Thursday, September 27, 2012

The 1897 Astor Building -- No. 583 Broadway


photo by Alice Lum
Broadway between Prince and West Houston Streets in 1848 was still lined with stately Federal-style homes of New York’s gentry.    At least four of them were owned by the wealthiest man in the United States—John Jacob Astor, who lived in No. 583.

The 84-year old Astor died in the house that year, leaving an estate of  around $20 million—approximately $110 billion today.   To his granddaughters Sarah Astor, Liza Astor, Louisa and Cecelia he bequeathed “the four houses and lots fronting on the westerly side of Broadway, between Prince street and Houston street, now known as numbers 579, 581 583, and 587, extending in the rear to Mercer street.” 

The elegant residential neighborhood would not last for long, however.   In 1852 the magnificent Metropolitan Hotel replaced a row of homes across the street as the neighborhood quickly became one of exclusive retail emporiums and even restaurants.   But the high-tone status of the area remained and the commercial buildings were often constructed of gleaming white marble.

Astor’s houses were long gone by 1896 and the business structures at Nos. 583 through 587 were now owned by the real estate firm of Weil & Mayer.   The millinery and dry goods district was entrenching itself in the area.

Taking advantage of the potential, that year the company demolished the buildings and commissioned architects Cleverdon & Putzel to design a retail store and loft building on the site.   The prolific team was responsible for loft buildings, apartment buildings and rowhouses throughout the city.

Completed a year later in 1897, the building was named with a nod to the property’s original owner:  The Astor Building.   Twelve stories high, it was a lush mixture of buff-colored brick, terra cotta, cast iron and stone.   Double-height fluted Corinthian columns above the ground floor separated expansive bays.   Reflecting the relatively-new Beaux Arts movement, the upper floors gushed forth in elaborate ornamentation.

The second and third floors prompted the AIA Guide to New York City call the design "magnificent."  -- photo by Alice Lum
The new building filled with apparel and hat manufacturers.  C. E. Bentley Company, called by the New York Times a “pioneer in the art needle industry” manufactured lace and embroidery here, and sold related products such as floss and thread.  The owners, brothers Charles and Chester Bentley, were nearly wiped out by a fire in 1901.   Damage to the structure was quickly repaired and the firm remained here for years.

Also in the building at the time were Julius Franklin’s “wrapper and dress skirt factory;” H. Goldfarb who made “fancy hats, ready-to-wear hats, and tailored and ready-to-trim hats;” and Nathanson & Brownstone, makers of “Brownstone Clothes.”  

Polished granite pilasters separate the complex arched shop windows and entrances -- photo by Alice Lum
By 1909 C. E. Bentley had a competitor here--Stein, Doblin & Co. was manufacturing and importing embroideries “and novelties.”  In the ground floor retail space that year was Hanauer, Arnstein & Siegel which advertised that “We are showing a beautiful line of Children’s Broadcloth Coats with felt bonnets to match.”

The clothing store would be replaced around 1917 by the Eclipse Light Company’s electric light showrooms.  The firm would stay here at least throughout the war years, offering modern wall sconces and hanging fixtures and one amazing new gadget:  the electric vacuum cleaner.   Although it drifted away from Eclipse’s main product line, The Apex Electric Suction Cleaner was marketed as a must-have for the modern housewife.

In the 1920s women’s hat makers Oettinger & Goldstein, Inc. and Waldorf Hat Works were both here, as was the Rainbow Shirt Corporation.  Spinnerin Yarn Co., Inc. occupied space in the 1940s as did My Girlie Hat Company.

Although in 1942 the ground floor store became home to an office furniture and equipment store, the upper floors continued to house garment and hat factories through the 1950s.  1958 was an especially nerve wracking year for the garment workers here.

On March 19 a fire had roared through the nearby 623 Broadway, killing 24 textile workers.  That tragedy was still on the minds of garment workers a month later.

The Ginsburg Manufacturing Company operated a lingerie factory in the basement of No. 583.  Most of the firm’s workers were Hispanic women who worked in less-than-ideal conditions below street level.  On April 21 around 11:37 in the morning, one worker sitting at her sewing machine complained of headache and dizziness.   Another woman nearby said she, too, felt ill.

Before long foreman Steve Karcinski had his hands full.  He took the two women to the rear of the basement and gave them smelling salts.  But then, according to The New York Times, “women began collapsing all over the basement.”

“It was like a chain reaction,” the foreman told reporters.  “After one went, another went, and they all started to go.”

Dr. Emmanuel Shiffman was called, who initially thought it was a case of mass hysteria.  When the firemen of Engine Company 13 arrived, they began removing the women on stretchers.  Some were taken across the street to the firehouse while others were removed to the Ginsburg offices upstairs on the 9th floor.

It only got worse.

When Dr. Shiffman arrived there were only two women left in the basement.  “One was sitting in a chair screaming and throwing her hands about,” he reported, “The second seemed a quiet girl, in a kind of stupor.”

When he reached the 9th floor he found several girls “screaming hysterically.”  The scene was one of mayhem.  “One was sitting on a couch screaming,” the doctor said, “her eyes tightly shut, throwing her arms around in an offhand manner.  I shook her rather violently and then pressed the supra-orbital nerve.”

When the girl did not respond, the doctor got tough.  “I tried again and screamed at her in Spanish: ‘Now listen to me: stop it!’”

“Usually I get them out in five or ten minutes, but this was different.  As soon as I got one quiet, another would start yelling and then they would all scream.”

Eventually 14 women and 1 man were taken to hospitals.  The initial cause was found to be carbon monoxide escaping from a defective boiler.  Yet the poisonous gas did not explain the unbridled frenzy the women displayed.  Dr. Shiffman maintained that most of the women were “simple victims of autosuggestion,” since carbon monoxide induces stupor rather than hysteria.

Only a month later, on March 24, about 400 garment workers, most of them women, arrived to work to find they were barred from entering the building.  The Fire Department deemed ten of the twelve floors “fire hazardous” and the women milled about along the sidewalk for hours in the chilly air.

The building was filled mostly with manufacturers of women’s underwear, sweaters and that essential for 1950s teenagers, crinoline petticoats.  In the sewing rooms the Fire Department had found blocked exits and aisles, oily waste in paper barrels, iron bars at windows and “generally poor fire housekeeping.”

After fines were issued and the violations corrected, the women were admitted back into the building to continue sewing petticoats.

By now the Garment District was moving north to 7th Avenue in the 30s and the Soho neighborhood was becoming seedy at best.   In the 1970s The Astor Building sat vacant and neglected. 

The area slowly experienced a renaissance as artists rediscovered the vast and affordable sunlit loft spaces.  Galleries opened and one-by-one structures were reclaimed.  In 1993 The New Museum opened in the street level of The Astor Building.   The only museum in the city dedicated to exhibiting contemporary art from around the world, the edgy space was a destination for art lovers.   But the upper floors remained empty.

photo by Alice Lum
When the building’s owners decided to convert the space above ground level to a luxury hotel they began by knocking out most of the windows.  And then they defaulted on the mortgage and work stopped.   Rain, snow and pigeons entered the openings.   Sections of the detailed molded-zinc cornice broke loose and dangled precariously over the pavement, inducing city officials to remove parts of it.  The one-elegant building became an eyesore.

Then, finally, in 1995 The Astor Building was rescued.  Platt Byard Dovell Architects was commissioned to renovate the upper floors into 19 loft condominiums.  After sitting essentially abandoned for two decades, there would be only two apartments per floor on most levels—each over 4,000 square feet.   Architect Jim Colgate, a member of the community board’s landmarks and zoning committee, told The New York Times “Everyone wins when an eyesore of a building is transformed into a jewel again.”

As it did in 1897, The Astor Building soars above its neighbors -- photo by Alice Lum
And a jewel it is.   The rich fa├žade, along with its elaborate cornice, shines once again.   The New Museum moved on in 2004, yet the building is once again an important element in the fabric of an architecturally rich block.

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