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The De Vinne Press Building: “A Tour-de-force of Bricklaying” at 393-399 Lafayette Street

Not everyone knows its name or its history, but few have passed the incredibly impressive red brick building at the northeast corner of Lafayette Street and East 4th Street and not marveled at the stunning work of architecture located there. The De Vinne Press Building was designated a NYC Landmark on October 19, 1966 — one of the earliest designated landmarks in New York City—and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. It is also part of the NoHo Historic District, designated in 1999.

The De Vinne Press Building. Note the red brick addition with the fire escape on the right side.

Built in 1885-1886, this gorgeous brick structure was designed by the firm of Babb, Cook & Willard in Romanesque Revival style. Theodore Low De Vinne, a leading New York typographer and printer, commissioned the building for his printing company. The press printed several leading American magazines, including the St. Nicholas MagazineScribner’s Monthly, and De Vinne’s greatest accomplishment, The Century Dictionary, which included 24 parts in six volumes. De Vinne also printed most of the books for the Grolier Club, of which he was a founder and president. The Grolier Club is America’s oldest society for book lovers & graphic arts fans, founded on January 23, 1884.

Although DeVinne Press is long gone, the name lives on above the main entrance below terra cotta designs.

The building gained an annex in 1891 at 21-23 East Fourth Street. It was built in an almost identical style, making the annex hard to differentiate if you are not looking for it, with the same red brick, terra cotta trim, and recessed windows as the original building. According to author and historian Irene Tichenor, the addition “was no doubt necessitated by the production of the massive Century Dictionary and its supplements.”

Image Ca 1886 prior to the addition. Note the rows of Federal and Greek Revival style townhomes surrounding the building. Image via Cornell University.

The building was constructed during a transitional time for the neighborhood. What we now call NoHo was developed as a high-end residential area in the 1820s. By the 1860s the area became a mixed-use residential/commercial area serving a variety of classes. After the Civil War, it became a magnet for publishers, paper dealers, stationers, bookbinders, printers, and engravers. A couple of decades later when the De Vinne Press building was constructed, the area was well along the way on its transformation to a dense, commercial use.

Examples of the terra cotta adorning the building.

The landmark was also built at a transitional time for construction methods. Made with thick masonry load-bearing walls, it rose just a few years before the structural steel skeleton set a new standard in building construction for the 20th century, as exemplified by the Bayard-Condict building, constructed just a few days blocks away in 1899.

In 2003, architectural historian Christopher Gray of The New York Times described the building as “among the most sophisticated works of masonry in New York, a tour de force of honestly simple bricklaying built for one of the premier printing companies of a century ago.”

De Vinne Died in 1914, and his heirs closed the company in 1922. The building later became a metalwork factory and exchanged hands several times. The building is now home to commercial office tenants on the upper floors, and since 2006, Astor Wines on the ground floor.

The De Vinne Press Building falls within the NoHo neighborhood the city is currently considering rezoning and upzoning. Click here to read more about this issue and to take action.

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