Friday, December 9, 2011

"Cast Iron Grandeur" -- Nos. 47-49 Worth Street

photo by Alice Lum
By 1860 builders had recognized that cast iron facades were practical and economical.    As structures using the revolutionary process were appearing throughout the downtown area, cast iron was being praised for its fire-proof qualities and versatility.  Construction time was greatly reduced, as well.

It was around this time that the loft and commercial building at Nos. 47-49 Worth Street was erected. Five stories tall, its handsome Anglo-Italian façade became slightly less ornamented with each successive floor.  The commercial space at street level was marked by six deep arches supported by fluted Corinthian columns.    At the second floor, above a bracketed cornice, smaller versions mimicked the openings below with less elaborate columns and a balustrade at the center windows pretending to be a balcony. 

The overall result was a stately and exceptionally handsome building for the bustling neighborhood of dry goods merchants and small manufacturers.    By the time William Watson purchased the building in June of 1871 the area was filling with dry goods manufacturers and sellers.

The cast iron facade was carefully designed to mimic its masonry neighbors with rusticated side piers, "carved" bases to the columns and an attractive balustrade beneath the center windows. -- photo Alice Lum
Robert C. Watson was the son of William Watson.  By 1873 he and his partner J. M. C. Batholow moved their business into the building.  Watson & Bartholow were dry goods commission merchants.  Wool merchants Stevens, Sandford & Handy would lease space before the decade was up.

The importance of the address in the dry goods industry was evident when, on April 23, 1881, the National Knit Goods Association held a general meeting in the private offices of Lawrence & Co. here.  The group met to incite “prompt and concerted action” in regard to the threat of a new revenue law that the association deemed a “peril to the knit goods trade.”

Throughout the 1880s and 1890 the tenant list included dry goods firms:  John C. Firman; Case, Leland & Co.; S. Slater & Sons and James W. Good, Jr., “salesman of cloths,” among them.  In 1898 woolen merchant Jacob J. Wallenstein whose offices were here caught the attention of the press when he appeared in the Yorkville Civil Court.

According to the New York Sun, Wallenstein’s wife had a gown made by Blum & Rubenoff, a tailor shop on Lexington Avenue near 58th Street.   The dress did not fit.   Mrs. Wallenstein took it back for alterations.

It still did not fit.

After his wife’s sixth trip to the tailors still resulted in an ill-fitting gown, Wallenstein refused to pay the $55 charge for making the dress and was sued.

Justice McKeen deemed the best way to judge the case was to see the garment on the defendant’s wife.  “I’ve had a little experience myself with female wearing apparel,” he said.  Mrs. Wallenstein changed into the gown in the judge’s private chambers while an officer stood guard.

When she reappeared, the judge agreed that “It is a poor fit.  The cloak is drawn too tightly on one side and bag.”   Mrs. Wallenstein interrupted.  “But it isn’t a cloak, your Honor.  It is a jacket.” 

 The case was decided in favor of Wallenstein.

S. Slater & Sons, who were listed in the building by 1897 were still here in 1906.  The firm that earlier advertised “broadcloths, kerseys, tricots, cheviots, diagonals, thibets, crepes, doeskins and flannels” now adapted to modern times.  With the arrival of automobiles, Slater & Sons was manufacturing “motor car tops.”

Stevens, Sanford & Handy, who were in the building in 1880 were still here in 1909, now known as Stevens, Sanford, Cushman & Jordan, and still selling “worsteds, woolens, dress goods and cottons.”   The well-known textile converting firm of Leo H. Oppenheimer Company ran its business from here in the 1930s.

A major change came when, in 1945, Chicopee Mills took over the top three floors, making significant alterations for its headquarters.  The company was highly successful and its forward-thinking management kept the firm in pace with the changing times.  In 1948 Chicopee branched out from fabrics to introduce window and door screens of “woven saran” which it called “Lumite.”

The Lumite division was directly across the street in No. 40 Worth Street; but in August 1952 Chicopee Mills purchased No. 47-49 and began alterations so the textile offices and Lumite division could be consolidated.

Two years later, always adapting, the company was producing Chux Disposable Diapers.    Disposable diapers at the time were a revolutionary concept and it would be decades before fabric diapers and offensive smelling diaper bins would be considered relics.

The fabric industry, along with the apparel district, had moved northward by the second half of the century, leaving Chicopee Mills behind.   On July 5, 1965 The New York Times reported that “Chicopee is the last major textile concern to leave Worth Street, which had been the industry’s headquarters for nearly 100 years until the nineteen-fifties.”

Chicopee leased three full floors of 1450 Broadway, at 41st Street, around 40,000 square feet.

A year later the New York Law School purchased Nos. 47-49 Worth Street.   The school used the building for various purposes, renovating the former loft and offices spaces.  In 1969 the AIA Guide to New York City lamented that 47 Worth Street stood as a “victim of ‘colonializing’ by an innocent admirer of history who, unfortunately, misunderstands architecture.”

In 2009, however, the building was extensively renovated and restored.    Although wide plate glass windows replace the mullioned originals, the AIA Guide was pleased, saying in 2010 that the restoration brought it back “to its Corinthian columned cast-iron grandeur.”


  1. There are a couple of minor errors in the article.

    In the paragraph before last: "A year later the New York University Law School purchased Nos. 47-49 Worth Street." The property was purchased by New York Law School, an independent school not affiliated with NYU.

    In the last paragraph: "the building was extensively renovated and restored; now housing the Law School Bookstore on the first floor." The school bookstore is located on the ground floor of 40 Worth, across the street from 47.

    1. Thanks for the clarifications. Those details are now corrected.