712, 714, and 716 Fifth Ave

I’d often admired how on dark evenings golden light pours through the windows of the Henri Bendel store at 714 Fifth.

Looking up the building’s history also was enlightening.

It was built in 1908. Two years later French perfumer François Coty settled on the building as the site of his first U.S. venture. Coty had started his firm in 1904. He was the first to sell perfume at different prices and was wildly successful. Pricier brands came in lovely glass bottles designed by Baccarat and by the jeweler and ceramist René Lalique, whose elegant bottles were in the swirly Art Nouveau style.

Flash forward to the 1980s. A real estate developer named David S. Solomon wanted to tear down 712, 714, and 716 Fifth to build a skyscraper. 712 Fifth (the site of Cartier Jewelers in 1910), since 1969 had been the home of the much-loved Rizzoli Bookstore (later located on 56th Street, now at 1133 Broadway, the St. James Building). The case to protect Rizzoli books was clear to most people, except the developer. But the Coty building, as Christopher Grey put it “… was harder to defend—it was just a generic loft building.” Then an architectural historian named Andrew Dolkart determined that the building’s swirly, Art Nouveau windows facing Fifth Avenue had been designed by Lalique.

This was not easy as it sounds. After the Coty firm moved out, the windows were neglected, then forgotten. By the time Dolkart came along, they were obscured by forty years of grime. But there they were—and they were enough to landmark the façade.

In a compromise, the office tower still went up—but set deeply back from the sidewalk, preserving the façades of 712 and 714.

The skyscraper was finished in 1990 and has assumed the address 712 Fifth Avenue. Sometimes it’s called the Henri Bendel Building because that purveyor of handbags and other fashion items (founded in 1895) now operates in 712, 714, and 716 Fifth. (The present 716 is a new structure, built in Neo-Classical style, at the time the nondescript skyscraper went up.)

All sweet and good (excepting, maybe, that tower). But reading a little further revealed some unpleasant truths about the windows’ patron. Coty was a loud, disgusting fascist and anti-Semite who openly called for the overthrow of the French government. He even founded his own paramilitary group, Solidarité Française, which was outlawed in 1934. Coty died that year. His only redeeming quality (that he despised Hitler) was not due to moral scruples, but because he hated Germans.

On the other hand, Henri Willis Bendel seems to have been a mostly decent fellow. Maybe, he was a mensch.

He was born in 1868 in Vermillionville (now called Lafayette), Louisiana to Jewish immigrant parents: William Louis Bendel, who was from Austria, and Mary Plonsky, who was born in Golub, West Prussia (now in Poland). It’s not now widely known outside of the South that there once were small but thriving Jewish communities in little towns throughout the Deep South. Remnants remain. Henri married one Blanche Lehman; she died within a year. He did not remarry.

Henri opened a millinery shop in Greenwich Village. This is the worst part of the tale. At the time, milliners favored using bird feathers in the women’s hats they crafted—nearly leading to the extinction in the U.S. of snowy egrets, flamingoes, roseate spoonbills, great egrets and other species. From hats, he expanded to become an influential dressmaker. Later, Henri moved his shop uptown to West 57th Street. He often returned to Lafayette and was good to his family. I have seen almost nothing on how he treated his employees and his stance on the labor movement. But in 1923 announced that he would over time give 45 percent of his company’s stock to his employees. When he died suddenly in New York in 1936, he provided for family members—and left $200,000 and controlling interest in his business to Abraham Beekman Bastedo, whom the New York Times (April 1, 1936) called Henri’s “aide” and “faithful employee” of 30 years. Henri and Abraham are buried together in Kenisco Cemetery, Valhalla, Westchester County, New York.

The firm survives to this day, of course. It moved to its present location around 1991.

It’s easy to wander in off the street. There are even little signs by the elevators saying which floors the Lalique windows are on.

They look colorfully tinted, but are not–the colors are from the bright lights of Fifth Avenue.

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