Saturday, June 20, 2020

Buchman & Kahn's 1929 Art Deco 261 Fifth Avenue

The glory days of brick and brownstone mansions along Fifth Avenue below 34th Street were gone by the mid-1920's.  A decade earlier loft and store buildings had begun replacing the venerable homes.  In 1928 the three four- and five-story buildings at Nos. 259 through 263 Fifth Avenue and 2 through 6 East 29th Street were prepared for demolition.

Scaffolding girds the old buildings and debris chutes pierce the lower windows of No. 263 as demolition gets underway in 1928.  photo by Buchman & Kahn, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The properties had been amassed by the newly-formed Fifth Avenue & 29th Street Corp.  The design of the syndicate's 26-story multi-purpose building (it would house showrooms, offices and manufacturing space) was given to the architectural firm of Buchman & Kahn.  There is no doubt that Ely Jacques Kahn took the reins on what would be one of the last of the firm's commissions.  (He would take over the practice in 1930, renaming it Ely Jacques Kahn Architects.)   As Anthony W. Robins put it in his 2017 book New York Art Deco, "The wonderfully fine-grained detail, the sensibility of decorative objets-d'art, could only be Kahn--no other architect produced anything like this."

As construction was well underway in the fall, Kahn was among the speakers at a ceremony at the job site on October 17, 1928.  The New York Times explained "Eighteen mechanics who have shown outstanding ability during the construction of the twenty-five-story [sic] story office building at 261 Fifth Avenue...will receive certificates and gold buttons."  Almost every facet of the construction process was represented among the recipients--a bricklayer, carpenter, plumber, ornamental iron worker, roofer, etc.

The newly-completed building was featured on an advertising piece for the Youngstown Buckeye Company & Youngstown Pipe.  from the collection of the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor
Construction was completed in 1929.  Kahn had produced a jazz age Art Deco structure unlike any other in the city.  Using geometric forms and bands executed in vivid multi-colored terra cotta, the architect harkened to motifs similar to those used by Frank Lloyd Wright.  

Kahn's original Fifth Avenue entrance which included an inverted stairstep design and Art Deco panels...

was replaced during a renovation with a grill which strived to pay respect to Kahn's design.  Top photo by Sigurd Fischer from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, Bottom photo by Beyond My Ken

The ground floor tenant was the newly-formed Broadway National Bank and Trust Company, which opened for business on June 25, 1929.  Its Art Deco interiors were designed by Louis H. Friedland.  The New York Times reported "Marble columns and pilasters in black and gold are features of the decoration of the main banking room, with an ornamental decorative ceiling."  The bank had spared little expense on materials.  "The grill is of marble, black and gold, with flush French walnut marquetry paneling, surrounded by a screen of gun-metal finish bronze with metal trimmings," said the article.  "The vestibule, on the Fifth Avenue part, is of gray Formosa marble on French walnut marquetry panels covered with metal and bronze trimmings and cornice."  

The 18-foot high walls of the chairman's office were paneled in French walnut mahogany and the ceiling had decorative plasterwork.  Marble pilasters decorated the board room.

As the showrooms and offices filled with businesses typical of the district--carpeting and textile firms, for instance--one stood out.  Amtorg Trading Corporation was among the first to move in.  It was the only organization empowered by the Soviet Union to purchase American goods and to sign contracts for importation of Soviet products.  It was, as well, tasked with providing American firms information about trade opportunities in the U.S.S.R. and to inform the Soviets about American technical advances and information on American firms.

But there was more going on in the offices of Amtorg Trading Corporation.  On July 28, 1930 the Queens newspaper, the Daily Star, reported "Federal officials charge that the Amtorg Trading Corporation, which has been under the searching scrutiny of the House of Representatives committee investigating Communistic affairs, is implicated in [an] alleged smuggling plot."

Two men, Jacob Kreitz and a man named Winfield, "who is said to be a Soviet agent," had been arrested for smuggling Russian-made watches into the country.  U. S. Attorney Charles H. Tuttle declared "he has ascertained that Wolode Asaturov, described as a controller in the Amtorg company, played a role in the alleged illegal importation."

Colorful terra cotta ornamentation adorns the upper floors.

In Kreitz's pocket when he was arrested was "a little black book" which contained the names and addresses of 25 Soviet agents in the United States.  Sewn into the underside of his coat lapel was a four-inch ribbon which read "The bearer of this badge is a trustworthy servant of the Soviet and may be trusted with any secrets."

Despite Federal suspicions of espionage, Amtorg Trading Corporation continued to operate from No. 261 Fifth Avenue.  On April 24, 1931 The Daily Record reported "Russia Soviet Republic has placed orders with Rochester manufacturing firms amount to $600,000 so far this year...All contracts for Russia are placed through the Amtorg Trading Corporation, 261 Fifth Avenue, New York.  Many more large contracts for Russia are expected to be placed here."

Apparently not every worker in the office was entirely content.  On April 28, 1932 45-year old clerk, Pauline Lodge, threw herself from a window in Amtorg Trading Corporation's 18th floor offices.  Police found a note in her pocket which read:

To the city:  Bury me like a dog, but don't disturb the people where I stay.  Pauline Lodge.

When the manager of the office was asked about the tragedy, he simply said she was "disgusted with life."

Two views of the lobby.  photos by Sigurd Fischer from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

With the repeal of Prohibition, Amtorg Trading Corporation seized the opportunity.  On November 3, 1934 The Advocate reported that the Soviet Russia Vodka Wine & Liquor Corp. had opened in No. 261 Fifth Avenue with a license to sell wholesale liquor.

In the meantime, the more expected tenants in the building included the Native Laces & Textiles, Inc., Pacific Mills, and Botany Worsted Mills throughout the 1940's.  A much different wartime tenant was the Vulcanized Rubber & Plastics Company.  

While textile and home goods firms continued to call No. 261 Fifth Avenue home at mid-century, the tenant list broadened.  In 1951 Screen Stories magazine was published here, followed by Modern Screen and Filmland magazines by 1958.  At the same time the Decorative Cabinet Corp. was leasing space.

Throughout the next decades firms like Jolo Plastics Corporation, makers of mattress and pillow coverings, counter coverings and protective items; Cameo Curtains, Inc.; and Ex-Cell Home Fashions were in the building.  In 1988 Ex-Cell introduced its Skirt-It product, what Taconic Newspapers called "an innovative sink skirt" that "transforms an ordinary sink into a spacious decorative vanity, hiding unsightly plumbing and pipes and adding fashion flair, in a matter of minutes."  (The ambitious home decorator could purchase towels, shower curtains and window curtains to match.)

No. 261 Fifth Avenue became part of the massive property holdings of Harry B. Helmsley.   In 1982 he admitted to a reporter "I'm cheap," and as evidence pointed out that he changed the name of the New York Central Building at No. 230 Park Avenue to the New York General Building so he would have to change only two letters on the facade.  (It was later renamed the Helmsley Building.)

It was perhaps this notorious parsimony that resulted in No. 261 Fifth Avenue's being little altered.  Upon his death in 1997 it passed to his widow, Leona M. Helmsley.  It was purchased by Investment Properties Associates the following year, which resold it prior to 2000.

The lobby as it appears in 2020.

In 2008 a restoration and renovation was begun by Israel Berger Architects, PC.  Included was the amazingly-intact lobby, with its original lighting and other fixtures.  The gold leaf of the lobby ceiling was carefully redone by YVStudio.  The six-year project brought Ely Jacques Kahn's striking Art Deco design back to its 1929 appearance.  

The re-fabricated entrance more closely resembles the 1929 original.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Check out No. 261 in this panoramic photo from 1911: "251, Coleman, Tailor, Little Shop - Pennsylvania Railroad Co. - No. 265 Calumet Club."

    NY Public Library digitized and posted a book published in 1911  titled 'Fifth Avenue, New York, From Start to Finish', a collection of panoramic street views Burton Welles.