Friday, May 14, 2021

From Shirtwaists to Genomics - 14-16 Waverly Place


photo by Beyond My Ken

On February 11, 1892 Isabel Lathrop sold the old three-story house at 14 Waverly Place to Frank A. Seitz.   The president of the Frank A. Seitz Realty & Construction Co., he was on a mission.  The following month he spent $21,667 (about $628,000 today) for the similar house next door at 16 Waverly Place.

Prior to the Civil War years the area had been one of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in Manhattan.  But now its once-elegant homes were being rapidly replaced with loft buildings.  Seitz demolished the two structures and hired the architectural firm of Cleverdon & Putzel to design two identical structures.  Each would be 25-feet wide, six-stories tall, and cost the equivalent of $2 million today to construct.

Completed early in 1893, the architects had created two imposing tripartite structures in a modern take on the Romanesque Revival style.  The piers of the cast iron storefronts upheld faux balustraded balconies that fronted an arcade of deeply-recessed windows.  The engaged brick columns that separated them wore carved medieval-style capitals which were echoed in the massive capitals of the three piers that flanked the stores.

The mid-sections were faced in beige brick encrusted with stylized chain bands of terra cotta.  Energetic brick-and-terra cotta voussoirs capped each opening like sunbursts.  The sixth floors sat above a common cornice, each window separated by engaged columns.

Seitz seems to have hoped to quickly liquidate his investment.  On March 16, 1893 the Record & Guide reported he had sold the structures $250,000--a satisfying $7.3 million in today's money.   If so, the deal fell through and it was not until 1898 that Seitz sold the buildings to William Lauterbach.  

Lauterbach moved his clothing firm, Andur & Goodman Co., into one of the buildings.  Other millinery and apparel firms leased space, as well.  Among them in 1897 were clothiers S. Beller & Co., L. Herschfield & Brother and Max Hurvick, and "hats and caps" manufacturers Philip W. Crawford, E. E. Francis & Co., J. Rowland & Co., the Pioneer Hat Works, and T. C. Millard & Co.

At the time, both industries were experiencing pushback from employees, prompted by the new labor organizations.  Apparel workers labored in oppressive conditions, normally working six days per week for low wages.  On September 2, 1897 The Standard Union reported, "Over 2,600 cloak makers quit work in shops working for six manufacturers of cloaks in New York City, yesterday evening and this morning."  Among those was the entire staff of S. Beller & Co. 

In a related matter, the article noted that women garment workers were "agitating" for a separate union.  "They are mostly, it is said, of Hebrew, Italian and Irish origin.  A mass meeting of the women for organization purposes is to be held later on."

At the turn of the century the "waist," or "shirtwaist," was the most popular women's garment in America.   The tailored blouse was originally modeled on men's shirts.

Despite the tortuous corsets required to maintain the hourglass figure, the shirtwaist was touted as "liberating."  original source unknown
The Danzig Waist Co. operated from 14 Waverly Place in 1901 and, as is the case with fashion companies today, used live models when working on designs and patterns.  On July 23, 1901 the firm advertised in the New York Herald for a "Stylish 36 figure for shirt waists."

Until the last quarter of the 20th century employees were paid in cash.  It was a practice that routinely made clerks carrying the payroll from the bank a target of robbers.  But it was not street thugs who were the threat on September 17, 1906, but an insider.

The Success Publishing Company was one tenant here not involved in millinery or clothing.  On that afternoon Kenneth McKenzie left the office with a $1,900 payroll check  to cash at the bank.   The amount would be nearly $56,000 today.  The Standard Union reported, "As McKenzie did not return the police were notified."

Detectives learned that the 24-year-old was seen at Coney Island that same night during the Mardi Gras festivities.  (The annual event had nothing to do with the Lenten celebrations held in New Orleans every spring.)  The Standard Union reported that the detectives "went to the big health resort last evening armed with a bench warrant in the hope of arresting him."  Unable to find him among the throng, undercover officers then "shadowed McKenzie's home."  Finally, just after midnight on September 20, he was seen sneaking out of the basement door.

McKenzie was arrested, but the money was gone.  The article in The Standard Union was entitled "Think Man Spent Firm's Money At Mardi Gras."

In 1918 William Lauterbach joined the two buildings internally.  His company was still operating here and in June the following year it was looking for a "boy as learner in shipping room."  The pay was $150 per week in today's money, and the company wanted to ensure that the applicants were both literate and neat.  The ad insisted that applications be addressed "in own handwriting."

Following William Lauterbach's death, his widow, Mattie, sold the buildings in 1945 to the Eastern Control Corporation.  While a few apparel-related tenants, like Service Wear, Inc., were still in the buildings, the garment center had moved north of 34th Street.  More typical of the firms in the buildings now was the Howard Adams Brush Co.

A horrifying incident occurred on January 8, 1952 while a team of five workmen were installing a 5,000-gallon oil tank in the sub-basement.  While four of the men were working on the tank, welder John Nagy was using an acetylene torch on the iron grating at street level to create an opening for a vent pipe.  Sparks fell to the basement, igniting cardboard cartons.  By the time the workers noticed the fire it was out of control.

One of them rushed to the street to tell Nagy to stop work while the others tried to fight the blaze.  The flames and thick smoke eventually forced them out, but two had been overcome by smoke.  It was not until the three men reached the sidewalk that they realized that Seymour Washowski and Raleigh Jordan, both 25-years-old, were missing.

The New York Times reported, "The rescuers went down and were able to penetrate only a short distance before the intense smoke and flames drove them back.  It was not until two hours later that the bodies were found in the sub-basement."

The second half of the 20th century saw major change come to the Noho neighborhood.  In 1961 the Young Concert Artists Recital Hall was in the building and in 1967 the Playwright's Workshop Club operated here.  It staged off-Broadway productions like Clyde Ellsworth's 1967 The Sleeping Beauty or Can A Call Girl Find True Love and Happiness.

The upper floors were converted to nine sprawling residential lofts.  Moving in in 1964, for instance, were artist Dan Christensen, his wife, and their two sons.  Their 4,o00-square-foot space accommodated Christensen's studio and the family's residence.  (His paintings are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum.)

At the time Harouts Greek restaurant was a favorite gathering spot for New York University students.  The restaurant closed in 1969 and was unofficially taken over by a campus group, Transendental Students, described by The New York Times on September 22 that year as "a party-throwing organization of hedonists."  They held parties called "freak-outs" in empty classrooms and study halls, and in the now-vacant restaurant.

The New York Times said "The freak-outs were billed as attempted to 'make N.Y.U. livable'" and "usually featured wine, marijuana, movies, political satire, and acid-rock music."  Uninvited attendees were often the New York City Police Department who were called to end the festivities.  The article noted, "Even the N.Y.U. administration has acknowledge the group's influence.  This term the administration allocated $5,000 for the group to renovate Harouts."

After living in their third-floor loft for three decades, the Christensens and the other tenants were told to leave by New York University in June 1998.  A spokesperson for the school explained "various university departments need space for their programs."  Although the tenants, described by The New York Times as "four painters, a sculptor, a filmmaker, a food designer, a martial-arts teacher and a furniture marker" hired a lawyer, they were unsuccessful.

A subsequent renovation, completed in 2010, resulted in the building's being home to New York University's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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