Friday, January 27, 2012

The 1872 Remnants of No. 172 Duane Street

photo by Alice Lum
A century before the area would be called Tribeca, architect, Jacob Weber designed a two-story loft and store building at No. 172 Duane Street. Accounts differ regarding the original purpose – most sources saying it was home to the World Cheese or Weber Cheese company; others putting an importer of rare lumber into the building. In any case, Weber outdid himself on the delightful design.

Construction was begun in 1871 and completed a year later. The cast iron façade did not apologize for its diminutive size. Three robust arches lined up on both floors with the square Corinthian columns of the street level boasting intricate fern-like capitals. Ornate spandrels, egg-and-dart decoration along the spans and a harmonious cornice of repeating arches set the little building apart from its neighbors.

The Duane Street neighborhood was decidedly industrial and by 1891 rag trader Berg & Myers was doing business here. Founded in 1886 by Isadore Berg and Edward N. Myers, the firm handled from 200 to 300 bales of woolen rags a week and by now was employing 25 to 30 full time workers. History and Commerce of New York, 1891, noted that “The premises the firm occupies are large and conveniently located, and afford ample storage capacity.”

Despite the fact that the periodical felt “Both gentlemen are favorably known in business circles, and noted for their upright, liberal and energetic business methods,” the Jewish businessmen ran into troubles.

Duane Street was lined with other Jewish-owned businesses, like Simon Rawitzer’s woolen rag company and Nathan Levy’s soda-water fountain. The men necessarily used the sidewalk to bring goods in and out of their establishments and in 1891 were the victims of extortion.

Three years later Isidor Berg testified before a State Senate Committee that he was frequently threatened with arrest.

“I got tired of being fined, so I spoke to a policeman on the beat about it, and asked him what I could do to avoid trouble. He told me he would send a man to see me.

“The man came around the next day, and said he thought he could arrange matters so I would not be annoyed. I asked him what it would cost, and he said $50 for the year.

“I told him that was too much, and offered $25, and the officer said he’d try it.”

Berg placed the $25 into an envelope as Officer Kelly instructed. “He was very careful to tell me it must be put in an envelope,” testified Berg.

A year later, Berg said, Officer Kelly returned. “He said he had ‘Come to renew the lease.’”

Berg & Myers soon moved on and in 1893 No. 172 Duane was home to Cordley & Hayes. The company would stay on for nearly two decades, selling goods made by Fibrotta Indurated Fiber Ware such as bottle coolers and ice cream freezers.

At the turn of the century it advertised its “Twentieth Century Ice Cream Freezers, which freeze cream without a dash or revolving can, together with Ice Water Receptacles, Rolling Stands for potted plants and many other articles in Fiber Ware.”

In 1907 Cordley & Hayes introduced an improved “XXth Century Bottle Cooler” which was “so shaped as to offer a larger surface to the action of the ice.” The cooler kept the ice from coming in contact with the drinking water and prevented “the evil of immersing ice in drinking water” and thereby contaminating it with “dirt and germs.” Cordley & Hayes assured that the new coolers were “recommended on the score of both health and economy.”

For a short time beginning around 1910 H. W. Covert Co. was here. The company sold fireplace throats and dampers, iron coal windows and other fireplace products.

Then in 1912 William O. Saxton purchased the building from the estate of Mary E. Brinckerhoff. Saxton was the founder and president of Saxton, Co., Inc., a commission merchant. Immediately Johnstone & Coughlan took the lease of No. 172 Duane Street. The company was a commission house which dealt in butter and eggs. In 1912 it boasted “You can’t help but look pleasant if you do business with us.”

The business was run by W. W. Johnstone and F. M. Coughlan and was pronounced by Milk Plan Monthly in 1915 as “one of the most progressive commission houses in the East.”

Although William O. Saxton died of a heart attack on December 14, 1935, Johnstone & Coughlan would remain at No. 172 Duane Street for most of the century.

By the 1990s Tribeca was no longer home to butter and egg dealers or rag traders. Although the second half of the century had been rough on the area – cast iron facades in the 1970s and 80s were rusted and brick buildings were grime-covered—by now trendy restaurants and high-priced residential lofts were replacing industrial space. The Landmarks Preservation Commission was considering the entire section as an historic district.

In 1989 No. 172 Duane Street was slathered in metal advertisements and the cast iron was abused and neglected. The new owner wanted a new, modern space and commissioned world-renowned architect Vincenzo Polsinelli to create it. At the time there were no landmark restrictions on the buildings and restoration or demolition was purely up to the discretion of the owners and designers.

Polsinelli later said that while the façade was in a “sinful state of preservation” he recognized its historic and architectural importance. The façade was dismantled and sent to Utah for restoration.

In the meantime, the 19th century loft was replaced by a sleek glass block-fronted building with no hint of history.

The cast iron facade was impeccably restored in 1991.  When it returned, its building was gone.  -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1991 the impeccably restored façade was set in place, six feet in front of the new building. Called by the Historic Districts Council “nicely designed and detailed to make a small building impressive,” it now served as a gateway. Polsinelli and the building’s owner received wide-spread congratulations for saving the cast iron front and incorporating it into the new design.

Yet preservationists held back a bit. Calling the practice “facadism,” – a term never meant to intimate applause—they mourned the loss of the original structure.

photo by Alice Lum
Alex Herrera of the New York Landmarks Conservancy said “An historic building is an entity. The idea of saving a façade and building an entirely different building behind it has been discredited.”

Hip hop impresario Damon Dash took a long-term lease on the building, labeling it DD172. Here he ran a video agency, web design firm, a magazine and an art gallery until June 2011.

The building’s owner now had new, more ambitious plans. He called back Vincenzo Polsinelli to create a four-story, 8,000-square foot single family residence behind the 140-year old façade. But by now the Tribeca West Historic District was firmly in place and changes required approval.

It was not forthcoming.

The architect is reworking his plans which, as originally designed, would “reduce the historic building to being a pretty little pendant on the large new structure,” as the Historic Districts Council put it.

In the meantime, the exquisite ruins of No. 172 Duane Street sit like a movie set in front of a building with which it has nothing in common.


  1. Thanks for answering some long-standing questions about this curiosity.

  2. You're very welcome ... and thank you for putting the perfect description on this structure that had alluded me: "curiosity"

  3. Yeah, it's a hard one to completely hate, but a difficult one to unreservedly love.

    1. you guys should really talk in private

  4. hallo all, Is this building on sale? O have a customer that saw some documents which said you know anything about this? thanks