Thursday, October 19, 2023

Charles E. Birge's 1912 11 East 47th Street


The wealth of attorney John Graham was evidenced in 1872 when he charged Edward H. Stokes a retainer of $10,000 (more than a quarter of a million in 2023 dollars) to defend him for the murder of James Fisk.  The famous lawyer lived for years in the four-story, high-stooped brownstone residence at 11 East 47th Street, just east of Fifth Avenue.

By the turn of the century the Midtown neighborhood changed, as commerce took over the former mansion district.  On July 15, 1911, the 25-foot-wide house was sold to Henry C. Trumbower, who lived in Philadelphia.  He demolished the venerable residence and hired architect Charles E. Birge to design a six-story loft and store building on the site.  

Completed the following year, Birge's prim tripartite, neo-Federal design included a stone base where engaged Doric columns flanked the entrance to the upper floors.  The four-story midsection was clad in brown Flemish bond brick and trimmed in white marble.  The molded cornice of the grouped windows of the second floor rose and fell to accommodate a handsomely-carved neo-classical panel.  The top section sat above a marble bandcourse, its openings separated by Scamozzi pilasters and fronted by iron balconies.  A marble cornice completed the design.

Among the initial tenants was Madame S. Schartz, who leased the second and third floors for her corset factory.  Called by The Corset and Underwear Review as the "well known corsetiere," she moved her business into the building on February 1, 1912.  She would remain here at least through 1915.

The ground floor space was home to the gentleman's tailoring shop of Herman Conley.  He had relocated his business from Boston to New York around 1899 and was a favorite of wealthy young men.  In 1913, The New York Times mentioned that Conley "is said to know more college men than any other tradesman in the country."

In the early years of the 20th century, the private lives of businessmen like Herman Conley who catered to the carriage trade were open to public scrutiny.  And so in the spring of 1913, when he separated from his wife of 14 years, newspapers took notice.  Things worsened in July when Herman filed for divorce. 

The New York Times had happier news to report on November 28, however.  An article noted, "Friends made repeated efforts to bring them together and finally a meeting was arranged yesterday."  The newspaper reported that Herman Conley and his wife "had their Thanksgiving dinner together."  Herman told the reporter, "Our troubles are at an end and I wish our friends would forget that there ever had been a case of Conley vs. Conley."

Herman Conley's gentlemen's tailoring business was replaced by the Green Shop Company in 1916, a ladies' tailoring business.  As Conley's had done, the shop catered to an elite clientele.  When management advertised for a dressmaker and a fitter on March 14, 1920, it stressed, "one accustomed to high class work only."

In the meantime, after Madame Schwartz left, the upper floors were leased as offices.  In 1915 the headquarters of the American Polish Relief Committee were here, and in 1920 the office of architect William Henry Deacy and the
"administrative offices and designing rooms" of the Presbrey-Leland Company leased the sixth floor.

William Deacy and the Presbrey-Leland Company were inextricably connected.  In addition to his private architectural practice, until 1920 he was architect in charge of the studio of the W. W. Leland Company, a leader in "cemetery art."  Upon its merger with the former competitor Presbrey-Coykendall Co., Deacy was appointed Director of Design "over a corps of creative artists and architectural draughtsmen," according to an announcement.

An advertisement in Park and Cemetery in September 1920 noted, "A paramount policy of the Presbrey-Leland Company is the awakening of a national interest in the Cemetery Beautiful."  

William Henry Deacy designed this monument at 11 East 47th Street in 1920.  from The Monument News, January 1921.

Society dressmaker Madame Lisbet Boses leased an upper floor space in August 1922, and by 1926 the ground floor store was home to The Arthur M. Rosenberg Co., gentlemen tailors.  As Herman Conley had done, the store catered to the younger set.  An advertisement in The Columbia Spectator on October 14, 1926 noted, "For thirty years Rosenberg tailoring has been considered the authoritative college style."  The tradition of high-end custom clothes continued in the shop when Olson & Daly tailors took the space around 1934.  An advertisement in February 1935 touted, "Clothes of distinctive yet conservative style--English and Scotch woollens used exclusively."

The appearance of the former brownstone mansion can be gleaned from the surviving, altered houses on either side of 11 East 47th Street in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In the spring of 1945, John K. Dennis, Michael Lee, Peter Huppert and Otto Kapper, owners of Partners Jewelry, Inc., purchased 11 East 47th Street.  On March 28, The New York Times reported, "The buyers expect to occupy a part of the building for their own business."  

The store, expectedly, became home to Partners Jewelry which marketed "watches and jewelry of distinction."  It sold other high-end items, as well, like the sterling silver mint julep cup and ice tongs available in October 1946.  Together, the items were priced at $50, or $750 today.

The new owners leased the upper floor offices to tenants like Kenneth Ives & Co., real estate brokers, and the Bing Cronin Personnel Service.

The 1970s saw the travel agency Flight Management Ltd. in one of the offices.  The firm advertised flights to London for "less than $100 by jet" in New York magazine on December 20, 1971, noting, "No time limits on when you can travel.  No age limit.  No extra charges."  Also in the building at the time was the Geothermal Energy Institute, which sought to provide naturally produced, renewable energy worldwide.

As the 20th century drew to a close, the ground floor space where well-heeled New Yorkers once ordered custom-made apparel became the Katsu-Hama Restaurant.  The Japanese restaurant received a glowing review from The New York Times food critic Eric Asimov on February 24, 1999, although he bristled, "Katsu-Hama is not an easy restaurant to find, even though it is in the middle of a busy block in midtown Manhattan."

Asimov's frustration has been relieved and in 2023 Katsu-Hama has signage to alert patrons to its location.  While Charles E. Birge's 110-year-old building could use a gentle cleaning, its architectural integrity is nearly perfectly intact.

photographs by the author
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