A Bit of Gothic Flair Returns to a Tower on 42nd Street
Long before the World Trade Center rose downtown, Irving T. Bush tried to create one just a few steps from Times Square.
His Bush Terminal International Exhibit Building — or Bush Tower — was a slender 30-story skyscraper that shot up like a great Gothic arrow at 130 West 42nd Street. Finished in 1918, it was meant to be an indispensable hub where buyers from stores everywhere could see the latest wares of hundreds of manufacturers, all under one roof.
By no coincidence whatsoever, many of those manufacturers were also tenants of the 200-acre Bush Terminal complex (now Industry City) in Sunset Park. Buyers with neither the time nor the inclination to shuttle among 140 buildings on the Brooklyn waterfront could come instead to a tower in the heart of Manhattan, where they would be cosseted in Jacobean splendor at the three-story Buyers’ Club before going upstairs to see the goods.
This grandiose arrangement did not last long. In 1938, only 20 years after opening the tower, the Bush Terminal Company lost it in a foreclosure proceeding. In the name of modernization, subsequent owners wrecked the three Gothic arches that had distinguished the lower facade and inserted a granite storefront that further ruined its proportions.
Today, some of that damage is being undone.
The arches are being replaced and a double-height lobby is being constructed as part of a $27 million upgrade begun by Tribeca Associates and Meadow Partners, holders of an 85-year ground lease on the property. It was reported on Monday in The Real Deal that China Vanke, a large Chinese developer, had acquired a controlling stake in the property.
Elliott Ingerman, a founder and managing partner of Tribeca Associates, said on Tuesday that the acquisition by China Vanke would have no effect on the renovation project. “They are in agreement with the long-term plans for the property,” Mr. Ingerman said.
The renovation architect is the firm Fogarty Finger. Two of its directors, Chris Fogarty and Robert Finger, are alumni of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a firm not known for embracing Gothic-style embellishment.
Irving T. Bush, circa 1915. He opened his tower to attract international store buyers to hundreds of manufacturers. Credit George Grantham Bain Collection, via Library of Congress
Nonetheless, Mr. Fogarty said, “I’m thrilled that we got those arches back in.”
Behind the arches, however, is the most thrilling discovery of all: architectural remnants of the original Buyers’ Club, still intact after almost a century of constant change.
“The interior decoration of the three lower floors, the portion given over to the Buyers’ Club, is Old English, giving one the feeling of having entered a hundred-year-old tavern,” a 1917 building brochure declared grandly.
Keeping with ye olde theme, some columns in the club were topped by sculptural grotesques symbolizing the broad reach of the Bush Terminal Company.
There was an allegorical manufacturer, armed with a mallet and anvil, over whose left shoulder a gear wheel rose like the sun. Transportation was represented as Mercury, fleet of foot and winged of head, crouching before a tire truck, goods slung over his shoulder. A barefooted bookbinder, wreathed in a scroll, put the screws to a thick volume.
They are all still there on the building’s third floor.
So are closely spaced ceiling beams that evoke old oak timbers. So are three lovely windows, framed by Tudor arches that overlook 42nd Street through sinuous tracery.
Their continued survival depends on the needs — or whims — of whoever leases the now-empty space. Only the exterior of the building has landmark status. But Mr. Ingerman said the most likely prospective tenant for the space is interested in keeping the remnants.
A grotesque of a bookbinder was part of the original club. Credit David W. Dunlap/ The New York Times
The Buyers’ Club, also known as the International Buyers’ Club, served as a refuge from the pressure of dealing with 27 floors of manufacturers’ representatives. No solicitation was allowed on the first two floors, where buyers could make calls; dispatch telegraphs or cables; engage a stenographer; consult news and stock tickers; buy cigars or theater tickets; have a meal, a drink or a cup of tea; or immerse themselves in a commercial library.
“The rich, dark red tiles; fine old paneling and appropriate coverings; thick, soft rugs; massive tables with shaded lights; current magazines and writing materials; and tempting chairs all contribute toward hominess and desirability,” the brochure stated. This columnist doesn’t know about you, but his eyelids droop just to read these words.
The club seemed to have lasted only three years. By 1921, it was being remodeled as the Old Town Tavern. By the 1960s, Mr. Fogarty said, almost nothing remained.
Mr. Fogarty is no stranger to the Bush Terminal Company’s short-lived globe-girdling empire, since he grew up in Devon, England, and knew Bush House in London, which served as the headquarters of the BBC World Service until 2012.
Elegant as Bush House is, however, Mr. Fogarty marvels at the amenities of the Buyers’ Club at Bush Tower. “All to treat these guys from Des Moines like royalty,” he said, speaking like a true New Yorker.