Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Childs Restaurant Bldg -- No. 377 Fifth Avenue

The upper floor appear to have lost their ornamentation while, in fact, they are intact as designed.
In 1898 Prominent Families of New York commented on New York’s “many famous merchants in the closing years of the last and the first half of the present century.”  The tome opined “…it is not too much to say that foremost among the most energetic and enterprising of them were those who were of the intelligent and thrifty Scottish race.”

One of those Scottish-born businessmen was Adam Norrie who arrived in New York in 1820.  Norrie joined the already-successful firm of Boorman & Johnston and amassed a substantial fortune.  He was known not only for his brilliance in business; but for his generous philanthropies. 

In 1853 Norrie’s only son, Gordon, constructed a stately brownstone mansion at No. 377 Fifth Avenue.  The exclusive tone of the block was evidenced by his next-door neighbor at No. 379—Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Gordon and his wife, the former “Miss Lanfear of New Orleans,” had three daughters and two sons.   In the 1880s sons A. Lanfear Norrie and Adam Gordon Norrie were both attending Columbia College.   One by one the children would marry—each wedding a socially prominent event—leaving their parents alone in the Fifth Avenue mansion with their servants.

The first decade of the 20th century saw the Norrie’s neighborhood drastically changed.  Two blocks to the south the Astor mansions had been replaced with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  Just steps away from the Norrie mansion the massive B. Altman & Co. department store stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 35th Street.

But unlike most of his neighbors, Gordon Norrie stayed in his vintage brownstone.   Then, on the afternoon of November 8, 1909, he died at the family’s summer home in New London, Connecticut.  Ten days later it was announced that he had left “the jewelry, paintings, statuary, books and other contents of his town house at 337 Fifth avenue to his wife, as well as the country home and its contents at New London.”

In 1908 the Norrie house (third from the corner) was still a private home, despite the changing neighborhood.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Before long Norrie’s widow left the house and it was gently converted for business purposes.  When the shop of Crocker, “Mourning Specialty House,” next door at No. 375 was damaged by fire in 1917, the firm moved into No. 377.  The specialized store sold mourning apparel and related accessories—so important in the Edwardian era.

Throughout the next two years the “basement store” and the upper floors would be leased to various small businesses, including the Duryea War Relief office in 1919.  That year on August 19 Nina Larrey Duryea wrote to the Editor of the New York Times pleading that thousands of children in Lille, France, “are in a grave physical condition.”  Calling them, “maimed and depleted,” she explained that the Duryea group sought to send them to the country, “where they could live in tents set up in the big open fields and receive medicinal treatment.”  The letter urged readers to send cash to the 377 Fifth Avenue office so “these innocent little ones, who suffered for four years in a way that no American child has ever suffered, may be saved for the future of France.”

Before long the Duryea War Relief office would have to find other accommodations.   Two months earlier, on June 25, 1919, gossip circulated that Emily L. Norrie had sold the former family home.  “According to one rumor a large retail concern has bought the building and intends to alter the structure for its exclusive occupancy,” reported The Sun.

Finally the hearsay was put to rest when on October 19, 1919 The New York Times reported that “The old Norrie residence at 377 Fifth Avenue, one of the landmarks of the section, was sold yesterday.”  The Childs Restaurant Company had paid $450,000 for the property as a site of another restaurant in its extensive chain.  On the same day The Sun reported “The Childs company will erect a modern business building for its exclusive use on the plot.  The building is expected to be six of seven stories high.”

Rather than erect a new building, the firm commissioned the architectural firm of Severance & Van Alen to convert the brownstone mansion into a modern commercial building.  Completed within 10 months, the limestone-faced restaurant and office building revealed no hint of its former life.

When this shot was taken in 1920, Fruhauf Brothers was the only upper tenant.  Architectural Record January 1921 (copyright expired)
The Childs Restaurant chain was as well known for its architecture as for its food.  William Van Alen (best remembered for his designing of the Chrysler Building) designed at least two structures for Childs.  The completed No. 377 was so restrained in its ornamentation that it appeared nearly unfinished.  There was no cornice and the tall base was severely planar.  A sixth floor opening was ornamented with a broken pediment and urn (echoing the two classic urns perched on the spartan parapet) and a French-styled Juliet balcony.  Only the spandrels of the second floor, with delicate festoons, were ornamented.

The double-height base featured a broad show window with an handsome pseudo-fanlight.  Architectural Record January 1921 (copyright expired)
The first tenant of the upper floors was Fruhauf Brothers & Co., a clothing manufacturer, which took the fifth floor.  Henry Fruhauf was highly involved in local politics and interested in police work.  Later, in July 1925, he would be appointed “Special Deputy Commissioner” by Police Commissioner Enright.

The New York Times explained on July 19 that “He has been connected with the Police Department for the last three years as Honorary Captain and Honorary Inspector.  The position of Special Deputy Commissioner bestows most of the privileges of a Commissioner, but carries no salary.”

Fruhauf’s name would be in the newspapers for another reason that year when he organized the “Five Cent Fare Club.”   When Mayor John F. Hyland opposed a proposed hike in public transportation fares, the clothing merchant jumped into action.   His “club” was actually a petition.  He started with the names of his own employees, and by August 1925 had accumulated over 12,600 signatures.

He explained his motivation to reporters saying that “with the continuance of a five-cent fare, enabling his employes to get out of the congested sections of the city to where they could live comfortably, he would have no difficulty in getting labor.”

Childs remained in the first floor space for decades.  The country’s entrance into World War II created changes in the lifestyles of Americans.  Commodities like sugar, silk and gasoline were no longer as easily available.    In 1942 the Government put a freeze on tin and, as a result, alloys became scarce in the private sector.

On April 1, 1942 The New York Times reported that “Silver is taking the place of white metal in costume jewelry, it became evident yesterday.  The alloy consisted of 90 per cent tin.  The restriction caused the closing of tenant Leo Glass & Co.

The jewelry firm announced that it was shutting down for the duration of the war.  “We are retiring because we cannot get any of the types of metals which we are accustomed to sell, including brass and white meal, which form the foundation of our business,” said Leo Glass, president.  He added “it was patriotic not even to attempt to manufacture novelties and costume jewelry of raw materials which are essential to the manufacture of defense products.”

The Childs Company sold the building in 1945, moving its restaurant out after a quarter of a century.  Throughout the remainder of the century the building saw a wide variety of tenants, many from the novelty and accessory industries.  In the 1940s the Newark Glove Company, the showrooms of the Amber and Filflex Foundations, and the Valjean Pearl Corp showrooms were in the building.

The 1950s saw No. 377 home to Handbag Fashions, and to Majestic Specialties, Inc., manufacturers of “handbag frames, compacts and parts.”  And in 1966 Sportsmen’s Affiliates, Inc., offered life insurance for professional athletes in their 4th floor offices.

The block of Fifth Avenue, once home to millionaires, still reflects the Edwardian changes.

Severance & Van Alen’s elegant street level façade has been replaced with an uninteresting modern storefront.  Where Fifth Avenue shoppers and businessmen stopped for lunch in the 1920s, tourists now pick through cheap t-shirts and souvenirs.  The upper floors, however, remain essentially intact since the brownstone façade of Gordon Norrie’s home was stripped off and replaced with limestone.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"The Waist House" No. 865 Broadway

By the mid-19th century, the tradition of Manhattan’s fashionable residential neighborhoods was a northward migration away from the ever-expanding commercial districts.  But the residential nature of the blocks between Union Square and 23rd Street was astoundingly short-lived.

When E. W. Clawson erected his fine four-story brick home at No. 865 Broadway in 1843 he most likely anticipated spending many years here.  And yet only seven years later the Clawson family was gone and their home taken over by the Esther S. Leverett school.    That year The New York Mercantile Union Business Directory noted that along with Esther, Alphonse Perrin and D. Cherbuliez were instructing young ladies in French.

Joseph D. Beers owned the building by the 1860s.  As the War of the Rebellion raised patriotic fervor, the former Clawson home was leased to Major Halasko’s Drill Academy.  The military school staged an exhibition at Niblo’s Garden on the afternoon of Saturday, January 24, 1863.

The New York Times reported “There were in attendance about sixty of the pupils, who, by the way, style themselves New-York Cadets.  The exercises opened with Company drills, and then an amusing play, so cast as to bring the entire class upon the stage, and to give them an opportunity of exhibiting their proficiency in drill, was given.”  The newspaper noted that the Garden was “crowded to its utmost capacity” and the audience was “evidently greatly pleased with the exercises.”

Joseph Beers was an active player in the real estate field.  In 1869 he had the brick house totally renovated.  Although the alteration permit listed Charles B. Wood as the owner; there is little doubt that Beers still owned the building and would continue to do so for decades.  It was most likely a clerical error.  Charles B. Wood was an architect and the permit omitted the architect’s name.

The renovations resulted in a stylish cast iron façade and storefront and an up-to-date mansard roof.  Cast iron was recently popular for commercial structures, not only because of the rapid process of bolting the new face onto the structure, but for its relatively low expense and the fireproof qualities.  The new “Commercial Palace” styled façade pretended to be stone with rusticated piers running up the sides and vermiculated keystones over the openings.

The revamped structure became home to Howard & Co., jewelers.  Like other upscale jewelers, the firm also offered “real bronzes, of fine make and finish,” and other expensive decorative items.   But perhaps its most profitable business was in Waltham watches.  Howard & Co. was the exclusive agent for that firm.

Howard & Co. ambitiously entered the mail-order market by 1872 when it targeted the Far West in an advertisement in Appletons’ Journal.   Readers requesting a catalog and price list could order a watch, delivered “by Express,” with no obligation to pay until the watch was examined.  The advertisement advised “Residents of California, Oregon, and other distant places will find a great advantage in dealing with us.”

An advertisement in the New-York Tribune listed several of the models available in the store.  Included were “the new small-size Ladies’ Stem-winder,” presentation watches, and “a full line of Stem-winding Watches for gentlemen.”

But the Howard & Co. soon failed.  Perhaps all those watches being shipped to the West with no down-payment and no way of tracking down the recipient proved to be a bad idea.  On December 22, 1872 The New York Times reported that Howard & Co…have reduced the prices on their goods twenty percent, having determined to close out their stock.”  The newspaper said “Chains, rings, lockets, bracelets, &c., of elegant design, and especially suited for presents, may be purchased at this store at very low prices.”

Two years later, Charles B. Wood was called back to alter the structure again.  The mansard roof was replaced by a full fifth floor, faced in brick, which closely mimicked the architecture below.

The store space was taken over by a fashionable “hat and fur store.”  The shops along this stretch of Broadway catered to New York’s carriage trade.  Only Manhattan’s upper class could afford to shop at No. 865 Broadway in 1875.  Annie Johnson was not among them.

On Saturday evening, November 20 that year Annie strolled into the shop.  She browsed through several items, and then chose a hat.  When the clerk turned his back to wrap the item, he heard the door shut as Annie abruptly left the store.

The New York Times reported that “immediately after her departure the clerk missed a seal-skin sack valued at $200.”  The highly popular accessory was no small theft.  The price tag would translate to about $4,450 today.

Annie Johnson, who gave her occupation as a dressmaker, was subsequently arrested and held at a staggering $2,000 bail.  She “pleaded her innocence of the theft.”

By 1883 interest in Asian culture and decorative arts had swept the country, heavily influenced by the Aesthetic Movement.   Every up-to-date home had a room or at least a corner devoted to an Asian motif.   The store where Annie Johnson pilfered the sack was now home to The First Japanese Mfg. and Trading Co.  As Christmas neared that year, it advertised “Ornamental and useful holiday gifts in porcelain, bronze, silver, screens, cabinets, and curios.  An Inspection Solicited.”

The store used lectures by experts in home décor as an interesting marketing ploy—experts who no doubt stressed Asian decoration.   On Monday, February 15 1886 at 3:00 Edmund Russell gave “a lecture on the decorative arts” at the First Japanese Trading Company’s gallery.

An interesting advertisement appeared in The Sun later that year, on December 5.  The one-line ad informed shoppers that “Christmas Cheap Counters Are Ready.”

In the first years of the 1890s Harris Brothers, manufacturers of expensive gloves, held a long-term lease on the building.  The first signs of trouble appeared in late September, 1893 when The New York Times reported that the firm had sought to sell its lease.  “It seems the rental is $12,500 per year, until next May and $13,000 per year thereafter for five years.  There was no bid.”

Almost simultaneously, the Joseph Beers estate negotiated with John Pettit to trade the Broadway building for the Electrical Exchange Building on Washington Street.  The deal was conditional on Pettit’s being able to raise a loan of $150,000 on No. 865 Broadway.  When that did not happen the deal fell through and the Beers estate retained possession.

Unable to get out of its lease, Sigmund and Albert Harris continued to struggle on.  Their merchandise included ladies’ kid gloves, and suede and “castor mousquetaires.”  Three months later, as the holidays approached Harris Brothers launched a half-price sale to attract customers.  “Variety and quality unsurpassed,” promised the advertisement on December 9.

Although the firm “rallied temporarily,” according to The New York Times months later, business “afterward went down steadily.”  The Harris brothers were forced to declare bankruptcy.   The humiliation was too much for Albert.

On Saturday morning, October 6, 1894 he got up around 6:30 in his home at No. 103 East 72nd Street.  Two days later The New York Times bluntly reported “Arising before the rest of the family, he went down into the parlor, and, after closing the heavy doors, blew his brains out.”

No one in the house heard the shot and it was not until a family member went to call him for breakfast and found his room empty, that his body was found.

Well-to-do Victorian families avoided the scandal of suicide and Albert’s was quickly hushed.  The report of the undertaker who was hired to remove the body simply read “sudden death.”  Sigmund had taken the pistol from the body.

When rumors of suicide reached the East 77th Street Police Station, Policeman Walter Thompson investigated.  “The family told Thompson that the story of suicide was untrue; that Harris had died o heart failure, having been taken sick on Friday afternoon,” reported The Times.

But the whispers in the neighborhood persisted and Police Captain Strauss was unconvinced.  He sent a plain-clothed detective to the house “with the warning that if the full facts were not at once reported to the station house, every one in the house would be put under arrest.”

The Times wrote “This warning had the desired effect.”  Albert’s son and a family confidante, Charles Lessen, went to the station and laid out the facts.

Lessen explained “that the family had not intended to violate the law, but thought that they had a right to conceal the suicide.”  The Times noted that Harris “had been depressed for some time, owing to business troubles.”

For a few years immediately following Harris Brothers’ moving out, No. 865 Broadway was home to the Lindenborn Auction galleries.  In April 1895 one auction, lasting more than a full week, offered the entire contents of “Rophine Rouis, of Fifth Av.”  The exclusive “bric-a-brac and lamp store,” which also had a branch on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, had gone under.  D. Lindenborn’s auction advertisement mentioned “lamps, shades, and artistic furnishings.”

In a situation eerily similar to that of Albert Harris, two months after the auction sale, George W. Rouis, cousin of Rophine Rouis and former manager of the Fifth Avenue store, committed suicide by shooting himself in the right side of the head.

Following Lindenborn in the building was the John Forsythe Company.   The firm manufactured and sold men’s apparel and accessories; but this location would be solely dedicated to its women’s wear—the shirt waist.  The building was dubbed “The Waist House” by June 1899.

On Sunday February 18, 1900 Forsythe advertised its new line of “real rumchunda waists and squares.”  The three sidewalk-level show windows were given over to the new display which the ad promised “will produce a profound sensation.  Nothing like it has ever been attempted before.”
John Forsythe deemed the new goods to be on the cutting edge of fashion.  “Ladies going abroad this year will find Waists made from the Real Rumchunda Squares extremely fashionable.  We have them in larger assortment, and in more exclusive styles than any house in Europe.”  The advertisement mentioned the “Special Exhibit on Third floor, where you may buy the Waists and Neckwear to match or the pattern lengths as you desire.”

John Forsythe advertised his hand-knit sweater as "indispensable for Skating, Riding, Driving, Golf, Etc."  The New-York Tribune, December 15, 1901 (copyright expired)
The Waist House continued to prosper.  In 1904 Forsythe renewed his lease—signing a new agreement for 10 years at $18,500 per year.  The following year he grabbed the opportunity to purchase the building.    His line of ladies’ apparel grew and in 1906 had made the third floor the Corset Department where the well-known Redfern whalebone corsets could be purchased.  In other areas of the building women could shop for walking suits and shirt waists, including “pure Irish linen hand embroiders shirts waists” and “Baby Irish crochet lace waists.”

In September 1907 John Forsythe brought his men’s and women’s businesses together when he expanded into the former Ditson Building next door.  On September 22 The New York Times announced “John Forsyth, [sic] originally using the single building at 865 Broadway, has taken over the adjoining structures up to and including the Eighteenth Street corner, and by reconstruction has converted the whole into one establishment with 185 feet of street frontage.”

It was apparently an over-aggressive move.  In June 1910 the Bank for Savings initiated foreclosure proceedings and on August 5 the building was sold.  Within two weeks the buyer, Edward Kates, had resold the property to Mrs. E. Blumenthal.  Her ownership, too, would be short lived.  On June 1, 1911 the building was sold in yet another foreclosure sale.  The purchaser, ironically enough, was the Beers Realty Corporation.

Beers moved the fire escape from the rear to the front of the building in 1912.  That same year it leased the store and basement to Fry and Friedsam, ribbon merchants.  That fall the Plymouth Raincoat store moved in.  It was a temporary move for Plymouth, prompted by being “ousted” from its Sixth Avenue store.  An October 24 advertisement explained “Our store leased over our heads by unreasonable landlord, forcing us to vacate with large stock on hand…We have therefore taken Temporary Store at 865 B’way.”

Beers Realty still owned No. 865 Broadway when it leased the entire building to the New York Edison Company for a term of 15 years in December 1922.  The firm kept the first floor retail space intact, while converting the upper floors to “factory” space.

Despite its 10-year lease, New York Edison Company was apparently gone from the building by 1939 when Womrath Book Shops and Libraries, Inc. took an entire floor “which will be occupied by the firm’s mail-order department,” advised The New York Times on December 2.  The following year Imperial Drug Exchange took a full floor.

When Kitty Less bought the building in 1941 the decline of the neighborhood was reflected in the property values.  “The tax valuation of the parcel is $53,500” reported The Times, “of which $42,500 is on the land.”    The $11,000 building value would amount to only about $177,000 today.

Throughout the rest of the century the building would see the comings and goings of small businesses like the wholesale sunglasses firm doing business here in 1951 and ’52.  The company advertised “aviation type” sunglasses at $4.20 per dozen.

By the turn of the 21st century the neighborhood saw a revitalization and many of the vintage structures along Broadway were restored as trendy restaurants and shops rediscovered Union Square.  No. 865 has not been so lucky to date.  The cast iron façade, veiled by the zig-zagging fire escape, wears a paint of dull and flaking maroon paint.  But its location within the Ladies’ Mile Historic District promises that a renaissance is just a matter of time.

photographs by the author

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Lost Ziegfeld Theatre -- 6th Avenue and 54th Street

photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1925 news that the Sixth Avenue elevated train was soon to be demolished sparked excitement and speculation among real estate operators.   Sixth Avenue in Midtown was still mostly lined with humdrum brick buildings three stories tall.   And its location between Fifth Avenue and the theater district made it deliriously exciting for developers.

By now William Randolph Hearst’s publishing empire included 27 newspapers and nine major magazines like Cosmopolitan.   He opted in on the Midtown real estate potential.    On June 13, 1925 The New York Times announced his ambitious intentions.

Hearst, with Arthur Brisbane, had purchased 14 old buildings which were already being demolished.  In their place he planned a $7 million group to include a theater, a residence hotel, and two office buildings.  The hotel, which would be completed in 1926, became the luxurious Warwick Hotel; and the theater would be known as the Ziegfeld Theatre.

Hearst was well-acquainted with Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegeld, who was disgruntled with owner of the New Amsterdam Theatre, Abe Erlanger.   But, of course, the construction of a theater was not simply out of the goodness of his heart for an old friend.  Hearst realized that a high-class theater diagonally across from his hotel would enhance business.

In announcing the project, The Times noted “Thomas W. Lamb will draw the plans for the new theatre, which, according to tentative plans, will have a seating capacity of about 1,650 persons.  The stage will be unusually large and especially adapted to Ziegfeld productions."

Florenz Ziegfeld thought big and he thought flashy.  His set designer, Vienna-born Joseph Urban, understood the producer’s mind and for years had supplied the sensational stage sets audiences came to know as pure “Ziegfeld.”  While Thomas W. Lamb was a veteran of theater designing; his reported neo-Georgian design that he submitted to Ziegfeld fell flat.

Two days after The Times’ announcement, another article appeared in the newspaper.  In it Ziegfeld made a surprising change of course.  “The plans have been drawn by Joseph Urban in conjunction with Thomas W. Lamb, architect.  Mr. Urban will act also as artistic director.”  It was perhaps the last time Lamb’s name would appear in conjunction with the structure.

Ziegfield said he had hoped to have his own venue for 30 years.  “Now at last I shall have such a theatre.  I shall be able to build what I call a super-theatre that will startle the public by its modernity and equipment.”

He enumerated a few of the modern features, including “a revolving stage, hydraulic stage, and remarkable electrical equipment, capable of producing all sorts of stage effects.”  The impresario told of an early form of air conditioning.  “There will be a cooling plant, capable of keeping the theatre at 50 degrees if desired.”

By November 7, 1926 Lamb’s involvement had essentially been swept under the carpet.  On that day The New York Times ran a headline reading “Joseph Urban Turns from Scenery to Architecture and plans a Theatre with Highly Original Features.”

The article reminded readers that, indeed, Urban had worked as an architect in Austria “before he got mixed up in the theatre at all.”   The Times’ journalist H. I. Brock wrote “Now he builds a theatre.  And his theatre is not the conventional type.”

Brock called the proposed exterior “unique” and the interior “novel.”  The façade was designed to mimic a theatrical auditorium.  The bowed section above the lobby entrances was meant to depict a gigantic theatrical proscenium.  The boldly Art Deco façade featured clean geometric carvings above the “proscenium” and heroic-sized console brackets that flanked the bowed section above its cornice.

Brock explained further, “The base represents the stage.  The mock-stage front framework rises above it, with architectural simulation of the curtain above the row of tall windows.”

Fluted pilasters suggest open curtains beside the proscenium -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
More than the exterior, Brock was impressed with Urban’s innovative design of the auditorium, calling it “the shape of an egg.”  Urban had done away with all corners and areas out of eyesight.  The goal was acoustical perfection.

“The inside of this egg is decorated after the fashion of the outside of those very gay, giant, egg-shaped candyboxes which are sold to the guileless at ruinous prices around Easter time.  A design of romantical personages and creatures from the legends of the Middle Ages covers it with rich colors and curious, intriguing forms…Thus one sits under a canopy composed of a mad medley of knights, ladies, knaves, archers, men-at-arms, charging steeds antelopes, unicorns, castles in Spain.”

The cornerstone laying ceremony, on December 9, 1926, was a Ziegfeld spectacular.  Will Rogers was master of ceremonies and Vincent Lopez and his entire orchestra played.  Following Rogers’s amusing remarks, Billie Burke (who was married to Ziegfeld) and their daughter Patricia placed the chosen items into the box—photographs of the Zeigfeld family including Florenz’s mother; one of A. L. Erlanger; a copy of Theatre Magazine; a program from Sally, the show Ziegfeld considered his greatest success; another of the first Follies; a photograph of Charles Frohman who had made Billie Burke a star; and an ancient brick from a Greek theater.

Patricia Ziegfeld cemented the stone in place.  Afterward, many of the 1,500 present filed into the Warwick Hotel “for coffee.”  Included in the crowd were many notables of the entertainment industry including Marilyn Miller, lyricist Gene Buck, actress Ada May, cartoonist Harry Herschfield, and comedian Bert Wheeler.  The Times noted that Mr. and Mrs. Josef Urban were in the assemblage.  No mention was made of Thomas Lamb.

On February 1, 1927 the theater prepared to open.  The Times reported “The cast of ‘Rio Rita’ [went] through their preliminary paces in the $500,000 stage of [the] $2,500,000 Ziegfeld Theatre, in preparation for tomorrow night’s opening.”

Theater critic J. Brooks Atkinson suggested that Urban’s innovative and wonderful decorations could possibly steal the show from the production.  “For the wall and ceiling decorations of this elliptical playhouse Mr. Urban has unfolded one of the most extravagant and bizarre cycloramas of imaginative designing to be found this side of fairyland.  It is not only splendid but appropriate…Mr. Ziegfeld must take care lest his productions on the stage prove inferior to the sweep of carnival beauty on the walls of his theatre.”

As far as the play went, Atkinson was tepid on its content, saying it broke “no fresh trail…the book is commonplace enough and the humor will never hold both its sides with laughter.”  But, he admitted, Zeigfeld’s trademark lavish production pulled it off.  He said “for sheer extravagance of beauty, animated and rhythmic, ‘Rio Rita,’ has no rival among its contemporaries.”

Ada May played Dolly in Rio Rita - photo by Ira D. Schwarz from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Ziegfeld had every reason to be pleased.  That evening he received scores of congratulatory telegrams including those from President Calvin Coolidge, Mayor James Walker and Eddie Cantor.  The audience was packed with luminaries, including Charlie Chaplin, polar explorer Roald Amundsen, and former Ambassador to Spain Alexander P. Moore.   Manhattan’s top echelon of society was well represented by Otto H. Kahn, James A. Blair, Jr., Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Pulitzer, and others.  Patrons purchasing the highest priced tickets that night would spend $5.50—more in the neighborhood of $75 in 2015.

Following on the tail of Rio Rita was the smash success, Show Boat which opened on January 7, 1928.  Called by one critic the following day “the best musical show ever written,” Zeigfeld used his showmanship to transform Edna Ferber’s novel with music by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II into a stage extravaganza.  On stage with the trio of stars—Howard March, Helen Morgan, and Norma Terris—were 31 featured players, 95 dancers and singers, and 18 sets designed by, of course, Joseph Urban.  The cast also included Tess Gardella, Edna May Oliver, Charles Winninger, Eva Puck, Sammy White and Jules Bledsoe.

When Flo Ziegfeld died on July 22, 1932 the Great Depression was taking a toll on Broadway.   One newspaper attributed the producer’s death partly to the economic situation.  Ziegfeld had been ill for some time, and “a hard season after his illness caused a relapse and complications.”

Theater-goers and players grieved.  One cast member said “We are all shocked and saddened and we do not feel like singing and laughing.  But Florenz Ziefeld would want the show to go on.  It will go on as our tribute to him.”   But in the meantime, business was attended to.

Almost immediately an armed guard was placed at the door of Ziegfield’s private office “with instructions to permit no one to tamper with the innumerable knick-knacks and mementoes with which the producer surrounded himself,” reported The Times.  Among the “knick-knacks” were two gold telephones.

Hard times continued and in December 1932 a dispossess warrant was tacked on the main entrance to the theater.   Two month later, on February 2, 1933 The Times reported that “The Ziegfeld Theatre at Sixth Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street, the home of the ‘Follies’ and other Ziegfeld productions, was leased yesterday by the Loew theatre circuit.  It will reopen in about four weeks under a different name, with a policy of continuous motion picture entertainment.”

Somewhat wistfully, The Times wrote on April 18, 1933 “The theatre, which housed the latter-day Ziegfeld success—‘Show Boat,' the ‘Follies,’ ‘Bitter Sweet’ and ‘Rio Rita’—will show second-run films with a tri-weekly change of program."

On the afternoon that the movie theater was to open—Friday, April 21, 1933—a stunning assemblage of chorus girls, stars and stagehands threw a Florenz Ziegfeld-worthy spectacular as a tribute to their former boss.  Eddie Dowling was master of ceremonies and Abe Lyman and his orchestra provided the music.  The who’s-who of the American state that afternoon included Marilyn Miller, Ruth Etting, Jimmy Durante, Fannie Brice, Ed Wynn, Lupe Velez, Bert Lahr, Will Rogers and others.  Fifty of Ziegfeld’s famous chorus girls showed off their legs for the last time.

William Randolph Hearst felt the financial hit of the Depression and in 1944 he found himself forced to liquidate real estate.  Among his most expendable properties, of course, was the Ziegfeld Theatre.   After some back and forth negotiations, it was another bigger-than-life impresario who bought the theater—Billy Rose.   Rose spent $630,000 on the building that had cost $2.5 million; then hired Joseph Urban’s daughter, Gretl, to restore it to its original condition.

Billy Rose returned the venue to legitimate theater.  Clifford Orr, writing in The New Yorker, said “Mr. Rose, who does not expect the reopening to be an anticlimax, is presenting ‘The Seven Lively Arts,’ a review which will combine the talents of Markove, Stravinsky, Cole Porter, Beatrice Lillie, Bert Lahr, Norman Bel Geddes, and (for all we know) Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Carol Channing and Anita Loos backstage of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes -- photo by Sam Siegel from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The theater would produce hits like the 1947 Brigadoon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949 with Carol Channing and Yvonne Adair, and George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra with Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in 1951.  These were followed by Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which ran for 305 performances; and Kismet in 1953.

Loew's added a movie marquee to the entrance.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Billy Rose closed the curtain in 1955 when he leased the Ziegfeld to NBC as a television studio.  It was from here that the Perry Como Show was broadcast, as well as the Emmy Awards ceremonies in 1959 and 1961.  Although Rose briefly returned the theater to a legitimate stage; the musical Anya was the last production here.  It opened on November 29, 1965 and lasted only 16 performances.

Within months the wonderful Art Deco building, Joseph Urban’s fantastic interpretation of the inside of a theater on the outside, was bulldozed.  In its place rose the Burlington House building, designed by Emery Roth & Sons, completed in 1969.

photo by Americasroof

The box from the cornerstone was removed to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  And one surviving chunk of the façade sculpture was carried away to the Upper East Side where it remains today.
The only surviving fragment of the facade sits on the Upper East Side -- photo by Tim Buchman