Monday, May 25, 2020

The Lost Gonfarone's Restaurant - 181 MacDougal Street


By 1916 when this photograph was taken, the business engulfed 179 MacDougal and 38 and 40 West 8th Street.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In 1839 Dr. Robert Hogan and his family lived at No. 3 St. Clement's Place just south of 8th Street.  He owned No. 5 on the corner as well, which he leased as an investment.   The identical homes were three stories tall and faced in brick.  The Greek Revival style entrances sat above relatively short stoops and featured engaged Doric columns which upheld substantial stone entablatures.  Three bays wide, they rose to a simple fascia board and cornice.

Dr. Hogan and his wife, Eliza Helen, had three daughters, Clara, Sarah, and Ellen Louise.  He had been educated in Dublin's Trinity College and would be a leader in New York's Irish community.   The New York Times later pointed out "It was mainly through Dr. Hogan's exertion that the Irish Emigrant Society and the St. Patrick's Society were instituted."

Hogan's tenant in No. 5 in the 1840's was William W. Groesbeck, a well-to-do importer.  When the street's name was changed in 1860 his address became No. 181 MacDougal Street.

Dr. Robert Hogan died on November 29, 1861, The New York Times saying he "had achieved eminence in his profession as a physician."  Following Eliza's death on February 18, 1867 the real estate was inherited jointly by the three daughters.

Between 1870 and 1874 Mme. Marie Griffou leased both houses, combining them it into a hotel and restaurant.  She later opened the Griffou Hotel on West 11th Street at which point Caterina Gonfarone, a widow, took over the MacDougal Street business, renaming it Gonfarone's.

The restaurant, which was in the basement, could seat 50 or 60 customers.  Although only a block from fashionable Washington Square, the neighborhood around the hotel was quickly filling with Italian immigrants.  Caterina changed the cuisine from French to Italian.  Her business might never have been remarkable had it not been for a chance encounter with a delivery man in 1892.

Anacleto Sermolino was 24-years old and had eloped with a girl, Vittoria, and fled to America from his village, Vigevano, Italy.  After struggling to find work for three months, he got a job as a delivery man for a wine merchant.  One day, after delivering wine to Caterina Gonfarone, they talked.  Learning that he was good with figures, she offered him a job as cashier.

As it turned out, Sermolino was not only good at figures, but at marketing.  He convinced Caterina to move the restaurant to the first floor and to obtain an excise license.  Within a year the success of the business prompted Caterina to make him a partner.  The New York Times remarked "In a short time he popularized the enormous dinner for which he charged 50 cents, with 15 cents added on week-ends when a lobster course was included."  Sermolino added a trio of musicians to provide music.  His daughter, Maria, later recalled "They were short on Beethoven and Bach, but long on Bellini, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini."

Decades later The Times remarked "Under his guidance the place acquired wide popularity and the late General Daniel E. Sickles, who lived close by on Fifth Avenue, was a frequent patron.  Another eminent patron was Mark Twain."  

As the 20th century dawned, another group was changing the face of Greenwich Village--the artists, poets, writers and musicians who transformed the district into New York's Bohemia.  The list of writers and artists who haunted Gonfarone's was impressive, including O. Henry, Arnold Daly, Jo Davison, and Enrico Caruso.  

In his 1910 novel Predestined Stephen French Whitman slightly veiled Gonfarone's as Benedetto's, "a Bohemian resort":

It was there, through the tobacco smoke, Felix watched the patrons, their feet twisted behind chair legs, their elbows on the table, all arguing with gesticulations.  Sometimes, there floated to him such phrases as: "Bad colour scheme! Bad colour scheme!" "Sophomoric treatment!" "Miserable drawing!" "No atmosphere!"  

In January 1905, under the business name of Gonfarone & Sermelino, the partners purchased No. 43 West 8th Street then hired architect R. H. Hatch to enlarge the hotel into that property.

Life for the Italian immigrant community was often hard and sometimes dangerous.  In August 1906 18-year old Rencari Gervaso, a waiter here, spent much of his money on an attractive woman, Maria Pecora, who lived nearby on Carmine Street.  Maria played the field, taking gifts and money from other Italian men, including Angelo Mazzocca and Luigi Giraldi.  Her mistake was to include "a big Sicilian" known only as Beppino in her ruse.

Gervaso found himself in serious trouble when Maria was found stabbed to death in her apartment on August 10 not long after he had left her.  He had passed Beppino coming up the stairway as he left; but was more afraid of the Sicilians than of the police, so withheld that information.  Luckily, he had told a female worker at Gonfarone's about Maria's fear of Beppino.  When investigators interrogated employees she supplied the information that cleared Gervaso.

The sometimes sketchy personality of the neighborhood was evidenced less than a month later, on September 3, 1906, when Louis Perasso was shot and killed in the hotel.

An advertisement in the New-York Tribune in 1915 touted "Lunch 45c.  Dinner 60c, with Wine, Music & Song."  The price of a dinner would equal just over $15.50 today.

Anacleto Sermolino bought out Caterina Confarone in 1910 and, according to the New York Hotel Review, "she set sail for Italy."  He wisely did not change the name of the establishment.  But after having been a Greenwich Village staple for decades, it suffered business troubles when Prohibition was enacted.  Sermolino sold the business and it went through a rapid turnover of owners until Annibale Maggi and his wife took it over.

The Maggis embarked on "a brave effort to restore something of its pre-prohibition republication," said The New York Times, later.  It continued to be a popular spot for dinners, like the testimonial dinner in honor of Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett in 1926 following their flight over the North Pole; the dinner of the Jenny Lind Memorial Association in 1921, and the one held for Giuseppe de Michelis, Royal Italian Commissioner of Immigration who visited New York in 1922.

But it was a losing battle.  On April 20, 1930 The New York Times entitled an article "Doors Are Closed At Old Gonfarone's."  While it said that "the Della Robbia room, on the main dining floor, continued to be a popular eating place and the scene of many entertaining dinner meetings of various societies," changing conditions and the "rapid incursion of business into the Eighth Street block," had led to the difficult decision of the Maggis to close.

The two original houses were still owned by the Hogan family.   The article reported "With the exception of the Eighth Street basement and parlor frontage rented for stores, the old building is now vacant, as the hotel section was closed some time ago."

It seemed that the old hotel had received a reprieve later that year when The Times reported that De Witt Nicholas had remodeled the building "at the expense of a few thousand dollars" into a "thoroughly modern" hotel for men only.  Nicholas preserved some of the history of the building.  "It was interesting to notice that many of the rooms still retain the white marble fireplace mantelpieces which were originally put into the two Macdougal Street houses when they were erected."

But then, on April 22, 1936, The New York Times reported "A taxpayer will replace the former Gonfarone Restaurant structures."  Taxpayers are most often low, relatively inexpensively built structures which provided enough income to the owners to pay the property taxes.  They were frequently seen as relatively temporary as well, paying for themselves while permanent development schemes were finalized.


In 1937 a cleaners operated from the former dining room and De Witt Nicholas's "hotel" advertised furnished rooms.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In April 1937 architects Leon & Lionel Levy filed plans for a "one-story and basement stores and office" building on the site.  The following month The Times reported "Within a block of Washington Square another landmark has just disappeared in the demolition of the old buildings celebrated as Gonfarone's for more than half a century prior to the prohibition period."


from the collection of the New York Public Library
The replacement building, altered, survives; although plans to replace it with a residential building were approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in April 2019.


rendering by Morris Adjmi Architects via Curbed New York

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Soon To Go--Dr. E. B. Foote's Murray Hill Publishing Co. Bldg - 129 East 28th Street



original source unknown
In the final pages of his 1872 Plain Home Talk, Dr. Edward Bliss Foote offered his medical services, saying "For the purpose of securing a permanent location, Dr. Foote has purchased the place which he has occupied for several years...[He] would take this opportunity to inform correspondents that he can not accommodate patients with board.  There are, however, hotels and boarding-houses within a convenient distance, fashionable and expensive, and unfashionable and comparatively cheap, where invalids can obtain accommodations according to their means."  Those unfashionable lodgings were farther from his home at No. 120 Lexington Avenue than the fashionable ones.

The house where Dr. Foote and his wife, the former Catherine Goodenough, lived sat amid the Italianate style homes of some of Manhattan's leading citizens.  Almost directly across the street, at No. 123, was the home of future U. S. President Chester A. Arthur and his wife Ellen, for example.  

Dr. Foote's medical office was in the basement of his brownstone residence.  A biographical article said "At his elegant office-parlors, 120 Lexington Avenue, may daily be found persons of all conditions--the rich and the poor; the dyspeptic and the consumptive; the pale-faced woman and the ruddy-faced but rheumatic-limed man; the brain-worn student and the weakly maiden--all of whom have, in most cases, tried the popular resident physician of ward or county before seeing the aid of the 'Common Sense Doctor.'"

Directly behind the house was a little, one-story frame building which Foote used as his office for his auxiliary businesses, the Murray Hill Publishing Company and "Dr. Foote's 'Sanitary Bureau.'"

From his desk in the humble outbuilding Foote cranked out his many pamphlets and books.  On December 19, 1874, for instance, an advertisement in The New York Herald promoted his Science In Story as a holiday gift.  The ad described it as:


Beaming with fun
Sparkling with pictures
Glowing with incident
and brimful of valuable information respecting the human body.  For children and adults.  by that cleverest and most fascinating of writers, Dr. E. B. Foote


Always as much entrepreneur as physician, Foote marketed a long list of "sanitary articles, instruments, medicines, etc.," from his Sanitary Bureau.  Among the items he offered in 1870 were an "eye-sharpener, or Self Sight Restorer," trusses, "scrotal supporters for gentlemen," pile compressors, shoulder braces, "impregnating syringe," and "Magnetic Catarrh Balm."


Plain Home Talk, 1872 (copyright expired)
Although he could be easily dismissed today because of his flagrant self-promotion and borderline quackish products; Dr. Foote attempted to disseminate solid and valuable medical information to the general public.  And at a time when delicate Victorian sensitivities cringed at talk of sexual intercourse, masturbation, abortion and such, Foote's books addressed the matters head-on.  He included scientific illustrations, including cross-sections of sexual organs, for instance, that inflamed moral reformers like the powerful Anthony Comstock.

Comstock was the founder and head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice and he turned his focus on Dr. Foote in 1876.  In May that year Foote was indicted "on a charge of sending improper articles through the mails," according to The New York Herald.   He was convicted based on a brochure that promoted birth control.

Undaunted, the doctor and his son, Dr. Edward Bond Foote fought back.  For the next three decades they would challenge obscenity laws in the courts, before Congress and in the state legislatures.  Dr. Foote's battle evolved to become not only a fight to discuss pertinent medical and social issues; but one of freedom of speech in general.


Dr. Edward Bliss Foote, Plain Home Talk, 1872 (copyright expired)

His controversial stance was not without personal danger.  On November 2, 1879 The New York Times reported "A stranger ran the bell of Dr. Edward B. Foote, Sr.'s office at No. 120 Lexington-avenue, yesterday afternoon, and asked for the Doctor, an eclectic physician."  The office boy ushered the man to the basement office, "supposing him to be in search of medical advise."  Two men in the front office later described him as appearing "very nervous."

As Foote entered, the patient, who was standing by the mantel, asked whether the doctor recognized him.  Foote said he did not.  "The young man immediately drew a pistol and pointed it at the Doctor's stomach.  The Doctor sprang forward and seized the pistol, and a scuffle ensued, the Doctor, who is a heavy man, throwing his antagonist down."

In the struggle the pistol went off and, eventually, Foote was able to wrench it from the man's hand.  "The discharge of the pistol does not seem to have struck the two men in the next room as anything unusual," said The Times sarcastically, "and Dr. Foote, leaving the young man lying on the floor, went up stairs to his room and laid down, after sounding a burglar-alarm."

The office boy had run onto the street to find a policeman.  When they returned the would be assailant was gone.  The Times said he "was not sufficiently well-bred to wait for the officer's arrival.  He locked the doors leading to the room and escaped through a window to the back yard, and thence to the street."  A trail of blood drops was evidence that the man had been wounded when the pistol discharged.  But he was not found.

Foote's reformist interests did not stop at obscenity laws and freedom of speech.  On June 15, 1900 the New-York Tribune announced "There will be a social meeting of the Liberal Club this evening at the home of Dr. Edward B. Foote, No. 120 Lexington-ave.  Mrs. George E. Spencer, of Alabama, will make an address.  Her subject will be 'A Plea for Woman Suffrage.'"

The Foote family's country home was in Larchmont, New York.  It was there, on October 5, 1906 that Edward Bliss Foote died at the age of 77.  In reporting on his death the New-York Tribune noted that he was the author of many books and for 20 years had edited his Health Monthly.  "Seven years ago he withdrew from practice and turned his interests over to the care of his sons, Dr. E. B. Foote, jr., and Dr. H. T. Foote."


By 1931 the Foote House (foreground) had lost its stoop and commercial spaces carved into the basement and parlor floors.  The wooden building can be glimpsed at the left.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Foote brothers continued to operate the Murray Hill Publishing Company from the little wooden building during the 1910's.  As the Kips Bay neighborhood changed, their childhood home was converted for business.  Remarkably, No. 129 East 28th Street was not demolished, but repeatedly remodeled to accommodate various small businesses.


In 1931 Archie's Dry Cleaner operated from the sagging structure.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
For years the M & N Smoke & Grocery store operated from the improbable survivor.  Recently the yard behind the handsome cast iron fence where Dr. Foote trod back and forth between his home and auxiliary office was trash filled.  



Then, after about 160 years of existence, a demolition permit was issued in April 2019 for the ramshackle little building with its fascinating history.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Blum & Blum's 1912 Tudor-Arts & Crafts Blend--17 East 17th Street





The four-story brick dwelling at No. 17 East 17th Street was erected around 1853 in a neighborhood that could not have been more fashionable.  Half a block to the east was the elegant Union Square and half a block to the west were the mansions of Fifth Avenue.  But that was not the case in 1902 when Phillip Pfieffer and his wife, Melanie, purchased the property.  The ground floor had been converted to a saloon.  Bartender Albert Pfietzenmaier recalled in 1912 that the Pfieffers operated the "saloon and restaurant" while they lived "in the rear rooms, one flight up."

Shortly after her husband's death on February 18, 1910, the 25-year old Melanie sold the property to the J. A. Damsey Construction Company, which wasted little time in removing the old house.  On September 13, 1911 The New York Times remarked that Joseph A. Damsey "will erect a seventy-story loft on the site."  Ten days later architects George and Edward Blum filed plans for the 25-foot wide building, projected to cost $35,000--or about $972,000 today.

Damsey's costs were reduced by the fact that his firm handled the construction.  Blum & Blum created a somewhat surprising blend of Arts & Crafts and neo-Tudor styles.  A colorful terra cotta panel with a modified chain motif split the two-story base within a limestone Tudor-style arch.  Flemish bond brick piers flanked the grouped windows of the five upper floors.  Arts & Crafts appeared in the diamond-shaped tiles of the spandrel panels and in the geometric plaques that flanked the squared Tudor parapet with its profusion of terra cotta tiles and coat of arms.




The building filled with a variety of tenants.  Among the first were Oshkosh, makers of "grass matting," and Heymann Bros., umbrella and parasol merchants.  Beginning in 1914 the store was home to Grossman & Goldenstein, dealers in dress goods and silks.

The 1920's saw mostly apparel-related firms in the building.  Among them were the Stillwol Dress Company, the Regal Dress Company, and Justin Neckwear.  As their sewing machines hummed along, another tenant, David Koppleman, was involved in a dastardly scheme.

Koppleman was head of Cordon Products Company, sellers of "toilet articles."  He sent Pearl Wenger door-to-door selling the firm's items.  She told the housewives that part of the profits were to go to charity.  The firm, she explained, donated 25 percent of each sale to the Non-Sectarian Mission at No. 12 Dover Street, run by Father M. de S. Caralt, a Spanish-born priest.

Welfare Department Inspector Ronayne Sullivan was not so sure.  On February 5, 1929 Koppleman and Fr. Caralt appeared before Magistrate Gottlieb in Yorkville Court.  The New York Times said the case was the first "involving so-called 'weeping racketeers.'"

In his opinion the judge said "The combination of the defendant and this priest was, I believe, conceived by them both in order to reap financial profit and the 25 per cent upon the net profit which the priest alleges was being paid to him by Koppleman was added to the price the consumer paid for the article."  Additionally, Judge Gottlieb described the mission building as "thoroughly dilapidated and dangerous," saying "I do not think that this building was ever used for mission purposes and I do not think that Father Caralt is altogether altruistic in his endeavors to help the children."

Koppleman was found guilty and fined the equivalent of $3,750 in today's money.  His three-month workhouse term was suspended.

In 1955 America became embroiled in the Vietnam War.  A decade later strong anti-war sentiments were being voiced across the country, notably on college campuses and in large city protests.   In 1965 a group took space in No. 17 to organize protests and demonstrations like Women Strike for Peace.  Its most notable undertaking was coordinating the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade, New York's part in the nationwide demonstrations planned for April 27, 1968.


The Committee produced promotional posters like this one from its offices at No. 17 East 17th Street.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
On April 28 the Liberation News Service reported that of the "hundreds of thousands of Americans" who demonstrated, "The largest demonstration took place in New York City, where more than 100,000 people marched in four separate parades into Central Park's Sheep meadow to listen to speeches by Mrs. Martin Luther King, draft resister Michael Ferber, Dave Dellinger and Mayor John V. Lindsey."

The day was not without conflict.  "Police attacked the group in Washington Square Park because the group intended to parade without a permit," said the article.  "About 800 people attempted to march to the Columbia University campus to support the students there, but they, too, were attacked by police."

The Federal Government took names.  Several of the Parade Committee members were called before the four-day Congressional hearings of the Committee of Internal Security in April 1970. 

Still calling itself the Vietnam Peace Parade Committee the gruop continued to operate from the East 17th Street building.  On August 12, 1970 The New York Times reported that it had lobbied the City Council to "introduce a resolution committing the city to withholding the portion of Federal taxes that go toward financing the Vietnam war.  The group's slogan was now "Take New York City Out of the War--Now."  

"The committee began a massive petition drive and will hold demonstrations at City Hall on Oct. 15 to urge the City Council to adopt the resolution," said the article.  It had already won over four members of the City Council, who announced plans to introduce the resolution which would further require the city "to give legal counsel and sanctuary to draft resisters and those seeking to avoid assignment to Southeast Asia and also to 'give total amnesty' to those imprisoned for antiwar activities."

The 1990's saw the restaurant Daily Soup operating from the ground floor.  During a scorching heat wave in the summer of 1997 the store creatively countered with cold soups.  On July 23 The Times journalist Suzanne Hamlin reported on the line of patrons waiting to be served.  "Outside, the temperature was hovering near a steamy 100 degrees," she said, but "Cold soup, many New Yorkers are discovering, is an icy bowl of revival, instant air-conditioning for body and soul."  The store sold around six different cold soups each day, like "chilled avocado and shrimp."

Daily Soup made way for Sushi Jones in 2001, described by The New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant as "a bright new modern takeout spot with "untraditional fare."  The owners, Adam Kriger and Adam Diamond took "sushi into pizza territory," as well as offering a kids menu that included "sushi-style rolls made with white bread and filled with cream cheese and bologna or peanut butter and jelly."



The building was converted to apartments--one per floor--in 2019.  The store space is home to Dig Inn today, a cafeteria-style chain serving mostly sandwiches and salads.

photographs by the author

Thursday, May 21, 2020

William Field & Son's 1870 134-140 Grand Street




Charles C. Hastings was the principal in C. C. Hastings & Co., a clothing manufacturer.   The millionaire and his wife were described as "popular society favorites" by the Evening Telegram.  In 1869, as the neighborhood which a century later would become known as Soho rapidly developed following the end of the Civil War, Hastings made his mark by erecting a substantial cast iron structure on the northeast corner of Grand and Crosby Streets.

Completed in 1870, it was been designed by the architectural firm of William Field & Son in the emerging French Second Empire style.  The tall ground floor level featured Corinthian columns and rusticated piers.  In an innovative and eye-catching touch the architects replaced squared corners with the free-standing Corinthian columns at the second through fourth floors.  But the pièce de résistance was the mansard level with its frothy dormers, oeil de boeuf windows, and corner cupola. 


Valentine's Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York 1870 (copyright expired)
It appears Hastings erected the building for investment purposes, for he never moved his company from No. 327 Broadway.  His main tenant in Nos. 134-140 Grand Street was publisher Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor & Co.  

Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor & Co. had been organized in 1840 and was by now "the largest school-book publishing house in the world," according to J. Arthurs Murphy & Co.'s List of Printers, Publishers, and Paper Dealers in 1872.  The Grand Street building rumbled under the operation of the firm's eleven Adams steam-powered printing presses.  In May 1873 the company advertised its latest releases, including Swinton's Word Book, The Church Hymn Book (with and without tunes), How Plants Behave, How They Move, Climb, Employ Insects To Work For Them, &c, and The Educational Reporter.

Around 1873 Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor & Co. diversified by importing and wholesaling the Spencerian steel pens.  An advertisement in The New York Herald that year promised "They are of superior English make, and are famous for their elasticity, durability and evenness of point."


The Tribune Almanac for 1876 (copyright expired)
Around December 1876 the management of Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor & Co. recognized that its inventory of pens was noticeably shrinking.  "Some person in their employ was systematically stealing pens in large quantities," said The New York Herald.  "Watches were set upon suspected persons and private detectives were employed, but no person could be caught in the act."

The newspaper said that four months later, just as "the members of the firm were at their wits' ends," a letter arrived from their Chicago office asking how F. D. Alling, a storekeeper in Rochester, New York, could be selling the Spencerian pens at less than it cost to make them.  A representative traveled to Rochester where Alling explained he had purchased "a large quantity of the pens from a peddler named M. Shark."  And Alling was not his only customer.  The New York Herald explained that postmarks on letters received by Alling indicated "that the writer was constantly on the road disposing of his wares."

Back on Grand Street, employees knew that the firm's janitor of ten years, 28-year old James J. Smith, had a brother-in-law named M. Shark.  Undercover detectives followed Smith and "in a little while they became satisfied that he was the culprit."  Each night before going home he would hide a quantity of the expensive pens in his coat.  At his home in the Bronx they found 1,672 gross of the pens.  Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor & Co. estimated that he had absconded with $4,000 in merchandise--more than $100,000 in today's money.

In the meantime boot and shoe maker Benedict Hall & Co. had taken space in the building by 1874.  It was an uneasy period, just a year after the onslaught of the Financial Panic of 1873 sparked one of the greatest economic depressions in the country's history.  But five years later, on September 29, 1879, a representative, Matthew Bunker, told The New York Times he saw the economy turning around.  "On the whole, Mr. Bunker felt greatly encouraged at the outlook, and thought that the era of business prosperity had at last dawned upon the country."

Occupying the storefront at the time was Hinck & Co., dry goods merchants.  Eight months before Matthew Bunker had voiced his opinion on the economy, the building suffered considerable damage.  On January 14, 1879 the large structure directly across Crosby Street caught fire.  It had formerly been the home of Brooks Brothers and stretched along Grand Street from Broadway to Crosby.

As firefighters battled the out-of-control inferno, the Grand Street facade collapsed.  The New York Times reported "The opposite building is of iron, five stories in height, and forms the north-easterly corner of Grand and Crosby streets."  Firefighter John Reilly saw the wall weakening and warned a comrade "Come away, Jack!" but he was too late.  His body was found 10 minutes later "on the stoop of the store of Hinck Brothers, dead."

As the dust settled, the damage to Nos. 134-140 Grand Street became obvious.  The Times reported "as far up as the third-story window sills, the building of Hinck Brothers was seriously damaged and disfigured.  As the five-story wall of the burning building on the opposite side of Crosby-street toppled over it struck this building at its third story, and tore the front almost off, breaking away the cast-iron window-sills and columns as though they were made of pasteboard, and hurling tons of brick and other debris into each floor."  The newspaper added "This building is owned by C. C. Hastings.

The repaired structure became home to Bendheim Bros. & Co., dealers in "cigars, cigarettes and smoking and chewing tobacco" by 1885, and in the last decade of the 19th century the St. John-Kiram Shoe Co.; L. Stern & Co., makers of women's apparel; and Charles Zinn & Co., importers and manufacturers of baskets and willow ware had space here.

Benheim Bros. & Co. would remain in the building at least through 1914.  In 1898 it bid on a Government contract for supplying tobacco to the New York Navy, offering bulk tobacco at 32 cents per pound.


An trade postcard notified customers of the 1893 spring line of baskets.  copyright expired

By the outbreak of World War I the property was owned by John Jacob Astor.   Tenants like Charles Zinn & Co. and Bendheim Bros. & Co. moved on by 1918 when Astor leased the entire building to the Cincinnati-based Globe-Wernicke Co.   In its August issue that year, The Furniture Index reported that the firm would use the property "for warehouse purposes."  Astor "reconstructed" the building for the firm, according to the New-York Tribune later.

Among the foremost office furniture makers in the country, Globe-Wernicke had recently purchased the building at Nos. 451-453 Broadway as its New York office and showroom.  Just two years after moving in, on July 21, 1920, the New-York Tribune reported that Astor had sold the nearly 100,000 square-foot structure to Globe-Wernicke.


A sign clinging to the corner identifies this as Globe-Wernicke's "Warehouse No. 2."   The photograph reveals that the damage of 1879 had been seamlessly repaired.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In June 1937 Charles F. Noyes purchased the building and, according to The New York Times, "He immediately leased it to J. Rabinovich, furniture dealer, for warehouse purposes."  The article added that Noyes "will retain it for investment after improvements, including the installation of two elevators and automatic sprinklers."  The plans, filed by architect Ely Jacques Kahn, included a remodeling of the vintage facade.  The $25,000 project would equal about $445,000 today.  But the ambitious exterior remodeling, thankfully, never came to pass.


The somewhat battered cupola survives with the date 1870 in its western panel.  
Over the next few decades the building was home to a variety of tenants.  Daniel Jones, Inc. a furniture manufacturing and repair firm, was here from 1942 through 1962.  In 1942 Rose Brands Textiles, "muslin and other covering materials," called the building home, and in 1970 Hercules Drop Cloth Co. operated here.  In 1972 through 1974 the Fly Fisherman's Bookcase, a mail order seller of discount fly fishing books was in the building.


As late as the 1950's the mansard was still intact.  photograph by C. T. Brady, Jr. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
At the time artists were already covertly using lofts as dwelling and studio space.  In 1977 the building was
officially converted to residential space above the first floor.  By then the magnificent mansard roof had been sorely altered.  But surprisingly, the great bulk of the facade had survived wonderfully intact.  



Where books and boots had once been manufactured, artists like Dina Recananti and Dorothea Rockburne, film maker Catherine Gund, musician Kristian Roebling and photographers Arthur Elgort, David Lawrence and Greg Kadel would make their homes.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

From Apartments to Mega-Mansion, Wm. H. Bickmire's 1899 133 East 73rd Street




In the last week of April 1899 real estate operators Mandelbaum & Lewine purchased the two three-story houses at Nos. 133 and 135 East 73rd Street at auction.  Before the week was out they had resold them to Michael F. Cusack.  On May 2 the New York Journal and Advertiser announced that he "will build a six-story apartment house, with elevator and modern improvements there."

The newspaper either got the details slightly wrong, or Cusack altered his plans.  For when his architect, William H. Birkmire, filed plans in August they called for just five stories.  He estimated the construction costs of the structure at $30,000; or around $955,000 today.

Birkmire's design drew from several styles.  Beaux Arts appeared in the stoop and porch on East 73rd Street and in the terra cotta spandrel panels of ribboned wreaths above the third floor.  Overall his inspiration was from the currently-popular neo-Georgian style that had begun nudging out Beaux Arts a few years earlier.

Stealing the show, however, were the four Lexington Avenue storefronts.  Their ebullient ornamentation epitomized the Belle Epoch with dainty metal canopies over each entrance, pairs of lamps that hung from thin spikes sprouting from cast iron urns, and an elaborate oeil de boeuf window in the corner store that could have been plucked from the Champs-Élysées.
A decorative metal cornice decorated the entrance to each storefront.
Although badly battered, the fact that the unusual lamp posts survive along the Lexington Avenue storefront at all is miraculous.
The apartments of "seven large rooms and bath," as described in an ad, filled with financially-comfortable residents.  Among the initial tenants were Isaac Alkus and Maurice Mass, both of whom were Commissioners of Deeds, a position similar to a Notary Public today.  Mass's main position was as a clerk with a downtown bank.  His son, Leon, was a tailor.  


Even the corner lamppost survives.
Both Mary Russell and Mary Fraser received their certifications as registered nurses in 1904.  Among the more affluent residents, presumably, was Dr. Edgar Steiner Thomson who lived in the building at least in 1900 through 1901.  He served on the faculty of the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital.

Leon Mass found himself in serious trouble in 1902.  He was arrested in July for what today would be termed stalking.  The Brooklyn newspaper The Daily Standard Union explained that Mrs. Anna Wilkinson, who lived in the St. James Hotel, accused him "of having annoyed her for eight or ten days by following her whenever she went out."

The New York Herald described Wilkinson on July 14 as "a beautiful young woman, whose gowns were the most stylish that have been seen in the Yorkville Court during the time of the present attachés."  She did not accuse the young man of having improper sexual or romantic intentions; but of being a spy for her husband.  She told the court "I have been unable to appear on the street without being followed.  This has been going on for a long time, but for ten days it has been unbearable."

"Showing much irritation," Leon Mass addressed Mrs. Wilkinson directly, telling her "You made a mistake.  If you have been followed, it has been by some person other than me."  Mass's employer later supported his story that he was a tailor and not a private detective and the complaint was dismissed.

When the property was sold in April of 1906, the New-York Tribune described it as "a modern apartment house."  The storefronts housed a variety of businesses.  The corner shop was what might be called a women's boutique today, selling custom handbags; No. 1026 was the shop of furrier Philip Kesler; and No. 1028 was Anthony Gunther's undertaking establishment.


Reverse painted signage on glass has somehow endured for more than a century.
Sisters Margaret Schuyler Townsend and Janet King Townsend took an apartment together in October 1913.  The daughters of Stephen Van Renasselaer Townsend and Jacket Eckford Townsend, their impressive pedigrees were reflected in their names.  Only days after the lease was signed, The Sun noted "The Misses Janet King Townsend and Margaret Schuyler Townsend, after passing a year in Europe, will be at 133 East Seventy-third street for the winter."

John Duir Irving, a former professor of economic geology at Yale University, shared an apartment with the family of his brother, Dr. Peter Irving.  The men were direct descendants, according to the New-York Tribune, "of a brother of Washington Irving."

For the preservation of their reputations as well as for their safety, unmarried women did not often live alone.  The Townsend sisters side-stepped the problem by sharing an apartment.  One well-to-do woman not phased by the stigma was Charlotte C. Castner, who lived in the building by 1917.


Bickmire had to design the storefronts to accommodate the slope of Lexington Avenue.
Charlotte's social calendar was filled on April 15 that year.  She went to the Waldorf-Astoria for an early dinner, then to the opera.  When she returned home late that night "she found that her apartment had been ransacked," according to The New York Times.  "Among the missing articles were a necklace valued at $8,000, another necklace worth $3,000, and a brooch she valued at $3,500."  Also stolen were furs and silverware.  The total haul would be worth nearly $420,000 today.

Three months later, on July 20, The New York Times entitled an article "Gem Theft Puzzles Police."  The Philadelphia Enquirer picked up the story the following day, reporting that Charlotte had taken her frustration to the top of the Police Department.  The article said she "has made a personal appeal to Arthur Woods, Police Commissioner, to have a special effort made" to recover the goods.  Woods assigned "several special detectives to the case."

At the time Mary Leland Thorp Butler lived here with her daughters, Eleanor Grenville and Hope (both members of the Junior League).  The girls' father, author and journalist Robert Gordon Butler, had died in 1906.  The Butlers were among several residents who were personally affected by the war in Europe.  

Eleanor Butler joined the Y.M.C.A. canteen service and went to France.  Other residents of the building who shipped off to France were John Duir Irving, Franklin Cooper, who lived with his widowed mother Nora F. Cooper, and Charles B. Stuart.

Stuart was promoted to First Lieutenant on December 18, 1916, the same year that John Duir Irving was commissioned as a Captain of Engineers.  Irving served as an instructor at the Army engineering school in France.

Although Irving did not see battle, he was nevertheless a casualty of war.  On August 2, 1918 the New-York Tribune reported he had died from disease in France.   Three months later the Official U. S. Bulletin published the latest list of American soldiers killed in France.  Among them was Franklin Cooper.

At the end of the war Eleanor Butler rejoined her mother and sister in the 73rd Street apartment.  On April 7, 1923 she was riding in the car of Ethel Outerbridge.  (Ethel was the wife of Eugenius H. Outerbridge, first president of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority for whom the Outbridge Crossing is named.)  The chauffeur, Thomas Davies, turned from 72nd Street onto Lexington Avenue just as the Lexington Avenue street car approached the intersection.  "Motorman John Hennessy jammed on his brakes, but it was too late to avoid the collision, which threw the motor car against the curb," reported The New York Times.  "Mrs. Outerbridge was pitched against a seat and Miss Butler was thrown to the street."

Although slightly injured himself, Davies drove the women to the Presbyterian Hospital.  Ethel had two broken ribs and cuts, and Eleanor suffered "contusions of the scalp and right hand."

The sisters' names appeared in newspapers for much happier reasons two years later.  On February 15, 1925 The New York Times reported that Eleanor Grenville Butler had married Henri Louis Marindin "at noon yesterday at the home of the bride's uncle, Willard Parker Butler."  Hope was Eleanor's maid of honor.  The article noted that they were the great granddaughters of Benjamin Franklin Butler, Attorney General under President Van Buren.

Seven months later, on September 29, a wire from Paris to The New York Times announced "Friends here learned only today of the marriage of Huntington Wilson, former American Under-Secretary of State, to Miss Hope Butler, niece of Charles Butler of New York, which occurred at Zurich, Switzerland on September 1." 

Other residents over the years were Mrs. C. Barron Taylor and her daughter, Gertrude Bowdith Taylor (Gertrude's debutante entertainments were held during the 1930-31 season); Frederick Osborn and his wife, the former Margaret L. Scheffelin; and Miles Oakley Bidwell.  Bidwell, who was the head of M. Oakley Bidwell Associates, a publicity agency, was married to Frances Jones Mallory in his apartment here on October 27, 1933.  And for years U. S. Navy Commander Francis Bowie Stoddert and his wife and son lived in the building.

On June 25, 1940 Mrs. Lowry Gillett announced the engagement of her daughter, Enid, to Peter Irving, Jr.  Ironically, the prospective groom was the son of Dr. Peter Irving and nephew of Captain John Duir Irving.  He had spent his childhood in the building now home to his fiancée.  

Change came in 1961 when the building was connected internally with No. 137 East 73rd Street and converted to doctor's offices, known as the Lexington Professional Center.  Over the years it was home to groups like the Women's Medical Group, one of only two clinics in the city where abortions could be legally performed.  On October 25, 1970 The New York Times reported that it and the Women's Medical Center on Irving Place "could do perhaps 50,000 abortions a year at a cost ranging from nothing to $200 a procedure."


The two buildings were connected internally in 1961.
In 1972 the Acupuncture Center of New York faced legal battles when it was closed by court order for "practicing medicine illegally," as reported in The Times on November 12.  But the most celebrated tenant was sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose office was in the building for years.

Not all the tenants were so upstanding.  Psychiatrist Aaron Friedberg's main office was on Park Avenue, but he kept an auxiliary office here.  In July 2003 he was arrested on charges of "selling prescription drugs," according to The New York Times.  Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau charged that he "rented space that was used for the illegal drug sales at 133 East 73rd Street."

In 2008 plans were filed to alter the building "from offices to residential."  Owner Lloyd Goldman, through his broker Ivan Hakimian, marketed the property "as an opportunity for a single-family residential conversion" into "one of the nicest and most unique mansions Manhattan has ever seen," as reported in The Real Deal in May 2010.

Astonishingly, Avi Dishi, president of Elysee Investment, purchased the building for $32 million that September and obtained approval to convert the building "into what would technically be the largest single-family home in Manhattan," according to The Real Deal's Sarabeth Sanders on September 15, 2010.



Construction continues on the 24,207-square-foot residence.  In the meantime, the astonishingly surviving 19th century storefronts have emerged along Lexington Avenue.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Holly Tooker for prompting this post