|The new Silk Exchange Building at 487 Broadway gleams amid its brooding neighbors-- photo NYPL Collection|
Here, at the southeast corner of Broadway and Broome Street in the center of the silk district, wealthy developer John Townsend Williams began work on a loft and office building in 1894. While the Broadway exposure was an expected 28 feet wide, the plot stretched 200 feet back to Mercer Street along Broome. Williams understood that the long, narrow site would require careful designing.
The busy John T. Williams not only was a real estate developer, but he acted as his own architect and contractor. Collaborating with William Birkmire, he had already begun work on the Central Bank Building when he purchased this property, and would be simultaneously designing and constructing Lord’s Court, another early skyscraper.
While critics would later pooh-pooh the design of Lord’s Court as “rather plain,” they would have no such complaint regarding No. 487 Broadway. Completed two years later, it was a “modern twelve-story structure,” according to The New York Times. Williams used limestone, buff-colored brick and terra cotta to create an airy and attractive sliver of a building that stood out in stark contrast to its neighbors.
Williams accentuated the tall, narrow Broadway façade by collecting the fourth through tenth floor window as a tall central arch. Massive brick corner pilasters rose six stories to support the base of the arched windows and decorative spandrels. In explosive contrast to the relatively undecorated limestone base, the upper floors were lavished with intricate terra cotta ornamentation.
|Deeply cast terra cotta capitals and swirling sprandrel designs added to the riotous decoration -- photo by Alice Lum|
Three entrances—on Broadway, Broome and Mercer—provided convenient access to tenants and clients alike.
The completed building quickly filled with tenants, many of them in the silk industry. Among these were the Phoenix Silk Manufacturing Company, Cheney Brothers, William Ryle & Co., Nonotuck Silk Company, Belding Brothers’ Company, Sauguoil Silk Manufacturing Company, William Schroeder & Co., Liberty Silk Company, W. Guerin et Fils, Pelgram & Meyer and E. Geili & Co.
|Even the copper cornice brackets drip with ornament -- photo by Alice Lum|
In 1899 Williams offered the building for sale. Several potential buyers negotiated for the up-to-the-minute office building, but it was James B. Haggin who won out. Haggin, whom The Times referred to as “the Western millionaire,” paid Williams $850,000 for the building. The Evening Post called the sale “one of the best transactions effected in a long time.”
|The exuberant ornamentation has caused the building to be called "wedding cake-like" -- photo by Alice Lum|
Although on January 23, 1910 The New York Times remarked that the building was “in the heart of the silk trade; which shows no disposition to change;” that change was indeed coming.
|The Broome Street facade -- photo by Alice Lum|
That same year, as the silk district inched further uptown, rumors began circulating that the Silk Association of America would abandon its headquarters in the building. Although the association secretary Ramsey Peugnet denied the stories, the group met on July 8 to “determine the feeling of the trade down town regarding the advisability of joining the uptown movement that has become so general within the last year or so,” according to reporters.
The Times noted that “For a considerable period the Silk Exchange Building has been the centre of the old silk market, and has also housed the Silk Association. It still contains the New York offices of several out-of-town concerns, but in view of the gradual uptown trend of the trade it is believe that a building more centrally located would offer these offices to better advantage.”
|photo by Alice Lum|
Yet even without its namesake industry, the building continued to attract tenants. In the 1920 Henry S. Bragdon, formerly of 115 Worth Street, moved his offices here as did Roebuck Manufacturing, makers of wire screens. The next year Newman Clock Company, manufacturers of “portable recorders and keystations” – in short, time clocks.
Casket, an industry trade magazine was published here during the 1930s and by 1938 the Banco Di Sicilia Trust Company was here.
The Soho neighborhood grew gritty and neglected. By the 1960s and ‘70s the intricate structures along Broadway were grime-covered and cast iron facades stood rusting away. But a Renaissance soon occurred that saw the restoration of the century-old buildings and their renovation into trendy new stores and residential spaces.
In 1985 No. 487 Broadway, now known as the Haggin Building, was converted into 25 residential units. Today residents of what the Department of Buildings called “joint living work quarters for artists” live where deals for “thrown silk” and exotic neckwear were once made.