Monday, September 25, 2017

The Lost Cohnfeld Building - Bleecker and Greene Streets


By the time this photo was taken the mansard had lost its architecturally important ironwork.  from the collection of The Alexander Architectural Archive, the University of Texas as Austin

In the last quarter of the 19th century women's hat styles included artificial flowers, berries and, often, a profusion of feathers.  The fashion for feathers became to intense that whole species of birds became endangered for their plumage.  Taking center stage in the New York feature industry was Isidor Cohnfeld, called by The Sun "the king of the feather trade."

Most of these women's millinery fashions in 1880 included feathers--one, in the center, has an entire stuffed bird. The Queen, The Lady's Newspaper, December 11, 1880 (copyright expired)

Cohnfeld was born in Germany in 1845, but grew up in England.  He arrived in New York around 1865.  The St. Paul Daily Globe said of him 20 year later, "He is essentially a self-made man, and by superior business talents has accumulated a large fortune."  The New York Times attributed his vast wealth to his business "as an importer on an immense scale of feathers and other articles with which women are wont to deck themselves."

Indeed, by the time of the article Cohnfeld was the largest feather dealer in New York and operated branches in London and Paris.  He lived in a lavish mansion at No. 56 West 57th Street and, like several other millionaires, was known for his thoroughbred horses.  His payments of $25,000 for the stallion Maxey Cobb and $15,000 for Helene, gained him "much prominence in horse circles," according to The New York Times in 1887.  The St. Paul Daily Globe described his private stable on the corner of 58th Street and Park Avenue as "palatial" and said it was fitted up "with smoking apartments and rooms for his master of the horse."

On February 16, 1884 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that architect Alfred Zucker had filed plans for a seven-story "brick, iron and stone front warehouse" for Cohnfeld, to cost $225,000--around $5.68 million today.  But what was more surprising than the enormous price was the location, on the southeast corner of Bleecker and Greene Streets.  The neighborhood had, for several years, been a center of brothels, lawless dives and gambling dens.

Zucker's original renderings show a profusion of lacy ironwork, stone urns and other decorations on the uppermost floors.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide (copyright expired)

Looking back in 1898 the Record & Guide's A History of Real Estate, Building and Architecture explained that the new "Mercantile District" (today known as Noho) was kick-started by the Cohnfeld Building and prompted by its architect.

"The creation of the new locality may be said to have commenced in February 1884, when the Cohnfeld Building was erected at the southeast corner of Bleecker and Greene streets.  This was the pioneer structure, for which Mr. Alfred Zucker was responsible not only for the plans, but for the selection of site.  The friends of the owner and many experienced real estate men regarded the placing of such a building in such a position as a foolish and ill-considered step--the reputation of the place was so bad and its advantages for commercial purposes were so far from being appreciated."

The completed building opened onto Greene Street.   The Sun (which claimed the construction costs had risen to $400,000) said "It was [Cohnfeld's] boast that he would have the finest and lightest lofts that there were in this city for his 500 girls to work in, and he spared no cost to get them."  The New York Times described the building as "The finest feather factory in the world," and the St. Paul Daily Globe said "It is a model of architectural beauty inside and outside, and one of the highest in New York, as it towers seven feet higher than the Equitable building on Broadway."

Here young women were employed in sewing, trimming, bleaching and dying feathers.  While The Sun placed the number of  workers at 500, another newspaper said "He employs over 1000 persons at his works in this city."  Given the scale of the structure, the number most likely fell somewhere between those estimates.

Unbeknownst to Cohnfeld, at the time of the triumphant opening of his impressive factory his days of hobnobbing with Vanderbilts and Shepards at the race track were coming to an end.   His millions began drying up; many in financial circles blaming the high cost of the Cohnfeld Building for his money troubles.  The newspapers which had recently praised the structure now universally called it "Cohnfeld's Folly."

A panicked Cohnfeld began selling off property in the spring of 1886.  He sold a loft building one block south of the Cohnfeld Building at the corner of Greene and Houston Streets in May that year for $70,000, for instance.


Then, on November 4, 1887 The Sun ran the headline: Where Is Isidor Cohnfeld?  The article began, "Isidor Cohnfeld, the well-known dealer in ostrich feathers, has had the reputation of being a very rich man.  He was supposed to be the biggest dealer in the country in ostrich plumes.  It is reported that he has left town, and under mysterious circumstances."  The article noted "It is alleged that Mr. Cohnfeld has disposed of his horses and that his business has been conducted for some days by his bookkeeper and by Mr. Periam, formerly his manager."

Servants who came to the door at the West 57th Street mansion "refused to give any information regarding Mr. Cohnfeld's whereabouts."  An employee provided an excuse, saying Cohnfeld's "health had been failing of late, and that he was seeking a rest by advice of his physician."

But the press was not buying the story.  The following day The New York Times said "He was last seen down town about a week ago, and then seemed to be perfectly well."  The newspaper added, "He is said to be in the vicinity of Niagara Falls, a resort that is close, as most people are aware, to the Canadian boarder."  The implication that Cohnfeld was on the run from his creditors was clear.

It was discovered that Cohnfeld had sold his nearly-new building to Leon Mendel, a partner in the Chicago-based real estate firm of Mendel Brothers, for $350,000.  Shortly before his disappearance, he had essentially liquidated his stock of feathers "at ruinous prices," according to The Sun.   And true to The Times' insinuation, before long Isidor Cohnfeld crossed the Canadian border, reportedly with a satchel containing over $250,000 in cash.

The Mendel Brothers leased the entire Cohnfeld Building to Alfred Benjamin & Co.  The firm was described by the South Carolina newspaper The Abbeville Press and Hammer as "probably the largest manufacturer of fine ready made men's clothing in this country."  Like Isidor Cohnfeld, the firm employed hundreds of mostly immigrant laborers.

With the introduction of labor unions in the last years of the 19th century, businessmen like Alfred Benjamin were compelled to make difficult decisions.  He tried, initially, to keep arm's length from the problem.

On July 11, 1890 The Times reported that the cutters' union had boycotted the goods of Alfred Benjamin & Co. "because the firm had refused to interfere between its men and the union.  Mr. Benjamin had been requested to compel some of his men to pay dues that they were said to owe to the union, and he replied that that was none of his business, and that as long as these men did their work properly he would give them work."

Begrudgingly, Benjamin came to a costly compromise with the union.  In December "after a long fight," he paid the union $2,500 "for expenses incurred in fighting the firm."

Alfred Benjamin's problems would become far worse than labor friction four months later.  Smoke was seen wafting from a sidewalk grate just after 5:00 on  March 17, 1891.  The hundreds of workers inside were preparing to leave for the day.  The first alarm was turned in at 5:20, a second five minutes later, and then three others in rapid succession.

The New York Times reported that from its opening there were those who considered the building a fire hazard.  "The building known as 'Cohnfeld's Folly'...appeared to be one of the most solidly-constructed buildings in the city, and the general impression among those who saw it after it was put up was that it was fireproof.  But those who saw it erected were of the opinion that a fire once started below would, unless mastered at the first floor, sweep through the whole building and destroy it."  Fire Chief Charles O. Shay said "It's a timber stack with enough wood in it to build a small town."

The conflagration rose throughout the building.  The St. Paul Daily Globe reported "Suddenly, with hardly a moment's notice, the flames shot their way up through the building, and burst through the roof in a blaze that could be seen for miles about.  Then every floor was attacked by the devouring element, until from sub-basement to roof the magnificent building was a fiery furnace.  The firemen in the street below were like pigmies [sic] battling with a giant."

The fire spread, eventually engulfing nearly the entire block.   The following morning The Sun's headline read "Two Millions Burned Up.  The Dance of the Flames Begins in Cohnfeld's Folly."  And the sub-headline continued "Building After Building in Bleecker Street Goes Up with a Beautiful Display."  With unexpected callousness, the headline added "Benjamin's Gone--Where will the Men Get their Summer Clothes This Year?"

On the morning of March 18 nearly the entire block--ten buildings in all--was a charred ruins.  The Cohnfeld Building was completely destroyed only seven years after its completion.

An unexpected twist soon occurred.  Although there were no reports of any fatalities in the Cohnfeld Building fire, a specter was reportedly seen among the ruins soon after.  Within days long crowds of curious ghost-hunters lined the street hoping for a sighting.

On April 10, 1891 The New York Sun reported "The Bleecker street ghost drew as large a 'house' last night as Barnum's Circus or any of the theaters.  There was a bigger crowd about 'Cohnfeld's Folly' than there was three weeks ago when the flames gutted the buildings from Mercer to Green streets...The wraith was not due till midnight, but the street was packed with watchers as early as 9 o'clock."

The newspaper reported that the throng was so dense that pedestrians could not make their way along Bleecker Street and that twice policemen "descended on the mob and routed it."  Five minutes after the police left, the crowd reassembled.  The spirit was illusive, however.  On April 14 The Evening World reported "The people who have been watching a week for a sight of the Bleecker street ghost are getting discouraged.  Ghosts, by the way, are never around when wanted."

Interestingly enough, Mendel Brothers commissioned Alfred Zucker to design the replacement building.  Construction of the six-story structure began in September 1892.  That building was demolished in 1957 as part of the massive Washington Square Village apartment complex.

photo by Tayler MacMillan via nyunews.com

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The 1914 Church of St. Jean Baptiste - Lexington Avenue and 76th Street

An early postcard of the magnificent new building could have been set in Italy.

The parish of Saint Jean Baptiste was founded in 1882 to serve the Yorkville ndistrict's growing French-speaking population.  The congregation soon built what The New York Times later called "the little red brick French Church of St. Jean Baptiste" on 76th Street.   In 1900 the church was chosen to house a relic of Saint Anne, formerly located in Canada.   But the modest structure was hardly proper, prompting Archbishop Michael Corrigan to comment at the inauguration of the Solemn Exposition in December that year "Evidently this church is too small and not imposing enough for the requirements of perpetual adoration."

Despite its elaborate interiors the 76th Street church (seen here in 1908) was deemed "not imposing enough."  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Thomas Fortune Ryan was among New York's wealthiest and most philanthropic citizens.   According to church legend, he often attended mass at St. Jean Baptiste, preferring it to the more pretentious society churches.   The story goes that he arrived late for mass and was disgruntled to find standing room only.  During the announcements a plea for donations for a new structure was made.

Afterwards, unaccustomed to standing and having no intentions to do so again, he approached Father Letellier, asking how much a new church would cost.   The priest threw out a figure from the top of his head.  "$300,000.00," he said.  Ryan told him to proceed with the plans.


Land was acquired at the southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 76th Street.   Construction began in 1911 and about a year later, on April 28, 1912, the cornerstone was laid  An orchestra played as the choir sang before a crowd of 8,000 onlookers.  Cardinal John Murphy Farley smoothed the mortar with a silver trowel and the stone was set in place.  Inside was a copper box containing a medal from Pope Pius, a copy of that morning's newspaper, and a parchment bearing the names of the Fathers of the Blessed Sacrament connected with the church. 

While some might have expected such an important architectural commission to go to one of Manhattan's more famous architectural firms, it had been awarded to Nicholas Seirracino.  Primarily a designer of ecclesiastical structures, he had just completed the Roman Catholic St. Clare's Church on West 36th Street a year earlier.

His monumental design drew inspiration from several Italian Renaissance churches.  A classical portico upheld by free-standing Corinthian columns sat above a wide staircase.  Just below and on either side of the twin bell towers stood trumpeting angels.  Completing the Renaissance design was the 172-foot tall dome.
Serracino's rendering won the Gold Medal at the International Exposition at Turin.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, February 18, 1911 (copyright expired)

As construction continued, The New York Times reported on November 3, 1912, that Ryan's gift had significantly increased from the original $300,000 estimate.  "It will be one of the largest and most imposing Roman Catholic churches in America," it said, "accommodating 7,500 persons.  The cost will be about $1,000,000."  The newspaper noted that Ryan had "determined to build for the fathers a church of cathedral-like proportions and of the highest artistic beauty."  The completed Church of St. Jean Baptiste was dedicated on January 6, 1914.


The quiet devotions of worshipers were dramatically upset on the evening of November 30, 1918.   There were a few women in the church that night when two blocks away a gun-wielding man named Charles Georges ordered Dr. Richard Kovacs out of his automobile and then drove off with it.  The doctor hailed police who joined him in chasing the car.

When Georges ditched the car near the subway entrance at Lexington Avenue and 76th Street, the police began firing.  The thief shot back then rushed up the stone steps of the Church of St. Jean Baptiste.  The New York Times reported "The chase continued up the central isle and shooting went on as Georges climbed the stairs leading to the choir."  When Georges ran out of ammunition, he was subdued and arrested.

The newspaper added "After he had left with the police some of the women who had not become hysterical continued their prayers.  No one was injured."


Almost a year to the day later another disturbing incident took plate.  French-born Cecilia Simon was 33 years and worked as a maid in the home of William Geenough on East 56th Street.   She was said to be devout and attended mass every morning.

On Sunday November 23, 1919 Cecilia dropped her envelope into the collection plate.  Later when the envelopes were opened, hers did not contain cash, but a note saying she objected to certain items being placed on the altar.   She apparently kept watch, but none of her perceived offenses were corrected.

The following Saturday she left the Greenough house, telling another maid that she was "going out to do some good work; to smash some statuary."   A funeral service had just completed when Cecilia walked into the church and approached the altar.  Before anyone could stop her she "swept several costly pieces of statuary and candelabra from the altar to the floor," according to newspaper reports.  The damage amounted to about $3,000 (nearly $42,000 today).  She was arrested and taken to Bellevue Hospital for observation.


On May 29, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported stunning news.   Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes had returned from Rome, where he had petitioned the Holy See with an unlikely request--one which was granted.  At 4:00 that afternoon, said the article, St. Jean Baptiste would become a Major Basilica--the first in the United States.  As a matter of fact, it went on, only "three other churches, all of them in Rome, have been raised to the dignity of Major Basilica."

When the annual Novena to St. Ann opened on July 17, 1921 more than 5,000 persons were in attendance.  The New York Times reported that they "had the supposed relic, a bone of St. Ann, applied to their afflicted parts.  Some had only a headache, but others suffered from cancer, lameness, blindness and epilepsy."

The faithful related their miraculous stories of a year earlier.  "A boy of 8 appeared walking naturally before Father Pauzet and told him that he had been lame in one knee and had come to the shrine on crutches.  He had been instantly cured, he said.  A woman said that last year she had been cured of a growth; that all signs of this had since disappeared and now she had com again to give thanks.  Another woman said she had been instantly relieve a year ago of a bad sore throat."

With the new honor came a new altar--the costliest and second largest in the United States.  On October 30, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported that the $100,000 altar ($1.34 million in today's dollars) was set to be installed.

"The altar will be forty-seven feet high, twenty-eight feet wide, and twenty-six feet deep.  It is of Italian Renaissance design, the altar proper being approached by a flight of five steps of marble."   It was constructed in the United States by Gorham & Co., although the carvings were executed in Italy.   The central panel depicted a marble depiction of Di Vinci's "The Lord's Supper."  On either side were panels of St. Matthew and St. John. 

The massive altar was the most expensive in the U.S.  photo by James Primosh, via https://jamesprimosch.com/tag/church-of-st-jean-baptiste/


"Another base course is of Botticino marble, ornamented with mosaic panels containing ecclesiastic symbols, and the door of the Tabernacle is of bronze studded with precious and semi-precious stones.  The throne for the Monstrance is of bronze and is surmounted by adoring angels."  Above the altar rose the baldachino, supported by 12 red marble columns.  Mosaics of saints decorated the interior, and the canopy over the altar was made of velvet and ermine.

Over the years the magnificent church was the scene of elaborate funerals and fashionable weddings, but one of the most memorable and subdued was that of Thomas Fortune Ryan on November 26, 1928.  The tycoon had left an estate estimated at around $300 million, but he requested the simplest service that the church could perform.  The Times reported "A single priest officiated.  There was no eulogy, no honorary pallbearers, no flowers, except for a handful of red roses on the candlelit altar."

Millionaires and commoners crowded the church for Thomas Ryan's funeral.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

The church was packed--from titans of industry to servants from the Ryan household.  Among the mourners were J. P. Morgan, Otto H. Kahn, Charles M. Schwab, Elihu Root, Bernard Baruch, and Clarence H. Mackay.  There were politicians, like Senator Royal S. Copeland and James W. Gerard, former Ambassador to Germany.  Yet the entire service lasted only 25 minutes.

The congregation that had been formed to serve French speaking immigrants, most from Canada, had changed.   By the time of Ryan's funeral the membership included society leaders like Helena Woolworth McCann, the wife of millionaire attorney Charles E. F. McCann and daughter of Frank W. Woolworth.  Her funeral on March 18, 1938, was much less muted than Ryan's had been.  A solemn high mass of requiem was celebrated and floral tributes included two 8-foot crosses composed of lilies.

Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman presided at the pontifical mass to celebrate the Church of St. Jean Baptiste's 75th anniversary on October 27, 1957.  The service included several monsignors and two auxiliary bishops.   The New York Times reminded its readers of the stark differences that had occurred since the church's beginnings.  "The parish's first mass was said above a still-existing stable at 202 East Seventy-seventh Street on Washington's Birthday in 1882."

It was not only the parish, but the neighborhood which had changed.  Following Vatican II masses in French were discontinued.  By now the rowhouses of Lexington Avenue had been replaced by the sprawling Lenox Hill Hospital complex or converted to shops and apartments.  It remained, nonetheless, an upscale neighborhood.  So it was surprising when a worshiper was attacked within the church on October 28, 1970.

Anna King, a 63-year old widow, attended mass every morning.   That day she visited the St. Anne Shrine in the lower chapel just after 8:30.  As she made her way back up the spiral staircase to the church proper, she was attacked by three teens who tried to wrest her purse from her.   She steadfastly refused to let go of the purse and the youths fled, but not before stabbing her four times in the back.

In 1989, after limestone chunks fell to the Lexington Avenue sidewalk, a $6 million restoration was initiated headed by the architectural firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates.  The magnificent building was designated a landmark in 1969 by the recently-formed Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Friday, September 22, 2017

An Elegant Fragment - 380 Broadway




In 1859 financiers Samuel D. Babcock and Matthew Morgan began construction on a handsome commercial structure at the northeast corner of Broadway and White Street.  Completed in 1860, the Italianate style building was elegantly faced in white marble and stretched approximately 71 feet along Broadway and 175 down White Street.

The structure was, in fact, two buildings.  No. 380-382 was separated from 384-386 by a brick firewall--one that would prove its importance later.   Like all Americans, before long the buildings' initial tenants were focused on Civil War.

In 1864 Hall, Southwick & Co. and Allen Brothers both advertised on the double-building (right)  Print by Thomas Bonar, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Dry goods dealers William Seligman & Co. was among "some patriotic merchants," as described by The New York Times on August 17, 1862, that provided "bounties" for soldiers.  The firm offered reward money intended to motivate recruiters to enlist immigrant into The Irish Brigade.

Arms maker Richard P. Bruff was also doing business from the northern building when he received a Government contract to produce Union Army firearms in 1862.   The massive order necessitated his increasing his staff and in January 1863 he hired several new workers, including James McLoughlin.

Almost immediately Bruff noticed shortages.  The New York Times reported on January 28, 1863 that he "has daily missed a quantity of the manufactured arms, and in many instances he missed them after the revolvers had been carefully packed in boxes ready for shipping."  A police officer was assigned "to ferret out the facts" and before long he caught McLoughlin red-handed pawning revolvers.

The unpatriotic thief had avoided suspicion by telling the pawnbrokers that he was a discharged cavalry officer.  More than 30 "costly revolvers" were recovered.

Another tenant filling a Government contract was Hall, Southwick & Co., which was busy making military boots and shoes throughout the war.    It was a lucrative contract and the firm produced more than one million pairs of military footwear a year.  

Hall, Southwick & Co. expressed its appreciation two months after the end of the war.  The firm joining other New York merchants in presenting President Andrew Johnson "a coach, span of horses, harness, blankets, &c.," as a "token of their high appreciation of his fidelity to the country," as reported by The Times on May 25, 1865.

Far less bellicose in its business interests was Allen Brothers, who made apparel for the fairer sex.  On February 14, 1864 it advertised "Cloak and Mantilla makers wanted--none but the very best, experienced hands, accustomed to fine work, need apply."  The firm promised "the highest pay and steady work through the season."   It would remain in the northern building for several years.

Dry goods merchant Richard C. Gardner was doing business from the Nos. 380-382 in 1866.  He was bamboozled by a slick-talking Texan in October that year.  Charles Clark entered the shop and informed Gardner that he was the owner of the schooner Dart which was headed to New York from Galveston with 300 bags of wool, 1,700 hides, and 120 bales of cotton worth a total of $45,000.

He explained that he wanted to purchase finished goods to send back to the South on the ship.  He offered to pay one-half cash on the spot and would then pay the balance within four months.  The deal sounded reasonable and Gardner sold him $8,000 worth of goods.  Unbeknownst to him Clark had been telling the same story to several other merchants.  Luckily for Gardner, he had only delivered $175 worth of goods to the Dart before Clark was arrested.

John M. Davies & Co. was in 384-386 by the spring of 1869.  The firm imported and manufactured men's shirts and ties.  Like Richard P. Bruff it had a problem with a sticky-handed employee.  On December 12, 1871 Lewis Cole was arrested for stealing $60 worth of goods.

The firm suffered some unflattering publicity in 1875 when it received a shipment of imported silk ties.  The Customs Collector checked the goods and accused John M. Davies & Co. with fraud--saying they were, instead, more expensive silk scarves.

About this time the entire southern building was leased by the dry goods firm Evans, Peake & Co.   Miles E. Jenkins had been employed for 11 years in 1877 when officers of the company "became greatly alarmed, and kept a vigilant watch over their clerks," according to The New York Times.

Interestingly, large companies like Evans, Peake & Co. accepted the fact that employees would steal.  A member of the firm explained to a reporter, 'There was always more or less leakage, and it was always difficult to watch and catch a thief among so many employees."  But now it was excessive.  Within the past few months more than $1,000 worth of goods were missing--nearly $24,000 today.

An undercover detective nabbed Miles E. Jenkins, a man highly active in school and church affairs.  The Times headline read "ANOTHER DOWNFALLEN CLERK...His Exemplary Life in Public Said to have Been a Sham."

Evans, Peake & Co. left 380-382 Broadway on January 1, 1880.  The matching building next door was occupied by three dry goods firms at the time.  On the same day that Evans, Peake & Co. moved out, Hazen, Todds & Co. moved into the first floor and basement of 384-386.  The firm dealt in silks, dress and "fancy dry goods."  Dieckerhoff, Raffloer & Co., dealers in braids and buttons, occupied the second, third and fifth floors; while the fourth was occupied by James Wilde, Jr. & Co. "manufacturing tailors," who, like Hazen Todds & Co., had just moved in.

At around 6:00 on the evening of February 20 fire smoke was seen wafting from the upper windows.  There were 22 men and boys working in Dieckerhoff, Raffloer & Co., one of which told reporters there was just enough time to get the papers locked in the safe.  "All got out safely, even the watch-dog being rescued," reported the Tribune.

Fire fighters quickly arrived but the fire was well under way.  The New-York Tribune noted "The burning building was next to the one at the corner of White-st. and Broadway, and in construction similar to it."  Everyone working in the building managed to get out, J. A. Knapp of Hazen, Todd & Co. saying "It was at the peril of our lives that we did get out."

Several firemen attempted to fight the inferno from the roof.   When the immense safe on the fifth floor plummeted all the way to the basement, it weakened the structure.  The New-York Tribune reported that two companies of fire fighters were on the roof, "but feeling the roof giving way they had been obliged to retreat."  Two members of Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, Thomas J. Dougherty and John F. Cassidy, hesitated.

The St. Paul, Minnesota newspaper the Daily Globe, reported on the horrific results in dramatic Victorian prose.  "The roof gave way suddenly near the center, near where they were standing, and with blanched faces and cries of horror the two doomed firemen fell into the blazing abyss to be consumed."

At around 7:30 the rear wall collapsed.  After than "All hope of saving any part of the burning building was at an end," reported the New-York Tribune.  Thanks to the heavy party wall, the vacant No. 380-382 Broadway was little damaged.  

The year of the devastating fire Butler Brothers, "dealers in hosiery and notions," was located at No. 370 Broadway.  Formed by brothers Edward, George and Charles Butler, the firm supplied wholesale merchandise to retailers and was one of the first mail-order companies in the U.S.   After No. 370 Broadway was devastated by fire on January 7, 1882, Butler Brothers moved to No. 380 Broadway.

The employees were given a rare treat on February 7, 1886, the 18th anniversary of Charles H. Butler's wedding.  He invited the staff, about 200 in number, to the celebration at his estate, The Evergreens, at Rahway, New Jersey.  Butler hired a special train to transport the workers from New York to New Jersey, where they found "a caravan of large sleighs" waiting to take them to the mansion.  The New York Times reported "The clerks feel greatly delighted because their employer treated them with as much cordiality as he did his other guests, and made the trip a red-letter day in their lives."

Charles H. Butler's wealth was evidenced three years later then he purchased the famous country estate, Boscobel, upstate, paying $75,000 for the 23-acre property, just under $2 million today.

In 1898 Butler Brothers moved into the newly-completed New Era Building at No. 495 Broadway.   Other firms in No. 380-382 now included engravers John Scoles; toys and novelties dealers Spelman Brothers; and the Gilbert Manufacturing Company, wholesale dealers in cotton goods.

Gilbert Manufacturing Company, whose mills in Bainbridge, New York employed about 100 workers, had created a sensation in 1887 as efforts to erect a memorial to General Ulysses S, Grant were under way.  The firm introduced its Grant Memorial Twills--yard goods offered to clothing manufacturers.  Most of the proceeds from the sales went to the Grant Monument Association.

On September 25, 1887 The New York Times reported "Since the offer was made by the corporation it has increased its looms over 200 per cent.  Another mill has just been put into operation, and still it is difficult to supply the demand for the twills."

The turn of the century would see a marked difference in the tenant list.  Manufacturing was essentially gone from the building as offices moved in.  In 1900 there were at least four insurance companies in the building, and in 1902 three express companies--The Pacific Express Co., the U.S. Express Co., and the Western Express Co.--had branches here.   By 1903 insurance firms made up the bulk of the renters, while other offices like that of the Purchasing Paymaster of the Brooklyn Navy Yard took space by 1905.

Globe-Wernicke Co. offered both office and residential bookcases. McClure's Magazine, August 1907 (copyright expired
It was about that time that the Cincinnati-based office furniture makers Globe-Wernicke Co. opened a store in the ground floor and basement.   The company did a brisk business in its domestic bookcases, as well, with its stackable and expandable models that allowed the purchaser to customize the furniture.

A portion of the Globe-Wernicke selling floor as it looked round 1912. photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The store windows slightly protruded beyond the facade around 1912.  Globe-Wernicke had not only plastered signage on the building, but (difficult to see in this photo) erected a large sign on the roof.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1916 Globe-Wernicke erected its own building about three blocks to the north at No. 451 Broadway.   No. 380 would continue to be home to, mainly, insurance other professional offices--like the Library Bureau which published reference guides for libraries nationwide in 1928.


During the Depression years Ninto Building Corporation, a real estate development firm, leased space in the building, as did Golding Brothers & Co., cotton converters.  At mid-century Kremer Co., dealers in stationery supplies like typewriter paper, had a full floor; and in the 1960s Defender Industries, Inc. was here, selling marine equipment such as fiberglass tarps, matting and nylon rope.


The Tribeca renaissance changed the personality of No. 380 Broadway in 1992 when the Access Theater leased the fourth floor.  It was joined in 2002 by the Manhattan Children's Theater and in 2014 by the Battery Dance Company, which took the fifth floor.

Few passersby would suspect that the handsome marble building is a sliver of its original self.

photographs by the author

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The 1891 Caxton Press Building - 171-173 Macdougal Street



On September 28, 1889 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that simultaneously the two side-by-side houses on Macdougal Street had been sold "on private terms"--No. 171 to H. Mandelbaum and No. 173 to N. Cohen.  As was often the case, however, the buyers listed were decoys.  The actual purchaser was Achimedes D. Russell.

The reason behind his subterfuge very well could have been his plan for the properties which sat just feet from fashionable Washington Square to the south and Clinton Place (soon to become West 8th Street) to the north.  Russell was surely aware that the wealthy residents would balk at a printing factory in their midst.

He commissioned the well-known architectural firm of Renwick, Aspinwall and Russell to design the industrial structure.   Construction began in 1890 and was completed the following year.  Faced in pressed Philadelphia brick the $70,000 structure was a handsome commercial take on Romanesque Revival.  Six stories tall, it included two-story elliptical arches within the rusticated base.  A projecting tiled canopy bisected the arches and provided shade and shelter from the elements.  An innovative feature was the angled bays within the three-story arches directly above--creating an interesting juxtaposition of crisp and rounded shapes.  The top floor arcade nestled below a deeply-overhanging cornice.

The architects released their rendering prior to construction.  Record & Guide, October 25, 1890 (copyright expired)

Russell did not have to search for a tenant.  Before the first brick was laid a lease had been signed with bookbinders Tomkins, McIndoe & Co.  Also in the building was that firm's subsidiary publishing firm, the Caxton Press.

Because the Caxton Press was routinely in the newspapers as new books were released, it was the more visible of the two firms.  Yet employment records clearly indicate that its parent company occupied more space in the building.  In 1895 Caxton Press employed just 21 workers--15 men and 6 women--who worked an average of 59 hours per week.  Tomkins, McIndoe & Co., on the other hand, had a work staff of 131 that same year--40 men, 60 women, and 31 boys and girls.

The book makers filled the entire building for 15 years, until wholesale bottle dealer William Kiene leased the first floor and basement in 1914 and Pattison & Co., Ltd. took the second floor.

The year that William Kiene moved into the building, he joined other German-born businessmen to form the German Relief Fund.  A fund-raising announcement on August 29, 1914 read in part:

Europe is being devastated by war!  Human misery, poverty and starvation will inevitably follow in its wake. Among the nations drawn into the general cataclysm and bearing the brunt of human strife and suffering is Germany, the land of our fathers.  Will you help the wounded?

When America entered the war in 1917 any charitable sentiments citizens may have had for Germany dissolved, and German businesses like William Kiene's were the targets of intense discrimination.  Nevertheless, he endured and was still doing business from the Macdougal Street address as late as 1920.

In 1921 the Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist established itself in Greenwich Village.  In 1927 it purchased the recently vacant Caxton Press building and renovated it as a church.  The congregation would worship in the building for 15 years before it was dedicated.

On June 1, 1942 The New York Times reported "In the presence of 400 persons, the $158,000 church edifice of the Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist...was officially dedicated in a special service yesterday morning."  The article explained that the delay was because "Christian Scientists may not dedicate their church edifices until entirely free of debt."

In 1966 the church embarked on a $600,000 renovation project.  The remodeling by Connecticut-based architect Victor Christ-Janer would not only make over the interiors, but obliterate Renwick, Aspinwall and Russell's striking facade.  Nate White, chairman of the building committee, explained to the press "We are trying to keep God right down on Macdougal Street, where the people are.  The Village kids seem to be searching for an answer.  They come to us when they've been through the marijuana, the L.S.D., and too much sex."

The church felt, apparently, that neither God nor the trouble youth would be comfortable in a Romanesque style building.  "Modernizing the building's facade would not only make the church more attractive to younger people, but would also enhance, rather than detract from the character of the neighborhood," White said.

Renowned architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable chimed in on the project, saying "no one would question the need for better facilities...But architectural historians, including this writer, regret the loss of the building's late 19th-century facade."  She called it "particularly felicitous...in proportion and detail."

Huxtable added "It seems possible that the Deity might be persuaded to stay behind that interesting historical facade, refurbished and with appropriate interior changes.  The new front promises to be not much better than bleak, compared to the richness of the old one."

Nevertheless, construction went on and the dedication of the renovated, "bleak" structure was held on November 5, 1967.

photo via gvshp.org/blog

By 2009 the upper floor had been unused for years.  In an unusual move, the Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist sold the top portion of the building to a developer in order to fund improvements to its facilities.  A subsequent renovation sought to recreate the 1891 facade.  Although most of the architectural elements had been hammered off in 1966, a team of architects from four firms produced a remarkable near recreation--including the striking angled bays.


A sensitive mixture of modern (like the pressed glass cornice) and historic elements (the refabricated iron date numerals, for instance), the 2009 renovation is a success.

The project was awarded a Regina Kellerman Award by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation in 2009.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The 1854 Wm. Stanley House - 55 West 19th Street




In the decade prior to the Civil War upscale homes were erected along the block of West 19th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  One of these was No. 55, built for attorney William Stanley on land he leased from John Jacob Astor.

Completed in 1854, the Italianate style brownstone fronted residence featured segmental-arched openings with molded surrounds.  A stone stoop led to the parlor floor above an English basement and, most likely, a handsome cast iron balcony fronted floor-to-ceiling parlor windows.  An especially pleasing cornice with paired brackets and elaborate cast ornaments completed the design.

How long Stanley remained in the house is unclear.  Whoever the occupant was in 1867, he lost a valuable piece of jewelry on the evening of Friday, April 12.  An advertisement in The New York Herald a few days later described "a small gold pendant Chain, with Seal and Key attached."  A reward of $5 was offered for its return; in the neighborhood of $85 today.

It was possibly Joshua J. Henry who lost the chain.  He and his family had taken possession before 1873.  A well-to-do broker, he was also a director of the North American Fire Insurance Company and a trustee in the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Co.  But he was best known for his fiery political opinions.

In October 1859 New Yorkers read newspaper accounts of the attack on the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry.  Some called John Brown a hero, others a villain.  Joshua J. Henry was among the latter.

Henry was a fervent proponent of slavery and quickly became a force in what The New York Herald, on December 8, 1859, called "The Conservative Movement."  On the previous night Henry had been appointed secretary of the committee "to make preparations for a public demonstration upon the questions now agitating the country, as the result of the 'irrepressible conflict' doctrine preached by [William H.] Seward and his followers and carried into practical effect by Brown at Harper's Ferry."

Henry was highly visible in the heated pre-war political climate.  He presided at the "monster meeting," as described by The New York Herald, on September 17, 1860.  It was preceded by a "brilliant torchlight and pyrotechnic display."  The newspaper estimated the crowd at 30,000.

The New York Herald, September 18, 1860 (copyright expired)

In his speech he declared that he knew the South far more than Abraham Lincoln.  "I have traveled over more Southern country in one year than ever Mr. Lincoln did in all his life."  He predicted that the election of Lincoln "would be attended with the most serious results to the peace and prosperity of the country; nay, more, would shake the very foundation of this Union."

He blamed Lincoln for the Harper's Ferry raid, saying the Republicans "are loudly clamorous for the abolition of slavery in the South.  They would thus let loose this African host, free to go and, settle where they will."  He told the applauding throng that any candidate was "ten thousand times preferable to Mr. Lincoln."

Following Lincoln's election Joshua P. Henry quietly faded from the spotlight.  He still lived in the 19th Street house with his wife and two sons in 1873 when he was a juror in a sensational murder trial.

William J. Sharkey was born into a family "high in the social scale," according to a contemporary account.   But according to the 1874 book The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and its Mysteries, "he fell at an early age into the companionship of thieves, and seems to have become fascinated with the irregular life of the 'swell mob.'"

On Sunday, September 1, 1872 he entered a Hudson Street saloon where he ran into Robert S. Dunn, alias Bob Isaacs, who owed him $600.  It was a substantial debt, more than $12,000 today.  When Dunn said he did not have the money on him, Sharkey pulled out a single-barrelled pistol and shot him dead.

On June 16, 1873 Joshua Henry sat in the jury box as the well-publicized trial commenced.  The New York Herald described the defendant as "a young man of slender build and of a rather genteel exterior for the class to which he belongs."  The newspaper assumed, given the overwhelming evidence, that "It is not likely that the trial will last more than three days."

But Henry and his peers would not have the opportunity to decide Sharkey's fate.   Another newspaper called Sharkey "somewhat feminine in appearance," and the wily murderer used that to his advantage.  His girlfriend, Maggie Jourdan, visited him in The Tombs with another woman, Wes Allen.   Maggie left, relinquishing her pass, followed about an hour and a half later by another woman in a black coat, her face concealed by a veil.  When Wes Allen tried to leave later, she was detained for not having a pass.

William Sharkey had slipped out disguised as a woman.  He escaped to Cuba and was never found.

Around 1877, following Joshua Henry's death, his widow and sons moved into her parents' home at No. 14 East Tenth Street.  The house was purchased by Charles F. Spang; an investor who lived in Pittsburgh.  It was leased to Eben Peek, a director of the Maritime Association of the Port of New-York.

By now the neighborhood was seeing change.  The mansion owners of Fifth Avenue were slowly moving northward, and Sixth Avenue was becoming a shopping district.  During the winter seasons of 1891 through 1893 No. 55 West 19th Street was leased by actor and dramatist (James) Steele MacKaye and his wife Mary.  Among the couple's children was Emile Benton MacKaye, known as Benton.  He would go on to become a pioneer of land preservation and a renowned forester and conservationist.

In 1892 Alfred J. Cammeyer built his imposing shoe store, called "probably the largest" in the world, around the block at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 20th Street.  Cammeyer was the foremost shoe vendor in New York City.  Only three years later he realized that his monumental shoe store was inadequate.

He leased No. 55 West 19th Street from Spang and commissioned architect and builder Charles Rentz to make substantial renovations.  Rentz striped off the stoop and installed a handsome three-story cast iron commercial front that projected to the property line.  Its fluted Corinthian pilasters and ornate swirling friezes were in line with the grand emporiums lining Sixth Avenues.

When Alfred Cammeyer died in 1909, the exodus of retailers from what became known as The Ladies' Mile was well underway.  Cammeyer's Shoes was among the last, moving to No. 381 Fifth Avenue in 1914.

It was the end of the line for No. 55 West 19th Street as a fashionable store.  It became home to Wiesenthal Trucking Co. which listed its odd dual function as "trucking and hemstitching."  In 1915 the firm employed 5 men and 22 women in the building.

Charles Spang's daughter, Rosalie, who also lived in Pennsylvania, had inherited No. 55 in 1906.  When she sold it to Albert B. Ashforth in September 1919, the New-York Tribune pointed out "For years the building was used as a Nineteenth Street wing to the Cammeyer building...It is the first sale of the property in over forty years."

While light manufacturing continued in the upper floors, Samuel H. Russin operated his florist supply business from the ground floor.  He would remain here for several years, selling baskets, ribbons and other supplies to the nearby retail florists.

His 1920 Christmas season was especially good he told a reporter from the American Florist.  "He had a heavy trade in baskets and preserved stock," an article in the January 1921 issue noted.  The following year the journal reported that he "has returned from a satisfactory business trip to Europe."

By around 1930 No. 55 was home to the Worker-Musicians' Club, a group of Communist musicians.  In 1932 it was renamed the Pierre Degeyter Club, in tribute to the composer of the Soviet National Athem, the "Internationale."   A concert in memory of Degeyter was held here on Friday, January 6, 1932.

In their 2000 book American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, authors Richard and JoAnne Reuss note "The Degeyter Club was a catch-all for otherwise unaffiliated radical musicians.  There were divisions for composers, performing artists, and publishers."  Although there were only about two dozen members, some would go on to prominence, including Aaron Copland, Charles Seeger (father of folk singer and activist Pete Seeger), and Henry Cowell.

The Communist-affiliated group remained in the building through the 1930s; replaced by a much less proletariat firm, the Dumont Orchestra Booking Agency.  Among its clients in 1959 was the Wilbur de Paris jazz orchestra.

By 1980 the Jazz Gallery had made No. 55 home.  Concerts and workshops "with musicians of both sexes," according to an announcement in The New York Times on May 30, 1980, were held here.   The Jazz Gallery was in the building at least through 1983.


There are five residential units in the upper floors today, while the ground floor is home to a sports medicine rehabilitation center.  Only traces of Charles Rentz's elegant 1895 commercial front survive.  The lower two floors, sitting behind an odd scaffolding-like fire escape, have been brutally abused.   And, despite the painted stone, the fourth and fifth floors retain their 1854 residential appearance.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Franz Sigel Monument - Riverside Park at 106th Street



When the Sigel Monument was unveiled in 1907 Riverside Drive was still lined with handsome mansions around 106th Street.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
When the German Revolution, sometimes called the March Revolution, erupted in 1848 the revolutionaries had a valuable ally in Franz Peter Sigel.  He had graduated from the Karlsruhe Military Academy in 1843 and served as a lieutenant in the Baden Army.

Sigel rose to Minister of War and commander-in-chief of the revolutionary republican government of Baden; but when the revolution was defeated, he fled to England.  Among the other exiled rebels in London was Dr. Rudolph Dulon, former pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church of Werban, and his family.  The minister's 20-year old daughter, Elise, had often heard of the brave military leader and in 1853 the two met.

Any hope for romance seemed to have been dashed when Dulon moved his family to America shortly after that meeting.  But before long Siegel, too, arrived in New York and in 1854 the couple was married.

After briefly teaching in the New York City public schools, Sigel moved to St. Louis in September 1858 where he became a professor at the German-American Academy.  But as had been the case in his homeland, his passion for social equity was soon evident.  He lobbied German immigrants into the Union and antislavery causes and vocally supported both.

When war broke out Sigel was commissioned colonel of the Third Missouri Infantry.  He was promoted to brigadier general on August 7, 1861, endorsed by Abraham Lincoln.

But other generals did their best to steal the credit for Sigel's accomplishments.  In his 1862 book, Heroes and Martyrs, historian Frank Moore explained that in October through December 1861, "while all was movement, life, and triumph around him, he fretted in compulsory inactivity, till it seemed that he was forgotten, or that there was an intention to ignore his past services."  A friend of Sigel later remarked "For a long time things have looked as though the intention were to trifle with him."
General Franz Sigel -- from the collection of the Library of Congress

Sigel tendered his resignation.  But the other generals had underestimated his immense popularity and support.  On January 9, 1862 The New York Times reported "A statement that Gen. Franz Sigel, of Missouri fame, has been driven by neglect and ill-treatment to resign his command in the United States service, is producing the greatest excitement among the German American population of the entire North."

The following week The Rebellion Record reported on a massive New York City assembly.  "The great meeting in favor of Gen. Franz Sigel, which took place at the Cooper Institute, was attended by more than ten thousand of the most respectable and solid adopted citizens of German birth, and was characterized by most enthusiastic speeches and resolutions."   A committee was formed to go to Washington and demand that Congress investigate the causes of the general's resignation.

The nationwide outrage at Sigel's treatment prompted a response from the Abraham Lincoln himself.  The Rebellion Record reported the President was determined that "he should decline the acceptance of Gen. Sigel's resignation" and added "His Excellency the President took further occasion to express his sincere satisfaction with the patriotism shown by the adopted citizens of German birth during this unholy rebellion, and particularly acknowledged the so well known and meritorious services of Gen. Franz Sigel."

With the ordeal behind him, Sigel returned to action.  His leadership in the Battle of Pea Ridge on March 8, 1862 was his greatest triumph.   Sigel was given various duties throughout the remainder of the war, suffering a notable defeat in the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864.  It did little to tarnish his reputation among German Americans and he emerged from the war a bigger-than-life figure.

He and Elise had four sons, Robert, Rudolph, Franz and Paul, and a daughter Leila.  The family moved briefly to Baltimore where Rudolph Dulon ran the Socialist newspaper The Baltimore Wrecker.  Both Franz and Elise worked for the newspaper.  The New York Times later remarked "Mrs. Sigel, having inherited the literary ability from her father...became widely known through the articles she wrote for this publication."

The Sigels moved back to New York in 1869 as Franz planned his campaign for Secretary of State of New York.  They were staying in the house of "Mr. Otterberg" on East 17th Street when the general's popularity was made obvious on the night of March 8 that year.

The Times reported "The friends and countrymen of General Franz Sigel assembled in considerable numbers last evening at the Steuben House, in the Bowery, for the purpose of organizing a serenading party to compliment the General on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the Battle of Pea Ridge."   A procession through the streets arrived at the Otterberg house.  "After the performance of a number of airs by the orchestra, the General appeared and responded in a few remarks, which were enthusiastically cheered."

Sigel was defeated in his run for Secretary of State.  But he remained highly involved in the political and social activities of New York.   When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, reporters came to him for military and political insight.  And in 1873, when the city was debating on the best means of public transportation for the rapidly increasing population, Sigel was one of the speakers in the discussion at the Cooper Institute on February 18.  He proved that in addition to his skills in educating, writing and military planning, he understood engineering as well and provided his proposal for an elevated railroad.

Franz Sigel's proposal for an elevated railroad included arched girders similar to those seen in contemporary train sheds.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Sigel's popularity was exhibited again in November 1888 when he traveled to Pennsylvania to attend a meeting of the German Democrats.  The Philadelphia Record wrote on October 28 "Although years have passed by since he sheathed his sword and settled own to a peaceful life in his adopted country, and the shadows of age are now falling around him, he still retains much of the fiery spirit which made him victorious on many a well-fought field, and his utterances have about them a simple directness and a fervid eloquence which not only awaken enthusiasm but carry conviction."

At the time of that article Sigel held the position of United States Pension Agent in New York City.   It was a trusted position that meant that hundreds of pension checks passed through his hands before being distributed to their beneficiaries.  The accessibility to the checks was a temptation too great for Sigel's son, Robert, to resist.

On March 27, 1889 the Colorado newspaper, the San Louis Valley Courier, reported "Robert Sigel, son of General Franz Sigel, who pleaded guilty to forging pension checks, has been sentenced in the United States Court to six years' imprisonment at hard labor."

Humiliated, Sigel stepped down from his position.  On April 18 The Times reported "He had not been asked to resign, but he did not wish to embarrass the Administration or stand in the way of the appointment of an agent of like political faith with the powers of be."

Robert had not only ruined his own life, but that of his parents.  Two years later, on January 8, 1891 the Committee of Pensions petitioned the United States Senate to approve a pension for Sigel, saying "the beneficiary, whose distinguished service is known to all, is now old and poor and without means of support."  The House Report added "it is but an act of simple justice to care for this old hero in his old age and poverty."

Sigel died in his Bronx home "of general debility" according to The Evening World, on August 21, 1902, at the age of 78.  The tributes flowed in immediately.  The New York Times said "He was a meritorious man, and he embodied, in a high degree, the qualities which make all reasonable Americans proud of their fellow-citizens of German birth...and his memory deserves to be honored by all Americans."

The streets were thronged with civilians and uniformed military personnel on the day of Sigel's funeral.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Later that year attention was turned to Elise.  President Theodore Roosevelt received a telephone call from Karl Kapff, a German-American resident of New York on December 12, asking for his help in securing a pension for the widow.  The Times reported "A bill has been introduced in the House by Representative Lessler to give Mrs. Sigel $2,000 a year...Gen. Sigel's widow is now seventy years old and dependent, so that a strong appeal is being made in her behalf."  The pension bill, equal about $57,600 a year today, was passed in January 1903.

On March 17, 1907 the New York Times printed a full-page article announcing that a memorial to Franz Sigel was being sculpted by the esteemed artist Karl Bitter.  The article noted "He has imagined Gen. Sigel as he appeared during the early years of the civil war, erect and vigorous, on the back of an exceptionally large and powerful horse, overlooking the scene of a battle."  The newspaper reported that the "fine monument" would look down Riverside Park and the Hudson River.

The completed statue, over 11 feet high, stood on a granite pedestal designed by architect William Welles Bosworth.  The dedication ceremonies on October 19 began with a parade of described by the Columbia Spectator as "a long procession of United States troops, the National Guards of the State, the Naval Militia, the Grand Army and Spanish War Veterans, and a large division of civilians."  The New-York Tribune estimated that 8,000 members of the regular army and navy, and 5,000 veterans marched.


A massive parade accompanied the unveiling ceremonies.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The "handsome bronze statue" was unveiled by Sigel's son, Franz.  But what should have been a dignified, military affair had been tainted by infighting among him and his siblings.

Hours before the event The Times reported "The children and grandchildren of the late Gen. Franz Sigel are squabbling over the comparative prominence each of them is to have to-day at the unveiling."  The vicious quarreling was explained by Rudolph's wife who told a reporter "this disturbance was caused by Franz, who was entirely too officious and who had seen to it that she and Mrs. Paul were slighted."

The Times said "The family row got so hot that last Monday Mrs. Rudolph Sigel was summoned to the Morrisania Court."  The magistrate heard the complaints behind closed doors and dismissed them.  But the night before the ceremony, according to the newspaper, "Mrs. Rudolph Sigel said...that when she had asked for seats in the stand for to-day's unveiling she received but two which included no seat for her mother."

Nevertheless, thousands of onlookers were there and the New-York Tribune called it "an ideal day."  The Governor of New York opened the ceremony.

A horrific side story occurred two years later.  Paul Sigel's daughter, Elise (known familiarly as Elsie), was 22 years old and worked in a Christian mission downtown.  Newspaper readers the world over were shocked when her body was found stuffed in a trunk.  On June 22, 1909 the Australian newspaper The Bunbury Herald ran the headline "Chinatown Horror" and reported "The body of Elsie Sigel, who was engaged in missionary work and Sunday-school teaching in Chinatown, New York, has been found in a trunk in a room over a Chinese restaurant in that quarter of the city.  The occupier was a Chinaman, who is supposed to have murdered her."

At the time the condition of Franz's widow was serious.  The Los Angeles Herald wrote in January 23, 1910 "Since the death of her husband, six years ago, she has suffered three strokes of paralysis."  Her family was concerned that the news of Elsie's death would worsen Elise's condition.  The Los Angeles Herald explained "Elsie had visited her grandmother with regularity, and when her visits ceased and her parents were unable to offer a plausible excuse for her absence, the aged woman became alarmed."

Finally she was told that Elsie had gone away to a boarding school.  Soon, however, Elise became "piqued" that the girl had left without saying good-bye.  She also wanted to know why her granddaughter never wrote, but was never given a good explanation.  Finally, after yet another stroke, Elise Sigel died on January 17, 1910 at the age of 75.

Apartment buildings to the north now form a backdrop to the restored Sigel Monument.  photo via the New York Parks and Recreation Department.

On November 16, 1924 about 2,000 persons attended ceremonies at the base of the Sigel Monument to commemorate the general's 100th birthday.  It was most likely the last event held in the shadow of the statue.  Sigel, like so many heroes once so important in the minds of those who erected statues, eventually faded from memory.

photo via the New York Parks and Recreation Department.

In 1941 the statue's bronze sword had become dislodged.  It was repaired by Parks conservators, but was later removed entirely and put into storage.  The statue was cleaned in 1980 and recently the sword has been restored.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Lost 1853 Everett House - 37 East 17th Street


When this stereopticon slide was produced, Union Square was still residential, as evidenced by the brownstone mansion next door.  (copyright expired)
Like his Gramercy Park, Samuel Ruggles's Union Square was an elegant residential enclave with four-story mansions surrounding an iron-fenced park.  In 1853 a first-class hotel, the Everett House, appeared among the private residences.

The hotel was five stories tall--four stories of brick sat on a rusticated stone base.  High end shops opened onto the Fourth Avenue (later renamed Park Avenue South) side.  Above the columned portico, a stack of grouped openings--the Victorian version of Palladian windows--rose to a gently arched pediment.

The proprietor, Hawley D. Clapp, named the hotel after "the distinguished Massachusetts Senator," Edward Everett.  Everett was among the most illustrious orators of the day and a fierce advocate of maintaining the union, earning him the nickname the "apostle of the Union"

The Everett House, like all first-class hotels at the time, provided both transient and permanent accommodations.  There were 60 suites, each with "uncommonly high" ceilings of 15 and a half feet.  The building was designed with comfort and privacy in mind.  On December 23, 1853 The New York Herald noted "The house is so constructed and arranged that the different suits of rooms are almost as retired and quiet, and free from external disturbance, as separate houses."


Clapp had focused on details.  Each of the suites included a "bathing room, with hot and cold water, a water closet, and plenty of closets for clothing and storage."  Only clean, costly coal was provided for the fireplaces.  The Herald said that the rooms "are all warmed by open grates, in which only Liverpool coal is burned, [securing] a good, pure atmosphere."

The furniture throughout was rosewood and sat upon English velvet carpets.  "The curtains of the windows, and the covering of the chairs and sofas, are of costly and beautiful material."  The New York Herald reported that "The parlor furniture cost from twelve hundred dollars to seventeen hundred and fifty to a room."  That price would be equal to as much as $56,100 per room today.  Three of the "enormous mirrors," according to the New-York Tribune, cost $7,500, or nearly a quarter of a million dollars today.

There was a restaurant in the basement "intended to be on a par with Delmonico's, both in quality and price."  Board (or the cost of food) was not included in the rent; instead families dined in their parlors, or in small private dining rooms.  Clapps stressed that they "have just what they want, at any hour they please, and pay accordingly."

Enjoying the luxuries of the Everett House was not cheap.  The most expensive suites rented for as high as $80 per week--more than $2,500 in today's dollars.  It prompted the Herald reporter to say somewhat sarcastically, "People with plenty of 'gold glistening through the interstices of their long silken purses,' who are fond of luxury and quiet, without the trouble of house-keeping, will find themselves about as comfortable and independent at the Everett House as under their own vine and fig tree."

The wealth of the hotel's residents was exemplified in a distressing incident in November 1854.   Starting around the first of the month, a deranged printer named Theodore H. Gray had been tossing acid on the expensive clothing of women leaving theaters.  When he was later caught he admitted "I first commenced throwing it on women of bad character, thinking it would benefit the community."  But quickly he took to throwing acid at New York's female elite.

On the evening of November 20 Daniel Cortman and his wife left the Everett House for the opera.  Mrs. Cortman was fashionably dressed in a silk gown and French cloak.  As they left the theater Gray rushed up and splashed "vitriol" on her clothing, ruining the attire which would be valued at nearly $7,400 today.

Along with certain European nobility, the Everett House attracted high level politicians.   When Presidential candidate James Buchanan arrived in New York on April 23, 1856, the city had already arranged rooms for him here.   And when Senator Stephen A. Douglas arrived with his family on December 28, 1858 representatives of the Common Council met them at the dock to escort them to the Everett House.

One full-time resident in 1860 drew attention for a much different reason.  Spiritualism--the belief that spirits of the dead could be communicated with by gifted persons--was widely popular.   Often the spiritualists were exposed as hoaxes, but a reporter for The New York Times was convinced by this one.

"It is really refreshing, after the numberless disagreeable and mischievous tricks which have been charged to the agency of the 'spirits,' to record one instance where they have taken a pleasant method of evincing their proximity to their earthly friends," said an article on February 28, 1860.  "The boarder at the Everett House are at present in a state of wondering excitement over sundry manifestations reported to have occurred in the family of an editor."

The article reported that one of the resident's children, a 12-year old girl, had "recently developed as a medium."  Her mother insisted that she would leave the child alone in a room, inaccessible from without, and would return to find a bouquet on the table, or a canary flying about the room--gifts from the spirits.  While the reporter was sold on the story, not all the Everett House guests were so sure.  "The matter affords an unceasing theme for the marvel-lovers at the hotel in question, though some are incredulous enough to doubt the spiritual origin of the gifts."

Another of the other permanent residents at the time was millionaire Jay Gould, who lived here at least through 1861.   The family of Samuel Clemens lived here during the summer of 1869 and two years later two high-profile guests, Mary Todd Lincoln and her son Tad, stayed in the hotel.

The Everett House was the scene of a glittering reception for Civil War General Daniel Edgar Sickles on June 30, 1869.   The New York Herald was impressed by the bipartisan (if male-only) outpouring of respect.  "Republican and democrat, radical and conservative, men of every stripe and of the highest standing in the community, were present, and had not the Committee of Arrangements decided on confining the reception entirely to gentlemen there is little doubt that the ladies would have mustered in strength and brought fresh accessions of guests to the beautiful parlors of the Everett House."

Henry Singleton was the "storekeeper" of the hotel that year; a position that involved maintaining the inventory of goods necessary to keep the hotel functioning.  On March 11 he enlisted the help of the building's engineer to help find a leak in a barrel of alcohol in the basement storeroom.

Of course, decades before the advent of electric lighting, they did so with the aid of a kerosene lamp.  It resulted in the barrel exploding.  Luckily neither man was seriously injured, although Singleton was burned about the face and his hair was singed.  But the explosion set fire to the hotel, causing $4,000 in lost stock and $1,500 damage to the building.

The New York Times reported "The event naturally created a panic among the guests of the house, who began to leave the house hurriedly, and whose excitement was not quelled until long after the fire had been extinguished."

In the 1860s and '70s the city's Democratic Party leased rooms in the Everett House for its headquarters.  In 1876 the Democratic National Committee had its home here when it campaigned for Governor Samuel J. Tilden for President.   Tammany Hall held sway over the New York Democratic organization in the late 19th century, so a particular gathering in the Everett House headquarters on March 1, 1878 was somewhat shocking.

The New York Herald reported "A conference meeting of a committee from the New York county democracy and a committee from what is known as the Everett House anti-Tammany democracy was held last evening at the Everett House, in the same rooms that were occupied in the fall of 1876 by the Democratic National Executive Committee."

from Scribner's Magazine, June 1890 (copyright expired)

As with all hotels, the Everett House had its share of scandal.  It was the scene of a shady and shocking incident in the spring of 1893.  Mrs. Minnie Porter was described by The Evening World as "a handsome, diamond-bedecked young woman."  The newspaper added "Just who she is has not yet been ascertained, but it is known that she is married and has a husband in Tennessee."

The New York Times dug up more information on the mysterious woman.  The newspaper said her husband "was a sporting man," adding "She was extremely gay and fond of wine, and she and her husband did not live happily."   Her fondness of wine was, apparently, excessive and The Evening World flatly said "her bibulous habits have attracted much attention"


Checking in about the same time as Mrs. Porter was Army Colonel David C. Houston.  Well-respected within the military community, his wife had died about 12 years earlier and he had no children.

On Sunday, May 14 Minnie Porter was carried out of the Everett House "in a dying condition" and taken to the alcoholic ward at Bellevue Hospital.  The Evening World said she "is a victim of the liquor habit."  Three days later she was still in a coma.

The same day that she was removed from the hotel, Colonel Houston vanished.  According to The Evening World, "It was said that the Colonel was acquainted with Mrs. Porter, and when she was taken to Bellevue Hospital he mysteriously disappeared."  He was later found at St. Vincent's Hospital where he had been taken "for nervous prostration" by friends.

The couple had secretly been romantically involved and their story had a tragic ending.  On May 21, 1893 The New York Times reported "The bodies of Col. David C. Houston, United States Army, who died in St. Vincent's Hospital Thursday of alcoholism, and Mr. Minnie Porter, his companion at the Everett House, who died from the same cause in Bellevue Hospital Friday evening, were taken from the city yesterday for burial."

Houston's military funeral was impressive.  "A great many military men attended the funeral, and all expressed deep regret for the death of Col. Houston, and particularly over the circumstances attending it."

The body of "the Porter woman" was taken from the morgue to New Haven, Connecticut by an aunt for burial.

A postcard, published in the 1890s, advertised suites at $21 per day.
In December 1906 the New-York Tribune published rumors that the hotel was on the verge of bankruptcy.  The newspaper recalled that "As the centre of the hotel district moved uptown, the Everett House maintained its popularity."  Now owned by the Everett House Company, its manager, William H. Parke, scoffed at the rumors, saying "the hotel had been doing a good business" and said it was clearing about $100 per day.

On December 25 The Times chimed in, remembering the hotel's impressive past.  "For many years it was the best-known hotel in New York.  The Prince of Wales, now King Edward VII, chose it as his stopping place when he visited this country many years ago, and the room he occupied is still a choice room in the hotel.  So is the room once occupied by the Duchess of Marlborough."

In 1906, other than the recent fire escapes, little had changed to the building since 1853.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.
Despite the management's denials, the end of the venerable hotel was near.  The building was foreclosed upon in 1907 and bankruptcy was forced upon the owners.   On the morning of June 16, 1908 a notice was tacked to the office bulletin board announcing that the building would be torn down to be replaced by a 20-story office building.  The New-York Tribune reported "The seventy-five guests, many of whom have been patrons of the hotel for years, looked at one another bewildered."

As The Times had done, the Tribune reminisced about the hotel's storied history.  "Prince Henry of Battenberg stayed at the Everett House and was wined and dined there, as did the Duchess of Marlborough, mother of the present Duke of Marlborough.  It was during the Civil War that the Everett House was at the height of its glory, and oldtimers say that the scenes there at balls and dinners were brilliant ones."

photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The developers gave a nod to the distinguished old hotel when it named the new building The Everett Building.  Completed in 1909, it survives.