A Closer Look: 365 5th Avenue

Nearly 20 years ago, The Graduate Center relocated to 365 5th Avenue in 2000, from its previous location on West 42nd Street. The present building was constructed in 1906, as the flagship location for B. Altman & Co., a luxury department store that had seen a massive expansion since its humble beginnings as a Lower Manhattan dry goods merchant.

Starting out on the 5th Avenue side, the department store eventually occupied the entire city block, after a substantive Madison Avenue addition in 1914. The eponymous B. Altman, or Benjamin Altman, was born in New York City in 1840: the ambitious son of Bavarian Jewish immigrants, he ably grew the store from its original location at Third Avenue and 10th Street, into what would later become the first department store on 5th Avenue.

The B. Altman company sought to be a universe onto itself: a self-proclaimed “source of infinite resources…equipped with every device calculated to contribute to the greatest efficiency of service…a store of the highest modern order.” Its 1914 catalog is endlessly detailed with decorative possibilities: Lamb’s Wool-Filled Comfortables, filled with best quality of sateen; a 1920s bathing garment trimmed, inexplicably, with monkey-fur; an entire section devoted to Art Objects, including (but not limited to) bronzes, mahogany lamps, ivory miniatures. The Neckwear section is likewise full of descriptive anachronisms: guimpes and girdles, the Marabou boa, and a white organdie vestee.

Altman himself passed away in 1913, just before the final construction would allow his store to inhabit a full city block. He left an estimated $45 million fortune: having never married, and with few remaining relatives, the vast majority was transferred to a foundation in his name, still active to this day. It was speculated that Altman was “probably the most retiring man in New York,” having little apparent interest in social engagements, and avoiding publicity that could tie his own name to philanthropic efforts or art purchases.

The B. Altman employees were famously treated with what might be called a  paternalistic benevolence – enjoying an indoor recreation room, solarium, roof garden, and discounted lunches. In the event of illness, there was a seven-bed physician’s ward on site: as of 1914, the catalog notes “a school is maintained in the building for the younger employees.” The second floor, now the Mina Rees Library, held “departments of special interest to mothers,” such as the Infants and Little Children’s Department.

365 5th Avenue, perhaps, carries some of this cultural legacy, at least in the memories of longtime New Yorkers, who may remember B. Altman’s role as a dominant fixture of the so-called Ladies’ Mile. In 1994, the uninhabited building was reclaimed by The New York Public Library, and swiftly joined by Oxford University Press, a relationship that seemingly prefigures the presence of the Graduate Center Library – or as The New York Times put it at the time, “B. Altman Goes Bookish.

References

Abrams, Jeanne. “Benjamin Altman (1840-1913).Immigrant Entrepreneurship.

Altman Foundation. “The Life & Legacy of Benjamin B. Altman: New York City Merchant Prince & Philanthropist.” Altman Foundation, Oct. 2013.

B. Altman & Co. “Fall and Winter : Catalogue Number One Hundred Ten, 1914-15.Internet Archive, 1914.

BENJ. ALTMAN DIES, LEAVES $45,000,000.” New York Times (1857-1922), Oct 08, 1913, pp. 01. ProQuest. 

About the Author

Elvis Bakaitis is an Adjunct Reference Librarian at the Graduate Center Library.