A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
Before there was Drimmer’s, or A.J. Madison, Best Buy, Crazy Eddie or Home Depot and Lowe’s, there was Rex Cole. Of all our local appliance retailers, both individual and chains, only P.C. Richards, which was founded in 1910, is older. During the 1930s, Rex Cole ruled the world of electric appliances, presiding over an empire of over 15 branches in New York City, Westchester and Rockland Counties, Long Island and Connecticut. Today, no one has ever heard of Rex Cole, but in his day, he was as well known as the stores that bore his name. And it was all because of the refrigerator.
Rex Cole, which sounds like a made-up Madison Avenue name if there ever was one, was a real person, and that was his given name. He was born in 1881, in Port Huron, Michigan. Young Rex had an affinity with machines and electronics, and at the age of 16 became an electrician. Even at this young age, he soon developed a reputation as a troubleshooter at his electric contracting workplace. Ten years later, as World War I was breaking out, he already had his own lighting fixture company in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Winnipeg was getting a new railway station called Union Station, so when the lighting contract for the station was announced, Rex got on a train and came to New York City to meet the architects at their offices. He was a persuasive and exceptionally good salesman, and convinced them to give him the contract. It wasn’t until later that they learned he didn’t have the experience, or the money and equipment to build the lighting needed for the building. It didn’t matter; the lighting company executives at the meeting were so impressed with his personality and sales ability that they hired him to be their permanent salesman. He soon closed down his Manitoba operation and moved with his wife to New York City.
Cole was still enamored with lighting design. During World War I, he started another company and won a government contract to produce a lamp he had designed, one of the first electric lamps to give indirect lighting. General Electric took over the lamp and made Cole the president of their lamp subsidiary, the Miller Lamp Company. His connection with GE was born.
In 1926, GE came out with their first electric refrigerator aimed for the home market. They asked Rex Cole to be in charge of marketing and sales in New York City. He started out with four employees and the refrigerator. Rex Cole was soon nicknamed “King Cold,” a pun on his name, for putting the ice delivery man out of business. The man could sell a snake sneakers. Or in this case, thousands of refrigerators.
In spite of the Great Depression, by 1931, Cole had over a thousand employees, and boasted of $15 million in sales. Rex Cole showroom stores were opening up all over the city and its surrounding suburbs. Cole hired Raymond Hood, a prominent architect who specialized in Art Deco skyscrapers, to design at least 15 of the chain’s showrooms. Hood, the architect of the Daily News Building on 42nd Street and the McGraw Hill Building and the American Radiator Buildings in the ’40s, on the West Side, designed several iconic showrooms that showcased the modernity of the day, as well as the General Electric marvel that was their Monitor Top refrigerator.
The Monitor Top is that iconic 1930s refrigerator that had the compressor, motor and condenser enclosed in a drum shaped box at the top. These gleaming white appliances were the ultimate in modern kitchen décor, probably mentioned in the same tones people whisper “Bosch,” “Viking,” “Gaggenau” or “Miele” today. Thanks to Rex Cole, everyone wanted one.
The Rex Cole showrooms were great, and well ahead of their time, in both design and conception. The showrooms were large open spaces, with the GE logo prominently displayed in the large plate glass display windows. Walking by, one could see the name “Rex Cole” in a modern sans-serif font, and beyond that, the object of everyone’s desire: the Monitor Tops, displayed like pieces of art.
Unlike today’s showrooms, where many models of appliances are crammed into rows, here at Rex Cole’s, the displays showed model kitchens with their GE appliances, arranged simply, so a homeowner could easily imagine how it would look in their homes. As the stores and the GE product lines grew, Cole added demonstration and test kitchens, where housewives could see the products in use, and learn how to use the appliances themselves.
The Monitor Top was not only the start of Rex Cole’s empire, he made it a theme. Raymond Hood designed the Rex Cole store on Northern Boulevard in Queens to resemble a Monitor Top, with a tall white tiled building with a decorative addition on top that looked like the compressor drum. He also convinced GE to make promotional items like Monitor Top shaped clocks that were given to buyers of the refrigerators. He also had sugar bowls, salt and pepper shakers and ashtrays made, looking like Monitor Tops, of course, to give away as promotions. Several of the delivery trucks were tricked out as refrigerators, and each Rex Cole store had a large 15 foot refrigerator on top of the building. It was brilliant advertising, and brought in even more customers.
Rex Cole Appliances kept growing and growing. Rex and his wife lived at the Eldorado Apartments on Central Park West and 90th Street and had a summer home in Westchester. Among the showrooms in the city were several in Manhattan, along with the company headquarters at 4th Avenue and 24th Street. Among the many other branches were showrooms in Jamaica, Jackson Heights, and on Northern Boulevard in Queens, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, and in Bay Ridge, Flatbush, Kings Highway, and the one pictured store, at 32 4th Avenue, at Pacific Street, near one of Brooklyn’s busiest transportation hubs.
Rex Cole prided himself on civic responsibility, and worked to improve 4th Avenue in Manhattan, which at the time was a mess. He was able to get needed improvements to streets, street lighting, and building improvements for the area. He sponsored many free events at his showrooms, and had a singing group called the Rex Cole Mountaineers that gave concerts, Christmas pageants, and was his charitable arm, traveling all over the country.
However, Mr. Cole’s operations were overextended, the curse of many a business chain, especially, it seems, those that sell appliances and electronics. He owned and built the stores and distribution centers, but the largest were on leased land, and he was paying a lot of rent. The Great Depression was still going on, keeping many people out of his stores. He also had risky promotions, like a 30-day free trial offer on his refrigerators and appliances, and lots of giveaways.
That which burns brightly also burns fast. In 1935 Rex Cole filed for bankruptcy. He had to close many of his stores, especially the ones that were on leased land. The business kept going in a much reduced capacity until the early 1950s. Then they were gone, and his iconic showrooms were leased to other businesses who all removed his unique designs and features.
Rex Cole may have been down, but he was hardly out. He kept on designing lamps, and promoting himself. He retired from the appliance business in the 1950s, and was working on a new lamp design when he died at 86 in Bronxville, N.Y. The lamp was going to be carried by Macy’s, and was called the Rex Cole Eye-Saver. It most likely would have been great, and Cole could have sold the heck out of it. Today, every once in a while, one of Rex Cole’s signature signs is unearthed on an old building, prompting the inevitable, “Who was that?” In many ways, he’s still with us.
The showroom on Pacific and 4th was probably designed by Raymond Hood. It was photographed in 1934, and today, the pictures are part of the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. The building is still there, believe it or not, hidden underneath a new façade. In 2004, a permit was granted to turn the building into a seven story office facility with retail. That never happened. Instead, it got a facelift, removing the last of the original exterior. The building has been home to many different businesses and social service organizations, including Phoenix House, and today is home to Blue Pearl Veterinary Partners, specializing in emergency and 24-hour pet care. Ironically, Rex Cole’s longest lasting competition, P.C. Richards, is just around the corner. GMAP