Saturday, December 22, 2012

The B. Altman Store -- No. 615-629 6th Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
Philip Altman ran a moderately-sized dry goods store on the Lower East Side in the first half of the 19th century.   A later account would remember him as “for many years well and favorably known in the district devoted to that trade.”  Customers would often find Altman’s two sons, Morris and Benjamin, working tirelessly behind the counter.

Benjamin left public school at the age of 12 to enter his father’s business in 1855.   The young salesman learned the business, paying particular attention to his brother’s ideas of handling a retail operation.  When their father died in 1863, the boys continued running the store and Morris reorganized it as Altman Brothers.

Morris Altman’s ground-breaking business sense was a major force behind the “Early Closing Association,” which pushed for the shortened work day of dry good clerks.  “America’s Successful Men of Affairs” called him “A man of fine presence, splendid address and talent as a speaker on economic, social and business subjects.”    The business flourished and a new, larger store was acquired on Third Avenue at 10th Street.   Quickly Altman Brothers outgrew that space and the operation was moved to an even larger store on Sixth Avenue at 21st Street around 1869.  It was a propitious move—the brothers would be among the first dry goods merchants along the stretch of 6th Avenue that would soon become known as The Ladies’ Mile.

Tragically in 1876, at the young age of 39, Morris died.  Only a few months later his wife died, leaving their four children orphaned.    The bachelor Benjamin took in the children to rear.   That year he began plans for an even larger, more impressive store.  He leased the land two blocks south at the southwest corner of 19th Street from Jacob Dodge for $20,000 per year for 21 years, with the right to renew for another 21 years at the same rent.

Architects D. & J. Jardine were given the commission to design an imposing new emporium—the first of the grand retail houses on the avenue.    The brothers, David and John Jardine, had gone into partnership in 1865 and were among the most respected architects in the city.   Eight years after the Altman commission, “New York’s Great Industries” would say they had “erected the most important buildings, both public and private, of any firm in the city.”  For Benjamin Altman’s new store they produced a four-story neo-Grec structure that predicted the other grand emporiums that would follow.

The cast iron façade allowed expansive windows and therefore, additional daylight into the sales floors.  The incised decorations on the pilasters reflected the Eastlake movement which was all the rage in furniture, home décor and architecture at the time.

photo by Alice Lum
The new store opened in 1877 and only three years later the architects were called back to extend the building back 50 feet along 19th Street.     And even that could not contain Benjamin Altman’s successful business.   As the shopping district along the avenue from 14th Street to 23rd Street filled with stores, Altman’s was one of the most prominent.    Within a few years of the elevated train ran down the center of 6th Avenue, making travel to the Ladies’ Mile convenient for all classes of shoppers.   Benjamin Altman needed more retail space.

In 1887 a new addition extended the store in an L-shape around the corner building still standing on 18th Street.  Designed by William Hume, the extended 6th Avenue facade closely mimicked the original by the Jardine Brothers.     The New York Times remarked on September 25, 1887 “The wisdom of increasing the capacity of the establishment to twice its former size has already been demonstrated.  The patronage has more than kept pace with it, but there is far less difficulty in passing from one point to another than formerly, and most of the old bustle has been pleasantly dispensed with.”

By nearly matching the original design (right) the additions were nearly seamless -- photo by Alice Lum
The main entrance was, of course, on Sixth Avenue, however outside the entrance on 18th Street a convenient flight of steps led to the elevated train.   For the more affluent shopper, a carriage entrance was located on 19th Street, far removed from the more pedestrian consumer.

The store now had all the modern conveniences.  “Pneumatic tubes have taken the place of the cash boy or girl, and gas has been given the cold shoulder for electric light,” reported The Times.  There were now four passenger elevators and three freight elevators.   As his brother had done, Benjamin Altman remembered the conditions of his workers.  He installed a “comfortable lunch room” for employees and seats behind the counters—an unheard of luxury for salespeople. 

The millinery department was located in the new section, with a large portion of the stock made expressly for Altman’s in Paris.   The Times remarked on the dress goods department’s “magnificent stock of silks and velvets just imported, and an unusually large stock of brocaded velvets, in which special bargains are offered.”

The incised line decorations were typical of the Eastlake movement -- photo by Alice Lum
Although Altman’s welcomed the middle-class shopper, the carriage trade was not forgotten.  Gowns from Worth and Pingat of Paris were offered, as were bonnets from Madame Eugenie’s and Virot’s.  On April 12, 1888 The Evening World commented on the store’s newest imports from Paris.

Calling the bonnets and dresses “marvels of beauty and elegance,” the article said “There are dresses for seashore, country and city, for spring and summer wear.”  One dress, appropriate for the seashore, caught the writer’s attention.  “It is called the ‘handkerchief dress,’ being composed of eighteen handkerchiefs.  It is both novel and pretty and is sure to charm the mind of any lady who views it.  A lady could stand all day admiring the numerous other dresses that fill the store, for they are so enchanting.”

The article also made note of another novelty.  “There is a bonnet, which this firm is the only importer of, that will surely gain popular favor.  It is called the flower bonnet.  It represents a full-grown geranium.  There are also other flowers represented.”

By now Benjamin Altman was a wealthy man.  He was amassing one of the great art collections in the city and enjoying world travels.   He left for a world tour in May, the same year that The Evening World was commenting on his flower bonnets; traveling overland to California then taking a steamer to Japan.   In February 1889 The Times updated readers on his whereabouts.    “He has during his nine months’ absence visited Japan, China, India, Ceylon, and is now in the land of the sphinx.”  The merchant was on his way to Paris to visit the Exposition, expecting to reach home in August or September.

And it was just as well that he was gone. 

James L. Dodge owned the land on which the Altman dry goods store stood.   It was his father who had negotiated the lease and “Young Dodge became convinced some time ago that his father did not know what he was about and that the ground rent was worth much more,” said The Times on August 4, 1889.

Although Benjamin Altman was current in the rent, Dodge wanted more for the land, despite the lease.  “Imagining that on this account he had a grievance against Mr. Altman,” said the newspaper, “he has since made himself variously offensive.”

It all came to a head when he stormed into the store demanding to see Altman.   When he was informed that the owner was away, “he made a disturbance which startled the customers on the street floor and drove some of them out.”    When a policeman arrived, Dodge “wilted” and at the station house broke down crying.  When he apologized in tears to Justice Ford, saying his “feelings got the better of him,” he was fined $10 and let go.

Benjamin Altman’s business continued to grow and on March 7, 1900 The New York Times reported that “B. Atlman & Co. of Sixth Avenue propose to materially enlarge their commodious stores in the near future.  The firm has just purchased sixty-five feet of additional ground on West Nineteenth Street from Edward Jansen and others.”   But something was about to happen to The Ladies’ Mile.

Roland Macy’s department store had anchored the southern point of shopping district at 6th Avenue and 14th Street.  But in 1902 he made a startling move.   Leap-frogging the slowly northerly-expanding area, he relocated to Herald Square, far from the other large stores.  It was the first domino to fall in what would be the end of an era.

Benjamin Altman was the next to follow.   On December 11, 1904 The Sun reported that the merchant intended to build “an enormous store” on Fifth Avenue, diagonally across from the exclusive Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Two years later, as his new white marble palazzo was being completed, Altman sold the Sixth Avenue building to Henry Morgenthau and Joseph B. Greenhut for $2.5 million.   Greenhut was a Gettysburg hero who retained the title of Captain for the rest of his life.  He and his son, Richard, had joined the Siegel-Cooper store operation, across Sixth Avenue, in 1896 son.  In 1902 the father and son team had bought out Henry Siegel.

The Altman building is framed by one of the grand arches of the Siegel-Cooper store --- photo by Alice Lum
In buying Altman’s 88,000 square foot structure, the men were stressing their faith in the continuance of The Ladies’ Mile.  With the projected Sixth Avenue subway project in the planning stage, they told The Times “this section will become even more firmly intrenched as the great shopping centre.”

On September 17, 1907 the old Altman store reopened as Greenhut & Co. drygoods.  The new store marketed itself as upscale and borrowed Tiffany’s idea of a trademark color.   The New-York Tribune noted that even the announcements that were sent out had a “note of distinction.”  They were “a delicate green, technically known as mignonette color, and the wrapping paper is going to be of the same tint.  So also will be the string and the boxes.  The stock boxes, too, will be of this charming color, which looks very pretty against the wood.  The uniforms will be of an unobtrusive green whipcord and the wagons will be painted dark green.

“The firm intends to make this distinctive color the keynote of the store, the outward expression of a certain uniqueness.”

The management handed each employee a rule book, laying out the expectations of treating the customer courteously.   The store had its own blacksmith shop to take care of the dray horses, “and there will be four autos for the transportation of heavy merchandise,” said the Tribune.   Customers with automobiles could use the store’s garage.

In 1909 the Greenhuts hired the well-respected architectural firm of Buchman & Fox to enlarge the building yet again.  The three brick buildings still standing at the corner of 18th Street were demolished and the store now filled the entire block.  The architects skillfully copied the original 1876 cast iron front, creating a single unified structure of what was, actually, a patchwork of successive additions.

The 1924 fifth story addition paid little heed to the original design, seen here in 1948 -- photo collection of the Museum of the City of New York
As stores continued to move away from 6th Avenue, Captain Greenhut remained steadfast.   In February 1911 he merged his two gargantuan stores under the name Greenhut-Siegel Cooper Company.  In doing so he announced “Sixth Avenue from Fourteenth to Thirty-fourth Street is the centre of the retail business not only of New York City, but of all the surrounding territory, and we won’t see much change in our lifetime.”

When a reporter brought up the poor retail performance of the past holiday season, he reasoned “The dullness this Winter has been due to several causes, all of which, in my opinion, are temporary.”  He blamed politics, the high cost of living, and the automobile.  “The automobile craze has been another factor.  Cars have been bought by people who have to spend a large part of their incomes in keeping them up.”

In fact, Greenhut was fighting a lost battle.  In 1914 the Siegel store failed and the following year the Greenhut company failed.  Although the Greenhuts fought valiantly, reorganizing as the Greenhut Company, the firm was liquidated in 1918.   Captain Greenhut finally had to admit that days of the once-fashionable Ladies’ Mile were over.

“As one after another big concerns quit and moved away we were left high and dry to fight the fight alone,” he said.  “We found the neighborhood pretty well destroyed as a shopping centre, and we suffered much for the misfortunes of others”

The store was leased in May 1921 by The Manufacturers’ Exhibition Company, Inc.  The company had recently been  organized “for the purpose of pushing export sales of machinery.”  The president, L. R. Duffield, explained that “New York sells more machinery than all Europe, and New York needs a permanent exhibition centre…The exhibition in the Greenhut Building will be the most complete machinery exhibition in the world.”

In 1924 Richard Hudnut had architects G. & H. Boehm remove the cornice of the southern 1909 section and erect a fifth floor.    Unlike the previous alterations and additions which had faithfully copied the 1876 architecture, this was a nearly-industrial design offering no apologies to integrity of the original design.

photo by Alice Lum
The grand emporium where ladies once shopped for “French lingerie, tea gowns, matinees and toilet robes,” became loft space for  manufacturers.   Men’s clothing makers took space in the 1930s, as well as other small factories.

By the 1970s the former Ladies’ Mile was nearly abandoned and its once imperious buildings were in serious disrepair and neglect.  A renewed appreciation for the structures sparked a renaissance and in 1982 the first renovation of the rusting hulk of the Altman building resulted in six “class A” apartments on the fifth floor.

Today the cast iron façade is painted gray and the entire first floor contains a Container Store.  The Ladies' Mile is once again a vibrant shopping and residential district and the old B. Altman store survives, even at street level, nearly unaltered.

No comments:

Post a Comment