Friday, February 3, 2012

"Crooked Work" and a Shoot-Out -- The Castree Building - 121 Hudson Street

photo by Alice Lum
Three-year old John Castree was brought to New York by relatives from County Tyrone, Ireland in 1814.  Castree’s mother intended to follow soon after, but died before the intended voyage.  It would be twelve or fifteen years before the boy’s father arrived.

John was enrolled in the public schools, but left while still very young to work in the grocery store of his prosperous uncle, James Beatty.  Before long he had his own business and at the age of 25 was wealthy enough to move into a fine home at No. 121 Hudson Street in 1836, near fashionable St. John’s Park.

By now John Castree was less involved in the grocery trade than in insurance, real estate and banking.  He was not only a stockholder in some of the leading firms, but was a director in several of them.  By the 1880s he was president of the Irving Savings Institution, a member of the Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, and of the Mercantile Exchange.

Other changes had come about by this time, as well.  The once-elegant St. John’s Park neighborhood was now home to warehouses and freight yards.     The blocks directly surrounding Castree’s former home had become, coincidentally, the center of the wholesale grocery trade.    And yet Castree not only still owned No. 121 Hudson, but he had bought up significant property in the neighborhood.

 In 1888 Castree hired esteemed architect Thomas R. Jackson to design a warehouse building across the street from his old home, at Nos. 117-119 Hudson Street.

John Castree died a year later, in 1889.  His estate commissioned Jackson, again, to design a warehouse building to replace the three brick structures at the corner of Hudson and North Moore Streets, including No. 121 Hudson.
Jackson's earlier commission for Castree, directly across the street (above), was a near match -- photo by Alice Lum
Completed in 1891, the new building was a near-copy of the earlier structure.   Inspired by the popular Romanesque Revival movement at the time, Jackson created a utilitarian warehouse with handsome elements:  arched three-story arcades at the upper level; robust brick piers with ornate, garlanded capitals; and a cornice of brick corbels.  Separating the third and fourth floors, a continuous granite frieze announces the name CASTREE BUILDING on both elevations.

Jackson used cast iron, manufactured by the J. B. & J. M. Cornell foundry, for the heavily-used street level with its loading bays.  Despite the near-industrial use, the first floor boasted attractive proportions and handsome glass transoms.

Boldly carved lettering announced the name of the building -- photo by Alice Lum
The lease on the impressive new warehouse was signed immediately by the respected wholesale grocers, C. Burkhalter & Co.  It would not be a long-term lease, as things turned out.

Shortly after moving in, the firm purchased an unusually large among of food products.  Then, in October of 1892, it declared bankruptcy, listing $600,000 in liabilities; about $150,000 more than the company’s assets.   Upon investigation, it was found that the large stock of products recently purchased had disappeared.

“Crooked work was charged,” said The New York Times, “and the creditors combined to find out the whereabouts of their property.”

C. Burkhalter & Co., was dissolved and its president, Charles Burkhalter, disgraced by the scandal.

Burkhalter & Co. was followed quickly at No. 121 Hudson Street by another wholesale grocer, Seeman  Brothers.   Run by brothers Joseph, Stanley and Sigel W. Seeman, the dealers were among the largest in the city. 

Crates and boxes piled high on the sidewalks along the loading docks of the warehouses along Hudson and North Moore Streets.   In 1901 Policeman Joseph E. Burke of the Leonard Street Station complained to the Seeman Brothers management that he had torn his jacket on one of their crates and demanded $22.50 to replace it.   The brothers bulked at the extortion until Burke compromised at $10.

Word of the policeman’s actions reached the station house and Captain Stephen O’Brien accused him of taking an old, worn jacket to the grocers in order to pretend his jacket had been ripped.   The Seeman warehouse was not even on the patrolman’s beat.

In the end the matter came before the deputy commissioner and Burke was fined a month’s pay for violating departmental regulations.

Seeman  Brothers managed to run its business quietly, with little unwelcome press.  One exception came on November 3, 1911 when the Department of Agriculture seized and condemned 734 cases of tomato pulp.    The department contended that the product was adulterated, “for the reason that it consisted in whole or in part of a filthy and decomposed vegetable substance.”

The embarrassing situation would be a rare black mark on the record of the highly-respected food purveyor.

The firm made news again in 1920 when a blizzard struck New York City.  When the Street Cleaning Department was slow to clear the streets in the warehouse district, Seeman Brothers joined other firms in putting 2,000 workers to work for eight hours shoveling.   If the companies hoped to make a statement against the Street Cleaning Department’s lack of efficiency, it did not work.

Mayor Hylan, instead, complimented the merchants and urged people to form block parties to remove snow.   “The people during the Summer time have block parties and enjoy themselves immensely,” he said.  “Many people have snow parties and have a great deal of fun.  If the people will get together in their blocks, have a snow party and open up a passage way through the street so that the fire apparatus can get through in case of fire, they will get a whole lot of fun out of it…I would also suggest that the gutters and sidewalks be cleaned.”

Three years later Seeman Brothers witnessed a scene that could have been taken from an Elliot Ness gangster story.   On Friday, February 16, 1923, bank messenger William Buck prepared to carry the Seeman Brothers payroll across the street from the Pacific Bank at No. 122 Hudson.  The armed security guard, Robert Johnson accompanied him.  The pair made the trip across the street with more than $9000 in cash every week.

Around 2:00 Buck wrapped the money in plain brown paper and tucked it under his arm.  The two men crossed Hudson Street and headed for the elevator.  But they were being watched.

As cars and trucks bounced along the stone pavement, an idling automobile with its driver inside sat outside of No. 121 Hudson Street.  Three young men in caps were casually chatting in front of the freight elevator.   They watched as the driver in the car gave them the signal that the payroll was on its way.

As Buck and Johnson exited the passenger elevator into the hallway to the cashier’s office, the three men rushed from the freight elevator with revolvers exposed.   When the bank employees put up a fight, the robbers shot.

As Seeman employees rushed into the hallway, a gunfight ensued between the robbers, who now had the cash, and the bank employees.   The three men escaped down the freight elevator and into the waiting car.

Despite the crowds of pedestrians, workers and vehicles, the gunfire continued as the car drove away.  “Both men sent a dozen shots at the automobile, and the escaping robbers responded with a volley,” reported The Times.

Sigel W. Seeman, director of the firm, died in 1931.  Before the decade was over, none of the brothers remained in the company.  

In 1942, when Silvan L. Stix was president, the company initiated an astoundingly early example of computer accounting.    Seeman Brothers hired fifteen men to do a break-down analysis of items, quantities, price and class of trade.  The statistics were tabulated through “electrical bookkeeping machines on 75,000 hole-punched cards.” 

At a time when few companies used technology more advanced that hand-cranked adding machines, Seeman Brothers was at least a decade ahead of its time.

Seeman Brothers immense success in the whole grocery industry resulted in its filling nearly the entire length of North Moore Street from Hudson Street to Greenwich Street by mid-century.  By the 1960s, however, the company was gone.  Warren Fastenings Corporation would occupy the building for a time afterward.

And then towards the end of the 20th century, Tribeca was discovered.  Celebrities like Robert DeNiro moved in, restaurants replaced loading docks and wealthy New Yorkers transformed factory space into luxury residences.  And so it would be for No. 121 Hudson Street.

In 1999 it became part of the $35 million renovation that would join the Castree Building with the three warehouse running down North Moore Street.  The result would be a 125,000 square-foot condominium.

Real estate investment firm Greystone & Company hired New York firm Meltzer/Mandl Architects to design the renovation.  Meltzer/Mandl calls the resultant project a “faithful restoration” of the buildings’ exteriors.

Indeed, the Castree Building, sitting squarely on the site of John Castree’s Federal residence, is pristine and attractive once again.

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