09 November 2008

Tin Pan Alley Situation Improving?

The Tin Pan Alley-for-sale story continues to generate news, more than a month after first being reported here. The latest article, published Nov. 8, is by the AP. The report seems to indicate that progress is afoot. Most interested is the intimation that the proposed sale of the five buildings in question, for $4 million, has fallen through "amid the turmoil of the economy" (even though the listing on LoopNet remains) and that the notoriously slow-moving Landmarks Commission "is researching the history of the buildings and reviewing whether they'd be eligible for landmark designation."

Unfortunately—and this has been the case with many recent articles on the subject—the story is riddled with errors. It states that 51 W. 28th Street was the home of music publisher Jerome H. Remick; it was 45 W. 28th Street. The height of the buildings is also misstated; they are five stories tall. Still, keeping the issue in the news is a good thing.

Not for Sale! New Yorkers Try to Save Historic Tin Pan Alley

A group of New Yorkers is fighting to save Tin Pan Alley by turning the half-dozen Manhattan row houses where the iconic American song was born into landmarks.

The four-story, 19th-century buildings on West 28th Street were home to publishers of some of the catchiest American tunes and lyrics -- from "God Bless America" and "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" to "Give My Regards to Broadway." The music of Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, George M. Cohan and other greats was born on Tin Pan Alley.

The houses were put up for sale earlier this fall for a whopping $44 million, with plans for a possible high-rise on the block. The plans fell through amid the turmoil in the economy, but the possibility of losing the historic block hastened efforts to push for landmark status for Tin Pan Alley.

"The fear of these buildings being sold for development crystallized their importance, and the need to preserve them," said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a nonprofit preservation organization aiming to secure city landmark status for the buildings.

The Landmarks Commission is "researching the history of the buildings and reviewing whether they'd be eligible for landmark designation," said Lisi de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

No date has been set for a decision, which she said depends on "a combination of historical, cultural and architectural significance."

A landmark designation would protect the row houses from being destroyed.

The block is sacred to Tim Schreier, a great-great-grandson of Jerome H. Remick, whose music publishing company occupied one of the houses and employed a young sheet music peddler named George Gershwin.

"I'm not opposed to development in New York, but we have to balance development with history -- and this is definitely American cultural history," said Schreier.

From the late 1880s to the mid-1950s, the careers of songwriters who are still popular today were launched from 45, 47, 49, 51, 53 and 55 West 28th -- walls filled with the stories behind the songs.

While composing his music on this block, Berlin also was "a song plugger," said Bankoff. "He'd give you a couple of bars of a song, and ask, 'What d'you think?"'

Leland Bobbe, a 59-year-old photographer, has been renting his apartment at 51 W. 28th St. -- Remick's old building -- since 1975. He says it's important to salvage the houses in a neighborhood "that has lost its uniqueness. It's just another symbol of what New York was and what it will no longer be."

Nearby, high-rise condominiums have pushed out old brownstones. The four-story Tin Pan Alley buildings house street-level wholesale stores selling clothing, jewelry and fabrics; eight apartment units fill the upper floors. It's a noisy neighborhood, with trucks beeping as they back up amid street hawkers selling bootleg movies and knockoff perfumes.

It was just as noisy a century ago -- in a different way. The windows of various music companies released a cacophony of competing piano sounds that earned this part of West 28th Street the nickname Tin Pan Alley, to describe what one journalist said sounded like pounding on tin pans.

The interiors have been altered, but Bobbe's apartment still has the original wood-plank floor and buckled tin ceiling, and the worn wooden front door is more than a century old. The facades are mostly original, though repainted greenish and not a pretty sight, with crumbling cornices and window frames badly in need of repair.

Bobbe pays about $1,000 a month for his 1,000-square-foot apartment -- a bargain compared to Manhattan's stratospheric rents. Since the buildings were legally considered commercial loft space for many decades, residents have had to pay for most upkeep and the owner couldn't charge market-rate rents.

For now, as landmark status is being considered, the wrecking ball won't touch this real estate that Schreier, the publisher's great-great-grandson, says "is part of my blood."

I think it's time for the people involved start thinking in bigger terms. Saving the endangered buildings is the first priority, but the structures on the south side of W. 28th are just as historic. They include the former homes of important music publishers Leo Fiest (No. 36), Charles B. Ward and Harry von Tilzer (No. 42). Those addresses should be included in any proposed historic district. Really, the entire block should be frozen.

The Historic Districts Council is still taking signatures for its petition, by the way. Please visit and sign up.

Author and Tin Pan Alley expert David Freeland checked in with Bob Petrucci, who represents the tenants in these buildings, and Petrucci said the owners of buildings is still trying to sell them. So what's with that incompetent AP reporter?


David Freeland said...

VERY interesting that the sale seems to have fallen through. If anyone has further info on this, it would be most appreciated. Brooks is correct in stating that there are many factual errors in this and other stories. The Remick company had definitely moved uptown, to the Times Square neighborhood, by the time Gershwin worked there. In fact, most of the publishers on 28th Street were in the process of leaving or had already left by around 1908. It no longer made business sense for them to stay there when the locus of the theater district had shifted north.

BUT this block (both sides, as Brooks attests) is of elemental importance as the birthplace of the American popular music industry. Number 42 has a 1927 facade, but it is indeed the same building in which (according to legend) the phrase "Tin Pan Alley" was created. If anyone has yet to sign the petition, please do so!

Anonymous said...

All the history books including
The Encyclopedia of The Golden Age
of American Song by David A.Jasen state that Gershwin worked at
Jerome Remick at 45 west 28th street 1914-1917
included in that story is the increasingly famous photo of
the above mentioned building.

I am curious as Mr.Freeland attempts to re-write in my opinion
falsely that Remick moved "uptown"
by the time of Gershwin's employ
what he is using as his proof?

Sheet music with Remick's address
as 45 west 28th street has later
dates on it than 1908.

Christopher Browne

Anonymous said...

Dear Brooks
Perhaps another correction of this
odd and strange history of Tiin Pan Alley.
My original sheet music
from 28th street shows Harry Von Tilzer at 37 west 28th street
not #42.
My Harry Von Tilzer sheet music is dated 1904.

#37 as" Tin Pan Alley" was replaced
with a large office building perhaps in the 1930's.

Best wishes,
Michael Martone