PUCK, AKA ROBIN goodfellow, is a "shrewd and knavish sprite" who arrived in our world via Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck is a joker, a trickster who frightens village maidens, skims the cream off the milk, takes the kick out of the ale, and leads people astray in the woods at night. His name comes from the Gaelic puch, which means poke or punch, but he’s also been called other things. He might be an elf, an imp, a goblin, a leprechaun, or a fairy of the tougher talking sort. According to Shakespeare, Puck was “Knurly limbed, faun faced, and shock pated,” perhaps a bit like the latter day Johnny Rotten. But Shakespeare had already cleaned the folk legend up a bit for the genteel stage. The traditional Puck of folklore was a faun, human above the waist, a hairy, hooved goat below, with a little pair of horns and pointed ears. Puck was a troublemaker. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream he sows confusion everywhere, causing trouble for his own amusement, but of course all’s well that ends well, and Puck’s pranks are, in the end, a way of everyone sorting out the problems typically caused by Cupid’s pranks.
Shakespearean stardom humanized Puck even more, and a portrait by the 18th century master Sir Joshua Reynolds shows him as a rather elfin baby, with a bit of a devilish grin and pointed ears, but hardly a half-human faun. The Puck who served as the mascot and namesake of Puck magazine, the great humor periodical that built the Puck Building, is a similarly babyish trickster. Naked, except for a frock coat and top hat, he is both innocent and devilish. The magazine’s sense of humor shared a lot with Shakespeare’s Puck in that one is never quite sure if he means to be as insulting as he appears, or if he is simply unaware.
His infantile nakedness suggests innocence, but his top hat and tails, and his weapons (a mirror and a pen) show that he means business. Puck is not as harmless as he looks. The merry sprite standing above Lafayette Street spoke the very same slogan as his Shakespearean predecessor: “What fools these mortals be.” Some more fools than others of course. All the more reason to share the immortal elf’s wry perspective. Over the years Puck has been played by Mickey Rooney (in the Oscar-winning film), Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci, "Star Trek" star Brent Spiner and Laurence Olivier, well before he was a Sir, as a student at Oxford. As a bronze statue, our Puck is unlikely to change his view on the mortals who pass before him every day, but remember that the building he presides over was a source of mirth from the beginning. The statue also watched over the reign of the modern puckish magazine, Spy. And judging from the bemused look on his face, occupants of the building that bears his name can look forward to many years of mirth, hilarity and glee—all to the very highest standards—if we just keep his words in mind and avoid serious folly whenever possible.
This is the story of a magazine that changed the nation. It elected and defeated presidents.It infuriated the corrupt. It outraged the orthodox. It vexed the monopolists. And it made just about everyone laugh out loud. This could have only happened in the greatest of cities in the greatest of democracies. It’s no coincidence that democracy and the Industrial Revolution came along hand in hand. With the arrival of steamships and railroads, power had passed quickly from a landed aristocracy to the new class of striving merchants and manufacturers, propelling us headlong into a limitless future. And in an age of democracy, power meant public opinion. If the pen was mightier than the sword, the printing press was the new ultimate weapon. The newspaper evolved quickly. The 17th century saw the arrival of headlines, advertisements and woodcut illustrations. The 18th century brought daily papers and constitutional rights for the press. At the turn of the 19th century, newspapers were printed on both sides of the paper, and in the United States there were more than 200 papers. Seventy years later, there were more than 4,500 papers in the United States. But people worked long hours, literacy was hardly universal, and the public wanted news and opinion presented simply and amusingly.
Enter Punch! In 1841, a London playwright partnered with an engraver to produce a weekly magazine of humor and satire, taking its name from the anarchic sidewalk “Punch and Judy” puppet shows. Punch was sharp-witted and amusingly illustrated, basically inventing the cartoon. It quickly became an enormous power in England and was widely imitated, especially in the United States, which was always trying to beat the Brits at their own game. This was the Gilded Age, and America was ascendant. A continental power stretching ocean to ocean, its reach was global. We feared no one. Our ambitions were limitless. This was a land of millionaires, the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution, rich with mines, railroads and factories. America’s supreme power made the contest for its political leadership a game in which the stakes were world dominion. The people would decide the winners and the losers, and they listened to newspapers. But perhaps more than anything, they followed the cartoons. Oddly enough, what became the world’s most powerful magazine was started in America by an Austrian immigrant, and it began in German, not English. Puck was founded by Joseph Keppler, a Viennese former actor who possessed the fastest pen in the West.
He started out cartooning in St. Louis, where a large and affluent community of immigrants provided an audience for his little illustrated magazine, Puck. But St. Louis proved too small a venue for Keppler and his ambitions, so he moved to New York where he relaunched Puck, again in German, in 1876. It was a hit right away, if not quite profitable, and Keppler boldly created an English version in 1877 that also quickly gained a large audience and was widely imitated. Keppler knew that to grow Puck he had to be outrageous. When Brigham Young died, Keppler’s cover depicted a bed with 12 women in it and an empty spot in the middle. He mocked suffragettes, women’s fashion, psychics, Thomas Edison, oleo-margarine, prohibitionists, the Pope, and Jews and anti-Semites alike. Editorially, Puck was independent from the political parties, but took the side of the people against corruption and robber barons. Its voice was that of indisputable common sense, and it took on tyrants, monopolists and political charlatans with a razor wit and an acidulous pen. Americans shook with laughter at Puck’s full-color cartoons, depicting the follies of the great and powerful, while the latter shook in their boots, hemming and hawing. Keppler was a brilliant cartoonist, but he was also a good businessman.
He couldn’t make the magazine all by himself, and he plucked the best cartoonists from his imitators. He also appreciated technology and, partnering with a printer, he made Puck the first magazine with full color lithography. Imagine what a splash it made in a world where printing was black and white, and photography could only be printed as interpreted by engravers. Puck was state of the art. And before long, Puck wielded a political power without equal. In the 1880 election Puck opposed Ulysses S. Grant’s efforts to win an unprecedented third term, depicting him as a man who never met a contributor he didn’t like. Grant was still a great hero, but he had been a poor president. Puck wasn’t enthusiastic about the other contenders, lampooning all of them in turn, but the man the magazine eventually backed, Civil War hero Winfield Hancock, the Democrat, did not win. James Garfield won, despite besting Hancock by less than 2,000 in the popular vote tally. But Puck won the election in a way, because the results gave the magazine the prospect of four more years of a President they could make fun of. By the time the presidential campaign of 1884 rolled around, Puck had reached a circulation of 100,000 copies per week. Today that would translate to about 800,000 copies. No single institution had more political clout. In 1884, the Republican Party nominated James G. Blaine, the popular former Speaker of the House from Maine. The Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland, the governor of New York. As governor, Cleveland had earned a reputation for honest and plain speaking—qualities that also made him the enemy of Tammany Hall, New York City’s powerful political machine. Keppler considered Blaine shady, and Puck threw its influence behind Cleveland. Puck depicted the various presidential contenders as a freak show in a carnival museum with Blaine as “the tattooed man,” covered with pictures of the scandals that had marked his career. The Democrats were so delighted they bought Puck by the thousands, distributing copies for free. When Cleveland won New York City by a mere 1,200 votes, it was enough to win the state, and the state’s 35 electoral votes—by far the most in the nation—gave Cleveland the election. The new president himself credited Puck with supplying the victory. Puck had peaked in fame and power.
Winning the election for Cleveland put Puck on the establishment side. Comedians always kind of regret when the butt of their jokes disappears, and Puck was now rather uncomfortably friends with the President. Luckily, the opposition came up with some new players worthy of Puck’s venom, including Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and then Teddy Roosevelt, a larger-than-life character just made for satire. Even when the magazine liked Roosevelt they had great fun with his image. At the peak of its success Puck not only built itself a new home but went west for the Columbian Exhibition of 1893, the first World’s Fair, which had been tardily planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World. Keppler and company went all out, opening up a second Puck Building in Chicago (designed by the famed McKim, Mead, and White) and publishing a special edition of Puck, “World’s Fair Puck,” from Chicago to display their mastery of the printer’s art. The fair proved disastrous in many ways, with its fancy building proving vulnerable to its lakeside location, and the workload and climate grinding Keppler down physically. Keppler died in 1894. His son Udo took over the magazine, and continued it successfully, though changes in the media would make Puck obsolete.
Photography was coming into its own. Printing advanced by leaps and bounds, making the breakthrough technology of Puck nothing special. With Keppler gone the editorial slant became more conservative. In 1914, Puck’s circulation was only one tenth of what it was at its peak. A new buyer from a department store family tried to turn the magazine from political to social satire and the arts. Puck went from weekly to biweekly. Then war broke out, creating chaos and shortages. In 1917, Puck was bought by William Randolph Hearst, a figure it had once mocked mercilessly. Hearst had the last laugh, folding Puck, retaining its name and logo for syndicated color Sunday funnies that ran in dozens of Hearst newspapers as “Puck the Comic Weekly.” The Literary Digest wrote this epitaph: “Puck had no real rival in its best days. Fallen from its fine estate, it has left no successor.” Well, not until much later in the century anyway, when another witty journal made its home in the Puck Building. Spy (1986-1998) had a much shorter run than Puck, but headquartering itself in tribute at the building that proclaimed “What fools these mortals be!” it proved that wit and high spirits will never die... they just fall asleep for a while now and then.
At the peak of its success, Puck had to move. It had already outgrown its North William Street offices when the building was scheduled for demolition to make way for an entry ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge. Its new home was too small, and Puck and its partner business J. Ottmann Lithograph Company had to rent 22 downtown spaces to accommodate their thriving operations. It was time for a grand, new Puck building and, to that end, they purchased the Sisters of Charity land behind St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, at the intersection of Houston and Mulberry Streets in the south end of New York’s new publishing district, just down the street from the beautiful, newly constructed Romanesque DeVinne Press Building (today known mostly as the home of Astor Wines & Spirits). Puck was proud of erecting the biggest press building in the city. The Puck Building was designed by Albert Wagner, a German architect, in a manner known as Rundbogenstil, or “round-arch style,” a variety of Romanesque Revival that was popular in Germany, where it numerous industrial buildings, railway stations and synagogues including the Berlin Lindenstrasse and the Rykestrasse, Germany’s largest synagogue. Rundbogenstil was a reaction against the Neo-Gothic style, aiming for a clean, classical simplicity. The Public Theater, originally the Astor Library, just up Lafayette Street from the Puck Building, is another fine example of Rundbogenstil. In early February, 1886, Puck magazine moved into a new Puck Building that bore its name, as did its printer, J. Ottmann Lithograph Company. Ottmann had become a great success due to the radical new color printing of Puck, and their equipment represented the best technology available.
The building held 30 presses, and, at the outset, more than 420 employees worked on site, between the magazine and its printer. Regarding the stylish new building, here’s what Puck itself had to say about its new digs: “The general style shows a remarkably clever adaptation of motives of the Italian Renaissance to the exigencies of modern business. The most prominent feature of the building are [sic] the long lines of round arches on the two fronts, with their massive supports of polished granite. Both fronts are divided by main belted piers and pilasters, horizontally by string courses in the third and fifth stories. In the second story the arches support intermediate pillars, dividing the front above into a series of large mullioned windows. The building is of brick; but the great flag-staff support on the corner, and the arches in the recessed entrance are constructed of wrought-iron, used as effectively and artistically as this awkward but indispensible material has ever been handled.
The general effect combines strength with lightness and a graceful simplicity most refreshing in this day of architectural affectation, when all our bright young designers are straining after cheap effects and 'sincere' forms which have no sincerity in them.” And that, praising their own impeccable taste, is about as sincere as Puck would ever be in praising anyone. The Puck Building originally extended well into what is now Lafayette Street. Unfortunately the City of New York decided in 1893 to extend Lafayette Street, which ended at Houston Street. This required shearing off the western third of the building including Joseph Keppler’s studio. Albert Wagner returned and supervised a new façade and entrance along Lafayette Street and an extension of the building to the south. The building took its present form in 1987.
Puck magazine was very proud. And rightly so. After only ten years in business (in English anyway) Puck was the most successful and influential magazine in America. It’s founder, Joseph Keppler, was a 49-year-old Austrian immigrant for whom English was a second language. What a great country America was! President of the United States Grover Cleveland had credited Puck with his victory in 1884. Puck was also very “houseproud.” Their magnificent new building on Lafayette Street and Houston Street was designed by Albert Wagner to outshine and outsize the other great publishing buildings in the neighborhood. It was a building of timeless design, but one with cutting-edge technology inside.
The building features two gilded statues of Mr. Puck. Both may have been created by the German immigrant sculptor Henry Baerer, based on a zinc model created by Caspar Buberl, based on a drawing by Joseph Keppler, which appeared on the magazine’s masthead. It is possible that Buberl created the larger of the Puck statues, which stands on the Houston and Mulberry corner of the building, where the original entrance was located. Puck wears a top hat and a frock coat, but naughtily, and like such future comedians as Porky Pig and Donald Duck, he wears no pants. A third Puck, credited to Baerer, was created for the temporary Puck Building at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Its present whereabouts, if it still exists, are unknown. Baerer is perhaps best known for his glowering bust of Ludwig van Beethoven, which stands in Central Park. Buberl created many wellknown monuments including ten Civil War tributes at Gettysburg, a 1,200-foot frieze on the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. and “Columbia Protecting Science and Industry," which surrounds the entrance to the Smithsonian Institution's Art and Industries Building. His statue of Robert Fulton is now in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
The puck building is the crown jewel of Soho, the neighborhood so named for being "South of Houston."It conveniently echoes London’s Soho, which apparently takes its name from an ancient hunting cry of the mounted nobles who chased down deer in St. James's Park and Green Park in London. The Soho Cast Iron Historic District was established in 1973 to protect over 200 cast iron buldings in the neighborhood. Cast iron was originally chosen for its abilty to create charmingly intricate decorative fronts that were easily assembled. In the 19th century, Soho and neighboring Noho (North of Houston) was a lively shopping district, where many of the city’s most exclusive stores were located including Brooks Brothers, Tiffany & Company, and Lord & Taylor. In the 1970s, Soho was something of a ghost town as much of the original manufacturing and warehousing that made the neighborhood commercial had relocated. Artists began renting studios in these buildings, which offered great space and natural light, and, of course, they began living in their studios, although the buildings were not zoned for residential use. In 1971, New York City began licensing artists to live in previously commercial buildings in Soho and Noho and you can still see the AIR (artist in residence) signs on many of these buildings.
As the artists moved in, so did the galleries in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Soho became the premiere gallery neighborhood in Manhattan, displacing Madison Avenue and 57th Street. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that Soho gave birth to Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Abstract Expressionism, and Neo-Expressionism. In the mid-'90s, commercial rents rose considerably because luxury stores liked being near galleries and the galleries began moving to larger, cheaper spaces in Chelsea. As a result, Soho became New York’s luxury shopping neighborhood.
Today, while many art galleries remain, an extraordinary number of designers also have shops in the area. Similarly, many non-artists began taking a fancy to the relaxed style in which artists lived. In 2005, New York City began issuing permits for residential buildings on empty lots in the neighborhood. Today, the neighborhood is still home to many artists who have lived there for decades, but there is also a community of affluent non-artists attracted to the scale and lifestyle of loft living. Appropriately, fashion and art seem to have taken a shine to one another, and the neighborhood is a rich and vital mix of art, fashion, and terrific restaurants.
After the demise of Puck Magazine the building remained busy. Puck had never occupied all of the building’s space. It was also home to the J. Ottmann Lithographing Company, which not only printed Puck but printed for anyone who desired state of the art color printing, which then meant lithography.Puck was the perfect advertising for Ottmann. A contemporary account wrote that Ottmann created “reproductions of oil paintings, of watercolors, of pastels, and even natural objects, with such fidelity to the originals as to bewilder the uninitiated observer, who requires the assurance of an expert that he is not gazing on some direct production of brush or crayon." Soho and Noho were the heart of the printing trade and associated trades. Superior Printing Ink Co., for example, made the Puck Building its headquarters. S. Novick & Son, a premiere stationer, was also a prominent tenant. The building was, after all, handsome, spacious, filled with light, and convenient to Manhattan’s warehouses.
The Puck Building always managed to find tenants, but its location also held uncertainty, since master planner Robert Moses hoped to route an expressway across Manhattan through the heart of Soho and Little Italy, connecting New Jersey and Brooklyn via the Holland Tunnel and the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. This controversial plan kept the neighborhood in a suspended state from 1941 until 1962 when it was finally cancelled. It was likely this uncertainty saved Soho, whose days as a center of manufacturing were over, from demolition. Instead artists moved in, taking advantage of the light and space offered by the neighborhood’s loft buildings. In 1978, Peter Gee, a pop oriented silkscreen artist known for his work with designer Betsey Johnson, and his business partner, architect Paul Serra, took over ownership of the building.
The pair had renovated numerous historic Soho buildings and they planned to convert the spectacular Puck Building into artists’ condominiums. Although that plan never came to fruition, the new owners initiated the first restorations made to the building. When work was completed in 1983, the building reopened for commercial rental. Creative businesses in particular were drawn to the refurbished building, assisted perhaps by the allure of the newly re-gilded Puck statues. Artists and writers rented spaces there. In the mid-'80s, Billy Joel rented 10,000 square feet in the building as his rehearsal and writing studio, where he wrote his album "The Bridge," which went to No. 7 on the charts. In Billy Joel: The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man, he recalls: “Sometimes I would leave the building and walk down to Little Italy, get a little food, wine, a little espresso. The walk I took was on Mulberry Street. And I just kind of invented this character who thought he was Mr. Cool.
The character is kind of a nebbish, but in his mind he’s king—the king of Mulberry Street.” The song was “Big Man on Mulberry Street.” Whether the album’s title, "The Bridge," came from the Puck Building's view of the East River bridges is a matter of a conjecture. The flag of satire was raised over the building once again in 1986 when Spy magazine was founded by editors Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen and publisher Thomas L. Phillips, Jr. Although Spy’s run was shorter and less profitable than Puck's, it did make a significant impression on American culture. Named after the fictitious magazine in “A Philadelphia Story,” it combined the irreverence of Mad Magazine with the thoroughness of Newsweek. Despite its popularity, Spy’s unrelenting mockery didn’t endear it to advertisers and, during a recession in the early ’90s, Spy went under for the first (but not last) time. Still, Spy lent the building a dash of glamour and renewed the gleam in the eyes of the guardian Puck statues. In the ’90s, the Puck Building became a destination again as a location for films and television programs (“When Harry Met Sally,” “The January Man,” “Seinfeld,” “Will and Grace”) and music videos like “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” by Big Daddy Kane, and its spacious ballrooms were the scenes of many splendid galas.
Herodotus listed Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Of these only the Great Pyramid remains, mainly because it was too big to break up completely, although all the original marble was looted. In ancient times, great buildings usually disappeared because of wars and retribution.
In the modern world, great buildings disappear as cities recreate themselves. Many of New York City’s great buildings are gone. There are plenty of New Yorkers who remember and lament the great Penn Station, a beautiful wonder that was torn down in 1963 in order to make way for Madison Square Garden. What we know as “The Garden,” home of the Knicks and Rangers is actually Madison Square Garden IV. Probably the grandest Garden was the one designed by Stanford White, which was actually located at Madison Square and was torn down to allow for the New York Life Building. (Ironically, Stanford White, architect of the Chicago World’s Fair Puck Building and considered by many to be the greatest New York architect, was murdered in the rooftop theater of his Madison Square Garden by millionaire Harry K. Thaw over his affair with Thaw’s wife, the actress Evelyn Nesbit.)
Many of us remember the splendor of the old Metropolitan Opera House, an Italian Renaissance-style building worthy of a European capital, at Broadway and 40th Street. Its luxurious boxes, known as the Diamond Horseshoe, were occupied by the Astors, the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies. The magnificent 47-story Beaux-Arts-style Singer Building, once the world’s tallest building, was torn down in 1968 — setting a record for the tallest building ever torn down. Most of the monumental structures built by publishing empires are gone. The New York World Building on Park Row, another one-time holder of the world’s tallest building title, was owned by Joseph Keppler’s friend, James Pulitzer.
It was demolished in 1955, and a ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge now stands in its place. The New York Herald building at Herald Square, a McKim, Mead, & White Renaissance Revival design modeled after the Palazzo del Consiglio in Verona, combined offices with a printing facility, as the Puck Building did. The Herald’s presses were a great tourist attraction and thousands gathered daily to watch the paper being printed. It was torn down in 1921. The first two homes of The New York Times were also demolished, and the third, which gave Times Square its name, still stands but under a skin of billboards that hide its grand architecture. Virtually all of New York City’s greatest mansions are also gone. On the site of William Vanderbilt’s 130-room “Petit Chateau” at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street now stands Bergdorf Goodman. Some of the most beautiful residences in New York were once neighbors of the Puck Building, such as The Colonnade Row (also known as LaGrange Terrace), a series of nine marble Greek Revival townhouses built on Lafayette Place (now Lafayette Street) in the 1830s. The property belonged to John Jacob Astor who also built what is now Lafayette Street from Great Jones Street to the delightfully named Art Street, which is now Astor Place. This area, including Bond and Great Jones Streets, was considered the most
fashionable quarter of the city—a status it has regained. John Jacob Astor III resided there, as did Cornelius Vanderbuilt and Washington Irving. Five of the buildings were torn down to make way for a department store and warehouse. Four remain, one of them housing the restaurant Indochine. Ah, the lucky Puck is a remarkable survivor! Soho and Noho seem to have been rescued, ironically, by their 20th century decline. Having fallen into use as a warehouse and sweat shop district, the old buildings here, including the historic cast iron buildings of Soho, were part of a forgotten and neglected area. They also lived in the shadow of the Lower Manhattan Expressway that city planner Robert Moses intended to cut across Manhattan through the heart of Soho and what is now Nolita, connecting the Holland Tunnel with the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. Conceived in 1941 and not defeated until 1962, the project made this part of Manhattan uncertain and thus immune to developments that might have put Soho and Noho’s great buildings in peril. Once the threat was over, and artists populated the spacious commercial buildings of the neighborhood, inventing the whole idea of loft living, the area became the brightest spot in Manhattan. And to this day the Puck Building is the brightest spot in the brightest spot in Manhattan.