Thursday, November 24, 2011

The 1896 No. 832 Broadway -- Road Gangs, Neckties and Communists

The decorative elements of 832 Broadway bear a marked resemblance to Louis Korn's 91-93 Fifth Avenue -- photo by Alice Lum
As the 19th century drew to a close the blocks on Broadway just above Grace Church saw dignified old mansions razed for commercial buildings.  On September 28, 1895 Jacob Hirsch purchased the two lots at 832 and 834 Broadway, only to resell them a month later “at a profit” to a builder.

By the next summer the existing structures had been demolished and the foundation for a large, speculative loft building was being excavated.  Jacob Zimmerman was the contractor.

When Zimmerman’s crew reported to work on Monday June 16, 1896, they noticed that the severe rainstorm of the night before had washed out the earthen walls and undermined the sidewalk.   Later in the morning, several workmen and three passersby were on the sidewalk when it collapsed, plummeting them all ten feet down into the job site along with a row of planking.  Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.

Despite the incident, the building was completed within a year.  Ten stories tall, it was an elaborately decorated brick and limestone structure, much in the style of architect Louis Korn.   Carved swags, urns, and classical designs embellished the pilasters, spandrels and sections between floors.  The classical treatment of the two entrance doors flanking the retail space were reflected similar framing and pediments of the two balconied windows of the fifth floor.

photo by Alice Lum
Beneath the overhanging copper cornice were five large carved torches at the tenth floor, symbols of learning and education.

Torches, often used as symbols of learning, decorate the 10th Floor - photo by Alice Lum

If the torches were added in anticipation of publishing firms moving in to the building, it was not to happen.  Among the variety of firms to lease here, most were clothing manufacturers.  One of the first, in 1897, was the Improved Elastic Truss Company, whose advertisements asked “Why will you continue to suffer when we can relieve and cure you?”
 
Bauman & Sperling, makers of cloaks, employed several hundred workers here in 1898.

By the turn of the century the tenants were somewhat more diverse.   Although, in 1907, apparel manufacturers like Lewine Brothers which made neckwear were still represented, other industries were leasing space.  Murphy & Ronan were makers of wagons, Max Kurzrok ran his real estate business here and the Decorative Plant Company, as the name suggests, manufactured artificial plants.

One of the more interesting tenants was the National Free Labor Association which had offices here for several years.  While the name suggests a labor union or Socialist organization, the association instead lobbied hard for state's use of free convict labor, especially to construct roads.

Its first publication issued from No. 832 Broadway in 1913 was entitled “Road Making by Convict Labor.”  A year later a 50-page bulletin was issued including an article by Julian Leavitt titled “Good Roads and Better Men.”   Leavitt insisted that road gangs would not only enhance the public transportation system, but would be good for the convicts.

“We have scarcely begun to realize that in our 1,400 prison houses we have stored the labor power of 100,000 men and boys, truly an army of liberation if only applied to good purpose,” he said. "I have shown elsewhere how this great mass of human energy is permitted to degenerate in the cell until it poisons not only the immediate victim, but the rest o society.”

The association’s efforts were not in vain.  The road gang was a common method of road building for decades, especially in Southern states.

Throughout the next decades the building would be home to assorted apparel manufacturers; The Big Four Manufacturing Company, Goldstein & Levy, and Ashland Textile among them.

By the time Hearn Broadway Builders, Inc. sold No. 832 Broadway in July 1949 to the Rorgan Realty Corporation the building had been combined with the 11-story building next door at No. 830 Broadway.

When Max B. Cane bought in 1956 it was already home to a Communist printing house.  New Century Publishers were here, called the “official Communist publishing house,” and publishers of The Daily Worker.   When the Internal Revenue Service seized books and manuscripts from their offices in the Spring of 1956, the Communist party sued in Federal Court for their return.

In support, another Communist organization, the “Independent Emergency Committee for a Free Press,” set up offices at No. 832 to organize fund-raising efforts.  The committee denounced the seizure as “a tyrannical and illegal act.”

It may have all been too much for Max Cane, for within a year he sold the building to a group of investors.

The New Century Publishers remained in the building into the 1960s, co-existing with garment and accessory manufacturers.

In 1982 No. 832 Broadway was converted to luxury cooperative apartments, one per floor.   Where neckties and trusses were once made and a Communist newspaper was printed, now wealthy residents enjoy 4,500 square foot living spaces.

photo by Alice Lum
The sumptuous fa├žade of No. 832 Broadway, including the street level, has been well-preserved; part of the architectural feast along this stretch of Broadway.

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