Rewind: Manhattan 1913

It’s been one of those weeks, so I have reached into the archives and revived an earlier column for this week:

It was a steamy, sultry day in New York City, the kind of day when you want to slip into a cool, wood-paneled bar and sip a cold beer in a frosted glass with an old friend.

Instead, I found myself standing over a smelly subway grate at the corner of 7th Avenue and 29th Street, having just wrapped up a meeting and workshop session with several influential magazine editors. It was two o’clock and my flight from LaGuardia didn’t leave until five. Not enough time to do any museum justice, but too much time to spend in any airport.

I’m not sure why it occurred to me, but suddenly I recalled that The Craftsman Building, Gustav Stickley’s twelve-story retail store and restaurant that he opened to great fanfare in 1913, would have been nearby. I was pretty sure it was close to 39th Street, but I had no idea if it was still standing – or if I could even find it.

Back in Asheville, my son Blake was in my office working on the website. I called, asked him to Google “The Craftsman Building” and read me the address. He quickly found several entries, but none gave a specific address. I directed him to my bookcase and told him which books to start scouring indexes for The Craftsman Building. While he searched, we lost phone contact, so I started walking – my briefcase and bag in hand – north toward 39th Street.

My phone buzzed to let me know Blake had left me a message. No street address, but he had found a description: “located between Fifth and Madison Avenues and 39th and 38th Streets.”

Despite the heat and glaring sun, I quickened my pace in anticipation. I didn’t need the street number: I knew this building by heart. In 1913, at the peak of his career, Gustav Stickley – owner of The Craftsman magazine, the Craftsman Workshops, the Craftsman Homebuilders Club, and Craftsman Farms – had consolidated his editorial and manufacturing offices, along with his other ventures, into one building in the heart of the high-rent district of Manhattan.

I rounded the corner at Fifth Avenue and 39th Street and started looking. Fortunately, the block had not been razed to make way for a high-rise apartment building or hotel. I knew The Craftsman Building had only twelve stories, so I started counting. Within minutes I had narrowed the possibilities down to one – but it didn’t look like The Craftsman Building had in 1913. The façade had been completely changed and looked nothing like the picture in my head. On one hand I was relieved to know the building was still standing, but I could not disguise my disappointment at how empty and non-descript it looked.

I stood staring, telling myself it was time to move on, to let it go, but I just wasn’t ready yet. There has to be more than this, I kept telling myself, something more.

Then, Blake’s message came back me. The third time I hit replay, I caught it: “located between Fifth and Madison Avenues and 39th and 38th Streets.”

38th Street.

I was standing outside #6 East 39th Street, the official address for The Craftsman Building. But what about 38th Street?

I quickly walked around what turned out to be a very narrow block, cut back toward Fifth Avenue and there it was: #5 East 38th Street – a second entrance to The Craftsman Building.

In 1913 it would have been a mirror image of the 39th Street entrance, distinguished only by the freight elevator located to the right – which explained why Gustav chose the slightly larger 39th Street entrance as his official address. The terra cotta facing appeared to be the original 1913 façade.

But the #5 East 38th Street side was different from the #6 East 39th Street side.

It was now a bar and restaurant: a cool, wood-paneled bar called Butterfield8.

I slipped inside, dropped my bag to the floor and stared down the long, narrow room that from 1913 through 1916 had been Gustav Stickley’s furniture showroom. I could practically see him standing there in his three-piece suit, greeting friends and customers and proudly showing them the latest designs from his Craftsman Workshops in Syracuse.

Several others beside myself had sought refuge from the heat inside Butterfield8, but there were a couple of available stools at the end of the long, gleaming bar. I glanced at the massive back bar and chuckled: Art Deco.

The barmaid brought me a cold beer and a smile, and I felt right at home. This was it. This was Gustav Stickley’s showroom, the highlight of his career, the pinnacle of his success. For a moment it was 1913 and Gus, age 55, was in his glory, short-lived as it turned out to be.

I raised my glass in a silent toast and tribute to the man who both lived and died for his dream. Unwilling to compromise, he refused to admit that the popularity of Arts & Crafts had begun to wane, that his competitors were under-cutting his prices, that his overhead was swallowing his dwindling profits, and that his days in New York’s high-rent retail district were numbered. In his later years he must have often thought back to those days of fleeting glory, that summer of 1913.

A barrage of car horns burst through the open doorway, shattering my moment of reverie with Gustav Stickley – husband, father, business owner, publisher. Within months of his grand opening, I calculated, the bankers must have started to call, nipping at his heels, anxious for their overdue payments. Three brief years later they had stripped him of his showroom, his restaurant, his magazine, his home, his pride. Mortally wounded, he quietly disappeared back to Syracuse, never to rise again.

And the next time you are in Manhattan, swing by #5 East 38th Street and have a drink – with Gus.