Monday, November 30, 2020

The Lost William C. Schermerhorn House - 49 West 23rd Street


Family members assembled on the split staircase for a photograph.  Apparently no one thought to remove the carpet which was airing from a third floor window.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Jacob Janse Schermerhorn arrived in New Netherland in 1636.  His descendants would become among the oldest and wealthiest families in New York City.  William Colford Schermerhorn spent much of his life in the family mansion at No. 6 Great Jones Street which, following his parents' death, his wife, the former Ann Elliott Huger Cottonet, made a center of lavish entertaining.

Born on June 22, 1821, Schermerhorn received a private education before attending Columbia College.  Educated as an attorney and admitted to the bar in 1842, he really never practiced law.  He and Ann had five children--Fanny, Sarah, Franklin, Simon, and Annie.  In his office at No. 41 Liberty Street he devoted almost all of his time and energy to the management of the extensive Schermerhorn holdings.

William Colford Schermerhorn Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association

When his father erected the house on Great Jones Street that neighborhood was among the most fashionable in the city.  But not long after Henry Brevoort, Jr.'s construction of his lavish, free-standing house on Fifth Avenue at 9th Street in 1834, society began migrating west.   In 1858 William commissioned German-born architect Detlef Lienau to design a mansion on the exclusive block of 23rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

Nine years earlier Lienau had designed an architecturally groundbreaking mansion for millionaire Hart M. Shiff at No. 32 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 10th Street.  It is considered the first example of the French Second Empire style in New York City (described by the architect as "a la mansard").  Now Lienau produced a near match for the Schermerhorns.

Lienau's rendering for the Schermerhorn house (above) was extremely similar to that of the Schiff residence. collection of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library 

The mansion sat on two plots--Nos. 49 and 51 West 23rd Street.  Three bays wide, it was accessed by a split staircase.  Each story was defined by an intermediate cornice, and stone quoins lined the three vertical sections.   Directly above the entrance, a pair of French doors, crowned by a classical pediment, opened onto a stone balcony.  The New York Herald described the residence broadly, saying:

The house is a very large and handsome one, occupying three [sic] lots of ground.  It is red brick, four stories high, with attics and with brown stone trimmings; it has a high stoop and elegant stone balconies.

The family moved into the completed mansion in 1859.  Its sumptuous interiors were outfitted with imported French furniture.  Perhaps no space was more important than the large picture gallery which, like that of William's cousin Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, doubled as a ballroom for Ann's opulent entertainments.

Ann was described by Elizabeth Fries Ellet in her 1868 book The Queens of American Society as "remarkable for beauty and grace, and for the elegance of her reunions."  Attending those "reunions" were the most elevated names of Manhattan society.  On February 5, 1869, for instance, the Evening Telegram reported:

On Friday Mrs. William Schermerhorn, 49 West Twenty-third street, gave one of the largest and most recherche receptions of the season.  Among the ladies present, noticeable for their rich and stylish toilets, were Mrs. Gracie King, Mrs. [Mary] Mason Jones, Mrs. Hamilton Fish, Mrs. Coventry Waddell, Mrs. Samuel Failes, Mrs. Cutting and Miss King.

Ann's entertainments vied with any throughout society, including those of her husband's cousin.  On February 22, 1887 the New-York Daily Tribune reported on the "large reception and tea" she had given the previous afternoon.  "Over two hundred guests called," it said.

On the night of February 10, 1897 Mr. and Mrs. Bradley Martin gave a fancy dress ball at the Hotel Waldorf to which 1,200 invitations were issued ("but little more than half of those invited were in attendance," noted The New York Times).  It was a costume ball and, as was common, invited socialites gave pre-ball gatherings.  Because of the costumes and the decorations of the 23rd Street house, Ann Schermerhorn's reminded many of her earlier, famous Versailles ball.

The New York Times reminisced, "Forty-three years ago Mr. and Mrs. Schermerhorn gave a great which the guests appeared in costumes of the time of Louis XV, and the affair last night, though less pretentious in point of numbers and preparation, had many points of resemblance to it."  The article called it "the most elaborate of the several costume events preceding the ball."

Following an 8:30 dinner "to a few of the close friends of the host and hostess," said the article, "the large handsomely decorated parlors and ball room of the mansion were thrown open for the reception of about 100 guests."  As always, the guest list was impressive, with names like Suydam, Van Nest, Redmond and Iselin.  "An interesting feature of the reception was the exhibition of costumes worn at the famous Schermerhorn ball of 1854, and some of the silverware used at the banquet on that occasion."

Sharing the house with William and Ann were their unmarried daughter, Sarah; Fanny and her husband, Samuel W. Bridgman; and Annie and her husband, John Innes Kane.

Bridgman became the target of a highly-publicized blackmail scheme in 1897.  He had married Fanny in 1869 and was described by the Patterson Evening News as "a member of the Knickerbocker, Metropolitan, Tuxedo, Camera and Military clubs.  His life is that of a clubman, and is divided between his clubs and his home."  On the night of April 17 he and Fanny left for the theater.  On the street a man presented him with papers "in a suit for $100,000 brought against him by one James Ward for the alienation of his wife's affections," according to The Sun.

Bridgman laughed it off as a joke--until a second letter arrived from a supposed attorney the next morning, threatening to involve the Sheriff.   The conman behind the scheme, William C. Woodward, known as "Big Hawley the confidence man," assumed that his wealthy patsy would pay to avoid unwanted scandal.  Instead Bridgman went to the authorities and a trap was laid.  Detective Sergeant McNaught masqueraded as a worker in the office of Bridgman's lawyer.   When the blackmailer arranged an in-person negotiation, the trap was sprung.

William and Ann maintained a summer estate in Lenox and one in Newport.  Their movements kept society columnists on their toes.  On September 8, 1901, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "Mr. and Mrs. William C. Schermerhorn and Miss Schermerhorn, of New-York, who have been at Newport since July, have returned to Lenox and are at their Elm cottage."

By the time of that article, the West 23rd Street neighborhood was no longer residential.  The mansions of the Schermerhorn's' neighbors had either been converted for commercial purposes or demolished and replaced by emporiums.  But the Schermerhorns stubbornly refused to move north and abandon their home.  It was now a stark anachronism of a more refined era along the block.

The transformation of the once-elegant block is evidenced in this photograph.  The Schermerhorn house can be glimpsed at the right.  The Eden Musee next door was a wax museum and music hall.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On January 2, 1903 The Evening Post reported, "William Colford Schermerhorn, the oldest of his family, who had kept his residence at No. 49 West Twenty-third Street while the shops moved up to him and around him and then beyond him, died there last night."  Schermerhorn was 82 years old had had been ill only two days.

Sarah, who had a kidney problem, had never married.  Ann was still deep in mourning when her daughter's condition worsened.  Fanny and John maintained a summer estate in Bar Harbor and all four went there "hoping the change of air would benefit Miss Schermerhorn," according to the New-York Daily Tribune.   On July 30, just six months after her father's death, Sarah died in the Bar Harbor residence.

In reporting in Sarah's funeral in the 23rd Street mansion, the New York Press focused mostly on the house, beginning the article saying "There is something lugubrious about the old Schermerhorn house, at No. 49 West Twenty-third street.  It is the only private dwelling on that busy shopping block."  

The article mentioned that Annie Kane and Caroline Astor "are the best of friends, yet Mrs. Kane is as quiet socially as Mrs. Astor is active.  Like most of the Schermerhorns, Mrs. Kane is passionately fond of music and her entertainments usually take the form of musicales."  

One sentence revealed that Ann had ceded her place in society to her daughters:  "Mrs. William C. Schermerhorn was a great patron of the arts in her day.  With wealth at her command, this matron's greatest pleasure was to send young women to study in Paris in the hope of producing a second Jenny Lind.  She never had that reward."

Despite her advancing age, however, Ann continued her routine of moving among her several homes.  On September 29, 1906, for instance, the New-York Tribune announced "Mrs. William C. Schermerhorn is to open her Main street cottage [in Lenox] for October.  Mr. and Mrs. John Innes Kane, who are at Bar Harbor, will return to Lenox with Mrs. Schermerhorn."

That would be Ann's last season in Lenox.  On February 15, 1907 The New York Times reported that she had died in the 23rd Street house the previous day.  "With her death New York has lost one of the few remaining women who had been really great leaders of society in this city."  The 83-year-old had outlived all but two of her children--Annie and Fanny.

Ann's beloved house was an architectural fly in amber.  Her deep affection for it went beyond her death.  A few days after her funeral the New York Press reported that she had "provided for its preservation by a clause in her will."  The article recalled "It was in the Schermerhorn mansion that the first foreign opera singers appeared at musicals.  On one occasion the Schermerhorns became the talk of the city by engaging the entire orchestra of the Academy of Music to play at a reception."

Despite Ann's posthumous efforts, life among retail stores was unattractive to her daughters and their husbands.  First the Kanes moved to Madison Avenue and then, on March 19, 1908, the New-York Tribune reported that Samuel and Fanny Bridgman had purchased the five-story house at No. 954 Fifth Avenue.  The article reminded readers "Mrs. Bridgham was Miss Fanny Schermerhorn.  She and her husband have occupied for some years the old Schermerhorn house, No. 49 West 23d street."

Three years later, on May 3, 1911, The New York Times entitled an article "Schermerhorn House To Go" and commented that since the Bridghams moved out the mansion had been unoccupied.  "On its site will rise a twelve-story loft building."

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The mansion was replaced by the remarkable "Modern French" style structure designed by Schwartz & Gross which survives.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The William G. Sutherland House - 331 West 18th Street


Born in February 1776, William G. Sutherland made his living as a shoemaker.  By the first years of the 1850's he was successful enough to purchase the fine three-story brick home at No. 221 West 18th Street (renumbered 331 in 1868) in the developing Chelsea neighborhood.  The 23-foot wide home featured the expected elements of the Greek Revival style like the Doric brownstone pilasters which upheld the heavy entablature.

By 1853 Sutherland had retired.  His sons, William and James who ran a fruit business downtown on Front Street, also lived in the house.  A daughter, Margaret, had married Matthew Winters in 1821.   

In 1862 it appears that James moved out.  His name disappeared from the directories that year and a boarder, broker Edmund J. Wade, took his place.   That same year, on March 3, William G. Sutherland died while at Rockland Lake, New York at the age of 85.  William Jr. remained in the house until 1867 when he moved to West 21st Street.  He sold the 18th Street house to Joseph M. Schute and his wife, Mary.

Schute was a well-do-to entrepreneur who ran two separate but related businesses.  A builder, his office was at was No. 387 West 18th Street.  He also operated a pipe business at No. 417 West 18th Street.  It was most likely Schute who updated the house by adding Italianate details.  The parlor windows were extended to the floor and pressed metal lintels were added to the openings.

Living with Mary and Joseph was their second son, John A. Schute.  He died at the age of 27 on January 9, 1874.  As was the custom, his casket sat in the parlor until his funeral which was held there four days later.  A member of the family would have sat vigil day and the night at by the casket--the ritual known as a wake.

Not long afterward the Schutes sold the house to carriage maker Frederick R. Wood and his wife, Mary.   Wood had founded F. R. Wood in 1848.  The house was conveniently located near his carriage factory at Nos. 219-221 West 19th Street.

The firm had been renamed F. R. Wood & Son by 1888.  Rather than manufacturing elegant carriages and buggies, it focused on more industrial vehicles.  The July 1, 1888 issue of The Hub noted "They are making mostly light delivery wagons and are doing a good share of repair work."

On March 12, 1893 Frederick and Mary announced the engagement of their daughter Blanche Estelle to Daniel Kirk Valentine.  Although the wedding was scheduled for the following month, for some reason it did not happen until January 15, 1895.

The Woods sold No. 331 for $18,000 in October that year to Philip G. Becker.  The sale price would be equal to about $565,000 today.  

An interesting side story is that shortly after selling the house Frederick Wood's firm became involved with electric delivery vehicles and "invalid coaches."  In 1900 it was no longer listed as a carriage maker, but as an "electric motor vehicle manufacturer."  It built the first electric ambulance in America in 1901.

It appears No. 311 was being operated as a boarding house in the pre-World War I years.  It was home to Peter Vingel, who made his living as a street car conductor in 1916 during a vicious labor dispute.  Strikes often involved violence, especially when management dug in against the union demands.  On September 13 The Evening World ran a front page banner headline that read "FIGHT UNION TO THE LAST, TRACTION HEADS DECIDE."  The article reported that all the street railroad companies had banded together against the unions.

The tension caused problems for the workers like Vingel who remained on the job.  A separate front page article was entitled "500 Men And Boys Attack Car Crew On Fourth Avenue" and told of the mob that tried "to pull motormen and conductors from surface cars."  A "pitched battle between police and strikers" near Madison Square broke out as the streetcar employees were attacked.  Peter Vingel was among the targets, but he managed not to be wrested off the platform of his car at 23rd Street and Madison before being rescued by police.

Following the First World War most of the once upscale homes on the block were converted to rooming houses or apartments.  Change came to No. 331 in 1924.  On September 18 the New York Telegram and Evening Mail reported "The Margaret and Sarah Switzer Foundation for Girls purchased from Mary Coleman the three-story house at No. 331 West Eighteenth street."  

Sisters Margaret and Sarah Switzer had arrived from Ireland in the 19th century.  They found work as seamstresses and, according to a report in 1911, "reached the head of their profession, the dressmaking profession, and they made a fortune."  The women used their money for the benefit of working women.  After Margaret died, Sarah pushed forward with their vision.  In 1911 she built the Margaret and Sarah Switzer Institute and Home for Girls at Christopher Street and Waverly Place.

Sarah Switzer died on February 27, 1920, but the institute went on.   The Hospital Social Service noted in 1924 "The Margaret and Sarah Switzer Foundation for Girls has opened a New York City office at 331 West 18th Street."

It is unclear how long the Institute remained in the house; but by 1957 it was home to an even more unexpected tenant.  On April 2, 1957 an Associated Press article reported on the arrival of Betsy, "the nation's No. 1 fingerpainting chimpanzee," in the city.  The article said "On arrival in New York, Betsy and her entourage, motored to an exclusive 17-room animal hostel (Animal Talent Scout Shelter, 331 West 18th St.) where Betsy was shown to a room with private bath."

The Animal Talent Scout Shelter was run by Lorrain and Bernie D'Essen.  They acted as casting agents for non-human performers for television, motion pictures, operas, plays and advertisements.  The couple boasted they could book anything "from a mosquito to an elephant."

The presence of the Animal Talent Scout Shelter must have been a constant source of comment for the neighbors.  On November 7, 1970 The New York Times noted "The menagerie from time to time has had lions, llamas, kangaroos and timber wolves, along with a score or more of dogs, cats and deer."

The survival of the Sutherland house may be endangered.  An application to replace the building with a new structure in June 2017 was disapproved; however new plans were filed in November 2019.

photographs by the author

Friday, November 27, 2020

The 1931 Wildenstein & Co. Building - 19-21 East 64th Street


photo via

Nathan Wildenstein was a tailor in Paris when his career took a surprising turn.  He promised a well-heeled client that he could sell an Old Master painting for her although (most likely unknown to her) he knew little about fine art.  After spending hours in the Louvre Museum to educate himself, he sold the painting and used his commission to begin an art gallery.

Wildenstein became an authority of 18th century French art and his firm, Wildenstein et Cie, was among the foremost dealers in Europe.  In 1903 he opened a Manhattan branch, headed by his son George after 1912.  (Interestingly, Nathan would never cross the ocean to visit the United States.)

George slightly changed the face of Wildenstein & Co.  While he was as impassioned about the Old Masters which made his father's gallery famous, he embraced modern movements as well--such as Impressionism and Realism.  American tycoons routinely acquired works of arts from the gallery.  The New York Sun later commented that it "added extensively to the Altman, Henry Clay Frick, E. J. Berwind, Jules S. Bache and William Randolph Hearst collections.

Benjamin Altman, for example, had purchased Velasquez's The Christ and the Disciples from Wildenstein & Co., Henry Frick acquired Jean-Baptise-Simeon Chardin's La Serinette and the Portrait of Madame d'Haussonville by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Portrait of Madame d'Haussonville by Ingres.  Frick Collection

Felix Wildenstein had been associated with the family business since 1902.  In 1925 he was named president of the New York branch.  (George had moved on to spearhead the international business.)  The firm had been renting space its gallery space for years, the lease set to expire in 1932.  Wilderstein would not renew it.

On May 12, 1931 The New York Times reported, "An important upper east side real estate transaction that foreshadows the erection of a fine building designed especially to exhibit objects of art was disclosed yesterday through the purchase of 19 and 21 East Sixty-fourth Street by Wildenstein & Co., Inc., art dealers, now at 645 Fifth Avenue."  The two old buildings sat within a block from Central Park amid the mansions of Manhattan's social elite.  Wildenstein & Co. paid about $800,000 for properties, about $13.4 million today.  (A significant outlay in the Depression years.)  

Wildenstein & Co. handled the delicate issue of inserting a commercial structure into an exclusive residential block by hiring society architect Horace Trumbauer to design the building.  Based in Philadelphia, he was responsible for some of Manhattan's most lavish mansions, including the James Speyer residence and the James B. Duke mansion.

Completed the following year, the Wildenstein & Co. gallery building gave no hint that it was anything but a private mansion.  At a time when other architects were working in the jazzy Art Deco style, Trumbauer turned the clock back, designing a neo-French Classic structure that appeared to have been on the site for three decades.  The stone-faced structure rose five stories including a mansard level.  Three arched openings pierced the base, each of which was adorned with a Versailles-worthy portrait keystone.  Two-story pilasters separated the windows of the mid-section.  The fourth floor and mansard sat behind a stone baluster atop the cornice.

The sedate French façade was not the only deception.  Trumbauer's plans and subsequent Department of Buildings documents described an art gallery on the first floor and "showrooms" throughout the rest of the building, with no residential space.  That was a notable stretch of the truth.  In fact, the upper floors (which like the exterior were lavishly decorated in turn-of-the-century French style) included space intended as the home of the Wildenstein family.

photo via

The galleries were routinely the venue for charity events, among the earliest being the exhibition of paintings by Giovanni Boldini for the benefit of the Child Welfare Committee of Belleville Hospital in March 1933.   Works were loaned by socialites and organizations like Mrs. Charles T. Barney, Virginia Fair Vanderbilt, Baron Maurice de Rothschild, the Brooklyn Museum and the Paris headquarters of Wildenstein & Co.

The Great Depression did not necessarily affect large sales for the firm.  On December 6, 1934, for instance, The New York Sun reported that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had purchased Antoine Watteau's Le Mezzettino which had been purchased by Catherine the Great in 1767.  The museum disclosed only that it had paid "less than $250,000" for the masterpiece (about $4.77 million today).

Le Mezzetino, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Among the other important events held in the galleries was the exhibition of Eduard Manet in February through April 1937.  The New York Sun noted "This is the first large and important Manet exhibition ever held in this country."

An anticipated annual event here was the Hallmark Art Award exhibition.  Sponsored by the greeting card company, it offered cash prizes to artists, but more importantly provided funds for various charities.  In 1949 the proceeds went to the New York Chapter of the American Red Cross.  That year the firm offered $28,000 in awards for Christmas-themed paintings with the first prize being $3,500.  

photo via

The competition drew major names in the art field.  In 1957 artists like Andrew Wyeth, Loren MacIver and John Wilde submitted works.  The first prize that year went to Edward Hopper.

As the Wildenstein & Co. galleries exhibited and sold high-end art for decades, the family continued to live in the upper floors.  At one point there were 11 members in the house, prompting art dealer Harry Brooks to quip in New York Magazine in 1997 that it was "the most expensive tenement in Manhattan."

In 2013 the David Wildenstein entered into negotiations with the Government of Qatar to purchase the property, but the talks ended with no deal.  It sold in 2017 for $79.5 million to the Chinese conglomerate HNA, which intended to convert it to offices.  Then the firm changed its mind.  Less than a year later, on February 15, 2018, Curbed New York reported that it had sold again, this time to billionaire Len Blavatnik who paid $90 million.

photo by Jim Henderson

In January 2019 another art gallery, Skarstedt, moved into former Waldenstein & Co. space.  Founded in 1994, the gallery features contemporary European and American artists.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The 1870 Nichols, Bartnett & Co. Building - 477-479 Broadway

In the early years of the 19th century the Rhinelander family was one of the oldest and wealthiest in New York.  Philip Jacob Rhinelander had arrived in New York in 1686.  He amassed considerable property holdings and his son, William, augmented the family fortune in the sugar business.

William's son, William Christopher Rhinelander, married Mary Rogers on October 4, 1816 and moved into a fine home at No. 477 Broadway.  The property stretched through to Mercer Street where the family's carriage house stood.  But, as The Sun explained decades later, "That neighborhood, which was then a residential one, was soon afterward invaded by business."  In 1840 Rhinelander commissioned Richard Upjohn to design a spacious mansion far north at No. 14 Washington Square.

Typical of the Rhinelander family, William did not dispose of the Broadway property, but leased it.  Following the upheaval caused by the Civil War he demolished it and the abutting house at No. 479 and hired the architectural firm of H. W. Smith & Sons to design a modern replacement structure.

The architects chose cast iron facades for both the Broadway and Mercer Street elevations.  The decision contributed to the speed of construction.  Started on July 12, 1869, the building was completed only eight months later, on March 31. 1870.

Five stories tall, the structure featured elements of the French Second Empire style.  Each floor was delineated by a molded cornice.  Engaged Corinthian columns separated each of the gently arched openings.  The complex terminal cornice featured foliate brackets and dentil molding.

The ground floor held two retail shops.  One became home to the Nichols, Burtnett & Co. fancy goods store which manufactured goods on the upper floors.  On August 21, an advertisement in The New York Herald sought "Muff Finishers--Six muff finishers wanted; high prices and stead work.  Apply to Nichols, Burtnett & Co., 477 Broadway."

New-York Tribune, December 22, 1871 (copyright expired)

In the second store was another well-known fancy goods merchant, Hugh O'Neill.  In April 1871 the firm was looking for "An experienced man, who thoroughly understands the lace and fancy goods trade."

Operating from the upper floors in the mid-1870's were Ball & Ray, milliners; artificial flower importers Berliner & Karcher; and apparel manufacturers Isaac & Hackes.

By 1879 one of the stores was home to another fancy goods dealer, Henry Levy & Son, operated by Henry and Sampson H. Levy.   Like Nichols, Burtnett & Co. it also had manufacturing space in the building.  The New York Times said "Besides importing fancy goods they manufactured fine plush and leather goods."

The store was the victim of a clever con artist that year.  On December 15 the New York Herald reported "Sometimes [Frank] Fox, occasionally [James L.] Jones, more frequently [Morris] Cohen, but under one name or another a strange, eccentric being, has for months been projecting himself into the experience of confiding shopkeepers and credulous officials."

The man posed as a newspaper reporter and finagled free or discounted goods from store keepers.  Police supposed he would be easily tracked down by the consistent descriptions.  "He was lame, they all agreed; had dark hair, a scar on the cheek and a deformed jaw--altogether an unprepossessing creature, one would suppose; and besides all this, they said, he had an abnormal development of brass [i.e., boldness].  On the last feature opinion was unanimous," said the New York Herald.

On November 28 he walked into Henry Levy & Son and presented a calling card inscribed "Frank Fox, New York Herald."  He told Henry Levy that he was doing a report on revival of trade (the country was coming out of the Financial Panic of 1873).  After the interview he promised to give the store good coverage in both the Herald and the New York Telegram.  But then he was hard to get rid of.

"But the pseudo reporter lingered.  He bowed himself toward the door, but he lingered still, and it was only when his loudly expressed admiration of a four-dollar pocketbook had been rewarded by a  present of it that he took himself off."  The scam interview cost Henry Levy & Son the equivalent of about $100 in the item.

After having been in business for more than two decades, Henry Levy & Son surprised the industry when it went bankrupt in December 1884.  The New York Times commented, "The failure was unexpected...The causes were the general stagnation in business, poor collections, and depreciation."

The building continued to house garment manufacturing firms.  In the first years of the 1890's the cloak manufacturing firms of Lewis Gruer & Co. and H. Abrams & Co. were here.  Both had significant problems to deal with.

In the summer of 1890 a strike of 26 cutters at Meyer Johnasson & Co.'s cloak factory dominoed into a general walk-out of more than 10,000 workers city-wide.   In response, Lewis Gruer & Co. and some other firms locked its union employees out.  The scheme backfired as the non-union workers joined the cause.

"These manufacturers were to-day surprised to learn that the tables had been turned upon them and that they themselves were now the locked-out parties, as the result of an amalgamation of employees of the trade to aid their previously locked-out fellow craftsmen," reported The Evening World on June 16.

Harris and Morris Abrams had founded H. Abrams & Co. in No. 477 Broadway in January 1871.   Only a year later, in October, the firm was in serious trouble.  As creditors pressed for payment, the men assured that they had $25,000 worth of goods in stock.

Yet when the sheriff arrived on October 22 to "take charge of their store," he "could find only about $3,000 worth in the store," reported The Sun.  Lawyers for one of the creditors accused the Abrams brothers of "fraudulently shipping their goods out of the State and preparing for a failure."

And, indeed, investigators were able to track down shipments of the goods to various locations in Pennsylvania.  It was returned to New York and sold for the benefit of the creditors.  Now what could not be tracked down was Harris Abrams.

While his brother stayed and faced the music, filing personal bankruptcy in November 1899, Harris Abrams and his wife fled town.  He personally owed Boessneck, Broesel & Co. $6,000--more than $190,000 in today's money.  The firm hired a detective to find him.  Charles T. Pfaltz discovered the pair living in Toronto on February 22, 1893 where Abrams was arrested.

At the turn of the century the lace and "novelties" importing firm of Sidenberg & Co. was the major tenant.  The success of Richard Sidenberg's operation was reflected in his sumptuous summer home in Greenwich, Connecticut, abutting the property of millionaire H. O. Havemeyer.  The firm remained in the building through until 1909, after which it moved to Fifth Avenue and 17th Street.

The Sun, March 7, 1909 (copyright expired)

Following the removal of G. Sidenberg & Co. the embroidery firm of Stein, Doblin & Co. leased the entire building from the Rhinelander estate.  It sublet space to shirt maker L. Loery & Son.

Fairchild's Men's Wear Directory, 1911 (copyright expired)

The partners of Stein, Doblin & Co. incorporated in 1912 and almost immediately relocated to No. 935 Broadway.  Although its former landlord was gone, L. Loewy & Son remained.  As had been the case with Lewis Gruer & Co. years earlier, the firm was hit with a labor strike in 1913.

After ten weeks of no budging on either side, the employees were infuriated when L. Loewy & Son hired non-union employees.   The Evening World said "There have been frequent encounters between the strikers and guards and strike breakers and many windows in the firm's big plant, which extends through from Broadway to Nos. 50 and 52 Mercer street, have been broken by stones thrown in these fights."  On April 10 tempers boiled over and took an ugly, violent turn.

The Evening World reported "Three times this morning the police had had to drive crowds of pickets away from the Broadway plant, and shortly after 10 o'clock when three strikebreakers started for their homes a crowd followed them.  They booed and hooted at them and finally took to throwing bits of brick and refuse from the street, and in Crosby street the men turned on their assailants."

Fearful, two of the non-union men drew revolvers.  The strikers fled for cover as about six shots rang out.  One of them did not move quickly enough.  "Only [Isidor] Streir remained behind, toppled to the sidewalk by the bullet, which struck him like a club in the back, and firmly convinced that he had been killed, the strikebreakers fled."

Two policemen and a throng of strikers chased the men into the subway where they were captured.  In the meantime, Streir "lay on the sidewalk moaning that he was shot and dying."  In fact, he was barely injured, thanks to his heavy clothing.  The bullet "had torn through his overcoat and been stopped there partly by the heavy wadding over the shoulders."  It did not break the skin, but merely bruised it.

The Seventh Regiment Gazette, November 1918 (copyright expired)

L. Loewy & Son, Inc. remained in the building into the 1920's.  The Depression years saw Wellmade Leather Goods Co., Inc. and the Century Curtain Company as tenants.

The two separate store spaces survived in 1941.  photo via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services.

In a surprising coincidence, Stein Doblin Lace Co. was organized in 1994 in the building its predecessor had left more than half a century earlier.  In 2003 Pearl River Mart opened in the ground floor.  Described by The New York Times as "a Chinese department store," it had been on Canal Street for seventeen years.  Marianne Rohrlich, writing in The Times on March 6, said "A vast assortment of bamboo or straw window shades and shoji blinds are available" and "an enormous kitchenware department offers a large array of chopsticks, and there are bargains on ceramic dinnerware."

The store remained until 2015 when it was forced to close due to a "significant rent increase."  On December 19, 2018 Dolby Soho opened in the space.   The three-month pop-up was self-described as "an experiential space where science meets art and technology meets imagination."

After 150 years the handsome cast iron building is remarkably intact.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Altered John Q. Aymar House - 680 Broadway


John Quereau Aymar was a son of John Patrick Aymar who had made his fortune in importing enormous amounts of West Indian cargo--rum, sugar and such--from the West Indies.  In 1821 John and his brother Benjamin formed B. Aymar & Co. which sailed clipper ships between New York and California, and to the West Indies.  Like their father, they imported brandy, mahogany, coffee and port wine.  

John married Elizabeth Dickson in 1825 and they would have three children, Mary Dickson, Elizabeth, and John, Jr.  He and his family lived in the elegant residence at No. 42 Greenwich Street.

John, Elizabeth and their two daughters posed in the Greenwich Street house around 1833.  attributed to George W. Twibill, Jr., from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The family suffered tragedy when John, Jr. died on January 12, 1830 at 15 months of age.  At the time the Greenwich Street neighborhood was becoming increasingly commercial.  Wealthy families were moving north to the neighborhood around Broadway, Lafayette Place and Bond Streets.

Around the mid-1840's the Aymar's moved to No. 680 Broadway, between Great Jones and Bond Streets--among the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in the city.  Faced in white marble, the Italianate style house rose three stories above a high English basement.  Its floor-to-ceiling parlor windows were most likely fronted by a cast iron balcony.

Mary Dickson Aymar married Joseph Gaillard, Jr. around 1854 and the newlyweds moved into the Broadway house.  The couple went to the Powelton House near Newburg, New York in the summer of 1856.  It was there that Mary died on July 26 at just 29 years old.  Her funeral was held in St Bartholomew's Church, then nearby on Lafayette Place, on three days later.

Joseph Q. Aymar involved himself in charitable causes and by 1855 was the treasurer of the Eye and Ear Infirmary on Mercer Street.  He and Elizabeth lived quietly in their refined marble mansion, rarely appearing in society pages.

Once again the Aymars saw their neighborhood being invaded by commerce in the years preceding the outbreak of the Civil War.  In 1859 they moved to No. 102 Fifth Avenue and sold the Broadway house to the East River Bank, which had been founded seven years earlier on Third Avenue.

The bank altered the house for business, removing the stoop, and converting the elegant interiors to commercial space.  Among its first tenants in the upper floors was physician A. Van Antwerp whose medical office was in the building in 1861.

In 1868 the famed photography studio of Sarony & Co. moved its gallery into No. 630 Broadway.  Born in Quebec in 1821, Napoleon Sarony had come to New York City around 1836.  He became known for capturing the images of some of the most famous people of the period.  The Evening News said decades later "Among his first sitters were Peter Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, Longfellow, Charlotte Cushman, Forrest, Booth, John McCullough and Ristori."

This photo of actress Charlotte Cushman was made in 680 Broadway around 1870.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Sarony & Co. was joined in the building in 1869 by M. J. Paillard & Co., dealers in music boxes.  In evenings after dinner well-heeled families entertained themselves in their parlors either by piano music (normally played by a daughter) or by an expensive music box.  The often-complicated machines played several tunes and many had interchangeable rolls, increasing the number of available songs.

In July 1869 an article in the American Phrenological Journal announced "the celebrated Schreiber Cornets and Band Instruments with water valves are sold by the well-known firm of M. J. Paillard & Co., No. 680 Broadway, New York.  They are noted for their purity of tone, ease with which they may be blown, uniform direction of bell, and beauty of appearance."  Depending on the model, the music boxes could imitate "from six to twenty" band instruments.

An ad in The Nation on September 9, 1869 announced Sarony & Co's new "College Department" for class pictures, run by Napoleon Sarony's son, Otto.  copyright expired

M. J. Paillard & Co. manufactured its music boxes in St. Croix, Switzerland.  An article in The Christian Union on December 11, 1878 began, "The acknowledged headquarters for Musical Boxes in this city is the store of Messrs. M. J. Paillard & Co., 680 Broadway, opposite the Grand Central Hotel."  It went on to say, "Their stock includes both large and small boxes.  In the larger ones, in addition to the cylinder, are introduced bells, drums, castanets, reeds, and a bellows arrangement, concentrating in some of the more costly styles the effect of a complete orchestra."

Guide to the City of New York, 1872 (copyright expired)

Sarony & Co. moved northward in the mid-1870's, but M. L. Paillard & Co. remained for decades.  As technology changed, the firm adapted.  In 1898 it advertised that it was now selling Gram-o-Phones.  Nevertheless, changing tastes in home entertainment doomed the once globally-famous firm.  In April 1900 a days-long auction was held in the premises.  An announcement in the New-York Tribune on April 16 listed not only a striking variety of music boxes, but the show cases, desks, safes, chandeliers, typewriting machines and all the other fixtures.

In the meantime, the East River Bank continued on in the ground floor.  By 1917 it had become the Bower & East River Bank, and by 1921 the East River National Bank.  

A renovation was initiated in 1920 to extend the banking room into the building next door at No. 682 and install a new storefront.  At the time the upper floors held a millinery firm, an apparel manufacturer, a feather wholesaler (important to the millinery businesses in the neighborhood), and a coffee importer.

Astoundingly, as 20th century loft buildings rose all around it, the Aymar house survived.  During the Depression years a branch of the National City Bank of New York occupied the ground floor.  Then a renovation completed in 1942 resulted in "light manufacturing" on the first floor with the second through fourth floors "to be vacant," according to Department of Building documents.

In 1975 the building was home to the newly-formed Ace Banner & Flag Co. in 1975.  While the firm manufactured mainly nylon flags with embroidered stars and gold fringe, for example, it marketed a clever novelty in 1978.  The Truce Flag was a small white flag, signifying a peace offering.  An article in The New York Times on July 26 suggested that if a reader needed to apologize or end a spat, "personal or business, what you could do is get a little white flag, and put it on the bed table or your office desk."

The final decades of the 20th century saw another major change in the Broadway neighborhood.  In 1981 the owners were given permission from the city "to convert the oversized building at 680 Broadway from manufacturing to residential use," as reported by the Village Voice on December 24.  The renovation, completed in 1982, resulted in commercial space on the ground floor and living/work quarters for artists in the upper portion.

Today the 1920 storefront is virtually intact and, amazingly, the marble façade and cornice of the upper floors survive, although the Victorian details of the openings have been shaved flat.

photographs by the author