Part of our blog series Why Isn’t This Landmarked?, where we look at buildings in our area we’re fighting to protect that are worthy of landmark designation, but somehow aren’t landmarked.
A seven-story warehouse structure showcasing an eclectic mash-up of styles stands at the northwest corner of Fourth Avenue and East 13th Street on an L-shaped lot. Built in 1895 and designed by Marsh, Israels & Harder, 127-135 Fourth Avenue was the longtime home of Hammacher Schlemmer & Co. The company was New York City’s first hardware store and the publisher of the country’s longest-running catalog, launched in 1881. It was also deeply interconnected with the surrounding neighborhood, which became a booming center of commerce at the turn of the 20th century, and which like this building is not landmarked — a situation we are trying to correct. Today, we take a closer look at 127-135 Fourth Avenue, and ask: Why isn’t this landmarked?
The store that became Hammacher Schlemmer & Co. originally opened at 221 Bowery at a time when high-quality hardware was hard to find. In 1848, a young William Schlemmer would sell tools in front of his uncle’s store, and by 1867 he and his new business partner, Alfred Hammacher, bought the family business, renaming it Hammacher Schlemmer & Co. The two men, both German immigrants, turned this local shop into a national company. According to Hammacher Schlemmer’s website:
It was here that the world first encountered the pop-up toaster (1930), the electric razor (1934) and the steam iron (1948). Later, Hammacher Schlemmer would offer the first electric pencil sharpener, food processor, electric can opener and automatic coffee maker. Other notable introductions include the first microwave oven (1968), telephone answering machine (1968) and cordless telephone (1975).
However, some of the most important products marketed by the business, as described in its early catalogs, were piano materials. When Hammacher Schlemmer & Co. outgrew its final location on the Bowery (by the end of the 19th century it was operating out of No. 209), the company decided to transition to near Union Square. This newly-bustling commercial district had become a key site in the piano trade and would be a perfect home for the growing hardware store. Hammacher Schlemmer & Co. moved to 127-135 Fourth Avenue in 1904, adorning the exterior of the building with two large painted signs on the inside walls of the highly-visible corner facing the intersection of East 13th Street and Fourth Avenue.
Built in 1897 by Marsh, Israels & Harder, the building that housed Hammacher Schlemmer & Co. was originally referred to by the AIA as the Hancock Building. Sitting on an oddly-shaped plot of land, the building displays a complex assortment of styles. The Fourth Avenue facade is more elaborate than its 13th Street counterpart, as it was the primary entrance to the ground floor store. It contains Beaux-Arts features, like the elegant cartouche above the doorway, Ionic pilasters flanking the middle stories, and the V-shaped decoration above the windows. It also showcases Romanesque elements, like rounded arches on the top story and a subtle contrast of limestone texture.
Hammacher Schlemmer stayed here for over two decades, leaving in 1926 for a larger space at 147 East 57th Street. Other manufacturers and retailers took its place at 127-135 Fourth Avenue, including the Sendar Company, which in the 1950s advertised itself as America’s largest distributor of glassware for promotional and carnival use. Throughout, 127-135 Fourth Avenue remained in the Schlemmer family until 1936 under the ownership of William Schlemmer’s daughter Ida S. Bruch, who owned several other properties in the area as well.
Like so many of the former manufacturing and commercial structures in the area, by the late 1970s 127-135 Fourth Avenue had been converted to residences above the ground floor. At this time, small balconies were inserted on the streetfront and sidewall facades. Decades later, in 2014, the building was renovated to include a clocktower installation, and the watertower was repainted to feature a STIK figure artwork. The 57th Street location remains Hammacher Schlemmer’s company’s flagship store and its catalog continues to thrive.
Village Preservation research has uncovered even more exciting and illuminating information about the significance of the area south of Union Square as a center of the piano industry, as a hub of radical and progressive organizing, and as a key location for significant developments in commerce and housing throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. We have submitted a 25-page letter to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission with the research, which calls for the agency to finally act to extend landmark protections to the area. This followed the submission of our original proposal and report earlier this year.
Given the increased pressure on the area exacerbated by the beginning of construction on the 14th Street Tech Hub, the demolition of the St. Denis Hotel (80 E. 10th Street; 1855 – to be replaced by this), and the completion of the woefully out-of-scale tech office tower at 808 Broadway, the time is now for the city to act to protect this incredibly historically rich but endangered area. We have received a number of letters of support for our effort from organizations, businesses, individuals, and scholars, including Richard W. Tinberg, the President of Hammacher Schlemmer & Co.
Urge the city to protect this vital history and neighborhood NOW – click here.