Posts Tagged ‘Gilded Age Buildings NYC’

Fifth Avenue’s elegant 1890 carriage showroom

October 21, 2019

You might not notice it amid the grit and hustle of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, but there’s a Gilded Age time capsule of a building on the northeast corner.

In the shadow of the Empire State Building and dwarfed by commercial loft buildings is this elegant dowager—made of light brick with terra cotta decorations and enormous arched windows that would look more at home in a cathedral than a busy Murray Hill intersection.

This jewel box is what remains of the Demarest Building.

Completed in 1890 (at left), the Demarest was designed by James Renwick’s architectural firm, which explains the cathedral-like windows. (Renwick is the genius behind Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.)

Those incredible windows served a purpose. The building was commissioned by Aaron Demarest, the head of his eponymous horse carriage company that manufactured luxury carriages and used the space as a showroom for buyers.

Who would be buying the gleaming carriages on display here? (Below, on the right in a 1910s photo)

Wealthy millionaires, including the rich heads of households whose brownstone mansions stood on or near this posh corner at the height of the Gilded Age.

Those old-money millionaires include William Backhouse Astor, Jr. (husband of society doyenne Caroline Astor), William Waldorf Astor, and John Jacob Astor III (next door to his brother William).

(Department store magnate A.T. Stewart had a marble palace of a home on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, but by the time Demarest built his showroom, Stewart and his wife were deceased.)

Early on, the Demarest Building fit right in with the wealthy set of Fifth Avenue. It even had the city’s first two electric elevators, in use for 30 years.

But the early 1890s weren’t kind to the building. The Astor households moved on; William Waldorf Astor razed his mansion and built the Hotel Waldorf on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

John Jacob Astor IV, meanwhile, built the Hotel Astoria where his home once stood. (The two neighboring hotels would become the Waldorf-Astoria in 1897)

Then in 1893, the showroom caught fire. A New York Times article described what Hotel Waldorf guests saw from their rooms as the fire illuminated Fifth Avenue:

“The Demarest building is a five-story brick structure, across the avenue from the Waldorf, at the northeast corner of Thirty-third Street and Fifth Avenue.  It is used chiefly as a storage house for carriages.”

“There were over 200 vehicles of all kinds, valued at $150,000, in the building. In the repair shop were twenty fine carriages. Most of these were entirely destroyed and the fire extended to the fourth floor.”

Demarest himself suffered a stroke in 1902; he died in 1908 after eating poisonous clams at a Yale University dinner.

A year later, the company, now building automobiles instead of carriages, relocated to West 57th Street.

The Demarest Building had a colorful new tenant in 1913—a physician who claimed to be able to cure tuberculosis, a leading killer of New Yorkers, especially in poor neighborhoods.

A thousand people showed up for treatment, wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2008, but the leasing agent wouldn’t allow the physician to treat anyone.

By the 1920s, this boxy beauty was subdivided into office space. These and other alterations are reportedly the reason the Demarest Building has not been landmarked by the city, as AM New York reported last month.

Currently it is prey for developers and a candidate for the wrecking ball, according to the AM New York article. (Thanks to Robin Kanter for bringing the article to my attention.)

[Second photo: American Architecture and Building News/Office for Metropolitan History via The New York Times; third image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; fifth image: The Portal to Texas History; eighth image: New York Times, 1893]