Monday, March 7, 2011

The 1898 New Era Building - 495 Broadway

photo by Hubert J. Steed
As the 19th Century wound to a close, Jeremiah C. Lyons had become one of the most prominent real estate developers in the city, owning and managing the J. C. Lyons Building and Operating Company. Many of the firm’s holdings were located along 5th Avenue; however Lyons developed rows of upscale residences in high-end neighborhoods, such as the eight limestone mansions on East 74th Street designed by Buchman & Deisler in 1898, one of which, at No. 55, Eleanor Roosevelt would later occupy.

Lyons had earlier commissioned the same architects to design an eye-catching commercial building that was completed that year at No. 495 Broadway—The New Era Building.

While Italianate palazzo-inspired buildings were rising along Broadway at the time, Buchman & Deisler stepped out of the box with their design. Drawing on the modern Art Nouveau sub-style popularized by designers and architects like the Scottish Charles Rennie Mackintosh, they produced a no-nonsense behemoth unlike any of its neighbors.

Decades later the AIA Guide to New York City would call it an “Art Nouveau marvel: from the squat street-level Doric columns, fairly bulging from the weight of the masonry walls above, to the colossal multistory copper mansard, six floors up.”

The solid-looking structure was originally intended for a printing firm; however it soon became the headquarters for Butler Brothers, one of the first mail-order catalogue companies in the United States. In the 1870’s the three Butler Brothers – Edward, George and Charles – started their business selling wholesale merchandise to retail stores across the country. Expanding to New York in 1880, the firm was selling to about 100,000 customers when it moved into The New Era Building.

In the final days of World War I, Butler Brothers made headlines when it refused to accept shipment of German-made toys and china shipped through Holland without notice; even though the goods had been paid for prior to the declaration of war years earlier.

“America does not need German-made goods and Butler Brother will in no way encourage the German propaganda designed to place German-made goods back in the American market,” said company vice-president Walter Scott. Speaking in October of 1918 he added “Butler Brothers feel that the American children should have American-made toys. They are therefore willing to accept any loss which may be occasioned by their refusal of this shipment, because they feel it will help to keep German-made goods out of this market.”


In 1927 the firm launched a string of franchised variety stores under the name Ben Franklin Stores. That same year fire raged through the New Era Building. On December 20 The New York Times reported that “Damage of $1,000,000 was wrought by the fire which early yesterday morning swept through the building at 495-497 Broadway, occupied by Butler Brothers, wholesale dealers in general merchandise, and came perilously close to injuring several companies of firemen.”

The fire had burned for two hours before smoke was detected and an alarm set off. Sections of floors fell through and no fewer than seventy firemen were necessary to fight the blaze.

After more than a century since its construction, The New Era Building looks remarkably as it did in 1898 and, as it did then, commands the attention of the most casual passer-by. The thick street-level columns, the bold, confident stone arches at the sixth floor, and the outstanding copper mansard make the New Era Building a one-of-a-kind treasure.




non-credited photographs taken by the author

2 comments:

  1. I think you are confusing two buildings. According to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the New Era Building is by Alfred Zucker in 1893.

    491 Broadway, next door, is the 1897 (or 98?) Buchman & Deisler building.

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    1. no confusion -- as least not a great deal. Although the LPC cites Zucker as the architect, almost every other source gives credit to Buchman & Deisler for The New Era Building, including the Architectural Institute of America.

      Why there is a question regarding a substantial building like this as much a mystery.

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