Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Ralph S. Townsend's 450-454 Sixth Avenue

photo by Beyond My Ken

The First Colored Presbyterian Church was founded in 1822.  By the time it relocated to 146 Sixth Avenue in 1874 its name had been changed to the Shiloh Presbyterian Church and it had been central to the anti-Slavery movement in New York City.  The congregation moved again in 1879, at a time when Sixth Avenue was increasingly becoming a commercial thoroughfare.

In 1891 the former church property at 144 through 148 Sixth Avenue (renumbered 450-454 in 1925) was demolished to be replaced by a six-story loft and store building.  Designed by Ralph S. Townsend, it was a late, commercial version of the Romanesque Revival style.  Divided both vertically and horizontally into three sections.

Townsend gave the two-story base a striped effect by alternating layers of stone and brick.  The central, three-story mid-section featured three large arches, the spandrels of which were decorated with terra cotta panels.  The brick piers were ornamented with fearsome masks between the third and fourth floors, and foliate capitals at the fifth.  Three groupings of round-arched windows along the top section  were visually overwhelmed by the exuberant decoration directly above.  The parapet featured engaged, clustered colonnetes and intricate panels.  The central, raised section announced the date of construction.

The ground floor store was leased to Henry B. Cowels by 1898.  He listed himself in directories as "grocer and liquor dealer," suggesting he divided the space into two shops--one a grocery store and the other a saloon.

In 1904 the lithographic shop of Julius Bien & Co. was in the building.  Tensions between the union and the business owners that year resulted in a ultimatum on the part of management.  On March 16 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "The employers declared last night that the men would have to sign the arbitration plan this morning individually or they would not be allowed to work."

At Julius Bien & Co., it said, "Each of the employe[e]s of this firm received a copy of the plan this morning.  On the back of it was the request that it be signed before Saturday."  The plan seems to have backfired and Bien's staff walked out.  The following week a help-wanted ad appeared in The Sun:

Lithographic Establishment offers permanent positions and highest wages to thoroughly experienced artists, provers, transferrers, pressmen, cutters and feeders; security in positions guaranteed.  Julius Bien & Company 140 & 142 Sixth Avenue.

The massive building was home to a wide variety of firms.  In 1912 the Artistic Waist Company took the entire sixth floor.  Waists, or shirtwaists, had been the most popular item of women's apparel for at least a decade.  The tailored shirt was worn in one form or another by everyone from shop girls to socialites.  Its popularity was exemplified in a September 16, 1906 article in the Pittsburgh Press that said, "A very fashionable woman with a half a hundred waists boasts that there are no two alike."

The 1899 Sears catalog displayed a variety of shirtwaists.  (copyright expired)

In 1917 the ground floor became home to the Charles French Restaurant.  It was run by Charles Sebestyen, who came to New York from his native Hungary in 1906.  He started out in the restaurant industry as a busboy.  Eventually he became maitre d'hôtel of the upscale Churchill's restaurant and then manager of the famous Delmonico's before striking out on his own.

Garment firms continued to share the building with more industrial businesses.  In the post World War I years the Edison Electric Appliances Company was here.  It touted its new Hotpoint Automatic Iron in December 1922.

An article in the New-York Tribune told housewives they were not to blame if they left their hot iron when a child shrieked, "or perhaps the phone chooses that moment to ring, the roast to burn, the asparagus to cook dry, or the iceman appears with his dripping fifty."  Disaster was avoided with the new appliance.  Outfitted with a thermostat, it automatically turned itself off at a certain temperature.

Silk merchants Greenberg Bros. moved into the ground floor store in 1925.  Among the apparel firms on the upper floors was the Premier Raincoat Company.

Because employees were paid in cash until the third quarter of the 20th century, bringing the payroll from the bank to the office was always a tense and dangerous routine.  On October 26, 1927 Joseph Heller, president of Premier Raincoat, personally cashed three checks equaling $2,350 ($35,000 in today's money) on East Broadway, safely carried the package on the Third Avenue Elevated train, and then along the "crowded sidewalks" to 452 Sixth Avenue.

The threat of robbers seemed to have been averted once again.  But Heller's movements had been watched for weeks.  The New York Times reported, "As he reached the door of his office a man stepped off the stair way and pointed a revolver at him.  A second man stepped off the stair leading to the fourth floor and came up behind him."

When Heller started to resist, the first man kicked him in the stomach.  As he reeled, the second man grabbed the payroll and the pair ran down the stairway.  Heller's cries alerted a secretary, who ran down the staircase after the thieves, "but they had vanished n the rush-hour crowd in the street."

A notable tenant of 452 Sixth Avenue came in 1932 when the John Reed Club opened.  Formed by Communist-leaning artists, writers and other intellectuals, the club was named after activist and journalist John Reed.  The Sixth Avenue venue would be the scene of social events, art exhibitions and lectures for several years.

On December 1, 1932, for instance, The Daily Worker announced, "A first-hand account of the barbarous conditions on southern chain gangs will be given by John L. a talk tomorrow night at 8 o'clock at the John Reed Club, 450 Sixth Avenue."  And on April 21 the following year Professor H. W. L. Dana, "leading authority on Soviet Drama, gave an illustrated lecture "with many lantern slides" about Soviet theatrical productions.

Earlier that year a major art exhibition had been held in the club's space.  On February 25, 1933 The New York Sun reported, "More than 3,000 people have visited the John Reed Club exhibition, 'The Social Viewpoint in Art,' at 450 Sixth avenue, since it's opening on January 26.  Well-known artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh, and Stuart Davis were represented.

The article mentioned the Socialist bent of the show.  "A feature of the attendance which is probably unique in the history of New York art exhibitions is that trade unions and workers' organizations have been visiting the exhibition in a body.  A good half of the visitors have been members of the working class."  The John Reed Club was disbanded in 1935.    

The marquee and blade sign of Charles French Restaurant were notable features in this photograph, taken about 1941.  via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services.

Charles Sebestyen died in August 1942.  His restaurant, already a destination in the space for a quarter of a century, would survive for more than three more decades.

New York Magazine, December, 15, 1969

The long-time French restaurant made way for Hopper's, a jazz supper club, in 1976.  That same year Dennis Wayne took space in the building, establishing DancerSchool.  On April 3, 1977 Joanna Ney, writing in The New York Times, said, "Since 1970, Dennis Wayne has relentlessly pursued his vision for a dance company that would be different from all others."  A veteran of the Harkness, Joffrey and American Ballet Theater, he had now reached that goal with Dancers, a troupe of 12.

Dancers and DancerSchool shared the studio space.  The school, which offered classes in ballet, jazz dance, gymnastics and modern dance, opened on April 4, 1977.

The end of the line for dance studios and factory space came in 1987 when a renovation resulted in 33 apartments on the upper floors.  

By 1997 the ground floor was home to Jefferson Market, which remained at least through 2008.  Ralph S. Townsend's hulking Romanesque building commands as much attention today as it did in 1891.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment:

  1. There was also a Tony Roma's restaurant on the ground floor in the days before Jefferson Market occupied the space. And a bank, too, I think.