Saturday, November 18, 2023

The 1888 G. Schirmer Building - 35 Union Square West


On May 1, 1834 Samuel Ruggles leased plots on what had been a section of the farm of Cornelius Tiebout Williams and began development of Union Square--an exclusive residential enclave similar to his Gramercy Park.  Ruggles paid $50 per lot and personally built brick houses on some of them; leasing the others to those who preferred to erect their own homes.  The residences would surround a fenced park with a central fountain, completed in 1842.

The Greek Revival house at 35 Union Square (the "West" would come later) was three-and-a-half stories tall above an English basement.  By 1857 its residents, the Townsend family, were accepting select boarders.  An advertisement on February 17 that year offered:

Board in Union Square--A suit of rooms on the second floor to let, together or separate, with board, in a first class private house, having the modern improvements; also a room for a gentleman; references required.  Apply at 35 Union square, Broadway side.
35 Union Square is third from left.  Abutting it to the left is the original Decker Piano Building, designed by Leopold Eidlitz.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By the end of the Civil War, commerce had invaded the formerly exclusive residential enclave.  Wealthy Union Square residents like the Townsends moved northward, and their homes were converted for business purposes or razed and replaced.  On February 14, 1867, an advertisement appeared in the Evening Post:  "To Rent--The Extra-Large house No. 35 Union Square, with or without the stable."

It was leased to the gentlemen's furnishings business Bell Brothers.  On December 1, 1867, the New York Dispatch reported:

Nearly every description of business enterprise is gradually moving up town.  A notable instance of this is seen in the establishment at No. 35 Union square, of the celebrated clothing emporium of the Bell Brothers.  This is one of the largest and best clothing houses in the metropolis.  Gentlemen who want the finest quality of imported goods, made up in the best style, will always find here, just what will "suit" them.

Bell Brothers leased space in the upper floors.  The Methodist Missionary Society took the second floor.  In April 1869 Bell Brothers advertised the "third floor, four rooms, or will be altered as one let or lease for business purposes."

Brentano "publisher and bookseller," founded by August Brentano in 1853, occupied space by the summer of 1870, while the top floor was being leased to artist Charles Caleb Ward.  Born in Canada in 1831, he was best known for his paintings of children.  He had moved into 35 Union Square around 1868 and would remain through 1872.  

On June 24, 1870, the Evening Post reported that Ward, "at his studio, No. 35 Union Square, has just finished a charming picture telling a story of child-life."  The subject would be considered a bit disturbing by modern viewers.  The painting depicted a boy and his sister.  "The boy has accidentally wounded his foot with a small hatchet which lies at his side, and at the moment he is seated, and his sister is tenderly binding up the wound.  A little dog is at the boy's side, and is apparently sympathizing with his master on his misfortune."

Charles Caleb Ward painted his 1870 His First Appearance in Public while working here.  from the collection of the National Gallery of Art

In 1872, Allen B. Miner moved his auction gallery into the building.  The high-end items sold here were evidenced in an auction notice on December 13 that year.  It included "superb real bronze mantle sets of clocks, coupes, statuettes, vases and candelabras," and "rare and curious glassware of Venetian and Austrian make, richly engraved and decorated, of unique designs in sets and single pieces," along with a long list of other items.

The following year, the Townsends leased the building to Gustav Schirmer, "importer and publisher of music."  Born in Saxony in 1829, he had been brought to New York City by his family at the age of eight.  He partnered with B. Beer to form the music publishing house of Beer & Schirmer, and following Beer's death, the firm was renamed G. Schirmer.

As Bell Brothers had done, G. Schirmer leased space on the upper floors.  In 1876, Anna Randall Diehl moved her Educational Bureau into the building.  It was an employment agency for educators.  Her ad in August that year explained, "Engagements made for Teachers.  No charge to schools and families."  The Educational Bureau would operate from the address through 1879.

On June 9, 1888, the Record & Guide reported that Gustave Schirmer had hired the architectural firm of D. & J. Jardine to remodel the building.  Costing the equivalent of nearly $79,500 in 2023, the new red brick facade was a marriage of Victorian Gothic--expressed in the alternating red and white lintels of the fourth floor--and neo-Grec styles.  The second and third floor openings were framed in limestone, and stone blocks with incised rosettes suggested capitals to the brick piers.  Limestone volutes above the fourth floor visually supported the cast metal cornice with its ambitious pediment.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

The growth of G. Schirmer was such that only three years later, in 1891, it hired architect William Kuhles to design a new headquarters building at 108 East 16th Street, on the opposite side of the park.  Nevertheless, the firm continued to operate its Union Square store into the first years of the 20th century.

By the 1910s, the tenor of Union Square had changed as upscale stores--like the residents had done decades earlier--migrated uptown.  In 1913 the Metropolitan Auction Rooms operated from 35 Union Square West, but unlike the elegant bronzes and paintings sold by Allen B. Miner, it auctioned items like the "big stock of new and used desks and office furniture," it sold that year.

Also in the building was the uptown branch of the Jacob Barsky furniture store.  The office outfitter would remain at least through 1919.

New-York Tribune, September 4, 1919 (copyright expired)

The post-World War I years saw the upper floors of 35 Union Square West converted for factory work.  In 1922 the Primrose Knitting Mills was in the building, and in 1925 the perfumer Belmont was here.  That year Belmont advertised for "Canvassers--good attractive holiday propositions to solicit orders for perfumes and toilet articles; part of whole time."

In 1941 the Stewart Cafeteria opened in the ground floor.  It was supplanted three years later by Alfred Seitz's Reeds' Cafeteria, which opened on February 22, 1944.

Stewart's Cafeteria hung a three-story banner over the facade to announce its opening in 1941.  The pediment was still intact.  image vis the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Within two days of the opening of Reeds' United cafeteria, Seitz found himself entangled in a messy labor problem.   On February 25, The Sun reported that prior to opening, he had signed a contract with the C. I. O. union, "under which the union was to supply him with two cashiers, one for the morning and one for the afternoon shift."  On opening day, trouble ensued.

"But no sooner had the cafeteria opened for business than Mr. Seitz saw, to his surprise and dismay, that the place was being picketed by the Hotel and Restaurant Workers, Local 448 (A.F. of L.)," said the article.  Not wanting trouble, Seitz signed a second contract.  "That union sent him a cashier, so now the extra cashier simply sits around from noon to quitting time each day, doing nothing, according to Mr. Seitz.  But to keep a picket line away from his establishment Mr. Seitz has to pay $35 a week to the unwanted and useless cashier."

The second half of the century was unkind to Union Square.  The tenants of 35 Union Square were now industrial, like the B & C Bowling Alley Builders, here in 1960.  In the late 1960s, G & G Art Service Inc., a graphic art and photographic studio, operated from the address.  The Kans Klepper Corp, manufacturers of "folding boats," occupied most of the building in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Then, as the century drew to a close, Union Square saw a renaissance.  On June 22, 1994, The Villager announced, "Two businesses--a restaurant and a Haagen Dazs Cafe--are interested in the building that housed Klepper Folding Boats at 35 Union Square W."  The restaurant won out, and on January 1, 1995, The New York Times reported, "After a $2 million renovation, an old kayak store on Union Square will be turned into the Heartland Brewery, an American-style restaurant and pub."

Former Wall Street investment banker Jon Bloostein "was drawn to the spot by the growing vitality of the square, said the article, which added, "The establishment will feature a $250,000 microbrewery specializing in fruit ales like Belgium Lambic."

Home today to a Korean barbeque, the building's storefront has been radically modernized, and, sadly, the cornice and distinctive pediment were lost in the second half of the 20th century.  

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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