Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Franklin Inn -- No. 176 Franklin St

In 1892 the area around Franklin Street had seen the rise of loft and warehouse buildings for two decades.  That year candy manufacturer Henry Lillie Pierce constructed a lavish headquarters building at the corner of Hudson and Franklin Streets.  Following Pierce's death, another confectioner, Alexander Powell purchased the seven-story office building in 1903 and named it the Powell Building.

Three years later the Powell family extended its Franklin Street holdings.  Ida May Powell commissioned architect Henri Fouchaux to replace the three-story brick house (lately used as the Franklin Street Methodist Episcopal Church) directly behind the Powell Building with a three-story store and loft building.  Fouchaux's plans, completed in January 1907, called for a $25,000 structure faced in limestone.  The cost of the dignified Beaux Arts building would equal about $650,000 in 2016.

Somewhat squashed in between taller structures, No. 176 Franklin Street held its own by means of its impressive facade.  Fouchaux gave the little building an imperious presence with a high, paneled parapet, carved lions' heads, and a swagged shield.

At the time of the building's completion it sat squarely within the Produce District.  Hundreds of wholesale grocery merchants worked in the area; but unlike the Financial District, there were few places for the wealthy businessmen to lunch.  George A. Powell rectified the problem when, in 1916, he hired architect George Hof, Jr. to renovated the ground floor as a restaurant.

The cast iron base was infilled with wood, and diamond-paned leaded windows were installed.  The colonial motif was carried on inside where, taking its name from the street's namesake, the Franklin Inn opened.

In the meantime, one of the upper floors was headquarters of the Boosters' Club.  "Boosting" had become popular in large cities around 1906.  Clubs, specific to various industries, were formed to protect its members and to keep business from being wooed away by other metropolises.  On March 30, 1913 The Sun noted "The campaign is now being carried on every more earnestly than before."

The Booster Club at No. 176 Franklin Street was composed of produce merchants.  The city was thrown into near-panic in June 1919 when the teamsters went on strike and refused to pick up fresh vegetables and fruits to be delivered to retail grocers and restaurants.   The 3,700 drivers "employed in the fruit and vegetable trade," as described by the New-York Tribune, demanded shorter hours and higher wages.
On June 24 carloads of berries, watermelons and vegetables had to be "dumped" because of spoilage.  That same day the wholesale commissioner merchants met at the Boosters' Club to discuss a solution. The following day The Evening World reported "They voted to open their stores at 6 o'clock to-morrow morning and keep them open until 5 in the afternoon.  Police protection will be asked."

The individual retailers would have to bring their own trucks and wagons, and risk the threats of the strikers.  But the newspapers opined "Many of them are expected to make special efforts to do this because the situation in the outlying districts is described to-day as more serious than at any other moment since the strike."

In the last decades of the 20th century the Franklin Inn's leaded glass openings and the parapet still survived.  photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As members of the Boosters' Club worked out deals and problems upstairs, the quaint Franklin Inn was not only a favorite spot for lunch, but for group dinners.  On November 6, 1920 the Marine Transportation Association, composed of officials of large steamship companies, held its annual "beefsteak dinner" here.  The Association described it as a time when "officials and employees of the various competing steamship lines get together and forget differences for the time being."

A month later the Rice Journal noted that New York's "rice row" had become split up--"half the operators being found in the Lower Wall street section and the other over on Hudson street."  But, the Journal said, "the Franklin Inn on Franklin street just off Hudson is nearly always certain to have two or three tables of gentlemen who could tell you the differences between blue rose and Jap, talking and incidentally eating every noon hour."

Four "rice men" posed in front of the Franklin Inn in 1920 -- Rice Journal January 1920 (copyright expired)
The popularity and necessity of booster clubs had dwindled by 1922.  After years at No. 176 Franklin Street, the Booster Club shut its doors in March that year.  The Fruit Trade Journal and Produce Record announced that "The furniture and fixtures of the local Booster's Club will be sold at auction the Club rooms, 176 Franklin Street, to meet a deficit of about $1,100."  The article noted "The Club rooms have been closed owing to lack of support."

The Franklin Inn forged on; but on May 6, 1926 it suffered a blow when Prohibition agents put a six-month padlock on the door when liquor was discovered here.  In December 1930 the restaurant expanded into the second floor when a "cabaret" opened.  The third floor was listed as factory space at the time.

But when the Franklin Inn was raided again on February 11, 1932, Prohibition agents had had enough.  They arrested manager John Duffy, bartender Carl Krauss, and waiters Adolphe Forhne, Lorenz Horn and Gallus Dallinger, and seized 157 bottles of liquor.  But more importantly they removed $75,000 worth of fixtures, making it nearly impossible to reopen the illegal tavern.

In 1939 Joseph B. Powell, acting as executor of the estate of Ida May Powell, sold the building to the 176 Franklin St. Realty Corp.  Over the subsequent four decades the former Franklin Inn and the upstairs offices were operated as storage and factory spaces.  Rather surprisingly, the Franklin Inn's cast iron, leaded glass and wooden front survived, as did the parapet, into the last decades of the 20th century.

The Tribeca renaissance brought a different type of tenant.  In the late 1970s the Julian Pretto Gallery was here; in 1982 the former Franklin Inn space became Riverrun, described by The Times as "typical of many restaurant bars springing up in TriBeCa," and in October 2006 Adelle Kelley opened Moulin Bleu, a French-inspired home furnishings shop.  By 2012 Gary Graham's apparel shop had opened here.
Traces of the 1916 Franklin Street facade survive.

Sadly, in remodeling the retail space the original Franklin Inn entrance was lost, as were the lower leaded windows.  At some point the crowning parapet was removed, making No. 176 Franklin Street just a little less regal.  In 2014 the upper floors, where fruit and vegetable wholesalers once wrangled over problems of produce prices and labor strikes, were converted to two loft residences.   

photographs by the author

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Moorish Fantasy at No. 132 West 78th Street

The Upper West Side was rapidly developing in 1881 when Rafael Guastavino arrived in New York City from Spain.  An accomplished architect trained in Barcelona, he was fascinated with the Catalan vault—a gently curved structure veneered with brick or tile.

His improved Guastavino Arch, widely touted for its fireproof qualities and noteworthy strength, would make him famous.  But while he perfected the process, he accepted architectural commissions.  In 1885, the same year he patented his “Tile Arch System,” he started work on a row of six townhouses on the north side of West 78th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues for developer Bernard S. Levy.

Levy apparently was pleased with the architect’s Moorish Revival confections.  In January 1886 Guastavino filed plans for nine more homes on the opposite side of the street—Nos. 118 through 134.  Levy’s creative toying with the dimensions of the lots must have provided his architect with a challenge.

The Record & Guide reported on January 30 that six of the houses would be 16 feet wide and the remaining three would be 19, 18 and 17 feet in width.  Five would be four stories tall and four would be three floors high.   Levy obviously was not interested in the cookie-cutter type rowhouses seen on the opposite side of the Park.  The costs of the 78th Street buildings ranged from $16,000 (for four), $20,000 (for another four), to $25,000 for the most expensive.  (The priciest of the row would cost about $650,000 to build in 2016.)

As he had done the year before, Rafael Guastavino turned to a blend of Moorish Revival Renaissance Revival for the row (although the Real Estate Record & Guide preferred to call the style “Spanish Renaissance).  The mirror-image row was designed in a complicated A-B-C-A-D-A-C-B-A configuration.

Guastavino tested his trademark arch in the structure of one of the homes.  As construction continued in May 1886 The Record & Guide noted “The most novel and interesting feature which appears in these houses is a fire-proof construction which has been adopted in one of them…Its prominent feature is a system of low arches of fire-proof tiling supporting the floors, taking up no more space than ordinary beams and leaving the cellar entirely unobstructed, instead of blockading it with iron pillars and brick work.”

The Guide urged other developers to investigate Guastavino’s innovative technique.  “All who wish to see a novel fire-proof, water-proof, and vermin-proof house, showing great economy of space and cost, should visit this building at once, before the very ingenious and effective construction is concealed by the completion of the structure.”

Among the 16-foot wide homes was No. 132.  Like its neighbors it was faced in brownstone.   The romantic fantasy of the architecture included Moorish arabesques, crenellated arches and an ornate second floor balcony.

The Real Estate Record & Guide was impressed with the glass entrance doors.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Bernard S. Levy did not sell No. 132 immediately.  Instead he put the title in his wife’s name.  Pauline Levy held the property until October 1894.   Pauline provided the mortgage to the new owner; but only two years later, on September 22, 1898 she foreclosed.  She repurchased the house at the foreclosure auction for $21,680 before selling it to real estate operator William Call.

Guastavino's intricate detail included two lions staring down from the corners of the handsome balcony.

Call rented the house to sisters Kate M. and Mary Louise Henne.   The young women convinced their landlord to sell them the residence in October 1902.  To help pay their $18,000 mortgage they leased a room.  Their first tenant apparently was I. C. Woodruff, a chemical manufacturer.  But events surrounding a subsequent roomer, Frank F. Thebaud, would raise social eyebrows.

That Frank Thebaud would be renting rooms in someone else’s home was surprising at best.  He came from an old New York family and had a reputed fortune.  His earliest American ancestor was Joseph Thebaud who arrived in 1792.  His maternal grandfather had been a bodyguard of Louis XVI.  Following the fall of the King, he fled to America in 1793.

Frank Thebaud was the principal of the shipping and commission firm Thebaud Brothers which had operated for well over a century.  The New-York Tribune noted “The firm does business with France, Mexico and South America and owns many vessels.”  The now-widowed entrepreneur had lost the lower part of one leg in a tragic carriage accident with his wife in 1898. 

In 1906 Thebaud was 58 years old; significantly older than his landladies.  Mary Louise was 36 and Kate was 34 years old.  Whispering gossips would have reason to hint that the two decades in age difference did not preclude hanky-panky at No. 132 West 78th Street.

On Friday, September 28, 1906 Frank F. Thebaud died in the house.  His will surprisingly left $200,000 in trust to Kate and Mary Henne—twice the sum he left to his sister, Marie N. Thebaud and equivalent to about $5.5 million today.

If busybodies were suspicious about the suspect bequest; they had more to talk about six months later.  Mary Louise started drinking immediately after Thebaud’s death and by January Kate said her “excessive use of intoxicants” had made her “quite incompetent.”

Kate’s efforts to help her sister were unsuccessful.  The Sun reported in March that Mary Louise “has been in various sanitariums without cure.”  Exasperated, Kate applied to have her sister’s mental competency examined.  A commission and a Sheriffs’ jury ruled in March that Mary Louise was sane.

She may have been technically sane, but she was nonetheless addicted.  Back home on 78th Street she was taking “from twelve to fifteen drinks of whiskey within a few hours,” according to the New-York Tribune.

Jurors at a second trial on May 3, 1907 learned of Mary Louise’s “delusions” and the necessity of sometimes physically restraining her.  The following day the New-York Tribune ran a headline saying “Miss Mary Henne Declared Insane” and the New York Times called her a “victim of liquors and drugs.”  She was deemed “incompetent to manager her affairs.”

Somewhat surprisingly the verdict did not change the sisters’ living arrangements.  They remained in the house and continued to take in a boarder.  In 1908 Charles Diggs, Secretary of the Fundy Park Amusement Company, was living here while his company laid plans for an amusement park near St. John, New Brunswick.

On October 14, 1911 Kate M. Henne, as agent for herself and Mary, placed the house on the market.  It was a full year, however, before it sold.  On October 26, 1912 the Record & Guide pointed out that “the buyer will occupy.”

Despite that, No. 132 was rented out as unofficial apartments.  Among the early tenants were silent film director and screenwriter Paul Bern and his common law wife Dorothy Millette.  Bern, who was born Paul Levy, would eventually marry screen star Jean Harlow in July 1932.  Two months later he was found shot in the head at their Beverly Hills home.  Dorothy Millette was suspected by some to have murdered Bern.  She committed suicide two days later.

In the meantime, No. 132 West 78th Street saw a succession of owners.  Then, in 1978 it was converted to apartments, a duplex in the basement and parlor levels; two apartments on the second floor, and one each on the upper stories.  In 2007 a penthouse level, unseen from the street, was added.

Other than the expected replacement windows, Rafael Guastavino’s enchanting, narrow rowhouse is little changed outwardly; while inside many of the original elements survive.

photographs by the author

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Lost Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church -- 333 W 30th St

In 1910 the church building was being renovated for a publishing firm.  Otherwise, the West 30th Street block remains steadfastly residential.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In the 1820s the area north of 23rd Street on the West Side was sparsely sprinkled with small houses and commercial buildings.  But within two decades development was rapidly transforming the Chelsea neighborhood into a northern suburb.

In 1841 a "small mission," as described by The New York Times, was organized in a basement at 10th Avenue and 29th Street.  The group quickly grew, moving into the second story of a factory building at Ninth Avenue and 27th Street.  Then, when the mission was incorporated as the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church in 1843, it leased vacant lots on West 24th Street, east of Ninth Avenue, and erected a small wooden church.

Within only three years it was obvious that the frame building would not be sufficient for much longer.  Two lots, Nos. 331 and 333 West 30th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, were purchased and in 1848 the cornerstone of "a substantial building" was laid.  Construction was completed a year later.

The brick and brownstone Greek Revival edifice was dignified and austere.  Unlike some of the wealthier, showier Greek Revival churches to the south with stone facades and columned porticoes, Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church was ornamented with only shallow pilasters and a classical pediment.  Above the two-and-a-half story entrance a marble plaque embedded in the facade announced the construction date.

The first pastor in the new church was 28-year old Erastus O. Haven.  Decades later the Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church would remember him at the time as "a brilliant young man" and described Chelsea Methodist as "a young but promising enterprise, in the suburbs of the city of New York."

Three blocks to the north, on Ninth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Street, the New York Asylum for the Blind had stood since 1831.  In 1839 it had taken in a 19-year old student, Franny J. Crosby, who quickly was recognized for her talent in writing poetry and hymns.  Fanny had been blinded by an incompetent physician at the age of six months.  But never having remembered seeing, she was pragmatic about her condition, saying "she could climb a tree or ride a horse as well as anyone."
By the time the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church was completed, Fanny was an instructor in the Asylum, teaching rhetoric, Greek, Roman, and American History.  She had written her first poem at the age of eight.

Fanny J. Crosby joined the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church in 1850 and became its most celebrated member.  By the time she died at the age of 95 on February 12, 1915 she had written over 8,000 hymns, including the popular "Blessed Assurance."

As the Chelsea neighborhood developed, the membership grew.  The New York Times later explained "The large debt accumulated during the society's rapid growth was increased in 1861, extensive alterations and improvement were made, but it was paid off in 1865.  In 1878 $6,000 were expended in more improvements, and ten years later a five-thousand-dollar debt was cleared."

The financial stability of the congregation was further evidenced when, around 1890, it spent $2,200 on a new organ--a $65,000 outlay in 2016 dollars.

The Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church was, of course, the scene of many weddings and funerals.  Not all of those marriages drew the most favorable press coverage, however.

One of these involved 19-year old Saira Collins.  Saira was the daughter of a sea captain and in the fall of 1896 she met Andrew J. Collins, whom she described as "neatly dressed and courteous."  Collins told the girl that he was a traveling salesman "with a large salary and bright prospects."

Swept away by the attentions of the salesman, Saira soon agreed to marry him.  The wedding took place in Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church on January 18, 1897, just three months after the two met.  They moved into No. 329 West 35th Street.  Because of his profession, Andrew was gone much of the time, but, according to The Sun a few months later, "she understood he was attending to the selling of goods."

Actually, he was not.

What Saira did not know was that only a day or two before she met Andrew he had been released from the Trenton Prison and that he "was a noted highway man."  His time away from home was actually spent in robbery and burglary.  Within only a few months of their wedding his picture had reappeared in the Rogues' Gallery at Police Headquarters.

When Andrew was arrested one morning on a 34th Street streetcar on a charge "of highway robbery," Saira came to his defense; even after he was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in Sing Sing.  But when police gave her a detailed history of his criminal past and showed her his photograph on the headquarters wall, she awoke to reality.

Saira moved back into her father's house and applied to have the marriage annulled.  Her plea to Justice Traux of the Supreme Court was true-life Victorian melodrama.  She said she "was the victim of a most unholy fraud and deceit, and was deceived and led into marriage with the defendant by reason of the villainous and base acts of the most unscrupulous of ex-convicts and prison birds."

A much more bizarre wedding took place in November the following year.  The pastor, Rev. Dr. W. N. Searles was asked by Derby, Connecticut resident Fred Piper to perform the marriage.  The bride-to-be was, seemingly coincidentally, also named Piper and had been visiting the Omaha Exposition.  Fred met her in New York in hopes to head back home to Connecticut as man and wife.

Rev. Searles performed the marriage on Wednesday, November 16, only to be asked rather awkward questions a few days later.  The Sun reported "Piper's relatives were greatly surprised at the announcement of his marriage."  That surprise came from the fact that the new Mrs. Piper was also Fred's grandmother.

Truman Piper, Fred's grandfather, had died two years earlier.  Mrs. Piper was his second wife, so there was no blood relationship between her and her step-grandson.  Nevertheless, the unconventional romance was broadly reported, causing the Rev. Searles public embarrassment. 

Rev. Searles explained that he assumed they couple had the same surname because "he thought the woman might be the widow of the man's brother."  And he said Fred "appeared to be prematurely gray, and at first sight looked fully the age of his wife."  He also claimed that "he also walked with a crutch, which made him seem older."

By the turn of the century Chelsea Methodist Episcopal had a new pastor, the Rev. Dr. Philip Germond.  The minister's greatest battle against sin and vice was not on the sometimes-gritty Chelsea streets, but within his own family.  By the spring of 1903 his 25-year old son, also named Philip, was wanted "in nearly every large city east of Chicago for forgery and passing worthless checks," according to New York Police Inspector McClusky.  The inspector told reporters "there were thirty complaints against him so far."

Germond's life of crime began in 1900 and he was sentenced to the Elmira Reformatory on September 24 that year for passing a worthless check.  He and "a woman who was known as his wife" continued passing bad checks and committing forgery from state to state over the ensuing years.

On May 14, 1903 the New-York Tribune reported "Dr. Germond said his son from an early age showed evidence of being utterly irresponsible, and finally went entirely wrong."  The preacher tried his best to track his son's movements, warning Methodist bishops and preachers in each city.  Young Germond would use his father's name to borrow money from the clerics.  Dr. Germond paid the men back from his own pocket.  "By these methods my son impoverished me," he told reporters.

The young Germond's callous criminality extended to his own family.  When his parents were away one summer he came to New York, broke into the parsonage, stole valuables and pawned them.

During his trial Professor John D. Quackenbros of Columbia University testified about Philip's mental abnormality.  "I have never seen another like it.  He has no moral sense.  He never had any, so far as distinguishing between that which belongs to him and to others is concerned."

The new Pennsylvania Station brought with it traffic congestion and on October 24, 1907 the City announced its solution--a new street parallel to Eighth Avenue to be cut through the block between 30th and 31st Streets.  The New-York Tribune pointed out "the proposed street will result in tearing down the building in 30th street in which the congregation of the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church worships."

In response the congregation purchased land far north in Washington Heights, at the corner of Fort Washington Avenue and 179th Street, as a site for a new church.  Ground for the imposing structure, designed by Bannister & Schell, was broken on June 3, 1908.

Ironically, the proposed cut-through street was never realized.  So as the new edifice was nearing completion on November 27, 1909 the Record & Guide said of the 30th Street church "This valuable property is now for sale."

Somewhat surprisingly, the old building became home to The Rural New-Yorker, publishers of the journal of the same name and sellers of farm-related books.  Advertisements throughout the coming years offered "If you want books on farming of any kind write us and we will quote you prices" and announced "Books on all subjects of farming by leading authorities are for sale by The Rural New-Yorker."
This January 12, 1918 cover, like all issues, was dominated by a charming farm scene. (copyright expired)

The publisher converted the sanctuary and interior rooms for its offices and print shop; but left the facade essentially untouched other than removing the stained glass windows and adding other openings.  The casual passerby would most likely assume the building was simply a vintage church.

Three men who did not mistake the building for a church entered the building through a 30th Street window late on the night of June 12, 1926.  When the nightwatchman, Henry McCormick happened upon them around 3:00 a.m., "one of the bandits pointed a pistol at him and ordered him to 'stick 'em up and hold 'em high," according to The New York Times the following day.

As if from a scene in a crime movie, McCormick's hands and feet were bound with rope and he was tied to a chair.  And the similarity to silver screen thrills did not end there.  While one man watched over his captive, the other others made their way to the offices.

"Using the most modern of drills and nitro-glycerine, they blew open the door of the larger of the two safes.  The force of the explosion scattered its contents about the floor for more than fifteen feet.  From this safe the men took the payroll."

They repeated the procedure on the other two safes, gathering up the weekly payroll of $4,500 cash and $8,000 in Liberty bonds.  They left their burglary tools behind, took their loot and, with their cohort, calmly exited through the main door.

After some struggling McCormick managed to work the gag from his mouth and thrashed around in the chair until he managed to knock the telephone receiver off the hook.  He kept shouting "notify Police Headquarters!" until the operator heard his cries. After police arrived and freed him, McCormick was later able to identify two of the thieves from the Police Headquarter's Rogues' Gallery.
Construction of the French Hospital, begun in 1927, required the clearing of much of the block facing the old church.  The Rural New-Yorker's renovations, including the punching through of office windows, is apparent in this September 27, 1927 shot by P. L. Sperr.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
While the Manhattan location for the farm journal may have seemed peculiar to some; Meyer Berger of the New York Times pointed out that the city had its share of gentleman farmers--and actual farmers--at mid-century.  On February 17, 1954 he profiled taxi driver Raphael Gomez who everyday "pours over The Rural New-Yorker" between fares.

"Mr. Gomez dresses like a husbandman, and that's what he is," wrote Meyer.  The cabbie had a 30-acre farm outside of Wickstown, near Egg Harbor City, New Jersey.  "He puts a fortnight behind the wheel in Manhattan, then three or four days on his farm."

Mrs. Gomez and the six children worked the acreage while he was in the city.  Meyer's article explained "He reads The Rural New-Yorker to keep up on the best buys in chicks or fertilizer and drops a letter every day or two advising his spouse what to pick up at Egg Harbor."

After surviving 120 years, the Greek Revival church building came to the end of its road in May 1960 when it was sold to the 33 West Thirtieth Street Corporation.  They group announced its plans "to clear the site and improve it with apartments for nurses and doctors in the French Hospital, which is across the street."

Without a whimper of protest the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church building was demolished.  It was replaced by an eight-story white brick apartment building, completed in 1963.

photo via cityrealty

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Leo Schlesinger Toy Factory -- Nos. 292-296 Lafayette Street

In 1889 Leo Schlesinger most likely surprised other businessmen along Elm Street when he supported the proposed extension of Elm Street to Lafayette Place.  At the time Elm Street ended at Jersey Street.  Lafayette Place began about two blocks to the north.  The public works project would necessitate the demolition of several significant business structures.  One of the buildings that would be affected was Schlesinger’s.  His toy factory at Nos. 129-131 Crosby Street ran back along Jersey Street and straddled the proposed new thoroughfare.

But on November 9, 1889 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported “One of the most important briefs was from Leo Schlesinger, of Crosby street, the well-known manufacturer of toys and tinware, who strongly favored the improvement, notwithstanding that it would have taken 80 feet away from the front of his manufactory.”  Schlesinger argued that cutting the street through would improve transportation and, therefore, the city and its industries in general.

Six years earlier, on October 13, 1883, The American Machinist had reported “Leo Schlesinger, 11th st. and Avenue D…will have a new manufactory of tin toys on Crosby Street.”   The toy maker had purchased the two lots on Crosby and three on Jersey Street from the Stewart Estate for $205,000 ($5 million in 2016).  He commissioned the architectural firm of H. J. Schwartzmann & Co. to design the toned-down Queen Anne style building, completed in 1894.

Schlesinger, who was also a director in several banks and other corporations, employed an average of 160 workers in his factory.  He leased extra space in the building to commercial tenants.  In June 1884 the Industrial Printing Co. was here, looking for a “First-Class job compositor,” one who was “accustomed to fine commercial work.”  The firm promised “steady position to the right man.”

The Crosby Street elevation, once the front of the building, is now blocked up.

There was one rather surprising tenant.  In January 1884, according to The Sun, “the United Hebrew Charities determined to take measures to save the poor boys of their race in this city from what seemed to threaten them as a common fate, viz., becoming peddlers.”

The Hebrew Technical Institute was formed and in its 25th Anniversary booklet it remembered “four months later the sixth and seventh floors of a factory building at 129 Crosby Street were rented from Mr. Leo Schlesinger, who was to furnish heat and power.  There the school continued from May, 1884 to February, 1887.”

While the debate on the extension of Elm Street dragged on, Leo Schlesinger expanded his business.  In August 1895 he partnered with L. Stern to form The Stanley Cycle Mfg. Co.  Iron Trade Review reported the new firm would “manufacture high grade bicycles.  The company expects to turn out between 10,000 and 15,000 wheels per annum” at the Crosby Street factory.

Finally, in 1897 the city condemned and demolished the buildings between Jersey Street and Great Jones Street in the way of the Elm Street project.  Included was the 80-foot section of Schlesinger’s factory building, for which the city paid him a handsome $96,000.  But rather than abandon his reduced property, or demolish the remaining chunk and start over; he commissioned the architectural firm of Buchman & Deisler to remodel it.

On July 10, 1897 the Record & Guide reported on the filing of 11 building plans related to the widening and extension of Elm Street.  Among them were Buchman & Deisler’s plans for Schlesinger’s seven-story factory.   The Guide’s description was nebulous: “extension of rear wall and new front.”    The project would be much more.

The architects essentially flipped the front of the building—moving the architectural focus to the wider, newer Lafayette Street.   While harmonious with Schwartzmann’s Queen Anne-style Crosby Street design, Buchman & Deisler’s Renaissance Revival Lafayette Street elevation was more aggressive.  White limestone starkly contrasted with the deep red brick.  Handsome stone capitals capped the three-story brick piers at the fourth through sixth floors.  As an added touch, the architects chamfered the corner; a detail which extended to the cast iron store front.

More than a year after the Elm Street-Lafayette Street project began, businessmen were furious with the city’s delay in its completion.  On September 30 Leo Schlesinger was the chief spokesmen at a meeting with the Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck.  He presented the Mayor with three photographs “which clearly proved not only the incomplete state of the work, but the generally obstructed condition of the thoroughfare,” reported the Record & Guide.  Schlesinger called the conditions “disgraceful.”

Leo Schlesinger Company produced children's toys, like this Red Riding Hood tea set.

Disaster was narrowly averted late on the night of November 24, 1902 when the water tank atop the building collapsed.  Fortunately for the businesses inside, there was no damage; however pedestrians must have been startled when “water poured over the roof into the street,” as reported by The Sun the following morning.

By 1915 the area around No. 296 Lafayette Street was the center of the millinery and hat-related industries.  Leo Schlesinger had moved his operation to Front Street years earlier.  Among the businesses in the Lafayette Street building was Ignatius Buckman who manufactured hat making machines.

That summer he did a friend, John Treubert, a favor by storing $4,000 worth of velvet “for safe-keeping.”  But the 51-year old Buckman hatched a nefarious scheme.  He staged a burglary of his own factory, instructing several of his clerks to sneak out the valuable cloth.

When Treubert arrived at the factory the first week of June, Buckman sadly reported that his place had been robbed and that in addition to Treubert’s velvet, the thieves had gotten away with $2,000 worth of Buckman’s property.

John Truebert was not convinced.  He notified detectives who questioned Buckman’s employees.  Unfortunately for Buckman, they readily confessed to having followed their boss’s criminal orders. 

Police surrounded Buckman’s house at No. 283 East 164th Street on the night of June 11.  The Evening World reported “when they were demanding admission to the front door he appeared at a rear window in his night clothing and was about to jump when he saw other detectives and stepped back.”  Ignatius Buckman was arrested for having burglarized his own factory.

In 1919 the Crosby Street store was home to the International High Speed Steel Company; while on an upper floor the Bristol Hat Company was among the millinery firms doing business.  One tenant not in the hat business was Geringer Brothers, a manufacturer of “gas and lamp shades.”

Isidor Geringer was working late with two employees on the night of November 27, 1920.  That night a series of violent hold-ups erupted in both Manhattan and the Bronx.  One of them would take Geringer’s life.

At around 9:00 three men wearing masks and long raincoats barged into the shop.  The employees were ordered to raise their arms into the air.  Geringer nervously watched as one of the thugs was taking $12 from the pocket of Louis Lobell.  He dropped his hands to his side and was immediately shot.  The New York Herald reported “He was taken to New York Hospital and probably will die.”

A bizarre incident occurred here on November 2, 1922 after fire erupted in the building.  Fire fighters poured thousands of gallons of water into the burning building, the upper floors of which were occupied “by various paper and hat concerns,” according to The New York Herald the following day.

Six fire fighters from Hook and Ladder Company No. 9 entered the building and began chopping through a wall.  What they did not realize was that the well-built structure had trapped the growing amount of water, to the point that the walls were bulging, according to the newspaper.

Finally their axes broke through and the firemen were carried away in the massive flood of water which was released.  “Three of the firemen—Wynn, Scheck and Matofsky—were swept down the stairs from the first to the ground floor, and after being dashed from wall to wall finally were catapulted into the street, landing in the roadway half conscious.”  The three others, Lt. Lamb and Firemen Murphy and Murray “narrowly escaped drowning,” according to the newspaper, by clinging “to the only substantial article in sight, a stair rail.” 

The tenants suffered about $20,000 in damages.

The wooden beams and columns survive where tin toys were once manufactured.  photo by Corcoran Group
The former Schlesinger toy factory continued to be home to various small industries for the next six decades.  Then in 1984 the upper floors were converted to “joint living and work quarters for artists.”  Today the lofts where tin tea sets and fire trucks were manufactured are luxury residences that sell for over $3 million.  Buchman & Deisler’s well-preserved fa├žade survives nearly a century and a quarter after Lafayette Street plowed through Leo Schlesinger’s factory.

photographs by the author