Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States
An important example of the Moorish style (with Venetian touches), with a profusion of terra-cotta embellishment that enlivens and adds variety to the facade, the Union Building (originally known as the Decker Building) testifies to the interaction between New York and Chicago architects.
Convincingly attributed to John H. Edelmann, mentor and friend to Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, the Decker Building was designed by Edelmann -while employed by New York architect Alfred Zucker. Edelmann's most significant extant work, the building, located on Union Square West and built in 1892-93, originally housed the Decker Piano Company, one of many firms devoted to artistic enterprises that were once centered around the square.
The Development of Union Square
The commissioners Map of 1807-11, which first laid out the grid plan of Manhattan above Houston Street, allowed for certain existing thoroughfares to retain their original configuration. Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway), and the Bowery intersected at 15th Street. The acute angle formed by this "union" was set aside by the Commissioners and named Union Place. Initially Union Place extended from 10th to 17th Streets, on land owned by the Manhattan Bank:
It then presented to the eye of the tourist and pedestrian a shapeless and ill-looking collection of lots, where garden
sauce flourished — devoid of symmetry, and around which were reared a miserable group of shanties.
In 1815, the state legislature reduced the size of Union Place by making 14th Street its southern boundary. As the city expanded northward and land use intensified, the need for open spaces became apparent. A report drafted by the street committee in 1831 states the need for public squares "for purposes of military, and civic parades, and festivities, and ... to serve as ventilators to a densely populated city,"
Designated a public space in 1832 at the urging of local residents, additional land was acquired so that the area could be regularized. Graded, paved, and fenced, Union Place was finally opened to the public in July, 1839. Throughout much of its history, the square has been used fcr public gatherings, political rallies, and demonstrations.
By the 1850s, Union Square (as it came to be known) was completely surrounded by buildings, including some of the city's most splendid mansions; but, "already by 1860, the dramatic march of commerce had begun."
Theaters, hotels, and luxury retailers predominated in the 1870s-5 By the 189 0s, the vestiges of the fashionable residential area, as well as the elegant stores and theaters, had been supplanted on Union Square by taller buildings that catered to the needs of publishers and manufacturers who had moved uptown.
The Decker Building was commissioned by John Jacob Decker, then head of Decker Brothers Piano Company, to occupy the lot that he had leased from its owners.
Adjacent to architect Bruce Price's Bank of the Metropolis, the Decker Building is prominently situated on Union Square West, considered the most desirable side of the square "probably because for all practical purposes it really was Broadway.
By mid-century, piano-fortes had become increasingly popular, and, along with other musical instruments, an important source of manufacturing jobs for New York city.
Like many other businesses concerned with the arts and requiring skilled craftsmen, a number of pianc-makers were situated near and around the square. Decker Brothers appears to have been established by John J. Decker in 1856 at 149 Baxter Street, In May 1863, the firm (which now included David Decker) had relocated to Varick Street.
As of May 1, 187 0, the Decker Brothers showrooms were located at 33 Union Square West and at 322 West 35th Street; the factory's address was on West 35th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The firm (apparently taken over by William F. Decker by Kay 1, 1896), remained at 33 Union Square West until 1913.
According to Trow's Directory, the firm was in liquidation in the year ending May 1, 1902, and every year thereafter (with the exception of the year ending Hay 1, 1903) until 1913, after which it is no longer listed.
John H. Edelmann (1852-1900)
Writing about John H. Edelmann to his brother Albert from Paris in 1874, Louis Sullivan observed: "You can make up your mind that my reputation as an architect will always be inferior to his."
Even when his assessment of Edelmann's architecture had changed, a half century later, Sullivan wrote:
And be this said here and now: The passing years have isolated and revealed John Edelmann, as unique in personality among fine and brilliant minds. Be assured he will not turn in his grave, unless in bliss, should he hear it said that he was the benefactor and Louis the parasite and profiteer.
And yet, until recently, surprisingly little had been pieced together about Edelmann's career. He