In 1923 an unexceptional, six-story office and store building was completed at 12 East 42nd Street, just east of Fifth Avenue. Faced in brick above a two-story storefront, its architect did not strive for architectural excellence. Its life span would not be especially long and in 1969 the structure was demolished to be replaced by a three-story commercial building.
The 1923 building was not architecturally outstanding. image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
The second story tenant, the Sunshine Massage Studio, brought unwanted publicity to the address in 1977. On February 25, The New York Times reported, "New York City won permission yesterday to close a so-called massage parlor." State Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. Hughes ruled that "the undisputed use of the parlor...to promote prostitution violated the terms of the certificate of occupancy." Alice Hampton, the manager of the business, was fined for promoting prostitution.
By the mid-1980s, a much more family-friendly tenant occupied the ground floor space. David's Cookies was begun by attorney-turned-chef David Liederman in 1979 and quickly ballooned in to a chain of shops.
In the meantime, the tobacco store of Nat Sherman had been a fixture at 500 Fifth Avenue, diagonally across the avenue, since 1930. Perhaps no tobacco and cigar store in the country was more famous. On August 30, 2007, Anthony Ramirez wrote in The New York Times:
Customers like Joe Montana and Natalie Cole would drop by for cigars, and sometimes stay for a smoke in the upstairs lounge. The more committed aficionados had small name-plated lockers for their smokes. They included Harry Connick Jr., the singer; Rudolph W. Giuliana, the former mayor; and Joe Torre, the Yankees baseball manager.
At the time of the article, however, the Nat Sherman shop was no longer in its old space. CEO Joel Sherman explained to Ramirez that the lease had expired, and while the firm did not want to leave and had a five-year option, the building's management "made staying in that building rather uncomfortable for us, they made us feel unwanted."
And so, when the store closed on June 15, 2007, sweeping renovations were being made to the little building at 12 East 42nd Street, across the intersection. Nat Sherman had hired architect Jack Michaelson (with help from set designer Charles McCarry) to redesign the structure. The result was remarkable.
A tiny slice of Paris in Midtown Manhattan, the two-story stone base was dominated by a large central arch and accented by two oeil-de-boeuf windows. The third floor office level took the form of a French mansard with single dormer and appropriate roof cresting. The bronze street clock flanked by two cigar store Indians that had become so familiar to New Yorkers at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, was relocated to over the entrance.
McCarry told The New York Times that Joel Sherman "and the boys" (meaning Nat Sherman's sons) "sought inspiration from the set of 'My Fair Lady,' and its lead character, Henry Higgins, the prickly professor of phonetics." With that in mind, said the article, "Mezzanine and all, the new store resembles Higgins's library, with cigars instead of books."
Unfortunately, after being a destination for cigar and tobacco lovers for decades, changing social taste coupled with a pandemic forced Nat Sherman to close its doors on August 3, 2020.
Sadly, more than three years later the charming little building is still unoccupied. With its shop windows covered with graffiti, it looks more than forlorn.
photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Jim Lesses for suggesting this post
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