The undertaking business of J. Winterbottom & Sons was founded around 1849. It was described by New York's Great Industries in 1885 as a "well-known and highly reputable." On May 1 that year it opened an uptown branch at No. 638 Sixth Avenue, just north of 35th Street, in a converted home. James Edward Winterbottom and his family moved into the floors above the funeral home.
The brownstone-faced house was one of a string of post-Civil War houses along the block designed in the Second Empire style. The windows of the second floor featured handsome paneled piers and peaked, molded lintels. The third floor openings wore prominent brownstone bracketed cornices. A full-floor mansard, singled in slate, featured two tall dormers with closed pediments.
|Complex designs fill the areas below the second floor lintels. (The dark structure above the mansard is simply a privacy wall for the current roof users.)
Given the firm's excellent reputation, the choice of location was perhaps a bit surprising. It sat squarely within the Tenderloin District, notorious as one of the most depraved areas of the city where brothels, gambling houses and "low dives" flourished.
Nevertheless, the funeral home thrived. Several years later the New-York Tribune, called Winterbottom "personally very popular, and belonging to many societies," and added that "his success was immediate."
In 1890 Winterbottom hired James F. Quinn as manager of the Sixth Avenue location. J. Edward Winterbottom died three years later and his wife took over running the business, relying heavily on Quinn.
He was given a conspicuous undertaking in 1897--moving the casket of President Ulysses S. Grant to the newly completed Grant's Tomb. The New-York Tribune reported "The house of J. Edward Winterbottom & Co., as now constituted, had entire charge of the transfer of General Grant's remains from their temporary resting place to the crypt of the magnificent tomb on Riverside Drive."
|from Cornell & Shober's Directory of Trained Nurses, 1900-1901 (copyright expired)
Grant was an exception to the less lofty deceased who passed through the funeral home. John Spellman, a jockey, was more typical. On November 28, 1887 the Paterson Morning Call reported that his body "lay in state Saturday in the undertaking establishment of J. Winterbottom, 638 Sixth avenue." Over the years the firm handled the funerals of theatrical types, saloon owners and gamblers.
One of the more colorful took place in 1908. On June 12 The Sun reported "From the beginning of yesterday and all throughout the day until midnight the men and women of the Tenderloin filed into the undertaking establishment of Winterbottom & Sons in Sixth avenue above Herald Square to pay their last respects to Clarence O'Brien, the gambler, better known as Paddy the Pig."
The article listed the friends and gamblers who filed past the custom-made coffin ("one that had to be made especially for Paddy because he weighed almost 350 pounds," explained the article). They had names like the Saginaw Kid ("who never has risen to the dignity of a gamble, but is just [an] ex-bouncer and hanger on"); Spotter and Big Nose, "the two hefty waiters from Callahan's in Doyers street;" and Bridgie Webber, "who runs a hop join in Chinatown." Other mourners were Black Mike and his wife, Chicago Nellie; Little Tommy Murphy; and Big Hawley.
"Two girls in the corner regretted that Chicago May, who is now doing time in England, could not be present at the funeral," reported The Sun. "She was an artist at the panel game they all agreed." (The "panel game" was the practice of a brothel employee entering a bedroom through a hidden door and stealing cash or jewelry from a patron's clothing while he was otherwise distracted.)
By 1912 the funeral home was gone and the upper floors where James E. Winterbottom's family and then that of James F. Quinn had lived were converted to commercial spaces. Despite the determined efforts of reformers, however, the Tenderloin District had not yet been cleaned up. Leasing an office here in 1912 was the Jensen Employment Agency, a seemingly respectable business that was anything but.
An out-of-work young man, Samuel Feldman went to the agency's office in September that year. His interviewer seemed more interested in finding work for young women. Feldman later explained to police that he "inquired politely whether he knew any of New York's fair sex." Samuel mentioned his girlfriend, Bessie Snell. But she was not looking for work--she had a good job in an underwear factory.
After one or two more visits, the man convinced Feldman to bring Bessie in. He was positive he could get her a job as a skilled sewing machine operator in a factory in the West--earning as much as $15 or $20 a week. Bessie was thrilled. She told Samuel that she would go ahead, save up enough money for them to get married, and then he could follow.
There was no job in the West other than forced prostitution; what was known at the time as White Slavery. And once Bessie was on the train with a small group of other girls, Samuel was no longer needed. The next morning he arrived at the Sixth Avenue office "to find out where I was going [and] the man told me he had got a telegram saying there weren't any men needed."
But a quick thinking train conductor saved the girls. He noticed several of them weeping and asked Bessie what the trouble was. At the next stop he telegraphed police who met the train at Pittsburgh. Harry Sutton, the man who was guarding the girls, was arrested. And as a result of Samuel's report, the New-York Tribune reported on September 26 "a detective will visit the Jensen Employment Agency, at No. 638 Sixth avenue, this morning to inquire into the nature of the business."
The Joseph Polansky's restaurant was in the ground floor around this time. Close by was a rival restaurant at No. 630 run by a man named Goldberg. The two men joined forces in 1919, creating the Polansky & Goldberg restaurant here.
In 1925 Sixth Avenue was renumbered, giving the building its current address of No. 966. By then it sat within the Garment District. In 1941 a variety of small businesses were at the address, including a beauty parlor on the second floor.
|Another house from the original row still survived next door in 1941. from the collection of the New York Public Library
Major change came in 1952 when Barton's Candy leased the building for the site of its fiftieth bonbonnière. The firm hired architect and designer Victor Gruen to remodel it into a bouncy, colorful mid-century shop. In the August 1952 issue of Architectural Forum he said "Store design is taking itself too seriously," adding that when he received the commission for the Sixth Avenue store, he saw it as "an opportunity to attack some of the clichés that grow out of the notion there is some kind of a recipe book for store design."
Gruen went on to say that he knew the "pleasant Victorian front" could "never be a good modern." So he transformed it into "something that would make people smile." He painted the brownstone a dandelion yellow, covered the upper windows with posters, and affixed bouncy 1950's lettering above the storefront.
|Next door to Gruen's snappy redo is a Horn & Hardart automat. Architectural Forum, August 1952
Barton's Candy remained in the space until 1972. The retail space became home to Metropolitan Impex, Inc., dealers in "notions and trimmings," which would also remain for two decades.
The Certificate of Occupancy granted in 1952 demanded that the upper floors "remain vacant." It remained in place until a renovation completed in 1981 resulted in offices on the second floor and two apartments each on the third and fourth. Panels of artificial brick now cover the facade and the mansard, and peculiar pierced guards--possibly to deter pigeons--sit atop the lintels. But thanks to Victor Gruen the surprising survivor retains much of its 19th century domestic personality.
photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Matt Kay for suggesting this post