adeline Stanhop-Wheatcroft's "new Dramatic Studio," which opened in September; and the studio of Martin H. Hanson, whose Concert Direction Company managed the careers of concert vocalists and musicians.  (He was still here in June 1914 when he introduced American audiences to Russian ballet, signing a contract with the Russian Imperial Theatre.)

New-York Tribune, September 5, 1908 (copyright expired)

Also in the building was the studio of photographer Edward S. Curtis.  In January 1911 he published his massive 28-volume work of Native American photographs, The North American Indian, financially backed by J. Pierpont Morgan.  Curtis had lived with various tribes for months in order to fully understand their cultures and properly capture them on film.

In connection with its release he opened an exhibition of original photographs in the studio that month.  The Evening World, on January 14, deemed his work "in far vaster scope and closer intimacy" than paintings and sculptures.  "For Mr. Curtis, with his camera, has lived as a brother with the many different tribes of the red men, all the way from Canada to Mexico."

In the meantime, Knabe & Co. was doing well in their ground floor showrooms.  On May 19, 1909 The Review of Reviews commented "Just from the handsome Knabe building at Thirty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue alone more high-grade pianos were bought last season than from any other piano house in New York City."

In the early 1920's Knabe Piano drew crowds by exhibiting famous instruments.  On December 17, 1922 The New York Herald announced that Richard Wagner's piano upon which he reputedly composed his operatic "Ring" cycle, would be played here.  "Musicians, Wagnerian experts, composers and many of the more representative people in New York, to the number of nearly a thousand, will be in the assemblage in the Knabe studios, 437 Fifth avenue, next Thursday, to see the master piano and hear it played upon."

And in July 1927 Berthold Neuer, the firm's vice president, returned from France with two pianos formerly owned by Franz Liszt.

But already the firm had laid plans to leave its home of more than two decades.  On January 24, 1928 The New York Times reported that the company had donated 50 pianos to charity, "in commemorating its coming removal to the new Knabe Tower" at No. 657 Fifth Avenue.  

At the time Ovington's had been housed in what an advertisement called its "impressive seven story temple of stone" directly across the avenue since 1921.  The firm styled itself "The Gift Shop of Fifth Avenue."  With Knabe gone, Ovington's crossed the street.

It took 400 hundred men, guarded by scores of police, to moved more than $1 million in stock across the avenue at night.  The New York Times reported "a steady line of men carried everything from ivory elephants to paintings and Persian rugs to the new store."

To modernize the Edwardian structure for Ovington's, architect Frank H. Hutton was commissioned to transform the two-story base and strip off some of the fussy decoration.  C. P. H. Gilbert's show windows and columns were removed and filled in, and the cast iron balcony railings stripped away.

from the collection of the New York Public Library.
Ovington's had been formed in 1846 as a small store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn.  It now sold a vast array of items for the home, from small furniture to china, silver and crystal, to decorative items like statuettes, bookends and wooden boxes for tea or cigars.

The price of the crystal hors d'oeuvres dish with the sterling silver rim pictured at lower right of this 1936 ad would equal about $408 today.
In February 1951 Ovington's moved again, this time to No. 666 Fifth Avenue.   The ground floor of the Knabe Building was converted to a restaurant "with restriction on entertainment" in 1964.  The upper floors continued to house a diverse tenant list.  The Buscarlet Glove Company, importers and distributors of women's gloves, was here at the time, as was The Japan Light Machinery Information Center.  It offered a free booklet to anyone thinking of buying binoculars, field glasses or opera glasses that year.

The Japan Light Machinery Information Center was still in the building in the mid-1970's along with its division, the Japan Camera Industry Association.

photo via henson

Recently the Knabe Building was restored by Scott Henson Architect.  The work included reconstruction of deteriorated brick and repair of the copper mansard.  Despite Frank Hutton's 1928 modernization, Gilbert's striking 1904 structure is still--nearly--Paris-worthy.


  1. Another fascinating exploration of Manhattan's architectural past and present!

    1. Thanks! Appreciate that you enjoyed it. I love this building.

  2. Didn't know Gilbert strayed from mansion building to do such a large commercial structure. He also has some notable, but small commercial structures in the financial district but this one is a real gem. NYarch