I’m writing about a pair of my favorite Midtown buildings, one now demolished. I’ve known about each for a while. They’re from an era in the first decade of the 20th century that favored exuberance and ornamentation over facility, and were built in a style that few architects would attempt today. It’s unwise to say these buildings are from any “golden era” of architecture; no doubt in 2075 or 2100 or so, if NYC is still above water, today’s glass-walled exercises will be looked upon as a golden era by those enduring the architecture stylings that’ll be foisted on them by designers of that future era.
I’m an infrastructure fan and observer, not an architectural expert, and while I’m a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright-style streamlining, I can look at the Beaux-Arts and Art Nouveau structures built from about 1880 through 1925 as among my favorites, though I have some kind words for the Art Deco era that briefly followed it. As for the glassy International Style, now 70 years old but more dominant than ever, I can only say… meh.
First, the one that got away. A dirty old Art Nouveau pile at the southwest corner of 5th Ave. and W. 32nd, just a couple blocks south of the Empire State Building, its exterior was gray with over a century of auto exhaust, its metal bays beginning to rust and paint beginning to peel. It held down this corner since 1902, but its first owners were in business since the Civil War.
Some commentators have decried the condition of 5th Ave. south of its “sweet spot” on the blocks immediately north and south of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with emporiums like Cartier, Bendel, Tiffany & Co and other high-end retailers. They point to the souvenir joints, pizzerias, and occasional fast food palaces as signs of NYC’s decline. How could such places take root on the Queen of Avenues?
316 5th was chockablock with life and big city activity. There was the New York Souvenir shop on the bottom floor. The second floor featured beauty shops offering skin waxing, hair straightening and other treatments. However, notice the cross on the tall window on the left, just above the polygonal metal bay. The third floor is home to a branch of the Korean-language New York Garden Church; this is the west end of Koreatown, centered along W. 32nd St. between 5th Ave. and Broadway, with a concentration of Korean businesses and restaurants. Korean immigrants began to live and work in the area in the 1980s.
316 5th Ave. was built for brothers Albert and Max Kaskel, haberdashers who’d started out in what is now called Noho in 1867, selling shirts, ties and other men’s furnishings. In 1881 they moved to W. 23rd St. near the Ladies’ Mile area, many of whose vast emporia are still in evidence on 6th Ave. It was there that the Kaskels’ period of greatest success began as they became one of the city’s foremost dealers in men’s clothing. In 1902, they commissioned Charles L. Berg to design their new headquarters and showrooms here on W. 32nd and 5th. With its slanted roof punctuated by ornate dormers, it harked back to the French Second Empire style that dominated architecture in the 1870s and 1880s. Kaskel & Kaskel was praised for its use of electric lighting to highlight store window offerings, still a fresh innovation in 1902. The Kaskels also sold women’s outfits soon after the 5th Ave. move.
In 1946 the Kaskel business moved uptown to 5th Ave. and 46th St. for a bigger showroom space, and 316 5th Ave. became a mixed-use office building with businesses renting the bottom floors. In June 2017, word came that the plot had been sold, and the never-landmarked building would be replaced by a 40-story residential tower. However, at last glance an empty lot still occupied the space.
Accompanied on both sides of 8th Ave. by high-rise office buildings built in the 1920s and 30s, #300 W. 38th St., on the southwest end of what was Times Square’s sleaziest district holds forth, perhaps bloodied over the years, but still intact. It was constructed in 1903, one year after #316 5th.
#300 West 38th was built as a hotel catering exclusively to actors that appeared in the many Broadway theaters located on the blocks north and east of this corner. Its chief architect was Hungarian immigrant Emery Roth (1871-1948) who became one of the pre-eminent architects of hotels and residences in NYC—among his later designs were the Warwick Hotel, where the Beatles stayed during their first NYC visit in February 1964, as well as the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn and the twin-towered San Remo and Normandy Apartments in Manhattan. The firm Emery Roth & Sons is still active and has designed dozens of prominent NYC buildings including the Pan Am, now Met Life, Building and with Minoru Yamasaki, the first World Trade Center. 300 W. 38th is full of architectural detailing; all the Classical-style ornamentation so prevalent in architecture prior to 1920 would be swept away by Art Deco and then the streamlined Corbusian and International styles that took hold in the late-1940s and continued onto the Brutalist styles of Paul Rudolph.
I first took serious notice of the building when making my way up 8th Ave. several years ago. At that time the corner franchise sold lingerie, video and DVDs. When I was by there a second time, one of NYC’s dollar pizza-slice shops had taken over, with the porn relegated, along with a Japanese noodle palace, to a minuscule entrance on the 8th Ave. side. Meanwhile, a sewing machine repair place occupies a small space next to the main entrance on W. 38th. The entrance is set off by a carven lion’s head. The building is in no immediate danger from what I’ve heard, but given the current volatility of Manhattan development, it may not have several years to live.
—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)