The cafe-chocolate shop L. A. Burdick was in the ground floor space in 2010. photo by Beyond My Ken
Around 1850 broker and bookseller John Paine sold the vacant lot at 5 East 20th Street to William V. Brady, who erected a two-story stable on the plot. Brady was a postmaster whose home was far downtown on Cedar Street, so this was not his private carriage house, but almost assuredly a livery stable.
Elias Smith Higgins purchased the building around 1860 and enlarged it with a large extension to the rear. Livery stables commonly assisted their customers in selling used vehicles. An advertisement in the New York Herald on December 17, 1871 offered: "For sale--A double sleigh, but little used; will be sold cheap; also Bells and double Harness. Apply at stable, No. 5 East Twentieth street." And four years later a customer advertised, "A New Peter's Brougham for Sale--No. 5 East Twentieth street."
The second floor held both storage and living accommodations. In 1878-79 John Corbet and Robert Musgrove, both coachmen, were listed as living here.
As the turn of the century neared, the vintage stable was converted for business. As early as 1892 Proctor & Company's East India House operated from the ground floor. The home decorating store imported high-end furniture, bric-a-brac and textiles from Europe.
In 1893, Elias Higgins's son, Eugene, hired architect R. F. Bloomer to enlarge the building again. A third story and an rear extension greatly increased the interior square footage.
Proctor & Company was still in the building in 1897, sharing it with a shop selling "Japanese fancy goods," and A. L. Bogart Company, electrical contractors. On September 9 that year, The Electrical Engineer said Bogart was "well known in the electrical field."
Eugene Higgins brought in architect John L. Jordan to give the building a stylish makeover in 1901. A new storefront was installed for Louis Struever, who had just signed a 10-year lease, and the upper stories received a new metal cornice and pressed metal window decorations. Even the columns flanking the middle window on the top floor were simply rolled sheet metal. The renovations resulted in the former livery stable receiving a charming French personality.
Louis Struever most likely had much input into the design. He and his brother, Emil, were well known café proprietors. (Emil's was at 876 Broadway.)
It appears, however, that Struever's café did not succeed. On September 15, 1904 John Bohling took over the lease. While he listed his business as "restaurant," it appears it was a tavern that also served food. When Bohling went out of business in 1913, an auction was held of the "saloon fixtures."
The post-World War I years saw a completely new list of tenants in the building. In 1920 M. Rabinowitz moved his stationery store in. He had been in business since 1905, originally located at 108 Fifth Avenue. The same year the Art Lamp Shade Studios moved into the building from 1 East 13th Street. And in 1921 the toy company Invincible Importing Co. leased the second floor. In its January 1922 issue, Toys and Novelties explained that the firm was only several months old, but "It grew so rapidly that they had to find larger quarters and were fortunate in securing show rooms at 5 East 20th Street, near Broadway." The article said, "Manager Hersfeld has been spending many nights working like a beaver to have everything in the new lines of imported and domestic toys ready for buyers."
The little building continued to see a variety of tenants. The M. Rabinowitz stationery store was closed in bankruptcy in 1934, and in 1939 the Blackshaw Press, Inc. operated from one of the upper floors. The firm published popular novels like H. B. Liebler's 1939 Moccasin Tracks, and the 1940 The Alleghenians by Frederic Brush.
Jane Products operated from the building in the 1970's, offering novelties like a French policeman's whistle, perfect "for hailing cabs or scaring mashers," according to New York Magazine on December 7, 1970.
As the neighborhood transformed to the trendier Flatiron District, chef Cyril Renaud opened Fleur de Sel here in November 2000. The New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant noted, "The concise menu has a decidedly French focus, as does the décor, enlivened with his watercolor interpretations of Impressionist paintings."
Fleur de Sel was replaced by a café and chocolate shop, L. A. Burdick. Not merely a candy store, its owner Larry Burdick hosted a "discussion about chocolate, with a tasting" with Sepp Schoenbaechler of Felchlin Chocolate in Switzerland in September 2011.
In 2017 The Hudson Company opened its flagship shop at 5 East 20th Street. Based in upstate New York, the firm markets reclaimed and custom hardwood flooring, beams and paneling.
Today there are three apartments in the upper floors. Sadly, John L. Jordan's cost savings 1901 renovations have not withstood the ravages of time and weather well. The pressed metal cartouches and the rolled sheet metal columns are badly dented, and one capital has fallen away. Scaffolding on the building in 2022 gives promise that, perhaps, a restoration is underway.
photographs by the author
many thanks to Laurie Gwen Shapiro for inspiring this post
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