On my recent trip to NYC, I stumbled upon a hidden treasure trove at a four-story historic building at 23 Jane Street. I have been to NYC many times – both in the mid-to late 1970s, once or twice in the early 1980s and at least a dozen times in the 2000s. How did the existence of this remarkable relic escape the eyes of a trained sculptor and artist? Well, I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m still fascinated with NYC. Despite its gentrification, razing of so many historic buildings, the Disneyfication of Times Square and those pencil buildings on 57th Street that drastically changed the iconic NYC skyline, The Big Apple reveals historic treasures when you least expect them!
I was taking photos of the P.E. Guerin window and exterior shots from across the street. A nice gentleman who was standing nearby asked if I would like to see the inside. Heck, yes – this is the kind of adventure that makes my heart skip a beat. We went inside and my eyes nearly popped out. I was surrounded by such exquisite pieces on every wall that I felt I had stepped back in time to Paris or London, not NYC, circa June 2022. The place is a veritable museum and feast for the eyes, especially for artists, sculptors and antique collectors like me. At RISD, I took several foundry courses, so I know more than the average person about bronze and casting processes. Not surprisingly, art students from Parsons, Pratt, Cooper-Union and FIT have toured this wonderful place.
I met P.E. Guerin Vice President Martin Grubman, who has worked at the firm since November 1987. Marty was kind enough to talk to me on the spur of the moment and share the company history, including some intriguing facts I likely wouldn’t have found on my own. The repartee between the two guys was quite funny and they were both super nice. I knew Marty had just touched the surface, so I did far more research when I returned home.
A Brief History of P. E. Guerin
P.E. Guerin is the oldest decorative hardware firm in the U.S. and the only metal foundry in NYC. French immigrant Pierre Emmanuel Guerin founded the company in 1857. The foundry was on Wooster Street before they moved to their current West Greenwich Village digs in 1892. By 1880, Guerin diversified and started designing and manufacturing “artistic bronzes” and brass piece such as vases, clock cases, and lamps. He worked in concert with other fine artisans, most notably creating gorgeous bases and hardware for artistic lamps and metalwork for the most prestigious cabinetmakers of the 19th century, including Herter Brothers, Pottier & Stymus, Léon Marcotte and Kimbel & Cabus.
When Guerin passed away in 1911, his son Emmanuel Pierre Guerin assumed control of the business, followed by his son’s wife Marguerite V. Guerin and then his great nephew, Arthur C. Ward. Today, the family business is run by Pierre Emmanuel’s great grandnephew, Andrew F. Ward. As of June 29, 2022, the company has 55 employees, about 40 of whom are artisans. The foundry is on the top floor and the two middle floors are devoted to activities such as fitting, plating and polishing.
Examples of PE Guerin’s original exquisite artistry can be found in various public buildings, parks and landmark residences in NYC (e.g., the Metropolitan Museum and Brooklyn Museum) and throughout the U.S. Among these are the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., Fair Lane, Henry and Clara Ford’s mansion in Dearborn, Mich. and the JFK White House during the celebrated “Camelot” redesign. Marty also told me that in the 1982 movie Annie, exquisite P.E. Guerin pieces can be seen in shots of Daddy Warbucks’ Park Avenue mansion. These scenes were filmed at The Great Hall of Shadow Lane (aka Woodrow Wilson Hall) at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. Marty just discovered the P.E. Guerin connection and is a Monmouth University alumni, which made this discovery even more special.
The Sample Room and Casting Process
Packed from floor to ceiling with nearly 100,000 specimens such as doorknobs, faucets, hinges, latches, relief sculptures and more, the sample/pattern room was like my wildest dream come to life. Models are cast in sand, filed, chased using miniature chisels and hammers to add detail and then painstakingly polished. The finishing process requires unique and masterful skills that are hard to find in this day and age. Marty told me that many of the original works in the showroom would cost $10,000 or more to recreate today, and those were the simpler pieces.
Reimagining Designs Today
Although they continue to make reproductions of some of their original antique pieces, the company also stays busy with commissions from architects, interior designers and wealthy individuals worldwide. One example is a sea urchin that a lady picked up on the beach – she commissioned doorknobs for her house cast from the perfectly intact original!
Interestingly, I just read that Studio Sofield founder Bill Sofield who designed the interiors of one of those aforementioned pencil buildings at 111 W. 57th Street commissioned hand-cast fixtures from P.E. Guerin. The design for the bathroom fixtures were inspired by a timeless set P.E. Guerin created in the 1940s. That’s wonderful, but it doesn’t change my mind that the exteriors of the pencil buildings are a sight for sore eyes!
Longtime P.E. Guerin client, interior designer Charlotte Moss collaborated with the firm on a jewelry line inspired by their antique designs. The Iconic Cuff Collection came to fruition in late 2017. To honor the company’s amazing heritage, Moss chose classical motifs from among the 50,000 patterns she scoured in the pattern room, some of which represented historical periods that were more than 10,000 years old. The cast-brass, 24-karat gold plated bracelets were fabricated at the P.E. Guerin foundry with the same exceptional artistry and attention to detail as all their other pieces.
P.E. Guerin on the Secondary Market
Marty showed me several auctions of P.E. Guerin pieces that perfectly demonstrate the blending of their exquisite brass or bronze metalwork, art glass and incredibly beautiful cabinetry. Here is curated sampling of auctions and one lamp from the Brooklyn Museum I found in my research.
All photos taken at P.E. Guerin, 23 Jane Street, Copyright Betsy van Die, June 29, 2022