Saturday, December 24, 2011

The 1876 David S. Brown Soap Store Building -- No. 8 Thomas Street

photo by Alice Lum
The young Jarvis Morgan Slade learned his trade in the architectural offices of Edward H. Kendall. After opening his own business at 346 Broadway, the highly-talented Slade began making his mark on New York architecture.

In 1875 the 23-year old architect was given the commission by the New York Real Estate Association to design a store and loft building for the successful soap manufacturer, David S. Brown. The Association, organized by textile merchants to insure that the textile district remained intact, had recently purchased the former grounds of the New York Hospital.  The proposed David S. Brown store would stand here on the newly-extended Thomas Street.

The soap company had been doing business since 1808 and, while not a national brand, did extensive business throughout New York and its neighboring states. The firm produced a range of products from “Blizzard Soap,” a laundry flake; “David’s Prize Soap,” a toilet soap; and “Brown’s Barber Soap,” a shaving soap used in the ubiquitous shaving mugs in barber shops and homes.

By the time Slade began designing the new store, David S. Brown had two factories, on First Avenue and on Chrystie Street, a retail space at 299 Broadway and headquarters on Peck Slip.

The design includes diagonally-laid brickwork and a Venetian-inspired arcade--photo by Alice Lum 
Completed in 1876, the young architect’s soap store building is a Victorian delight. The influence of contemporaries such as Jacob Wrey Mould—responsible for much of Central Park’s fanciful architecture—Charles Eastlake and John Ruskin, combined with Slade’s own remarkable flair, resulted in a colorful Victorian Gothic treasure. Polished granite columns, a cast iron base, Venetian arches, carved sandstone and intricate brickwork were combined into the romantic design. A slate-tiled mansard roof was fronted with a steep brick gable with a large, round window framed by radiating stones of alternate shades.

photo by Alice Lum
The romantic and lively building was no doubt influential in Slade’s receiving many subsequent commissions. Tragically, within seven years the promising architect would be dead at the age of 30.

David S. Brown & Co. owed its success not merely to a good product, but to masterful marketing. In 1888 when the city of Albany, New York, celebrated its bi-centennial the company took advantage of the potential publicity.  Anthony Bleecker Banks remembered in his “Historical Memoirs,” printed that same year, “David S. Brown & Co., of New York, manufacturers of satin gloss soap, had a very large and costly covered wagon that was a perfect gem.  During the procession samples of the soap were thrown among the crowd and eagerly grabbed by the hoodlums, who, as a member of the Bi-centennial committee suggested, certainly needed a little soaping.”

At just 23 years old, the architect melded various materials into a masterful whole; causing us to wonder what would have come from his drafting board if he had not died so early -- photo by Alice Lum
Current Advertising, in 1897, remarked that the company did no magazine advertising, “Yet, these people have one of the largest and most profitable soap manufacturing businesses in the country.” The secret, according to the magazine, was premiums.

“They were the originators of the plan of giving away premiums for the return of soap wrappers or trademarks, and they give away almost everything you can think of in the line of jewelry, silverware, watches, clocks and the like.”

Especially successful were children’s books offered for free, which were “gaily colored and profusely illustrated.” Along with familiar rhymes and fairy tales, revamped to work the soap products into the stories, were promises of tantalizing toys available for soap wrappers.

“Young folks have a way of getting what they go after and if they have to have soap wrappers in order to get what they want there is not likely to be peace in the household until that particular brand of soap is used exclusively,” noted Current Advertising.

When Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were a main subject of conversation, David S. Brown quickly produced its Rough Rider Soap to capitalize on the craze.

By 1898 David S. Brown was gone from No. 8 Thomas Street and the wholesale woolen merchants W. S. Taylor & Bloodgood was doing business here.  The neighborhood was still primarily home to textile firms. A decade later, in 1908, George R. Gibson Co., manufacturers of “faultless canvas roofing,” moved in, above the Café Renel which was now on the ground floor.

The ground floor, where David S. Brown soap products had been displayed, became a French cafe -- photo by Alice Lum
The day after Christmas in 1910, the Bustanoby brothers—Andre, Jacques, Pierre and Louis—announced their intentions to install a quaint French cafe where bars of soap were once sold. The brothers, who were born in the Basque country of France, already owned three restaurants, including the Café des Beaux Arts on West 40th Street and the Chateau des Beaux Arts in Huntington, Long Island. They had made a mark in the restaurant and entertainment world serving haute cuisine and featuring singers like Lillian Russell.

Having purchased the Café Renel, they intended “to fit it up in the style of the old French taverns of the eighteenth century,” according to The New York Times. Pierre Bustanoby said “The guests will sit at old oaken tables, surrounded by great casks of wine.” Some, he reported, “date back to 1789.” The new café would be called the Cabaret des Beaux Arts.

The venture would be short-lived. The brothers had a severe falling out with Louis leaving the business to run the restaurant in the Flatiron Building. He sued his brothers, accusing them of trying to drive him out of the business.

By the end of 1912, the Cabaret des Beaux Arts was no more.

On March 17, 1948 shock waves hit the New York real estate market when former Manhattan Borough President Samuel Levy and real estate mogul Charles F. Noyes purchased nearly three entire downtown blocks from the Society of the New York Hospital.   Included in the sales was No. 8 Thomas Street.

The hospital had owned the land and any buildings erected upon it since the English Crown granted it in 1772.  The two men paid a total of $3.3 million-- the price of a single high-end apartment today--for the three blocks of buildings.  The New York Times announced that the investors intended to add another $1.7 million, since many of the properties "will be reconstructed or improved with a new building."

Luckily, No. 8 Thomas Street was spared.  In 1984 the building was converted to house two floor-through art studios, each with a separate floor for living space; and a ground floor restaurant.

photo by Alice Lum
When the building was converted again in 2007 to condominium residences, a $1.6 million exterior restoration and full interior renovation was conducted by Ashnu International Corp.  Today the remarkable work of Jarvis Morgan Slade, the architect who died too young, remains what the AIA Guide to New York City called “an elaborate confection.”


  1. Another favorite of mine, about which I'd always been curious. Thanks.

  2. Glad to know there's someone else who is as taken with this building as I am. What a beauty!

  3. Very cool building! I love those polished Romanesque columns. I found this especially interesting because, prior to reading this posting, the only Jarvis M. Slade designed building I was aware of was "Castle Rock," the hilltop William Henry Osborn mansion in Garrison, NY. And I never would have guessed those two buildings were both the work of the same architect.