Saturday, June 10, 2023

The Mutilated Black, Starr & Frost Building - 594 Fifth Avenue


Architecture, December 1912 (copyright expired)

The jewelry firm of Black, Starr & Frost traced its origins to 1810 when the silversmith Isaac Marquand opened Marquand & Co.  By the first years of the 20th century, it was among the foremost silver and jewelry firms in the country, holding its own against jewelers like Tiffany & Co.  (Upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln owed the firm $64,000, more than one million in 2023 dollars.)

Charles T. Cook was president of Tiffany & Co. for many years and lived in a sumptuous mansion at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 48th Street.   When he died in 1902, commerce was inching into the Midtown mansion district.  On July 9, 1909, The New York Times reported that Black, Starr & Frost, "intends building quarters for itself on the site of the old Cook home and the adjoining property at 4 West Forty-eighth Street, belonging to Mrs. Landsale Boardman, which was included in the purchase recorded yesterday."

A year later--almost to the day--on July 10, 1910 the newspaper published a rendering of the proposed building, saying, "The new building has been designed by Carrere & Hastings.  In style it will be Italian renaissance, and will be an artistic addition along somewhat exceptional lines in the business development of the avenue."  The article noted, "The exterior will be entirely of white marble, and the interior handsomely finished and decorated."

The property had cost Black, Starr & Frost $700,000 and the building costs were projected at $250,000, bringing the total outlay in 2023 terms to $28 million.  

Carrere & Hastings released this rendering (that included both motorcars and carriages) to the press.  It would be doubled in width before construction began.  The New York Times, July 10, 1910 (copyright expired)

The double-height ground floor of Carrere & Hastings's white marble palazzo had two entrances.  Customers entering on Fifth Avenue passed through a bronze-framed doorway.  A glass-and-bronze marquee extended from the carriage entrance on 48th Street to the curb, protecting patrons from the weather as they alit from their vehicles.

The three-story mid-section included a rusticated second floor, girded by marble balustrades.  Double-height Corinthian pilasters separated the openings of the third and fourth floors.  The top story was intricately decorated with Renaissance carvings.

The several floors were necessary for the wide variety of goods sold.  As Black, Starr & Frost prepared to open in their new building in December 1912, it advertised "valuable bronzes" including "beautiful modelled figures, groups, electroliers, clocks, clock sets, mantel garnitures in porcelain," and "a collection of Louis XV and XVI, Adams, Renaissance, Empire, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Colonial and Florentine furniture."  There were also "rare porcelains, miniature portraits, fine etchings," along with, of course, the expected jewelry and silver items.

The high-quality of Black, Starr & Frost's jewelry and silver was evidenced in 1917 when stage star Peggy Hopkins Joyce walked out with a 127-carat diamond necklace.  Joyce was well known for her flamboyant lifestyle and her collection of wealthy men and diamonds.  She would be the inspiration for the character Lorelie Lee in the 1925 novel Gentleman Prefer Blonds and the topic of Constance Rosenblum's book Gold Digger.  Mary Margaret Mcbride brought up Joyce's purchase in her 1931 book, New York Is Everybody's Town, saying she "paid $300,000 for the huge, square thing, hung on a flexible diamond neckline which fitted into the hollow of Peggy's white expensive throat."  The price would translate to more than $4 million today.

Less colorful but equally moneyed was Mrs. Clarence C. Chapman.  Thieves broke into the Chapmans' rooms at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club on October 13, 1920.  Among the items they made off with was Mrs. Chapman's $75,000 diamond necklace from Black, Starr & Frost.

Architecture, December 12, 1912 (copyright expired)

Two years before the heist, in June 1918, Black, Starr & Frost sold their building to the Oceanic Inventing Company.  But the firm was not going anywhere.  The Real Estate Record & Guide noted, "The new owners have leased the property back to the jewelers for a period of twenty-one years."  In reporting on the transaction, the journal said the building "is classed among the finest pieces of commercial architecture in the country," adding, "Black, Starr & Frost are probably the oldest jewelry concern in this country."

A trusted employee in the 1920s was W. Sherman Lees, Jr.  In 1928, according to The Daily Argus, "The man had been a salesman at the Fifth avenue store for years.  He received $125 week in salary and he earned it by showing the customers the gems that lay in glittering ranks on the black velvet of the shelves in the firm's safe."  Lees was an expert in his field.  The article said, "He knew [the gems'] histories, their merits, their secret faults...He could point out to customers just why one stone with a saucy ice-blue glint was better than another, twice as big, but not so exquisite in shade and cutting."

In the spring of 1928 Lees decided that his $6,500 a year salary (around $103,000 in 2023) was insufficient.  He spirited a ring from the safe, removed the diamond, and sold it.  The Daily Argus said, "Then he did it again."  And again.  On May 7 the 38-year-old was arrested in the store.  His downfall came when he took a $12,000 stone to a nearby jeweler.  Suspicious, the man "put him off and made inquiries." 

In May 1929 Black, Starr & Frost merged with silversmiths Gorham Corporation.  The consolidated companies were renamed Black, Starr, Frost-Gorham.  (Although customers, somewhat expectedly, continued using the old name.)

The firm encountered an especially clever thief on November 21, 1929.  Dick Richards, alias Cornelius J. Donovan, entered the store and identified himself as a personal representative of Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.  He told salesman James C. Patterson that the governor "wanted two diamond rings sent to his town house at 49 East Sixty-fifth street from which to select one," according to The New York Sun.  Before leaving,  Richards took Patterson's card.

Two rings valued at $1,500 were delivered to Edward Gibbons, Roosevelt's first butler.  Later that day, Richards arrived at the Roosevelt home, identified himself as James C. Patterson and presented his business card.  He apologized that the wrong rings had been delivered and took them back to be replaced.  He promptly pawned the jewelry for $475.  

Not everything at Black, Starr & Frost was prohibitively expensive.  Mary Margaret Mcbride wrote in 1931:

Here may be bought gifts as low as $1.35 for a silver teaspoon, and $2 for a silver pencil.  Possibilities on the $3 to $21 list include silver and stone ash trays, rose quartz push buttons (suitable for a big magnate's office desk); silver and enamel vanity cases, silver and enamel place card holders, stamp boxes, calendars, leather picture frames, novelty note books, cigarette lighters, gold key chains ($9); gold and enamel sport scarf pins ($8); folding backgammon sets for $25.

When the young Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip visited New York City in October 1957, New Yorkers crowded Fifth Avenue to catch a glimpse of the royals.  On October 26, the Record-Journal wrote, "The shops along the avenue were decorated with huge Stars and Stripes and the British Union Jack.  At Black, Starr and Frosts, one window exhibited a very beautiful oil portrait of the Queen.  This was draped in antique blue silk decorated with silver rose branches and leaves."

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On March 23, 1962, The New York Times lamented, "the sale of Black, Starr & Gorham, Inc., will mark the end of an era for the Gorham Corporation in the retail end of the silver and jewelry business."  Two weeks later the newspaper reported that the firm was "expected to vacate the building about July."  Black, Starr & Gorham had sold the its marble retail palace to the Trade Bank and Trust Company.  "The bank will use the building for its office," said the article.  It promised, "The interior will be renovated, but the exterior will remain unchanged."

But four years later, things had changed.  A scathing editorial in The New York Times on January 27, 1964 began, "It could never happen in Paris.  Remodeling of venerable buildings on a major Paris avenue must go on behind the facade, by law, to preserve the city's character and beauty.  And this is one of the things that make Paris Paris.  But it does happen in New York."  The irate editor went on to say:

One of the handsomest facades on Fifth Avenue, and in fact one of the most exquisite small business buildings in the city, is being given the standard New York 'improvement' treatment: its finely detailed, elegantly proportioned exterior is being destroyed and the building will be refaced with a nondescript, banal and ordinary new 'skin.'  In the name of progress!

The following day architects Alvin Hausman and Stanley Rosenberg wrote a rebuttal.  "Paris," they said, "is a nineteenth-century city while New York is of our time...The existing Black, Starr & Frost building is as outmoded and outdated in our society as a horse-drawn carriage."  The architects defended their renovation saying that they were replacing marble with marble and "have not chosen to put a 'sardine can' within the stone esthetic of Fifth Avenue."

image via Google maps.

The renovated structure left no hint of Carrere & Hastings's magnificent Renaissance commercial palazzo.  Ironically, it was remodeled and reclad again in 2018 by Yshihara Mckee Architects.

image via

many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for suggesting this post
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  1. nice post. truly remodeled ground floor commercial space is so often a horror

  2. Black Starr Frost-Gorham is name checked in "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend", but I never knew the backstory. This was a great education thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks for such an interesting post. I slightly gasped when I scrolled down and saw the transformation!