|photo by Alice Lum|
In 1867 German-American businessmen Wilhelm J. D. Keuffel and Herman Esser recognized a need. As American engineering and construction advanced, the need for drafting instruments and supplies increased. Decades later, in 1909, The Engineering Digest would remember that the men, “as partners in the firm of Keuffer & Esser opened a small office in New York City for the sale of drawing materials and instruments. Their faith in the development of engineering and manufacturing in America, and their consistent effort to supply only the best goods, were rewarded by the rapid growth of the business.”
|The company moved into the old building at 127 Fulton Street in 1878 -- Catalogue and Price List of Keuffel & Esser Co. 1890 (copyright expired)|
Indeed the little store on Nassau Street was soon inadequate. Three years after starting business the men began manufacturing their own instruments and in 1872 opened a retail store. “The increasing volume of trade necessitated several moves to larger quarters,” said The Engineering Digest; and in 1878 the firm moved into the old store and loft building at No. 127 Fulton Street. Years earlier the building had housed the offices of the New-York Herald newspaper.
From the street level retail store Keuffel & Esser sold everything from drafting paper to print frames and bath trays; precision instruments imported from Switzerland and Germany; drafting pens; and handsome sets of instruments in fitted cases. In 1881 manufacturing was moved to the company’s new Hoboken, New Jersey factory.
|The drafting instruments in their fitted case retailed for $22.70 in 1890 -- a little over $500 today -- Catalogue and Price List of Keuffel & Esser Co. 1890 (copyright expired)|
Among the employees in the Fulton Street headquarters in November 1890 was 32-year old William Borchers. Things seemed to be going well for the clerk—he was engaged to be married to Mary Wennell in December. Late in October Borchers took a furnished room at No. 70 Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn “in order to be near his fiancee” who lived at No. 87 Schermerhorn.
On November 5 he had breakfast with Mary, then left for work at Keuffel & Esser “in his usual good spirits,” according to The New York Times. Something happened to Borchers’ good spirits and later in the day he entered Fritz Scheel’s saloon nearby at No. 154 William Street and shot a bullet into his right temple.
“He was taken to Chambers Street Hospital, where it was found that the bullet was lodged in his brain,” reported The Times. “He was conscious enough just after the shooting to give his name and address, but afterward he lapsed into unconsciousness, from which he was restored with great difficulty. At midnight he was resting comfortably, and to-day Prof. Stimson will probe for the bullet,” said the newspaper on November 6.
In the meantime the success of the firm was once again taxing the capacity of its Fulton Street headquarters. The same year that William Borschers attempted suicide, Keuffel & Esser Co. told its customers “The assortment of goods which we carry has increased so much, that it was no longer possible to describe all our goods within the frame of the former Catalogue.”
The solution this time was not to move; but to erect a new building. The land on which the old structure sat was owned by the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church which had acquired the plot in 1791; so even though Keuffel & Esser would erect the new building they would still be tenants of the church. And the firm’s landlord was strict concerning its leases.
On December 19, 1891 The Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide noted that “De Lemos and Cordes filed plans about a year ago for the Keufel and Esser building to be built at No. 127 Fulton street. Owing to the fact that the leases of the present building did not expire until May next, all operations were suspended and held in abeyance. The work will go forward, however, at the earliest moment, and all preliminary work is well under way as per original plans filed for the eight-story office building.”
In the meantime Keuffel & Esser Co. began publication of The Compass: A Monthly Journal for Engineers, Surveyors, Architects, Draughtsmen, and Students. One trade journal complained that The Compass seemed to be merely a vehicle for disguised advertising. “In the first issue which is now before us, the name of Keuffel & Esser Co. and mention of their instruments occur with perhaps too great frequency,” it wrote.
Keuffel & Esser struck back saying “As the name of the above firm is very widely known as being synonymous with excellence and merit, such mention is in a great measure unavoidable.”
Finally, as the Record and Guide had predicted, work on the new building commenced in May 1892. The stunning office and retail store building took a year to complete and The Engineering Digest noted “The quarters afforded by the new building, upon its completion in 1893, appeared almost too large.” As a matter of fact, there was dissension among the firm’s executives, many of whom felt, according to company documents “There was ample space for several times the number of employees the company had that year.”
|Drafting implements are incorporated in the spandrels of the arched openings -- photograph by Alice Lum|
The architectural firm of De Lemos & Cordes produced a striking structure that went beyond merely the popular Renaissance Revival style. It was a Victorian celebration of details. Drafting instruments filled the spandrels of the cast iron arches of the storefront, whimsical iron cages protected two of the upper openings, and overall the façade was embellished with handsome yet fanciful ornamentation.
Clad in buff colored brick, cast iron and terra cotta, the building boasted a large deep-relief Keuffel & Esser logo of a winged orb surmounting a knight’s helmet and shield above a monumental recessed opening. The uppermost section featured a two-story angled bay that nestled below a decorative cornice and balustrade, topped with ornamental urns.
|The winged orb above the knight's helmet was an adaptation of the company's logo. Terra cotta panels over the side openings announce the firm's founding and the date of construction -- photograph by Alice Lum|
In 1902 Herman Esser retired and moved back to Germany, selling out to William Keuffel who retained sole ownership of the firm.
Just 14 years after the new building was completed, Keuffel & Esser moved its headquarters to New Jersey on Saturday, July 20, 1907. “The former general offices of the company at 127 Fulton street, New York, have become too small, and it was deemed advisable to remove them to the more commodious quarters provided in the new buildings in Hoboken,” reported Geyer’s Stationer. “The building at 127 Fulton street, New York, is retained as the New York sales department and show rooms.”
The following year 70-year old William J. D. Keuffel died in his home. Geyer’s Stationer said “the end came as a result of a general breakdown, due to old age. It was a peaceful close to a long career, honorably lived and marked by success and the respect of every one with whom Mr. Keuffel had ever come in contact.”
The firm continued under the leadership of the Keuffel family. At the time of his death, William’s son, W. G. Keuffel, was Vice President and his son-in-law was Treasurer. A Canadian branch was opened in 1908, supplementing offices in Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco. In 1909 The Engineering Digest noted “this firm has risen from the occupancy of a tiny office to the ownership of factories, warerooms and offices that employ over 900 men and women. From a business turning out but a few thousands yearly, it has become a great industrial power, justifying the foresight and rewarding the labors of its founders.”
|Around 1915 the two-story showrooms displayed drafting items in the windows. The streetcar tracks are imbedded in the brick pavement and next door trousers are selling for $8.50--photograph by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWD8UYS7&SMLS=1&RW=1366&RH=579|
Because of the company’s world-wide reputation for producing and selling the most reliable and highest quality instruments, its customer list included the most esteemed inventors, architects and engineers. Among these was Nicola Tesla.
The Serbian-born inventor was an electrical engineer, physicist, and mechanical engineer; but is best remembered today for his contributions to developing alternating current, his x-ray experiments and radio communication. Tesla’s international fame and respect did not impress Keuffel & Esser when it came to paying bills, however.
On May 18, 1910 The New York Times reported “The Sheriff returned unsatisfied yesterday an execution against Nicola Tesla, the inventor. The Keuffel & Esser Company, instrument makers, obtained a Municipal Court judgment against Tesla for an over-due bill on March 26, 1908. Tesla failed to pay and the judgment was docketed.”
When the United States entered World War I the precision instruments developed and manufactured by Keuffel & Esser Co. were invaluable to the war effort. The highly-prized instruments made in Germany and Switzerland were no longer available and the U.S. military turned to Keuffel & Esser for scientific and military devices. The firm would perform the same function during the Second World War.
In 1961, 68 years after moving in, Keuffel & Esser Co. left No. 127 Fulton Street. Still a force in the industry, the firm’s products had nevertheless changed drastically. It no longer manufactured the its once-iconic slide-rules; and digital calculators, computers and laser technology had completely revamped the industry. Still owned by the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, the building became home to a variety of small businesses for the next four decades.
|Falling snow creates a romantic setting for the Victorian beauty -- photo by Alice Lum|
In 2004 the Church sold the property to the Fulton K&E LLC. which sold it the following year for $8.5 million. The new owners, 127 Fulton LLC announced plans to convert the 27,000 square foot building to high-end condominiums. With a nod to Keuffel & Esser’s monthly journal, the residential transformation was named Compass Lofts Condominium.
The owners focused much attention to the restoration of De Lemos & Cordes’ wondrous façade—replacing the lost iron second story balcony, preserving the internal cast iron columns and replicating the original mahogany window frames.
The five-year project resulted in just seven residential lofts with opening price points in 2009 of between $2 and $3 million. The meticulous refurbishment brought back to life a wonderful architectural gem in Lower Manhattan.