Friday, October 28, 2011

The Cast Iron Bennett Building -- 139 Fulton Street

Sidewalk awnings (and a pair outside a top floor office) help shield Summer's heat in the pre-air conditioning era. -- photo NYPL Collection
In 1872 the somewhat eccentric James Gordon Bennett, Jr. was internationally-known as the publisher of the New York Herald; a reputation that had been greatly enhanced a year earlier when he sent reporter Henry M. Stanley into Africa in search of Dr. David Livingstone. His far-reaching and innovative improvements in the newspaper industry made him a fortune – estimates were that he had made over $30 million before his death thirty-one years later in 1913.

Bennett purchased the large plot of land covering the Fulton Street block front from Ann to Nassau Streets and commissioned Arthur D. Gilman to design a large, modern office building for the site. Construction began in 1872 and was completed a year later.

Six stories tall, Gilman’s resulting Bennett Building was a cast iron beauty. The architect used the versatile material at the height of its popularity to create an ornate Second Empire structure with a repeating pattern of windows, columns and cornices at each level. Gilman gently wrapped the corners with a distinguishing curve and topped the whole with a fashionable mansard roof.

While Bennett maintained an office in the 9,000 square foot building, it was built as a speculative investment intended for rental office space. The offices filled quickly with a variety of tenants. In 1876 it housed firms as diverse as Jose Vilar & Co. a manufacturer of cork soles, and C. M. Fisher & Co., which made “gold pens, cases, holders, pencils and tooth-picks.”

Around the time that Bennett was co-founding the international telegraph firm, Commercial Cable Company, in 1893, a drug store owner was just testing the waters of downtown real estate. Although John Pettit had little capital, he recognized the potential of run-down older buildings. Buying small buildings on side streets for little money, he invested in paint, new flooring and doors. Once they were again rentable, he would sell the properties for a small profit.

Before long Pettit was buying some of his buildings entirely on credit. Little by little his rehabilitation of the old structures became more ambitious. Where stairways had been he installed elevators and old storefronts would be completed renovated. Years later The New York Times would say “The changes meant increased rentals, and increased rentals meant the probability of selling out at a profit.”

After a decade of practice, Pettit was ready for his biggest step yet: he would purchase and renovate the cast iron building that bore James Gordon Bennett’s name.

Rather than creating a crisp angle, Gilman wrapped the corner with a gentle curve -- photo by Alice Lum
In its September 1890 issue the printing industry journal Inland Printer reported on the sale, giving the price paid by Pettit as $1 million. The New York Times estimated the cost at more like $625,000, a figure the newspaper said was “about $200,000 less than its value.” Like all of the buildings Pettit bought, the Bennett Building had seen better days.

“That building in its day had been the best of its kind,” noted The Times, “but it had since been left in the rear by the march of improvement. Beside its newer and more modern competitors it looked dwarfed and dingy, and its rent roll was no more attractive than its appearance.”

As always, Pettit went about making improvements. He abhorred structural ornamentation saying it “did not add a dollar to the rent, but did increase the amount of investment.” To this end, he kept an in-house architect and acted as his own contractor. Yet for the Bennett Building he strayed from his philosophy.

Architect James M. Farnsworth was instructed to enlarge the building and make it competitive with newer office buildings. He stripped off the mansard roof and added four floors in seamless imitation of Gilman’s original design; a remarkable example of sympathetic treatment of existing architectural for the time. Inside “swift-running” elevators were installed and the interiors were totally renovated.

Pettit’s renovations cost $200,000; but a second mortgage of $300,000 prevented his spending a dollar of his own money.


Farnsworth's seamless four-floor addition is evident in this 1928 view -- NYPL Collection
With the alterations complete Pettit put the building on the market and in May 1894 a sale was announced. Pettit released the news that Theodore A. Havemeyer purchased the Bennett Building for $1.5 million. The profitable deal fell through, however, and Pettit remained the owner until 1898 when things began getting uncomfortable for the real estate manipulator.

With the upward addition, the repeating pattern of brackets, pilasters ad cornices is hypnotic -- photo by Alice Lum
Pettit’s long string of borrowing was resulting in loans and mortgages coming due and there was no ready cash to satisfy the creditors. In 1898 William Calhoun filed suit against Pettit Realty Company for $1 million.  Referring to Pettit, The Times reported that “His struggle against an increasing flood of indebtedness caused him to incorporate two of his best remaining properties, the Bennett and Beekman buildings…He struggled hard to meet maturing interest and other obligations, and recently the New York Life Insurance Company, as mortgagee, placed a receiver of rents in the Bennett Building.”

Suddenly Pettit disappeared.

With a law suit against him and buildings falling into receivership, John Pettit was gone. In June he left his magnificent estate in East Orange, New Jersey, never to be heard of again. Two months later, in his absence, the Pettit Realty Company sold the Bennett Building to H. B. Sire for about $1.5 million.

The building was in trouble again in 1904 when it was sold under foreclosure to the New York Life Insurance Company for $907,000. “There was practically no competition for the property yesterday and the auction was apparently nothing more than a formality for getting rid of this old mortgage,” reported The Times on April 12.

One of the original entranceways.  Although highly altered, much of the detailing remains -- photo by Alice Lum

The insurance company held the building for two years before selling it to Philadelphia businessman Felix Isman for $1 million; essentially the same price Pettit had paid for it more than a decade earlier. Isman had been actively purchasing and developing Manhattan real estate for about four years.

Later that year his new acquisition caused Isman a headache when Water Register Michael C. Padden discovered an unmetered water pipe in the basement. The City Controller’s Office sent a bill for $2,550 to cover 17 years of unpaid water usage at $150 a year. Isman refused to pay.

The unmetered water pipe was ripped out, upsetting the flow of water to parts of the building. One tenant, in particular, was displeased.

The New York Times reported that it was most inopportune timing “for there is a Turkish bath establishment in the building, and bathers were left in various conditions and tempers. Some were being rubbed dry and couldn’t get moistened up again; some were shaking from the cold water and wanted the hot water turned on, but the ripping out of the pipe had upset the entire waterworks system of the place. Some didn’t want to pay their bills because they had not received all that goes with a Turkish bath. There was confusion all around.”

Isman struck a compromise with the city and a meter was installed on the reinstalled pipe.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century the Bennett Building was used not only for stores and offices, but for small manufacturing. During most of this time it was owned by George B. Wilson and, later, his family. In 1949 it was purchased by Jackadel Associates who brought the structure up to code by moving the south entrance on Nassau Street to sidewalk level, closing the Nassau street entrance and relocating the Ann Street entrance to street level.

In January 1951 it was sold to Harry Shekter of the Dorlen Realty Company who retained ownership for three decades. After taking control of the property in 1983 Haddad & Sons Ltd. Renovated the exterior by replacing the windows of the second floor and adding new storefronts on Fulton and Nassau Streets. It was sold again in 1995 to ENT International in 1995, the year it obtained landmark status.

photo by Alice Lum
Today the massive Bennett Building, the tallest habitable cast-iron fa├žade building ever erected, remains remarkably intact. The Landmarks Preservation Commission called it a “major monument to the art of cast-iron architecture.”

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