August 6, 2015
NoMad’s Historic St. James Building: New Home to Rizzoli Bookstore and La Pecora Bianca
With the arrival of Rizzoli Bookstore and La Pecora Bianca, the corner of 26th Street and Broadway writes another chapter in a long, interesting history — from farm to grand hotel and then to one of the city’s first high-rise commercial buildings. Let’s take a look back at the St. James.
In 1670, the corner of 26th and Broadway was part of a thirty-acre farm that Dutch Governor Andros granted to a freed slave, Solomon Peters. The farm, adjacent to the famous Varian Farm (26th to 31st along the west side of Broadway) remained in the Peters’s family until 1716, when it was sold to John Horn. In 1848, the Framers’s Loan and Trust Company bought the property for the construction of the St. James Hotel.
In the mid-to-late 19th Century, the St. James Hotel, regarded as one of the finest hostelries in the world, stood on this corner. It hosted the club set of the day, at a time when the area was developing into an elite shopping, hotel, residential and entertainment district — much like the NoMad neighborhood is doing again today.
The New York Tribune on September 8, 1896, listed some of the hotel’s notable guests, including John McCullough, a famous Shakespearean actor; Lotta, a popular metropolitan comedienne lauded by The New York Times for her vivacity and wit (she made the St. James her home). Jack Demsey; President Chester A. Arthur; Peter Cooper; Charles Folger, U.S. Secretary of State; U.S. Congressman Stephen Sanford; and Civil War hero General Winfield Scott Hancock (who accepted the Democratic nomination for president at the St. James).
The idea for The National Horse Show was born in one of the hotel’s dining rooms. However, the St. James saw its most dramatic moment in 1865. The hotel was targeted in the historic terrorist attack launched on the finest Broadway hotels and theatres. Confederate conspirators had originally planned to set New York ablaze to disrupt the second election of Abraham Lincoln. The attack on the St. James failed along with the entire plot, but it might have been catastrophic had it not been for the conspirator’s incompetence, intelligence from Lincoln’s spies in Canada, and quick thinking by citizens and the fire department. It’s a great story and you can read about it in detail in our earlier post here.
In 1896, the hotel was closed and the land bought for $1,000,000 by a group that would build the St. James Building, which still stands on the corner today. The new building erected in 1896 cost $1,500,000 and was designed by Bruce Price in the Beaux Arts Style. Price is best known today for designing Tuxedo Park and the Frontenac Hotel in Quebec, and for being the father of Emily Post, the etiquette expert. The Architectural Record of January-March 1899 described Price’s St. James accomplishment in this way: “There is safety in monochrome, and whoso departs from it does so at his peril. But few critical observers of the St. James will be disposed to deny that its designer has vindicated his right to leave this safe refuge.”
Besides its beautiful façade of striking red brick with elaborate white classical elements, the building boasts one of the few remaining murals by Arthur Brounet. Brounet’s work decorated many fine homes and theatres at the beginning of the 20th Century, and the mural in the St. James is typical of his classical subjects. Hidden for many years by a dropped ceiling, the mural is beautifully preserved and depicts Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, war and peace, with two vestal virgins. (There is some question as to whether he executed this artwork or if it was executed in cooperation with Willard Metcalf, who also provided a mural for the Havana Tobacco Company store)
As Miriam Berman points out in her indispensible Madison Square, “Price’s design philosophy was to create buildings that other artists and architects would appreciate; therefore, it was no surprise that the building soon filled with architects, engineers, artists and artisans. Because the St. James and Townsend stood along Broadway’s Great White Way, they also attracted tenants from various theatrical businesses.” Over the years, the St. James tenancy has remained primarily creative and innovative firms, including many architects, designers, and writers.
The building has had many famous tenants. In 1902, the American Tobacco Company signed a lease for the corner retail space, paying $25,000 per year. The renowned Havana Tobacco Company store opened in 1904. Designed by McKim, Mead & White, it has been called “the finest store in the word.” (This is the space that is now occupied by La Pecora Bianca).
When the publishing industry began to move uptown, the St. James became home to the pioneering U.S. publishing house Dodd, Mead, & Company, 116 years before Rizzoli’s arrival.
Bruce Price and Arthur Brounet both had their own offices in the building, prime minister Golda Meir of Israel worked here, and perhaps the greatest opera soprano of the 20th century Leontyne Price had offices here. The building was home to so many important organizations that it would take pages to list them. However, the stature of the building is clear when we look at some of the organizations that chose to be headquartered in the St James, including the National Baseball League, Hudson-Fulton Celebration Committee, National Vaudeville Managers Association, and New York Society of Bookkeepers and Accountants. Also, at the turn of the 19th/20th Centuries, NoMad was the center of U.S. political life so it is no wonder that the St. James was headquarters for groups such as the Republican Congressional Committee and the State Democratic Party, and that as a result of this focus the building became a center of the labor movement in the early 20th century.
Please check back for more about the design of the St. James Building and McKim Mead and White’s Havana Tobacco Company store, and enjoy our slideshow below.
Click image below to start slideshow.