Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The 1913 Goupil Building - 56-58 West 45th Street

At the turn of the last century West 45th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was still holding on as an upscale residential block.   The widowed Mrs. Henrietta Holbrook lived in the three-story brownstone at No. 56.  Before long her next door neighbor would be a men's social club.  In 1906 the Caduceus of Kappa Sigma noted "The Cornell Club also has a house of its own, having recently made its home in a five-story, brown-stone house at 58 West Forth-fifth street."

But change was most definitely on the horizon.  Already hotels and shops were inching into the neighborhood.  The end of the line for both buildings came in 1912.

George Backer ran the George Backer Construction Company and he often acted as his own developer.  On August 3, 1912 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted that "Work will start immediately on the 16-sty office building to be erected at 56-58 West 45th st. for George Backer."

Backer commissioned the firm of Wallis & Goodwillie to design the structure.  Frank E. Wallis was a respected architect who also wrote articles and books like his ABC of Architecture.  His partner, Frank Goodwillie, specialized in the engineering aspects of their projects.

Costing $300,000--a stunning $7.3 million today--the building was completed in September 1913.  The New-York Tribune commented that it "is considered one of the finest office buildings north of the Grand Central Station."   Wallis & Goodwillie had produced a striking neo-Gothic structure entirely clad in white terra cotta.  A two-story eliptical arch at street level fronted the retail space.  A row of medeival masks connected by ribbon decorated its edge.

Elaborate Gothic elements decorate the lower facade.

The lower three floors and top two were heavily embellished with Gothic motifs--quatrefoil panels, heraldic shields, and pointed arches, for instance.   The spandrel panels of the midsection offered repeating tapestries of geometric lines and rosettes--a bit more Tudor than Gothic.

There was one non-commercial occupant.  The 17th-floor contained a nine-room apartment for George Backer.  He also moved the offices of his construction firm into the building, and, interestingly, Wallie & Goodwillie moved in as well.

The retail store was leased to Goupil & Co., of Paris, dealers in costly prints, paintings and other artwork.  The firm had established a New York City branch as early as 1857.  George Backer named his building after his prize tenant.

The Sun, April 30, 1916 (copyright expired)

While the bulk of the early tenants were unexceptional--the Parks & Weiss Agency, real estate offices; the Falk Tobacco Co., and James M. Faust real estate, for instance--one stood out.  On October 4, 1913 the Record & Guide ran a headline reading "A Novel Lease" and explained that Dr. Watson L. Savage intended to open what today is commonplace--a gym.

The article said "An interesting lease was closed yesterday...whereby an opportunity will be presented to overworked business men and women to regain their strength, without interfering seriously with their business."  It explained that Watson had leased an entire upper floor.  "He will install exercising apparatus for the convenience of those who are in need of such, and will also install squash and handball courts for recreative purposes."  The writer noted "The game of squash, a form of tennis, has become very popular here, and many wealthy people are constructing courts in their homes."

The George Backer Construction Co. was still headquartered here when Backer sold the building to Conrad Hubert in 1915.  Backer essentially doubled his money in the sale, which grossed him $600,000.  It was not a cash deal, however.  The Record & Guide noted that in part payment Hubert gave his "country estate, 'Vista Range,' near Summit, N. J., comprising 160 acres, with a large residence and outbuildings."

The terra cotta panels of the lower floors are veined to imitate marble.

Hubert was owner and president of the American Ever Ready Company.  He had purchased the rights in 1898 to the battery-powered "electric device" or "torch" which would become best known as a portable flashlight.  His firm manufactured and sold batteries under the brand name "Ever Ready."  (The trademark would later be shortened to Eveready.).

Hubert moved his firm into the building and made one significant change--he got rid of George Backer's penthouse apartment.  The New-York Tribune explained "the demand for space in the building caused Mr. Hubert to convert the apartment into offices."

The American Ever Ready Company remained in the building until 1921 when Conrad Hubert sold it to Herman Lakner on May 9--ironically the day after George Backer died.   Like Hubert, Lakner (who paid $700,000) immediately made one noticeable change.  The New-York Tribune reported on May 10 that the building "will be called the Lakner Building by the new owner."

When Lakner purchased the building, two old brownstones, altered for business, still survived next door.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

At the time of Lakner's takeover, the building was rented at about $102,000 a year, or about $1.6 million in today's dollars.  He added new tenants that year, including the newly-formed George K. Culp, Inc., the California-based May, Sherman, Clay & Co., and the Savings Bank Association of the State of New York.

George K. Culp had been involved in the tire industry for a decade.  His new firm was organized "for the purpose of putting into effect the 'Culp Plan' of co-operation in the manufacturing and merchandising of tires, tubes and other automotive accessories," according to Elastomerics magazine on July 25.  In effect, the firm marketed surplus tires to foreign countries.

The May, Sherman, Clay & Co. was also involved in the automobile industry, providing "associated auto loans."

The Savings Bank Association took over the space formerly occupied by Goupil & Co.  The Evening World, April 21, 1921

The highly-esteemed architectural firm of Buchman & Kahn were in the building at the time.  Albert Buchman and Jacques Kahn had formed the partnership in 1917 following the dissolution of Buchman & Fox, "well known for many years in the practice of architecture," as pointed out by Architecture and Building that year.  From its offices here the firm would produce some of Manhattan's most recognizable structures like the jazzy 2 Park Avenue and the 1930 Squibb Building on Fifth Avenue.

Nos. 56-58 was also home to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, best known today as ASCAP.  Its president, internationally-known music publisher George Maxwell, brought scandalous attention to the group when he was indicted on charges of "forgery in the third degree and a misdemeanor in sending scurrilous letters to Allan A. Ryan, the financier, reflecting on the latter's wife," as reported in The New York Times on May 11, 1923.

As it turned out, Maxwell had apparently been sending slanderous letters under false names for years to respected businessmen.  They laid out in detail the supposed affairs the men's wives had been carrying on.

On May 16 the board of directors of ASCAP met, and then released a resolution to the newspapers which said in part that they "unanimously record its complete and entire confidence in its President, George Maxwell, and in his complete innocence of the accusations made against him and in his ability to secure complete vindication of the charges."

Although experts testified that the handwriting on the letters was Maxwell's, the charges were dropped in July 1923.  With the ugly affair behind them, the ASCAP members turned to other business.

One of the organization's most illustrious members was composer Victor Herbert.  On the day of his funeral, May 28, 1924, ASCAP members assembled in the 45th Street building, then processed up Fifth Avenue to St. Thomas's Church for the ceremony.  The Police Band led the procession.  Herbert's honoary pall bearers included orchestra leader Nathan Franko., Jerome Kern, John Philip Sousa and Max Dreyfus.

Another tenant at the time which seemed to be associated with the entertainment industry was the Amusement Privilege Company in Room 412.  And while it could be argued that the firm provided entertainment of a sort, it was not in the form of music or theater arts, as newspaper readers discovered following a raid on its offices in November 1925.

Prohibition had been in effect for five years and the Amusement Privilege Company had devised a clever scheme--what Federal officials called "a mail order rum ring."  On November 17 U.S. Attorney Emory R. Buckner alleged that "the activities of the alleged ring had been nation-wide, that its work has been carried on in many States and that its customers had been numbered by the thousands."  The company hired traveling salesmen who covered the entire country.   They would take orders for liquor, which were then filled and delivered.

But unlike speakeasies or underground distilleries, the offices here had no liquor on premises.  Before they could make their raid, the Federal agents needed clear evidence.  Working with the building management, they instructed the janitor to save the contents of the wastebaskets from Room 412.  During the trial in March 1926, the rental agent, a Mr. Whiteford, testified "that he pasted together many torn bits of paper from these waste baskets and later turned them over to the Government in the form of valuable evidence."

The pasted-together documents were customer orders ranging from $50 to $500, and price lists of cases of liquor costing as much as $100 ($1,400 today).  The quality of that liquor was beyond questionable.  In reporting on the case, The New York Times revealed "It is alleged also that the so-called Scotch whisky sold by the company was manufactured on a few hours' notice."

Ironically, the following year, on April 17, 1927, the Government announced it was opening the Government Service Institute in the 45th Street building.  "The school is the first institution, so far as is known," said The Times, "to undertake the training of men for prohibition enforcement.  It was formed for that specific purpose...The general idea will be to utilize the practical experience of the members of the Faculty, which includes all branches of prohibition work."

ASCAP was still in the building at the time.  Music publisher A. J. Stasny Music Co., was also here, as was the publishing firm of Walker V. McKee.   With the onslaught of the Great Depression, the Regional Planning Association of America established offices here by 1932.  Part of President Roosevelt's New Deal, it highly involved in developing the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The architectural office of Kohn & Butler, formed in 1917 by the partnership of Robert D. Kohn and Charles Butler, was here by 1934.  Among their associate architects were Clarence S. Stein and Henry Wright (both of whom received fellowships to the American Institute of Architects that year), Frank Holden, and Frank E. Vitolo.  Like Buchman & Kahn, the firm was responsible for striking structures, like Congregation Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue.

A repeating honeycomb-like pattern with three-dimensional rosettes fills the upper spandrels,

The post war years saw a change in the type of tenants.  In 1950 Jay Florian Mitchell had operated his photography and camera business here for several years.  Working in cooperation with the Yacht Racing Association of Long Island Sound that year, he came up with an innovative scheme for his patrons, what he called a "regatta camera trip for amateurs."

He told reporters on July 15, "This new kind of camera trip gives the amateur a chance to photograph yachts of many classes competing in actual races in Long Island Sound."  He had arranged on-shore visits for close-ups of the boats and crews, and scenes in the clubhouse and piers.  It was not all work, however.  "Everyone is urged to bring a bathing suit, as provisions have been made for swimming as part of the trip's program."

Radio and television distributor Monarch-Saphin Company was in the building at the time; and architect Charles Butler was still working from his office here in 1953 when he died at the age of 82.

By the 1960s the West 45th block was just steps away from the Diamond District, and jewelry manufacturers and sellers took advantage of the proximity.  Among them was the Jack Beck Diamond Company on the 17th floor on Nos. 56-58 which became a victim of a rash of violent jewelry heists in October 1960.

On Thursday night October 27 Beck was waiting on a customer, Sam Sharaby, when two gunmen rushed into the shop.  Both Beck and Sheraby were bound with tape and rope, then the robbers made off with $50,000 in loose diamonds (more in the neighborhood of $413,000 today).  The Times reported "Detectives said later that Mr. Beck was so unnerved by the incident that they were unable to obtain much information."

The following year the Greater New York Anglo-Jewish Publications, Inc. moved its offices to the building.  The firm published the Long Island Jewish Press and the Westchester Jewish Tribune.  By 1966 the ground floor space was home to the Low & Hughes Golf Shop.

In 2008 trouble played out in the sixth floor shop of NS Diamonds.  Pritam Sharma, a 38-year old diamond importer, was owed money by the owner, according to him.  In a fit of rage over the unpaid debt, he walked into the office around 12:45 on the afternoon of February 25, and drew out a knife.  He stabbed and slashed the man in the torso, according to police.  An employee who tried to intervene was cut on his right hand.  All three men were taken to Bellevue Hospital and Sharma was arrested, charged with two counts of assault and criminal possession of a weapon.

Today the space where Goupil & Co. sold artwork and pottery, is home to a clothing store.   The Midtown Center for Treatment and Research of addictive drugs, run by the Weill Cornell Medical College occupies the ninth floor.  Through it all, other than the remodeled storefront, Wallis & Goodwillie's remarkable terra cotta facade is essentially untouched.  A striking relic of a time of change on the 45th Street block a century ago.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Michael Schwenk for suggesting this post


  1. I came across Goupil when van Gogh went to work there. But look what Penot wrote. In the later 19th century, one of the most successful French art dealers of its time, Goupil & Co, developed a marketing strategy that employed an international network of alliances to expand its sales of all its arts. Their focus during that time was mainly on contemporary European Salon artists. Newly established offices in New York, London, The Hague, Berlin and Brussels were linked to the headquarters in Paris. For example, William Schaus and later Michael Knoedler concentrated on the American market.

    Love it!