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The Mink Building, located at 1361 Amsterdam Avenue between 126th and 128th Streets, is a five-story red brick structure in the Harlem/Manhattanville neighborhood of New York City. Towering over most of its neighbors, it is recognizable because of its historical German-American style. The Mink Building was built in 1905 as the main building for the Bernheimer and Schwartz Pilsener Brewing Company. It was their purpose to create a building that also served as a symbol for their business, and though their business is long gone, the building continues to broadcast its presence in the area. The Mink Building has undergone multiple transformations in use, although not form, over the last century. Its nickname comes from its use in the 1950s as a storage facility for fur coats, although it is now a mixed-use facility with few tenants. The Mink Building is currently playing an important role in efforts to revitalize business and commerce in Harlem. The real estate agency of Cushman and Wakefield along with the owner, the Janus Property Company, are pushing to lease more of the 137,000 square feet (12,700 m2) to new tenants to achieve this goal.
The Mink Building was originally known as the Bernheimer & Schwartz Pilsener Brewing Company. The brewers chose the site of the former Yuengling Brewery, widely recognized as the oldest brewery in America, which was founded in Pottsville, Pennsylvania in 1829. The Yuengling Brewery opened in this New York City location in 1876, when there was plenty of land to use in this part of Manhattan. The brewery included a stable with room for one hundred horses, a swimming pool, and large lofts for entertaining. David Yuengling’s Brewery enjoyed initial success, and an 1885 article in the New York Times gave the plant a rave review. It was not long, however, before Yuengling’s management decided to consolidate the company in Pennsylvania and sold the Manhattanville site to the Bernheimer & Schwartz Pilsener Brewing Company in 1903.
After the purchase of the site, it would be two years before the new Bernheimer & Schwartz Pilsener brewery was completed with all new buildings. The brewery was originally a complex of buildings; the five-story red brick structure taking up most of the block at West 126th Street and Amsterdam Avenue was the main building. The brewery was extremely successful, making owner Simon Bernheimer one of the richest men in New York (his partner Anton Schwartz committed suicide in 1910). Unfortunately, Bernheimer died a sudden death in 1911. His death was attributed to apoplexy; he was thought to have been overexcited at the opportunity to finally achieve his lifelong dream of playing the bass drum with his favorite band, the Mecca Temple Band. The band belonged to the Masonic Order of which Bernheimer was a member.
The brewery remained open until Prohibition in 1920, when the complex of buildings fell into disuse. The Horton Pilsener Brewing Company bought the company just before Prohibition and had to find other means of staying in business, so the buildings remained in disuse until the Interborough Fur Storage Company bought them sometime around 1930. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Horton Pilsener reopened the brewery in a new location and ran it until 1941, when they went out of business. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the use of the building as a summer storage space for furs became well known and popular. It hence gained the name “Mink Building” that it still bears today.
Louis Oberlein, an architect working at the turn of the 20th century, designed the Mink Building. He may have worked with a partner, Anthony Pfuend.
Oberlein was originally employed by a firm called Lederle, Wessely & Company, which designed a building at 196 Broadway that has since been demolished. Oberlein started his own practice sometime after he was commissioned to design the Bernheimer & Schwartz Pilsener Brewing Company (the Mink Building). He designed not only the main brewery, but also surrounding buildings that met other needs of the company. Records of his designs indicate that he worked mainly for Bernheimer & Schwartz, though he also designed the Mt. Kisco Brewing Company and a stock house, which still stands at 37th Street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan.
A review of the Mink building, as well as the stock house in mid-town, shows that Oberlein was skilled in the German-American style of building, perhaps contributing to his popularity with brewers. Bernheimer & Schwartz wanted their building to advertise their business, and so Oberlein was able to use German building characteristics do achieve this. This largely consisted of the decorative brick patterns found on the façade of the Mink Building. There is also usually an emphasis on floors, windows, and verticality in German-American architecture, all traits that Oberlein used to distinguish his buildings as German.
According to the 1910 U.S. census, Louis Oberlein lived in Jersey City, New Jersey and worked in Manhattan, with his office on Whitehall Street.
Site and context
The Mink Building is located in northern Manhattan, adjacent to the Hudson River, in an area of Harlem known as Manhattanville. This settlement in New York City was one with a rich history of trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and even earlier in American history. Henry Hudson wrote a journal entry in 1609 in which he described an instance of trade with American Indians near what later became Manhattanville. Less than one century later, the Dutch had established the small village of Harlem on the opposite side of the island, and they used the area that Hudson had explored as fields for their animals to graze. Even after New York became a British colony and then a state, this area maintained its status as a crossroads.
The village of Manhattanville was founded in 1806 and quickly gained prominence as an outpost of the city. According to Eric K. Washington, “With Manhattanville’s formation, the new village quickly became a significant suburban destination along the Bloomingdale Road [today’s 125th St.]... Manhattanville flourished naturally as a nexus of various transportation arteries.”
All this meant that by the late nineteenth century, Manhattanville experienced a development boom. Residential buildings, churches, hospitals, institutions, and transportation were going up rapidly, but there was still plenty of affordable land and it was becoming increasingly easier to commute south to the lower parts of Manhattan. This is what made it a desirable location for the Yuengling Brewery, and later the Bernheimer & Schwartz Pilsener Brewing Company.
The specific site of the Mink Building is between West 126th and West 128th Streets on Amsterdam Avenue, just one block away from the main commercial corridor of 125th Street. 125th Street, which is a low point in the geography of the neighborhood, linked the village of Manhattanville to the village of Harlem, before the two became one larger neighborhood in the twentieth century. Amsterdam Avenue was also very close to the new Interborough Rapid Transit, which after it opened in the first decade of the twentieth century, enabled speedy travel up and down the length of Manhattan. The location of the site very near to a major transport hub, and away from the hillier areas of Manhattanville, was strategic for a business that relied on shipping its product out of the immediate vicinity. With neighbors such as St. Mary’s Church and other brick warehouses and factories, Bernheimer & Schwartz’ decisions about where and how their building would be constructed are clear.
Since the time of the Bernheimer & Schwartz brewery, the Mink Building has undergone changes in use. For about half a century starting in the 1950s, it was used solely as a place to store fur coats in the summertime. Recently, it has become a mixed-use commercial building, home to numerous small businesses. Its owner, the Janus Property Company, hopes that the Mink Building will play a part to bring more business back to the Manhattanville area and spur a revival of Harlem as a place for new and small businesses to thrive.
Form and use
The form of the Mink Building derives largely from its original use as a brewery owned by German-Americans. Although little is known about the architect Louis Oberlein, the owners of Bernheimer & Schwartz Co. likely hired him because of their shared heritage. Here was an architect who understood how to make a building stand out as German-American, a desirable trait for a German beer-maker. The Bernheimer & Schwartz Pilsener Brewing Company was arguably Oberlein’s biggest client, although he designed other buildings and even another brewery, the Mt. Kisco Brewery.
One thing to notice about the Mink Building is that it still stands out among its surrounding, similarly styled neighbors. The building at 447 W. 128th Street directly abuts the Mink, and was a part of the original Bernheimer & Schwartz complex designed by Oberlein. It is noticeably different, however, both in the number of floors and the ornamentation. The Mink Building has five high-ceilinged floors to accommodate the machinery needed for brewing; this neighbor has six lower ones. It is marked with the same window decorations in brick and stone, but with less ornamentation overall. It is even built with brick of a slightly different shade of red, indicating that it was probably constructed at a later date. All this is evidence that the Mink Building was meant to draw the attention of visitors. It housed the main brewery, where the heart of the business was located and where visitors could see the process of beer making. The adjacent structure, at 447 W. 128th Street was probably built later as a warehouse for storage and shipping, possibly with offices on the upper floors.
The design of the Mink Building was extremely practical; from the floor heights, which were strictly necessary, to the façade, which achieves the purpose of advertising for the company. The exterior decoration was typical of German-American architecture of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In fact, it is possible to find buildings in Manhattan that may have influenced Oberlein’s work. The Free Library and Reading Hall and German Dispensary, designed by William Schickel in the 1880s, probably drew Oberlein’s attention. Schickel used patterned brick-work as economical ornamentation, especially to highlight windows and cornices and mark floor heights, and Oberlein included this kind of decoration as a way to make the Bernheimer & Schwartz building easily identifiable to potential customers, business partners, and workers, as well as to German-Americans in general.
Materials and methods of construction
The Mink Building contains concrete slab floors supported by interior columns and load bearing masonry exterior walls. The floor slabs are visible on the façade as stylistic elements. Concrete is used to supplement the brick elsewhere on the façade, and reveals places of structural significance, such as the upper corners of the windows.
The Mink Building began its existence as a brewery—a symbol of the business potential of Manhattanville. It is the hope of the current owners, the Janus Property Company, that it can once again serve that purpose. There are several historic buildings in the neighborhood, but the Mink Building stands out. Not only is it the largest and most noticeable, but it has also been the most versatile, enduring times of disuse and limited use. It remains standing over a century after its construction.
The Mink Building was originally built to house and represent one company; it makes sense that the style of the façade offers a united front to the street. The building represented the way to achieve success, as the Bernheimer & Schwartz Pilsener Brewing Co. was successful in its time. Just a couple of decades later, the building became a place to store the furs of wealthy customers. This significant shift in use downplayed the importance of the historic structure itself. The Manhattanville neighborhood was certainly not one where the wealthy lived in the 1950s. The building displayed a very luxurious lifestyle, sending one’s expensive possessions away for the season. The Mink Building’s personality went from that of a savvy businessperson to a trusty butler.
In the hands of the current owners, the personality of the building is changing once again. It is now a part of HarlemGreen, the complex of buildings that Janus Property Company is developing. According to an article in BisNow Real Estate on this business venture,
"Janus is looking to join all of the buildings with a common courtyard master plan; there will be several openings through the street wall and buildings accessing the courtyard. It is working on three consecutive phases of the project, including the continued renovation of the Mink Building... The scope of the project will make it a driving force in the economic redevelopment of the area... Unlike some developments in highly-populated areas, the developer is working in conjunction with the community's 197a Plan that was recently certified by City Planning and has the support of the community, city, and elected officials."
A successful revival of business, even a partial one, could mean a lot to the surrounding areas in terms of economic growth and stability, and perhaps even safety and quality in the neighborhood.
The West Harlem Art Fund produced two window installations at the Mink Building located on Amsterdam Avenue. The first work was a group installation and the second installation was created by Harlem-based artist Dianne Smith called Gumboot Juba that was featured in 2011 during Armory Arts Week.
- "Rich Brewer Dies at the Big Drum." The New York Times. 26 July 1911
- White-Orr’s 1930 Classified Business Directory – New York City Section
- Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide. Publication. 1555 ed. Vol. 61
- Eric K. Washington, Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem, 7.
- Washington, Manhattanville 9.
- German American
- White, Norval, Elliot Willensky, and Fran Leadon. AIA Guide to New York City. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.