Thursday, September 29, 2011

23rd St.

When this photo was taken the block that it shows, 23rd street west of 5th Avenue, was a retail center for women's clothing, jewelry, toys, books, and furniture. Some buildings, like McCreery's, at right, were huge dry goods stores. Others, like Best & Co next door, were more modest in size but still given over entirely to one business. Most housed storefronts at street level and, above, a mixture of offices, small manufacturing operations, wholesale merchants, and upper-floor retail stores. Some of the shops are still pretty well known. Best & Co. is one such. Others are Bonwit Teller, F.A.O. Schwarz, and the publishing house, G. P. Putnam's Sons. A dwindling number of the old brownstones were still private residences. No. 49, for example, was the home of W.C. Schermerhorn, whose family owned much Manhattan property, including some of this block. More typically, No. 14, where Edith Wharton had been born, was now the James McCutcheon & Co. dry goods store, selling imported handkerchiefs, table linens, towels and embroideries. There was one variety theater on the block and many nearby.[1] And there were many galleries and artists' show rooms (one of which showed a portrait of my great-grandfather in 1900).[2] The other major industry in the vicinity was hostelry. There was one famous hotel on the block and quite a few others, both large and small, in the vicinity.[3]

{caption: 23rd [Twenty-third] Street, east from 6th Ave. [Sixth Avenue], New York, N.Y., Detroit Publishing Co., circa 1908; source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division}

The photo is interesting partly because it lacks the crystal clarity of other photos by the Detroit Publishing Co. Compare, for example, the image of the same general location taken a few years before (which I showed in a recent post) or the images of nearby Madison Park which I showed a bit more than a year ago. The haze which obscures the photo's background gives the appearance of great depth and provokes a small sense of mystery.

The photographer was standing on the platform of the 23rd Street station of the Sixth Avenue elevated railway. The large building to the right, McCreery's, is on the corner of 23rd and 6th. The block ends just before the tallest building visible in the smoky distance — the famous Flatiron Building. In between, we should be able to see 17 buildings, but there appear to be only six or seven.

This detail from a 1910 fire insurance map names most of the structures on the south side of the block.

{Detail from: Manhattan, Atlas 114, V. 4, Plate No. 1; Map bounded by 6th Ave., W. 25th St., 5th Ave., W. 22nd St., (Sanborn Map Company, 1910); source: NYPL Digital Gallery. Click here for two see the atlas sheet from which this detail was taken.}

To our left, the view is even less certain. We can make out the last few letters of the sign at the Eden Musee, then the "Toys" sign at F.A.O. Schwarz. There seem to be just two buildings between that one and the hotel on the end of the block (whose sign you can just make out at top: "Fifth Avenue Hotel", of which only the "UE" and "L" are visible). However the insurance map shows five buildings between F.A.O. Schwarz and the hotel.

The foreshortening on this, the north side, is more pronounced beyond the hotel. At that point we should see a wide intersection (where 23rd, Broadway, and 5th Ave. come together) and the southern end of Madison Square Park. We do see some trees, but the separation between the Fifth Avenue Hotel and the next building to the east, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, seems much to small. Similarly, the Flatiron Building seems squeezed between the Union Trust building on the west and the Hotel Bartholdi to its east.

At the farthest point in our sightline we can see the 23rd St. station of the Third Avenue elevated railway. Intervening buildings include the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the College of the City of New York.

Here are some details from the photo.

There are many more people afoot than there are being carried about in a vehicle. At this date, at the dawn of the motor age, there are hardly any private motor cars. People took the elevated railways, the street cars, and the horse-cabs. You can see by the clock of Le Bolt & Co., jewelers, that it's just a bit past noon. The clock is directly across from the signpost for the Eden Musee and both are placed high enough to be seen by people exiting the 23rd St. station of the Sixth Avenue El. To the left, on the north side of the street, merchants have put up awnings against the bright morning sun. The iron-gated steps lead to the Schermerhorn residence. Click to view this detail full-size.

The broad sidewalk on the south side of the street is crowded with window shoppers and pedestrians. It must be summer since many women are wearing light-colored clothing.

In this view you can see a sign for the Lilliputian Bazaar in the Best & Co. building. The bazaar specialized in clothing for children. You can also see that Bonwit Teller specializes in Women's Outer Garments.

The Flatiron Bldg. seems much closer to Stern Brothers than it is.

The photographer who took the picture worked for the Detroit Publishing Co. which specialized in postcards, both color and black and white. Here's a postcard which they made from the same negative as the one shown above.[4] In it, you can't see the Flatiron Building at all.

{source: wikipedia}

From the postures of the people in the street it's easy to tell that the postcard was made from the negative. It looks at first glance that the postcard is simply a cropped version of the negative, but although that's true on three of its sides, the left side of the postcard shows a bit more than the black & white image. This is yet another mystery. The postcard may have the extra bit stitched in (Detroit Publishing occasionally combined two negatives to make a card). Or, perhaps the scanner from which the b&w image was made somehow cut off the left edge.

This next postcard was made about the same time and from nearly the same spot on the platform of the El station, but at a different time of day, by a different publishing organization, and with use of a different process of colorization.[5]

{Caption: Postcard: 23rd Street in Manhattan, New York City, published in 1907 or before; source: this card is available on a number of web sites, my source for this copy was flickr}

The scrawled note says "A windy day, and I have a bad case of blues. Deb." The other side is addressed to Dr. E.L. Johnson, Iron River, Douglas Co., Missouri. As you can see, the card identifies itself as "Twenty Third St. Shopping District, New York". The publisher is identified on the back: "Souvenir Post Card Co. New York and Berlin"[6]

Within the next five years the block would be transformed and by 1920 most of the retail stores had moved uptown as warehouses and lofts were erected in their place.

Here, via Google Street View, is what it looks like today.

View Larger Map
And here, by contrast, is what it looked like during a snowstorm in 1905.

{Caption: Bloc[k]aded cars on 23rd St., New York. [Blockaded cars on Twenty-third Street, New York.] (1905); source: NYPL Digital Gallery}


Some sources:

Demolished buildings, What we lost

FAO Schwarz in wikipedia

Knoedler & Company

GOUPIL'S GALLERY, New York Times, November 29, 1876

"Reform Club" in Club men of New York, their occupations, and business and home addresses: sketches of each of the organizations: college alumni associations (Republic Press, 1893)

The Ehrich Brothers Store, New York Times, February 12, 1995

KOSTER & BIAL'S TO BE SOLD, New York Times, August 18, 1893

A NEW MUSIC HALL, The Trocadero on West Twenty-Third Street Opened Last Night with an Excellent Variety Programme, New York Times, March 10, 1896

JACKSON-MACK CO. FAILS FOR $1,000,000, New York Times, October 12, 1912

MRS. SALLODE AFTER SCHNEIDER.; Determined to Purity Her Neighborhood in West Twenty-fourth Street, New York Times, August 8, 1894

IN THE REAL ESTATE FIELD, New York Times, July 15, 1910 ("the cloak and suit firm of Bonwit, Teller Co., now located at 58 West Twenty-third Street")


W. C. SCHERMERHORN BURIED, New York Times, January 5, 1903.

New York's Theatres, Old and New, New York Times, June 15, 1902

A history of the New York stage from the first performance in 1732 to 1901 by Thomas Allston Brown (Dodd, Mead and company, 1903)

Manhattan Street Directory (Manhattan Guide Company, 1901)

Passing of the Fifth Avenue Hotel About to Remove One of New York's Noted Landmarks, New York Times, July 7, 1907


Souvenir Post Card Co. 1905-1914: "268 Canal Street, New York, NY. A major publisher of a variety of postcard types. They used three different printers over the course of their business, which changed the look of their cards. Some of the early cards were printed with the name E. Frey (owner?) on them. The company was purchased by Valentine and Sons. and they produced cards in America under the name Valentine-Souvenir Co."

IN THE REAL ESTATE FIELD; Twenty-third Street Concern to Move to Fifth Avenue, New York Times, June 30, 1906

From Wharton to Starbucks -- No. 14 West 23rd Street

IRT Third Avenue Line in wikipedia



[1] At the center of the block on the north side, the Eden Musee possessed a music hall as well as wax works and dining room. Nearby theaters and halls included Proctor's Twenty-third Street Theatre and the Trocadero or Bon Ton (one block to the west), the Grand Opera House (farther west, at 8th Avenue), the Madison Square Theatre (on 24th just west of Broadway), the Lyceum (on 4th Ave. between 23rd and 24th), the Fifth Avenue Theatre (Broadway and 28th), and Miner's (8th Ave near 25th). The old Madison Square Garden took up a whole block (26th-27th, Madison-4th Ave.). The block had formerly possessed the famous Booth's Theatre at the corner of 23rd and 6th Ave.

[2] I now have this portrait. Here are some of the galleries near the block: The Artist Artisan Institute was a block to the west. The most famous nearby gallery was Goupil's, part of Knoedler & Co. (5th Ave. and 22nd.) Other nearby galleries included the National Academy of Design (23rd at 4th Ave.), L. Crist Delmonico (5th Ave. near 22nd), Klackner Art Gallery (7 W. 28th), and William Schaus (5th Ave. near 25th).

[3] Fifth Avenue Hotel, Hoffman House, Albemarle Hotel, Brunswick Hotel, Bartholdi Hotel, Richfield Hotel,

[4] The colorizing process they used, called photochrom, used black and white negatives in a lithographic printing operation.

[5] There's a black and white version of this card on wikipedia with the following information: "Unmailed postcard. Store Web page states year published is estimated to be 1910 (title of Web page: "NY~NEW YORK CITY~23rd Street at Night~c1910 BEAUTY" Picture side of postcard (only side shown on store Web page) states "1940 ILLUSTRATED POST CARD CO., NEW YORK." The number "1940" is a typical inventory or catalog number of a type seen on many postcards in the early Twentieth century." Of the Illustrated Post Card Co., the web site of the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City says: "Illustrated Post Card 1905-1914 520 West 84th Street, New York, NY. This major publisher produced a wide variety of tinted halftone postcards in series that were printed by Emil Pinkau in Leipzig, Saxony. Each city or location of their color card sets were assigned the same number prefix. They also published an unnumbered series of chromolithographic fine art cards that were printed in Dresden. Many of their early cards do not have their name on them, only their distinct eagle logo.

[6] Here's the database entry for this publisher in the web site of the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City: "Souvenir Post Card Co. 1905-1914. 268 Canal Street, New York, NYA major publisher of a variety of postcard types. They used three different printers over the course of their business, which changed the look of their cards. Some of the early cards were printed with the name E. Frey (owner?) on them. The company was purchased by Valentine and Sons. and they produced cards in America under the name Valentine-Souvenir Co."

No comments: