Monday, January 5, 2015

The Lost Edison Building -- Nos. 42-44 Broad Street

photograph King's Photographic View of New York, 1895 (copyright expired)
If Thomas Alva Edison had done nothing else in his career, his work with electricity would have earned him fame and considerable fortune.  By 1890 electricity was rapidly changing how Americans lived and that year work began on the New York City headquarters for the Edison General Electric Company.

In 1825 H. Casimir de Rham had purchased the plot at Nos. 42-44 Broad Street which stretched through the block to Nos. 38 and 40 New Street.  Here he established his business office.  Now the Edison Company leased the land and commissioned the firm of Carrere & Hastings to design an up-to-date structure.  The architects lavished the Broad Street façade with Gilded Age ornamentation; while leaving the New Street elevation rather utilitarian-looking.

On January 24, 1891 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on the design.  “It is eight stories high on the Broad street front and ten stories high on the New street side.  The first two stories on the former street are of stone, while the front above is mainly of brick, the massive columns on the third and fourth floors being of that material.  The front on this side is as pretentious and striking as the front on New street is plain and unadorned.”

But as the Guide published its description, work had ground to a halt at the site.  On January 8 The Evening World had reported that “Two hundred union carpenter, painters, steamfitters, housesmiths and ironworkers, employed on the new Edison Building on Broad street, went on strike yesterday.”

The problem centered around contractor F. Kilpatrick’s hiring of Volkenning & Co. to install the marble.  According to The Evening World, Volkenning & Co. “do not employ union hands and…is opposed generally to the unions.”  Over two weeks later nothing had improved.  On January 24 the newspaper reported “A walking delegate said that the framers would quit work for good to-day.”

Work, of course, eventually resumed and the building was completed by the summer of 1891.  On September 21 Architecture and Building described the $250,000 structure as “strictly fire-proof.”  The Broad Street façade was constructed of “marble, brick and terra cotta, and the interior trimming of cabinet finish hardwood..  The offices, both on the streets and on the inner court, are unusually well lighted and ventilated, and each floor provided with water-closets and urinals.”

The Edison Company and the architects showcased the firm’s success stability by cladding the lower two stories in rusticated white marble.  The upper floors were of light-colored brick trimmed with exuberant terra cotta decoration.  The two-story mansard featured ebullient circular dormers evocative of Belle Epoque Paris.

Importantly, the building was a showcase of electric lighting.  A generator in the basement provided energy for the “Edison incandescent system.”  The building boasted 500 incandescent lamps throughout.  Two high-speed hydraulic elevators served the new tenants.

Among those new tenants were brokers, lawyers, railway offices, and several architectural firms—including Carrere & Hastings themselves.  With them in the new building were architects William Strom and A. De Saldern.

The Sun published a sketch of the new building on April 19, 1891 (copyright expired)

No sooner had the legal firm of Eaton & Lewis moved in than the building's first instance of mystery and scandal occurred.  Alfred Watson was employed as a clerk and at 9:00 on the morning of July 20 he left the office “saying that he was going to attend to some private business,” according to The New York Times.  On September 20 he had still not returned.

It is unclear why his wife, Cassie Watson, waited two months to report him missing; but she nevertheless provided a detailed description on September 20.  The Times reported that he was “thirty-nine, 5 feet 5 inches, stout, florid, fair-haired, gray eyes, sandy mustache mixed with gray, very bald, black alpaca coat, light waistcoat, black trousers, white straw hat with a black band, gray flannel underwear and elastic gaiters.” 

Whether the stout, bald and florid man was ever located is unclear.

The following year the Edison General Electric Company combined with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form the General Electric Company.  The new firm would do $10 million in gross sales that year.  Sales would increase 25 years later to more than $167 million.

On Tuesday, June 21, 1892 at around 3:30 in the morning a mysterious fire was discovered in the 8th floor office of the Edison General Electric Light Company’s chief engineer.  The fire was quickly extinguished by fire fighters; “but everything in the engineer’s room was destroyed and many papers, plans, specifications, and documents of the company were either ruined by fire or water,” reported The New York Times.  The invaluable specifications and plans of works being constructed nationwide were destroyed and G.E. smelled corporate intrigue.  “The officers of the company are inclined to think that the fire was of incendiary original.  They can account for it on no other hypothesis.”

Then, three days later, just after midnight on June 24, another “mysterious fire” broke out on another floor doing $500 in damages.  John I. Beggs, manager of the central district of the Edison Company and the Fire Marshall instigated separate investigations.

The Evening World placed the blame on a less nefarious cause.  It said the second fire was “caused by an electric wire setting fire to the woodwork” and added that the earlier blaze was “presumably from the same cause.”

The North American Phonograph Co. was headquartered here.  It was established by Jesse H. Lippincott in 1888 as the sole marketer of the Graphophone and the Edison phonograph products.  Now, in 1892, the firm highlighted the phonograph cylinders for home use as well as in amusement houses.  Its challenge was to find residential customers willing to pay the extravagant $150 price for a phonograph—near $4,000 today.

The Edison Building would continue to be plagued with bad press, scandal and mystery surrounding its tenants.  On November 10, 1893 Grenville W. Nichols was arrested here.  A bookkeeper for John H. Jacquelin & Co., he had been with the firm for 13 years.  In June an accidental discovery of irregularities in the books revealed that Nichols had embezzled no less than $11,000.

Among the wealthiest and most respected members of the Stock Exchange in 1897 was William G. Read, Jr.  At 40 years old, he had a wife and three children and a summer home in Mamaroneck, Long Island.  Two years earlier he was diagnosed with typhoid fever which, according to The Times, “left him weakened, nervous, and generally unfit for business.”  He went abroad “in search of health;” but when he returned his condition was compounded by malaria.

Although he maintained a cheerful demeanor on the Stock Exchange floor, his medical condition was apparently too much for him to bear.  On August 10, 1897 around 11:35, he left his Edison Building office and went to the second floor men’s room.  At “about 11:40 o’clock the muffled report of a pistol echoed through the building,” said The Times.  Read had shot himself in the temple in the bathroom.

Even more gruesome was the horrific death of Jules Overbury, an Edison Company electrician.  Other employees called him “one of the most conscientious and popular men in the whole establishment.”  At 6:30 on the evening of November 12, 1894 he attempted to send the night elevator upstairs and, in doing so, “he caught his head between the iron guard and the top of the elevator, crushing his face into an almost unrecognizable mass and fracturing the frontal bone,” reported The Evening World.

His disfigured face prevented him from calling for help and he laid on the floor for some time in agony before he was discovered.  Overbury was taken to the Hudson Street Hospital where he communicated by writing on a pad.  “Can you give me some opiate to make the pain easier?” he wrote to a doctor.

Overbury’s grim death came slowly and The Evening World remarked “He shows marvelous pluck, and has not once broken down.  Both jaws and his nose are fractured, and one eye is torn from the socket.  He is speechless, but perfectly conscious.”  When his parents arrived at his bedside, he wrote “I am not suffering much now.  Won’t you all go and get some rest?”

He died shortly after his last message.

The first of the Edison Building’s string of disgraced brokers was Walter D. Valentine, of the Stearnes Commission Company with offices in the basement.  He was expelled from the Exchange in December 1894 charged as a “blind pool” operator and with running a “clock quotation scheme” here.

As the reliability of electricity improved, the Edison Building increased its electric-to-gas lighting ratio.  From its original 500 bulbs, the Edison Bulletin reported in June 1902 that its lighting system consisted “of about 2,000 incandescent lamps.”

That same year New Yorkers were shocked at disturbing news emanating from The French Telegraphic Cables Company offices here.  On Sunday, May 4 the last cabled message from the island of Martinique was received.  After that, as reported in The New York Times, “Cable communication with Martinique is absolutely cut off.”

Six days later the newspaper said “At the office of the French Telegraphic Cable Company, 44 Broad Street, the opinion was expressed by the officers yesterday that the entire island of Martinique had disappeared.”  The firm apparently believed that the vanishing of an island was more plausible than a failure in the cable system.

Four days later the French Telegraphic Cable Company was forced to admit it had spoken too soon.  A break in the cable near Madeira had been repaired and communication was restored.

In 1903 the General Electric Company introduced an innovation that would become an American tradition.  On December 22 The Times announced that the company was selling “Christmas tree and house decorations made easy, where current is available, by electric lighting outfit with colored lamps.”

Six months later, on May 21, 1904, the building was back in the news for all the wrong reasons.  Police Commission McAdoo launched a series of raids on “pool rooms”—illegal gambling establishments which took bets on race results.  “A mammoth exchange on the roof of the building at 44 Broad Street, which is said to serve the entire Wall Street district, yielded rich tribute in the shape of telegraph and telephone instruments,” reported The Times.  Thirteen men were arrested and arraigned on May 24 in the Tombs court.

One of the crooks was determined not to go to jail.  “One of the men tried to escape,” reported the New-York Tribune, “and ran through the building, followed by the county detectives.  He succeeded in hiding himself in a closet in a room on the upper floor, from which he was dragged out later.”

The raid was the last straw for the managing agent of the Edison Building.  On May 21 it sent a letter to the tenants requiring them to describe their business.  “It has even gone further, and has employed a firm of private detectives…to find out just what business is being conducted by the many people to whom they rent offices,” said the New-York Tribune the next day.

And yet infamous activities continued.  The French Cable Company was still in the building in September 1906 when it was discovered “that its wires running out of the branch office at 44 Broad Street have been used for the transmission of racing information,” wrote The New York Times on September 6.  The wires involve were leased by a Boston firm and the French Cable Company declared its ignorance of the crime.

In December 1906 Electrical Engineering reported that the Edison Building had been sold to the City Investing Company.  The journal announced that the General Electric Company had leased 19,000 square feet in the new City Investing Company’s building being constructed at Cortlandt Street and Broadway.

General Electric moved out of the old Edison Building in May, 1908.  Then, in January 1909, City Investing Company sold it to August Oppenheimer of the Engadine Company in a deal amounting to about $700,000.  The new owners would not hold the property for long.  In April it was sold again, this time to Shapiro, Portman & Renry who renamed it the Cable Building.

Among the brokers in the building at the time was Scheftels & Co., a somewhat shady “curb broker.”  The Times described the brokers on November 10, 1909 saying “The firm makes it easy for clients to pyramid accounts, thus tempting the piling up of paper profits.”  The “paper profits” encouraged investors to continue trusting Scheftels until, on November 9, the bottom dropped out.

“Yesterday,” said The New York Times, “B. H. Scheftels & Co. were putting a brave face on the slump in their widely-tipped stock and laying the collapse to newspaper attacks ‘instigated by powerful Wall Street interests.’”

The former Edison Building was sold yet again—in two sections—in 1910.  The Wall Street Journal purchased the northern half of the building in foreclosure in January for $394,300.  Then in March the newspaper, owned by Dow Jones, purchased the remainder of the building and the land for $550,000.  It ended the De Rham family’s near century-long ownership. 

At the time B. F. Scheftels & Co. was still in the building.  On September 29, 1910 the offices of the much maligned brokers were raided by Federal authorities who charged the firm with using the Unites States mails “with intent to defraud.”  Scheftels & Co. declared bankruptcy in April 1911 prompting a New York Times headline “Scheftels Creditors Lose.”

By now, the old Edison Building was surrounded by skyscrapers.  The abundance of office space in the modern structures caused problems for the aging 44 Broad Street.  On April 27, 1913 The New York Times noted “The building, although one of the older ones, is still an up-to-date structure, and many improvements have lately been installed.”  Nevertheless, “Since the General Electric Company moved out of the three upper floors some time ago they have never been filled.” 

The Wall Street Journal’s solution was to modernize.  In September 1915 it commissioned Frederick Putnam Platt to design “a new exterior and a much altered interior,” according to The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide.  The major renovation required a near-gut of the building and the Guide estimated completion “by the first of the year and ready for new tenants.”

The Journal remained in the building for over a decade while tenants like the L. Darnell Co. operated on the upper floors.  William L. Darnell was described by The New York Times as “one of Wall Street’s most picturesque characters.”  Having grown up in Colorado, he was easily recognizable on Manhattan streets with his broad-brimmed cowboy hat.  More than for trading stocks, the Darnell firm was best known for acting as betting commissioners.  It legally took bets on political elections and sporting events.  In 1923 The Times said “The firm has handled something like $10,000,000 in wagers in the last five years, most of which were handled by Mr. Darnell personally.”

L. Darnell Co. was still in the building on August 5, 1931 when Dow, Jones & Co., publishers of The Wall Street Journal announced it had leased space at No. 130 Cedar Street and at No. 89 Broad Street in “anticipation of the early demolition of their eight-story building at 42-44 Broad Street and erection there of a larger structure.”  Within months, Carrere & Hastings’s Edison Building, so reflective of the flamboyant 1890s, was gone.

The architectural firm of Lockwood, Green & Co. prepared the plans for the new seven-story brick and steel replacement building.  Costing $400,000 it was completed in 1932 and survived until 1980 when it was replaced by a glass and steel skyscraper.


  1. That is a spectacularly bad pile to bear the names of Carrere & Hastings. The treatment of the mansard is very awkward being nearly vertical with small windows punched through under the skimpy ridge ornament.

  2. Normally, I love florid Victorian facades but this one is pretty awful.

    1. It seems possible that they planned to lop of the top floors and increase the height in the future- the mansard treatment is so perfunctory.