The walls are slated to come tumbling down on the J. Press building in New Haven at 262 York Street. The structurally unsound building is scheduled to be razed next month.
The J. Press story began the turn of the century, serendipitously around the corner from the current J. Press quarters, on College Street. JC Goldbaum was a bespoke tailor on Chapel Street who had sold to Yale students since the Civil War. Grandfather Jacobi Press learned both tailoring and the English language as an intern in Goldbaum’s second-floor quarters. Two years after arriving in New Haven an immigrant from the Pale of Russia, he knocked on doors showing swatches to students in the Yale dorms at the same time while he was running Goldbaum’s tailor shop.
My grandfather was a dapper man, carefully decked out in three-piece English woolens, garnering his wardrobe as if to-the-manner born of Professor William Lyon Phelps, Coach Walter Camp, and other notables on the Yale campus. He adopted the gift of gab and a quick sense of humor, and soon was regularly invited to serve the tweed-clad elites on bended knee. He also drummed up most of Goldbaum’s business. The older gentleman obliged Grandpa’s acumen, selling him what had become Goldbaum & Press in 1902, which then became J. Press
In the half decade since its founding, the enterprise bearing his name expanded geometrically in capital and prestige. The narrow confines of the old shop were bursting at the seams with multitudes of garments stuffed from every corner. Seizing the moment, in 1907 Grandpa Press bought the fashionable French Second Empire-styled building directly across from Pierson College at 262 York Street. Originally built circa 1860, the gregarious urban townhouse was the home of Cornelius Pierpont, a prominent merchant grocer, manufacturer and street railway man. Mr. Pierpont’s trophy occupied 30,000 square feet on three floors over a warehouse-sized basement, and featured multiple front and back entrances that over the course of its history were able to accommodate Barrie Ltd. Shoe Store, Klingerman’s Luncheonette, Stonehill Rare Books, Valentine’s Barber Shop, and, during the administration of President George W. Bush, half the second floor to accommodate the Secret Service guarding the President’s daughter during her undergraduate years at Yale.
When I entered the family business in 1959, the building employed seven clothing sales associates, two fitters, a patternmaker, cloth cutter, cloth marker, merchandise manager, office staff of 12, three shipping clerks, truck driver, house cleaning attendant, window-dresser, and 14 tailors on the third floor above the executive office of my father, Paul, who was chief financial officer. Twenty-five tailors occupied a separate custom shop on Broadway.
The New Haven Preservation Trust is actively lobbying J. Press owners to respect historical precedents in their plans to rejuvenate the property. With York Street genes coursing through my veins, but no longer part of J. Press, I may only bray to the moon the World War I requiem of 1st Viscount Gray of Fallodon: “The lights are going out all over York Street and we shall never see them lit again in our time.” — RICHARD PRESS
Top photo by Mark Alden Branch for the Yale Alumni Magazine.