by Tom Miller
Born on November 9, 1859, by the turn of the last century, Charles Volz was designing impressive structures in New York, including the 1908 Columbus Avenue wing of American Museum of Natural History, the 42nd Street Precinct Police Station in the Bronx, and the Van Beuren Building at 15th Street and Fifth Avenue. The 74-year-old architect received a less grand commission in 1933 from the Broadway-81st Street Realty Corp.—a three-story taxpayer on the southwest corner of Broadway and West 81st Street. (A “taxpayer” is a structure, often temporary, erected simply to garner enough income to pay the property taxes on the land.)
Volz dismissed the Art Moderne style that was taking American architecture by storm, and turned instead to the Renaissance Revival style he had so successfully used in his earlier office and civic buildings. Volz chamfered the corner to allow for extra light and ventilation. His design of the upper floors included rusticated piers, splayed voussoirs, and paneled spandrels between the second and third-floor windows. A row of pronounced antefixes crowned the pressed metal cornice. The ground floor was lined with stores, while the two upper floors held offices and small factories for “light manufacturing.”
The shop at 254 West 81st Street was home to Stillman & Van Siclen, Inc., a dry-cleaning establishment by 1944. Two decades later, it was occupied by Harry Hirsch’s The Record Album. The store specialized in vintage and foreign recordings and gave “authoritative appraisals.” The Record Album would remain at least through 1980.
Actress Antonia Rey, who also acted as artistic director and helped in set construction, said the group had no intentions of looking for a larger space. One reason, she said, was the affordable $240 a month rent.
In 1970 the children’s resale apparel store Petite Encore opened on the second floor. Isabel Forgang of the Daily News said on March 18 that year that the shop “is filled with all sorts of treasures.” Parents could purchase never-worn outfits at about one-third of their original retail prices. At street level, Forman’s clothing store operated from 2251 Broadway and would remain at least through 1996.
In 1972, the West Side Community Repertory Theater opened in 252 West 81st Street. Five years later, Carl Glassman of The New York Times remarked, “Of course, it doesn’t take a whole theater row to help a neighborhood. Even the 30-seat West Side Community Repertory Theater, located in a cozy living-room size basement at 252 West 81st Street, seems to make a difference.” Actress Antonia Rey, who also acted as artistic director and helped in set construction, said the group had no intentions of looking for a larger space. One reason, she said, was the affordable $240 a month rent. And, indeed, the theater continued in the space into the 21st century.
Starting with a $1,000 loan, Barbara Corcoran opened her real estate business, The Corcoran Group, Inc., in 1973. By 1996 it had expanded into upstairs offices here and would remain at least through 2010. By then, the end of Charles Volz’s three-story taxpayer was on the horizon. It was demolished to make way for the 16-story apartment building designed by Robert A. M. Stern Architects, completed in 2019.
Tom Miller is a social historian and blogger at daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com
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