Thursday, February 6, 2020

The 1894 Darling Building - 208 Fifth Avenue

By the end of the Civil War fine residences lined the west side of the Fifth Avenue block between 25th and 26th Streets.  They looked across the avenue to the verdant Madison Square.  But as the century crew to a close their wealthy residents had moved further north and the houses were either converted for business purposes or replaced.

At the far left a portion of the elegant residence at No. 208 Fifth Avenue can be glimpsed in this 1888 photo.  The large corner structure is the fashionable Delmonico's restaurant.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1859 Alfred B. Darling and Paran Stevens had opened the lavish Fifth Avenue Hotel at the northwest corner of 23rd Street, two blocks south of the five-story residence at No. 208 Fifth Avenue.  Now in 1893 Darling purchased and demolished that old brownstone which stretched through the narrow block to Nos. 1128-1130 Broadway.  He hired the architectural firm of Berg & Clark to erect a seven-story office and store on the site.  Their plans, filed in March, estimated the cost of construction at $85,000, or about $2.45 million today.

The Renaissance Revival style Darling Building was completed within the year.  A limestone frame embraced the two-story retail space.  Its vast show windows were made possible by the use of cast iron. The architects had faced the upper stories of the structure in yellow brick encrusted with terra cotta decorations.  The top floor was especially adorned, with heavy terra cotta sheaves outlining the flanking panels and the openings.  

It seems that the Connecticut-based silver manufacturer The Meriden Britannia Co. had negotiated the lease of the building even before construction began.   It moved its showrooms into the two lower floors and quickly began advertising for tenants for the upper offices.

The original two-story retail space is seen in this announcement.  New-York Tribune, September 17, 1894 (copyright expired)
As a marketing gimmick Meriden Britannia Co. published a booklet in 1894A notice in the New-York Tribune on December 20 explained "To celebrate our removal to our new building, we have published a book, 'Historical Madison Square,' which every lover of New-York ought to read."  The price of the book was 50 cents, but the firm dangled a carrot to draw patrons into the store, saying "but we are not booksellers, and to all customers it is free."

Among the original tenants in the upper floors was Town Topics Publishing Co.  Publisher William D'Alton Mann's Town Topics offered news, literature, sports and business advice.  But in reality its subscribers were interested only in the social columns, which were in fact a gossip sheet.  Every scandalous word—true or not—printed in Town Topics was read with delicious zeal.   Those at the highest levels of society trembled in fear of  being mentioned in Mann’s scathing columns.   He rarely printed names; but gave tantalizing and obvious clues like “though unfortunately a woman, is not an American, but a specimen of British aristocracy.”

New-York Tribune, October 27, 1898 (copyright expired)
Albert Darling was at his country home in New Jersey in the summer of 1896 when he was thrown from his carriage.  The New York Times reported several months later that "his system received a shock from which he never fully rallied."  He died on September 6.  Darling's estate retained possession of the Fifth Avenue property.

The Broadway elevation is essentially identical to the Fifth Avenue side.
The Meriden Brittania Company, understandably, had formidable security measures in place to prevent break-ins.  But late on the night of January 28 or early January 29, 1902 thieves managed to thwart the obstacles.  Although the less public Broadway entrance would seem to make more sense, the criminals entered on Fifth Avenue.  "The burglars removed a panel from the glass door, pried open a heavy grating inside that and then forced an inner door which admitted them to the store," said The Sun on February 1.

Town Topics still occupied the top floor in April 1902 as construction began on the Cross Chambers Building next door. from the collection of the New York Public Library 
Police felt "that the job was done by expert cracksmen who were well equipped."  Days later the clerks were still taking inventory, but by the time of The Sun's article the loss was more than $150,000 by today's terms.

Within five months The Meriden Brittanica Company had left No. 208.  The Lincoln Trust Co. took over the lease, but before moving in hired architect John H. Duncan to renovate the lower floors.  The commission was convenient for Duncan, whose office was in the Darling Building.  He would remain here through 1914.

The remodeling, costing more than $1.5 million in today's dollars, gave the lower two floors a more bank-like appearance.  A stately portico supported by Corinthian columns was added, and the second floor showrooms were replaced by more business-like openings.  Beaux Arts swags now hung from the piers that separated the windows.

Duncan's changes affected only the lower floors.  The bank painted an advertisement on the wall of the Cross Chambers Building next door.  original source unknown

The Lincoln Trust Co. faced a major challenge beginning in mid-October 1907.  A failed attempt to corner the market on the stock of the United Copper Company knocked over the first domino that would result in the Stock Market Exchange falling nearly 50 percent from the previous year.  Known variously as the Panic of 1907, the 1907 Bankers' Panic and the Knickerbocker Crisis, it prompted panic among depositors and runs on the banks.

The run on the Lincoln Trust began on October 25.  The bank officials retained their composure and four days later things seemed to have somewhat calmed down.  The New-York Tribune reported "There were fifty persons in line when the doors of the main office, at No. 208 Fifth avenue, were opened.  All who presented claims were paid off as rapidly as possible."

Frank Tilford, the president of the bank, put a positive spin on the crisis.  On November 1 the New-York Tribune reported that he had announced "last night that its affairs were in splendid condition, despite the heavy withdrawals of the last six days."

In the meantime, the offices in the upper floors were rented to a variety of tenants.  Among them in 1911 was the office of Frank McMillan Stanton, a mining engineer and investor in copper mines.  For many years his "confidential secretary" was William B. Hall, who not only handled much of Stanton's business affairs, but those of his brother M. R. Stanton and Dr. J. W. Moore, their brother-in-law.  All three men were in the same business, although with different office locations.

Stanton's sister and her husband, Dr. Moore, were going to Michigan on business on May 19, 1911.  Before leaving they stopped by the 6th floor office here to say good-bye to Frank Stanton.  They were surprised to find the door locked, and peering through the glass they saw William Hall's body lying on the floor.  There was a bullet wound in his heart.  The coroner said there was "no doubt" that it was a suicide and the case was not investigated further.

Other tenants at the time were the Klosfit Petticoat publicity department and contractor Edwin Outwater.

Duncan's portico had been removed by the time of this June 19, 1912 photograph--possibly because it encroached on the public sidewalk. from the collection of the New York Public Library

In the spring of 1914 the Lincoln Trust Company moved two doors south to the new building at No. 204 Fifth Avenue.   The lower two floors were renovated again in 1918 when the Charles W. Ackerman signed a lease that March.  Architect William E. Austin designed the $15,000 in changes (about a quarter of a million in today's dollars).

Straw "boaters" line the shelves of the Ackerman store in this 1919 photograph.  Note the spittoons spaced along the floor for the convenience of tobacco-chewing patrons.  The American Hatter, July 1919 (copyright expired)
Born in Albany in 1865, Charles W. Ackerman apprenticed in the hat industry as a boy.  He came to New York City in 1885, working in various hat shops until he opened his own store on First Avenue and 23rd Street in 1889.  By now he was among the foremost hatters in the country.

The store, which opened on May 15, 1919, was deemed by The American Hatter "one of the largest exclusive hat stores in the United States."  It noted "The store at 208 Fifth avenue is probably the only hat store in the world with equal frontage on two streets known the world over--Fifth avenue and Broadway."

The article called the shop "truly palatial in its appointments and finish."  Mirrors were inset at spaces along the walnut cabinets so the patrons could adequately judge a potential purchase.  "The Fifth avenue end of the balcony is devoted to silk hats and the Broadway end to military hats," said the article.

Throughout the subsequent decades the Madison Square neighborhood gradually saw upscale stores like Charles W. Ackerman leave as the stores and offices became home to a variety of more low-end tenants.  But the third quarter of the century saw a renaissance in the district, now known as Nomad.

In 1980 a renovation was completed that resulted in two apartments each floor other than the fourth, which had just one.  Today there are duplexes on the fourth and fifth, and sixth and seventh floors.

photographs by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment