Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Gottlieb Building - 32 East 58th Street (611 Madison Avenue)


In 1875, as the city expanded further northward in the post-Civil War years, builder and real estate developer Linus Scudder erected a row of five upscale brownstone-faced residences on the southeast corner of 58th Street and Madison Avenue.  Because of its corner location, 32 East 58th Street was the plum property with an extra wall of light and ventilation.  Four stories tall above a high English basement, its high-stooped design was, most likely, similar to other Italianate residences being erected throughout the city.

It became home to the William H. Falconer family.  Born in New York City in 1831, Falconer had an impressive American pedigree.  He was descended from Pierre Fauconier, who arrived in New York in 1705 as secretary to Lords Bellemont and Cornberry, Colonial Governors of New York.  His great-grandfather, John Falconier, was a captain on George Washington's staff.

Falconer had been in the real estate business since 1853.  On June 19, 1873, he married Margaret C. McLean (the certificate of marriage read "Maggie").  His 31-year-old bride was his third wife.  A son, Bruce McLean Falconer, would be born in 1880.

Although the neighborhood in general was still exclusive--Cornelius Vanderbilt had begun construction of his magnificent mansion a block to the west in 1878--at the time of the baby's birth, Madison Avenue was changing.  Already, shops were slowly invading the wide avenue.  

No. 32 East 58th Street was sold in November 1881.  The purchaser, Dora Reid, did not remain especially long.  On April 23, 1885, an advertisement in the New York Evening Post announced that the house would be sold at action, describing the...

...handsome 4-story high-stoop brown-stone dwelling...finely decorated, every modern improvement, handsome chandeliers, gas fixtures, fine pier mirrors, and cornices go with the house.

(The "cornices" were the decorative coverings, often gilded, from behind which the window draperies hung.)

W. B. Reid paid $29,000 at the auction, or about $911,000 in 2023 terms.  By 1888 the residence was being operated as a high-end boarding house.  Two advertisements in 1888 offered:

A handsome second floor, excellent board.  Jewish family.  32 East 58th st., corner Madison av.

Beautiful back parlor and other rooms, excellent board.  32 East 58th st., corner Madison av.

Commerce finally arrived at 32 East 58th Street in 1890 when the basement level was leased to a society dressmaker, Mademoiselle Bangnos.  On December 15 that year she advertised for "Waist Hands--Wanted, first-class waist hands."  

Albert I. Sire purchased 32 East 58th Street in March 1892.  The property values along Madison Avenue had skyrocketed by now.  The $45,000 he paid would translate to just under $1.5 million today.  He was the first to make significant alterations to the structure, removing the stoop and converting the upper floors to a "five-story brick flat," as described by The New York Times.

The store continued to house a women's apparel shop through, at least, 1897.  That year J. Juran advertised, "Tailors wanted--first class tailors only, on ladies' jackets and waists."

At the turn of the century, the florist shop of Owen McDonald occupied the space.  Necessary to the lavish decors of well-to-do New Yorkers at the time were palms and ferns.  On December 2, 1902, P. McDonald (presumably a son of Owen) was making deliveries when he became an innocent victim of a runaway horse.  The New York Times reported, "A delivery horse of Arnold, Constable & Co. was left unhitched at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue...and ran away toward Broadway."  At the corner of Sixth Avenue, it knocked down 19-year-old Nellie Keegan, then galloped across Broadway onto the sidewalk.  "It broke the $500 plateglass window in the tobacco shop of Charles Schlesinger, and before it left the sidewalk ran over Henry Ward."

Owen's wagon was directly in the path of the panicked animal.  It "dashed against" the wagon, said the article, "with an assortment of potted plants."  Owen was thrown to the pavement, but unlike Nellie Keegan and Henry Ward, he was not severely injured.

On March 1, 1906, Albert I. Sire leased the florist shop to Myer (often spelled Meyer) Gotlieb for a term of five-and-a-half years.  As it turned out, Gotlieb's residency would be much longer.  

In 1910 Gotlieb received two permits from the city, one to "place a drop awning" over the entrance, and the other to "to place and keep a storm door."  That year, the four other houses along Linus Scudder's 1875 row were combined by the architectural firm of Hooper & Greene and given a neo-Federal front.  The transformation may have inspired Gotlieb.  In May 1914, he purchased 32 East 58th Street.  One month later, the Record & Guide reported that he had hired the architectural firm of Gronenberg & Leuchtag to do $10,000 in sweeping renovations. 

Perhaps inspired by Frederick Junius Sterner, who was transforming outdated brownstones into Mediterranean fantasies, the architects gave the building a thick coating of stucco, added romantic pseudo-balconies with red clay tile roofs, and inset classical plaques into facade (the drawings identify them as marble).  Gotlieb's florist store received a plate glass front and round bronze marquee over the corner entrance.  An artist's studio was erected on the roof, with vast, slanted windows that admitted northern light.

photo by Wurts Brothers from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Myer Gotlieb moved his family into an apartment above the store.  Living with him and his wife Sadie Vera, were their daughter Sadie and her husband Maximilian Stark.  The family had a live-in Irish maid.  On October 3, 1915, Raymond Otto Stark was born in the apartment.  Ray Stark would grow up to be one of the most renowned film producers and talent agents of the 20th century.

Occupying the rooftop studio was British-born artist Marguerite Kirmse.  The New York Herald remarked on March 15, 1915 that she "has been established here five years" and had "become known as a painter of animals, particularly dogs."  In April that year, with the outbreak of war in Europe,  her sister Elizabeth Persis Esperance Kirmse arrived from Paris and moved in with Marguerite.  She, too, was well-known for her animal paintings.

Marguerite Kirmse's The Hound

The article described the artists' studio, making special note of "a window extending the whole length of the north side," and adding, "The walls and a couple of easels held paintings of dogs and horses."  The Kirmse sisters were not fly-by-night pet portrait artists.  The article said, "Among the dogs which Miss Persis Kirmse has painted are Baron Zuylen's Italian Lupino, Princess Vasailiska's chien loup Prince, Princess Murat's Boston bull Rummy, Prince Duleep Singh's Bibs, Marshesa Pieri Nerli's Borzoi Boris, Lady Alabaster's collie Ming and a Pekingese and French bulldog for the Duca and Duchessa du Camastra."  Marguerite Kirmse's patrons were no less impressive.

On February 10, 1916, the Musical Courier reported, "Richard Epstein, who has been touring the United States this season with Geraldine Farrar, announces his removal to 32 East Fifty-eighth street, New York."  Born in 1869 in Zagreb, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Epstein's father Julius had also been an esteemed musician and professor of piano at the Vienna Conservatory.  (Richard, too, would teach piano at the Vienna Conservatory before beginning his concert career.

New-York Tribune, October 15, 1916 (copyright expired)

Living here in 1919 was Clara Dorores Machain Lopp, described by the New York Herald as "a wealthy South American."  Mrs. Lopp had married Joaquin J. Cueto of Buenos Aires in 1887, with whom she had a daughter, Sophia Cueto.  Just before the turn of the century, deciding that Sophia should have a Parisian education, she left Cueto behind and moved to France with her daughter.  Included in Sophia's curriculum were dance lessons, taught by George Washington Lopp.

When Clara and Sophia relocated to New York City, Lopp followed "and began to woo her ardently," as reported by the New York Herald.  According to the article, Clara asserted, "One afternoon he invited her to the law office of [Daniel] O'Reilly, and when she arrived there with her daughter, Sophia, he and the lawyer announced that they had instituted a suit for divorce against Mr. Cueto, who had been served with the papers in this city, and that after a trial Justice Page had granted her a decree."  

O'Reilly produced what he explained was the judicial order dissolving the marriage.  George Lopp told her it ordered that "the expenses should be paid by the woman."  The New York Herald related, "Not being able to speak, read or write English, Mrs. Lopp states, she was easily duped into believing the two men."  Clara paid O'Reilly $2,000 for his services, and that same day and she and Lopp were married.

The three returned to Paris where Clara took out an eight-year lease on an apartment on the Rue la Boetie.  Lopp added to the household by bringing along his two teenaged daughters.  Now in 1919, according to Clara, not only had she "paid all of the bills for maintaining the household and supported Lopp's two daughters," but "his attitude toward her was one of cruelty."  The breaking point came in May 1918 when Clara discovered that the "divorce" was a sham, as was her marriage.

She moved to New York and into 32 East 58th Street.  On October 8, 1919, she recounted her ordeal before Justice Hendricks of the State Supreme Court.  The New York Herald reported, "Upon the statement of Mrs. Lopp that the dancing teacher is still occupying the Paris home, Justice Hendricks signed an order permitting service of the paper in the annulment action by mail."

Under the coat of beige paint, according to Gronenberg & Leuchtag's plans, the plaques of ancient charioteers and warriors are marble.

In the spring of 1922, the neighborhood had been terrorized by a slippery cat burglar.  The New York Herald explained that the nickname "The Phantom Burglar," was "the fancy cognomen being due to the celerity with which the individual loses himself after looting."  On the night of April 12, one of the female residents of 32 East 58th Street "heard a crunching sound" at the street door and "phoned to the apartments of Dr. Ralph Kramer and Archibald Speyer."  She had chosen the right neighbors to notify.

"The doctor sallied forth with an automatic, while Speyer grabbed a Winchester," said the article.  "They tiptoed to the door and waited until the door burst open."

Dr. Kramer demanded, "Hands up, and be quick about it!"

The burglar, William Fonner, raise his hands, but insisted it was all a mistake.  "I came here to see a doctor." 

Kramer responded, "That's all right, you're seeing one now."

Patrolman Keller arrived and arrested the 31-year-old.  He was identified in a "crooks' lineup" the following morning.  "The police produced a record of arrests for crimes which they say belongs to Fonner," reported the New York Herald.

Five months after the attempted break-in, Richard Epstein died at the Lenox Hill Hospital.  Still a native of Austria, he left an estate of $11,723.63 (about a quarter of a million in today's dollars).   His widow, Elisabeth and two children, all of whom lived in Vienna, shared equally in his estate, since he left no will.

In 1928 Meyer Gotlieb again renovated the building.  He hired architect Joseph D. Weiss to transform the artist studio to a two-story penthouse.   The northern bay was removed to provide a balcony for the somewhat boxy new residential space.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

The Gotlieb flower shop left in 1937, the year that Franz and Klaus Perls opened a branch of their European art gallery in the space.  The Perls Gallery would exhibit the works of contemporary French artists for years.  In December 1938, for example, an exhibition opened which The Sun described as containing "a number of examples of, for the most part, well known French artists of the day."  Included were works by Charles Dufresne, Olga Scharaoff, Jean Eve, Camille Bourbois, Jean Dufy, Laurincin, Maurice Utrillo, and others.  The gallery survived at least through 1944, followed by Galerie Herve of Paris, and the Griffin Gallery in the 1960s.  

A colorful resident of 32 East 58th Street, here by the late 1950s, was Nicholas Alexander de Transehe.  Born in Russia in 1887, he had served as a czarist naval officer.  He relocated to New York city in 1923 and three years later helped Admiral Richard E. Byrd plot his transpolar flight.  Following World War II, De Transehe worked for the C.I.A. as a Soviet expert.  As if his resume were not impressive enough, he was also an inventor.  He died of cancer of the liver on January 6, 1961 while still living here.

For more than a decade beginning in 1993, the former Gotlieb florist shop space was home to Agatha, a jewelry store.  At some point the first and second floors were refaced and the store space broken into three.

The end of the line for the building seemed to be near on April 16, 2014 when The Real Deal reported, "A new round of permits are on file for 611 Madison, where a new structure will soon replace an existing seven-story townhouse."  The article noted, "No projected completion date has been announced as of yet, a demolition date has not been nailed down and renderings have yet to surface."

At least for now, the quirky and somewhat charming survivor hangs on.

photographs by the author
many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for prompting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to 

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