When this photo of the Thorley Building was taken around 1911, Charley Thorley was still in the progress of transforming the Fifth Avenue building into a midtown New York jungle.
Image from New York Public Library Digital Collections
In 1874, at the age of sixteen, Charles Thorley opened his first flower shop on West Street in New York City. Over the next few years, he moved his shop several times, until finally settling down in 1909 at 562 Fifth Avenue, in the former mansion of Mrs. Caroline S. Harper, a four-story with basement building on the northwest corner of Fifth and 46th Street.
Over the next few years, Thorley made extensive renovations to the Harper home, adding French architecture, painting the building white with green trim, and placing green vines and shrubs all along the Fifth Avenue side. He also placed window boxes high up on the 46th Street side, which he filled with evergreens, and iron pots suspended from tripods on either side of the front door, which he filled with rubber plants and other foliage.
As The American Florist reported on October 21, 1916, “the whole effect was stunning and bound to arrest the attention of the thousands that pass by every hour.”
Circa 1911. Image from New York Public Library Digital Collections The old House of Flowers in the Thorley Building (left), Fifth Avenue and 46th Street.
The property at 562 Fifth Avenue had been in the Harper family of publishing fame since 1846 (before that, James Harper and his family lived at 48 Rose Street, a long-gone street located near the Brooklyn Bridge approach). For fifty years, as one Gilded Age mansion after another sprang up on Fifth Avenue, the Harpers continued to live in their modest home. After Joseph Wesley Harper Jr. died in the home on July 21, 1896, his wife, Caroline (nee Caroline A. Sleeper) leased the home until her death in 1915. Perry Belmont, son of August Belmont once resided in the home.
In August 1917, two years after Caroline’s death, real estate tycoon Felix Isman purchased the Harper property, which included an adjacent building at 1 West 46th Street (once occupied by photographer Arnold Genthe and his cat Buzzer, the most photographed cat in America). He in turn leased the property to Tifflin Products, Inc. and Louis Sherry, Inc., who planned to put up a seven-story building on the site.
That deal apparently fell through, because in 1920, I. Miller & Sons, retailers of women’s shoes, purchased the lease and replaced 562 Fifth Avenue and 1 West 46th Street with a 12-story retail and office building known from that point on as the I. Miller Building. You may also remember the I. Miller store in Times Square, whose facade was revealed in 2014 after being hidden for decades.
Forced to vacate his building in 1920, Charley Thorley purchased the former residence of Mrs. Russell Sage at 604 Fifth Avenue, where he had planned to move the House of Flowers. He ended up instead at 612 Fifth Avenue, the former home of – you can’t make this up – Fred. S. Flower. He and his assistant – not making this up either – Rose Fallon – operated the successful high-society floral shop until Charles Thorley’s death in 1923, which is when Rose took over as president of the shop.
In June 1929, Rose Fallon – now Mrs. George R. Van Namee – signed a lease on the buildings at 4 West 58th Street, 2 West 56th, and 716 Fifth Avenue. At $262,000 a year for 24 years, it was the largest lease ever signed by a woman in New York City. The House of Flowers moved into 716 Fifth Avenue, where it stayed for many years until moving into the historic Carlyle Hotel, where the florist business continued to flourish until about 1963.
Now the only flowers that remain near the old Thorley/I. Miller building are those planted in the large pots along Fifth Avenue. Soon, all of these buildings will be history.
In December 2015, SL Green Reality sold a 49-year, full-building lease at 562 Fifth Avenue to Extell Development (the lease contains a property purchase option for $100 million). The old I. Miller building has been vacated and is expected to be demolished.
Extell has also purchased the Tudor-style building at 564-568 Fifth Avenue (the old Finchley’s Castle), along with the seven- and six-story commercial buildings at 570 Fifth Avenue and 574 Fifth Avenue. Shrouded in black netting, the demise of the latter two buildings is also imminent.
For another look at architecture on Fifth Avenue, check out the Gilded Age Mansions Along Fifth Avenue or Don’t Forget to Look Up: Fifth Avenue in the Heart of Midtown, from 34th Street to 59th Street. Get in touch with the author @HatchingCatNYC