Wednesday, December 17, 2014

St. Luke's in the Fields -- Hudson Street

photo by Alice Lum
In July 1821 The Christian Journal and Literary Register reported “On Monday, June 4th, the corner stone of a new building, to be styled St. Luke’s Church, was laid in Hudson-street, in this city…The part of the city in which the proposed church is building, including the village of Greenwich, and its vicinity, has long been regarded as very suitable for the formation of a new parish.  An attempt to this effect was made by a few Episcopal families last fall.”

The families the article referred to had met in the house of Mrs. Catherine Ritter who lived on the corner of West 4th Street and Little Jones Street.  On November 6, 1820 the parish was organized.  Clement C. Moore, whose family estate Chelsea sat further north, was named senior warden.

Since then, said The Christian Journal, “A convenient room for the holding of divine service was procured.  The congregation has greatly increased; and, by the divine blessing on the zeal and activity of its leading members, aided by the charitable succours of their brethren throughout the city, there is every prospect that, for numbers and character, St. Luke’s will hold a most respectable rank among the parishes of the city.”  The journal went on to print the inscription on the cornerstone, which included “John Heath, Architect.”  Heath paid for the cornerstone himself.

While the small congregation worshiped in the little school house on Amos Street (later renamed West 10th), the plot for the permanent structure was purchased from Trinity Church.  Trinity owned a large swath of land in the area, familiarly called the Trinity Farm and given to the church by Queen Anne in 1714. 

The spot on Hudson Street was bucolic.  The summer estates of New York’s aristocracy engulfed much of the surrounding land—like the 300-acre estate of Sir Peter Warren, now owned by Abraham van Nest; and the famous Richmond Hill just to the south, formerly owned by Aaron Burr.  There were only four structures within eye-shot of the church site, one of which was the old State Prison.  To the south, between the site and Canal Street, there was just one building—the Tyler Tavern.   The only means of public conveyance from New York City was a stage that made two runs a day.

The rural setting would earn the church the familiar name "St. Luke's in the Fields;" a moniker still used today.

Years later the Rev. Dr. A. W. Jenks, professor at the General Theological Seminary, would remember “Several of the leading men of St. Luke’s first urged that New Yorkers should build their Winter homes there.  Before that Greenwich Village had been a Summer colony.”  Their urgings were aided by calamity.  In 1822, as construction on the chapel was nearing completion, a horrendous yellow fever epidemic took hold in the city.  New Yorkers who could afford to do so abandoned the city for the fresh air and open countryside of Greenwich Village.  The hamlet experienced a building boom as houses sprung up on the dirt streets.

In 1860 Valentine's Manual of New York published a romanticized version of the early setting - copyright expired
John Heath’s completed structure cost $7,500 according to church records—about $154,000 today.  Built of brick, it reflected the prim Federal style of a country church.  The entrance was through a large, square bell tower topped by a wooden parapet.  Tall, round-arched openings flooded the interior with light.

In 1850 the Rev. Isaac Henry Tuttle became rector, a position he would hold for decades.  In its 30 years of existence, the congregation saw rapid change in the neighborhood.  Along with the rise in population came poverty and other social ills.  The Archives of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church recalled decades later that Tuttle was faced with a parish “changing by removals, decreasing in income, and crowded by the advent of a foreign-born population.”  It was Tuttle who initiated many of the social programs for which St. Luke’s was best known.  “His sympathy with those whose circumstances had changed for the worse led to the institution of St. Luke’s Home for Indigent Christian Females.”

On July 10, 1863, just five days before his 84th birthday, Clement Clarke Moore died in his summer home in Newport.  His body was returned to New York during a time of tremendous upheaval.  In March a strict federal draft law was enacted whereby every male citizen between 20 and 35 was subject to military duty.  A lottery was established to select the draftees; but those who could afford the $300 waiver fee could avoid conscription. 

On the day after Moore’s death the first lottery was held.  Two days later, when the working classes realized the inequity of the system, riots broke out.  For five days no one was safe on the streets of New York as mobs murdered civilians and torched homes and businesses.  Moore’s casket arrived in the city and was secretly moved through the streets to the churchyard behind St. Luke’s where it was quietly buried.

St. Luke’s, like all churches and chapels, would see numerous weddings and funerals throughout the years.  Perhaps none was so poignant as that of Francis J. Lyon and Mary Imogene Greene.  On Thursday, October 26, 1865, just a few months after the end of the Civil War, the happy couple was married in the church by Rev. Tuttle.  The newlyweds boarded the steamer St. John for their honeymoon excursion.

Three days later, at 7:00 on a Sunday morning, the vessel’s boiler exploded.  Both Francis and Mary were scalded to death.  At noon on Tuesday, October 31 and just five days after their wedding here, their coffins were carried into the church.  The New York Times reported “the coverings being removed, the bodies were seen habited in their bridal attire.”  The church was crowded with mourners, and the newspaper said “The services were performed in a very impressive manner, by Rev. J. H. Tuttle the same clergyman who had officiated at the marriage ceremony.”

In the 1880s the grand society churches populated by Manhattan’s wealthy closed for the summer season.  Their congregants were off to Newport and other summer resorts and it was during these three months that reparations and redecoration to the church structures were done.  More humble parishes like St. Luke’s remained open.  So during the summer of 1883 services were held in the chapel while the main sanctuary got a make-over.  On September 16 that year The Times reported that services in the main church would resume that day; saying St. Luke’s “has been thoroughly redecorated and repaired, and now presents a most attractive appearance.”  The newspaper added “St. Luke’s was formerly known as the Greenwich Village Church, and as it stands in the midst of its quiet churchyard, attracts much attention from those passing by.”

By now St. Luke’s congregation numbered about 400.  The plain, Federal-style architecture was out of date and unappreciated by many.  A writer for The Times in 1886 offhandedly remarked “As all old residents of the city know, the old church building, attractive in its ugliness, stands in Hudson-street, just where Grove-street juts into that thoroughfare.”  In January that year its attractive ugliness nearly came to an end.

Around 7:15 on the evening of January 6, 1886 passersby noticed wisps of smoke rising from the roof.  Within five minutes steam fire engines clattered up to the church.  “When the main door of the building was opened a volume of thick smoke drove the firemen back, but not before they had seen furious flames in the rear of the building.  The chancel was converted into a blazing furnace, and before the firemen could enter the building the handsome organ was in ruins,” reported The New York Times.

While some firefighters rushed to remove valuable items to the street; others streamed water into the building.  Unfortunately, they inadvertently shot directly through two valuable stained glass windows—valued at $500 each at the time.  When the fire was extinguished, the organ was a total loss and the chancel roof was “burned to charcoal.”  The loss was estimated at around $15,000; nearly $400,000 in today’s dollars.

The fire was one of several factors leading to the decision to move the congregation north.  On December 18, 1888 many New Yorkers were shocked and dismayed to read in The Times “One of the old landmarks and an exceedingly old and revered place of worship, St. Luke’s Protestant Episcopal Church, in Hudson-street, between Barrow and Christopher streets, will not only be soon leveled to the ground, but all the memories connected with its site will be destroyed by the removal of the dead from the ancient burying ground.”

Following the fire St. Luke's got a few Victorian enhancements like the gingerbread side porches and the entrance hood -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
The congregation had already laid plans to erect a new church at 141st Street and Convent Avenue.  Now, on December 17, the pew holders met and decided to transfer all the 500 or so bodies in the churchyard to other cemeteries “as promptly as possible.”  This included, of course, the grave of Clement Clarke Moore.

Trinity Church had repurchased the land on which St. Luke’s and its associated buildings and churchyard sat.  It now proposed to build a $1.5 million complex including “a great church.”  The Times projected “They will form, in all probability, one of the most complete groups of buildings for church purposes in the world.”

Four years later the new St. Luke’s Church uptown was completed and on November 27, 1892 the 83-year old Rev. Tuttle issued his last sermon from the old building.  For some reason Trinity’s grand plans died away and the venerable building survived.  It was now “St. Luke’s Chapel, Trinity Parish.”

Further downtown sat another Trinity chapel, that of St. John’s.  The astonishingly beautiful Georgian structure once stood on St. John’s Park, the most elegant residential neighborhood of the early 19th century.  Designed by John McComb and completed in 1807, it was now surrounded by commerce and freight depots.

Wurts Bros. captured the simple, stenciled ceilings and exquisite stained glass around 1910 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1909 Trinity decided to close St. John’s and combine its congregation with St. Luke’s.  The move would allow Trinity Church to demolish the architectural jewel.  It prompted a debate that lasted for several years.  One of the considerations brought up by concerned citizens nationwide was the architectural value of either structure.  St. Luke’s, often the brunt of criticism, was most often on the losing end.  On June 1, 1914 John Handforth fired off an impassioned letter to the New-York Tribune.  In it he proposed, if one building had to go, “then let the vestry close St. Luke’s Chapel, the most hideous specimen of ecclesiastical architecture in the city, and transfer the work to St. John’s Chapel.” 

The magnificent St. John’s Chapel was demolished in 1918.  St. Luke’s not only inherited its congregation, but a most extraordinary tradition.  In 1827, five years after St. Luke’s Church was completed, a wealthy recluse named John Leake was found dead before his fireplace in Park Row.  Leake had no relatives to inherit his fortune and he instructed that 1,000 pounds “be laid out in the annual income in sixpenny loaves of wheaten bread and distributed every Sabbath morning after divine service to such poor as shall appear most deserving.”

photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Every Sunday thereafter, until 1860, Trinity Church distributed 67 loaves of bread from the church steps.  Then the practice was transferred to St. John’s (which moved the distribution to Saturday to make the charity less conspicuous).  Now the Leake Dole, reportedly the oldest bread line in the world, was carried on by St. Luke’s.  The Evening World reported on February 10, 1919 “At 9 o’clock every Saturday morning the sixty-seven loaves are piled on a little table in the chapel, and children who are known to be members of deserving families call for them.”

The newspaper added “This weekly dole, which keeps alive the memory of a lonely old man, has come as a God-send to more than one family that might otherwise have been breadless.”

The changes in the Greenwich Village neighborhood that St. Luke’s parishioners experienced throughout the 19th century continued through the 20th.  By 1976, when St. Luke’s once again became an independent church, the area around the structure was the center of New York’s gay culture.  The parish embraced its new members and was catastrophically impacted by the AIDS epidemic.

In 1981 a fire even worse than the 1883 blaze consumed St. Luke’s.  For many there was no hope of rebuilding the gutted and blackened shell.  But a determined Rev. Ledlie I. Laughlin Jr. was resolute.  The architectural firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates oversaw the reconstruction and in 1985 the reborn church was reconsecrated.

photo by Alice Lum

No longer considered “ugly” or “hideous,” John Heath’s charming country church survives after nearly two centuries.  The former churchyard is a welcoming garden, open to the public daily.  St. Luke’s Church, with its contemporary houses lining the rest of the block, forms a unique picture of live in rural Greenwich Village.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The "Rock Building" -- No. 315 Fifth Avenue

Like many of the staid brownstone mansions on Fifth Avenue below 34th Street, No. 315 had fallen victim to commerce by 1889.  The New York branch of the Parisian art gallery M. Durand-Ruel had moved into the old house.  That year the firm offered “Old Masters of the French school of 1850 and of all the modern artists, including the finest paintings of the Impressionists.”

Only two years later a more utilitarian showroom was in the building, that of the Wood Mosaic Co., whose factory was in Rochester, New York.  The company sold upscale “hardwood floors, from plainest strips of quartered oak to most elaborate inlaid work, using suitable foreign and domestic woods.”

By March 1894 Mathias Rock, who went by the Anglicized "Matthew," operated his merchant tailoring shop here.  The Sun called him “among the best known of the New York tailors.”  Unlike other tailors, “merchant tailors” owned their businesses, supplied the fabrics and created custom-made apparel, most often for the carriage trade.  Merchant tailors were the male equivalent of the high-end dressmakers who also set up shop in the former mansions.

Rock’s successful apparel business earned him a fortune and by the turn of the century he was investing heavily in Manhattan real estate.  On January 19, 1905 The Sun reported that he had leased for 21 years the four-story building where he had operated for a decade. 

Five months later, on June 16, The New York Times announced that Matthew Rock and real estate developer Henry Corn planned an 11-story building on the site.  Corn had signed a 21-year lease on the property, beginning May 1, 1907 with an aggregate rental of nearly $1 million (in the neighborhood of $1.2 million a year today).

Corn’s architects of choice for some time had been Maynicke & Franke.  The firm was chosen for this new building as well.  Newspapers drew comparisons of the proposed designs to the newly-completed Reed & Barton Building diagonally across the avenue (also designed for Corn by Robert Maynicke).  And yet the completed structure would be more reminiscent of Maynicke’s 1898 Sohmer Piano Building ten blocks lower, at No. 170 Fifth Avenue; also built by Henry Corn.

Little was done for six months.  But finally in December the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide announced that Maynicke & Franke had started the plans, which would be ready “for figures in about a month or six weeks time.”  The guide listed the upcoming contracts for “limestone, brick, terra cotta, plate glass, tile roof, electric elevator, steam heat, electric lights, concrete arch floors, etc.”

As construction got under way, leases were signed.  The most highly-sought tenant would be the ground floor retail space—the face of the new building.  Henry Corn was no doubt delighted when Brentano’s bookstore signed a lease in May for the first through third floors, plus the basement.  “Brentano’s will move from Union Square to 5th ave. about February 1, 1907,” reported the New-York Tribune on May 13, 1906.

As was the case with the Sohmer Building, Maynicke & Franke was challenged with creating a proportionate, attractive structure on an extremely narrow plow--28.9 feet wide on Fifth Avenue by 150 long down East 32nd Street.  And as he had done before, Maynicke succeeded.  The structure, completed early in 1907, was light and elegant.

The triparte design featured a three-story base of rusticated piers filled with vast cast iron show windows.  Here patrons of Brentano’s would find the showrooms filled with light.  The six-story mid section above was unadorned until the ninth floor where dripping garlands framed full-floor cartouches on each pier.  Below the cornice at this level, stunning foliate swags and wreaths wrapped the building.  The topmost section featured heavy broken pediments above the clustered openings.  Carved wreaths and shields filled the areas between the pediments.  It was, as newspapers of the day were fond of saying, “an ornament to the street.”

The sumptuous carved swags of fruits and flowers were carried on to the underside of the cornice.

Matthew Rock, expectedly, was among the tenants of the new building; the list of which was exceptionally diverse  The American Cement Company had its offices here, and The Italian School of Languages moved in.  Professor Arturo Sergio offered a “rapid Italian and French Pronunciation Course for singers” and “Special Classes for the study of Dante.”

Although Brentano’s had signed a 21-year lease, they were gone by 1909, moving into the new Brunswick Building on Madison Square.  In its place, somewhat coincidentally, came the Sohmer Piano Company, having abandoned its building at Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street.  Suddenly No. 351 became known as “the Sohmer Building.”  When Clarence Whitman & Co., dealers in “white goods and laces,” leased a portion of the store and basement in October 1911, the Record & Guide reported the deal “in the Sohmer Building.”

The fruit and flower motif reappeared in the cast window surrounds.

Mathias Rock died on August 9, 1912, leaving a significant fortune to his family.  His son, also named Matthew, took over the tailoring business while Henry Corn continued to oversee the building, renting space to a wide range of tenants. 

Architect B. Hustace Simonson was here at least from 1911 to 1918; while apparel businesses like Nathan Fogg Morrill, “milliner,” and La Rose Brassiere Co., makers of foundations were in the building.  The offices of the American Five and Ten Cent Stores were here by 1915 as was the architectural and engineering firm Timmis & Chapman.

Manhattan’s jewelers had followed the Fifth Avenue residential district and, along with Reed & Barton across the avenue from No. 315, Tiffany, Dreicer & Co. and other high-end dealers were clustered just above 34th Street.  Gold- and silversmiths like William Burkley and Woods & Chatellier operated from No. 315 by 1916.  They fashioned expensive items for these retailers to the north.

Woods & Chatellier employed 25-year old Frederick Zwack as an engraver.  Occasionally he would assist one of the salesmen in carrying heavy sample cases to retailers.  In the fall of 1916 he became romantically involved with a woman and the two decided to move in together.  Edwardian proprieties did not approve of unmarried cohabitation; and so on October 1 when they took a room in I. E. Brown’s boarding house, they called themselves “Mr. and Mrs. White.”  Mrs. Brown described the girl as a “good-looking young blonde.”

Things went alright in the relationship until early in December when the couple had a serious argument.  On Tuesday December 12 Mrs. Brown entered the “White’s” room and noticed that all his personal property had been removed.  That night was the last time she saw Frederick Zwack.  The blonde woman stayed until Thursday, and then she too left.  It was the end of Frederick Zwack’s brief love interest and only the start of his troubles.

On the morning of Friday December 15, salesman Edward W. Childs loaded a sample case with gold and platinum articles to take to Tiffany’s and then to Black, Starr & Frost’s.  The case weighed about 60 pounds, so he asked Zwack to help him.  They arrived at Tiffany’s where Child’s wrote out an order.  Because of the holiday crush, he decided to rush the order back to the office and instructed Zwack to continue to Black, Starr & Frost’s where he would meet him.

As Childs headed south in the snowstorm, Zwack lugged the case in the opposite direction.  In it were “45 gold vanity cases, nine gold and platinum cases, 26 gold cigarette cases, striped with platinum, two gold match boxes, one gold and platinum match box, seven green and gold match boxes, heavily carved, and three heavy gold gem caskets.”  The wholesale value was placed at $20,000—nearly half a million dollars today.

An hour later Child’s arrived at Ball, Starr & Frost’s where he was told Zwack had not appeared.  Thinking that he may have been slowed down by the snow, the salesman waited for two hours.  Then he notified Charles N. Coryell, President of the Woods & Chattelier.  Days later the hunt for Frederick Zwack continued with police concerned that the valuable items would be melted down.  The Evening World said police “developed the belief that his plans for disposing of the articles necessitated the employment of other men skilled in the work of melting the gold into bullion, thereby rendering it beyond identification and so enabling the thief to sell it.”

In the meantime, Charles N. Coryell revealed startling information on Frederick’s background.  “According to Mr. Coryell, Zwack, or White, was formerly a circus clown,” said The New York Times on December 17.

Timmis & Chapman were still in the building at the time and a year later Walter S. Timmis was in the news, not for his architectural work; but for his anti-Suffragist actions.  On June 20, 1917 the Russian mission visited President Wilson at the White House.  Suffragists took the opportunity to demonstrate at the White House gates.  “The result,” reported The Sun, “was a small sized riot, in the course of which a banner containing an attack on the President and Mr. [Elihu] Root was torn into shreds by a crowd led by Walter S. Timmis, a New York architect of 315 Fifth Avenue.”

The offending banner read “President Wilson and Envoy Root are deceiving Russia.  They say, ‘We are a democracy.  Help us win a world war so that democracy may survive.  We, the women of America, tell you that America is not a democracy.”

The standard bearers had just reached the White House gates, moments before the Russian visitors were due to arrive.  They formed an arch with it, so the vehicles would have to pass under it.  “Mr. Timmis happened to be passing and heard the crowd shouting.  ‘It’s an outrage.  It’s treasonable.’”

Timmis pushed himself to the front of the crowd and read the banner.  Incensed, he jumped into the air, grabbing the cloth at the center and ripping it from the frame.  “The crowd then made a rush on the cloth Timmis still held in his hand and tore it into shreds,” reported The Sun.

Along with Matthew Rock, other tailors and apparel businesses continued in the building.  In 1919 Alfred L. Calcott, dealer in woolen goods, was here; as was tailor Charles I. David.  David was excused from jury duty that year in the case of Arthur O’Leary versus Adolph Stern.  “He said he would not trust an enemy alien,” explained The Sun on January 30.  “Adolph Stern, a defendant, is a German.”

Throughout most of the 20th century, elevators required full-time operators.  The operator in what was now known as the Rock Building gave a carload of passengers a significant scare on September 7, 1920.  The elevator “slipped out of control of the operator at the fourth floor and dropped to the basement,” reported the New-York Tribune the following morning.  There were nine passengers in the car as it gained speed just above the basement level.

“The force of the impact smashed a lamp in the roof of the car.”  Two passengers were injured.  Thirty-four year old Irving Ulrich received cuts and Rose Gaglianom, who worked in the building, was cut on the nose.  The rest, said the newspaper, were “severely shaken.”

In 1931 there were no fewer than six tailoring businesses in the building, two jewelry firms (Fleischman Brothers and the International Gem Company), and several apparel companies.  In 1933 a new type of tenant was here—the perfume plant of 25-year old David Koehler.  The ambitious and creative perfumer sold dram-sized bottles through sales girls and newspaper advertisements at 25 cents each.  The problem was that his perfume bottles were labeled Coty, Inc.  The French fragrance firm was not pleased when it found out about the counterfeit goods.  Their dram bottles sold for between $2.75 and $10 each.

In court on December 11, 1933 he entered a plea of guilty and paid a $100 fine.

As the United States entered World War II the Book and Magazine Club operated from No. 315 Fifth Avenue.  It lured readers of Popular Mechanics in 1942 with an advertisement that read “Your name and address will bring you information how to get any national magazine for one year free.”  Then the following year it turned its focus to the war.

“Men 18 to 45—Are you prepared for the army induction test?”  The Book and Magazine Club offered a “free book” for 10 cents containing questions and answers similar those given on the U.S. Army’s general classification test.  Studying for the test, said the ad, “will help decide your place in the army.  It’s the road to officer training—toward the job you want.”

Somewhat ironically that same year a 19-year old sailor, Fireman Third Class Bernard Smith, stepped out onto the rooftop cornice.  Someone on the street noticed the white naval uniform and before long a throng gathered on the avenue.  “Crowds in the avenue, south of the building, gasped as the sailor spread his arms and manoeuvred a few feet, much as a tightrope walker might,” said The New York Times.  He held an unlit cigarette in his mouth.

Bernard Smith teetered on the brim of the cornice in 1942.

Pedestrians called the police and one pulled a fire alarm.  Traffic came to a halt.  The newspaper estimated a crowd of 2,000 onlookers.  Police cars, an ambulance, a hook and ladder truck and two police emergency vehicles crammed the street below.

Patrolman Frank Deedy and Sergeant James McGuire reached the rooftop.  Deedy tossed his uniform coat and cap to the roof, not wanting to excite the sailor.  When he offered Smith a match, Smith warned “Keep away.  Don’t touch me.”

The sergeant inched closer to Smith whose attention was focused on Officer Deedy.  When he was almost within an arm’s reach Smith turned.  He screamed at the sergeant “Keep away,” and teetered on the brim of the roof.

Sergeant McGuire said to Deedy, “Why don’t you give the sailor a match?”  The policeman understood the ploy.  He tossed a book of matches, purposely letting them fall about three feet from the sailor’s shoes.  As Smith bent to pick them up, McGuire launched himself, pulling the sailor onto the roof.  The crowd below let out relieved cheers.

It was later learned that Smith, who had a wife and child in Belmar, New Jersey, was AWOL from his station on Staten Island.  He had recently returned from a long tour at sea.

Throughout the rest of the century apparel related firms, like Standish Fabrics, were housed here; as was the National Civil Service League, in the 1960s.  The League offered a library of pamphlet material relating to the City’s civil service and personnel administration.”

The façade of Maynicke & Franke’s handsome Rock Building was cleaned and repaired in the early years of the 21st century.  Their handsome design survives even at street level—an elegant “sliver building” that rarely gets the notice it deserves.

photographs by the author

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Lost Teixeira Mansion -- No. 918 West End Avenue

Although the entrance was centered on the 105th Street side, the mansion took the more impressive West End Avenue address.  Palatial Homes in the City of New York and The Dwellers Therein, 1910 (copyright expired)

In 1896 Dom Eugenie Faria Ganzales de Teixeira, Marquis of Aguila Branca arrived in New York City with his children and mother.   Nothing made Manhattan society giddier than a foreign title and the colorful Brazilian would take the city by storm.

A year earlier builder-architects Horgan & Slattery had paid J. Hamilton Hunt about $80,000 for the property at the southeast corner of West End Avenue and 105th Street “for immediate improvement,” as reported by the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide on March 10.   Lavish mansions rivaling those on Fifth Avenue were inching up Riverside Drive, one block to the west, and the speculative developers intended to ride the coattails.

The Marquis had studied art and architecture in Brazil.  He moved into Horgan & Slattery’s unfinished mansion, announcing “that he would furnish the house at 918 West End Avenue just like his palace in Brazil, except for the atmosphere left by the personages of Dom Pedro’s other worthy descendants,” according to The New York Times a few years later.  “He painted his own frescoes, designed his own windows, and even made models of the great iron dragons that lent dignity to his front door.  He told of how his home would be the centre of Brazilian art and music and culture.”   The Marquis installed a chapel in an upper room.

A coat of arms hangs above the double entrance doors, guarded by stone lions.  Two dragons, copied from the Brazilian home of the Marquis, dangle lanterns from their beaks.  The stained glass windows are possibly part of the chapel.  American Architect, April 12, 1902 (copyright expired)

One visitor described: “The house, the interior of which the Marquis designed, is a unique example of the art of the different periods, alternately whimsical and fanciful.  No counterpart of it exists in New York.”  Some art and architecture critics would later agree that that was probably a good thing.

A contemporary account called the Marquis a “poet, linguist, artist, architect, and scientist, with whose breezy career New Yorkers are familiar.”  He worked on completing the house for months.  Newspapers gossiped about his fortune, estimating it at between $50 and $100 million.  What was certain was that he had spent $50,000 on the West End mansion before furnishing it – about $1.5 million today.

The Marquis added to the financial mystique through his boasts and self-applauding accounts of his lavish lifestyle in Brazil and of his being closely related to former Emperor Dom Pedro II.   But Teixeira soon discovered that publicly announcing vast wealth attracted problems. 

While work continued on the mansion, he met Carmen Domingo whom The Times called “a Spanish woman of beauty, who listened to his story of fabulous wealth, and told the story of her young life, in which she said that she was engaged to a Mexican she did not love, and prayed the handsome young Brazilian…to save her from unhappiness.”   The 33-year old Marquis did just that.  On January 14, 1897 the couple was married.  But before the year was up he recognized that it was not his poetry, scientific knowledge nor sparkling personality that had lured the senorita.  It was money.

In December 1897 a newspaper noted “There seems to be no doubt that he is an extremely rich man, and that he had trouble at home, apparently of a domestic character.”  Within a month, on January 4, 1898 and almost a year to the day after the marriage, it was over.  The New York Times reported “a North Dakota court, after Teixeira had complained of a conspiracy to get his wealth, divorced him from the beautiful Carmen, who in the meanwhile had gone back to her native Barcelona.”  Along with his wife, jewels and money disappeared from the West End Avenue mansion.  It prompted The Times to somewhat flippantly remark later “a man stole his wife and $70,000 of his money and got away with both.”

Meanwhile, the Marquis was dealing with other problems.  On December 5, 1897 two “respectable-looking, well-dressed men,” according to The Times, were arraigned on blackmail charges.  A month earlier Teixeira had received a letter which read in part “I have information which concerns you most vitally, and delay might make it too late to save you much annoyance and disgrace.”

After a series of letters and undercover interviews, the men were arrested.  But the undoing of the Marquis was underway.  He continued to recklessly spend as if his funds were unlimited.  Following the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, he announced he would erect a church to the memory of the lost sailors.  The Sacramento Daily Union announced his intentions on April 18, 1898, adding “He is a painter who has won distinction with his brush, an advocate of recognized ability, a writer on many subjects, a multi-millionaire, the possessor of one of the handsomest residences in the metropolis—which qualities and possessions serve to give him rank in many circles.”

Rumors of Teixeira’s wealth continued to grow.  The newspaper said “According to the reports of friends, the Marquis is the richest man in the world.  They say that he has $200,000,000 worth of personal property, besides undeveloped gold mines, which, according to the same authorities, are of exhaustless wealth, and boundless landed estates…His present residence is at 918 West End Avenue, but he is building another home of still greater magnificence on the same avenue.”

But while the gossip increased, the bankroll of the Marquis dwindled.  “The Marquis has been a mark for all kinds of people,” said The Times.  Real estate operators manipulated him into purchasing six large apartment buildings among other deals.  Because he did not speak English, he was easily duped.   In June 1899 the newspaper said “No farmer was ever led up against a bunko game to ‘produce’ more kindly or copiously than the Marquis.”

“All this time he believed he was making money fast, and he lived accordingly,” said the newspaper.  “He had bought the West End Avenue house for $50,000 and spent $40,000 fitting it up in Oriental style and as much more in alterations.  The coat-of-arms of his family is distributed all over it, and his servants were dressed in Eastern costumes to match the furniture.  He gave many brilliant entertainments, and at some of them appeared in robes like those worn by the Sultan of Turkey.  The real estate men with whom he was dealing were appropriately submissive and unobtrusive, but they continued to do business.”

Naïve in business matters, the tenants of Teixeira’s apartment buildings were thrilled when he failed to ask for rent.  Without that income, he was required to pay the interest and payments on the real estate from his pocket.   The Times headline summed it all up in four words.  “De Teixeira’s Money Gone.”

“The Marquis accepts the situation with stoicism befitting his costume as Sultan,” said the newspaper.  “He says he likes America and supposed all real estate operators to be honest.”

Teixeira and his children managed to stay on in the West End Avenue mansion until 1903.  Then, on March 11 “at 10:30 A. M. sharp,” the public auction began.   The New York Times was not especially impressed with the talents of the amateur architect and decorator, saying the house “bears on its four corners and in other places evidences of his fantastic tastes in the shape of hanging beacons with electric globes shining through colored glass…In the second floor and floors above the [Turkish and Music] rooms, while evidently rather garish in taste in their original decorations, are more like the abodes of civilization, except for amateurish carvings of coats of arms complicated with heraldic devices.”

After the mansion was stripped of its Chinese vases, European oil paintings and bronze and marble sculptures, the house itself was auctioned.  It was purchased by “Mr. Graham” for $67,500.   Within a short time he resold it to William C. Foster, who turned it over again in December 1904 to “a Mr. Cunningham.”  The Times reported that it “is said to have sold for about $60,000.”

Finally the house found a long-term owner.  By 1910 the family of William Bentley Quaintance called No. 918 West End Avenue home.   Quaintance was an importer of “madras and muslin piece goods and fancy nets” and spent a reported $20,000 on the interiors.    The family would remain in the mansion for years; yet by 1914 when William Quaintance bought his new Cadillac motorcar, things were changing on West End Avenue.    Grand mansions were giving way to upscale apartment houses.   The family would stay on at No. 918 throughout the World War I years; but the end of the road for the opulent house was on the horizon.

William’s sons entered the military.  In 1920 25-year old Charles Linsey Quaintance was a Second Lieutenant in the Aviation Section of the Signal Reserves Corps; and his younger brother, Richard Edgecombe Quaintance, was a First Lieutenant in the Field Artillery Section.  On November 27 that year the Record & Guide reported that their father had sold the West End Avenue house to Joseph S. Ward.

Once again the mansion saw a rapid-fire series of sales.  Within two months Ward sold it to Gustav Sandblom, who resold it a month later, in February 1921.  By July it had been divided into apartment suites; but its days were numbered.

By 1925 the quirky mansion with the colorful past had been razed and in its place stood a 15-floor apartment building designed by George Fred Pelham.  

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Ludwig Baumann Bldg -- Nos. 260-266 West 36th St

The soaring structure was merely an annex to the block-long furniture store around the corner.

Ludwig Baumann arrived in New York City from Bohemia while still a very young man.  He got a job as a clerk in a grocery store; then established his own grocery store at 34th Street and Third Avenue. 

1862 was a risky year to venture into an unknown endeavor.  The Civil War was only months old and the entire nation was in upheaval.  Nevertheless Baumann joined his brother, Albert, in the furniture business, creating Ludwig Baumann & Company.  Starting out in a small store, just 25 by 50 feet in area, the brothers managed to slowly prosper.

Around 1877 they made a dicey move.   Upscale furniture showrooms would establish themselves on 23rd Street at the northern fringe of the retail district known as the Ladies’ Mile.  But, prompted by their newly-hired junior partner, David Froehlich, Ludwig Baumann & Company procured properties at Nos. 512 and 514 Eighth Avenue in the block between 35th and 36th Streets.  The new store was far to the north of the shopping district.

In the 20th century the neighborhood would become home to Manhattan’s Garment Center.  But for now its streets were lined with brick or brownstone-fronted rowhouses.  The furniture dealer elbowed in among the houses, selling affordable furniture to middle-class families.

David Froehlich revolutionized furniture sales -- New-York Tribune, November 21, 1897 (copyright expired)

Froehlich was ambitious, aggressive, and a visionary.  The New-York Tribune would later call him “the leading spirit of the firm of Ludwig Baumann & Company.”  One-by-one the company absorbed the brownstone structures around it, within a decade, it had consumed the entire block front.  Froehlich’s ground-breaking business strategies were responsible for the extraordinary growth.

He devised the unheard of installment plan and instituted mail order for the firm.  On February 2, 1896, while the country was still reeling from the Financial Panic of 1893, the New-York Tribune remarked that the depression had little or no effect on Ludwig Baumann & Company.  “The credit for this uncommonly successful growth from small beginnings is largely due to the energy and keen business sense of David Froehlich, the junior member of the firm…With him originated the credit system upon which much of the firm’s business is done.  Under this system of payment in small installments many people furnish their homes comfortably and cosily, who without it would be unable to do so.”

The newspaper noted that many retail firms were laying off their staff.  But, “Ludwig Baumann & Co. has no such experience.  On the contrary, its sales show a marked increase, and instead of discharging numbers of salesmen, this large firm of household providers has been compelled to employ new ones.”

As a matter of fact, Ludwig Baumann & Company had, by now, turned the corner onto West 36th Street and a year earlier, filed plans for a modern, eight-story annex at Nos. 260 to 266 West 35th Street.  On November 23, 1895 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that architect Albert Wagner had designed the building, “Renaissance in treatment,” with a “Tiffany brick, iron and Indiana limestone front.”  The cost was projected at $175,000—a staggering $4.7 million by today’s measure.

Wagner included all the modern conveniences: two passenger and one freight elevator, steam heat, a pneumatic tube system, and “sanitary plumbing” that included “tiled toilet rooms.”  Because electricity was still only marginally reliable, plans called for “combination gas and electric light fixtures.”

As the building rose, Ludwig Baumann & Company offered the latest in Victorian furniture styles around the corner.  The New-York Tribune noted in February 1896, “Perhaps the most popular of the spring goods already arrived, however, are the cradles.  These are manufactured from various woods, are tastefully made in every particular, and are sold at the low price of 75 cents apiece.”

 By the time the annex on West 35th Street was completed in November 1897 it had grown to 10 floors. In describing the “magnificent new structure” the New-York Tribune, on November 21, was less taken by the architecture than by the construction.  It mentioned the steel framing and steel beams supporting the floors; the waterproofed sub-basement that assured “a perfectly dry floor, excluding all dampness from the building; and the light and power plant in the basement that supplied electricity to not only the annex, but the entire row of buildings on Eighth Avenue.

An 1897 sketch showed the new building (far left) and the string of 8th Avenue structures that made up the mammoth store -- New-York Tribune, November 21, 1897 (copyright expired)

Wagner’s façade was, nevertheless, worth note.  His tripartite design included a two-story base with large show windows separated by piers of rough-cut blocks.  The Tribune noted “The show-windows are brilliantly illuminated by a multitude of incandescent lamps imbedded in the ceiling, producing a gorgeous effect.”  The four-story middle section was comprised of three sets of angled bays nestled within soaring arches; while the brick-faced uppermost section was more delicate.  Here three sets of narrow three-story arches were grouped in threes and separated by simple brick piers.

The cornice has sadly been lost, leaving a blank scar.

The grand opening was held on November 20, 1897.  “Suffice it to say that everything conceivable in the household furnishing line will be found on its floors,” promised the New-York Tribune.   The old conglomeration of buildings on the Eight Avenue side (which were connected in the rear to the new building) would not display “housefurnishings,” like crockery, glass and lamps.  The new building was outfitted with showrooms for furniture.

“On one floor will be found bedroom suits of all descriptions, newest designs and most perfect finish.  Another floor contains some of the most beautiful furnishings in the house.  Another floor is completely given over to hall furniture of all varieties, while on still another is arranged a bewildering array of odd and fancy chairs.  Other floors are devoted to beds, desks and similar varied attractions, to dainty furnishings of all kinds of beds, and to a vast number of other marvels of household furniture in style and manufacture.  The carpet department on the second floor is fully stocked with the finest makes upon the market.”

Only one floor of the 36th Street structure was not filled with furniture.  “The firm’s private sanctum is on the eight floor of the new building,” remarked the newspaper.

A week after opening the new building, the firm advertised the vast array of items available  New-York Tribune, November 28, 1897 (copyright expired)  

Ludwig Baumann & Company’s now massive store continued to draw middle class customers.  In the year of the new building's opening the firm had 100,000 credit customers on file.  Five years later a newspaper article listed some of the items on display just in the new building, including “bedroom sets in the mission type, of Antwerp oak, camp chairs, villa suits, veranda chairs, enameled iron beds, mattresses, rockers and armchairs, with a full line of carpets, mattings, screens, shades, awnings, cots, swings hammock chairs and gas tubing.”

On February 20, 1904 Ludwig Baumann left the Eighth Avenue store around 4:00 and traveled to his home on Long Island.  “While sitting in a chair he was suddenly seized with what appeared to be a fainting spell, and died before anything could be done for him,” reported The New York Times the following day.

The building was sold at auction among Ludwig Baumann’s other properties on December 12, 1912.   It was purchased by Max Marx for $302,000.  Although it no longer owned its building, the furniture firm remained as a tenant.  By now it was run by brothers Sidney and C. Ludwig Baumann.

Ludwig Baumann & Company kept its employees happy in part by organizing The Google Club.  The social club’s members were all company associates and they met once a month in “Google Hall” in the 36th Street building.  On Thursday, October 2, 1919 Furniture World reported on a recent event.

On September 23 the club had hosted a “dance and entertainment” here in honor of senior co-workers.  “From the appearance of the program sent us this must have been a real show night.  The guests of honor were twenty-two in number, and on the list of entertainers we read of the ‘world’s greatest ventriloquist’ (too modest to let his name appear) the ‘operatic mocking bird’ rendered by Mrs. James, special dancers and recitations, all of which must have made the evening a most eventful and never to be forgotten occasion.”

In 1922 Ludwig Baumann & Company began construction of a new building on Eighth Avenue.  The structure, which would replace the long row of converted buildings, included the entire block front except the 36th Street corner.  As the building rose, another furniture manufacturer, Maurice Greenstein, leased Nos. 260-266 West 36th Street from the Baumann firm.  His 21-year lease came at a yearly rental of about $37,000 and The New York Times reported on July 29, 1922 that “He will alter the structure for general business uses.”

By now New York’s Garment District was rapidly engulfing the area.  Nearly all of the old houses had been torn down and replaced with looming loft buildings.  While Greenstein was in the furniture business, his tenants were noticeably from the garment industry; like Skonick Goldberg which took a full floor in 1926.

The former Baumann Building continued to house garment firms throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.  On January 31, 2000 there were eight garment shops in the building, described by The New York Times as employing “mostly immigrant workers.”  Tragedy struck the building that day.

Around 10:15 a.m. fire broke out in the basement where firefighters later found rubbish and piles of cloth.  As the thick smoke rose throughout the building panic erupted.  Firefighters rushed to rescue trapped workers on the upper floors, including a group huddled on the roof.  One worker, 41-year old Benvenito Hernandez, tried to escape the 10th floor just before 11:00 by tying one end of a bolt of red cloth to a windowsill then sliding down.  He lost his grip and fell to his death.

Two other victims were injured and taken to the hospital for treatment.   Employees of a leather manufacturer, H & R, were terrified when they rushed to a window to the fire escape, but, as reported by one woman, “it wasn’t there.”

On the 8th floor a woman in a dress manufacturing shop tied a bolt of white silk around a column, then around her waist.  She then climbed out the window and slid down to the roof of an adjacent building two floors below and hurried down its fire escape.  Her co-workers, however, saw Hernandez plunge to his death and opted to stay where they were.

On a block of hulking loft buildings constructed for apparel firms, No. 260-266 West 36th Street is the last vestige of the once-gargantuan Ludwig Baumann & Company furniture complex, now long forgotten.

photos taken by the author