Saturday, January 21, 2017
John H. Scheel lived in the three-story brownstone house at No. 121 East 83rd Street in the 1890s. He was treasurer of the Yorkville Dispensary and Hospital for Women and Children. The charity institution was "confined to the Dispensary for treatment of poor women and children only."
Around the turn of the century the house was converted as the headquarters of the Shawnee Club. A Democratic political group, The New York Times on December 16, 1901 said it "represents Tammany power" in the district.
Scheel evicted his tenants when they stopped paying rent in October 1902. But it appears to have been a mutual arrangement. The Sun reported "Myer J. Stein said last night that the club quit paying rent in October at the request of the landlord, John Shields [sic], in order that the lease, which would have run to Feb 15, might be broken, as the property was to be sold."
The buyers were developers Evans & Buscall, who planned an upscale private carriage house on the site. The block by now was filling with the private stables of Fifth Avenue millionaires. In November Hamilton & Mesereau filed plans for a "3-story brick stable" costing $33,000--in the neighborhood of $940,000 today.
The office J. A. Hamilton and W. H. Mesereau was far downtown at No. 32 Broadway. Mesereau was a structural engineer as well as architect. Theirs was an intriguing partnership; apparently working independently as often as together as Hamilton & Mesereau.
A year earlier C. P. H. Gilbert had designed Frank W. Woolworth's new mansion at northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 80th Street. Construction on what Bankers Magazine deemed "one of the notably fine houses in that center of wealth and fashion" was completed just prior to the 83rd Street carriage house.
On July 21, 1903 The New York Times reported that Evans & Buscal had sold "the new three-story private stable" to Woolworth, noting that the price had been set at $50,000--a substantial $1.4 million in today's dollars.
While technically three stories, the carriage house rose to nearly the equivalent of four. A half-story loft above the ground floor added to the height. Hamilton & Mesereau had produced an extremely handsome edifice faced in Flemish-bond variegated brick. The gray and tan headers contrasted with the red length-wise bricks. Splayed limestone lintels and double-keystones reflected the neo-Federal motif; while carved panels of floral swags and a wreath and bow in the tympanum over the carriage bay were elegant neo-Classical touches. The unusual triangular brackets upholding the cornice were a dramatic addition.
Woolworth's impressive fleet of vehicles and expensive horses were housed on ground level. Behind the elegant structure would have been a much less appealing but necessary feature--the manure pit. It was the odors (with the accompanying problem of flies) and the bothersome noises of stables that brought about "stable blocks" where there were few, if any, residences.
On the two upper floors the mogul's most important stable employees lived. The main coachman and the groom are the most likely candidates. In many cases the entire families of the employees resided in comfortable accommodations (discounting, of course, the manure stench).
By the time Woolworth died on April 8, 1919, the carriage house was already being leased to Murry Guggenheim. Horses had given way to automobiles by now, and he had renovations done to the building that year, converting it to a garage for "not more than five cars." Building Department records reveal that the top floor was to be used as a "dwelling for one employee."
A year after Woolworth's death, on April 22, 1920, the first of the auctions of his massive real estate holdings was held. But three months earlier, the 83rd Street garage was sold separately to what the New-York Tribune, on January 13, described as "a well known businessman residing on Fifth Avenue." That businessman was Murry Guggenheim.
He was the third of eight sons of Meyer Guggenheim. Meyer's was a Horatio Alger-worthy story. The Jewish immigrant arrived from Switzerland in 1847, starting out as an itinerant peddler. When get-rich-quick prospectors headed West for gold and silver, Guggenheim invested in copper mines in Colorado. Mining and smelting of copper, silver, lead and gold made the Guggenheim family's fortune one of the largest in 19th century America.
Murry Guggenheim and his wife, the former Leonie Bernheim, had two children, Edmond and Lucille. Their mansion was at No. 998 Fifth Avenue at 81st Street, conveniently near the carriage house.
Throughout the years Murry and Leonie supported extensive charities. In 1929 they formed the Murry and Leonie Guggenheim Foundation which built and maintained a dental clinic for indigent school children. In 1921 he and his brothers donated $1 million for a private pavilion at Mount Sinai Hospital, and earlier he gave the hospital its first motor-driven ambulance. He and his brother David presented the Central Display Greenhouse to the New York Botanical Gardens in 1919.
Following David Guggenheim's death in 1930 Murry became the head of Guggenheim Brothers. He steadfastly went to his office at No. 120 Broadway every day until Friday, November 10, 1939 when, at the age of 81, he became ill. He died five days later.
Guggenheim's estate was appraised at nearly $19 million and papers listed gifts from 1917 until his death at about $16 million. His will bequeathed to Leonie the Fifth Avenue mansion, "his household and personal effects," property in Colorado, and "real property at 121 East Eighty-third Street."
The Guggenheim family continued to use the private garage for years. Then, in 1965, the ground floor and "mezzanine" were converted to a photographic studio and the upper floors to a duplex apartment. A subsequent renovation in 1996 turned the photography studio into medical offices.
Today the Woolworth carriage house is one of only a handful which survive on the former stable block. Its stylish 1903 facade reminds the passerby of the elegant housing the horses of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens enjoyed in the early years of the last century.
photographs by the author
Friday, January 20, 2017
Thomas Suffern, a retired linen merchant, had become highly involved in real estate development by the late 1850s. Where brick or wooden houses had stood in Lower Manhattan, he built modern stone-faced commercial buildings.
The family of Benjamin Stagg, Jr., principal in Benjamin Stagg & Co., lived at No. 154 Chambers Street, between West Broadway and Greenwich Street in the 1830s. As well-to-do families moved further north, the residence was being operated as a high-end boarding house by 1852. That year an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald offering "Board, at 154 Chambers Street--A Pleasant well furnished room, suitable for two gentlemen. Also, a fine parlor on second floor, which, if parties desire, will be rented unfurnished. The house is well kept, has fine pantries, baths, &c."
The boarding house would not survived much longer. By 1860 Thomas Suffern had demolished it and replaced it with a five story Italianate style commercial building. As with most such structures appearing throughout the area, it featured a cast iron storefront with fluted Corinthian columns. The elliptical arched openings of the upper floors were highlighted by carved eyebrows; and their stone sills sat on delicate brackets. The building was crowned by a modillioned Italianate cornice with two leafy side brackets.
E. H. Hanford & Co. was among the first tenants in the new building, doing business here in 1860. Dealers and manufacturers of home furnishings, it had provided "looking-glasses" to Sing Sing Prison in 1858. The $18 price tag would be equal to about $535 today.
In 1865 the ground floor was vacant. An advertisement in The New York Herald announced "To let--Store--A large store, with splendid, well lighted Office, in one of the best localities in Chambers street."
The transformation of the neighborhood from residential to commercial was fueled by the construction of East River Railroad Company's freight terminal at the end of the Civil War. The area around No. 154 drew butter-and-egg, produce, and similar businesses.
In the mid 1870s Belt & Cilley, butter and cheese merchants, operated here; joined by John S. Hawley & Co., candy makers, by 1879. John Savage Hawley had already had a diverse career. Born in Charlton, New York in 1838, he was educated in public schools. In 1859 he joined his brother's "fancy-goods" business in Texas. A Yankee with pro-Northern sympathies, he was forced to escape through Mexico during the Civil War.
He reappeared as a clerk in a Virginia City, Nevada silver mining company, made a fortune in the lumber business (and later losing it), and invented a cob-lined smoking pipe while in the West. In 1870 he moved to New York City, joining the confectionery firm of Wallace & Company. Candy making did not squelch his inventive propensities and in 1874 he invented the "elastic force cup" for clearing plumbing--what today we call the plunger.
|A whimsical trade card depicted a wrapped candy so large it required a wheel-barrow. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Most likely using the profits from his invention he opened his own confectionery factory and store in 1875. Hawley's partner was Herman W. Hoops and eventually the firm name would become Hawley & Hoops, famous for its patented "chocolate candy segars," its "old fashioned licorice" and a score of other sweet delights like "Union Cream bon-bons" and "Flat Wintergreen Creams." The firm would remain in the building until the early 1880s.
Quite unlike the chocolate cigars offered by Hawley & Hoops, George K. Davis sold "liquors" in the ground floor space in 1886. Within the decade, at least by 1886, another butter and egg firm, Gude Brothers, was doing business in the building.
Dealing in dairy products required cold storage--something not so easily found in the city in the summer of 1899. So when Henry N. Peters hooked a massive fish in the Long Island Sound, Gude Brothers offered its coolers to show off the prize.
On August 22 The New York Times reported "The largest striped bass reported as having been caught this season along the Sound is now on exhibition at the cold-storage rooms of Gude Brothers...The fish weighed thirty-three pounds when caught, and in its present state tips the beam at thirty-one and one-half pounds."
It had taken Peters about 20 minutes to land the finny beast. The newspaper added "The fish will be stuffed and mounted this week."
A tenant unusual for the district was R. R. Marie Roofing Company, in the building by 1903. The burgeoning interest in Mediterranean Revival and Spanish Revival architecture prompted the company to issue a booklet that year informing contractors on "in detail the best way of laying [tile] roofs."
While Hawley & Hoops had been making candy here, another confectioner, Alexander M. Powell had operated from Nos. 150-152 next door. In August 1904 he leased the entire building at No. 154 from the Thomas Suffern estate. Once again the aromas of chocolate and peppermint wafted from the building. Alexander M. Powell remained until 1909 when its new building at the corner of Canal and Sullivan Streets was completed.
The J. M. Sherwood Co. leased the upper floors in 1914. Dealers and manufacturers in home goods and appliances, it offered the latest in domestic ranges to American housewives. In 1916 it patented what, like John Hawley's plunger, would become a household must-have.
On October 8 the New-York Tribune reported on the invention. "Dishes may not only be rinsed, but dried, in the Sherwood Dish Drainer. This is quite according to the most approved methods of dish drying, for the dish towel is no longer an important member of society. A special rack is provided for the plates, with a basket for the silver, and there is still space for the rest of the dishes."
|A simple sketch appeared in a German language magazine in 1918. Deutsch-Amerika, February 9, 1918 (copyright expired)|
The wire rack and galvanized pan retailed for 75 cents. It was hailed throughout the country and marketed in Europe. With only minor changes to J. M. Sherwood's design, the dish drainer is still sold today.
The Suffern estate sold No. 154 Chamber Street after about six decades of ownership in December 1919. The tradition of candy still held on in the form of a candy store at street level. On September 17 the following year, the owner placed an advertisement seeking "Saleslady--Experienced, for confectionery store; good pay; no Sunday."
As mid-century approached, the Superior Typewriter Company occupied space in the building. Police were baffled in February 1948 by a string of burglaries. The crooks specialized in safe cracking; but were unusual in their methods. Police told reporters "the gang seldom used weapons or burglar tools, performing their safe-opening with implements found at the scenes of the robberies."
On the night of February 16 the burglars forced open the skylight at No. 154 Chambers and dropped into the Superior Typewriter offices. They snatched $50 in cash, several typewriters and eight bottles of rye whisky.
They then crossed the roof to Nos. 150-152 and looted eight offices there. While there the steely-nerved crooks stopped to have dinner. "When they were through the floors were covered with tuna fish cans, whisky bottles and safes--all empty," reported The New York Times the following day.
A week later police had the gang in custody--their identities shocking. The criminals ranged in age from 14 to 18 years old. The Times was most fascinated with the youngest, running the headline "14-Year-Old 'Giant' Held in Burglaries."
Two of the boys had already been held in a state reform school. The over-sized 14-year old, whose identity could not be released because of his age, was described as "6 feet tall and weighting between 180 and 190 pounds." Detectives said he "did all the heavy work." The boys had been busy. They were accused of "at least thirteen burglaries and safe-cracking jobs" during the last few months.
Like many loft buildings in the area, as Tribeca once again changed in the last quarter of the 20th century, No. 154 was converted to residential space above the ground floor. In 2015 a subsequent renovation resulted in one apartment each on the three uppermost floors, and office space on the second.
The cast iron storefront has been abused over the years and its Corinthian capitals have been lost. And upstairs an ill-advised coat of cream-colored paint covers the stone facade. Yet with only a little imagination the passerby can imagine bowler-wearing businessmen coming and going through its doors.
photographs by the author
Thursday, January 19, 2017
In the 1870s developer James Kent was keeping Henry Ferbach, busy. In 1870, for instance, the architect simultaneously designed cast iron structures for Kent at Nos. 137-139 Mercer Street and and at Nos. 136-138 Greene Street a block away. In 1872 the pair collaborated on another five-story cast iron fronted building on Union Square.
The Mercer Street site had been well-known to New Yorkers for decades. In the 1840s John S. Roulstone operated his riding school here. With true Victorian decorum, Roulstone maintained strict separation of male and female instruction.
An advertisement in The Anglo American on February 7, 1846 laid out the hours--ladies were taught between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.; men from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. "No Gentlemen admitted during the hours appropriated to Ladies." The ad noted that gentlemen who boarded their horses here "will have the privilege of riding them in the school gratis."
|The New York Herald, April 13, 1845 (copyright expired)|
An advertisement in September 1868 offered "good stalls for boarding horses at Butler's Livery Stables, the most central location in the city."
By now the district just below Houston Street had caught the attention of developers like James Kent. Old houses and stores were being rapidly demolished and replaced by modern iron-fronted commercial structures. In September 1870 Henry Ferbach filed plans for "one five-story and basement first-class iron store" on the site of Butler's Livery Stables.
The handsome structure was completed in 1871. The facade of the fifty-foot wide building had much in common with the dozens of others appearing throughout the neighborhood. Fluted Corinthian columns dignified the store front; while projecting cornices above separated each of the nearly-identical floors. An Italianate cast iron modillioned cornice crowned the design.
By the time the Department of Buildings checked the safety features of the building in 1873, it was owned by E. W. Rachan. Described by the satisfied inspectors as a "factory," they noted its "fire escape and ladder to roof." Rachan was highly active in the neighborhood, owning and operating several properties.
The Mercer and Greene Street area was quickly becoming the center of Manhattan's fur trade and by 1881 J. & A. Boskowitz had moved into the building from No. 38 Mercer Street, where they had operated for years. The following year it was joined by another hide and fur company, Joseph Ullman & Co. At the same time Mercer Street was renumbered and the building became Nos. 165-167.
Joseph Ullman had immigrated from France to New Orleans in 1851. He traveled north to Minnesota where fur trapping was widespread, opening a hide business in St. Paul in 1854. In 1866 he opened a Chicago office, and two years later one in New York. By the time the firm moved into the Mercer Street building Joseph was living in Leipzig, running the branch there, and his son Samuel was heading the New York business.
Both Joseph Ullman & Co. and J. & A. Boskowitz were making fortunes in buffalo hides. Between 1876 and 1884 the latter company paid $923,070 for buffalo skins ($24 million in today's dollars); and in 1882 alone Joseph Ullman & Co. spent $216,250. The pelts of the magnificent animals were being made, mostly, into the heavy buffalo robes that kept passengers in carriages and coaches warm.
The demand caused unchecked massacre of the buffalo population, so that by 1885 the business had dwindled to next to nothing because the animal had been driven to near extinction. In 1887 Joseph Ullman & Co. reported its buffalo hide figures for the past seven years.
In 1881 the firm purchased 14,000 hides and 12,000 robes; the following year that number rose to between 35,000 and 40,000 hides, although the number of robes dropped to 10,000. The numbers quickly dropped as, according to Joseph Ullman himself, "thousands upon thousands of buffaloes were killed for the sake of the hide alone, while the carcasses were left to rot on the open plain."
Buffalo hunters were paid $3 each for a cow's hide, $2.50 for a bull's, $1.50 for a yearling and 75 cents for a calf's hide. In 1885 there were essentially no buffalo left to slaughter. Joseph Ullman reported "In 1885 the collection of hides amounted to little or nothing."
The 1887 Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution noted that J. & A. Boskowitz and Joseph Ullman & Co. were the two largest dealers in buffalo hides in the U.S. Both firms had cooperated in the Institution's study on the near extinction of the animals.
By now, according to the 1886 History of Chicago, Joseph Ullman & Co. was "probably the largest fur house in America, handling over three million dollars' worth of furs annually." Although J. & A. Boskowitz was soon gone, Ullman & Co. would remain at 165-167 Mercer Street at least until 1919.
|An advertisement showed Ullman & Co.'s several branch locations as well as its array of skins. Fur Trade Review, February 1900 (copyright expired)|
In February 1895 P. Schulang leased a loft in the building. Unlike Boskowitz or Ullman, the firm was a "manufacturing furrier." Rather than sell pelts and hides, it fashioned them into coats, jackets and other apparel.
Early in 1905 the fur district was plagued by bold burglars who struck in mid-day. Among the nearly two dozen firms victimized was Joseph Ullman & Co. On June 13 the New-York Tribune explained "The method which has been used with so much success, is for two men to enter a store at noon, when most of the employes are at luncheon. One talks to the clerk, while the other, who carries a large satchel, fills it with valuable skins."
The scheme was finally foiled when, after making off with $12,000 in furs within six months, the crooks attempted to rob the wholesale fur operation of Edgar Lehman. They were caught in the act when one "was too greedy and stuffed the bag so full of furs that he was unable to close it." The men fled, chased by the employees. The Tribune reported "one of the miscreants was caught. The other escaped, and the police are trying to find him."
Although authorities were certain the two were responsible for all the thefts, Joseph Ullman & Co. and the other firms were concerned. "The victims are afraid that it will be impossible to convict the present prisoner on more than one charge, but are hoping for the capture of the confederate."
By now apparel firms other than furriers were moving into the building. One was the Diamond Waist Company, manufacturers of "waists," the most popular item of feminine apparel at the time. It was owned and operated by the Triangle Waist Company, the headquarters of which were in the Asch Building near Washington Square.
A fire broke out in the Diamond Waist Company's loft on April 12, 1907. It was quickly extinguished, but, in retrospect, was a disturbing foreshadowing of the tragic Triangle Shirt Waist fire five years later.
The same year of the Diamond Waist fire, another tenant, H. Damsky, maker of hosiery, purchased the building. The manufacturer was already operating its store from the ground floor and basement. In 1911 the firm pleaded guilty to two counts of violating the child labor laws and was fined $40.
Following World War I the garment and furrier districts moved uptown. On May 21, 1925 The New York Times reported that the Witkin Garage Realty Corporation had purchased the Mercer Street building, and had commissioned architect Murray Klein "for the purpose of making extensive alterations for its conversion into an entirely fireproof garage."
The Mercer-Houston Garage would be the haunt of crime and gangsters in the Depression and Prohibition years. On July 18, 1935 police officer Henry J. Mensing arrested two men with a truckload of merchandise which they stole from the garage.
But most shocking was the bootleg ring that was busted here in 1939. Gangster Joseph "Black Lefty" Lapadura ran the liquor syndicate from here. The FBI set up surveillance of the building from across the street. The garage was raided on October 16 and Lapadura and nine other men were arrested. United States Attorney John T. Cahill called it the "largest bootleg ring since prohibition" and suggested that more than 100 more arrested might be made. The ring operated half a dozen stills in New York and New Jersey and distributed 2,000 gallons of grain alcohol daily.
|The FBI released a surveillance photo from the opposite side of Mercer Street in 1939. photo via The SoHo Memory Project|
The New York Times reported "The garage raided yesterday was an old-fashioned, five-story building, close to East Houston Street. On the ground and upper floors private automobiles and trucks were stored, but the basement was given over entirely to the activities of the ring."
The Feds seized two trucks and several automobiles which had been used for the delivery of alcohol. "The trucks were large, ordinary-looking vehicles, ostensibly used by a grocery house," said The Times. "The burlap sacks and paper cartons they contained, however, actually were camouflage for the five-gallon tins used invariably in the illicit alcohol trade."
Business in the Mercer Street garage was less dramatic throughout the rest of the century and into the 21st as the Soho neighborhood was reinvented as a center of art and boutiques. In September 2016 the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved changes which would convert the garage into offices with retail space at ground level. A penthouse level, set back 10 feet from the cornice, will be invisible from the street. Somewhat sadly, the nostalgic neon blade sign GARAGE will be removed in the renovations.
photographs by the author
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
|The sidewalk cascades dramatically down to West 158th Street.|
Levy, an attorney, and Berler, a principal in the apparel manufacturing firm of Baren, Lehman & Berler, were convinced there was a market for two-family homes in the area. At the point where Riverside Drive and West 158th Street came together was a sharp triangular plot of land. The two men created Bertley Holding Corporation (a not-so-subtle composite of their names) and in June 1920 purchased the wedge of real estate.
They commissioned architects Moore & Landsiedel to design an upscale home intended to be the model for a series of residences that never came to pass. Fred W. Moore and Frank L. Landsiedel produced two handsome homes which successfully pretended to be a single Mediterranean villa. Constructed at a cost of $70,000 (just under $1 million today) they boasted "completed electrical equipment" and garages below the homes, accessed on West 158th Street.
The houses each contained 11 rooms, including the large solaria at either end. The Mediterranean Revival style structure, with its red brick and deep green tiled roof, was splashed with occasional Arts & Crafts touches, like the stained glass transoms in the shallow, projecting bay at the rear of No. 811.
|Even in its neglected condition, the rear bay is charming.|
Perhaps the reason that Bertley Holding Corporation's grand plans for similar homes never went forward was a break-up in the partnership. The New York Times commented on the newly-completed houses in February 1922. Charles S. Levy's name was not mentioned. Instead, the article gave the entire credit to Nathan Berler; going so far as to say "It proved so successful that Mr. Berler now occupies the south half of the house himself and found no difficulty in selling the north half."
In fact, Berler had not sold No. 811. His next door neighbor was his former partner, Charles S. Levy and his family.
Nathan and Sadie Berler were married on November 2, 1913 and moved into No. 809 with their three year old daughter, Lucille Marsha. On the evening of New Year's Day, 1922 they hosted what The American Hebrew deemed "the first house warming in their newly completed residence."
Their family increased by one on August 29 that year when Marten Arnold was born. At least one servant lived with the Berlers.
Two years after moving into No. 809 Nathan Berler (now head of the Enesbe Realty Corporation) started construction of the abutting apartment building at No. 807. He instructed the architect, George F. Pelham, to design it to be architecturally harmonious with the two houses.
In 1930 the Berler family moved into No. 807, leasing No. 809 to Louis Robison. In reporting on the deal, The New York Times mentioned "The house, which was built only seven years ago, contains at $25,000 organ and a garage. It receives heat and hot water from 807 Riverside Drive, the adjoining apartment house, also owned by Mr. Berler."
Robison was a principal in the cotton and rayon yarn trading company L. Robison Co., with partner Lawrence Lindner. He served as treasurer of the Federation of American Zionists. Robison and his wife were no doubt thrilled when daughter Hannah won a State scholarship to Cornell University in 1931. The result of a competitive examination, the scholarship reduced tuition to $100 per year.
In the meantime the Levy family was still in No. 811. The family had three sons, Walter, Howard and Lawrence. As Lawrence and Howard went on to Harvard, Walter was still studying at the Horace Mann School in 1927. He was among the group of 100 boys to traveled to Denmark that year, a trip arranged by the Rotary Club and the American Club of Copenhagen.
But the Levy family would also endure tragedy in 1927. On February 11 Charles was driving along East 152nd Street at the same time that 4-year old Jeremiah Mulcahy was playing in front of his home. The automobile struck the boy, who died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The following day The Times reported "Levy was also directed to appear at the Bronx Homicide Court this morning."
The Levy family remained in No. 811 at least through 1937. In 1942 the house was sold to Dr. Luigi Capobianco. It was assessed at the time at $22,000. Capobianco moved his family into the house, but immediately rented rooms as well.
Although the Capobianco family was still in the house as late as 1952, it was converted to apartments, one per floor, around mid-century.
No. 809, meanwhile, had seen a series of tenants. Following the Robison family came Louis Berkowitz in 1934, Aurelia Smart in 1939, and when her five-year lease expired the house was purchased by Adele R. Harlowe. Adele leased rooms, apparently, and in 1947 one of her tenants was biologist Jewel Plummer Cobb. Recognized today as an African American pioneer in medicine, her research on cancer cells led to major advances in chemotherapy.
|Original details survive throughout No. 809. photo via Corcoran Group|
When No. 809 was listed in 2010, it's 1921 interiors were amazingly intact. The new owners initiated a restoration that included replacement windows, most of which were faithful copies of the originals. The sympathetic facelift accentuated the fact--for perhaps the first time in nearly a century--that the villa is actually two homes.
|The laudable restoration stopped short of reproducing the diamond-paned foyer windows or its quarter-round transom.|
photographs by the author
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
As the 19th century drew to a close and the city’s poor crowded into cramped tenements, the problem of bathing was increasingly serious. In the Lower East Side in 1896 there was one bathtub for every 79 families.
Half a century earlier the public had demanded action by the city. By the time of the Civil War middle- and upper-class families in New York had begun bathing regularly, as the Europeans did. But the lower classes had no means to bathe. By 1858 the Committee for Free Public Baths had been formed, but nothing would be done about the situation for decades.
Even after the New York Senate passed a law on April 21, 1895 requiring that all first and second class cities create free public bathing facilities, Manhattan's citizens would continue using the "floating baths" at the river banks. The city's first "interior bath" did not open until 1901; governmental red tape miring the process.
|New Yorkers at a typical floating bath. Domestic Engineer, October 19, 1912 (copyright expired)|
Following the opening of the Rivington Street baths on the Lower East Side that year, the project gained momentum. On November 24, 1903 plans were filed for two new interior baths at Nos. 538 and 430 East 11th Street, and Nos. 232 and 234 West 60th Street. Both would cost the city $115,000 to build--more than $3 million in 2017 dollars.
While the Upper West Side above the 60s was still a relatively new district with, mostly, fine homes and modern amenities; the neighborhood chosen for the baths was decidedly gritty. Known as San Juan Hill (the origin of the nickname is unclear), it was a dangerous and crime-ridden area mostly populated by poverty-stricken blacks.
Architects Werner & Windolph designed the structure, which reminded the visitor of the ancient Roman history of public baths. Essentially Beaux Arts, the facade was splashed with ancient Roman elements. Classical entrances--one for men and the other for women--were capped by triangular pediments. The large arched openings exhibited Roman-style cross-hatching, and ancient boats overflowing with gruesome sea beasts carved from limestone protruded at the top of the rusticated brick piers.
|Men entered on the left, women on the right. Domestic Engineer, October 19, 1912 (copyright expired)|
Perhaps surprisingly, given the seamy neighborhood, extra expense went into the elaborate brickwork--Flemish bond on the first floor, herringbone panels below the openings, and intricate diapering that resulted in a diamond pattern effect.
When the building was later extended through the block to West 59th Street, Werner & Windolf gave that elevation a starkly-different neo-Tudor facade that smacked of a firehouse.
The West 60th Street Interior Baths was remarkably different than its predecessors--it contained a plunge, or what today would be called a swimming pool. Earlier, bathtubs and plunges had been prohibited for health purposes.
The pool here measured 66 feet by 25 feet with a sloping bottom that ran from three feet deep to seven. Even more remarkable, according to Domestic Engineering, it was heated to a temperature of between 70 and 75 degrees. It was open to men and women on alternating nights.
|Although the atmosphere of the "plunge" was rather utilitarian, it was nonetheless an innovation. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The Christian Advocate, in remarking on the trend of public baths on July 25, 1912 reported "This bath is noted for its great swimming pool, the tank of which holds 85,000 gallons of water, every drop of which is filtered, and no bather is permitted to enter the plunge without first taking a precautionary shower. Thus there is small danger of contamination, and it is as clean as any private bath tub." The water was completely changed three times a day.
The West 60th Street Interior Baths became, because of the pool, not merely a place for bathing, but for fun and athletics. "The pool is largely patronized by the boys from neighboring schools," said The Christian Advocate, "who enter into all manner of water contests, and perform some truly remarkable 'stunts,' as, seated upon imaginary horses, which are in reality barrels having wooden heads attached, and gaily decked out in colored calico trappings, they dash back and forth in the water, using long poles to steady themselves, evading attacks and thrust, and boy who remains longest upon his mount of course winning the contest."
Patrons entered directly into waiting rooms where they sat on long benches awaiting their turn. Also on the first floor were "bath cabinets," or showers. Tiny dressing rooms contained hooks for clothing and a small marble seat. Originally, soap and towels were provided "at a minimal charge;" but when housewives made a habit of pinning the towels inside their skirts and spiriting them home, the practice was halted.
The Sun reported on the success of the interior baths project on July 15, 1906. Its description of the West 60th Street facility can only be described today as shockingly racist. "Best of all the present interior bathhouses is that at West Sixtieth street between Amsterdam and Eleventh avenues. It is the newest of the half dozen in operation, and when it was opened the public bath officials thought it would prove a resort for the colored population that congregates thereabouts.
"Instead of that, it is rare to see one person of color there. The bath is patronized principally by Hebrews and Italians, with the former in the lead. Bath records show the Hebrew to be the best patron of the New York public baths, with the Italian a fairly good second."
Operating the baths was not inexpensive. The City paid a total of $21,825 in salaries and wages for the 60th Street staff in 1910--more than half a million dollars in 2017. But the outlay paid for more than public cleanliness and boys having a good time. For years the pool would be the venue for public school swimming meets and for money-producing exhibitions.
One of those exhibitions caused extreme disappointment. On April 29, 1907 Annette Kellermann, the world championship Australian swimmer, was to appear here. But she was a no-show.
The New York Times reported "A large number of spectators, among whom were many women, had assembled and they waited patiently until nearly 11 o'clock, when the announcement that Miss Kellerman had apparently changed her plans ended their weary waiting around the tank."
To mollify the crowd, an impromptu 60-yard swimming race had been put on, and Paul Roetger, former fancy diving champion of Germany showed off his talents. In an unexpected breach of Edwardian deportment, the restless crowd "amused itself by jeering the swimmers."
Annette Kellermann made up for the offense by appearing a month later. Making a point that she "will give exhibitions in only four or five American cities," she appeared on May 4. The Times announced the day before that a "special programme has been arranged for the evening."
|Annette Kellerman attempted to swim the English Channel in 1905, two years before appearing here. from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales.|
In 1912 at least 1,400 bathers, "mostly young boys," according to The Sun, went to the pool daily. The open dressing rooms with the exposed hooks for clothing proved easy pickings for thieves. On July 16 the newspaper noted that thefts "have become so common that the attendants make no attempt to keep count of them."
A. B. Carman, a teacher in the Y.M.C.A. on West 125th Street returned to his compartment to find that not only had his $95 been taken, so had his trousers. The Sun complained "If there is no money they take a garment or a pair of shoes."
The City was aware of the problem and that same month the Record and Guide announced that bids were being taken for "construction and erection of new doors to all shower rooms, tub rooms and dressing compartments."
The baths continued to host swimming contests for years. On January 25, 1920, for instance, The Sun reported "The 100 yard metropolitan swimming championship for women, scheduled to be held in the Interior Bath at Sixtieth street" would launch the 1920 season "in water sports for mermaids."
Another champion to visit was Hungarian-born American swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. In announcing the Municipal Athletic Activities' swimming meet scheduled for March 31, 1922, The New York Herald promised "One of the features of the occasion will be the appearance of John Weissmuller, the season's swimming marvel and world's title holder."
|Despite his astonishing career as a championship swimmer, Weissmuller would be remembered as Tarzan. from the collection of the Library of Congress.|
Although he was one of the world's fastest swimmers in the 1920s, earning five Olympic gold medals; he would be better remembered for his screen role as Tarzan, starting in 1932.
Another Olympic champion who had no doubt used the pool was Gertrude Ederle. Born nearby, her father ran a butcher shop on Amsterdam Avenue, according to her biography America's Girl. Following her successful swim across the English Channel in 1926 (a feat which eluded Annette Kellermann 11 years earlier), the girl from a humble Upper West Side home was given a ticker tape parade on Broadway.
|Gertrude Ederle, the "Queen of the Waves," received a parade down the Canyon of Heroes on August 27, 1926. from the collection of the Library of Congress|
By the time of the Great Depression the West 60th Street Interior Bath had suffered from constant use. The Works Progress Administration closed the building in June 1938 for renovations. The project not only provided necessary updating and repair, but gave jobs to unemployed workers. It was most likely at this time that the Men's entrance was removed; its scar seamlessly hidden.
The renovated pool was used for a combined effort by the Department of Parks, the United Merchant Seamen's Service, and the Seamen's Church Institute in 1943. The New York Times reported on February 20, "A learn-to-swim campaign for merchant seamen will be started tomorrow," and noted "The three agencies urged every seaman to learn this live-saving art, and pointed out there would be no charge for admission...or for instruction."
In 2013 the West 60th Street bath building opened after extensive renovations as the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center, including an addition to the east designed by Belmont Freeman. The last relic of early 20th century architecture on the block, the original facade survives handsomely intact.
photographs by the author
Monday, January 16, 2017
|Architecture Magazine, 1901 (copyright expired)|
Woolworth left home at the age of 21, venturing to Watertown, New York, where he convinced the owner of the dry goods store Augsbury & Moore to allow him to work free for three months. After that he received $3.50 a week--the exact amount he was paying for his room at a boarding house. By 1878 the 26-year old was earning $10 a week.
It was that year that the store where he was working installed a revolutionary marketing concept: a five-cent counter. Woolworth took the idea farther. A year later he opened his first store in Utica, New York with $350 worth of goods purchased on a note endorsed by his father. The store failed, but Woolworth was undaunted.
By the time of the interview there were several hundred Woolworth stores--all selling items prices at five or ten cents--and F. W. Woolworth was a wealthy man. In 1886 he had relocated his headquarters to New York City and in 1890 moved his family into a brownstone house at No. 209 Jefferson Avenue in Brooklyn.
Woolworth had married Jennie Creighton on June 11, 1876. They had three daughters, Helena, Jessie and Edna. It may have been the girls' rapidly approaching the ages when they would be introduced to society--and potential husbands--that prompted the Woolworths' move to Manhattan.
Whether that was the impetus or not, in December 1898 Woolworth paid Louis Stern $175,000 for the north corner of Fifth Avenue and 80th Street, a plot 27 feet wide on the avenue, stretching 110 feet down 80th Street. The price of the site alone would amount to more than $5 million today.
Woolworth commissioned architect Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert (known professionally as C. P. H. Gilbert) to design his opulent new home. The millionaire may have been inspired by the mansion of Isaac D. Fletcher one block to the south, designed by Gilbert and completed that same year. The two French Gothic chateaux would bear striking similarities.
In June 1899 construction was well underway and a comment in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide that month gave a hint of the luxury the family would enjoy. The Ellithorpe Safety Air-Cushion Co., reported the article, would be installing its air cushions at the bottom of the elevator shafts in the mansion.
Construction on the five-story residence took two years. The family made the move from Brooklyn to Fifth Avenue in 1901. Opening onto 80th Street, their new home was adorned with stone balconies (the heavy brackets of which at the fourth floor took the shape of gruesome winged gargoyles), delicate carvings around and above the openings, and curved bays. The top floor detonated with elaborate dormers, gables, iron cresting and chimneys. Spiky finials rose nearly the full story's height, ornate urns perched upon pedestals and even the chimneys wore spiny Gothic-style crowns.
The often-acerbic architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler was pleased with the finished product. Included in his praise he said "On the long front, too, the wall is of a grateful restfulness and solidity, while the design and distribution of the dormers and chimneys animate the sky line and prevent the quietness from becoming monotonous."
|photo by Wurts Bros. Architecture magazine, 1901 (copyright expired)|
Inside. the marble clad ground floor was little-used by the family. Other than the Billiard Room (which looked onto Central Park) and the Smoking Room, it was given over to more utilitarian purposes--the kitchen, pantries and Servants' Sitting Room, for instance. Also on this level was the "Serving Room," connected to the Butler's Pantry and Dining Room above by a back staircase.
Also on the second floor were the conservatory, or "Palm Garden," the Drawing Room, and the large Music Room where Frank Woolworth would play the Aeolian organ himself.
|The Music Room was decidedly French in style. Woolworth was unusual among millionaires in that he played the organ himself. photo by Wurts Bros. Architecture magazine 1901 (copyright expired)|
The third floor housed the master bedroom, a guest bedroom, the library and the "Den." The girls' bedrooms were located one floor above; and the servants' quarters in the top level.
Just three years after the family moved in, Helena was married to former Assistant District Attorney Charles E. F. McCann. It was most likely the groom's education at St. Francis Xavier College that resulted in the wedding being held not in a fashionable Fifth Avenue church; but in St. Francis Xavier's Church on West 16th Street. Nevertheless, according to The Tammany Times on April 23, 1904, "more than a thousand guests were present" in the church.
Helena's sisters were among the wedding party, Edna serving as maid of honor and Jessie as a bridesmaid. Afterwards more than 500 guests filed into the Fifth Avenue mansion for the reception.
Like other forward-thinking millionaires at the time, Frank W. Woolworth was upgrading from horse-drawn carriages to motorcars. And also like many of them, the transition caused him problems.
In October 1904 chauffeur John Ballard was driving the two Woolworth daughters along Riverside Drive when a bicycle policeman stopped him for speeding. The speed limit was eight miles per hour; Officer McLoughlin estimated Ballard's speed at 20 mph.
When the chauffeur appeared before the judge on October 18, he did not hold back his contempt of the law; asserting that Jennie Woolworth's car was too powerful to maintain the speed limit.
"Every driver of a big automobile in the city violates the law every time he uses his machine," he complained. "He can't help it, for the machines are not built to run as slowly as eight miles an hour; at least mine isn't."
The judge was not moved and held Ballard for trial.
A year and a half later Ballard would be stopped again, this time driving Woolworth himself. The chauffeur was arrested and locked up. When he appeared before Magistrate Crane on March 12, 1906, Woolworth was in the courtroom.
When the judge told the policeman that "he should have arrested the owner, instead of the chauffeur," Woolworth chimed in, saying he did not think the automobile was going as fast as the officer contended.
"Of course you don't," snapped Crane, "You automobilists never do know how fast you are going. You go as fast as you please, and toot your horn, and if any one escapes you by the skin of his teeth you give him the laugh. Nothing would please you automobilists so much as a machine that would go so fast that you could go by a policeman or any one else and not be seen by them."
No doubt unaccustomed to being publicly berated, the dime store mogul paid Ballard's $300 bail and left.
The Woolworth mansion would be the scene of another wedding reception on April 24, 1907. Edna was married to Franklyn Laws Hutton in the Church of the Heavenly Rest that afternoon. The wealthy groom was a partner in the banking firm of E. F. Hutton & Co.
Now 21-year old Jessie was the last daughter in the house. The following March, with her parents out of town, she suffered a fright. She was awakened from a sound sleep early on the morning of Saturday, March 21, 1907. The Sun reported "At 1:45 o'clock, Miss Woolworth awoke and heard Margaret Burns, the cook, yelling for the police, the firemen, and the saints in her room below Miss Woolworth's one flight down. The cook, it seemed, had been awakened by a noise and had turned on the light to find a man's two legs advancing through her window."
When Margaret screamed, the would-be burglar retreated. The hysterical cook rushed to the window to see "a man was running away through the back area trailing a rope with a hook on the end."
The more composed Jessie telephoned police who investigated the scene, finding a dirty glove the crook had left on Margaret's window sill. The thief, it turned out, had nerves of steel. Even as the detectives were searching the Woolworth house, a report came in that he had been scared off from No. 1045 Fifth Avenue. Before daybreak he had broken into four other nearby mansions.
On February 1, 1912 Jessie's wedding to James Paul Donahue took place in the Woolworth residence. The New York Times noted that after the reception, "Mr. and Mrs. Donahue left on a two months' bridal trip, which will extend through Canada to California. Upon their return they will reside in this city."
Not only would they reside in the city, they would be neighbors of Jessie's parents and sisters. In 1911 F. W. Woolworth embarked on an ambitious and generous building project for his three daughters. C. P. H. Gilbert was hired once again to design three lavish homes for the women and their husbands at Nos. 2 through 6 East 80th Street. The last would be completed in 1915.
The following year Gilbert designed Woolworth's palatial summer estate, Winfield Hall, in Glen Cove, Long Island.
|Frank Winfield Woolworth -- photo via Associated Press|
The lavish lifestyle within the Manhattan and Long Island homes was evidenced in 1916 when 21-year old Joseph Dowden, the "second butler," was arrested for attempted grand larceny of the Fifth Avenue mansion. Despite his young age, Dowden came to the Woolworths with impressive credentials. He had worked for, among others, Mrs. Ogden Goelet, William K Vanderbilt, and William Rockefeller.
Nevertheless, other servants reported that Dowden was seen trying to open the safes, one of which contained Jennie Woolworth's gold table service. It had been purchased in France for $30,000. The silverware in the same safe was valued at $10,000. (The total value would equal about $891,000 today.)
Joseph Dowden was remarkably well dressed when he was arrested on Sunday, November 12. The New York Times reported that he "wore a silk shirt, silk tie, and a brown velour hat." Astonishingly, all the items he had on were identified as belonging to Woolworth.
Massive wealth could not prevent tragedy and heartache. On May 2, 1917 Edna, only 33 years old, died when an ear infection lead to a fatal heart attack. And Woolworth's wife, Jennie, was suffering early dementia.
The following year, on June 7, Frank Woolworth petitioned the Supreme Court to declare Jennie incompetent. The petition said that it was "to his very great regret and sadness" that the proceedings were necessary. Although Jennie was just 65-years old, her physician of 12 years, Dr. George W. Jarman, said she had been incompetent for the past two years. She was not insane, he explained, "but has lost her mentality, due to a pre-senile condition."
The New-York Tribune reported "She has been unable to recognize [Woolworth] or her daughters. Her condition, according to the physician, is such as is common in people ninety years old. There is no hope for her recovery."
Towards the end of 1918 Frank Woolworth's health began to fail. When he had not improved by Friday, April 4, 1919, his doctors decided to move him to Winfield Hall where the fresh spring air might help. Jennie, unable to understand what was going on, was kept at home at No. 990 Fifth Avenue.
The following week The Potter & Glass Salesman reported "The famous merchant failed to respond to medical treatment and members of his family were called." On Monday night he slipped into unconsciousness and died at 1:50 Tuesday morning, April 8, five days before his 67th birthday. The boy who had spent six months of the year shoeless died the head of a $65 million corporation and the owner of the tallest building in the world, the Woolworth Building (which he personally paid for).
Of his more than $27 million estate Jennie inherited more than $6 million in Woolworth stocks, the Fifth Avenue mansion and Winfield Hall, along with other items. Because of her mental condition, her holdings were placed into trust for her care, managed by Woolworth Company president Hubert T. Parsons.
On January 15, 1920 an exhibition prior to the sale of the mansion's furnishings and artwork was held at the Silo Galleries. The New York Times mentioned "The house was a big one, 990 Fifth Avenue, corner of Eightieth Street, and the contents are notable chiefly, in this age of devotion to antiques, because they are modern." Among the few items which did not fall into that category was the 17th century Beauvais tapestry, "The Fruit of the Fields."
Banker Jules S. Bache had paid a $20,000 deposit against the $460,000 selling price of the Woolworth mansion on January 9, 1920. Two months later he took Hubert T. Parsons to court in an attempt to get his binder back. His suit said that the house encroached past the property lines both on Fifth Avenue and 80th Street, making the title "unmarketable."
Two years later the issue had not been resolve and Parsons counter-sued, "seeking to compel the banker to carry out a contract for the purchase," as explained by the Record & Guide on March 4, 1922. The Supreme Court dismissed the action.
The mansion remained unsold when Jennie Creighton Woolworth died in Winfield Hall at the age of 71 on May 21, 1924. The following year, on June 9, it was sold a public auction to a two-person syndicate of Elias A. Cohen and Sewart W. Ehrich, who bid $385,000. Interestingly, The Times noted "It was sold subject to the approval of the Supreme Court of the State of New York as to the rights of an infant co-owner, Barbara Hutton, a granddaughter of the late F. W. Woolworth."
|The same month that the mansion was sold, this photograph was taken. While the block was still lined with mansions, that was all about to change. photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.|
The newspaper added "The new owners plan to demolish the present building and to improve the plot with a fifteen-story high-class apartment house with one eight-room suite on each floor." The auctioneer noted that the purchase by the developers "is an added indication that the day when Fifth Avenue was a private residential district is forever gone. The lack of individual bidders clearly demonstrates this."
|photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
On the site of the Woolworth mansion rose the apartment building named 990 Fifth Avenue; co-designed by Rosario Candela and Warren & Wetmore. It survives today with still merely six apartments in the building.
Saturday, January 14, 2017
It is doubtful that Schuyler and his wife, the former Lucinda Wood, ever lived in the house; but built it as an investment. Born into one of the oldest and wealthiest New York families (Philip Pieterse Schuyler had arrived by 1650), Robert's relatives were the Livingstons, DeLanceys, Van Cortlandts and Van Rensselaers.
Nevertheless, the residence was intended for a financially-comfortable family. The entrance, above a shallow porch, was most likely flanked by fluted columns; and above the paneled door would have been a leaded transom, possibly in the form of a fanlight. The stone lintels sat on delightful little paneled blocks and two neat dormers with triangular pediments pierced the peaked roof. The 25-foot wide residence boasted 14 rooms--presumably four each on the main floors and two in the attic.
|The architect added tiny paneled blocks below the lintels--a handsome touch.|
By the 1850s the tenor of the neighborhood was drastically changing. Greene Street, one block to the east, had gained the reputation of Manhattan's most notorious red light district. Change would come to No. 149 Mercer Street when its owner died in 1855.
The former upscale tone of house and the neighborhood was evidenced when auctioneer William Witters advertised the sale of the residence and its contents, to be held at 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 19 that year. He described "all the genteel household furniture, &c., in the above house--splendid carved rosewood parlor suits, mirrors, centre and side tables, window curtains, elegant carpets &c.; together with the furniture of fourteen rooms, all in good order."
|The original joined chimneys survive. photo via Preservinc.com|
According to historian and preservationist Angela Serratore in her 2013 thesis "A Preservationist's Guide to the Harems, Seraglios, and Houses of Love of Manhattan: The 19th Century New York City Brothel in Two Neighborhoods," No. 149 Mercer Street became the brothel run by "Mrs. Van Ness."
Apparently Mrs. Van Ness operated in the house at least until 1859. On June 27, 1862 it was offered "To let, at a low rent, with immediate possession." The advertisement in The New York Herald boasted a "large yard, &c.; two entrances; one room convenient for a bar."
Madame Bell picked up where Mrs. Van Ness had left off. Her name was brought up in court on February 17, 1864 when Sara R. Melville sued her husband, Henry, for divorce.
The couple has been married in February 1858; but Henry soon drifted. The New York Times reported that Sara alleged he "has been in the habit of visiting a house of ill-fame at No. 149 Mercer-street, in this City, where he had committed various acts of adultery with one Mme. Bell and others."
Because Henry denied the charges, the scandalous details were aired in open court. Readers of The Times could only speculate, however. The newspaper said "the evidence is unfit for publication."
The Melville trial was not the first time the brothel had made the news. A year earlier, on October 24, 1863 The New York Herald reported that a client had been robbed. The newspaper used a nearly-comical euphemism to avoid saying outright that the victim was visiting a prostitute.
"James McClusky complained, before Justice Kelly, that while taking a peep at the elephant, in No. 149 Mercer street, on Thursday evening, he was relieved of his gold watch and chain, valued at $85. He had grave suspicions as to the honesty of one of the lady boarders named Margaret J. Murphy."
Margaret had most likely felt secure in her crime. Few victims reported such thefts for fear of the public scandal that would follow. But she had lifted a rather pricey watch, the value of which would be around $1,675 today. The Sun reported "The magistrate thought Margaret's movements smacked of dishonesty, and committed her for trial in default of $500 bail."
Prostitutes and scandals seem to have left No. 149 Mercer Street by 1871 when it was being operated as a boarding house. On July 10 that year the proprietor advertised for "A good cook, middle aged woman preferred, for a private boarding house; will get a good home and liberal salary."
The venture was apparently short-lived. On December 13 that year and auction was held, selling "the entire elegant, costly Furniture of a three story house, consisting of Velvet and Brusels Carpets, Parlor Suits, Bedsteads, Bedding, Hair Mattresses, Mirrors, &c."
It was the end of the line for No. 149 Mercer Street as a residential property. C. Weisenstein was selling "saloon fixtures" here by 1876. And in 1880 three businesses filled the former house.
Albert and Gustave Herzig operated their furrier business here. Possibly father and son, they both lived at No. 309 East 56th Street. The artificial flower making shop of Aline Lauretzi was on the second floor; and the clothing firm of Kolasky & Pottitzer occupied the main floor. Abram and August Pottitzer, and their partner Fred Kolasky, sold hats, pants and "pantaloons."
It was most likely Kolasky & Pottizer who placed an advertisement that year for "experienced hands wanted on bead work; good pay." Aline Lauretzi was hiring at the same time. On September 7, 1880 an ad read "Artificial Flowers--Wanted, a young man who understands cutting and starching." Five months later an advertisement in The Sun sought "Good hands on roses, buds, blossom; work given out; good wages." The mention of "work given out" referred to the practice of workers--normally women--who did piece work in their homes.
A change in tenants came by 1885 when H. Schoenfeld and S. Schoenfeld sold "millinery fixtures" here; and M. Feigel & Bro. operated from the basement and lower floors. Originally M. Feigel & Bro. dealt in paints and oils used for building purposes--coloring mortar, for example.
|Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, June 27, 1885 (copyright expired)|
Before long the firm branched out, importing and manufacturing "colors, dye-stuffs, varnishes, bleaching agents" and other chemicals necessary in the production of hats. The Millinery Trade Review mentioned in January 1889 "They have all the dyes, chemicals, colors, anilines, alcohols, acids, salts varnishes, etc., etc., needed and used by manufacturers of straw goods, feathers, and flowers.
|The chemicals and products used were highly flammable and dangerous. Millinery Trade Review, January 1889 (copyright expired)|
The combustible stock caught fire in September 1887, and again two months later. This time it caused a near panic along Mercer Street. On November 5 The New York Times reported "A fire broke out at 6 o'clock last evening in the cellar of the building 149 Mercer-street, occupied by Feigel & Brother, dealers in oils, paints, and varnishes. It was caused by the ignition of benzine,, and a cloud of dense smoke rushed out into the street."
Next door was the feather factory of J. Weill & Co., where 50 young women were working; and the furrier shop of Lyon Brothers where another 100 were at work. "When the girls heard of the fire and saw the smoke they imagined that the buildings where they are employed were on fire and they became panic-stricken and rushed for the stairs." Supervisors reassured the women that there was no danger and sent them back to their places.
A bizarre incident involving the theft of six barrels of oil from M. Feigel & Bro. occurred in December 1889. By an amazing fluke, a Feigel employee was passing by the home of Union Hill, New Jersey Councilman Daniel Sturm and noticed the politician with two of the barrels. He notified police and Sturm was arrested.
The councilman's alibi was suspicious. The Times wrote "Mr. Sturm says that he received the barrels innocently. His wife gave a stranger permission to leave the oil under his shed." According to him, she he found out about it, he "immediately started to roll the barrels into the street." That was when he was spotted.
No. 149 was owned at the time by Louise E. Monnot, who had inherited it from George Ponsot. Like George, who lived in Paris, Louise was an absentee landlord, residing in London. Her attorneys, the Coudert Brothers, managed the property.
M. Feigel & Bro. was gone from Mercer Street by the turn of the century. By now No. 149 was a stark anachronism, surrounded by tall loft buildings. By 1913 the Forest Box and Lumber Co. had moved into the first floor; and in 1915 the Dorothy Waist Company, run by Max Goldberg, was on an upper story.
Goldberg's operation would supply the break into a scandalous arson and theft scheme following a fire on June 25, 1915. When Lieutenant Gibney from the nearby Fire Truck Company 20 responded with his men, he found that the doors to Dorothy Waist Company had already been broken into.
After the blaze was extinguished, Goldberg realized that $800 worth of custom silk and $400 worth of cutting machinery were missing. The pattern of the silk was unique; so when it was found in the tailor shop of Simon Lidz on Orchard Street, it was easily identified. According to The Evening World, Lidz "asserts he had for years bought loot from firemen of Truck No. 20 and from those of another company."
Two firefighters, John P. S. Ferrick and William Maloney, were indicted on charges of burglary and grand larceny. The pair would break into businesses, steal goods, then set the buildings on fire to hide the crimes.
In 1918 the Couderts engaged architect Ellwood Williams to do $1,800 in renovations. It is possibly at this time that a large opening was broken into the first floor wall for the box and lumber company.
Two years later the estate of Louise E. Monnot sold the building to its tenant of five years, the Forest Box and Lumber Company. The asking price, $22,500, would be equal to about $266,000 today. The firm changed its name to the Mercer Box and Lumber Company by 1922. It would remain in the building, producing pine boxes like those used for fruit, into the 1960s.
The change in Soho from a gritty industrial neighborhood to one of art galleries, artists' lofts and performance venues began in the last quarter of the 20th century. In 1978 No. 149 Mercer Street was converted to "joint living-work quarters for artists;" just one per floor.
By 1986 the Ubu Reportory Theatre was using the ground floor; and in 1991 the Bullot Gallery was here, sharing space with After the Rain, a trendy gift shop which opened in December 1989. An opening advertisement said it featured "New York's most extensive collection of kaleidoscopes and optical toys."
|Prior to the restoration the dormers were in sorry repair and the fascia board below the roofline had fallen away. photo via Preservinc.com|
In 2003 a facade restoration was completed by preservation architects Preserv. The brickwork and dormers were repaired, new period-appropriate wooden windows were installed, and a synthetic slate roof installed.
After nearly 200 years the miraculous survivor is a reminder of a time when this stretch of Mercer Street was lined with merchant-class homes; and of a less respectable period when ladies of the night snatched valuables from their unwitting clients.
photographs by the author