Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The 1868 J. & J. Slevin & Sons Bldg - 53 Lispenard St.



As early as 1836 the family of Charles Copping lived in the brick-faced house and store at No. 53 Lispenard Street.   A boot and shoe maker, he ran his business from the ground floor.   By the early 1860s the Copping children were grown and, while still living in the house, had found jobs.

Charles Jr. was a watchman in the Custom House in 1860 when he became involved in a gruesome murder mystery.  A few minutes before 11:00 on the frigid night of February 10 he was on his way to the barge office to report for duty.   Another Custom House guard, William S. Tuers, was walking along Broadway with a woman, their pace so slow that Copping overtook them.

Tuers asked Copping the time and commented that he did not realize it was so late.  Copping continued on to work.  Twenty-five minutes later he heard that Tuers had been discovered murdered on State Street, apparently by a blow to the back of the skull.  Newspapers tagged the case "The State-Street Murder."  The perpetrators were never found.

Charles's sisters, Helen and Annie, both were teachers in Primary School No. 44 at Moore and Varick Streets by 1863.  Both were still working there in 1865; but the end of the line for their old family home was on the near horizon.

Tully Daniel Slevin and his wife, the former Susannah Mellon ,had arrived in New York City from Ireland in December 21, 1811.  After settling first on a small farm in Pennsylvania, the family moved to Perry County, Ohio.   As early as 1839 brothers James and John Slevin had set up a dry goods store in Cincinnati, called J. & J. Slevin.

The pair prospered.  The 1850 census showed John, his wife Ann, and their six children--James, John, Charles, Alfred, Mary Louise, and twins Thomas and Edward--with a staff of five servants in their Cincinnati home.

With plans to expand the business, James moved his family to New York around 1866.  He purchased the old Copping house and hired architect William H. Hume to erect a modest commercial building.  The once quiet residential block was already seeing the encroachment of businesses.

John Slevin as he appeared around the time he moved to New York City photo via WikiTree

Construction began in 1867 and was completed the following year.  Other than the cast iron storefront (manufactured by the foundry of Nichols & Billerwell), the four-story Italianate style structure appeared as much domestic as commercial.  Stone bandcourses connected the bracketed sills of the openings.  The center windows stood out with pedimented lintels.  The unpretentious structure was capped with by a handsome cast Italianate cornice.

Now known as J. & J. Slevin & Sons, the Lispenard Street operation listed a confusing tangle of Slevins as partners: James, Thomas E., John, James L. and John A.   The flourishing business would not survive very long.  In April 1872 James Slevin died.  That blow was followed by the Financial Panic of 1873--called The Great Depression until the 1929 Stock Market crash appropriated that designation--swept the country.

Thomas E. Slevin was the executor of his father's estate and in October 1873 he started selling off the family's real estate, including "the elegant residence, No. 7 West Thirty-Fourth Street," as described in the auctioneer's announcement.

The inevitable was announced in newspapers on Christmas Day, 1875.  The failure of J. & J. Slevin & Co. was lamented by The Cincinnati Enquirer, which said "Nothing could illustrate more sadly the uncertainty of mercantile affairs in these days of financial pressure and business depression."

In 1879 Jonathan Edwards contracted architect John J. Devoe, Jr. to erect a commercial building at No. 310 Canal Street.  The neo-Grec was connected internally with No. 53 Lispenard, directly behind.  

310 Canal Street was internally connected to the Slevin & Co. building directly behind.


Among the earliest tenants in the combined buildings was M. & C. Mayer, manufacturers of hosiery and knit goods.  Operated by brothers Max W. and Charles Mayer, the firm would remain in the building for decades before moving to Nos. 443-445 Broadway.

Michaelis Borchardt's neckwear factory was on the third floor in the mid-1880s.  Rather surprisingly, he brought his expensive wedding presents to the office for safekeeping in 1887 and placed them in the large safe.  On September 10 police were called when the safe was found broken into and its contents emptied.

The Sun reported that the store "was entered by burglars some time on Friday night and his safe, full of silk, was blown open and robbed of its contents.  It is supposed that one of the burglars secreted himself in the hall before the building was closed for the night, and let in his pals when the coast was clear."   Borchardt valued the loss of imported silk at $7,000--a significant $182,000 in today's dollars.  "His wedding presents, which were in the safe, were also taken," noted the article.

But the police were more baffled as to how the supposed crooks got away unnoticed.  The Sun said "How the burglars got away with their booty when, as the posts are short in that part of the town, policemen pass or ought to pass, the robbed building on Canal and Lispenard streets every few minutes is a mystery."

Michaelis Borchardt owed $2,500 to six creditors at the time.  Given his substantial loss in the robbery, he offered to pay each of them 25 cents on the dollar, "payable in March 1888" as reported in The Clothier and Furnisher.  His creditors, essentially with no other option, agreed.

The suspicions of police that there may not have been a burglary at all were heightened a few years later.  Borchardt abandoned the manufacture of neckties and went into the wine business.  His establishment was at the corner of Monroe and Spring Streets and was raided in 1896.  The American Stationer reported that "a large number" of bottles of wine were found to have counterfeit labels.

Borchardt offered his customers vermouth imported from Martine & Rossi of Turin, Italy.  In fact he had placed fake labels, printed by lithographer William G. Wolf on Reade Street, on bottles of cheap wine.  Both Wolf and Borchardt were charged for printing and using the "spurious labels."

In 1891 the ground floor shop on the Canal Street side housed a barber shop, while the Lispenard Street store was home to Regenard & Timmer, "dealer in woolens and tailors' trimmings."  On Sunday, April 26 the barber was just closing up when he noticed smoke coming through the wooden partition that separated the two stores.

The New York Times reported "Soon the smoke, which smelled of benzine, filled his shop.  The frightened barber ran around the corner into Lispenard Street and saw more smoke coming out of 53."  Firefighters arrived and broke open the door.  They were able to extinguish the fire; but once again investigators wondered whether this might be a home-made crime.

According to the fire department the fire "had been started in three different places under the shelves on the east side of the store.  Paper had been piled up and then set on fire."  Because the doors were locked and there was no evidence of forced entry, focus turned to the owners.  Both Capt. Stephenson of the Fifth Precinct and the members of the Fire Patrol thought the fire "was the work of an incendiary, and officers were sent in search of the proprietors of the store."

It was discovered that the contents of the store amounted to about $1,200; but was covered by about $6,000 in insurance.  Mr. Regenhard "could not conjecture how the fire started."

Other than the added fire escape, the Lispenard Street facade survives mostly intact.

In 1896 the buildings were sold at auction for $45,000, about $1.3 million today.  The ground floor office on the Canal Street side became a Wells Fargo branch for years, at least through 1907.  The upper floors continued to be home to garment related firms, like Adolph Abraham, manufacturer of embroideries.

Following World War I the area saw the garment and textile industry largely leaving the district.  The building was home to S. W. Altfeld, "notions and jewelry," in the 1920s.

In the 1940s the Supreme Miniature Fountain Co., The Canal Electric Motor, Inc., and Arjay Equipment Co. were here. The Canal Electric Motor, Inc., dealers in appliance motors, was in the building by 1949 and remained for at least two decades.

In May 1944 Arjay Equipment Co. advertised "A quantity of used Refrigerated Coin Operated Vending Bottle Drink Dispensers, having a capacity of 144 bottles with additional storage for 48 bottles...Sacrifice for quick sale."

In 1970 a renovation of the building resulted in a restaurant on the Canal Street ground floor and an electrical equipment repair store in the Lispenard Street store.  The upper floors were converted to office space; today they contain just four large apartments.

Architect Paul A. Castrucci's original renderings show his before-and-after vision. via castrucciarchitect.spuarespace.com

Then, in the fall of 2016 developers proposed to combine the buildings with No. 308 Canal and convert them to residential condominiums.  The renderings of architect Paul A. Castrucci depicted tall penthouse additions.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected those plans in November, and requested reworked designs.

The J. & J. Slevin & Bros. building on Lispenard (below) is less noticeably changed than the Canal Street structures in the final renderings.  The 1865 structure next door at No. 55 Lispenard Street, not so much.
In April 2017 the LPC approved Castrucci's third proposal.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Westside YMCA - 5 West 63rd Street


A Juliette-ready balconette clings to the facade high above 63rd St.

In 1928 the Young Men's Christian Association had significantly evolved since its first New York branch was organized in 1852.  Its organizers had been concerned with "improving the spiritual condition of young men," and focused greatly on teaching trades within a significantly religious environment.

Now, more than seven decades, later, the organization still sought to keep boys off the streets by providing wholesome activities, and still offered vocational classes.  The atmosphere, however, was now more club-like; without the rigid oversight of the Victorian reformers of generations earlier.

In 1928 the Y.M.C.A. broke ground for a new facility which was pronounced would be "the largest in the United States."  The sprawling site replaced old rowhouses at Nos. 3 through 11 West 63rd Street, and 8 through 12 West 64th Street.   The organization had commissioned 42-year old architect Dwight James Baum to design the structure.  The only high-rise building he would design, it would rise 14 stories.

Baum married historic Italian Renaissance and Romanesque styles to produce a structure mostly romantic and partly forbidding.  The 63rd Street elevation was plucked from Lombard Tuscany; the 64th from Florence,  On both Baum included brick balconies supported by deep corbels.  The front of the building, on 63rd Street, rose from its limestone base to a riot of setbacks, angles and towers,

Baum's office released a rendering as the building neared completion. (copyright expired)

The symmetrical 64th Street elevation, looking much like a Venetian palace, was more reserved but no less striking.  Here three sets of grouped, leaded windows sat within pointed arches, while just above six projecting gargoyles with medieval human faces projected far from the facade.

The 64th Street facade.

Baum used variegated brick ("shading from brown and red to pastel shades of gray, lavender and purple," according to The New York Times), which he highlighted with vivid terra cotta decoration.  Elaborate window surrounds and entranceways were executed in colorful terra cotta.  In most instances, the motifs echoed medieval decorative elements--figures that smacked of cathedral saints, a stunning medallion of St. George slaying the dragon, and full figured lions, for example.  But included in the 64th Street entrance were very modern characters sculpted by artist Thomas Hudson Jones; symbols of the activities in which the boys here would engage.

To the left of the 64th Street entrance can be found a football and tennis player.
And to the right a baseball player and golfer.  Note the extravagant terra cotta designs of the engaged columns.

The expert workmanship required in constructing the building was not overlooked.  In September 1929 ten workers were awarded certificates and gold buttons by the New York Building Congress as "awards for craftsmanship."  In reporting on the ceremony, The New York Times remarked that the building was nearing completion; adding "Its thirteen stories and penthouse provide 600 bedrooms, two swimming pools, three gymnasiums, a theatre, library classrooms and laboratories."

This entrance on 63rd Street features polished stone columns, elaborate terra cotta ornament and full-figured seated lions.

Completed in March 1930, the building cost $3.25 million--more than $47.6 million today.  In providing activities for 14,000 members, it included a staggering range of venues.   The largest of the three gymnasiums was 90 feet long and 60 feet wide with space for spectators.  An indoor running track, boxing and wrestling rooms, six handball courts, and a Turkish bath with "sun ray equipment," were included in the physical education areas.

Terra cotta made its appearance inside as well, as seen in the entrance to the cafeteria.  photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Times reported "The larger of the two swimming pools, 90 feet long, is said to be the first in America in which Pompeian tile is used in the walls.  It is surrounded by a gallery and is deep enough for safety in high diving.  The smaller pool is 75 feet long, decorated in figured blue Spanish tiling. Both have blue plaster ceilings with a star effect."

The "boys' pool" was decorated with "Pompeian tiles." photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
The West Side Y.M.C.A. was more than just athletics.  There were more than 20 "entertainment and activities rooms," classrooms and a theater.  While Baum had treated most of the rooms in the Italian style of the exterior; he added what The Times called "several novel rooms."  And novel they were.  There was a Totem Room, which housed a large native totem pole brought from Alaska; a forge room, a log cabin room, a "pirate ship's cabin," and even more unexpectedly, a "farm house attic."

The YMCA included a log cabin room (above) and a farmhouse attic...
and a pirate's ship cabin that was undoubtedly a favorite spot for young boys. photographs by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The West Side Y.M.C.A. had hardly settled in before plans were laid for a Trade and Technical School of the Education Department, which was currently being operated from rented space.  Dwight James Baum was recalled to design the architecturally-harmonious structure.  The New York Times reported it would be "in fifteenth century Lombardy style to match the West Side branch."

The brownstone-fronted buildings to the west of the new YMCA would come down for the new school structure.  photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The $375,000 building (including the land and furnishings) was completed in September 1931.  Here boys would be trained in technologically up-to-the-minute trades.  The organization announced that "among the courses to be offered will be radio mechanics, television, automobile mechanics, motion picture and sound projection, architectural and mechanical drawing and electrical work."


While boys and men came and went taking advantage of the many activities, the theater space was sometimes used by other groups.  Such was the case on December 21, 1931 when the Allied Forces for Prohibition held a meeting here.  Composed mostly of clergymen, the group's goal was to obtain "pledges from citizens to support only dry candidates" in the following year's elections.


The Allied Forces for Prohibition met in the auditorium (above).  Below is the Italian-styled library.  photographs by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Much more surprising was the Nisei Job Conference held here on September 13, 1941.  Sponsored by two Japanese organizations, the Tozai Club and the Japanese Students Christian Association, the conference addressed the problem of anti-Japanese sentiment which had resulted in many Japanese-Americans being unemployed.   The San Francisco Japanese American News reported that "it was stressed that a long-range program for nisei employment is expected to be formulated at the meeting."

Less than three months later, on December 7, Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor put a end to the  Conference's hopes.

The main reception area contained medieval-styled furniture and a tapestry.  The boys' entrance on 64th Street featured a bas relief frieze of young men playing a variety of sports. photographs by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

That event sparked the United States' entry into the war and left the American factory workforce significantly depleted.   The Westside Y.M.C.A. responded by announcing on October 3, 1942 "A special automobile mechanics course for women will be offered this month...The course has been scheduled at the request of many women who want to offer their services to aid in the war."


Following the war things returned to normal at the Westside Y.M.C.A.  It was frequently the scene of outside sports competitions.  On November 28, 1951, for instance, the Columbia Spectator announced that the Columbia Varsity fencers would face off with the Saltus Fencing Club here the next day.

Perhaps the first athlete trained here to gain international attention was gymnast John Pesha.  When the Illinois newspaper the Daily Illini listed the 1960 United States Olympic gymnastic team on February 13, 1959, Pesha's was among the six names.  The newspaper described him as "a former junior all-around champ from New York's Westside YMCA."

The Westside YMCA was a bargain in 1986.  The single room rent would be about $55.75 today.  The Stanford Daily, April 23, 1986
In 1986 the Trade and Technical School moved out of the 63rd Street building.  Following the construction of Lincoln Center nearby, the property values in the immediate neighborhood prompted the YMCA to merge the school with the Baldwin School and relocate.  The sale of the former school property resulted in its later being converted to apartments.

In the meantime the Westside YMCA continued to offer extensive programs to its members and visitors.  Today exercise classes are offered to both men and women which would puzzle and astound the members of 1930.  Included are instruction in belly dancing, spinning, yoga and karate.


Dwight James Baum's exotic Italian complex is an Upper West Side treasure; and its fanciful, delightful terra cotta ornamentation is a visual feast.

photographs by the author

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Lost Benjamin H. Field House - 21 East 26th Street



On May 27, 1920, when Arthur Hosking photographed the house, it was the last remnant of the elegant 1840s on the block.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

When Madison Square Park formally opened on May 10, 1847, the family of Benjamin Hazard Field had lived in their comfortable brownstone home on its northern edge for several years.  One of the first of the handsome mansions that would eventually encircle the park, it was four stories tall above an English basement.  Its Italianate style was the latest word in domestic architecture.  Molded architrave frames surrounded the openings, floor-to-ceiling French windows at the parlor level opened to a balustraded stone balcony, and a cast cornice, upheld by two sets of paired brackets at either end, completed the design.

Field could trace his American roots to Robert Feild who, according to historian Charles Morris in his 1894 Makers of New York: An Historical Work, accompanied his "intimate friend" Sir Richard Saltonstall to Massachusetts in 1645.  Morris pointed out "The name was eventually modified to Field."

The son of Hazard Field, Benjamin had been born in Yorktown, New York on May 2, 1814.  He came to New York following his schooling to enter the mercantile business of his uncle, Hickson W. Field.  In 1832, at the age of 18, he was made a partner.  Following his uncle's retirement in 1838, "Mr. Field, still but twenty-four years of age, had placed in his single hands the control of the whole great business of the house."  John Thomas Scharf noted in 1886, "Commencing a business career under the most favorable circumstances, he rapidly gained both fortune and fame."

That same year he married Catherine M. Van Cortlandt de Peyster, whose name alone suggested her sterling pedigree.  Her extended family included the Beekmans, Livingstons, Van Cortlandts, Van Rensselaers and de Peysters.  The couple would have two children, son Cortlandt de Peyster, born December 28, 1839, and daughter Florence, born March 30, 1851.

The family was in their East 26th Street home at least by 1846, when the roster of the New York Historical Society listed Field here.   A founder of the Society in 1844, he would serve as is treasurer for two decades, vice-president, and, in 1885, its president.

Benjamin Hazard Field, from History of Westchester County: New York, by John Thomas Scharf, 1886 (copyright expired)
Both Benjamin and Catherine were intensely interested in the plight of the poor.  Scharf said of Field, "But to him the earning of a fortune was simply a means to enable him to accomplish his ends--to show by a bright example the good that can be done by men possessed of wealth and actuated by the spirit that seeks the welfare of their race." 

In 1863 he became a vice-president of the New-York Eye and Ear Infirmary (later, in 1884, he became its president); he was involved with the New York Dispensary, the Sheltering Arms of the Children's Field, and the Roosevelt Hospital.  He was also a director in the New York Institute for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, and was connected with the Home for Incurables which he helped found.  He became its president in 1866.

Fields's club memberships reflected his scholarly interests.  Rather than seeking out prestigious social clubs, he became a member of the St. Nicolas Society, the Century Club, the American Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History.

His elevated position within the social and business community was evidenced in 1869.  When General Ulysses S. Grant assumed the presidency that year, General William Tecumseh Sherman took over as Commanding General of the Army.   Field was one of several wealthy New Yorkers who decided that to show their gratitude they would purchase Grant's former home for Sherman.   At around 11:00 on the morning of March 3, Field entered Grant's office with Alexander T. Stewart, Hamilton Fish, William H. Aspinwall and William Scott.  They were accompanied by four others, including Sherman's nephew, Alfred M. Hoyt and Civil War General Daniel Butterfield,

The Philadelphia newspaper The Evening Telegraph reported that the group handed Grant a bank check for $65,000 for "the purchase of the residence and furniture on I street for the purpose of presenting the same to General Sherman."  It was a magnanimous gesture, indeed, equaling more than $1.1 million today.


By now Field had been retired from active business for four years.  Cortlandt had graduated from Columbia College in 1859 and had taken over his father's business in 1861, at which time it was renamed Cortlandt de P. Field & Co.   He married Virginia Hamersly, the daughter John W. Hamersly, whom John Thomas Scharf called "a lady in whose veins runs the blood of some of the oldest families of this State."

When Benjamin Field commissioned Daniel Huntington to paint this charming portrait, Florence was still unmarried.  L-R, Catherine, Florence, Benjamin, Virginia and Cortlandt.  The family's cultural interests are reflected in Catherine's and Florence's thumbing through a book of prints, and Benjamin's holding an oil portrait.   from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

By now the 26th Street block facing Madison Square had filled with some of Manhattan's wealthiest families.  At the end of the block, on the opposite side of Madison Avenue, was the massive mansion of Leonard Jerome.  Next door to the Fields, at No. 23 was the Adrian Iselin family, "whose long connection with New York society has made them well know," as described by Morris Benjamin in his A Historical Sketch of Madison Square.   Other prominent families along the block were the Schieffelins, the James Burden family, bankers William and John O'Brien, and Mary Jane Morgan, the wealthy widow of Charles Morgan, at No. 7.

Like her brother, Florence married well.  In 1869 she was wed to David Wolfe Bishop who was related to the massively wealthy Catharine Lorillard Wolfe.  The spinstress had a fortune of about $12 million in 1872.  Her mansion, too, faced Madison Square Park and upon her death in 1887 it became the home of Florence and David.  The couple and their two sons, however, "very seldom live in their New York house," according to The New York Times a few years later, "but have remained almost entirely at their country home at Lenox."

The year before Florence and her husband inherited the Madison Avenue mansion, Catherine died in the 26th Street house.  She had been a founder of the Free Circulating Library of New York, and in her memory Cortlandt donated the Field Library to the village of Peekskill.  On April 27, 1887, The New York Times reported that Cortland had given the town $10,000 "as a memorial to his mother," and "also presented the library with a suitable building and lot in which to establish the new institution, and has supplemented the latter gift with a donation of 6,000 volumes."  The total cost of the gift was $20,000, more than $475,000 today.

Cortland and Virginia continued to live with Benjamin in the old family house.  Decades earlier when Cortland was still young and impetuous, Benjamin had entered into an agreement with him.  Now, despite his own substantial fortune, Cortland still held his father to it in a good-natured father-son bond.   Field explained to a reporter in August 1891, "When my boy was at college I agreed to pay for all of the cigars he might smoke, provided he would not chew tobacco.  He entered into the agreement, and although that was several years ago he still holds me to the contract."


In February 1893 Field attended a dinner at the Press Club.  A few days later he caught cold and his condition quickly deteriorated.  He died in the house on the afternoon of March 17.  Newspaper reports of his death overflowed with praise for his many philanthropies.

The New York Times said, "For many years his name has been chiefly associated with the multifarious charities which, since his retirement from business, occupied his entire attention."  The long list of institutions which had profited from his generosity was published across the country.

Benjamin Field's funeral was held in Grace Church on March 21.  Although the understated service had no pall bearers, the list of mourners in the church read like a Who's Who of powerful business and society names.

Although Madison Square had seen encroaching businesses for years, the 26th Street block was still intact at the time.  Joseph Frederick Kernochan lived at No. 11, and next door at No. 13 was Frank Work, a well-known banker and "horse fancier."   In 1896 historian Morris Benjamin said Work "has not missed his daily ride to Central Park for more than a quarter of a century."

At the turn of the century Stanford White's towering Madison Square Garden sat at the northeast corner of the park.  The Field house is to the left, and the Jerome mansion can be seen just left of the large tree.  photo by Edward Bartlett Lee, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

But in the first decade of the 20th century only three houses remained.  In 1911 Frank Work died and the following year, on April 2, his and the Kernochan house were sold "to make way for a new commercial structure," according to The Times.  The newspaper noted “Only one of the old-time residences will remain in the block when the Kernochan and Work houses are torn down—the old Field dwelling at 21 East Twenty-sixth Street.”   It added, “When Mr. Work took up his residence there Madison Square was the centre of fashionable residences, and he lived long enough to see the majority of them give way to towering commercial structures.”

Nevertheless, Cortlandt and Virginia remained in the house and continued to summer at their estate at Peekskill-on-Hudson.  It was there, in August 1918, that the 79-year old Cortlandt de Peyster Field died.  His body was returned to No. 21 East 26th Street and his funeral, like that of his father, was held in Grace Church.

As soaring commercial buildings continued to rise around Madison Square, the wealthy widow Virginia Hamersly Field contentedly stayed on in the last vestige of the park's elegant beginnings.   Developers had been eyeing the property for years when she died in the house on the night of June 20, 1922.

Virginia's estate included extensive real estate holdings, much of it "part of a grant to our family from Queen Anne," according to her will.  Those properties were around the towns of Pawling and Beekman, New York.  A large portion of her millions went to charity.  The will directed that "all the rest of the personal and real income from the will and estate of her late father-in-law, Benjamin H. Field, be given and used for the upkeep of the Field Home, at Yorktown, a sort of private home for the aged and infirm."

A specific detail in the will ordered the executors "to burn and destroy, unread, all diaries and journals of my father, my mother, my aunt, Mary Hooker, my sisters and my own diaries and journals."

The venerable Field mansion was demolished and replaced by the showroom and headquarters of a fabric importer, completed in 1924.   Designed by Treanor & Fatio, the neo-Classical structure survives, now as upscale condominiums known as The Whitman.

photo by Craig Warga, New York Daily News

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The 1902 Henri P. Wertheim Carriage House - 165-167 East 70th St




On the night of April 6, 1899 a gas line exploded in the brownstone house at No. 4 East 67th Street.   The blaze that followed resulted in multiple deaths and the complete gutting of what the Evening Times of Washington, DC called "this magnificent palace."

The following year, in October, banker Henri B. Wertheim and his wife, Clara, purchased the ruins and set architect John H. Duncan to work designing a five-story mansion on the site.  Steps away from Fifth Avenue and Central Park, it would be a showplace.

As the house rose, Wertheim turned his attention to a private stable nearby.   Also in the market for a carriage house was broker Julius Semon Bache, who lived a few houses away from the Wertheim site at No. 10 East 67th Street.  Bache's mansion had recently been remodeled by architect C. P. H. Gilbert   It appears the two millionaires now worked together on their stables projects.

On the same day, November 27, 1901, Charles Armbrecht sold the two three-story brownstone houses at Nos, 165 and 167 East 70th Street to Wertheim, and stable at No. 163 to Bache.   The location, between Lexington and Third Avenues, was conveniently close, yet far enough away not to sully their immediate neighborhood.  Both men commissioned C. P. H. Gilbert to design their handsome carriage houses.

Gilbert filed plans for both buildings on January 10, 1902.  The cost of Wertheim's 33-foot wide brick and stone structure was projected at $26,000--just over $715,000 today.   Four stories tall, the upper floors contained residential space for Wertheim's more important stable employees--his coachman's family, for example.   While a free apartment was a perk of sorts, it was also a concession to the employer.  By having their carriage drivers living above the stable Wertheim and other millionaires were assured that they were on call 24-hours.

The rusticated stone base included the centered carriage bay, flanked by an entrance and a window of matching proportions.  The two floors above were faced in buff-colored brick and trimmed in limestone.  The top floor took the shape of slate-shingled mansard faced with muscular stone dormers.

The operation of a private stable like this one required a large staff--stable boys who changed the hay and cleaned the stalls, grooms who bathed, fed and otherwise maintained the horses, and workers who cleaned and repaired the many vehicles.  The Wertheim carriage house would have been a bustling hive of activity.

Clara Wertheim died in childbirth in 1903.  Two years later, in April 1905, Henry remarried.  His bride, Gladys, was the daughter of the massively-wealthy investment banker Henry Seligman.  Little by little the newlyweds spent more time in Paris and less in New York.  Finally in 1911 Wertheim leased his mansion to Frederick Lewisohn. 

Werthein soon sold his carriage house  to another millionaire banker, Otto Kahn, who lived at No. 8 East 68th Street.  (Kahn's wife was the sister of Clara Wertheim.)   But when Kahn began construction of his lavish Italian palazzo on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 91st Street, the East 70th Street carriage house would soon become inconveniently remote.

By February 1915, when Kahn leased the building to William L. Strauss, motorcars were quickly supplanting horse-drawn vehicles as the preferred mode of transportation.  In reporting on the lease the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide described it as a "private garage."

Otto Kahn was, no doubt, displeased with the unfortunate press Strauss brought to his property.  It started on Independence Day that year when Strauss's chauffeur, Archie Senate, plowed down a traffic policeman in Far Rockaway.  The New York Times reported that Officer Washington Hegeman "was cut severely on the face and hip" and after being attended to by at doctor at the station house, was "later removed to his home."

But that was nothing compared to the scandal that was exposed four months later.  Strauss had been placing advertisements like the one that appeared in The Telegram which read in part:

At 165 East 70th, near Lexington, an opportunity presents itself to the private individual that never did before or ever will again.  This is a case of compulsion.  I, the owner, will sell the contents of my private garage, not stopping to think of the cost.

Strauss went on to describe limousines and touring cars "in A1 condition," including a "beautiful seven passenger Lewis," a "six cylinder Stevens-Duryea, used one season," and a "beautiful late model Cadillac" which would be "sacrificed" at $650 (more than $750,000 today).

The problem was, of course, that his was no "private garage" and these were not the vehicles of an owner who found himself in financial straits.  Every few days a new advertisement would appear, offering similar sacrifices.

The New-York Tribune exposed him, saying "Mr. Strauss's 'private garage' is about as private as Brooklyn Bridge."  Saying, parenthetically that "Mr. Strauss's English is a matter between him the 'The Telegram,'" the newspaper accused "it is fairly typical of the hoax-garage 'bargain.'"

Not surprisingly, Strauss's lease was not renewed and the following August The Times reported that "Otto H. Kahn has leased his large garage...to George H. Shaffer."

It appears, however, that Kahn already had intentions to dispose of the property.  On July 6, 1917 architects Walker & Gillette filed plans "for alterations to the garage and chauffeur's quarters" for the millionaire.  The remodeling, no doubt, would transform the carriage house to a proper, modern garage.  It was no small undertaking, with the costs equaling nearly $76,500 today.

In January 1920 Otto Kahn sold the garage to multi-millionaire Stephen Carlton Clark for about $80,000.   Clark was the son of Alfred Corning Clark.  His grandfather, Edward C. Clark, had amassed a fortune as the partner of Isaac Merritt Singer in the Singer Sewing Machine Company and had heavily invested in Manhattan real estate.

Clark had recently completed what the Record & Guide described as his "handsome residence" at the southwest corner of Park Avenue and 70th Street.   By now he was the owner and publisher of three Albany, New York newspapers.  But he was far more recognized for his valuable art collection and his generous philanthropies, notably in Cooperstown, New York where his family's country estates were located.

It was there, for instance, that he founded the Baseball Hall of Fame and paid for the construction of its building, completed in 1939.  He donated the family mansion, Fernleigh, once the home of James Fenimore Cooper, to the New York State Historical Association.  (It is now known as the Fenimore Art Museum.)

Clark commissioned architect Otto Semsch to update the garage.  The renovations still included chauffeur's quarters in the upper floors.  There was now space for 12 vehicles, a clear statement of Clark's wealth.

As the expansive carriage houses and garages of the early 20th century were razed or converted to residences, No. 165 stubbornly remained a private garage.  It was purchased by banking heir Paul Mellon and his wife, Bunny, after they constructed their 14-room townhouse nearby at No. 125 East 70th Street in 1965.

Mellon died in 1999, but Bunny continued living in the mansion and using the former carriage house as a garage, while reportedly storing furniture on the upper levels.  At the age of 99, she sold No. 165 to Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack and his wife, Christy, in August 2009.  At the time it was described as being in "distressed condition."  The couple paid $13.5 million for the property.



Interestingly, the Macks continued to live in their nine-room Lenox Hill penthouse.  It was not until about 2012 that they began converting the carriage house to a single-family residence.  The result was a 20-room mansion with 10,000 square feet of living space.

photographs by the author

Friday, January 26, 2018

Stereopticons, Mantillas and Cigar Store Indians - 579-581 Broadway





On March 14, 1859 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald:

Continuation of the Great Sale
At Weed's Mourning Store
The balance of this large and beautiful stock will be closed out at almost the purchasers own prices.  The greatest inducements offered.  Please call soon, as the business will be closed in a short time.
WEED'S Mourning Store
579 Broadway

Mourning stores were essential to Victorian women, who wore black for a year following a relative's death and whose wardrobes were strictly regimented by protocol.  But Weed's Mourning Store had to relocate for very good reasons.  Its building was coming down.

The estate of Mrs. Astor Langdon had already laid plans for a modern retail structure to replace the old building and the one next door at No. 581.  Five months later construction was well underway when tragedy struck.

A mason, Peter Caviner, was descending a ladder with his box of tools on the afternoon of August 19 when he lost his grip.  He fell 20 feet to the ground where he died within only a few minutes.  His body was taken to his home at No. 137 West 30th Street where The New York Times said "he leaves a wife and children."

The double building was completed in March 1860.  While other commercial buildings rising throughout the district featured rows of arched openings, the architect of 579-581 turned to crisp, rectangular windows with architrave surrounds.   The openings of each succeeding floor were slightly diminished, keeping the visual weight of the composition anchored.

The cast iron base was produced by Badger's Architectural Iron Works.  Although they appeared to be a single structure, the two buildings operated separately.    No. 581 became home to the Edward Lambert & Co. store which opened on Monday, April 23, 1860.  It offered a variety of ladies' accessories like embroidered handkerchiefs, lace capes, and "real point lace collars and sets."

New-York Daily Tribune, April 23, 1860 (copyright expired)
The store of Warner, Peck & Co. was next door.  That firm not only sold bronze and brass gas fixtures, but assembled them here as well.  An advertisement on October 23, 1862 in The New York Times read "Gas Fixtures of every description will be found at the great manufacturing depot, No. 579 Broadway.  Wholesale dealers particularly invited to call and examine stock."

Meanwhile, the upper floors filled with a variety of shops.  Thomas W. and Charles Whittemore moved into No. 579.  Their firm manufactured and sold looking glasses, like the enormous pier mirrors which filled the spaces between the windows in elegant Victorian parlors.  And by 1862 James L. Warner had opened the New York branch of the London Stereoscopic Company here.

That store moved from nearby No. 534 Broadway.  The stereoscope, or stereopticon, was a favorite accessory in 19th century homes.  Families would pass around the gadget which produced three-dimensional views on slides.  Full series of these slides offered armchair trips to foreign lands or humorous scenarios--essentially mini-plays on cards.   

In August 1863, for instance, Warner advertised a new delivery from London of "the most splendid Card and Stereoscopic Photographs of their H. R. H. Prince and Princess of Wales, taken at their private palace, Sandringham.  Also stereoscopic Views of the Exterior and Interior of the Palace."

The devices offered by the London Stereoscopic Company were not cheap.  One model, made of rosewood, was offered at $20, nearly $700 in today's dollars.

Warner experienced some trouble on his way to work on November 13, 1864.  As he walked along Bleecker Street, two men attacked him.  The New York Times reported "One of the ruffians came up behind him and struck him a violent blow, and as he turned for the purpose of defending himself, the accomplice dealt a blow that nearly brought him down."

Although stunned, Warner fought back and managed to wrest himself free.  He ran onto Broadway where his attackers caught up with him.  One grabbed him by the throat and choked him until he fell to the pavement.  "They then caught hold of the chain attached to a double-cased gold hunting watch which was in Mr. Warner's vest pocket," explained the newspaper.

The gold chain snapped and the thieves ran off with the valuable watch.  But Warner's cries had alerted policemen and "after an exciting chase" James Wilson and C. Parker were captured.  They were held on a staggering $1,500 bail each.  The Times noted "Mr. Warner believes the assassins knew he had a $350 watch on his person."

By the time of the terrifying incident the Civil War had been raging for three years.   Also occupying space in No. 579 was the Headquarters of Tompkins Cavalry.   On June 20, 1863 it would become part of the 13th New York Cavalry Regiment, along with the Dames Light Cavalry and the Horatio Seymour Cavalry.  

But ten days before that happened an officer lost a valuable item.  An advertisement in the local newspapers announced "Lost--Thursday, June 10--A black leather valise, containing clothing and a pair of Officer's Epaulettes.  A liberal reward will be paid on returning same to the Headquarters Tompkins Cavalry, 579 Broadway."

Among the first occupants upstairs in No. 581 was L. Binns's Millinery.   In February 1861 the store had a sale which it touted as a "Great Amusement."  The ad sheds light onto the extraordinary variety of hats necessary for very specific functions.  "Opera bonnets at half price; evening bonnets, new styles, at half their value; skating hats for Ladies, new styles; ribbons, flowers, and feathers, at reduced prices."

L. Binns's both made and sold its hats here and was apparently doing a fine business.  In 1862 the firm was looking for salesmen and three trimmers.  It also offered a position to an apprentice, which would have been a teen-aged girl.

The following spring Binns's added another item to its offerings.  "Children's Hats at L. Binns' Millinery--Opening of Children's Hats this week.  Summer Bonnets, very stylish.  Also Straw Bonnets and Travelling Hats."

By now Warner, Peck & Co. had become Warner, Miskey & Merritt.  An advertisement in January 1864 may have hinted at troubles within the firm.  "Wanted--A competent person to assist in the management of a lamp and gas fixture manufactory; one having a knowledge of the business preferred." 

Whether they got their competent person or not, the business would not last much longer.  On May 18, 1865 an announcement in the New-York Daily Tribune read "Gas Fixtures at Greatly Reduced Rates--As we shall close our store, No. 579 Broadway, on the 1st of July next, we are closing out our large assortment of Gas Fixtures and Bronzes at about cost."

The London Stereoscopic Company would remain in No. 579 at least through 1869, and Whittemore Brothers stayed on until about 1900.

Following Edward Lambert & Co. in the store next door was Siberia Ott's piano and organ showroom.   At the same time, Charles Bruno's musical instrument shop was upstairs, as were the offices of the Finkle & Lyon Sewing Machine Co.

In 1866 Bruno listed himself in The Merchants' Directory as "importer and dealer in musical instruments, strings, etc., Robert Nunns' (Late Nunns & Clark's) piano fortes, and C. F. Martin's Guitars, 581 Broadway, New York, up-stairs."   In the same directory, Siberia Ott touted "S. D. & H. W. Smith's American Organs are the best Reed Instrument made, and excel in purity of tone and excellency of workmanship."

Like Bruno upstairs, Ott represented several manufacturers.  Herald of Health magazine, July 1866 (copyright expired)
The firms shared the building with another instrument dealer, J. F. Browne, harp manufacturer.  Established in London in 1810, it moved to New York in 1841 and was now headed by George H. Buckwell.  Illustrated New York called it "one of the oldest and best known harp manufacturing houses in existence" and said "The instruments of this house have long since become famous throughout the civilized world."

The New York State Business Directory, 1866 (copyright expired)
The Astor Estate owned both buildings in 1873 when it was slapped with fire violations.  The Fire Department insisted that the structures be given a "fire escape and scuttle ladder."  (A scuttle ladder would provide occupants access to the hatchway opening onto the roof in case of emergency.)

The 1870s saw a change in the type of tenants in both buildings.  James McB. Davidson had moved his safe company into No. 581 by 1870.    When notorious Tammany Hall leader William M. Tweed was brought to trial in 1873 on corruption charges, James McB. Davidson was pulled into the messy investigation.  He had supplied New York County with safes in 1870, submitting an invoice for $16,940--a little over $300,000 today.   While Davidson was paid the invoice amount, the "warrant' drawn for payment was $49.479.  Where the missing $33,000 went was an issue.

Tweed's attorney attempted to discredit Davidson's testimony.  He asked one witness, Henry W. Genet, "Did he carry on any other business at 581 Broadway than that of safe-making?"

"Not that I know of sir."

"Didn't he keep a drinking place there, or something of that kind?"

Genet seemed a bit taken aback, answering "Not that I know of, sir, unless as a family affair, the same as you might come into my house, and get a drink."

At the time the ground floor store was home to the showrooms of the American Clock Company.  As Christmas approached in 1872, The Evening Post remarked on the Seth Thomas' Sons & Co. mantel clocks available there.  "They are not only unrivaled as time-keepers, but are in conception, design, and construction highly credible productions in the fine and industrial arts; making the fully equal in finish and beauty to the best French mantel clocks, but much their superior in recording time, and sold at lower prices."

A few months later, on March 15, 1873, the Evening Mail (no doubt prodded by a financial nudge from the American Clock Company) wrote "The man is a very selfish or a very thoughtless one who indulges in costly luxuries for himself, while he omits to provide inexpensive comforts for his family; and yet how many of us are there who, with hundred dollar watches in our pockets, fail to furnish decent ten or twenty dollar clocks for our homes.  The salesmen of the American Clock Company, No. 581 Broadway, can help you in selecting."

The $2 clock would be about $40 today.  New-York Tribune, December 23, 1873 (copyright expired)
D. B. & H. M. Lester was in No. 581 by 1887.  Makers and wholesalers of men's hats, it offered a dizzying array of styles.  

In 1888 the firm covered its political bases by offering The Cleveland Hat as well as The Harrison Hat.  The Clothier & Furnisher (copyright expired)

D. B. & H. M. Lester did business here until 1899 when David B. Lester retired because of "stomach trouble and other complications."   Another millinery-related firm, Stein& Heilbrun had operated in the building for at least a decade.  Importers and manufacturers of artificial flowers and "ostrich and fancy feathers," for the hat trade, it had a branch store in Paris.

Women's hat styles of the 1880s and '90s devastated some bird populations, a trend clearly seen in an announcement in Millinery Trade Review in October 1889.  "Stein & Heilbrun, 581 Broadway, are receiving new styles of fancy feathers from Paris by every steamer arriving.  All the scarcer kinds of birds, wings, and their arrangements with paradise plumage and aigrettes in tasteful mountings, will be found in the assortments.  Their manufactures of ostrich plumes and tips in plain colors, black, and fancy shaded effects are selling readily."

A far different product was that sold by R. Rothschilds' Sons Company next door.  The Cincinnati-based firm made and sold "bar, saloon, office and store fixtures."  Organized in 1889, it opened its New York showroom in 1891.

An R. Rotchschild's Sons Co. catalogue pictured items like a fully-outfitted cigar store and carved and painted cigar store Indians.  (copyright expired)

Although the firm had seemed to be doing well, it declared bankruptcy in July 1897.

The upper floors by now held millinery firms, like the building next door.  Oestereicher & Meyer, "caps;" was here in 1899 as was Velleman & Co., "women's hats."  A far different tenant, however, was the Government auction goods firm of Francis Bannerman.

The New-York Tribune noted on December 21, 1905 that he had been "for many years at No. 579 Broadway" and explained "The government sells to Bannerman large lots of military goods made obsolete by the change in army regulations."   He did not sell everything, however; instead he set aside those items he felt had historic interest.

When he moved out of No. 581 Broadway to his own building nearby at No. 501, he included a military museum "said to be the best of its kind in this country" and free to the public.  The Tribune reported "The original Washington pistols, used by George Washington, can be seen; also cannon used by the Rough Riders in the Spanish war, and all the flags and signals used by Admiral Dewey when he sank the Spanish fleet."

The explosion of a kerosene lamp in the "clothiers' linings" shop of Milius, Guggenheimer & Co. on January 24, 1901 at around 2:30 p.m. caused a small fire.  Although it required a response from the Fire Department, it caused more panic than damage.  The firm would remain in No. 581 at least through 1919.

Both buildings continued to house mostly hat-related companies.  In 1920 N. A. Spiesberger, "millinery and ribbons," and J. Spiesberger "ladies' hats," shared the upper floors of No. 579 with the millinery shops of A. Baron and I. O. Daniels, and the "flowers, feathers, and trimmed hats" shop of S. Marks.

Next door Messrs. Lowenstein represented hat firms like the Standard Hat Works and Baron Bros. Millinery Co., headquartered in Dallas.   By 1920 the hosiery, underwear and knit goods firm of J. Altmark & Son had moved in.

In 1950 the buildings were joined internally with Nos. 150 and 152 Mercer Street, directly behind.  The changing personality of the neighborhood was evidenced in 1976 when apparel and hat firms were replaced with theater and dance companies.  

By 1976 the Appelby Studio, a dance venue, had opened in No. 579.  On September 19 that year Don McDonagh, writing in The New York Times gave a brutally honest review saying "The sense of puzzlement around by Mobius, a company of skilled dancers and limited creativity was epitomized in a dance called 'Really, Really (Truly) Really' on Friday evening at 579 Broadway.  It was technically demanding, mysteriously self-involved and ultimately vacuous."

His opinion of Margie Gillis's performance at Appelby Studio the night before was only a little more positive.  "It was a solo program of raw emotional expression without much intervening craft."

By 1990 the art gallery Coupe De Grace had opened here.  But the 21st century would see even starker change.  In 2017 the upper floors were converted to three to four "living-working quarters for artists" per floor, according to Department of Buildings documents.


The ground floor retail spaces were remodeled; however their historic cast iron elements and even the unusual Victorian entrance doors were preserved.

photographs by the author

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The 1902 Caledonian Insurance Bldg - 50-52 Pine Street



In 1894 the Caledonian Insurance Company, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, established its United States Branch at Nos. 27-30 Pine Street.  According to the firm's History of a Hundred Years, 1805-1905, "Such had been the growth of the business, that arrangements were made which resulted eventually in the purchase of a valuable property at 50-52 Pine Street."

Sitting on the site was the old Mercantile Exchange Building, which had been used as the home of the Down Town Club since around 1877.   On October 24, 1899 The New York Times announced that the insurance firm "will erect immediately a twelve or fifteen story office building.   The structure will embody all modern improvements with extra high ceilings, and much space devoted to courts for light and air."  The article projected that the new building would be ready for occupancy on January 1, 1901.

When the Caledonian Insurance Company purchased the property, this building was on the site.  sketch by Pettit & Field, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Something happened, however, and the deal fell through.  But the Caledonian Insurance Company kept its eye on the property and when it came up at auction in March 1901, three of the firm's trustees were in the crowd of bidders.  This time they were more successful, paying $175,000 for the old building.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported less than a month later, on April 13, that the firm had wasted no time in hiring an architect and planning a new building.  "Plans have been drawn by James B. Baker...for a 15-sty office building to be erected on the site."

Construction took less than a year and on May 3, 1902 the Record & Guide reported that "The Caledonian Building, at 52 Pine st., containing some one hundred and thirty offices, has been fully rented with the exception of seven small rooms.  Insurance companies, brokers and lawyers are the tenants."

sketch from
History of a Hundred Years, 1805-1905 (copyright expired)

Baker's handsome stone and brick building featured a two story Beaux-Arts style base with frothy carved decorations, including two exuberantly-framed oculi over the side entrance doors.  Stately Corinithian columns upheld the entablature which proudly announced the firm's name.

The midsection was faced in buff colored brick, each story separated by a crisp cornice.  Splayed lintels with paneled keystones distinguished the openings.  Fussy decoration reappeared at the top two floors which nestled below a deeply overhanging cornice.

One major tenant which did not fall into the categories of "insurance companies, brokers and lawyers" was Tams, Lemoine & Crane, yacht brokers, and naval architects and engineers.   The firm was well-known among the nation's yachting community, selling sleek vessels to millionaires.   It had scored a coup several years earlier at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.  The Sun reported "Tams & Lemoine supplied most of the yachts that were bought up by the Government."

Yacht architect Henry Barbey was a partner in Tams, Lemoine & Crane.  The well-to-do designer was an early automobile owner and was arrested for speeding along the west drive in Central Park in the fall of 1905.  He may have been momentarily relieved when he appeared in court on October 24 and saw that the judge was his long-time friend, Magistrate Barlow.  But there would be no partiality in this case.

"So you're here at last," said the judge.  "I thought the police would get you."  He fined his friend $5 (about $130 today).  The Evening World reported "Mr. Barbey paid the clerk and then joined the magistrate at the bench and laughed at the joke on himself."

Tams, Lemoine & Crane not only sold expensive vessels to wealthy sportsmen, it got rid of their old ones.  In 1906, for instance, the firm sold Edwin Gould's 154-foot steam-powered yacht the Aileen to the Cuban Government.

Tams, Lemoine & Crane designed and built a variety of crafts, like the houseboat shown above, and the streamlined yacht below Yachting magazine, October 1914 (copyright expired)

Ashton Lemoine never married and, despite his having made a million dollars in the stock market in one year alone, he shared rooms in a bachelor apartment on East 29th Street with two other wealthy businessmen.  On the cold evening of February 12, 1907 he dressed in evening clothes and told his roommates merely that he "was going to dine at Sherry's."  His plans were more extensive, however.

Later that night he entered the lobby of the Bijou Theatre with a woman.  He bought two orchestra seat tickets for All-of-a-Sudden Peggy.  Just as he turned away from the box office, he fell to the floor.  The Sun reported "His head struck the marble tiled floor and his opera hat bounded across the lobby."  Lemoine was dead.

When his female companion realized he was dead, she tried to bolt, but was stopped by a theater employee.  She refused to give her name and the mystery of her relationship with Lemoine and her identity seem to have never been solved.

On January 14, 1907 the Russo-Chinese Bank, headquartered in St. Petersburg, opened a branch office in New York on the second floor of the building.  The bank explained its purpose was "the furtherance of American trade with Russia and the Far East."  Three years later, its principals would be scrambling to do damage control.

The bank's agent, Gustav Gertz, left for Europe on vacation in July 1910.   Two weeks later headlines shocked newspaper readers across the country.  The Sun's headline on July 23 read "Strong Box Looted of $70,000 of Bonds / Agency of Russo-Chinese Bank in Pine Street Robbed Strangely / Manager is On a Vacation."

It was a major problem for the bank, the negotiable bonds equaling about $1.75 million today.   Spokespersons repeatedly assured the press that the bank was fully protected against loss; however The New York Times was skeptical.  'In spite of this statement," it said on July 26, "doubt was expressed that the Russo-Chinese Bank would be able to recover the stolen bonds, and Wall Street discussed this phase of the case all day."

The identify of the culprit was discovered just three days after the loss was reported.  Erwin Wider was a cashier who made $25 a week.  But while his name was now known, his whereabouts were not.  On July 27 The Times noted "At Police Headquarters it was said last night that no trace of Wider had yet been found.  Detectives have been watching his house in the Bronx."

As it turned out, Wider had been spiriting bonds for months.  The New-York Tribune reported "Wider's downfall came as a result of the allurements of Wall Street, and it was stated positively by one of his intimates last night that the missing bonds were put up as margins for speculations."

The article continued "For the last few months, it was said, he had been living high, spending freely, and riding in taxicabs instead of streetcars.  His wife, who has disappeared for the present, is said to be broken own physically from the shock of their troubles."

Surprisingly, the German-born Wider was spotted by Detectives Thomas Hughes and Louis Hyams "walking carelessly through the downtown business district," according to The Times on July 30, just a few blocks from No. 50-52 Pine Street.  He was accompanied by his lawyer, Leon B. Ginsburg and a law clerk, Alexander Henshall.  Wider had shaved his mustache and his altered appearance almost worked.

"If that fellow had a mustache he might be our man," Hughes was reported to say.  Hyams took a closer look and answered "He's Wider, all right."

Wider was arrested and held in The Tombs.  His doctor told reporters he had developed "acute suicidal mania," and his lawyer added he "was very ill, being unable to eat or retain any food."  His jail keepers disagreed.  On August 1, 1910 The New York Times reported "Keepers in the Tombs, where Wider is confined, laughed when asked about Wider's reported refusal to eat to starve himself to death.  'He eats like a longshoreman,' said Head Keeper John Hanley."

Wider had confessed to the crime, but it was not until February 1911 that he was sentenced.  The District of Columbia Alexandria Gazette reported on February 9 that he was sentenced to "14 years imprisonment."

The Caledonian Insurance Company was notified in the summer of 1914 that their handsome Corinthian columns "encroached" on public property.  The city demanded that it get is sidewalk space back.  In response, the architectural firm of Nast & Springsteen was commissioned to redesign the two lower floors.  They replaced the columns with flush piers that terminated in huge scrolled brackets.



By 1913 W. S. Barstow & Co. had its headquarters in the building.  It advertised at the time as "Consulting and Construction Engineers."  But as the years progressed, the firm would greatly diversify.   The company exhibited its patriotism in 1916 after Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa attacked the border town of Columbus, New Mexico.  National Guard units were mobilized to find Villa and to guard the border.   On July 1, 1916 W. S. Barstow & Co. announced it would "continue the salaries of employes enlisted in the guard and hold their positions for the period of enlistment."

Tams, Lemoine & Crane were still in the building and would remain well into the 1920s.  Other tenants included attorneys Aron & Vanderveer, public accounts West & Flint, and insurance firm Alberti, Baird & Carleton, Inc.

In 1918 the National Surety Company leased the ground floor for its underwriting office.  The firm marketed itself as both "the World's Largest Surety Company" and "America's Largest Burglary Ins. Co."  That same year the investment firm of Case, Pomeroy & Co. took two floors, signing a lease totaling $75,000. 

Two years later real estate operators may have been surprised when, in March 1920, the Caledonian Insurance Company sold its building to its tenant, Alberti, Baird & Carleton, Inc.  The Caledonian Insurance now became a renter in the building it had erected as its headquarters.

In reporting on the sale, the Record & Guide called Alberti, Baird & Carleton, Inc, "one of the most prominent insurance brokerage firms in the district."  Saying that building was valued at about $1 million and had a rent roll of approximately $100,000 a year, the journal noted it "will be renamed the 'Alberti Building.'"

The new owners may have given No. 50-52 Pine Street a new name, but they allowed the Caledonian Insurance Company name to remain deeply carved into the entablature.

Among the major clients of Alberti, Baird & Carleton, Inc. was the White Star Line.  Both firms would be drawn into a world-wide controversy in 1925 when the White Star liner Homeric happened across the floundering Japanese freighter S. S. Raifuku Maru off Nova Scotia on April 21.

As that vessel slowly sank, its crew hoped for rescue by the luxury passenger ship.  Instead, all 38 members drowned.  When the Homeric steamed into New York harbor, its passengers were quick to express anger.  One, Amos R. E. Pinchot told The New York Times:

"We could see men climbing over the side of the Japanese ship.  Some were swept overboard, others tried to cling to the bottom of the overturned ship.  We could see them with our naked eyes.  People who had glasses could see them very plainly, as they were clinging to the rail.  Others--many others--drifted down to within 150 to 200 yards of the stern of our ship.  There were three or four in one group.  They gradually dropped out of sight.  We were standing still.  Almost immediately after the Japanese ship was capsized we continued on our way."

In the meantime, W. S. Barstow continued to increase his interests and his fortune.  That same year The New York Times announced "The Binghamton Light, Heat and Power Company, of which W. S. Barstow...is President, probably will be sold to the American Gas and Electric Company."

Three years later the newspaper announced that Barstow, under his Central Gas and Electric Corporation at No. 50 Pine Street would be erecting "the largest dam in cubic content in America and possibly in the World."  Located ten miles outside of Columbia, South Carolina, the project would create a lake "twice the size of Lake George, 30 miles long and fourteen wide."  Barstow told reporters the "first expenditure" would be $20 million and would provide electricity to nearly the entire state.

The building continued to house mostly brokerage, attorney and insurance firms.  In the early Depression years the brokerage company A. W. Porter & Co. was here.   Arlington W. Porter had been connected with Wilson & Co. until 1924 when that firm declared bankruptcy.

Porter was sitting at his desk on June 28, 1935 when 57-year old Joseph Sullivan barged into his office, walked over to him and said "I've been looking for you for eleven years and now I've got you."  He drew a pistol from his pocket and added, "Now, give me my money back or I'll kill you."

Porter started to stand up, but was ordered "Sit down and write out a check for $7,000.  Do it quick and I'll call everything even."  The executive apparently looked puzzled, because Sullivan continued, "You remember how you took $1,200 from me when you were with Wilson & Co. and knew all the time the house was bankrupt."

Despite having a gun pointed at his head, Porter negotiated and the two agreed on a lesser amount.  He wrote out a check for $1,500 and sent an assistant along with Sullivan to cash the check.  Immediately after they left, Porter called the police, directing them to the Continental Bank and Trust Company at No. 30 Broad Street.

Sullivan was standing in line at the teller's window when he was arrested by detectives.  At the station house his story changed.  He now said that Porter "had accepted $4,800 from him for a brokerage account when the first was in bankruptcy."  He pleaded not guilty to robbery and Sullivan Law (gun possession) charges.   Following his indictment by a grand jury, the judge ordered him taken to the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital "for observation as to his sanity."

A colorful occupant of No. 50-52 at the time was mining engineer and promoter Charles V. Bob.   The millionaire had paid $108,000 towards Byrd's 1928 expedition to the Antarctic, resulting in a mountain range being named after him.   But his reputation became tarnished when he was tried in 1931 on charges that he defrauded the public in selling stock of Metal and Mining Shares, Inc., and Mineral Research Corporation, which failed after the Stock Market Crash with losses of $6 million.

That trial ended in a hung jury, as did the second in 1932 and the third in 1935.  After that trial, he demanded a Congressional investigation, saying he was being persecuted.   The U.S. Attorney's office dismissed the old indictment.  But he would not be out of hot water for long.

In May 1938 he was charged with new fraud charges.  On February 3, 1939 he was found guilty of five mail fraud counts and one of conspiracy and sentenced to five five-year sentences for the mail fraud and two years on the conspiracy count.

The indictment had said in part, "In furtherance of the fraud, the defendants operated 'boiler rooms' at 50 Pine Street."  The term "boiler room" referred to the sale of fake investments by telephone.

In the mid 1940s the building was purchased by the city.  Among the departments housed there was the office of the Investigation Commissioner.  John M. Murtagh was tasked with digging into a wide range of issues associated with possible government corruption.

In the summer of 1947, for instance, he delved into the possible collusion between Idelwild Airport officials and the Gulf Oil Corporation.  That same year he looked into gambling on Wall Street, parking bribes taken by policemen, questionable pier leases, police graft in Queens and the racketeering in the sale of fuel oil and kerosene during "storm distress."

A major investigation in 1948 involved the city's milk purchases.  The suspicion was that members of the La Guardia administration had conspired to fix prices with major dairies.  And in 1949 he took on a potentially dangerous adversary--the mafia and the longshoremen.  On May 4, 1949 he characterized dock workers as "mysterious."  He promised that his investigation was "the first step in eliminating irregularities and racketeering."

Murtagh's wide-spread investigations went so far as to include ticket scalping for the hit Broadway plays South Pacific and Kiss Me Kate in 1949.

The Red Scare of the 1950s and '60s showed up at city level in 1964 when the Department of Investigation, now under Commissioner Leon A. Fischel, subpoenaed members of the Mobilization for Youth to testify before its investigation of Communist infiltration.   Three of the seven refused to appear, sending letters instead that said the Mobilization for Youth was "beyond the jurisdiction of the Department of Investigation of the city" and added that the information sought was "irrelevant to the interests of the city."

Fischel fired back in asking the State Supreme Court to issue a show-cause order.  "This is no witch hunt.  I don't want to accuse people unfairly, but we'll keep subpoenaing until we get results."

After it sat vacant for six months, the city sold No. 50-52 Pine Street on November 10, 1966.  It was purchased by the Sylvan Lawrence Company for $500,000.    The firm announced it would "modernize the building, rent the office space, and hold the property as an investment."



Major change came in 1998 when a conversion of the upper floors to residential space was initiated.  Today there are two apartments per floor.   A franchise doughnut shop operates from the ground floor once home to insurance brokers.  Sadly the exquisite foliate carvings over one of the doors and surrounding its round window were for some reason stripped off at some point.

photographs by the author