Friday, July 5, 2024

Taylor & Masley's 1924 312 Fifth Avenue


In 1854, Benjamin Wheeler Merriam erected his brownstone-fronted mansion at 312 Fifth Avenue.  Born in 1803 in New Hampshire, Merriam had amassed a fortune importing mirrors and glass, and was one of the founders of Chatham National Bank.  He and his wife Adeliza had four daughters and a son.  Their summer home was at Scarborough-on-the-Hudson.  Merriam died in the house on April 25, 1884.

Members of the Merriam family remained at 312 Fifth Avenue for decades.  On December 27, 1915, the New-York Tribune reported, "Mrs. David Du Bois Sahler died yesterday at her home, 312 Fifth Avenue from pneumonia."  A widow, Adeliza Frances Sahler was the last of the Merriam siblings.  The article noted, "The house at 312 Fifth Avenue was built for Mrs. Sahler's father, Benjamin Wheeler Merriam, in 1854."

In the post-World War I years, the Fifth Avenue block between 31st and 32nd Streets would have been unrecognizable to Benjamin Merriam.  The few mansions that survived had been converted for businesses, the others razed and replaced with commercial buildings.  In 1924 the Houston Construction Company demolished the vintage brownstone and hired the architectural firm of Taylor & Masley to design what their plans described as a seven-story "brick store and office building," on the site.

The process of removing of the Merriam house was nearly catastrophic.  Unthinkable today, business continued downstairs as the upper floors were being demolished.  The Evening Post reported, "Scores of persons attending a jewelry auction sale on the ground floor of the building at 312 Fifth avenue, narrowly escaped injury today when the third floor of the building collapsed."  The second floor held, preventing the structure from pancaking down on the auction attendees.  Nevertheless, two workmen were injured and removed to New York Hospital.

Taylor & Masley gave the new building a sheathing of gleaming white terra cotta.  The spandrel panels of each floor contained Gothic arches on either side of centered faces.  A parapet armed with pointy pinnacles took the place of a cornice.

Among the first tenants was the upscale men's "shirtmakers and haberdashers," H. Sulka & Company.  The firm had branches in London and Paris.  Its custom-made shirts cost "$8.00 upward," according to a 1925 ad--around $140 each by 2024 terms.

H. Sulka & Company offered a full scope of men's furnishings.  Its well-heeled patrons could even be custom-fitted for their underwear.  A 1925 advertisement remarked, "In buying Underwear from us you have the advantage of being unusually well fitting in Union or Two-Piece Suits of our own and other most desirable makes."  The range of items offered was reflected in a December 1927 advertisement of "our holiday offerings."  It urged, "It is not too early to select from our choice French Cravats, Handkerchiefs, Hosiery, Mufflers and Lounge Robes--especially if monograms are required."

An interesting tenant was the Health Developing Apparatus Company, which "leased large space for executive offices" here in December 1931.  The firm patented and sold what today would be described as home gym equipment--like rowing machines.

The Second Sino-Japanese War between China and Japan that broke out in 1937 resulted in a new tenant, the Chinese Women's Association.  In May 1938, a letter to the editor of the New York Sun read:

The destitute civilian war refugees in the devastated areas in China are urgently in need of clothing of every description, such as children's outfits, suits, dresses, sweaters, blankets, underwear, coats, shoes, etc.  This association has for months been collecting clothing for these sufferers.  Three consignments have already been sent to China, and a fourth is about ready for shipment.
Donations should be sent directly to our China War Relief warehouse at 115 South Fifth street, Brooklyn.
                             Miss WINO-LINO WANG, Secretary, Chinese Women's Association

By the World War II years, the days of high-priced, custom made shirts for monied customers had passed.  For years starting around 1947, The Rug Mart "House of Carpets" occupied space, joined in the 1950s by tenants like Saraka the "laxative that cures Nervous Constipation," and the Irma Cosmetic Hair Remover company. 

The Fifth Avenue block bustled with activity in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
In the mid-1960s, the Marie Chantel Corporation leased space.  The firm manufactured women's "sauna swimming underwear," promising, "you can lose 7-15 lbs. or more and become 3 inches slimmer in the shortest time (without drugs or starvation diet) if you wear Sauna Swimming Underwear for just 2 hours a day!"

One tenant of 312 Fifth Avenue came under FBI scrutiny in January 1970.  Twentieth Century Industries, Inc. was a holding company that owned, or was part-owner, of "drug, plastics, metals, mining and soft-drink concerns," according to The New York Times.  At the time, Angelo Bruno was described by the bureau as "the No. 1 Mafia leader in the Philadelphia area" and "one of the Mafia's 12-member national governing council."  

On January 16, Manhattan district attorney William I. Aronwald disclosed that a grand jury "was seeking to determine if there was any connection between Bruno and 20th Century Industries, Inc., a holding company with offices at 312 Fifth Avenue." The New York Times explained, "The Manhattan trying to learn if certain corporations have received proceeds of organized criminal activities involving gambling, bribery, extortion and loan-sharking."

While the ground floor of 312 Fifth Avenue has been drastically altered, Taylor & Masley's neo-Gothic design has fared much better than its neighbors, two of which were recently demolished and most of the others significantly remodeled.  Although the show windows have been replaced, the terra cotta is nicely intact.

photographs by the author
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