In March 1853 an advertisement offered a "small house" at No. 29 West 21st Street to let. The block, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, was just seeing the arrival of substantial homes, triggered by the upward tide of mansions along Fifth Avenue. That the block was changing was evidenced two years later when a similar advertisement described it as a "cottage house," clearly indicating it was not a rowhouse and, instead, sat within a small yard.
But fashion outweighed charm and after the little house was sold in 1859 it was demolished to be replaced by a 25-foot wide, four-story brownstone. The increasing property values were reflected in the price Abraham Lawrence paid for the house in 1876. The $30,475 price tag would be about $720,000 today.
By the time Agnes H. Poirier took title to the house around the turn of the century, the block was becoming increasingly commercial. The elevated train ran up the middle of Sixth Avenue which was now lined with massive retail emporiums. But Agnes had no intention of living at No. 29 West 21st Street.
She and her husband, Alfred E. Poirier, ran the firm of A. Barnes. In July 1908 Agnes leased the property to Nathan Houtman "for a long term of years." The total rent amounted to $60,000, or about $1.65 million today. Houtman announced his plans to convert the old house into "a store and loft structure."
Before that came to pass something seems to have gone awry. Houtman dropped out of the picture and the following year, on May 26, 1909, The Sun reported that "Plans have been filed for a six story loft and store building to be erected for Mrs. Agnes H. Poirier from designs by James E. Ware & Son." The cost of the proposed structure was estimated at about $834,000 in today's money.
Construction was completed within only six months, in November. The architects had produced an industrial building heavily influenced by the recently popular Arts & Crafts style. It was faced in variegated rough-faced brick laid in Flemish bond. The otherwise no-nonsense storefront included large transoms of multiple amber-tinted panes of textured glass. The top lintel took the form of an Arts & Crafts style iron strap.
|Like a massive strap hinge, the massive iron storefront lintel is eye-catching.|
The building filled with apparel-related firms. The upper floors became home to David Fraitag, manufacturer of cloaks and suits; Loveman, Golemb & Cohen, dress manufacturers; and the Louis Walther Mfg. Co. The Sterling Button Co. moved into the street level store.
David Fraitag was overly-optimistic about things when he signed the lease. Only four months after the building opened he filed for bankruptcy, no longer having enough funds to pay his workers. When the staff heard that he was shutting the doors, they revolted. On March 26, 1910 The New York Times ran a headline "Unpaid Workmen In A Riot." If they could not get paid, the men at least wanted to obtain salable goods.
The article explained "at 9 o'clock yesterday morning the place was crowded with workmen and creditors struggling for possession of some of the goods. The twenty-five workmen had not been paid, and they were attempting to remove goods, but were prevented by the creditors, about fifteen in number."
By 1915 Golemb & Cohen had lost the "Loveman" portion of the business. The company, located on the top floor, employed 15 men and eight women. Manufacturing came to an abrupt halt following a significant fire on February 25 that year.
The fire broke out around 11:00 that night on the third floor of a cloak and suit manufacturer. Fire fighters who responded to the alarm of fire scoured the block trying to find it. Meanwhile the heat of the smoldering fabrics built up within the enclosed space. The Evening World reported "Policemen and firemen had been searching for the fire for an hour when it burst from the front of the building."
The sudden influx of oxygen fed the flames, which traveled up the elevator shaft to the fourth floor. Fire fighters from Engine No. 72 went inside the inferno. At around 1:00 a.m. a section of the floor collapsed, hurling John Middlestadt down to the second floor. The injured man was taken to New York Hospital. Ironically, he had just been released from the hospital after spending several weeks there recuperating from injuries in an earlier blaze. Damages estimates were placed at $25,000, or around $629,000 today.
Golemb & Cohen moved on, replaced in 1916 by the National Garment Co. Arnold Kamps, trimmings, took the renovated third floor. Otherwise, Agnes Poirier seems to have had trouble filling the building. In September 1917 she hired architect Edward L. Angell, perhaps best known for his whimsical Queen Anne houses on the Upper West Side, to make additional interior renovations. They included new doors, reconfigured floor plans, and new windows.
The scheme worked. A flurry of leases were signed by the beginning of 1918. When Kopp Dress Co. took the fifth floor and Paul Puttman the fourth on the same day, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide commented on February 9, 1918 "the two leases complete the renting of the building."
|Only one of the many-paned transoms survives. Note the different textures of the glass panels.|
But as the garment district moved north of 34th Street around the same time, a new type of tenant arrived. Sharing the building in the 1940's and early '50's was J. Sweet & G. Leving, Inc. general contractors. And in October 1957 Placematters signed a lease. The firm produced children's place mats decorated with popular television and cartoon characters.
|Placematters created colorful plastic place mats for kids.|
The last quarter of the 20th century saw the formerly industrial neighborhood taken over by trendy shops and restaurants. By the mid-1970's the sixth floor, where workers once sewed dresses, was home to Rima Sculptures, a combination art gallery and shop for one-of-a-kind pieces like jewelry.
By 1983 Video D Studios, a performance arts and video studio space, was on the top floor. It remained here into the 21st century.
In 1988 J. P. Lofland's New York Grill opened in the ground floor. A renovation completed in 1992 resulted in offices on the second, an artist studio on the third, one apartment each on the fourth and fifth, and the video-dance studio on the top floor.
J. P. Lofland's New York Grill was a familiar spot in the neighborhood, lasting until 2006 when the space was taken over by the Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. It was the New York version of chef Tim Love's Fort Worth restaurant and featured items like "roast garlic-stuffed beef tenderloin and New Zealand red deer with macaroni and cheese," according to the opening announcement.
The restaurant, which opened in September that year, featured much more exotic fare than New Zealand deer. On the menu at various times were kangaroo, antelope ribs, buffalo, and quesadillas stuffed with quail. It prompted New York Times food critic Frank Bruni on November 15, 2006 to refer to the menu as "a Noah's ark of birdies and beasties."
But even the most adventurous of Manhattan foodies did not rush for a table. On August 8 the following year The New York Times announced "After the quick exit of the Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, Jay Shaffer, who owns Shaffer City Oyster Bar and Grill down the block, bought the lease and is turning it into a casual restaurant." Named Flatiron Joe's there was no kangaroo on its menu. Instead the eatery offered bar food like nachos, sliders and pizza.
Another renovation, completed in 2010, did away with the restaurant space altogether Above were now one apartment per floor below a duplex on the sixth and new seventh floor, invisible from street level. Today the store is home to a dry cleaner. James Ware & Son's handsome turn-of-the-century design survives undiminished by the larger loft buildings that crowd in around it.
photographs by the author