Lower Fifth Avenue of the 1840s was far different in the 1890s. The elegant brownstone mansions of Manhattan’s wealthy were quickly giving way to tall commercial buildings. Among the developers responsible for transforming the neighborhood into a modern commercial area were brothers Samuel and Henry Corn. In 1891 Henry replaced two staid mansions at Nos. 91 and 93 Fifth Avenue with a Beaux Art loft building complete with nude caryatids. The Corns’ mark would be seen in a number of other handsome commercial structures on the avenue below 34th Street.
The house at No. 139 had been home to Loring Andrews in the 1840s; and by the 1870s was the address of iron mining millionaire James A. Burden. The year after Corn erected Nos. 91-93 Fifth Avenue the Burden family was gone from No. 139. The four-story brownstone was leased to the Democratic National Committee as its headquarters. On September 11, 1892 The New York Times quoted former Congressman John M. Wiley of Buffalo who was interviewed in the house. “Cleveland has grown stronger every day and still the election is nearly two months off.”
Following the election of 1892, the Committee moved out and the Corn brothers made their move. On August 6, 1893 it was announced that “Samuel and Henry Corn have leased…for twenty-five years with renewal privilege, 139 Fifth Avenue.” The Times reported “A six-story business building, to be ready by February, will be built on the plot.”
Two months later plans were filed under the name of Samuel Corn & Son. The Corns had chosen prolific architect Alfred Zucker to design the structure. At the time of the filings, in October 1893, the street level store space and several of the offices had already been rented.
Zucker’s original plans were somewhat elaborate and fanciful. There was to be a sixth floor balcony that stretched the width of the façade to create a loggia effect; stepped gables and an onion dome surmounted by a flagpole. The plans were quickly reworked and when the $83,000 building was completed in 1894 it was a subdued and dignified Renaissance Revival work in cream-colored brick outlined in rough-faced mocha-colored brick. Zucker’s exotic plan survived in the quirky Eastern-influenced columns and pilasters of first two floors. At the fourth floor a beefy cast iron balcony, two bays wide, announced the building’s name: THE CORNDIAC. The origin of the name is unclear; although it may simply have been a play on the developers’ names.
The new tenants had hardly moved in before the Corns sold the building. On May 13, 1894 the New-York Tribune noted that “Samuel and Henry Corn sold, for about $115,000, the new building, No. 139 Fifth Avenue.” The $35,000 gross profit would amount to just under $1 million in 2015.
The retail piano district was centering around Union Square and lower Fifth Avenue by now and Hamilton S. Gordon moved into the store at No. 139. One of the oldest piano firms in the city, it had been formed by Stephen T. Gordon in 1846 as a musical instrument store. In 1890 the company began manufacturing pianos and by now was making and selling about 1,300 instruments each year. Gordon also sold instructional books, such as Hellak’s New Method, and Gordon’s New School.
When Hamilton S. Gordon moved his store into the new Fifth Avenue building, he expanded his sales beyond pianos and organs “to include musical instruments generally and Edison phonographs,” according to American Music and Musicians.
During election year 1896, a massive parade was held on October 31 for Major William McKinley. The Times noted that the stores and homes along the route “seemed to vie each with each other in the magnificence of their external adornments.” The newspaper pointed out as one of the “most notable” was the store of Hamilton S. Gordon.
Like many piano stores, Gordon’s leased the instruments as well. In 1898 an upright could be rented for $6 a month; or a Gordon “large size” for $7. On October 5 that year the store lured potential customers with free delivery “this week.” For those wishing to purchase, a new piano could be had for $250, or a second hand instrument for $150.
While Hamilton S. Gordon sold pianos and Victrolas downstairs, the Werner Company was producing the American version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on an upper floor. The New York Times, on April 29 1897, noted that when the 25-book work was first introduced in the United States, “It was disappointing to Americans that such eminent writers as Proctor, Huxley, and Spence contributed to its pages, when they saw that such renowned personages as Gladstone, Bismarck, and Queen Victoria had been omitted from the list of subjects because they were still living.”
The Werner Company solved the problem by publishing “supplemental matter.” Now 30-volumes in total, the Americanized Encyclopaedia Brittanica took care of what The Times called the “incompleteness” of the original.
As the first seeds of Socialism took root overseas, cooperative enterprises appeared. Members could buy goods without the cost of the retailer, paying a nominal membership fee to support the store. Among the earliest was the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, founded in England in 1844 when a group of weavers and other craftsmen opened their own store selling food items they could not otherwise afford.
Several cooperative societies opened in New York City towards the turn of the century. In 1899 the New York Co-operative Society operated its bookstore in No. 139 Fifth Avenue. Directly across the avenue, at No. 140, was the Society’s Fine Arts store. In October 1899 the Society described itself as offering “to its members special cut prices on books, pictures, magazines, stationery, engraving, etc. We supply the cheapest book as well as sets in the finest bindings.”
In the building in 1902 was Russian immigrant and importer Akop Leon. He was drawn into a messy international situation that year when in September his friend, a prominent lawyer in Alexandria, Russia, confided that two months earlier the school teacher of his 14-year old son had kidnapped the boy. She escaped off to New York City with him.
Marie Richter may have gotten away with the crime had she not been caught stealing $40 worth of items from Wanamaker’s Department Store on Saturday night, December 20, 1902. With her was the teen-aged boy who told officers his name was Leo Eranos. But agents from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children soon discovered his real name was Eparnly.
Akop Leon was questioned and he disclosed his friend had told him “the boy had been stolen from him” by the school teacher. Mrs. Richter was jailed, the boy taken to the Society, and the Russian Consul General informed of the affair.
Although the Gordon Piano Co. would remain in No. 139 until 1913, when it moved to West 36th Street; it shared space in the building with a competitor. Mason & Hamlin had a showroom here and in 1905 its success warranted extra space. According to The Music Trade Review that year “Mason & Hamlin have taken a new floor in the Corndiac Building, which will give them about three times the room which they have heretofore. By so doing, they can give more space to the display of their organs and the repair shops will also have more freedom.”
When composer and conductor Vincent d’Indy arrived in Boston for his American debut, he chose the Mason & Hamlin piano on which to play. The Music Trade Review noted “The tremendous superiority of the Mason & Hamlin over the foreign pianos must have appealed to a man of the analytical nature of D’Indy.”
|A 1902 advertisement touts "mouseproof" organs -- copyright expired|
W. H. Daniels operated his business from No. 139 in 1905. He was in Chicago on business that year before heading back to New York on the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited on June 21. The train was operated by the New York Central Railroad and boasted regular passengers like Theodore Roosevelt, Lillian Russell, “Diamond Jim” Brady, opera stars Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba, industrialist J. P. Morgan, and William Jennings Bryan.
The upper-crust passengers were drawn to the train which broke speed records, traveling between Chicago and New York in around 18 hours. Among those traveling the same day as Daniels were Henry Zibblee, the brother-in-law of Marshall Field; Armour & Co. executive T. A. Valentine; and D. C. Hewett, president of the Hewett Manufacturing Company; and New York lawyer John R. Bennett.
Around 9:30 that night the $200,000 train, consisting of four Pullman cars and a buffet car, was running full speed, two miles outside of Mentor, Ohio. It struck a recently-installed switch and left the tracks. A telephone call to The New York Times reported “When the engine struck the switch it left the rails, dragging after it the first three cars of the train and dashed at full speed into the Lake Shore freight station on the opposite side of the track.”
When the train overturned, the burning coals of the firebox set the wreckage on fire. The gruesome carnage ended in 19 deaths and multiple injuries. John R. Benett was among the fatalities, burned to death. The Times later reported that W. H. Daniels was among those who survived.
Among the firms in the Corndiac Building at the time was Solomon C. Guggenheimer’s “white goods” importing business, Guggenheimer, Rosenberg & Co. By 1910 S. H. Kahn’s importing business was here as well. Kahn found himself in trouble on June 24, that year when he attempted to bypass Customs officials when he stepped off the steamship Lusitania.
“After the examination of his baggage the Customs officials found that he had in his possession a gold locket containing a miniature of his family and a gold and silver key chain which he had failed to declare,” reported The Times the following day.
Kahn tried to wriggle out of the embarrassing situation by saying he had purchased the locket several years ago. Finally he admitted it was a recent purchase and that the key chain was a present for his sister.
When Gordon Piano Co. moved out the ground floor store was taken by glassware and china dealers Rowland & Marsellus Company. In reporting on the store’s move northward from its Barclay Street location, The Times mentioned “This is the fourth china concern to locate in the neighborhood of Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue.”
Rowland & Marsellus had been in business since around 1893, importing English pottery. Although they sold dinnerware, they were more noted for their “souvenir” wares. These were often decorated with American scenes of buildings, notable figures or cities.
The store was still here in 1928 when fire gutted the building. The first alarm was turned in at around 6:35 in the morning on December 20 and quickly grew to a four-alarm blaze. Policeman William E. Ward first noticed the fire when the heat on the upper floors blew out the windows.
On the second floor above Rowland & Marsellus, was the Liberty Lamp Shade Company. The upper floors were occupied by the necktie manufacturers the Metrpolitan Neckwear Company, the Artistic Neckwear Company, and Leopold Lerner. Also in the building were the Nasco Silver Company, the Charles Baum Novelty Company, and lamp dealer T. W. Hamilton.
Fighting the blaze was hampered by the two tall structures on either side of the Corndiac Building. Firemen entered the blind alley behind the building where The Times said “Thick smoke and a shower of glass from breaking windows forced them to work in relays.” It was in the alley that several firefighters received injuries from falling glass.
At one point Acting Deputy Chief John Rankin and Captain Thomas O’Toole entered the burning building to determined if the fire had been extinguished in the basement. As they investigated, the roof collapsed and bricks, plaster and other debris caved into the building. “The two men were caught in an avalanche of plaster and at the same time a back draft shot tongues of flame and smoke in their faces. They were rescued by other firefighters and both were treated for smoke inhalation and minor lacerations,” said the newspaper.
Firefighters were still dousing the smoldering ruins late in the afternoon. Nine firemen had been injured and the Corndiac Building was “wrecked.” The losses the following day were estimated at between $500,000 and $1 million.
Rather remarkably, the building was repaired and continued to house importers and retailers. In 1938 another china and glass firm took an entire floor. And in 1940 as the novelty industry began centering on lower Fifth Avenue the Joseph Redgold Company, dealers in stationery and toys, moved here from Park Row where it had done business for four decades.
As the 20th century drew to a close, the neighborhood saw a renaissance. On September 24 1989 Elaine Louie, writing in The New York Times, noted “The Flatiron district, bounded by Broadway on the east, Seventh Avenue on the west, and 23d and 14th Streets on the north and south, may become to the 90’s what SoHo and Columbus Avenue were to the 80’s—New York’s hottest shopping area.”
Later that year Joan Vass opened her shop in No. 139 Fifth Avenue. Her clothing line, under her own name, also included shoes and accessories for men, women and children. The price tags here reflected the rediscovery of lower Fifth Avenue as a trendy spot. A hand-knitted minidress in 1989 would cost the buyer $330—nearly double that much in today’s dollars.
Outwardly, little has changed on the upper floors of Corndiac Building. The eccentric columns of the lower floors happily survive. For some reason in the very recent past the cast iron CORNDIAC plaque of the balcony was removed—a significant loss in the physical history of the building.
photographs by the author