Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Frederick C. Zobel's 1907 Gabay Building - 30-32 East 20th Street


In the 1840s, the block of East 20th Street between Broadway and Fourth Avenue (later Park Avenue South) was lined with elegant homes like those of brothers Robert and Theodore Roosevelt at 26 and 28 East 20th Street, respectively.  But as the century drew to a close, that had changed.  Wealthy families had moved northward, their homes altered for business use or razed.

In May 1906 the Gabay Construction Co. purchased the two altered dwellings at 30 and 32 East 20th Street.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted on May 5 that the firm "will at once raze the present buildings and erect a modern fireproof office building."  The article noted the advantages of the site.  "This property adjoins the house in which President Roosevelt was born, and has been restricted by the Roosevelt Club as to height and depth, which gives the adjoining property exceptional advantages for light and air."

Within a week architect Frederick C. Zobel was working on plans for a seven-story office and studio building.  His tripartite Beaux Arts design included a two-story base--as much glass as masonry--within a sheaf-carved frame.  The classically inspired entrance announced Gabay Building.

The understated four-story midsection was faced in beige brick, every sixth row of which were recessed to create rustication.  The double-height brick piers between the openings of the top section were capped with cast metal capitals and a copper cornice completed the design.

The top floor of the building contained artists studios and the lower floors offices and loft space.  It drew a wide range of tenants.  Among the first were Weisman & Burger, dealers in furrier supplies; boat manufacturer Palmer Bros., whose factory was in Cos Cob, Connecticut; and the London-based Crown Perfumery Co.  In 1908 Crown Perfumery Co. introduced a new scent, Jeunesse Doree, while continuing to market well-known items Crown Lavender Salts and Crab Apple Blossom, touted as "favorites for forty years." 

Highlighting the variety of tenants was the Utility Import & Export Co., sellers of vacuum cleaners, here by 1908.  In searching for traveling salesmen that year, the company touted the Surprise Suction Sweeper as the "perfect vacuum household cleaner."  The ad promised, "It does the work of the most expensive vacuum cleaning plans; housewives snap it up and there's a big margin for salesmen."

The New York Times, April 10, 1910 (copyright expired)

Among the first tenants of the top floor studio spaces were architect E. G. W. Dietrich, and sculptor Victor David Brenner.  Also occupying space on the top floor was the Parsonian Art School, headed by C. L. Parsons.  An advertisement in 1908 offered, "Instruction in charcoal and crayon drawing, water color, oil, pastel and tapestry painting."

Victor David Brenner was born  Avigdor David Brenner in 1871 in Lithuania.  He anglicized his name upon arriving in America in 1890.  He took advantage of the free classes at Cooper Union to study art and English.  Among the first works he worked on in his East 20th Street studio was a bas relief plaque and matching medal of Abraham Lincoln in profile, completed in 1907.

Two years earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt had tasked Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign the United States coinage.  The same year that Brenner created his Lincoln profile, Saint-Gaudens died, leaving the Government's project unfinished.  In 1909 Roosevelt commissioned Brenner to redesign the plaque image for the United States one-cent piece, which at the time featured the image of a Native American.  Brenner's Lincoln Head penny, with minor variations, is still in circulation today.

image via PCGS CoinFacts

While working here Brenner's works were annually included in the esteemed Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Exhibitions.  On December 6, 1913, the New York Herald reported, "Mr. Victor D. Benner, of No. 30 East Twentieth street, sculptor, who designed the Lincoln penny, was informed yesterday that his design had been accepted for the $50,000 work in granite and bronze to adorn the entrance to Schenley Park, Pittsburg, Pa."  And the following year
 Herringshaw's American Blue Book of Biography noted, "He has works in the Metropolitan museum of art and in [the] Luxembourg Museum...and many other places."  Brenner's studio was in the Gabay Building at least through 1916.

Victor David Brenner, from the collection of the American Numismatic Association.

In the meantime, the lower floors continued to house myriad tenants.  In 1910 The Commercial Photo & Designing Co. was in the building, selling art reproductions; and the Excello Arc Lamp Co. made high-powered commercial lighting for venues like the New York Hippodrome and Steeplechase Park.

Excello Arc Lamp Company catalogue, 1908 (copyright expired)

In 1913 J. C. Scheff & Co., converters of silks and satins, signed a lease on the eastern store space; and six years later Lemcke & Buechner, book dealers, opened in the western store.  The bookstore, which would remain well into the 1920s, was the agent for the Columbia University Press.

The post-World War I years saw George E. Mallinson, a floor coverings and furniture importing company in the building.  In 1920 the Nemo Furriers' Supply Company signed a lease, as did the Riverdale Manufacturing Company.  During the Depression years the offices of Artist Fast Freight, a trucking company, moved in.  (Artist Fast Freight got its somewhat confusing name from its owner, Anthony Artist.)  

During most of the 20th century, workers were paid in cash.  A trusted employee, usually a bookkeeper or clerk, had the uncomfortable task of bringing the payroll from the bank each week, often accompanied by co-worker for protection.  Thieves were well aware of the practice and often monitored the movements of a particular company's messenger for weeks before pouncing.

In 1937 two "thugs" as described by The New York Times made careful note of Artist Fast Freight's schedule.  They were aware, reported the newspaper, that between noon and 1:00 "there is a payroll of about $350 in the office."  The amount would be equal to around $6,600 in 2023.  Unfortunately for them, on October 1 they miscalculated their hold-up by minutes.  Anthony Artist had just left the office with the cash in his pocket to pay his 14 truckers.

Before he left, Artist had paid his 20-year-old stenographer and bookkeeper, Regina Dudell, her $24 weekly salary.  She was in the office with a friend, Bessie Chipkin, who had dropped by to keep her company, when suddenly, "Two stylishly dressed hold-up men" burst into the office, as reported The New York Times.

"'Where's the payroll?' one of the intruders asked, brandishing a pistol.  Miss Dudell told him it was not in the office.

"'Come on, give me the money; I've got four kids,' the hold-up man said as his companion stood at door on guard," recounted The New York Times.

Regina insisted that her boss had already left with the money, but she offered, "Take my money if you want it," removing the $24 from her pocketbook.  The New York Times said the men "with a lot of pride but no cash put on the proverbial high hat yesterday afternoon and snubbed loot of at least $24 as mere chicken feed."  The gunman told Regina, "We don't want your dough; we want the firm's dough," and the pair rushed out, slamming the door behind them.

Although somewhat difficult to see, the metal capitals were still in place in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The Artist Fast Freight remained in the building into the 1940s.  By 1941 the American Booksellers Association had its offices in the building, as did the publishers of Science and Society, established in 1936.  Science and Society was still here in 1947 when the Marxist journal drew the attention of the House of Representatives Committee of Un-American Activities.

The third quarter of the 20th century saw changes in the neighborhood as many loft buildings were converted to residential use and street-level shops became trendy restaurants or boutiques.  In 1976 Darts Unlimited occupied the store space of the Gabay Building.  Writing in The New York Times on May 19 that year, Lawrence Van Gelder said, "The point of just about everything in the tiny shop at 30 East 20th Street is darts.  In fact, as its name states, it is Darts Unlimited, which is, to these shores, what an emporium devoted to baseball equipment would be in London's Haymarket.

More recently a branch of the Paris restaurant Le Coq Rico was in the ground floor, where once customers shopped for silk fabrics and books.

photographs by the author
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  1. Thank you so much for this! I’m the great grandson of Frederick Zobel. (Daughter was Jane / Janette Zobel… mother of John White… my dad.) super interesting history that I’m sharing with my family. Today, I brought my kids to The Colony Arcade’s rooftop restaurant ON 38th Street for lunch. They loved it, including the view of the ESB.

    Tim White
    Cheshire, CT

  2. And in the “it’s a small world” category in history, Frederick Zobel’s grandson, John White, has generally been credited with being the whistleblower on the Vietnam War’s Gulf of Tonkin Incident…