Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The 1867 No. 597 Broadway

photo by Alice Lum
By 1867 a revolutionary development in architectural design was appearing in the neighborhood that a century later would be called Soho:  cast iron facades.  The strong and relatively inexpensive material allowed for enlarged window openings and was considered fireproof. 

But when John Lawrence commissioned architect John Kellum to design a store and warehouse to replace the old Lafayette Hall at No. 597 Broadway that year, he opted for marble.   Kellum’s finished structure, however, featured tall, expansive windows that flooded sunlight into the upper floors.   The slender pilasters with their intricate carved capitals which separated the openings were unexpected in a stone structure—making it appear that Kellum was imitating the new cast iron buildings nearly as much as those were imitating marble and limestone.

Carved cornices, each supported by a single foliate bracket, separated the floors.  Above it all Kellum added an attractive overhanging cornice with French Renaissance entablature.   The building ran through the block with entrances on Mercer Street.

The scrolled white marble brackets are artistically carved -- photo by Alice Lum
The retail store was home to a dry goods establishment while among the tenants upstairs was Theodore Roberts, a liquor dealer.   When Roberts was discovered selling alcohol on election day in April 1867 he was arrested and held in the Jefferson Market Court by Justice Ledwith with a $300 bail.

The street level store soon became home to Mitchell Vance & Company, manufacturers and sellers of high-end lighting fixtures, bronzes, clocks and ornamental metal work.  Established in 1854, it catered to the carriage trade with expensive goods like gilt bronze chandeliers made in its 10th Avenue foundry and factory.   

An advertisement in The New York Tribune in 1872 lists a variety of high-end products.

Mitchell Vance & Company moved on in 1877, having erected its own building at No. 836 Broadway.   The store was home to Henry Rogers by 1885 when a small fire broke out the evening of January 8.  As quickly as it appeared the fire was extinguished and the excitement was over.

Except it wasn’t.

Around 2:00 in the morning the fire reignited and raged throughout the structure.  The New York Times reported that “at that time it seemed as if the building would be destroyed.”   But although Henry Rogers’ store was wiped out, the white marble building survived.

Kohn & Baer, wholesale furriers, moved in as early as 1899 and would stay for a number of years.  The firm not only imported furs, but manufactured fur neckwear and “a complete line of carriage and animal muffs” in the building.    An advertisement in the Fur Trade Review in 1899 listed no fewer than sixteen different furs—fox, lynx, sable, and marten among them—which the company transformed into “exclusive French designs.”

Kohn & Baer boasted of its seal jackets saying “There’s only one way of making a fur jacket right, there are a hundred ways of making it wrong.”

As the millinery district rapidly overtook the Broadway area, political organizations moved in as well.  In 1904 a Democratic organization, the Commercial Travelers’ League, was here.  Directly across the street was the Roosevelt and Fairbanks National Commercial League.

Here, on October 30, 1905, Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr., raged on about the Republicans.  “We have serious questions to deal with,” he said, “when we find that over $20,000,000 is  annually extracted from the people of this city so as to support the unbridled extravagance of a Republican administration.”  He pleaded with the members to reelect him with “such a plurality that it will stand as a rebuke to Republican extravagance and dishonesty and rank hysteria.”

As the Mayor entering his carriage, the Republican meeting in support of Hearst was ending across the street.  A Hearst supporter poked his head into McClellan’s carriage shouting “Three cheers for Hearst!”  By now the Democrats were filing out as well and the two groups faced off. 

“The two crowds, numbering fully five hundred each, met the carriage, and then, pushing, swearing and shouting, started an incipient general fight,” reported The New York Times.   In a show of late-Victorian law enforcement “Several policemen stationed near the carriage clubbed the men nearest them in an effort to clear the way.”

The Mayor, said the newspaper, “smiled broadly and took the whole affair as a joke.”

Three years later, on October 15, 1908, the Democratic candidate for Vice-President, John W. Kern, addressed the group.  Sounding much like a 2012 Occupy Wall Street protestor, he lamented the uneven distribution of wealth.   He blamed McKinley for undoing 75 years of the country’s history when “the wealth was distributed evenly among those who created it and there were few great fortunes.”

Kern accused that because of McKinley the distribution of wealth had been “taken from the hands of those who created it.”  These were, he said, “evil times.”

That same year the Underwriters’ Salvage Company rented the store and basement of the building.   It was a time when the area being called the “mid-Broadway section” was experiencing a downturn.  One broker, John Parish, partially blamed the reduction in property values on the buildings themselves; they were outdated and aging.  “I believe that one of the chief causes for the middle Broadway slump is due to the lethargy of the owners to make adequate improvements,” he told The New York Times on October 15, 1911. “The owners have waited too long and the sudden migration to the fine modern buildings above Fourteenth Street, especially in the Fourth Avenue section, has taken them by surprise.”

Almost as proof of Parish’s theory, No. 597 Broadway was sold at auction that year for $102,750.  It was assessed at $130,000.  
But the anticipated Broadway subway line revived the neighborhood and continued to draw millinery and apparel firms.   In November 1915 the Charles F. Noyes Company—a real estate firm established in 1898--renewed its lease on the entire building; extending it another five years at $55,000.  The New York Times explained why the hat industry seemed to be staying on in the neighborhood.  “One reason for the strength of Broadway in this vicinity is the fact that the Broadway subway, which is nearing completion, will have a station at Prince Street, which is in the same block as 597 Broadway.”

In 1922 the street level was home to the bakery and store of the Broadway Pastry Shop.  Davis Weiss was the “chauffeur” of the shop’s delivery truck and a routine delivery turned into anything but ordinary on April 14.  As Weiss drove towards the corner of 34th Street and 2nd Avenue, 58-year old Emma Webb was crossing the street with her granddaughter, little 8 year-old Madia Pechick.

Seeing the approaching truck, Emma Webb attempted to snatch the little girl from the path of the vehicle.  Although the girl was knocked to the pavement, she was not severely hurt.  Emma Webb, however, received internal injuries and a fractured skull and died later that night in Bellevue Hospital.  Weiss was arrested on a “technical charge of homicide.”

The middle years of the 20th century were unkind to the Soho neighborhood.  Cast iron masterpieces sat rusting and grimy, their former high-end showrooms now home to factories and cheap outlet stores.   The store front of No. 597 was brutally altered and the façade was stained and covered in decades of soot and grunge. 

In the 1980s struggling artists discovered Soho where neglected sun-flooded lofts made for affordable housing and studio space.  Soon galleries and trendy restaurants and shops cropped up.  In June 1986 Welsh geologist Owain Hughes purchased No. 597 for $750,000 with the intention of converting it to six commercial and nine residential condominiums.  The trained geologist scanned the brown-stained façade and mentally labeled it “sandstone.”

During his $2.5 million renovation, he opened a 15x40-foot court through the middle of the structure, allowing light into the upper apartments.  A skylight admitted sunlight into the commercial spaces below.   Because by now the neighborhood had been landmarked, part of the Soho Cast Iron District, rehabilitation of the stone façade was difficult.  Landmark law prohibited the use of high-pressure hoses and chemicals, so cleaning was done by hand; what Hughes called “men up there with little brushes in their hands, like toothbrushes.”

The geologist was stunned when the cleaning revealed John Kellums gleaming white marble.

The marble, once so grime-covered that it appeared to be brownstone, gleams again -- photo by Alice Lum
On October 5, 1996 the 5,000 square foot commercial area became home to Kenneth Cole, whose opening party here had a political theme, “Get Out and Vote.”  Today Billabong, a trendy clothing store fills ground level.  Above, the white marble facade looks much as it did in 1867.  The building still has an identity problem, however; instead of being mistaken for sandstone, it is most often assumed to be white-painted cast iron.

many thanks to reader MjH for suggesting this post

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