Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Gargoyles Above Broadway -- the 1890 No. 716 Broadway


photo by Alice Lum
Broadway curved northward along the western edge of the farmland estate of Elbert Herring in the 18th century.  But with the Revolutionary War’s end and the departure of the British, the fashionable residential district of the city crept further and further up the street, transforming pastureland into chic enclaves of Federal mansions.

When Herring died, his estate was divided among his heirs and Nicholas Herring obtained the section of land bounded by Broadway (then known as Great George Street at this point) east to Lafayette Place.   He quickly sold the land on May 12, 1789 to Anthony L. Bleecker for $812, who divided it into fourteen building lots.

Elisha Bloomer was a hatter on June 1, 1833 when he purchased the two northernmost lots.  The enormous price of $15,600 reflected the changing nature of the area.   Just to the east on Lafayette Place Seth Green had erected the stunning white marble LaGrange Terrace two years earlier.  The nine mansions, designed to appear as a single unit with a long, classic colonnade of Corinthian columns, were the grandest homes outside of London.

Bloomer followed Green’s lead and erected a mini-version of LaGrange Terrace—two identical white marble mansions that shared a deep classical portico supported by immense columns.  Bloomer called the two residences at Nos. 714 and 716 the “Colonnade Houses.”

When the wealthy and prominent Smith Ely purchased No. 714 for $30,000, Bloomer wrote into the contract an agreement that “whereas the two houses are built in such style and manner as to present an entire front of great beauty and elegance, and the marring and defacing or alteration of either might depreciate the value of the other,” neither could be altered without the consent of the neighboring owner.  The “neighboring owner” would be John Moon, who purchased No. 716 in 1836 for the same price.

The "Colonnade Houses," designed to appear as a single structure, lasted less than a century -- NYPL Collection
Moon leased the house for $16,00 a year to Philip Hone who had been the “gentleman mayor” of New York in 1826.

But a serious financial depression forced the foreclosure of both houses in 1841 for $28,000.  No. 716 was purchased by Charles G. Ferris on August 17, 1844 for $16,250—about half of its original price less than a decade earlier.    Ferris was an important attorney and politician and a personal friend of Andrew Jackson who was a frequent guest in the house.  The Ferris family would retain the house until his daughter, Mrs. Caroline F. Lewis died in the mansion around 1887. 

By now the wealthy residents had nearly all moved northward and their mansions were one-by-one being replaced by commercial buildings.  No. 714 had been renovated in 1878 as a commercial building.  At the time, The New York Times lamented that “This property—No. 714 Broadway—has recently passed into the hands of ex-Judge Dittenhoefer, who, finding the structure not available for rent in its present form, has been reluctantly compelled to despoil Broadway of one of its old aesthetic landmarks, by removing the grand old Doric front, and substituting a utilitarian iron one, susceptible of plate-glass windows.”

In not-so-surprising prediction the newspaper said “it is not likely that No. 716 will long outlive the distinction of its twin brother.”

Two years after Caroline Lewis died Jacob and William Scholle purchased the house for $75,500 on May 22, 1889.  The brothers commissioned Prussian-born Alfred Zucker to design a six-story commercial building with retail space on the ground floor.  Zucker outdid himself.

The lower two floors were framed in rough-cut brownstone that gave way to carved, grouped pilasters in offset segments that resemble clusters of bamboo.   Above the fifth floor threatening demons’ heads form the corbels of the decorative cornice.   The monsters are mere introductions, however, to the over-sized gargoyles that stare down from either side of the roof line at the shoppers below.  Between them, a copper panel above a copper-sheathed cornice announces the date of construction.

Menacing gargoyles stare intently down onto Broadway, flanking an unusual copper cornice and parapet -- photo by Alice Lum
The retail space was taken by the firm of Leach, Baird & Meyer.  The store’s large display windows proved too much to resist for a man whom police “believed to be crazy” on September 19, 1894.  The man threw a brick “maliciously,” according to The Evening World, through the window, resulting in his arrest by Policeman McGonnigle.

McGonnigle testified that the vandal “talked a gibberish which he could not understand” as the cop escorted him to the station house.  The following day, in Jefferson Market Police Court, the prisoner refused to identify himself; however Policeman Kennedy recognized him.  The officer related that the previous day, prior to the window-breaking, the man approach him at 6th Avenue and 4th Street, telling him he wanted to die.  The Evening World said that the man then “asked the officer if he wouldn’t die with him.”

Apparently Officer Kennedy thought better of the idea.

Decorative corbels are formed by horned demon heads -- photo by Alice Lum
At the turn of the century the Broadway neighborhood around No. 716 had become the center of the millinery and apparel district.   In February 1901 Indig, Berg & Co., cloakmakers, was here.  The company’s contract with their union employees expired that month and management decided to deal with the employees on a one-to-one basis, disregarding the union.

The workers were locked out as the owners waited for them to come forward to negotiate their pay and benefits outside of the union.  Instead, the workers struck in retaliation.  After a month of no production, Indig, Berg & Co. negotiated a new contract with the union and the cutting and sewing tables were active again.

Also in the building during the first few years of the new century were Samuel Lazarus, “maker of hand-made fancy hats;” David Henly’s Sons, manufacturers and suppliers of artificial flowers and feathers for hats; and the Excelsior Shirt Company of New York.

Isaac Nebenzahl was the manager of Excelsior Shirt Company in 1903 when he suddenly disappeared on May 3.  It was soon discovered that $25,000 had disappeared as well.   The unbelievably self-serving act  left his wife with no financial support and his son, J. Harry Hebenzahl who was secretary of the now-insolvent company, without an income.

The former Chief of the United States Secret Service, A. L. Drummond took up the case and doggedly pursued the embezzler.    The detective tracked him to St. Louis, then to “the City of Mexico,” as The New York Times reported it.  The next trace of Nebenzahl was in Naples, Italy.   Drummond chased him to Vienna where he caught up with the man, but failed to nab him.  Nebenzahl then fled to Munich, Berlin, and finally to Paris.  

Drummond was too late to catch the robber at the Grand Hotel, but he finally captured him at a small Parisian family hotel.  Fleeing from ex-Chief Drummond was a costly venture.  When captured, Nebenzahl had $80 in his possession.

At the same time the Decorative Plant Company was here.  Twenty-nine year old John Simpson was hired as a traveling salesman in 1904.  A year later Simpson returned from a business trip to the South, then left for England in August for a vacation.

The vacation took a tragic turn when Simpson cut his own throat and jumped into the Mersey River in Liverpool.  The suicide attempt was foiled by a policeman who rescued him, after a violent struggle, and transported him to a hospital.

Arthur Siegman took an entire floor in 1907, manufacturing men’s scarves and neckties.  Siegman outfitted his new space with "all the necessary facilities and devices for the prompt, systematic and economical conduct of his business," according to Mercantile and Financial Times.   The firm’s up-to-date accessories were modeled after current French fashions.   The ties were available in multiple color combinations and sold at retail for about 25 cents.

Arthur Siegman offered these three ties in 1908, including the rainbow taffeta four-in-hand.  The ties cost 25 cents.  -- photo Men's Wear 1908 (copyright expired)
Another artificial flower concern was apparently doing very well in 1910 since owner Charles Spilka had absolutely no time to serve jury duty.  He ignored his first summons in February and when he received his second notice, he arrived at court just long enough to leave a pile of letters from “influential men” with the clerk that attested to how busy he was.

Supreme court Justice Goff was unimpressed, however.  Saying he would “tolerate no influence,” he fined Spilka $100 for contempt and $10 costs on February 23 and ordered the flower maker to report to duty for the rest of the term.  The New York Times noted with some consolation that “At the rate of $2 a day he will be able to earn something toward the fine.”

As World War I ended and the Jazz Age took over New York, No. 716 Broadway continued to attract small apparel firms.  Louis N. Cohen was here as well as J. H. Beman.     The retail store was home to Chain Shirt Shops in the 1920s, while upstairs was wholesale clothing firm M. Coleman and Company.  Edward Davidson Coleman, a graduate of Harvard who served in the Bureau of Aircraft Production during the war, not only worked in his family’s business, but lived in the building as well.

At the same time Max Zukow’s clothing factory was here.  Zukow was among a small group of people who got a fright on February 21, 1920 while going to work.  As the elevator rose between the second and third floors, two men suddenly drew revolvers and demanded the operator to stop the car.

The bandits quickly searched the passengers and removed their valuables, then ordered the operator to send the elevator back to the ground floor where they fled.  Max Zukow was relieved of $500 and a stickpin.

Only a few minutes later, after police were notified, one of the holdup men, 21 year old Michael Romano, was arrested not far from the building.

As the Noho neighborhood changed in the latter part of the 20th century, so did No. 716 Broadway.    The overflow of artists from nearby Soho looking for studio and living space spread up Broadway from Houston Street and trendy shops began appearing.  In 1981 No. 716 was converted to artists’ living and working quarters—one per floor above street level.

Shakespeare & Co Booksellers has been successfully plying its trade in the retail shop for decades.  The store was called by New York Magazine “a favorite general-interest bookstore for chain-avoiding New Yorkers.”

photo by Alice Lum
Today Zucker’s remarkable façade has been carefully restored.  And if pedestrians along Broadway happen to glance up, they will see their stares returned by two frightfully macabre gargoyles.

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