100 Years Ago at the Emerson Phonograph Company
By Allan Sutton
Source material courtesy of Doreen Wakeman
The autumn of 1920 was a high-water mark for the Emerson Phonograph Company. A year earlier — after five years of producing only small-diameter discs — Victor Emerson had finally decided to take on the major companies, introducing standard ten-inch, full-priced records. Some popular stars and dance orchestras were being signed to exclusive contracts, there were the beginnings of a respectable operatic series, and the company was doing a strong business in records for the immigrant markets. In addition, Emerson had recently introduced a new line of phonographs starting at $80 and topping out at $1,000, a far cry from its first $3 offering of 1915.
Emerson’s facilities at the time were scattered around New York, with an executive suite at 3 West Thirty-Fifth Street, a sales office at 120 Broadway, and a studio at 365 Fifth Avenue. At some point, the decision was made to consolidate at a single location that could also house the company’s flagship phonograph and record store.
With production and optimism at an all-time high, in January 1920 the company signed a twenty-one lease for a building at 206 Fifth Avenue. A long, narrow five-story structure, it extended the full depth of the block, with an additional entrance at 1126 Broadway. It was already an old building, dating to 1856–1857 according to real estate records, but had recently been modernized and given a fresh facade by its new owner, the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank.
Emerson’s offices and studio space would be consolidated on the upper three floors, one of which reportedly was given over entirely to recording. The move was completed during February 1920, at which time the record store was still in the early planning stages. Walter K. Pleuthner, a somewhat eccentric painter, architect, and interior designer, was hired for the task.
Pleuthner drafted ambitious plans for a record store and phonograph showroom on the ground level, with entrances on both Fifth Avenue and Broadway. It was an extravagant design, with vaulted ceilings, leaded-glass windows, specially designed chandeliers, individual listening booths, two “cloisters,” and a central staircase leading to a second-floor auditorium, to be called Emerson Hall. The store opened in September 1920 but wasn’t widely advertised until November, when it was featured in a nationwide marketing campaign.
From Architecture magazine (December 1921).
View full-size floor plan
Unfortunately, no one at Emerson foresaw the crippling recession of 1920–1921, which began in the same month the company leased the Fifth Avenue building. Burdened with excess inventory and deeply in debt, the Emerson Phonograph Company was placed in the hands of receivers on December 9, 1920. It carried on, but on a less ambitious scale, buoyed in part by its 1921 introduction of the inexpensive Regal label for the dime- and chain-store trade.
The company continued to operate at 206 Fifth Avenue for nearly two more years, although plans to hold concerts in Emerson Hall apparently never materialized. Victor Emerson resigned in March 1922 and launched a new business, manufacturing and selling blank metal recording discs. Reorganized under new ownership in August 1922, the Emerson Phonograph Company vacated the Fifth Avenue building in October for decidedly cheaper-looking quarters. The Fifth Avenue building still stands today, minus the Emerson logo that once graced its pediment.
Our thanks for Doreen Wakeman, Victor Emerson’s great grand-daughter, for supplying some of the source material for this article.
A detailed history of the Emerson Phonograph Company can be found in American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, available from Mainspring Press.
© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.