Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Rare 1857 Bogardus Survivor at No. 63 Nassau Street

A grisly storefront detracts from the handsome design of the upper stories -- photo by Alice Lum
By the time William of Orange-Nassau ascended the English throne in 1689 the British had controlled New York for 25 years.  In his honor Nassau Street was named (as well as an Orange Street, but that was later renamed Baxter Street).   By the first decades of the 19th century, the venerable, curving street was bustling with commerce.

In 1827 Thomas Thomas established his kitchen tinware factory and shop.   Thomas was successful in making and selling useful household objects and by 1842 had taken his sons, Cornelius and Augustus, into the business, now called T. Thomas & Son.  On December 28 of that year a straight-to-the-point advertisement was published in The New York Tribune.  “Coffee Urns—A good assortment of Block-Tin Urns, for sale by the manufacturers.”

Apparently the post-Christmas response was not as great as desired, for two days later T. Thomas & Son cut prices.  “Coffee Urns, for New-Year’s Day.  A variety, at reduced prices, to be had of the manufacturers.”

Within a year or two of that advertisement Thomas’s son, Augustus, built a new five-story structure on the site.   After Thomas Thomas died in 1856 William V. Curtis purchased No. 63 Nassau Street from Augustus Thomas for $28,750.  By now the jewelry trade had engulfed the Maiden Lane-Nassau Street neighborhood.    Curtis had already joined with Augustus Thomas in a silk goods importing business, A. Thomas & Co.” in the Milhau Pharmacy Buidling a block away at No. 183 Broadway.

The Milhau Pharmacy Building stood out among its neighbors.  In 1848 it had been designed and constructed by James Bogardus who bolted onto its front an architectural and engineering innovation:  a cast iron façade.  

Bogardus had started out as a watchmaker and “machinest,” but in the 1840s began conceptualizing pre-fabricated cast iron facades.  These could be quickly bolted to the brick fronts of buildings, could imitate carved stone, be easily cast with elaborate decorative elements and—most importantly—would be fireproof.  

On the morning of June 16, 1855 a devastating fire on Maiden Lane had destroyed several businesses and the constant threat of fire terrorized businessmen and residents alike--people like William Curtis.

Immediately upon acquiring the building at No. 63 Nassau, Curtis laid plans to update it.  There is little doubt that it was Bogardus whom Augustus Thomas and William V. Curtis commissioned around 1857 to renovate the structure with an updated cast iron façade. 

Bogardus gave the building a new, Italianate face with elegant arcades—a two-story arcade at street level succeeded by a three-story arcade above.   Highly-decorated spandrels erupted from the capitals of the tall, fluted columns that supported the arches.   A regimented corbel table supported the foliate cornice.  At the base of the second floor columns he attached alternating bas-relief portraits of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, an unusual decorative touch that he used in other of his buildings.

The two Benjamin Franklin portraits, framed in wreaths, survive.  The Washington plaques mysteriously disappeared sometime in the 1970s -- photo by Alice Lum
Thomas and Curtis most likely intended No. 63 Nassau Street to be an income producing property; and indeed jewelry firms like Auguste A. Abry, a Swiss-born watch maker, began moving in.   But the Financial Panic of 1857 and the ominous predictions of a civil war negatively influenced the jewelry trade.  In April 1860 the building was sold to Julien Gauton for $24,000.

Gauton, who was born in France, was a bootmaker whose shop was a block north at No. 89 Nassau Street.    As Curtis had intended to do, Gauton used the property as an income producer.    Joining Abry in the building were Edward Boband and Louise Cordier, watch case polishers who moved in in 1864; and Manzini & Lawson in 1866. Partners John A. Manzini and Samuel Lawson manufactured jewelry here. 

Throughout the rest of the century the building would be home to assorted jewelry and watch companies. Louis Squadrilli came to New York from Naples, Italy and set up his wholesale business here selling “coral, cameos, malachite, lapis lazuli, mosaic, lava, and garnet goods,” as the Civil War was coming to a close.   C. H. Zimmermann sold diamonds here starting in 1870, the same year that Alois Kohn & Son, dealers in gold chains; Stern Bros. & Co, sellers of watches; and Dorrevee & Troll, dealers in jewelry and gold chains moved in.

The original Corinthian capitals have fallen from the columns, but the bulk of the decorative ironwork survives -- photo by Alice Lum
In the meantime, the ground floor was home to a restaurant-saloon.  Albert Bossert and Frederick Schmid opened the business in 1864 and the space would continue as a restaurant, saloon, or both, constantly through 1917.

Stern Brothers was still here in 1881 when tragedy visited No. 63 Nassau Street.  16-year old John Maas was a clerk here, employed by Marcus Stern.  Around 8:45 in the morning on December 30 a 14-year old messenger boy, Henry Weinstein, entered the office.  Weinstein worked for another jewelry firm, Doppelbaum & Friedman, at No. 10 Maiden Lane.   He had been sent to Stern’s to pick up some rings that had been dropped off there to be finished.

When Maas opened a drawer to get the rings, he moved Marcus Stern’s revolver and laid it on the counter top.     When young Weinstein picked up the gun by the barrel, Maas attempted to retrieve it.  In the confusion the gun went off.

Workers in the other offices and shops heard the gunshot, followed by a scream of horror.  When they rushed into the Stern workshop, young Henry Weinstein was lying on the floor with a bullet wound in the middle of his chest.  He was dead before he could be lifted off the floor.

The Nassau Street neighborhood continued to be the center of the jewelry district into the 20th century.   It was the building’s location rather than its extraordinary façade, however, that was considered valuable at the turn of the century.   In 1909 the City valued No. 63 Nassau Street at $86,000 “without the building,” and at $90,000 with it.

That same year Morris Grossman ran his shoe store below street level, under the Nassau Café.   On July 22 a young man struggled down the steps from the street with a heavy satchel on his shoulder.  He approached the clerk, Isidor Grossman, and explained “Pardon me, but I’ve got $900 in silver in this satchel and I’d like to leave part of it with you.  I’ve got to carry it to Brooklyn, but you can see that it’s too heavy for one trip.”

Werther later said to a reporter from The Sun that “Clerking in Nassau Street accustoms one to odd requests.”

The young man, Tommy Davies, then opened the satchel and produced two white canvas bags.  Each was marked $200 and they landed on a bench with a noticeable thud.   Davies then left with his still-ponderous satchel.

Werther consider all of this and turned to the other clerk in the store, T. H. Gaffney, saying that “he’d bet anything some villainy was afoot,” according to The Sun.   “Think a chap like that would leave his money bags with a stranger and slip away without a receipt if all was as it should be?”

Werther called a policeman, who in turn summoned a plain clothes detective from the John Street station house.    The bags of silver dollars were put in the safe and the following morning the detective hid in a cubby hole and waited for Davies. 

When Davies arrived, he said that he had taken his $500 home to Brooklyn and he would now like the other $400 back.   Detective Bill Keating popped out and demanded “Where’d you get that money?”

The 28-year-old man nervously explained that he had inherited “a lot of stock” and he had taken it to Boody, McLellan & Co. at 111 Broadway who had offered him $900 for it.  He asked for the money in silver dollars, but the cashier gave him bills and referred him to the Sub-Treasury.  “The man at the Sub-Treasury was very pleasant and gave him silver dollars as directed,” reported The Sun, “500 in one bag, 200 apiece in each of the two others.”

The detective took Davies to Boody, McLellan & Co. where cashier Harold Rice confirmed his story.  At the Sub-Treasury, as would be expected, swapping silver dollars for the bank notes was vividly remembered .  Then Davies’s mother was called to the precinct house to vouch for her son.   She did.

When Davies was asked why he wanted coins, he explained “Money’s handier for spending that way.  “I just dump the dollars in my trunk and take one out when I need it.”  He added, “I sometimes spend as much as a dollar a week.”

Mrs. Davies, when asked if she didn’t think that leaving $400 in coins with a stranger was risky, shrugged, “No, sir.  I trust everybody and so does Tommy.  Nobody ever has fooled us yet.”

Grossman’s Shoe Store became the Golden Shoe Co. in 1911 when brothers Samuel L. and Bernhart Golden took over the space.   Their marketing gimmick was to sell quality shoes at one price--$2.95.  “All Styles One Price,” read their advertisements.   One of those styles, the “Genius” was advertised on October 1, 1915.  “Olive buck tops in dark tan, gun calf and patent gold—both lace and button.”

Two years after the Nassau Café closed in 1917, the ground floor façade was destroyed and a modern store front installed.  Now there were two retail stores and a separate entrance to the upper floors.  That year jewelers Schulz-Goldman Company and the Ostby & Barton Company both took a floor in the building.  Ostby & Barton were manufacturers of plain and engraved solid gold band rings, with their factory in Providence, Rhode Island.

Jewelry firms continued to lease in the building through the middle of the 20th century.  In 1946, after the Gauton-Carroll family had owned the property for 86 years, it was sold.   The building changed hands numerous times before being purchased by Ullman Realty Co. in 1960.  A year later the ground floor was again completely remodeled.

photo by Alice Lum
Today, despite the unsightly ground floor store front and the desperate need of a paint job, James Bogardus’s handsome and early cast iron façade is largely intact.   It is one of only five known Bogardus buildings in the country, four of which are in New York City.  On May 15, 2007, against the protests of its owner, this remarkable and rare survivor was designated a New York City Landmark.

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