Architectural richness and the romance of a time gone by help to define today’s Flatiron District. Since April 2007, the BID staff has been highlighting the area’s most historic structures as well as some of the people and businesses that have either thrived here for decades or are noteworthy for other reasons.

Aug 12, 2019

Discover Flatiron: Remembering Elvis on East 24th Street

August 16th marks the 42nd anniversary of the death of rock 'n’ roll pioneer Elvis Presley. In commemoration of the singer’s early recording days in the neighborhood, the Flatiron Partnership recalls the year 1956 when Elvis performed and produced a number of hit songs at the RCA Records studios located at 155 East 24th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues.

Elvis Presley reportedly visited New York City for the first time in March 1955. At this point in his career, the 20-year-old aspiring singer and musician had been appearing in a series of one-night shows mostly throughout the South. His arrival in Manhattan, however, led Elvis to try out for a television talent show audition. Presley’s performance was rejected and soon the young singer was on the road again, but not for long.

By December 1955, Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, returned to Manhattan for a meeting with RCA Records management, which had reportedly purchased the singer’s contract with Sun Records for $35,000 (equivalent to $334,515.11 in 2019). Sun Records facilitated the contract deal due to financial difficulties that were threatening the studio's survival. Additionally, Sun Records President, Sam Phillips explained, "By releasing his contract to RCA we will give [Presley] the opportunity of entering the largest organization of its kind in the world, so his talents can be given the fullest opportunity" (via Scotty Mooroe). The RCA team immediately set up a publicity photoshoot for their new talent acquisition at the company’s studios at 155 East East 24th Street. Presley’s attire for the session included $60 worth of clothing (equivalent $573.45 in 2019) from a local store in Memphis, Tennessee. 

“The studio looked like a set from a 1930's science fiction movie,” noted Presley photographer Al Wertheimer in the singer’s biography Last Train to Memphis written by Peter Guralnick. “It was a large rectangular space of acoustical tile walls ribbed with monolithic half cylinders. The high ceiling rippled with more parallel cylinders and two pipes of fluorescent light. In the center of the room lay a patch of carpet on which the musicians had placed their instruments.” This RCA photoshoot marked an important shift in Presley's career. 

After an appearance on the Jackie Gleason-produced Stage Show on January 28, 1956, Presley returned to the East 24th Street studio. Two days later, the singer would make music history. According to the New York Daily News on August 14, 2008, Elvis and a number of musicians “recorded for seven hours that day, then three hours on January 31, and another several hours on February 3.” The songs that were reportedly recorded during these sessions included Blue Suede Shoes, Shake, Rattle and Roll, and Lawdy, Miss Clawdy.” 


(Bill Black, D.J. Fontana, The Jordanaires, Elvis and Scotty
recording "Hound Dog" July 2, 1956 Photo © William "Popsie" Randolph
)

"Blue Suede Shoes was the only hit single in the bunch,” noted the Daily News, “but the sessions were crucial in Elvis history because they marked the point at which he started moving away from his raw, pure Sun sound to the more commercial and mainstream sound RCA envisioned for him.” And several months later in July 1956, the singer revisited the studio once again to record the two chart blockbuster hits Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel. Take 31 of Hound Dog became the version that was released, and the single sold 10 million copies globally becoming his best-selling song that topped the pop chart for 11 weeks - a record that stood for 36 years (via Mega Rock Radio).


(Depiction of RCA Studio building at 155 East 24th  - circa 1971 via Baruch College)

The 1880s-constructed building was located in an area that had a rich social and architectural history. According to New York Magazine on November 20, 2014, “24th Street east of Madison Square—once known as Old Stable Row because of its saddlers, blacksmiths, and horse doctors—thrived during Edith Wharton–era New York.” RCA Records studios then referred to as The Victor Recording Company, acquired the 24th Street property at an auction in early 1928 from Fiss, Doerr & Carroll’s. The business was Manhattan's leading supplier of coach, livery, and workhorses, that supplied horses for the New York transit system, and later for use by the U.S. military in World War I (via Swing and Beyond). Victor Recording Company's office consisted of two recording studios in the ground floor space of the 24th Street building, referred to as studios A and B. Studio B, the smaller of the two, was used for piano and chamber music recordings, and the larger Studio A could accommodate groups of up to 35 musicians. Presley recorded his songs in Studio A. 

A little more than a decade after the success of Hound Dog, however, the sound would fade from the East 24th Street music studio. RCA Records studios relocated to Midtown Manhattan at 1133 Avenue of the Americas near 44th Street in August 1970. Notable New York City architect Emery Roth was the new office’s designer, who would create an insulated facility for the recording company. “An engineer does not normally regard with affection the sound of a flushing toilet during the pianissimo section of a Brahms symphony,” wrote The New York Times on August 9, 1970. The building of the 24th Street studio was sold in 1968 to what was then City College (now University) of New York, which was in use for thirty years until 1998. CUNY then demolished the building and began construction on Newman Vertical Campus, Baruch College's $319 million campus expansion project that opened in 2001 according to The New York Times.

 Header Photo: Hoyt Hawkins, Elvis, Neal Matthews, Scotty, Gordon Stoker,
DJ and Hugh Jarrett in Studio A - July 2, 1956. Photo by Alfred Wertheimer.
 

 

  

Jul 1, 2019

Discover Flatiron: Scott Stamp & Coin Co.

The United States' first-ever general issue postage stamps were sold in New York City on July 1, 1847. Today, this date is recognized as National U.S. Postage Stamp Day and National Postal Worker Day. In honor of these occasions, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership journeys back to the 19th century for a look at the Scott Stamp & Coin Co., then the nation’s leading stamp and coin dealer, located at 18 East 23rd Street and Madison Avenue.

Londoner John Walter Scott’s career as a stamp dealer reportedly began in his hometown around 1860. He departed for New York City in 1863, however, Scott chose to move briefly to California as a Gold Rush prospector. But by 1867, Scott returned to his stamp business in New York City, where he would ultimately gain fame and fortune as “the Father of American Philately” and publisher of the definitive stamp periodical American Journal of Philately.

The Scott Stamp & Coin Co. made its Flatiron District debut on 23rd Street in 1892. “It was here on Madison Square that Scott housed his vast treasure of stamp and coin history, including specimens issued by every nation,” according to Miriam Berman, author of Madison Square: The Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks, and a Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership walking tour guide. “Stamp and coin enthusiasts came here from far and wide to see and purchase Scott’s rare finds as well as items necessary for their hobbies, such as the International Stamp Album with a capacity to hold 15,000 varieties of stamps, and equivalent receptacles for their coins.”

King’s Handbook of New York edited by Moses King wrote that “the Scott Stamp & Coin Company is indisputably the foremost concern in either continent devoted to the stamp business. The headquarters on 23rd Street are the rendezvous of thousands of stamp and coin collectors, amateur, advanced and professional, from all parts of the world, who while visiting or sojourning in New York City, have occasion to seek coins and stamps.”

Scott was known for its popular stamp packets. They included one packet that was valued at $85 and contained 4,000 different stamps from nearly all of the stamp issuing areas throughout the world at that time. “This splendid Packet is a fine collection in itself,” noted a company ad, “and contains many scarce and desirable stamps.” For $55, another packet featured 3,000 different stamps from areas such as Bolivia, the Niger Coast, and the Hawaiian Islands.

Some stamp packets were given names. They ranged from the Columbus Packet, which was valued at $25 and featured 700 different stamps from countries in the Western Hemisphere, to the Mexican Packet, which contained 150 different stamps at a cost of $15. “Some years ago we purchased all the remainders from the Mexican Post Office,” according to the company, “and thus enabled to offer a finer and cheaper packet than any other dealer.”

Coins and paper money were also sold in packets. Notable company packets were a set of coins with the heads of the 12 Caesars, including Julius Caesar, for $12; another with 20 half dollars from the years 1795 to 1837 for $15; and a set of five bills issued by the Continental Congress and used before and during the American Revolution that retailed for $1. Collectors could also purchase coin boxes here, which Scott described as “the best thing out.The boxes were cardboard holders and had wooden tops or headings.

But by 1885, Scott sold his business, although, he decided to continue to work at the firm as a minority partner and editor of the company’s publications. On January 4, 1919, which coincidentally was the same day Scott died at the age of 73, an article in the Real Estate and Record Guide reported that the Scott Stamp & Coin Co. would soon move to 33 West 44th Street. According to the publication’s description of the company’s celebrated past, which included its headquarters in the Flatiron District, “The new tenant is one of the oldest dealers in rare stamps and antique coins in the country, having been established more than fifty years.”

Photo Credit: WorthPoint

Jun 24, 2019

Discover Flatiron: Pioneer Groups in Pride History

This year’s NYC Pride March, beginning at noon in the Flatiron District on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street on Sunday, June 30th, will also commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn rebellion that led to the modern-day LGBTQIA+ rights movement. In honor of the occasion, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership looks back at two pioneer groups that once occupied offices in the neighborhood while campaigning for gay and lesbian causes before the 1969 Stonewall uprising.

Considered one of America’s first gay rights groups, the Mattachine Society was established in Los Angeles in 1951. The nonprofit organization’s name had been derived from the Italian word mattachino, a court jester who would dare to tell the truth to the king. One of the Society’s major missions was repealing discrimination laws, which included the 1953 executive order issued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower that banned homosexuals from Federal employment.

Shortly thereafter, the Mattachine Society began expanding nationwide, which included a New York City chapter created in 1955 by Sam Morford, an industrial psychiatrist, and Tony Segura, a research chemist. In 1959, MSNY opened its headquarters in Flatiron at 1133 Broadway, also known as the St. James Building, between 25th and 26th Streets. At this location, the organization provided on-site and outreach social services to individuals in rooms 304 and 412.

“Advice was given by phone, by mail and in-person without charge and for those who needed professional assistance, referrals were made to physicians, attorneys and psychotherapists who were known for their compassion for and understanding of the problems of gays,” according to records in the New York Public Library’s Archives & Manuscripts division.

In a show of solidarity, MSNY soon offered to share their workspace with the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), one of the first U.S. organizations for lesbians. Its name paid tribute to the erotic poetry collection known as The Songs of Bilitis. Founded in San Francisco in 1955, DOB’s New York City chapter was established in 1958 by Barbara Gittings, the daughter of a U.S. diplomatic corps member, and Marion Glass, who was also Gittings’ friend and her hiking partner.

Gittings was an advocate for gay youth to have library access to books about sexual orientation. As a college undergraduate, she reportedly had been the subject of rumors based on her close association with a female student. This episode led Gittings to a period of exploration, ranging from reading textbooks about homosexuality to novels that featured lesbians. “At last here were lesbians shown as real people,” Gittings said about the latter in Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities by John D’Emilio. “They didn’t exactly have lives of bliss, but at least they were functioning people and had their happiness.”

During this time, members of the LGBTQIA+ community often encountered hostile environments. This included businesses in New York City where gay men and lesbians were “not served alcohol in public due to liquor laws that considered the gathering of homosexuals to be “disorderly,’” according to the History Channel’s website (history.com). “In fear of being shut down by authorities, bartenders would deny drinks to patrons suspected of being gay or kick them out altogether; others would serve them drinks but force them to sit facing away from other customers to prevent them from socializing.”

MSNY members decided to take action. Led by Dick Leitsch, who was the group’s president from 1965 to 1969 and an openly gay journalist and former bartender, MSNY chose to hold a number of ‘sip-in’ demonstrations. Equivalent to the era’s civil rights ‘sit-ins,’ MSNY “visited taverns, declared themselves gay, and waited to be turned away so they could sue,” notes history.com. In 1966, the group was  “denied service at the Greenwich Village tavern Julius’, resulting in much publicity and the quick reversal of the anti-gay liquor laws.”

By 1968, however, MNSY and DOB had moved out of their offices in the St. James Building, and within two decades, both organizations would cease to exist. Internal feuds, lack of funds, and diminishing support from the public, who now saw MSNY as “too timid, passive and ‘square’ after Stonewall,” reportedly brought an end to the New York City chapter in 1987. A decade earlier, DOB’s national organization also reportedly closed its doors due to conflicting views about their future direction, which included whether to align itself with gay men’s groups or lesbian separatist feminists. Some local DOB chapters were able to stay active for several more years.

But, to this day, the actions initiated by MSNY and DOB activists of the Flatiron District still remain memorable milestones for the LGBTQIA+ community and others. Shortly before his death at the age of 83 in 2018, Dick Leitsch received a letter of appreciation from President Barack Obama, reported The New York Times in their obituary about the gay rights advocate. “Thank you for your decades of work to help drive our nation forward on the path toward L.G.B.T. equality,” the President wrote to Leitsch. “Our journey as a nation depends, as it always has, on the collective and persistent efforts of people like you.”

Photo Credit: Dick Leitsch, 1965; Louis Liotta, New York Post Archives

May 6, 2019

Discover Flatiron: NYC's First Y.M.C.A Building

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Y.M.C.A.’s opening of its first building in New York City at 52 East 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue. In honor of the sesquicentennial celebration, the Flatiron/23rd Partnership takes a look back at the property that once served as the organization’s main headquarters beginning in 1869.

Founded in July 1852, the mission of the New York City chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) was “to harbor young men who were moving in droves to cities to make their fortunes,” according to the nonprofit’s website. 

During their first decade, the Y.M.C.A.’s initial offices moved to various locations throughout Manhattan, which included Lower Broadway, Waverly Place, and 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue, before the organization decided to build and own a new property on East 23rd Street.

The Y.M.C.A. paid a reported $142,000 for the site, according to the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide on April 13, 1901. James Renwick, Jr. was the architect and also a designer of notable neighborhood real estate such as Booth’s Theater at 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue and the Free Academy, later known as The City College of New York at 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue, and now the location of Baruch College.

In December 1869, Renwick’s Y.M.C.A. building was dedicated and viewed as a property that “physically and programmatically combined religion, leisure, and commerce in an unprecedented way,” wrote Paula Lupkin in her book Manhood Factories: YMCA Architecture and the Making of Modern Urban Culture. 

“Behind an elegant Second Empire façade,” noted Lupkin, “complex paths of access and circulation connected public and private spaces on five floors, including ground-level stores, club rooms, a library, a gymnasium, classrooms, a large lecture hall, an art gallery, and artists’ studios.” The facility also featured an organ that cost an estimated $10,000.

“The library is valuable and varied,” wrote King’s Handbook of New York City edited by Moses King. “It has 43 early-printed Bibles which antedate 1700, including the Koburger Bible of 1477, Luther’s Bible of 1541, the Bishop’s Bible of 1568, and one in French of the eighteenth century, bound in marvelous covers of mosaic leather.” And, noted King’s Handbook, “all reputable persons, male or female” could visit the library. 

The Y.M.C.A.’s studios were often used by aspiring artists. Up-and-coming painters who either lived or worked there included Edwin Austin Abbey, Robert Swain Gifford, and William Sartain. And interior designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, best known for the creation of stained glass lamps, was also a regular resident and a son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co., whose corporate headquarters now occupy 200 Fifth Avenue, between 23rd and 24th Street, in Flatiron.

By 1901, however, the Y.M.C.A. sold its East 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue property to the Central Realty Bond and Trust Co. for $800,000. Shortly thereafter, fire destroyed much of the building and the property was demolished in 1903 to make way for the 11-story Mercantile Building.

The Y.M.C.A, which was also known as the McBurney Branch, named after former executive director Robert Ross McBurney, relocated to 213 West 23rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, in 1904. And decades later, the property gained global pop culture status for its reported inspiration and appearance in the 1978 Village People music video, “Y.M.C.A.” 

But after close to a century at West 23rd Street, the building was sold in 2002 and two years later converted into condominiums. Currently, the McBurney Branch is located at 125 West 14th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, and offers, notes its website, family-friendly “community-focused health and wellness programs, classes, and facilities.”

Photo Credit: New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection

Apr 16, 2019

Discover Flatiron: The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children

The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC) was the first agency of its kind with initial offices in the Flatiron District. In honor of the April 1875 incorporation of the NYSPCC, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look back at the neighborhood origins of this groundbreaking organization.

It was the plight of an orphan that led to the creation of the NYSPCC. “She is a bright little girl, with features indicating unusual mental capacity, but with a care-worn, stunted, and prematurely old look,” wrote The New York Times on April 10, 1874 in its description of the New York State Supreme Court proceedings on behalf of the child. “Her apparent condition of health, as well as her scanty wardrobe, indicated that no change of custody or condition could be much more worse.”

The young girl’s story had captured the attention of Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which had various office locations in the Flatiron District during the latter half of the 19th century. According to The New York Times on December 9, 2009, Bergh “saw the girl–like the horses he routinely saved from violent stable owners–as a vulnerable member of the animal kingdom needing the protection of the state.” 

The case would also inspire the ASPCA founder to start a child protection agency. Bergh, along with philanthropist John D. Wright and ASPCA attorney Elbridge T. Gerry, decided to launch the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in December 1874.  In April 1875, the SPCC became incorporated as The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Their mission was “to respond to the complex needs of abused and neglected children, and those involved in their care, by providing best practice counseling, legal, and educational services,” according to the NYSPCC website.

In April 1880, the NYSPCC purchased a four-story brownstone at 100 East 23rd Street near Fourth Avenue (present-day Park Avenue South) that would serve as office space and temporary housing for abandoned and mistreated children. This location would make New York City history as the first children’s shelter. The agency also acquired an adjoining property in 1888.

By 1892, however, plans were underway for a new NYSPCC eight-story building and shelter at the same location. Noted area architects Renwick, Aspinwall & Renwick were selected as designers of the property, which had a reported construction cost of nearly $500,000. “The whole building will be extremely plain on the outside,” reported The New York Times on February 21, 1892, “with the idea of saving as much as possible of the building fund for securing interior conveniences and the latest modern appliances.” 

When the property made its debut with the address of 297 Fourth Avenue in April 1893, the building’s features included marble-finished walls, dormitories, elevators, a kitchen, and a roof garden with railings that served as a playground. “This Society was the origin of the numerous similar organizations which are now springing up in both America and Europe,” noted The New York Times on February 21, 1892, “[and the NYSPCC] intended to make the new headquarters an example worthy of being followed.”

Due to its expanding role, the NYSPCC sold its eight-story building in 1920 and signed a two-year lease for temporary headquarters at 214th Street and Bolton Road in Upper Manhattan. The property would also be remodeled to accommodate 200 children. 

Then, in 1922, the NYSPCC's shelter moved to Fifth Avenue and 105th Street. According to The New York Times on August 29, 1922, “From the cheerful little reception rooms, decorated with illustrations of fairy stories, to the big open-air playground on the roof, overlooking Central Park, there is everything to appeal to childish fancy.” 

However, to be closer to the courts handling child protection cases, the NYSPCC moved to its current Lower Manhattan location at 161 William Street in 1980.

Photo Credit: ASPCA of Henry Bergh, Co-Founder of NYSPCC and Founder, ASPCA

Mar 11, 2019

Discover Flatiron: Top-Tier Jewelers

In celebration National Jewel Day (March 13th), the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership shares some notable highlights about three prominent jewelers who have operated here in the Flatiron District.

From 1868 to 1885, pearl purveyor Jacob Dreicer & Co. was located at 1128 Broadway, between 25th and 26th Streets. “Dreicer’s appreciation for the subtle hues of the gem and his sense of design–he often uses them in settings with diamonds and platinum–made the firm’s jewels highly sought after,” noted the book Gilded New York: Design, Fashion, and Society edited by Donald Albrecht, Jeannine Falino, Susan Gail Johnson, Phyllis Magidson and Thomas Mellins.

Seeking potential customers, Dreicer often dined at nearby elite eatery Delmonico’s on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street. “Many of the famous strings and ropes of pearls and collections of jewels owned by persons prominent in modern social and business worlds were assembled by Dreicer & Co.,” wrote The New York Times on November 8, 1926. “The collection of these gems entailed a constant search of the world’s markets for stones of the highest quality. One 30-inch string of perfectly matched pearls assembled by the firm was of such rarity and beauty as to sell for $1,500,000 which is said to have established a record price for a string of pearls of this length.”  

A decade after Dreicer's arrival in the area, Theodore B. Starr, an acclaimed silversmith, jeweler, and Dreicer competitor, moved next door to the pearl aficionado. Starr’s store, however, shared two entranceways, 206 Fifth Avenue and 1126 Broadway, during its occupation in the neighborhood from 1877 until 1911.

Exclusive designs were often on display at Starr’s business, according to The New York Times on April 18, 1893. They included "a tiara containing 300 diamonds and 8 large emeralds, a corsage piece of pearls and diamonds arranged around a large sapphire, a necklace of emeralds and diamonds strung on an invisible gold chain, and a diamond studded hair ornament–a sword with a gold blade.”

An array of decorative items were also available for purchase, reported The Times. “The clocks—cathedral clocks with sweet chimes; the bronzes, wonderful in skillful workmanship—showing how hard and unyielding metal can be made to assume the appearance of soft-flowing draperies, and the vases and porcelains, all form a bewildering display.”

But by the beginning of the 20th century, Dreicer, Starr, and other commercial enterprises had followed the economic trend of moving north to Midtown. A century later, however, premier jeweler Tiffany & Co. announced, in 2010, the arrival of its corporate offices to the Flatiron District. Tiffany leased a reported 260,000 square feet for their new headquarters at 200 Fifth Avenue, between 23rd and 24th Streets. 

In 2017, Tiffany expanded its Flatiron footprint by nearly 17,000 square feet at 53 West 23rd Street. But, if you plan to purchase any of their dazzling diamonds on this National Jewel Day, you’ll still need to visit Tiffany’s iconic 57th Street and Fifth Avenue flagship store, which has been located in Midtown Manhattan since 1940.  

Photo Credit: Daytonian in Manhattan