Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Van Wart & Wein's 1931 1 Christopher Street


photograph by the author

Despite the ongoing Great Depression, developer Eugene Silber contracted the architectural firm of Van Wart & Wein to design a massive apartment building on the southwest corner of Greenwich Avenue and Christopher Street.  Perhaps as a gentle nod to the charming row of Federal style houses on the block, the firm designed the 16-story building in the neo-Federal style.  Completed in 1931, its entrance on Christopher Street was flanked by Doric pilasters.  Directly above, swirling volutes sat on either side of a dignified window below a broken pediment and urn.  The stone frieze above the second floor held panels of swags and stone balconies.  Stores were included along the Greenwich Avenue sidewalk to provide added income.

The architects added interest to the 11-story mid-section with brick rustication.  Following the Colonial motif, the casement style windows were given multiple panes.  The climax of Van Wart & Wein's design was the topmost section where a series of setbacks was decorated with balconies, stone urns and balustrades, and, finally, an octagonal brick and stone cupola (most likely hiding a water tank), with arched windows.  

The Depression was likely responsible for the modest size of the apartments, which ranged from one to three rooms.  The first of the stores was quickly rented in November 1931 to the Hitchcock Pharmacy.  The 12-year lease noted its use as a "drug store and luncheonette."

The initial residents were white collar, like Samuel Mann and his wife.  He had run the hosiery manufacturing firm of S. Mann & Co. until his retirement in 1925.  Another of the first tenants was Karl A. Heinzen, the president of the drug making firm, Bayer Company, Inc.

But, then, in 1941 Alfred Cohen signed a lease.  The man from Alston, Massachusetts was not so upstanding.  On June 10 the smell of gas led to Cohen's apartment being entered.  The 46-year-old was found unconscious in the kitchen with the gas jets of the stove opened.  He was taken to the Bellevue Hospital prison ward (attempted suicide was a jailable crime), while detectives searched the apartment.

They found a suicide note addressed to his wife, Helen, back home.  "In the note," said The New York Sun, "Cohen told his wife that he had done some awful things to her and that she had had the worst kind of a break from him."  He also told her about a Boston man "who had 'clipped' some one for $40,000 and advised Mrs. Cohen to get some of it."  The use of jargon bandied about by swindlers led detectives to dig deeper.  As it turned out, Cohen was a fugitive from the Boston police, having jumped bail of $10,000.  He was wanted there on a charge of grand larceny for stealing $62,439.23 in stocks and bonds.

More successful in her suicide attempt was Mrs. Gertrude Somers, who lived on the 15th floor.  On the morning of May 15, 1944 the 46-year-old woman jumped from her apartment window, leaving no notes to explain her action.

The architects embellished the building with Federal style details.  photo by Spencer Means

Aaron G. Bass, a jewelry salesman, discovered on July 30, 1952 that his 1950 Buick had been stolen.  The following day, Patrolman Anthony J. Quaranta saw "three young men driving a car that appeared to be beyond their visible means of support," as reported by The New York Times.  As he headed over to talk to them, the driver, 17-year-old Luis Rivera sped off, turning town Ninth Avenue.  In a scene straight out of the movies, Quaranta jumped into a taxicab and ordered the driver to follow the fleeing vehicle.  At Horatio Street and Eighth Avenue, Rivera slammed Aaron Bass's Buick into a fire hydrant.

On August 15, The New York Times reported that Bass was at the Criminal Courts Building "bright and early" to file his complaint against Rivera and the one accomplice who had been caught.  Following the youths' sentencing, Bass was told he was wanted downstairs in the Chief Magistrate's office.  The article said, "'What for?' inquired Mr. Bass.  He soon found out."

In attempting to discover to whom the automobile was registered, Officer Rivera had looked in the glove compartment.  There he found five unpaid parking tickets.  Further investigation revealed a total of 11 outstanding summonses going over a period of eight months.  Bass told the magistrate he had simply been "too busy" to pay them.  Before he left the courthouse that morning, he had settled the 11 tickets and paid a $96 fine ($1,000 by 2022 conversions).

Curtis G. Culin lived here by the late 1950's.  Originally from Cranford, New Jersey, he was a junior executive for the liquor firm Schenley Industries, Inc.  His neighbors, no doubt, had no idea that he had been a war hero of sorts.  On June 5, 1964, General Dwight D. Eisenhower discussed the Normandy invasion on CBS television program, "D-Day Plus 20 Years:  Eisenhower Returns to Normandy."

During it, Eisenhower told of the difficulties American tanks were having in getting over the Normandy hedge rows.  "And finally, a little sergeant in an ordnance department, his name was Culin, had an idea."  Sgt. Curtis Culin suggested welding the steel bars that the Germans had left as beach obstructions to the tanks, to form "plow-like 'snouts.'"  The idea worked.  Sadly, Culin would not know of the high praise.

The New York Times reported on June 6, "The Army sergeant whose battlefield tank invention was described by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower last night as 'a godsend" for the invading United States forces in Normandy 20 years ago died here last November at the age of 48."  Curtis Culin had been found dead of natural causes in his apartment on November 22, 1963.

Living here by the late 1960's was stage and film actor James Patterson, his wife Rochelle Oliver, and their son John.  Patterson received an Obie Award for his performance as Bill in The Collection at the Cherry Lane Theater in 1961, and a Tony Award for his role as Stanley in Harold Pinter's 1967 The Birthday Party.  

James Patterson (second from right) in a scene from In the Heat of the Night.  image via

His film roles included Dr. Lavrier in the 1964 Lilith, Lloyd Purdy in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, and Jeffrey Butler in Theodore Gershuny's 1972 Silent Night, Bloody Night.  Patterson died of cancer on August 19, 1972 at the age of 40.

When Cecil Silber died at the age of 94 on July 25, 2004, his family had owned 1 Christopher Street for 72 years.   Sixteen years later, his son, Jimmy Silbert, sold the 138-unit building to a European investor for $95 million.  Because it sits opposite Jefferson Market Garden, Van Wart & Wein's dignified structure can be appreciated from a block away on Sixth Avenue--perhaps the most striking viewpoint.

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  1. In the last sentence, you don't really mean the building is strikingly visible from Seventh Avenue, do you? I think you mean Sixth Avenue.

    1. duh. Yes, it's Sixth Avenue. Thanks for catching.

  2. "Curtis Culin had been found dead of natural causes in his apartment on November 22, 1963" A death likely overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy on the same date. Also dying the same time, author C.S. Lewis.