Here’s an unassuming building with some interesting connections to one of our country’s premiere architectural firms — McKim, Mead & White. Meet 119 Avenue D, which at first glance may be mistaken for an old tenement building, but was actually built as a factory in 1883. Though the facade has been altered over the years, its original design is credited to architect Joseph M. Dunn.
So if Dunn designed the building where’s the McKim, Mead & White connection? I’ll get to that in a second. First, the building was originally owned by Robert and Ogden Goelet of the socially prominent Goelet family. The family had come to acquire a lot of land that contributed to its vast wealth. The Goelets commissioned Dunn for several projects, including 53-61 Gansevoort Street (built 1887), which is located in the Gansevoort Market Historic District. All in all, Dunn designed seven buildings that are part of that district today.
As I was looking through the historic documentation we have for 119 Avenue D, I came across an 1898 alteration application. Not unusual for an old building to have in its file, but what caused me to look twice was the listed architect: McKim, Mead & White. Interesting! I love unassuming buildings with unexpected history. Yet how unusual to see them hired to do repair work on a building after it suffered fire damage. Stanford White was listed as project lead.
As a University of Virginia alum, I know that White was no stranger to working on fire-damaged buildings. He and his firm were brought in to repair the university’s Rotunda, originally designed by Thomas Jefferson, just a few years earlier. I don’t think I’m biased in seeing how the country’s leading firm at the time would be brought in for that important project, which was part of a larger campaign to expand the university.
In the case of a modest factory building on Avenue D, however, there had to be some kind of connection that would make a relatively small alteration project worthy of their time. They were a busy bunch! That’s how I learned more about the Goelet family and their influence, which I mentioned briefly above. As it turns out, the Goelets had worked with McKim, Mead & White before in the design of the Goelet Building at 900 Broadway. The building is within the Ladies’ Mile Historic District. The Goelets had many buildings constructed in this city, and were in the same social circle as the partners of McKim, Mead & White.
There might just be an interesting back story on why White was brought in to repair 119 Avenue D, but for now I’m assuming he just did it as a favor for a client and friend who would likely bring in future business one way or another.
At the time the repair work was underway in the closing years of the 19th century, the building housed cabinetmakers and wood turners. By 1959, it was still used for light manufacturing, though today it’s a residential building. The 1939-41 tax photo reveals a modest yet attractive building with its cornice, two-over-two double hung wood windows, and cast iron storefront intact. As you can see in the 1980s tax photo, the cornice was still there over 40 years later.
If you’re wondering why Joseph M. Dunn was not brought back to direct these repairs, here’s a thought. The architects’ appendix in the LPC’s Gansevoort Market Historic District Designation Report says that the original architect of this building, Joseph M. Dunn, was practicing as an architect by 1872 to at least 1894, and since he received numerous commissions from the Goelets it’s possible that he had passed away or retired by the time fire broke out at 119 Avenue D.