clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The strange story of NYC's 'Santa Claus building' that never was

New, 1 comment

The Santa Claus Building was the brainchild of John Duval Gluck, Jr., the founder of the Santa Claus Association

Shutterstock.com

On Christmas Day 100 years ago, plans were announced for the building of a grand monument in Manhattan—to Santa Claus. Designed by famed architects George and Edward Blum (who devised Gramercy House at 235 22nd Street and The Capitol apartments at 12 E 87th Street), the Santa Claus Building was expected to serve as headquarters for a number of youth charities, a resource for the city's needy, and a giant toy store, all packed into one stunning Beaux Arts building.

But more than anything, it was to provide an international symbol of "spirit of Christmas"—a real-life Santa's workshop. The speed with which the press and public embraced the idea, and the reasons why it was never actually built, embody the optimism (or maybe naiveté) of the Jazz Age, and the fast-growing prominence of Christmas as a massive commercial event.

The Santa Claus Building was the brainchild of John Duval Gluck, Jr., the founder of the Santa Claus Association, which in 1913 took on the responsibility of answering the letters children sent to the mythical saint (which instead of going to Santa's imaginary workshop, were shuttled to the Dead Letter Office along with other mail going to nonexistent addresses). A former customs broker, Gluck had stepped forward to take charge of answering Santa letters in the city. The idea caught on fast, with volunteers and donations rolling in to help ensure that the poor children who wrote to Santa were not forgotten on Christmas.

In the Santa Claus Association's third year in operation, Gluck called reporters into the group's offices (on the 30th floor of the Woolworth Building) and announced an ambitious plan: "The peculiar nature of our work calls for a building of our own," he said.

Gluck outlined the idea to journalists in attendance: A structure that would measure 75 feet wide on a plot 100 feet wide, allowing for significant space and light. The exterior was to be made of white marble, with long, simple lines. A massive arched portal, nearly 20 feet deep, would make up the front entrance, with a huge Christmas tree in the center, encircled by two sets of stairs. The façade would depict versions of Santa Claus from all the countries of the world, each created by an artist native to that country. Above them, the words "Santa Claus Association" would be engraved. A frieze at the base would depict dozens of children "in all their multitudinous moods." But the most spectacular aspect of this rather spectacular façade would be the massive stained-glass window, which would serve as the tree's backdrop. Measuring 35 feet wide by 50 feet tall, it would depict Santa himself, dressed in traditional red and white.

Skeptics who might assume these to be the ravings of a madman had to contend with the high-profile collaborators the Association had enlisted. There were the Blums, whose firm had earned a reputation for some of the city's most innovative and elegant apartment buildings in recent memory: the complex diagonal patterns of brick at 555 Park Avenue, the striking terra cotta panels of 838 West End Avenue, and the Egyptian-inflected medallions of 875 Park Avenue. Realtor Douglas Robinson was tapped to scout a location for the Santa Claus Building. The Scotsman (and brother-in-law of Teddy Roosevelt) managed the Astors' landholdings and led the effort to secure the blocks of Manhattan on which the Pennsylvania Railroad had built Penn Station, opened half a decade before.

A stable of prominent artists would create the building's aesthetic. Painter and illustrator Maxfield Parrish, known for his contributions to children's books like the 1909 Arabian Nights and L. Frank Baum's 1897 Mother Goose in Prose, agreed to submit design ideas for the exterior, as had sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who would supervise decorations. The sculptor was at the time living in Stamford, CT, having left New York City in frustration after resigning from the organizing committee of the New York Armory Show of 1913. A decade later he would begin the 14-year project of creating Mount Rushmore.

The ground floor would house the offices of the association as well as other willing charities. It would include an auditorium where children's plays would be performed year-round and lectures about education and childhood development would be given, along with a library of children's books. On the second floor would be the Lilliputian Bazaar—a huge market where new toys from around the world would be shown and sold.

There would be a large-scale service kitchen and salon, allowing for the feeding of as many as one thousand people at a time, as well as a high-end restaurant and rooftop garden. It would be charity focused, but also extravagant. Even more than the Woolworth Building—which Reverend S. Parkes Cadman had dubbed "The Cathedral of Commerce" when it was completed in 1913, making it the tallest building in the world—the Santa Claus Building would blend spiritual ideals and consumerism so completely as to make them indistinguishable.

The media spread the word about the proposed building, with a bevy of names to describe the place: "child wonderland," "Santa Claus's new home," and "all-year palace." Many printed a large drawing of the edifice. Across the country, papers lauded that Santa Claus was being "Recognized at Last!" "While the structure will be constructed for utilitarian purposes, it is intended to exemplify the spirit of Christmas," the Hartford, KY, Herald reported. "All effort like this should command commendation, and for the one simple reason, if for no other, that it tends to enrich the lives of children," added a paper in Portland, OR.

Moviegoers across the country learned of the building. On December 30, the new Hearst-Selig News Pictorial clips included the cheery announcement that "The only building in honor of Santa Claus in the world will be erected by the International Santa Claus Association," running illustrations of the building for thousands of viewers to see across the country.

Every detail seemed to have been carefully considered and provided to the press—except how it would be paid for. Just a week before the big announcement, the Santa Claus Association had been fundraising to relieve a $3,000 debt. Now Gluck explained that this new project was expected to cost about $300,000 to complete. He had only the sketchiest plans for bankrolling it. "The idea is one which should lend itself to the hearty cooperation of the public," Gluck told reporters. "We will probably begin a campaign to ask the mothers of America to contribute to its construction."

The newspapers were not raising any questions. "Where the money will come from is the simplest problem in the world," concluded the Sun. "Everybody in the world—that is nearly everybody in the world—owes something to the old gentleman with the snowy beard and the capaciously filled red suit; and it is self-evident that the nearly everybody who can possibly afford it will be delighted to give something to the erection of a building in the gentleman's honor." This boosterism for the Santa Claus Building made sense coming from the Sun. This was the same paper, after all, that 18 years before had responded to an eight-year-old girl who feared that Santa might not be real with the definitive reply: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

In fact, idealistic and extravagant Christmas celebration had been embraced by much of the city and country by this time. In 1912, New York City introduced the first citywide Christmas tree celebration, held in Madison Square Park, and the following year, 50 more cities followed suit. The brand-new Parcel Post service from the Post Office Department meant that more gifts could be sent at a lower cost than ever before. Lavish Christmas decorations covered storefronts and gift giving became excessive enough to inspire the founding of SPUG—the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.

It was also a period of major, symbolic building projects. Besides the Woolworth and Penn Station, the previous five years had seen the completion of the new Grand Central Terminal, the Central Post Office (now the James A. Farley Post Office), and main branch of the New York Public Library. At a time when these striking, public structures were popping up throughout Manhattan, a Santa Claus Building providing needed assistance to the city's young and poor, while celebrating and protecting the spirit of Christmas itself, did not seem that outrageous.

It would turn out that some skepticism was merited. Despite the support of the press and an aggressive fundraising campaign by the Santa Claus Association, virtually no progress was reported on the project after the initial announcement in 1915. Each Christmas season, Gluck would send out fundraising appeals and sell colorful Santa Claus Annuals in which the promised monument would be advertised, but no updates offered.

It would be more than a decade before New York's Public Welfare Commissioner Bird Coler would be tipped off that something was amiss about the Santa Claus Association and its operations. Calling Gluck to his office in the Manhattan Municipal Building in 1927, and demanding to review the group's books, Coler would discover that almost none of the money raised for the promised building had been used for its stated purpose. The same was true of money raised for the association's "Gift Buying Committee" and for postage and supplies. Almost all the funds that the Santa Claus Association brought in had gone directly into Gluck's pockets.

In December 1928, the Post Office Department ceased sending the Santa Claus Association any more Santa letters, just a few months before the stock market crashed, revealing that the faith many had in the era's wider prosperity were myths—much like belief in St. Nick himself. The children's Santa letters would not go back to the Dead Letter Office—the postal service would take over the answering of them as part of its own Operation Santa Claus program. While Gluck helped save Gotham's Santa letters from destruction, he and his association would be forgotten in the years to come, mentioned only in occasional roundups of Christmas ephemera and in a 1974 Seagram's V.O. print ad of "eight old Christmas Classics." The grand vision of the Santa Claus Building would disappear along with the Santa Claus Association and the Jazz Age optimism more generally, recalled like a hazy, champagne-fueled dream that was hard to believe ever actually happened.

Adapted from Alex Palmer’s book, ‘The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York.’ Alex Palmer is a journalist and the author of The Santa Claus Man, which weaves the history of Christmas in America through the true-crime tale of a Jazz Age con artist. His work has appeared in Slate, Smithsonian, New York Daily News, and elsewhere. More info at alexpalmerwrites.com