Saturday, August 26, 2023

The 1907 Van Beuren Building - 71 Fifth Avenue


On February 29, 1788, German-born merchant Henry Springer purchased the former farm of Dutch settler Elias Brevoort as a summer home.  In 1832 a new park, Union Square, was created on the land as the city edged northward.  While Springer's daughter and son-in-law, James and Eliza Fonderden, continued to live in the old Dutch farmhouse, their daughter Mary and her husband Michael Murray Van Beuren moved into a newly-built house at 29 West 14th Street.

Michael Van Beuren (his surname was variously spelled Van Beuren, Van Buren, and Vanburen) managed the Springler real estate holdings brilliantly.  By 1893, the properties--many of them stores along 14th Street--were garnering the family $1 million in rents, more than 33 times that much in 2023.

In 1847 Richard Kip Haight completed his massive brick-faced mansion that stood on Van Beuren property at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 15th Street.  The house was being operated as the Hotel Hanover in 1898 when it was severely damaged by fire.

Called the Hanover Hotel, the former mansion at Fifth Avenue and 15th Street was the scene of a spectacular blaze in 1898.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On April 28, 1906, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the Van Beuren estate had hired architect Charles Volz to design an 11-story loft building on the site that would cost $325,000 to construct.  The article noted, "One building will be demolished."

Completed the following year, the building's two-story rusticated limestone base upheld nine floors of beige brick.  Volz had decorated his otherwise Renaissance Revival structure with Beaux Arts elements at the top two floors.  At the tenth, ornate cartouches trail ribbons and flowers, and at the eleventh floor, carved bunches of leaves and bellflowers fill the piers between the openings.  Decorative double bands of terra cotta defined each floor.

The upper floors filled with garment manufacturers, among the earliest being the related B. Stern & Company; Stern, Heineman & Herff; and S. Stern & Company.  The latter was described by the Record & Guide in June 1917 as "one of the largest manufacturers of children's headwear, coats and dresses." 

Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, December 19, 1908 (copyright expired)

Occupant Morris Voss was at the wheel of his own automobile on September 30, 1914.  The wealthy lace importer was out for an afternoon drive in Central Park when things went horribly wrong.  As he turned off Fifth Avenue into the park at 102nd Street, "three men walked in front of the car," as reported by the New-York Tribune.  Two of them jumped clear, but 17-year-old Leo Chester "became confused and was unable to get out of the way."  Voss ran over the teen, fracturing his skull.  He died without regaining consciousness.  Morris Voss was arrested and charged with homicide.

Other garment firms in the building were Wolff & Co., which leased the sixth floor in 1916; and Goodman, Cohen & Co., which landed a lucrative Government contract during World War I.  An advertisement in The Seventh Regiment Gazette in August 1918 touted "regulation O.D. Army shirts."

Goodman, Cohen & Co. was among the first of the men's shirt makers in the building, but after the war several others moved in.  Two of them, Cohen, Endel Co. and the Liondale Shirt Company, took floors in 1921.

The district was thrown into upheaval the following year when the shirtmakers' union went on strike.  Labor disputes in the first half of the 20th century were often violent, and this one was no different.  On August 3, 1922, the New York Herald reported that at 6:00 the previous evening, when 14th Street and Fifth Avenue was "thronged with homegoing workers...a crowd of about thirty striking shirtmakers saw fit to attack about the same number of strike breakers who had taken their jobs.  A riot ensued which brought out the police reserves."

Not all of the angry mob remained on 14th Street.  The article noted, "A week ago workers in the shirt manufacturing establishment of Cohen & Goodman [sic], 71 Fifth avenue...struck.  Cohen & Goodman put strike breakers to work and the strikers began picketing.  To protect the strike breakers, Cohen & Goodman engaged the Dominick Reilly Detective Agency."

William Dipoali, who worked for the Dominick Reilly Detective Agency, was posted at the Fifth Avenue entrance to 71 Fifth Avenue.  Three strikers tried to get past him to attack the strike breakers and it did not go well.  The New-York Tribune reported, "One of the strikers drew a black-jack and aimed a blow at the detective.  The detective drew his revolver and fired one shot."  Eighteen-year-old Samuel Epstein was shot in the leg.  He and 23-year-old Max Berkowitz were arrested for felonious assault, while their accomplice got away.  Epstein was taken to Bellevue Hospital and William Dipoali went home to Yonkers "with a very sore skull."

Six months later, a worker for a second floor furrier became a hero of sorts.  When not at work, May Durrsee was an amateur vocalist and sang in the choir of the Church of St. John the Evangelist on First Avenue at 51st Street.  She was alone in the shop on the afternoon of February 3, 1923 when 20-year-old Samuel Silverman walked in and asked to have a sample of fur matched.  

As May turned away, Silverman grabbed a $450 fur coat (closer to $7,700 today) and bolted.  The feisty clerk was on his heels.  The Morning Telegraph reported, "bringing into use all the high notes at her command [she] was one jump behind.  Passers-by joined in the chase."

Seeing the commotion, Detectives Gillman and Lambert, who were in a patrol car, "overtook Silverman, who still had the coat."  The would-be thief confessed to the crime at the police station.

As the Garment District moved northward past 34th Street, apparel firms in the building were being replaced by other types of tenants.  In 1924 the Dunn Pen Company was here; and by the end of the decade A. A. Vantine & Co., Inc., importers of high-end accessories like silver incense burners; and Bruns, Kimball & Company, dealers in motorboat parts and supplies had spaces.  The perfume and cosmetics firm Joubert Cie, Inc. operated from 71 Fifth Avenue in the 1930s.

Although one boys' and men's garment maker, Joseph H. Cohen & Sons remained at least through 1943, by the 1960s there were no longer any apparel firms in the Van Beuren Building.  Instead, it was populated by varied tenants like the Oxford Book Company, Inc. and the New York Capital for Progress Fund, Inc., and by the early 1970s, Whitehall Systems, Inc. 

By then, the ground floor store was occupied by the Washington Furniture Warehouse, which became a branch of the Wucker Furniture Company headquartered in Harlem around 1971.  On August 11, 1972, The New York Times reported that a Federal indictment named it and the two other Wucker stores on charges of "conducting a scheme to defraud low-income consumers by using deceptive advertising fraudulent sales practices and concealed payment arrangements."  The indictment accused the stores of using "bait and switch" tactics by advertising attractive sales "with no intention of selling any of the advertised items."  Just over two weeks later, on August 29, the newspaper reported that the Wucker family had pleaded guilty.

The store space became home to another furniture dealer, J. J. Peoples Ethan Allen, which dealt in "early American" pieces.  Its owner, Van DeWald was a frustrated man in the winter of 1982-83.  DeWald acquired a burglar alarm system from the Wells Fargo company.  Activated by noise, the system triggered an alarm at the store and automatically alerted police.  Initially, there was a string of false alarms.  Finally, Captain McCabe of the 13th Precinct informed DeWald that the police "could not continue to respond to the automatic alarm system until the problem was solved."

But just after the problem was solved, burglaries began.  On January 7, 1983, The New York Times began an article saying, "In eight days during the Christmas holidays, a merchant on lower Fifth Avenue said, he reported eight burglaries at his furniture store, including three in one day and one in mid-afternoon."  In one incident alone, the thieves stole $3,000 worth of clocks from a curio cabinet.

While Captain McCabe explained that patrols had been increased around the store, DeWald was not convinced.  "I am enough of a New Yorker to be realistic about the constraints of manpower and priorities," he told a New York Times reporter, "but when it comes to these types of repeated deliberate attacks, has it come to the point that we merchants are on our own?"

The Ethan Allen furniture store was supplanted by a Pier One Imports branch in 1991.  It remained into the early 2000s.  

Happily, Charles Volz's dignified Van Beuren Building has not been defaced by modern storefronts, and its appearance is little changed after 115 years.

photographs by the author
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