Monday, March 29, 2010

The Arnold, Constable Dry Goods Store

Arnold, Constable & Co in 1894 -- King's Photographic Views of New York (copyright expired)

Actually, the original entrance to the old Arnold, Constable Dry Goods store was on Broadway.  As the firm grew, so did the store; additions being added until at last the monster emporium spanned the entire length of 19th Street, taking out the former home of actor Edwin Booth with it.

Aaron Arnold, a British emigrant had opened a small dry goods business in 1825 on Pine Street in lower Manhattan, planting the seed of what would become the oldest department store in America.  In 1842 he took on James Mansell Constable as his partner.  At some point in the later 1860s the name Arnold & Constable became Arnold, Constable & Company.

By 1857 the partners moved to Canal Street, where a five-story marble clad store awaited which was dubbed Marble House.  Offering "Everything From Cradle to Grave," Arnold, Constable & Company gained a reputation among the ladies of the moneyed carriage trade.  Business continued to boom and the retailers laid plans for a second store in the newly-developing shopping district around Union Square.

New new building, designed by Griffin Thomas, sat on the southwest corner of Broadway and 19th Street, replacing, among other houses, the former home of actor Edwin Booth.   Completed in 1869 the five story structure was clad in marble, brick and cast iron.  

Arnold, Constable & Company had chosen the site well.  Only three years later Thomas was called back in to enlarge it down the 19th Street side.   Thomas added a striking two-story mansard roof, drawn from the French Second Empire architecture that had taken over Europe after the Paris Exposition of 1852.


The French-style architecture was most possibly intended to hint at the European goods offered inside -- gowns from The House of Worth in Paris, French china and imported silks.  The carriages that parked outside carried New York's feminine elite.  Mary Todd Lincoln was a regular shopper and the account ledgers read like the social register:  Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Astor for example.

Wiilliam Schickel designed the final westward additions and even established his offices in the building.  Despite a change in materials, the cast iron Broadway facade giving way to brick and masonry towards 5th Avenue, the additions are nearly seamless.  When the 5th Avenue end was completed, Arnold, Constable & Company became the first department store with a 5th Avenue address.  The massive emporium exemplified what would become known as a retail "palace."

5th Avenue facade looking east down 19th Street
James Constable died in May of 1900.  Fourteen years later the store moved again, razing the Vanderbilt mansion at 40th Street and 5th Avenue for a new, more modern store.  Despite its several uses throughout the 20th century the grand old store survives, a striking remnant of a fashionable era in retail shopping.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

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