Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Victorian with a Make-Over -- No.. 591 Broadway


No. 591 once perfectly matched its neighbor to the right.  The storefronts remain idential.
Just prior to the Civil War commercial buildings began replacing the staid old homes of Broadway below Houston Street.  In 1860 the two matching white marble structures at Nos. 591 and 593 Broadway were completed.   With modified Italian Renaissance touches like robust arched pediments over the central windows of the second and third floors they rose five stories to a shared, bracketed cornice.  Stone quoins ran down the sides of the buildings.

Merchant tailors Alonzo R. and William H. Peck established their business in No. 591.  While the brothers sold apparel to its well-heeled clients, two other brothers, Henry and Edward Anthony, were establishing themselves elsewhere as leaders in a new technology:  photography.

Although both of the Anthony brothers had been educated at Columbia College as engineers, neither was satisfied with his profession.   Both men worked on the Croton Aqueduct—the engineering marvel that brought fresh drinking water to Manhattan.  Before the completion of the project James Renwick called upon Edward to assist him in a survey of the northeastern boundary of the United States.  There was, at the time, a dispute between Great Britain and the U.S. regarding the Canadian border.

Edward Anthony had been for sometime fascinated with the “new art of making pictures with the aid of sunlight, just introduced by Daguerre,” as explained in “America’s Successful Men of Affairs” later, in 1895. During the survey Anthony took photographs of the terrain, documenting hills along the boundary line that England denied existed.   The resulting proof ended the controversy and was the first example of photography being used to settle diplomatic disputes.

Upon his return to New York, Edward Anthony went into the business of supplying photographic materials to the trade in 1842.   Henry, all the while, bounced around trying to find himself.    After the Croton project he entered banking, working in the Bank of the State of New York.  He left that position to return to engineering, working on the New York section of the Hudson River Railroad.  The American Bookseller recalled “Tiring of that, he again entered the business of banking, and remained in it until 1852, when he joined his brother in dealing in photographic materials.”

Edward’s firm, which now became E. & H. T. Anthony & Co., had already become the largest manufacturer of photographic materials in the world.    By 1870 the company took over the entire building at No. 591 Broadway and operated a chemical works in Jersey City, and had three factories for the manufacture of cameras and other apparatus in Brooklyn, Hoboken and New York.  In addition, the firm published periodicals such as Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin.

The two buildings at Nos. 591 and 593 were mirror-images in 1895 -- King's Handbook of the United States (copyright expired)
The Bulletin was aimed at photographers.  The Inland Printer said of it, “Every issue copiously illustrated.  Practical articles on process work and on photography by practical men.”

On a Wednesday afternoon in October 1884, Henry T. Anthony left No. 591 Broadway heading to his home at No. 108 Lexington Avenue.   He decided to make a quick stop at 17th Street and 4th Avenue and, while crossing the street, had to bolt out of the way of an oncoming horse car.  The 70-year old bachelor took a hard fall onto the pavement and was seriously injured.

The doctors at New York Hospital had him taken to his residence as “it was known that his injuries were fatal,” said The American Bookseller the next week.  With his death, Edward was once again the sole principal.

It was a time when photography was for professionals only.  Not only were the supplies expensive, but the equipment was ungainly and the process complicated.  That was soon to change.

On August 18, 1885 The New York Times reported on revolutionary developments.

“The progress which has been made of late years in the science of photography has been something remarkable—the modes of posing are as different as can possibly, while the apparatus employed have been changed and improved in a high degree.  The photographer of the old school fixed the person to be taken in front of a sort of ‘bull’s-eye’ and requested him or her to ‘look natural.’  Then, after a half hour of fixing and twisting, the cap was taken off the bull’s-eye, and a minute or more of torture followed, in which the sitter gazed fixedly at nothing.  The result is well known to all.”

But now, said the article, E. & H. T. Anthony’s “Detective” camera changed all that.  The comparatively lightweight camera operated by means of a modern shutter, allowing photographs to be “literally taken ‘on the wing.’”    The Times called it “the lightest, neatest, and most compact camera ever made.”  The process of taking a picture was like nothing before.  “When needed for use it is only necessary to insert a ‘plate,’ a little catch is raised, a ‘click’ is heard, and quick as the twinkling of an eye the view is secured.  There is no trouble, and scarcely any mechanical skill is exercised.”

With the new device E. & H. T. Anthony had made amateur photography possible.   Tourists found the new plaything indispensable--to the point that the firm was unable to keep up with the demand.   In 1891 The Illustrated American urged tourists to contact the company in preparation for their vacation.  “For twenty-five dollars, Anthony, of 591 Broadway, can give you an excellent photographic equipment for your trip  With the camera, tripod, and box of plates they sell the chemicals prepared for use, so that, by the aid of an instruction-book, you can gather enough information to teach you the camera’s use.”

Along with its cameras, the firm sold everything related to the field:  portable dark rooms, photographic films, sensitized papers and “amateur photographic outfits,” among them. 

Professional photographers could purchase the above stereopticon camera, for making three-dimensional slides --The School Journal 1897 (copyright expired)
On December 14, 1888 Edward Anthony died.  His son, Richard A became secretary of the firm which continued under the presidency of Vincent M. Wilcox.

In 1895 “King’s Handbook of the United States” noted that “The universally popular interest in photographic art, which is so marked a feature of the present day, depends largely on apparatus and supplies devised or introduced by E. & H. T. Anthony & Co., preeminent in all the world as manufacturers and sellers of all photographic materials.”

While easier to transport, the cameras were still expensive in 1896.  The $60 spent on a Marlborough would equal over $1,000 today--McClure's Magazine (copyright expired)
After three decades in the building, on December 15, 1899 E. & H. T. Anthony advertised its “removal sale” in the New York Tribune.   Although the firm would continue to do limited business here until around 1904, the bulk of the building was taken over by The Strobel & Wilken Co., importers and dealers in toys.

In March 1900 No. 591 Broadway was sold at auction to William Cohen, of Cohen, Endel & Co., for a bid of $157,500.  Three months later the new owners announced their intentions to “make elaborate alterations to the building, including an additional story,” as reported in The New York Times.
The 1900 renovation would result in a remarkable transformation -- photo by Alice Lum
The report was not exaggerated.   All traces of the old marble building above the ground floor—which had been modernized along with its neighbor around 1895—were wiped away and a fantastical, updated façade installed.   Slender cast iron piers rose through the four central floors affording extensive expanses of glass.

The new sixth floor which sat above a decorated cast iron entablature was frosted with terra cotta ornamentation.  Above the rows of arched windows rose a brick pediment covered in terra cotta.

photo by Alice Lum
The toy dealer would remain here for fifteen years, followed by apparel firms as the dry goods and millinery industry firmly implanted itself in the neighborhood.

In 1916 Nelson, Siegel and Company was here manufacturing ladies’ hats.  By 1920 shirt manufacturers Nibenberg & Saltzman had its offices here.  The sizable firm turned out about 1,500 dozen shirts every week from its factory in Johnston, New York.  At the same time Kalter-Cerf Mercantile Company operated from the building.  The diverse company dealt in shoes as well as operating as jobbers and wholesale auctioneers.

Today the handsome building is little changed.  As is the case with its former twin next door, the late Victorian storefront at street level is miraculously intact.  Art galleries replace shirt manufacturers and a Victoria’s Secret retail store occupies the ground floor where cameras and toys were sold.   And passersby would never guess that the building once matched its more pious neighbor before a unique, near-whimsical remodeling of 1900.
A projecting rosette and overflowing cornucopias decorate the elaborate pediment --photo by Alice Lum


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