Saturday, January 4, 2020

F. A. Minuth's 1901 60-62 West 15th Street

When the Walker & Keys Livery Stables opened in 1861, it catered to the well-to-do who lived in the Fifth Avenue mansions and luxurious row houses along the side blocks.  Located at No. 20 West 15th Street, it was just far enough away from Fifth Avenue to be unoffensive; yet close enough to be convenient.  In 1888 Illustrated New York described the 50-foot wide facility as being "well lighted, drained, and ventilated and possesses first-class accommodations for fifty horses.

Illustrated New York noted "Walker's tally-ho coaches also have a wide celebrity, and are liberally patronized."  Illustrated New York 1888 (copyright expired)

By the time of Illustrated New York's article, however, the neighborhood was greatly changing.  Wealthy homeowners were moving further uptown and Sixth Avenue, just steps away from the stable, was filling with retail stores.  As the century wore down, Walker & Keys would relocate as well.

In July 1901 German-born architect Francis A. Minuth filed plans for a six-story brick and stone loft and store building on the site for developer Charles Wittenauer.  Construction costs were estimated at $70,000, or about $2.13 million today.  Minuth was perhaps a surprising choice as he was better known for designing apartment buildings.

His triparte design was defined by two intermittent stone cornices.  The two-story limestone faced base included a cast iron storefront.  The banded piers on either side terminated in carved Beaux Arts cartouches.  Minuth abruptly changed styles for the red brick upper floors--a prim take on Renaissance Revival.  The three-story brick piers of the mid-section were capped with simple stone capitals.  The top floor repeated the design, but replaced the grouped center rectangular windows with three arched openings.  Minuth's handsome design disguised the structure's industrial purpose.  

The building filled with apparel factories; one of the first of which was an immediate failure.  Two hopeful businessmen with remarkably similar surnames, Frederick Heyman and Julius H. Hayman, formed the partnership of Hayman & Co. in October 1902.  They took space in the 15th Street building and began manufacturing "clothing and children's dresses."

But the partners apparently could not get along.  Although their finances were solid (the New-York Tribune said "the firm is solvent"), Heyman suited Hayman "to dissolve the partnership."  On February 20, 1902 the New-York Tribune reported that the firm had closed.  "They have been in business three months."

Other garment manufacturers in the building included Sal Elner, who made cloaks.  He moved here the same year that Hayman & Co. moved out.  In 1913 tenants included Kleinfeld & Renner, "cloaks;" Century Dress Co.; Excel Mfg. Co., "waists and dresses;" and Abraham Cohen, another dress maker. 

The estate of Charles Wittenauer still owned the building in 1916 when a fire escape and new windows were installed.  Although the grand emporiums of Sixth Avenue had abandoned the Ladies' Mile by now, No. 60-62 would continue to house apparel manufacturers through most of the 1920's.

The entire building was leased to the Ambassador Furniture Warehouse in the late 1920's.  The Great Depression may have dealt a fatal blow to the firm.  As the lease neared expiration in 1932, a massive liquidation auction was held on April 25.

Two years later the second floor in the building was leased by the Artists Union.  Founded in September 1933  as the Emergency Work Bureau Artists Group, it was a union of New York artists and had already been influential in the Roosevelt Administration's establishment of the Public Works of Art Project.  Among the founding members of the Artists Union were Communist Party members Boris Gorelick, Max Spivak and Phil Bard.

The raised fist iconography of the 1934 membership card suggests the group's leftist leanings.
Every Wednesday evening meetings were held in the second floor space.  A magazine, Art Front, was published here beginning in November 1934.  Exhibitions and a weekly dance were perks for struggling artists.  On March 23, 1935, for instance, The New York Times reported on a sculpture exhibition.  "This exhibition by the newly organized sculpture division of the Artists Union consists of 109 items representing the work of eighty-nine sculptors."

from Art Front, February 1935
In reporting on the show, the article noted "The Artists Union was formed to establish trade union recognition for artists in the works projects conducted by the government and to fight for a municipal art center.  It has more than 1,300 members."  The group was visible in demonstrations and protests, earning it the name of the "fire brigade."  And its constant pressure reaped results.  The formation of the Federal Art Projects in August 1935 is generally attributed to the efforts of the Artists Union.  

On August 15 that year 83 members were arrested for disorderly conduct in front of the College Arts Association.  The Times reported "The pickets, who were employed on a CWA [Civil Works Administration] project, held a demonstration as a protest against delay in receiving their wages."

The Artists Union had moved to No. 430 Sixth Avenue by November 1936 when members employed by the Works Progress Administration proposed replacing the advertising panels in the subway stations with murals.  Union spokesperson Elizabeth Olds told The Times that the proposal had "been received with interest by representatives of the city."

Much less colorful tenants were Thomas A. Conlan's electrician shop, here in 1937, and the Universal Novelty Company in 1939.  The Stelton Manufacturing Company faced potential collapse when the United States entered World War II.  The firm manufactured rubber sheets for baby beds and rubber baby pants.  

The Government imposed strict rationing on commodities needed for the war effort--including rubber which was so vital for the manufacture of jeep and truck tires, for example.  Luckily for Stelton, on May 13, 1943 it received permission to "sell, offer to sell, deliver and transfer" its baby articles.  (The wholesale price of a dozen baby pants was capped by the Government at $2.75.)

photo via 6sqft
A renovation competed in 1979 resulted in one apartment per floor above the retail space.  Francis A. Minuth's dignified 1901 loft building, easily overlooked on the quiet block, has changed little outwardly.

photographs by the author

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