17 September 2013

The Last Vestige of the Nefarious Sire Brothers

There's a collection of three slim, handsome buildings on W. 58th Street between Seventh and Broadway that look about a century old. Two are easy to identify. 215 W. 58th is a firehouse, built in 1906. 213 W. 58th, the AIA guide tells me, was the Helen Miller Gould Stables, built in 1903. The origins of 211 W. 58th, however, weren't as easy to discover. 

It was the carved word near the cornice that got my attention: SIRE. What did it mean? The structure is older than its fellows. According to the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, it was built in 1885 in the Victorian Gothic style. 

Turns out Sire is a name. And quite a name it was once upon a time. A name everyone knew and a name that commanded attention. And a name that many people probably cursed. The Sire family, which hailed from Germany, was a real estate clan founded by Benjamin Sire. Ben have five sons: Albert, Henry, Meyer, Leander and Maurice and they all went into the business in one way or another. 

Among the various buildings that Benjamin owned were some of the earliest theatres in the midtown area that became what we now know as Broadway. A few of his sons followed him into showbiz. Henry, Meyer and Leaner all produced shows in the first decade of the 20th century. Leander and Henry either owned or leased such once-famous houses as the Bijou, Casino and Standard Theatres in the lower 40s. They also owned the New York Theatre for a time. (They sold it for a cool $2 million, a fortune at the time.) Various Sires also owned Manhattan apartment buildings and hotels.

The Sire brothers don't seem to have been the most scrupulous of fellows. Their ruthless ways began early, when Benjamin died in 1907. Instead of splitting his estate evenly between the five siblings, Ben willed the bulk of his owning to Albert, the eldest. Maurice, the youngest, balked at this. (There was some suggestion that Albert coerced his dying father into writing the final version of the will.) Maurice contested the will, and had it broken. This won Clarence $100,000.

Things never seemed to go smoothly when a Sire died. Henry, who passed in 1917 at the age of 59, appears to have been a right rascal. His death was followed by a sensational legal case in which his brothers, Leander and Albert, tried to remove Henry's widow, Elizabeth, as executrix of his estate. Why? Because they were never married. Apparently, trickly old Henry, back in 1876, just slipped a ring on Liz' finger and declared, "We are no married in the eye of God." No priest, no ceremony, no certificate. The two brothers prevented Elizabeth from visiting Henry on his sickbed.

Albert, however, topped them all, going on in the most melodramatic style. He died at age 75 in 1935, by suicide. The morning of his death, he had lost another property, the San Jacinto Hotel at 18 E. 60th Street, where he had lived for 30 years. The loss apparently broke his spirit. He got dressed, put a cornflower in his lapel as always, said good morning to the hotel staff and walked over to 38 West 59th Street—a building he had also once partially owned. He took the elevator to the 11th floor. From there he climbed the stairs the roof and jumped. 

Albert left an estate worth less than $5,000. He had once been worth $10 million. Leander got part of the meager estate. Clarence—who ended up the "mattress manufacturing business" and divorced his first wife because they disagreed on politics—was also bequeathed some holdings. 

The Sire brothers apparently learned their fast way with a dollar at the knee of dear old Dad. There's an account from 1882 in which Ben, Henry and Meyer swindled a Bleecker Street baker out of his business, giving the baker notes that never paid off. They sold off the baker's cart and horse, and put the business up for auction before the baker ever saw any money. The three were arrested, but released. Ben continued along this way. In 1990, he was sued for breach of contract for ordering four elevators for his various buildings and then refusing to pay for them. Whenever Benjamin Sire's name appeared in the paper, it was under such circumstances. The man was bad news. And his sons weren't much better. 

So, about 211 W. 58th Street! I found records connecting the Sires to many buildings in the area: 5 W. 58th Street, 38 W. 59th Street, 18 E. 60th Street, right next to the Plaza Hotel. All the members of the family seemed to have lived in this basic area at one point of another. But I couldn't find proof that they owned 211 W. 58th. But who else could it be? It must be a Sire building. The Sires owned dozens of properties in their time. Maybe this is the last one that still stands. All their theatres and hotels are gone. Since it was built in 1885, it could have been erected by Benjamin or one or more of his elder sons. 

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