Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Marble Goddesses at Nos. 542-544 Broadway

In 1864, as the Civil War still raged in the South, the stretch of Broadway from Broome Street to Prince Street was perhaps the most exclusive business district in New York.  Ten years earlier the magnificent white marble St. Nicholas Hotel—touted by some as the most glorious hotel in the world—opened on the opposite side of the avenue, one block south.  Commercial buildings that reflected the high-tone nature of the neighborhood rose; many with street level shops meant to attract the hotel’s wealthy clientele.

One such building was erected at Nos. 542 and 544 Broadway that year.   At the owner’s direction, the now-unknown architect pulled out all the stops.  Six stories high, its white marble fa├žade gleamed in the sunlight.  Paired, recessed windows graced by slender colunettes were separated by rusticated piers.  Corinthian columns supported a cornice at each level and above it all, five classical urns served as finials to the carved, scrolled brackets of the cornice.
Three of the original cornice urns have been lost over time.
It was the sixth floor, however, that made this building exceptional among its neighbors.  Here three marble statues of Roman goddesses – Panaceia, Athena and Ceres—stand on paneled blocks.  The sculptures stare imperially across Broadway.  And because their heads clearly do not touch the cornice brackets above them, they politely decline to do the work of caryatids; preferring to be art.
photo by Alice Lum
Among the first tenants were the makers of Hoff’s Malt Extract a “beverage of health.”   In 1867 the company’s advertisements in the New York Medical Journal directed patrons to the store “opposite Barnum’s Museum.”    The tonic’s astounding properties were flaunted as “analeptic, tonic, bitter, slightly exciting and diuretic.”

Reportedly Dr. Larcrau, first physician of the Military Hospital Val-de-Grace in Paris, advised the French Minister of War, “It is invaluable to have at one’s disposal a remedy more nourishing than tisane and less exciting than wine.”   The manufacturer’s advertisement added “Its use is efficacious in the atony of the digestive organs, dyspepsia, gastralgia, chlorosis, rachetis, acrofula, etc.”

The panacea also had “anti-aphrodisiac properties.”
Panaceia and Athena stand gracefully on their paneled marble pedestals -- photo by Alice Lum
By 1882 the street level store became home to Near & Gardner, well-known booksellers and stationers.  Henry Kollock’s guidebook, “The State of New York,” suggested the store to tourists as a place where they could “most readily obtain the weekly and monthly magazines, and seaside libraries…We know of no better place than Messrs. Near & Gardner’s store…both for its attractiveness and its cheapness, also for its locality, being directly opposite the best hotels in the city.”

Kollock described the new store as “completely filled with new goods of the above class.  We would like to say an additional word about the five cent music.  It is the same in size and quality of paper as what we used to pay twenty-five and fifty cents for, just as easy to read at the piano and organ, as the old style.”

Meanwhile, the upper floors held small factories and offices.  The American Express Company opened a branch office of its express package service here in 1871 and would remain past the turn of the century.

In 1884 Frank Seaman was publishing his Dio Lewis’s Monthly here.  The periodical prompted the Normal Teacher & Examiner to praise “Dio Lewis’s Monthly is the grandest Magazine we have ever seen.”  In 1886 both Marsh Brothers, manufacturers of trusses, and L. Sinsheimer, tobacconist, had offices in the building.  That year the successful Sinsheimer commissioned Schwarzman & Buchman to design a five-story brick cigar factory uptown at 100th Street and 3rd Avenue.

By 1889 the upper floors were mostly filled with dry goods and apparel merchants.  On the 5th floor was Louis Kaelter, a fur manufacturer.  Other firms were The Strong Pants Manufacturing Company; Felix S. Krotz & Co., dress goods; and Brown, Draper & Co., who dealt in woolens.    

On December 3, around 7:40 in the evening, a blaze broke out in the Kaelter’s fur company.  The highly flammable contents of the building created what The New York Times called a “lively fire.”

Eventually, the stubborn blaze was extinguished; but not before Kaelter suffered what would amount to about a quarter of a million dollars in loss by today’s standards and the firms below suffered serious water damage.

At the turn of the century, although commerce was moving northward and the grand St. Nicholas Hotel had been razed, the area still supported fashionable business.  The ground floor of No. 542 Broadway was home to Bernard Rice’s Sons, manufacturers and wholesale sellers of jewelry and silver goods with its own factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

In 1902 The Jewelers’ Circular made note of some of Rice’s high-end goods.  “Their new ‘Riceszinn’ offers a variety of designs in mugs, steins, vases, etc., having a soft, dull finish, and suitable for dining room decorations and practical uses.  Vases, decanters, liquer [sic] sets and like articles of iridescent glass, mounted with this ware, make very effective pieces.  Another line that is having a good sale is of silver plate in the ‘Butler’ finish; this resembles somewhat in appearance the ‘zinn’ wares, and comes in many beautiful pieces, as trays, cups, smoker’s sets, vases, etc.”

A year earlier Bailey Restaurant had opened a small branch in the building, sharing street level with Rice’s Brothers.  The popular Bailey chain now totaled six restaurants throughout Manhattan; but its move into the classy building at No. 542 Broadway would prove to be a mistake.

By 1903 the entire chain of restaurants went bankrupt due to the high rent paid for the Broadway location.  Henry R. Willis, attorney for the Bailey Restaurant Company said “the embarrassment of the company was due to the heavy rental of the restaurant at 542 Broadway, which is $9,000 a year.  The place, which was opened in November 1901, did not pay, and the landlord refused to cancel the lease.”

In the meantime, dry goods companies continued to lease space in the upper floors as the neighborhood changed.  In 1904 Daniel Strauss ran his chiffons factory here.

The building underwent a series of quick turnovers in 1909 when Philip Livingston sold it in January to the Fort Washington Syndicate.  The firm quickly resold it in March to Max Wolf.

On August 26, 1913 Harriet Cohen, a stenographer for the Standard Steam Specialty Company here was jailed in the Tombs where she would wait for more than two weeks to see a judge; spending “most of her days weeping,” according to a reporter.    Harriet was “an unusually efficient employee and commanded a good salary.”  But Harriet “craved luxuries which were inconsistent with her income,” according to The New York Times.  “She was fond of the opera, it was learned, and wanted costly clothes.  She entertained frequently, taking her friends in automobiles to fashionable restaurants.”

The newspaper reported that “because she longed for luxuries which her salary as a stenographer was not sufficient to buy,” she was “led astray.”  By “led astray,” The Times meant that she had forged $9,000 in checks against her employer.

At her hearing before Judge Crain in General Sessions, a character witness appeared.  Catherine Bement Davis testified that “she did not believe that Miss Cohen was a criminal in the true sense of the word.”  As head of the Bedford Reformatory, Miss Davis knew Harriet because she had been sent there three years earlier for forgery.

Apparently Harriet Cohen’s love for the opera and costly clothes stretched back a few years.

As the 20th century ground on, Broadway in the Spring Street neighborhood was no longer the stylish area of the 1860s.  The building was foreclosed in 1938 and sold by the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank to Philip Kunick, president of 542 Broadway, Inc.  By now the building was “in the center of the dry goods district,” as The Times put it and the Mutual Suspender Company was doing business here.

It was about this time that the first two floors were stripped of their white marble and Corinthian columns and given an industrial, pseudo-modern makeover.
A mid-20th century makeover stripped the marble facade from the first two floors.
The Soho neighborhood underwent a serious period of neglect before being rediscovered in the late 20th century.  Then artists began filling the vast loft spaces, attracted by the ample light and cheap rents.  Galleries appeared in cast iron warehouses and trendy shops took over retail spaces.

In 1981 No. 542-544 Broadway, from the second floor upward, was converted to “joint living work quarters for artists in residence.”    Today a clothing store occupies the street level where Rice’s Brothers once sold silver-plated smoker’s sets, and suspender and pants factories are now chic apartments.

photo by Alice Lum
And above it all, three marble maidens—silent witnesses to nearly 150 years of New York history--stare aloofly across Broadway.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

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