Wednesday, May 14, 2014

W. Wheeler Smith's 1882 No. 361 Broadway

The massive cast iron structure stretches far down Franklin Street -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

In 1837 merchant Peter Crary lived in his comfortable home at No. 361 Broadway, at the corner of Franklin Street.  But the tide of change was rapidly moving north from Lower Manhattan and would soon engulf Crary’s residential neighborhood.  Only five years later Adam Stodart operated his business from the address, and it appears the three-story house had been replaced by a modest commercial building.  His “pianoforte salesroom” offered “Soldart, Worcester & Dunham” pianos to New York homeowners.

Within the decade almost all of the Federal-style brick homes had been replaced by looming stone or cast iron loft buildings.  On November 1, 1852 Gleason’s Pictorial was staggered by the rapid transformation.  “The entire length of Broadway seems to have been measured for a new suit of marble and freestone—six and seven story buildings going up on its whole length, of most magnificent elegance in style.” 

One of the last loft and retail structures to be erected would be No. 361 Broadway on land owned by the White family.  As the tall buildings that so impressed Gleason’s Pictorial rose around it, a dry goods merchant still operated here.  On April 28, 1857 Bulpin enticed feminine shoppers with an advertisement promising “Five cases of mantillas, decidedly new in style, in texture, form and color, not to be seen at any other house, will be opened this week.”

Then in 1881 James L. White commissioned architect W. Wheeler Smith to design a commercial structure that would steal the spotlight from most of the surrounding structures.  Although cast iron architecture was, by now, quite common in the area, it was an unusual choice for Smith.  Nevertheless, he handled the project like a master and No. 361 Broadway, completed a year later, was nearly unique.

Cast iron facades were popular because highly-ornate designs could be produced quickly and relatively inexpensively.  They were also widely touted for their fireproof attributes.  For many of their cast iron loft and retail buildings architects simply chose elements from foundry catalogs.  W. Wheeler Smith was a bit more creative.

Simple fluting distinguishes the third floor columns; contrasted by swirling vines above -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

He designed the pilasters and columns of the six-story building so that each floor was slightly different.  Below the mid-height bands that wrapped the columns he spun vines.  Those on the street level bore berries and on the different levels the vines spiraled either left or right.  To add to the visual interest, the vines were omitted from the third and sixth floors in favor of fluting.  The Corinthian-capped pilasters, too, were slightly different from floor to floor.

The gigantic building—it was six bays wide on Broadway and stretched a full 16 bays down Franklin Street--opened in 1882.  Although the expected apparel firms did move in—Morris Kerstein was manufacturing ladies’ garments here in 1886—the address would soon be better known for its publishing offices.

A sidewalk bridge obscures the ground floor in 2014 -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

In 1845 Rufus M. Porter began publishing a new weekly called the Scientific American.  Porter was a man of many talents and interests.  He was a portrait and mural painter, author, and inventor.  His magazine focused on new inventions and patents, provided illustrations and updated readers on “the most interesting news of passing events, general notices of progress of Mechanical and other Scientific Improvements; American and Foreign.”

Ten months after printing the first issue in 1845, Porter sold the weekly to Orson Desaix Munn and Alfred Ely Beach.   The partners formed Munn & Co., Inc., publishers, and established The Scientific American in the New York Sun Building at Fulton and Nassau Streets.  Their first issue from here was printed on July 23, 1846. 

Munn & Co. would make two more moves before establishing its offices in No. 361 Broadway.  In 1886 the publishers described The Scientific American not only as a source of information on scientific and mechanical advances, discoveries and improvements; but as a means of self-improvement:

“It tends to improve the mind; encourages to self-exertion, activity, and development; furnishes hundreds of useful suggestions for business, and for simple, light, and profitable occupations.  It promotes Industry, Progress, Thrift, and Intelligence in every community where it circulates.”

The building was also home to the Freeman Print Works, known not only for printing fabrics but for its high-quality globes, maps and atlases.  In February 1891 the company was embarrassed by financial troubles; however its Boston manager put a positive spin on things, saying he believed “that the works will come out all right financially.”  On February 26 Levi L. Brown, President of the New York office assured reporters “that the company’s trouble was only temporary.”

Another publisher, the American Photographic Publishing Company, published the American Photography magazine from the building in the first years of the 20th century. 

Although widely known for its publishing tenants, specifically Munn & Co. and its Scientific American; the building continued to lease to fabric and apparel companies.  One of the largest was A. G. Hyde & Sons.  The firm dealt in cotton goods but was more well-known for its creative alternatives to high-priced silk.  Marketed as “Hydegrade” and “Heatherbloom,” the taffeta fabrics were touted as costing a quarter as much as silk and available in 150 shades.

A. G. Hyde & Sons' Heatherbloom was promised to have "silk lustre and 'swish'" -- New-York Tribune, January 21, 1906 (copyright expired)

The successful business garnered the Hydes a substantial fortune.  President Seymour J. Hyde and his family lived at No. 375 Park Avenue and maintained an extensive country estate in Greenwich, Connecticut.  It was there, on January 31, 1915 that Seymour Hyde suffered a fatal fall from his horse.

In the meantime, the publishing offices of American Homes and Gardens magazine had moved into the building by 1913.  But the days of major publishing at No. 361 Broadway were coming to a close.  When the new Woolworth Building opened its doors in 1915 Scientific American was one of its first tenants.
Close inspection, nearly imperceptible from the street, reveals tiny differences in the oblong capitals -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

Throughout the first half of the 20th century the building saw a variety of tenants—the Tide Water Oil Sales Corp. in 1919; Fred Butterfield & Co., Inc. in 1920, dealers in “organdies, ribbons and ribbons specialties, poplins, silk dress goods, mohairs, and alpacas;" and in 1943 a whopping 9,100 square feet would be taken by the Hospital Uniform Company and the Melrose Manufacturing Company.

Later, as the Tribeca area suffered neglect the building was home to a mish-mash of small businesses.  In the February 1970 issue of Popular Mechanics one business placed no fewer than three advertisements seeking agents for low-end merchandise.  One read “Make Extra Money—show friends, neighbors, All Occasion Assortments, Easter, Stationery, Wrappings, Gifts, Toys, Jewelry.  No Experience unnecessary.” 
photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
Then in 2010, as Tribeca emerged as one of Manhattan’s trendiest, most expensive neighborhoods, W. Wheeler Smith’s remarkable No. 361 Broadway was restored and converted to a school on the upper floors and retail space at sidewalk level.  Currently, in 2014, it is undergoing conversion to 13 enormous condominium residences.  Entirely intact, the extraordinary design and detail command attention as they did when the building opened in 1882.

1 comment:

  1. An architectural gem of cast iron construction