Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Henry M. Field House -- No. 22 Gramercy Park






On February 3, 1854 a young woman placed an advertisement in The New York Herald:  “Wanted—A situation by a respectable girl, as a waiter; she understands her business.  Can be seen at her present employer’s, 22 Gramercy park.”  The term “waiter” in the 19th century referred to the maid who served in the dining room, brought tea, and performed other similar tasks.  Her position was a step above the servant girls who scrubbed floors, washed dishes and emptied ash bins.  Because she had been permitted to see potential employers in the home, it is obvious that the separation between the waiter and her wealthy mistress was mutual.

The house where the maid would have placed French china soup plates on Irish linen tablecloths had been built about seven years earlier.  The recently-completed Gramercy Park was one of the most exclusive residential sections of the city, encircled by 60 upscale residences.  No. 22 boasted four stories of red brick above a rusticated brownstone English basement.  An attic floor, cleverly illuminated by small windows which peeked through the ornate cornice, included two tall dormers, architectural holdovers from a generation earlier.  While the architect designed the house in the tried-and-true Greek Revival style; his handsome cornice was in the up-and-coming Italianate style.

The elegant home blended Greek Revival and Italianate styles.  Unique attic windows pierce the cornice.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The mistress of No. 22 Gramercy Park would be looking for a different type servant in 1859.  On April 13 she placed an advertisement seeking “A first class cook; one who thoroughly understands her business in all its branches.  Best of city references required.”

The affluent family's country estate was apparently not far from the city.  On March 14, 1867 an ad read, "Wanted--To go a short distance in the country, a woman to do cooking, washing and ironing, for a moderate sized family."

Directly across the park from No. 22 were the adjoining mansions of brothers Cyrus and David Dudley Field.  Cyrus Field earned fame for successfully laying the transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866.  His attorney brother was responsible for the Field Code—the move away from common law pleading towards code pleading—and represented New York as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

At some point No. 22 became the city home of their brother, the Reverend Henry M. Field.  Following the unexpected death of Dudley Field, the only son of David Dudley Field, in 1880, his widow Laura Belden Field moved into No. 22 with her uncle by marriage.  She remained here until June 1884 when her father-in-law gave her the nearby house at No. 83 Irving Place.

Rev. Henry M. Field left Gramercy Park following his brother's death and retired to Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  photo from Notable New Yorkers (copyright expired)

David Dudley Field’s third wife, Mary E. Carr, had died in 1874.  Alone in his sprawling mansion and with failing health, he moved into his brother’s house across the park by 1890. 

That year, in May, reporters visited the house to question the famed jurist regarding what The Sun called “outrageous census questions.”  While citizens accepted that the Federal government had the right to count the population; they were shocked when census takers asked “impudent questions as to private debts and disease.”  Field was clear in his opinion.  “I should not tell whether my farm was mortgaged, and as for the Government’s sending out men to inquire into the diseases of its citizens, it is ridiculous.  It is none of the Government’s business, and Congress, in authorizing it, has in my opinion overstepped its authority.”

David Dudley Field sat for famed photographer Mathew Brady for this portrait.  from the collection of the Library of Congress 

Field suffered from what The Sun deemed “chronic disease of the heart.”  The newspaper gently chided him for disobeying his doctor’s orders on May 2, 1891.  The article said he “was somewhat weaker yesterday morning, on account of work which he undertook on Thursday afternoon against his physician’s advice.”  The Sun held out hopes of his recovery, reporting that “He ate for dinner a dish of soup and two chops.”

Field did recover and three years later the New-York Tribune noted “his health seemed restored.  Within the past few years he had pursued his natural activities in the direction of law literature.”  The lawyer’s only surviving child, the widow of Sir Anthony Musgrave, lived in London.   His health was hearty enough that he visited her early in 1894 to celebrate his grandson’s 21st birthday,

Field returned to New York on the Columbia on Wednesday morning, April 11.   The Tribune reported “his younger brother, the Rev. Dr. Henry M. Field, Editor of ‘The Evangelist,’ who had driven to the pier to meet him, found himself half an hour late, and welcomed his returning brother at No. 22 Gramercy Park, where David Dudley Field had maintained his apartments since his retirement from the house on the opposite side of the park.”

Field’s health seemed fine to his brother.  He told a reporter “I found him in the dining-room, and he arose and stretched out his arms and embraced me in a most loving way.  He said he never felt better in his life.  We sat down and talked in a most cheerful manner.”

When David Dudley Field arose on the morning of April 12 he said he had caught a cold and a doctor was called.  The problem was worse than a cold.  Field had contracted pneumonia and he died that evening.

On the day of his funeral, April 15, The New York Times reported “All day Friday and yesterday telegrams of condolence from all parts of the country were received by the family.  Hundreds of people called at the home of the Rev. Henry M. Field, 22 Gramercy Park, where Mr. Field died, and left their cards.  Among the number were nearly all the prominent lawyers of New-York City.”
The newspaper said that at “22 Gramercy Park, the Field home, ostentatious display of mourning trappings was avoided.  Heavy crape over the front door bell was about the only concession to conventional exhibition of woe.”

Unexpectedly, “It was decided not to place the body in one of the parlors down stairs, but to put the coffin on trestles near a front window of the second-floor parlor overlooking Gramercy Park.

“Around the bier were cherished family souvenirs…The coffin was covered with heliotrope, violets, maidenhair fern, roses, and palms, and elsewhere in the room was a profusion of fragrant blossoms.  But for the coffin the apartment was a boudoir.”

The pall bearers were chosen from the most esteemed names in politics and jurisprudence, including Chief Justice Fuller of the United States Supreme Court, Chief Justice Andrews of the Court of Appeals, and U.S. Congressman and New York City Mayor Abram S. Hewitt.

Henry M. Field left Gramercy Park within the year and his elegant home was operated as a boarding house for well-to-do bachelors.  On January 13, 1895 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Tribune offering available rooms on the same floor where David Dudley Field had died.  “Gentlemen only; large, handsomely furnished second floor rooms, en suite or separate; private bath, breakfast.”

Among the respectable boarders in 1895 were Duncan Gray and W. B. Northrop.  The affluence of Gray was evidenced that year when the family of John Corbett arrived at Port Jefferson, Long Island on October 17.  The Sun reported “The family came to this village on the yacht Gitchie Gumee, which is said to have been stolen from Duncan Gray of 22 Gramercy Park.”

In the meantime Northrop was adding to his fortune by selling real estate in St. Augustine.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted on December 14 1895 “This is a privilege that was much and vainly sought hitherto owing to the scarcity of suitable sites, and as a consequent cottages owned by private parties are not as numerous in this delightful Florida town as they would otherwise have been.”  The Guide warned that Northop’s two plots near the Ponce de Leon Hotel and the Flagler mansion “will soon disappear from the market through rapid sales.”

Also boarding in the house was Assistant District Attorney Allen and Rushton Peabody, described by The New York Times as “a member of the old Peabody family, being a nephew of ex-Judge Peabody.”

On the night of April 10, 1896 the 27-year old Peabody found himself behind bars.  Earlier that evening he was traveling uptown on a Broadway cable car.  Robert Green, who lived in Mount Vernon, New York, sat down next to him and, according to Peabody, “continually rubbed against him.”

At 23rd Street Peabody left the car and entered the fashionable Fifth Avenue Hotel.  As he sat in the lobby, he was surprised to see Green enter.  The man sat next to him and “annoyed him in the same manner as in the car.” 

Rushton Peabody, offended at the apparent homosexual advances, forgot his mannerly upbringing.  Amid millionaires and socialites, he “pummeled” his abuser.  The New York Times reported “A crowd collected, and Policeman Pomeroy arrested Mr. Peabody and took him to the station house, where he was locked up on Green’s complaint.”

The mansion continued to be operated as a bachelor boarding house; although as it had been in 1896, the only meal provided was breakfast.  On September 25, 1900 an advertisement read “Gentlemen only; handsomely furnished suite; also front room; private bath in both; basement, hot, cold water; hall room; breakfast.”

In the last week of December 1904 a new boarder arrived, giving his name as James G. Walker.  What the landlady did not know was that Walker, who also went by alias Lawrence Macy, was described by police as the “most notorious furnished room thief in America.”

He was recognized by detectives on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve and “arrested at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-first Street…after an exciting chase and a jump through a window in his effort to escape,” according to The Times.   His capture solved the cases of “twelve or fifteen mysterious furnished room robberies.”  Among his targets had been No. 22 Gramercy Park where “after being there several days he managed to ‘clean out’ four apartments occupied by Messrs. Donald Appenzeller, C. B. Caper, J. R. Royal, and F. B. Johnson.  Clothing valued at more than $500 was taken from the Gramercy Park house.”

Among the more upstanding boarders that year was 23-year old E. A. McManus.  He drew the attention and admiration of ladies city-wide when The Evening World journalist Catherine King performed an undercover investigation on September 29.

King, like many female subway riders, was offended by the lack of manners shown by male passengers.  She entered a crowded car on the Lexington line hoping to find a man courteous enough to give her a seat.  Finally, in the fourth car she tried, E. A. McManus stood up.  King reported the following day “In addition to making way for me, his action caused other young men in the car to follow suit to the advantage of three other women who were standing—and this all before I handed the astonished young man the envelope containing The Evening World’s order for $10, payable to the first man who complied with the rules laid down by this paper in the Diogenesque hunt for a polite man.”

McManus told Catherine King that he was on his way to the 71st Regiment Armory where he was a member of Company B. and way trying out for the basketball team. 

Early the next year, in March 1906, the building’s owner Mrs. Mary Seymour, who lived on Park Avenue, updated the aging structure.  The $10,000 worth of improvements (nearly a quarter of a million dollars in 2016) included new plumbing, an electric elevator, and hot water heating.

No. 22 returned to life as a single-family home when it was purchased by Emily N. Vanderpoel around 1910.  The daughter of lawyer William Curtis Noyes, whose family arrived in Massachusetts in 1634, she was the widow of John A. Vanderpoel.  Like his wife’s family, the Vanderpoels were long established in America, arriving in America by 1657.

Emily Vanderpoel -- Litchfield Historical Society

Well-known as an author and artist, she was best known for her painting “Ypres,” a World War I scene which was acquired by the National Museum in Washington D.C.  She earned a bronze medal during the 1893 Chicago Exposition and was a member of the New York Watercolor Club and the Woman’s Art Club of New York.

The main parlor as it appeared during Emily Vanderpoel's residency.  The large painting over the fireplace may be her work.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As an author, her topics were diverse.  In 1902 she published Chronicles of a Pioneer School from 1792-1833, which related the history of Sarah Pierce and her school in Litchfield, Connecticut.  She wrote another book in `1924 on the same general topic.  She also penned several books concerning color problems in painting, and about American lace and lacemakers.

Emily converted the fourth floor as her studio.  She removed the flooring of the attic and extended the center window into the cornice.  To accommodate the enormous skylight, the quaint dormers were removed.

Emily's studio was flooded with light from above and behind.  It was the essence of stylish Edwardian clutter. photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Emily Noyes Vanderpoel divided her time between the Gramercy Park house and her Leitchfield, Connecticut “cottage” for decades.  She died at No. 22 at the age of 96 on February 20, 1939.

The following year, on February 4, The New York Times reported the house had sold, “one of the dwindling list of remaining private homes around this park.”  It would not be a private home for long. 

A conversion was completed later that year, resulting in eight apartments, some duplexes.  Residents throughout the next decade would include architect Cino Costa; James W. Brown, Foreign Secretary of the International Y.M.C.A.; and Robert T. Lansdale, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Welfare.  Max Lerner, famed editorial writer and author moved into an apartment in 1943.

During the war years, Brigadier General Herbert D. Gibson and his wife lived in the building; as did the family of Colonel Thomas M. Tarpley, Jr.  He received the bronze star medal in 1945 for his action in Bataan.

In 2008 another conversion began which resulted in two expansive condominium apartments.  One, a triplex with three bedrooms and five baths was listed for $11.5 million before the renovations were completed. 
 
The cast iron balcony, while period-appropriate, is a recent addition, as is the stoop ironwork.
Owner Eric Ellenborgen, CEO of Marvel Comics, sold the top three floors in May 2010; retaining the lower floors as his own home.  In July 2011 the owners of both condos joined forces and put the building on the market for $23.9 million.  The offer, noted Adam Fusfeld of The Real Deal, gave the potential buyer “the opportunity to purchase all six floors, 16 rooms and seven bedrooms.”

Neither Henry Field nor Emily Vanderpoel would recognize the house today.  photograph by Corcoran

Instead, the former mansion continues to house two massive apartments.  The 1840s elements have been ripped out and replaced by 21st century interiors.  The landmarked exterior, however, is not greatly changed since Emily Vanderpoel installed her artist studio in the first decades of the 20th century.


photographs by the author

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Alabama House -- Nos. 219-221 Bowery



By the end of the Civil War the Bowery had changed from an upscale street of brick-faced homes.  Businesses, music halls and biergartens replaced them one-by-one as the influx of immigrants changed the street's personality.

In 1867 the building at No. 221 was shared by a tobacco store and a “store and range warehouse.”  Already the neighborhood was the center of Manhattan’s German immigrant community.  James D. McCabe described it in 1883 as “the paradise of beer saloons, bar-rooms, concert and dance halls, cheap theatres, and low-class shows…The population of the street is largely German, and at night and on holiday occasions the Bowery constitutes the favorite resort of the pleasure-seekers of this nationality.”

By at least 1876 William H. Jackson owned both Nos. 219 and 220 Bowery.  In 1889 he demolished both and commissioned James E. Ware to design matching multi-purpose five story structures.  The 43-year old architect designed various buildings, but would become best remembered for his developing of the “dumbbell plan” of tenements.

The completed structures were essentially Renaissance Revival; but Ware liberally splashed them with Romanesque and Queen Anne elements.  Queen Anne made its appearance in the terra cotta frieze below the ambitious cornice and the two-story faceted bays above the cast iron storefronts.  Their angled windows now only provided dimension, but captured wisps of breezes in the summer months.  Romanesque Revival appeared in the top floor arcade, the rounded bullnosed brick corners of the upper floors, and the unique pilaster capitals—a marriage of Corinthian and medieval ornament.


The majority of the four upper floor space in both buildings (soon purchased by Nathaniel H. Lyons) were operated as the Alabama Hotel.  James McCabe had noted that “All along the street you her the sharp crack of the rifles in the shooting-galleries.”  One of these was the Zettler Rifle Club, which moved into the slightly wider, southern portion of Jackson’s new building.  The club installed a shooting range and club rooms in its space; while tenants of moderate income lived in the rest of the building.

Ware's pilaster capitals were unique.
Among them was Traugott Hampel who had come to New York from Manheim, Germany, at the age of 22--the same year the Alabama House was finished.  He found a job as a janitor in a school in Hoboken, where he met Sophie Klehrmunt.  After Sophie was hired as a servant in a Lexington Avenue house, she left Traugott.

Heartbroken, he moved to New York to be near her, working at a variety of jobs.  His worried family finally convinced him to return to Germany.  Once there, his father set him up in business and arranged a courtship with a young woman.  In 1891 a wedding day was set and a house for the soon-to-be newlyweds procured.  And then in February a letter from Sophie Klehrmunt arrived.  In it, according to The New York Times “she pretended that she had reconsidered her decision” and “Traugott hurried back to America.”

He got a job in a picture frame factory on Rivington Street, around the corner from the Alabama House.  But now that she had lured him back, the fickle Sophie changed her mind again.  After three months of what The Times called “tiffs,” the lovelorn Traugott could take no more.

The 25-year old put a pistol to his skull in his room at the Alabama House on May 9.  He left a slip of paper which read “Lived, loved, and suffered—God protect my loved ones.”

The Zettler Rifle Club held annual shooting contests in its indoor range.  No small events, they lasted for days.  On February 24, 1892 The Sun reported that they would begin “on Sunday, March 27, and continued for two days following.”  Cash prizes were awarded to the best shots and the contests were open “to all comers.”  The names of a few of the winners that year, such as Schmitt, Engle, Hecking, Tropp and Zettler, reflected the German make-up of the club and the neighborhood. 

The Rifle Club would remain at No 219 Bowery at least through 1894.  But by then the Bowery’s reputation was degrading from German music halls and bright lights to one of crime and vice.  Perhaps the first hint of the change came on October 22, 1893 when 22-year old resident Frank Smith was arrested for burglary.  His name would be among the first of a very long list of shady Alabama House residents to be arrested over the decades to come.

On the ground floor Michael Lyons ran his Lyon’s Restaurant at No. 221, while Julius Schulz opened a saloon in No. 219 in 1895.  When the Zettler Rifle Club moved out, the Alabama House used the combined address of 219-221 Bowery, as reflected in the 1899 voter census.  By now it was no longer described as a hotel, but a “lodging house.”  The distinction was important.  Unlike hotels or boarding houses, a lodging house supplied no amenities other than sleeping accommodations.

The crooked characters who stayed at the Alabama House were epitomized by 33-year old Max Goesche.  In September 1901 the nation went into mourning after the assassination of President William McKinley.  In New York City donation boxes appeared in saloons, grocery stores, schools and shops to collect money for a fitting memorial. 

Goesche had already served six and a half years in Sing Sing for robbing express wagons.  Now, on December 8, he was arrested for robbing a McKinley memorial money box in a saloon at Delancey Street and the Bowery.  Police had been searching for the thief after he had robbed “a number of the memorial boxes in different sections of the city,” reported The New York Times.

Fred Murray lived here in 1903.  The 34-year old swindler preyed on rubes visiting the city and on May 8 he found another one.  The Sun reported that Charles Hingston of Lynn, Massachusetts was sightseeing at the Aquarium and “fell in” with Murray.  Con artists like Murray often worked with an accomplice and his was waiting.

The Sun explained that “Murray induced him to go to a saloon at 300 Canal street, owned by Leon Chavaney.  There they played some game of chance and Hingston lost $110.”  The rigged game netted the crooks the equivalent of over $3,000 in 2016 dollars.

Another tenant, Max Semel, was arrested on October 14, 1905 for passing bad checks.  At the time blank “bank checks” were available in the lobbies of banks to be filled out and cashed against depositors’ accounts.  They were convenient for respectable account holders; but unfortunately they were equally convenient for crooks.

After Semel foolishly tried to cash a second phony check in Philip Kohn’s saloon on Ludlow Street he was nabbed.  He told the judge “I don’t know how many I have given.  It was so easy that I just couldn’t keep from it.”  He explained how the scheme came to him.

“I was sitting out in Tompkins Square one day this summer thinking how I could raise money enough to go to Coney Island when I happened to think of getting a check cashed.  I got hold of a blank, wrote a check for $4 and took it into a saloon.  They gave me the money right off the bat.  I thought that looked pretty good.”

When arrested he had three check books, each originally containing 100 blanks.  There were only 25 left.  “Semel said he guessed he had got money on pretty nearly every check that had been torn out,” reported The Sun.

By now missions had cropped up all along the Bowery as reformers tried to rescue the down-and-out men and “degraded women” here.  In October 1906 The New York Times described the neighborhood around the Alabama House as “the red light district.”  The following month The Holy Name Mission used Lyon’s Restaurant to feed Thanksgiving dinner to 150 men.

Earlier that year an incident involving an unnamed house painter who was staying in the Alabama House was indicative of the dangerous and sordid environment of the Bowery.  Late on the night of October 7 he ran into Emma Wilson, a street walker well known to police.  According to her later, she “walked along the Bowery with him until they came to The Star,” a saloon at the corner of the Bowery and Hester Street.

About half an hour later her husband, William Wilson, known in the neighborhood as “Yaller,” walked in.  According to Emma, her companion “left her.”  Around 5:30 in the morning a policeman found Yaller’s lifeless body “propped against the door of ‘The Star,’” according to newspaper reports the following morning.  He had a mortal stab wound on his left side, near the heart.

Police deduced that Emma and her husband worked as a pair; and when Yaller tried to extort money from the man, he responded with a knife.  Despite Emma’s insistence that she knew nothing of the attack, she was arrested.

In March 1920 Michael F. Lyons sold the building to Joseph H. Schwartz.  The New York Times got the date slightly wrong when it reported “The building has not changed hands since 1888;” but noted that it housed the “famous Bowery restaurant…long known as Lyons’s restaurant.”

The restaurant became home to Alexander Wagner’s “coffee house.”  William O’Neill sat down on the morning of February 5, 1911 and ordered beef stew and a cup of coffee.  When the 82-year old got his bill of 13 cents, he refused to pay.  The stew had cost 10 cents, and the coffee three cents.

Wagner had the elderly man arrested.  He explained to the judge that he felt the meal was worth 12 cents, not 13.  The magistrate told him “You had better pay it.”

“Yer bet I won’t,” answered O’Neill.

“You won’t, eh?”

“Naw.”

And so the judge fined him three dollars.  Since he only had 60 cents in his pocket, he was sent to jail for three days.

Meanwhile, the tenants of the Alabama House continued to be hauled away for various crimes.  In 1912 Carl Williams was arrested for burglary, as was Alfred Fodel.  The following year Herman Kasman was captured for robbery and in 1914 David Weinberg was sentenced for burglary.

Interestingly, when Joseph A. Schwartz sold the building in May of 1916, the purchaser was William H. Lyons.  The Lyons family regained the property as part of its Lyons Hotel Company holdings.  Despite the respectable sounding name, the Alabama House only got worse.

With America’s workforce depleted by World War I, the Government took action to fill the estimated one million unskilled job openings at factories “engaged wholly or in part in war work.”  The Government opened agencies empowered to “conscript” unemployed men “for the army of toil” as described by The Sun on August 2, 1918.  One of these was established at No. 221 Bowery.

Alabama Hotel “guests” were on the target list for the agency.  On June 28 that year the New-York Tribune pointed out that “Loafers, ‘lounge lizards,’ dancing men and kindred Broadway and Bowery folk will be labeled as such.  There will be no false branding of industrial material on the part of the Federal and State employment bureaus.  An official of the former said yesterday that the Federal bureau would register the goats as well as the sheep, and would help the goats as much as they could.”

With the advent of Prohibition, at least one Alabama House inhabitant found a new source of income.  The Times reported on March 8, 1931 that 50 prohibition agents “descended upon the Bowery and lower east side yesterday shortly after 1 P. M., [and] raided twenty-two places where ‘smoke’ or colored alcohol was said to have been sold.”  Among the 26 bootleggers arrested was Fred Anderson, caught with two gallons of colored alcohol.


In 1948 the Alabama House was converted to “cubicles”--up to 67 per floor--where down-and-out “Bowery bums” could sleep.  Each contained a locker and a bed.  It now was what was commonly known as a flop-house, with its office on the second floor of No. 219.  The ground level spaces remained a store and a restaurant.

As it had done in 1906, the Holy Name Center again used the restaurant here to provide holiday meals for the homeless.  On Christmas Day 1948 it passed out 3,000 tickets for chicken dinners at the Fuerst Brothers Restaurant.

In 1967 the Lyons Houses owned about a dozen Bowery “lodging houses.”  The organization made a rather startling announcement that year.  The New York Times reported on August 6, “The Alabama Hotel in skid row area is being converted for use by artists.  The 80-by-20-foot studios, where derelicts used to sleep, will rent for about $175 a month.”  The newspaper noted that the Alabama had already been closed and the cubicles stripped out.  The conversion was completed in 1968, resulting in artists’ studios on the second and third floors, with two apartments “with artist in residence” on the fourth and fifth floors. 

Skid Row became better known as the Restaurant Supply District in the last quarter of the 20th century.  Advance Kitchen, Inc. was in the building by 1984; followed by Chair-Up, Inc., suppler of restaurant seating.

As Chair-Up laid plans to relocate to Delancey Street in 2016, work began on cleaning out the ground floor and basement for a potential tenant.  A mystery arose in March when workers discovered a cache of weapons from the World War II era in the basement.  Included was a hand grenade which necessitated a response from the NYPD Bomb Squad.


James E. Ware’s structure has suffered significant abuse over more than a century and a quarter.  Channels have been cut through the assertive cornice for fire escape access, nothing survives of the storefronts, and the metal elements are rusting.  And yet the handsome design still commands well-deserved attention.

photographs by the author

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Hill & Stout's 1909 Nos. 49-51 West 24th Street



At the turn of the last century the crime-ridden neighborhood known as the Tenderloin, roughly between 23rd and 42nd streets from Fifth to Seventh Avenues, was being cleaned up by reformers like Anthony Comstock and Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt.  One by one saloons, gambling dens and brothels were replaced by loft buildings as the area earned the new moniker, the Mercantile District.

On March 7, 1908 developer Edmund Coffin purchased the “four story business building” at No. 51 West 24th Street.  In reporting the sale, The New York Times mentioned “Mr. Coffin owns the adjoining property, No. 49, and now controls a plot 45 by 98.9.” 

Coffin had plans for the site and wasted no time in implementing them.   One month later, on April 11, The Record & Guide reported that architects Stout & Hill had completed the plans an the 11-story loft building of terra cotta and brick.  The report listed all the latest technology—steam heat, electric elevators and “skeleton construction.”  It mentioned that “two buildings will be demolished.”

Well-known contractors Thompson-Starrett Co. was awarded to contract to construct the building.  Founded in 1899, the firm was a pioneer in skyscraper construction and within the next two decades would build the Woolworth Building, the American Stock Exchange, the Equitable Building, and Chicago’s Sears, Roebuck and Company Complex, as well as other important structures.

While construction was underway, Coffin leased the building to real estate manager Lee Holstein “for a long term of years” in August 1908.  Holstein realized the potential in the area and the modern factory.  In November, as construction continued, he leased 20,000 square feet in the building to the United Manufacturing Trimming Company, Louis Barnett & Son, and Jacob Isaacson.  The future tenants were all engaged in apparel-related businesses.

Stout & Hill’s factory and store building was completed in 1909.  A two-story cast iron base of geometric designs, thin rope twist colunettes and leaded transoms, was framed in colorful terra cotta.  Most striking were the two Vienna Succession-inspired plaques on either side which announced the two addresses.

The architects created interest in the severely unadorned seven-story midsection by the use of starkly variegated stone.  Terra cotta joined brick at the top level to reintroduce the colorful decoration.  Here the façade leaned slightly back from the piers, catching the northern light much like an artist’s studio.



Among the building’s first tenants was Thalheimer Brothers., a button manufacturer.  Harry Jonas ran the firm, and his was a Horatio Algier-worthy success story.  Jonas had been hired around 1890 as an errand boy.  Over the next two decades he slowly worked his way up until, in 1909 he was made head of the firm.

On the afternoon of Saturday, June 10, 1911 Harry Jonas left his office and boarded the Sixth Avenue street car heading uptown.  Before going home to East Orange, New Jersey to his ailing wife, he intended to stop by the Turkish bath at Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street first.  He took a seat on the street car and began reading his newspaper.

Sitting next to Jonas was a “fashionably dressed woman about 35 years old,” as described by The New York Times later.  Next to her was Thomas E. D. Ritchie, a traveling salesman for the Fred Lee Company.  The streetcar had gone about 10 blocks when suddenly Ritchie jumped to his feet, searched his pockets frantically and exclaimed that his money was missing.

The salesman told Jonas he had lost a $20 gold piece and a $10 gold piece.  The woman and Jonas both stood up so the seats and floor could be searched; but the coins were not there. 

At 42nd Street Jonas got off the car.  Suddenly a policeman grabbed his shoulder.  Ritchie had jumped off the car before Jonas and told the first officer he found that Jonas had picked his pocket.  “I charge this man with taking my money!” he said.

Shocked, Harry Jonas consented to be searched.  The Sun reported “He had $300 in bills and silver in his pockets, but no gold.”  (The cash Jonas was carrying was evidence of the affluence he had achieved.  It would be equal to more than $7,700 in 2016.)

The two men were taken to the East 51st Street station house, where Captain Raynor explained to Ritchie that he was “taking a risk in making a complaint.”  The salesman persisted and pressed charges of grand larceny against Jonas, despite there being no evidence at all.

Harry Jonas’s stature in the business community resulted in the story being followed for two days by various newspapers.  He was held in jail for nine hours, all the while insisting, according to The Times that “the complainant was making a grave mistake.”

When his case was brought before the magistrate in the Yorkville police court on June 11, the courtroom was filled with friends and businessmen who came to “testify to his good character,” according to The Sun.

Jonas told the judge “I have never had any imputation made against my honesty since I have been in business…The accusation of picking pockets almost knocked me flat.”  As he finished his testimony regarding the events of that afternoon, he added “The humiliation and the mental agony that I underwent was more than I would voluntarily suffer for a million dollars.”

Happily for Jonas, the magistrate declared “You have been grievously wronged, but I can do no more than honorably discharge you, which I do with great pleasure.”  He suggested that Jonas “get redress in the courts against the man who caused your arrest.”

Along with the many businessmen in the front row of seats was Jonas’s sister.  The wave of relief and emotion caused him to break down and he wept on her shoulder.  But he well intended to take the judge’s advice regarding Ritchie.

“Your Honor,” he said, “this is the saddest day of my life.  I fear I shall never get over the humiliation of this day.  But I will make my accuser pay well for it.  My wife is ill and I am afraid she knows of this awful occurrence.” 

One of the many-paned transoms which survive within the elaborate cast iron base.

At the time the building was filled with other apparel firms, including Spitzer & Harris Co, makers of “waists and dresses;” Jacob Aaron Herman, manufacturers of “dresses, skirts, and petticoats for woman and children;” and W. Schwartz & Sons, “cloaks.”  Ellner, Edelstein Co., which also made cloaks, occupied the entire 9th Floor and renewed the lease in 1915.

J. A. Herman patented this "maternity gown" in 1912.  (copyright expired)
While we often think only of young women bent over the sewing machines in early 20th century garment factories; the majority of employees in several of the firms here were men.  In 1913 Jacob Guttentag employed 33 men and 12 women making cloaks; in 1915 Goldfinger & Katz, makers of “cloaks and suits,” employed 30 men and just six women.

In December 1919 Edmund Coffin sold Nos. 49-51 West 24th Street to the Manport Realty Company.  The Real Estate Record and Guide pointed out that the leases on five lofts would expire within two months, and the others in 1921; hinting that the buyer had plans for the building.  Instead Manport Realty sold it in January 1920 to Julius Tischman & Son.

The Tischmans continued leasing the lofts to apparel firms.  Kramer & Schott “ladies coats” was here in 1920; in 1922 Franco-American Dress Co., Inc. took the top floor; and by 1925 William J. Klein was manufacturing buttons here.

When this photograph was taken around 1940 low-rise vintage buildings still survived on West 24th Street.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By mid-century the tenants list had slightly changed.  Instead of trimmings and women’s apparel the tenants were involved in the leather accessories trade.  In 1952 Fortuna Machine Co. moved in.  The firm manufactured “leathering machinery.”  And by 1957 the Amber Belt Company was here.

New York City artist Sharon Florin captured the terra cotta detailing in this 2016 painting.
Somehow, as the 20th century became the 21st, the building escaped being converted to high-end residential space and still houses small factories.  Somewhat amazingly, the cast iron and terra cotta of the lower two floors have survived almost entirely intact.  Except for the trendy pizza café at street level, the building looks little different than it did on that summer afternoon when Harry Jonas left work only to face public humiliation.

many thanks to Sharon Florin for suggesting this post.
photographs by the author