Furriers, fisticuffs and a fond farewell


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At first blush, the building seems unremarkable — but amid the hubbub of Seventh Avenue, its storied history and bloody past have been hiding in plain sight


Photos



  • A 1923 photo of an office tower on Seventh Avenue in Chelsea, built just three years earlier, that for over half-a-century served as the hub of the city’s Fur District. Photo: New York Public Library Digital Collection / via OldNYC




  • A recent photo of an office tower on Seventh Avenue in Chelsea. The ordinary-looking 1920 building masks its colorful history as the hub of the city’s Fur District for more than half-a-century. Photo: Google Street View



“Knives, scissors, clubs, fists, fingernails and sticks were employed early yesterday in an industrial misunderstanding.”

New York Times article, March 15, 1930



Two years from now, a little-noticed, 21-story office building in Chelsea will mark its 100th anniversary. Don’t expect any fanfare:

The old industrial loft at 333 Seventh Ave. generates no buzz, houses no galleries, attracts no tourists — and possesses zero pizzazz.

It is humble, stolid, unsung, architecturally uninspiring. And every day, New Yorkers pass it by without a thought or a skyward glance.

Big mistake. The mass of stone and brick on the full block between 28th and 29th Streets was once one of America’s great mercantile buildings.

Built in 1920 as the historic hub of the Fur District, it housed the largest assemblage of fur manufacturers under a single roof in the nation.

In any other town, it would be a treasured landmark. But in Midtown South, the 248-foot-tall structure is all too easy to take for granted.

Let’s peel back the layers and examine its extraordinary history and the secrets it harbored and the pitched battles that were fought on its turf.

But first, a disclosure. For 5.5 years, the newspaper you are holding in your hands, or reading online, was published at 333 Seventh Ave.

Decades earlier, the bulky loft spaces had been converted, the showrooms broken up, the storage vaults and refrigeration equipment yanked out.

That opened the door to a new tenant class — nonprofits like Doctors Without Borders, small apparel and legal firms, colleges like the Fashion Institute of Technology, and media companies like Straus News, which publishes Our Town, The West Side Spirit, The Chelsea-Clinton News and Our Town Downtown.

From early 2013, when Straus News bought the publications, until Aug. 15, when we moved a few blocks to 505 Eighth Ave. at 35th Street, this was our home. Now, that we have settled into new quarters, it seems a fitting farewell to plumb the saga of the legacy building we left behind.

“We used to say that one out of every two furs in the United States passed through 333 Seventh Ave.,” said Jed Kaplan, who worked in a 10th-floor loft for Kaplan & Sons Furrier, his father’s firm, from around 1955 to the late-1970s.

“It was really the master fur market for the world because, back then, more furs were bought, sold, manufactured and worn out of 333 than in London, Russia and Montreal put together,” he said.

Spiritual needs were also addressed: At least two on-site synagogues were maintained for workers and customers — mostly traders, trappers, shippers, graders, jobbers, fabricators, processors, floor boys, mink-cutters and pelt brokers, Kaplan said.

“It was really an era in which business needs, religious needs and family needs went hand in hand,” he added. “That’s all over now – like most of the Fur District itself. But it was a remarkable place.”

Indeed, it was said that no mayor, senator or governor would ever turn down an invitation to its politically influential Fur Merchants Club.

A simple geographical calculation led to the building’s siting. As the industry boomed after World War I, the Fur District’s boundaries were said to be around Sixth Avenue on the east, Eighth Avenue to the west, 26th Street to the south and 30th Street to the north.

According to industry lore, Albert Herskovitz, a fur buyer and trader who doubled as a promoter and developer, drew an “X” through a grid map and picked the corner of Seventh Avenue and 28th Street because it was equidistant to the fur manufacturers on the perimeter of the district.

It didn’t hurt that the IRT-Seventh Avenue line had come to the same intersection in 1917, in part to serve the fur marts.

It was there that he built “The House of Herskovitz,” as it was initially dubbed in the early 1920s. Over the passing decades, it’s been variously called the Fur Trade Center Building, the Furriers’ Building, the Fur Merchants Club Building and the Fur Manufacturers Building, among others. Today, far more prosaically, its name is its address.

Herskovitz and his son Max, who followed his father into A. Herskovitz & Sons, the family fur business, were ambitious and expansion-minded. And they didn’t only want to corner the fur trade in Manhattan: To sate market demand, and secure new supplies of sable, ermine and mink to ship to midtown, they looked to Alaska and the Canadian Arctic.

And so it was that the Herskovitz clan — partnering with other tenants in the building and under the auspices of the Northern Whaling & Trading Co. — established trading posts and settlements in coastal communities across the Pacific Northwest.

FIGHTING THE “RED MENACE”

Meanwhile, the trade union wars of the 1920s and 1930s were raging outside the front door. The heavily unionized industry was divided between militant pro-Communist and moderate anti-Communist locals — and they often fought bloody battles in the upstairs workplaces and on the streets and picket lines outside 333.

“Expel the Reds,” was the slogan of one local. “It’s time to rid our organization for all times of Communist wreckers and disrupters,” a resolution passed in 1927 proclaimed.

It wasn’t that easy. After one violent clash at the street-level fur establishment of Benjamin Axel at 333, the NYPD’s “radical squad” announced mass arrests and multiple injuries. The New York Times reported the news on March 15, 1930:

“Knives, scissors, clubs, fists, fingernails and sticks were employed early yesterday morning in an industrial misunderstanding between right-wing and left-wing members of furriers’ union,” the paper wrote.

In 1938, some 15,000 fur workers went out on strike, pelting the cars of non-union scabs with jars of petroleum jelly used in the manufacturing process. In another incident, strikers abducted the night watchman at 333, drew a chain through the door handles and locked the building as “strong-arm men” kept workers and cops at bay, The Times reported.

Things had calmed down by World War II, Communist-dominated locals began to wither, and in 1948, the Herskovitz family sold the building for $2.7 million. By 1973, it traded for around $4.5 million, and today, it has a market value of $91.7 million, according to data from PropertyShark, the real estate website.

In the meantime, the Fur District went into eclipse. A growing animal-rights movement had targeted the industry, and it came into maturity with the founding of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 1980.

Amid the outraged anti-fur protests of the 1980s — and the cry, “Kick the Fur District out of NYC!” — dozens of businesses at 333 shuttered or moved out, though some retail shops, in retreat from Madison Avenue and elsewhere, moved into its upstairs showrooms.

Still, the die was cast, and eventually, 333 lost most of its furriers. The Fur District itself, like the Flower District with which it overlapped, began to implode, and the building was converted from light industrial to office use.

“I suppose it was inevitable,” Kaplan said. “But it’s still incredibly sad for those of us who loved it.”

invreporter@strausnews.com






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