In 1880 the Union Square neighborhood bore no resemblance to the farmland it had been 70 years earlier. Henry Spingler died in 1814 in his country home that sat approximately where the Square is today. Not far away to the south, roads were already being laid and houses and shops constructed. Spingler’s farmland would soon be engulfed by development.
In 1832 Union Square was laid out and by 1845 fine brick residences were appearing along its borders. That year $116,000 was spent on paving the surrounding streets and landscaping the square. And simultaneously Spingler’s old house was taken by the city through condemnation proceedings. It spelled the end of that chapter.
The second chapter—that of refined mansions and wealthy residents—was a short one and would come to an end shortly after the end of the Civil War. The business community rapidly moved in, taking over upscale homes or razing them for commercial structures. As always, the moneyed homeowners fled northward.
In 1880 successful textile merchant James McCreery commissioned brothers David and John Jardine, also Scottish immigrants, to design a commercial building to replace the Arlington Building at Nos. 22 through 26 East 14th Street. Construction began in December 1880 and, simultaneously, Joseph J. Little began work on a structure next door at No 28 and another developer started construction on No. 30.
These men approached the Board of Aldermen, separately, requesting permission to include projecting shop windows. The requests were denied because “of the refusal of Mr. McCreery to assent to the erection of bay-windows by them,” as recorded in the Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen. The developers were understandably upset when, in May 1881, McCreery applied to the Board “to place bay-windows on stores Nos. 22, 24, and 26 East Fourteenth street.”
Mayor W. R. Grace returned the resolution “without my approval” on May 28, saying “The owners of the buildings No. 28 and No. 30 East Fourteenth street object strongly to the proposed bay-windows on the ground that they would injure their stores, which have been built with plain fronts” because of McCreery’s complaints.
Even without the protruding bays, the Jardines’ building was an eye-catcher. Completed in September that year the $75,000 structure was faced in cast iron. But architects who had worked with the material in the decades before had, mostly, followed one or two standard motifs. The Jardines moved away from the pack, drawing on a collection of popular styles to create a powerful up-to-the-minute statement of current taste in architecture and art. Seemingly incongruous styles—neo-Grec-influenced openings married with neo-Classical swags and pilasters—were splashed with surprising Aesthetic Movement panels of sunflowers.
|Beautiful Aesthetic-Movement panels joined the various styles used by the architects.|
The building stretched through to 13th Street and was quickly filled. E. D. Bassford, “dealer in crockery and house-furnishing goods,” moved in. The store was run by the son of E. D. Bassford who had died in 1873. He had founded the firm in 1838 and since 1856 had been located in the Cooper Union. His widow attempted to run the business until her death in 1881. The younger Bassford moved the store into the new 14th Street building on November 13, just a month after its completion.
Flint & Warren, dealers in dry goods, “Paris costumes,” and women’s apparel was another retailer here. But McCreery’s major tenant was Baumann Brothers furniture and carpet store which opened on September 1. The expansive showrooms offered customers a wide-range of furniture and styles.
Neither Flint & Warren nor E. D. Bassford would survive in the new location. On May 15, 1883 The New York Times explained Bassford’s business failure, blaming the high rents charged by McCreery. “The stand did not prove as eligible as was anticipated, the rent was $12,000 a year, and this Spring’s business was particularly bad.”
Baumann Brothers, however, was much more successful. On October 15, 1891 The New York Times commented on the variety of pieces available. Those mentioned were all historic European styles; but since they were made in America, the newspaper deemed them examples of “practical patriotism.”
It said Baumann Brothers “have opened at their show rooms an exhibition of artistic furniture of the Renaissance and Empire periods, deftly and cunningly copied from the Old World models by skillful American handicraft. On the ground floor there is a massive sideboard of antique oak, a perfect reproduction of an old Tudor piece of furniture found in one of the manors of England. The carving on this is an artistic revelation. Further on there is a varied collection of desks in brass and rosewood, perfect copies of those now on exhibition at Versailles at the Little Trianon. The prices of these range from $20 to $200.” Shopping at Baumann Brothers could get pricey—a $200 French-style desk in 1891 was the equivalent of about $5,000 today.
|In 1894 this 4-piece "Chamber Suit" could be had for $100; "the greatest value for the price asked ever offered." the New-York Tribune, September, 22, 1894 (copyright expired)|
The journalist walked the reader through each department, including the carpet and bedroom sections. There was also a parlor department. “Here are gorgeous arm chairs in yellow, shrimp pink, and celeste blue satin damasks. Parlor sets in all shades about in every imaginable style. Vernis Martin tables, Empire bric-a-brac cabinets, and many other dainty trifles for the drawing room are here in profusion.”
Baumann Brothers remained in the 14th Street store until 1897, when they moved to Sixth Avenue. McCreery briefly broke up the ground floor into separate shops. In October 1886 he leased the first floor store and basement to M. Freedman, dry goods. Another space was taken by the Austin-Remsen Co. bicycle shop.
Then in June 1900 James McCreery leased the entire round floor to Frank W. Woolworth. The New York Times noted “The lease is for a long term of years.” Indeed, the 5-and-10-cent store would stay here until 1928.
The upper floors now became manufacturing rather than retail space. In 1901 Julius Deyfus & Co., an embroidery firm, operated here. The impressive factory employed 35 men and 45 women. Also in the building around the same time were Laird & Bonwit, “cloaks and suits;” and Hornthal, Benjamin & Riem, another apparel firm. A large concern, it employed as many as 136 men and 71 women at any given time, with an office staff of eight.
Many teen-aged boys in 1904 worked to help their families rather than attend school. One of them, Albert Greenwall, who worked in the 14th Street building, was persuaded by his friend, 14-year old John Ell, to join him along with his mother and brother and another friend on a river excursion. Albert did not go to work on Wednesday, June 15, 1904; instead he and about 1300 other passengers boarded the General Slocum headed to a picnic grove north on the East River.
John Ell told investigators later “As we neared Hell Gate children were called down to the lower deck where ice cream and soda were served…With my mother and my little brother Paul I went to the engine room to watch he machinery. I was standing there with John Gray, Albert Greenwall, Otto Hans and a number of children.
“Suddenly and without the least note of warning there was a burst of flame from the furnace room that rushed up through the engine-room and flashed out about us. The flames spread with the rapidity of an explosion, setting fire to the clothing of the women and children who were grouped about the engine-room watching the machinery.”
Within 15 minutes the General Slocum had burned to the water line. Of the more than 1,300 souls on board, only 321 survived—the greatest loss of life in New York City until the World Trade Center murders of 9/11. Albert Greenwall, who played hooky from work for a day of recreation, would never return.
Hornthal, Benjamin & Reim was still in the building in 1913. Eugene S. Benjamin was President of the New York Clothing Trade Association, a leader in the opposition to union demands in a long-standing apparel worker strike. The non-union workers employed by Hornthal, Benjamin & Reim were threatened by union thugs, causing the firm to offer sleeping accommodations so the workers did not have to go into the streets at night.
The New York Times reported “Some told of being followed to their homes at night and having glistening knives shown to them. Others said that their families at home had received death threats.”
The threats were not taken lightly. Shortly after midnight on February 28, 1913 a bomb exploded on the street directly below the sleeping quarters of another apparel firm, Fruhauf Brothers & Co. at No. 54 West 15th Street. Around 150 men and women were inside, but were unhurt.
Then, around 2:00 a.m. a foot-long pipe smashed through a window on the second floor where Hornthal, Benjamin & Reim workers were sleeping. “When the heavy missile thumped on the floor there was such consternation that the police of the Mercer Street Station had to be called to quiet the frightened workers,” reported The Times later that morning.
A policeman dropped the pipe into a bucket of water, and then assured the workers that it was a fake. Reporters were told that “the act was attributed to garment strikers desiring to ‘get even’ with Hornthal, Benjamin & Reim.”
But the loyal workers refused to be intimidated. The New York Times interviewed one employee who said “When I was sick last Winter, my boss sent me my wages every week. Now I have a chance to prove my appreciation and I am going to continue working in spite of death threats. I want to say that I am prepared to meet any one who attacks me, and when I strike it will be to kill.”
Other apparel firms would come and go here. In 1912 Sohn, Oppenheim & Co., “makers of ‘Sailor-waist’ brand trousers,” moved from West 20th Street to the building. The Clothier and Furnisher reported in August that year that “the new premises on Fourteenth Street have been very handsomely fitted up. The loft is an unusually light one, and it is entirely finished in white, making a very pleasing appearance.”
When F. W. Woolworth moved out, the store was taken over by another five-and-ten-cent store, F. & W. Grant. Like Woolworth, it operated a soda fountain here. But it did not come without problems.
In September 1932 a pipe leading to the refrigeration unit broke, leaking ammonia gas. Seven young women were overcome by the dangerous fumes. Newspapers reported that an ambulance surgeon from St. Vincent’s Hospital treated them and they were sent home.
A worse incident occurred on June 5, 1936 when 20 employees collapsed around 5:30 in the afternoon. Sulphur dioxide fumes were escaping from an ice cream cooler in the basement. No one smelled the gas as it seeped up to the first floor until, after about 45 minutes, it became concentrated enough to overtake the employees.
“The store, which employs 150 persons, was filled with rush-hour customers and a near catastrophe was averted when James Evans, a Negro porter, ran to the basement and shut off the cooling plant. Evans himself was overcome as he struggled back to the street floor,” reported The Times.
Seventeen girls and three men were dragged to the sidewalk and the store’s manager ordered the 14th Street door closed. Three ambulances and three emergency squads responded. Part of the second floor was vacant and was turned into a triage space. Although the condition of the victims was not considered serious, Evans and five of the girls were taken to Columbus Hospital for observation. “The fourteen others were sent home in taxicabs by the store management.”
In the meantime the Delehanty Institute had moved into 15,000 square feet of the building in 1930. The organization trained candidates for both the Police and Fire Departments. When the Institute renewed its lease in January 1941, a running track was installed on the roof.
Among the other tenants that year was the Kramer Tie Company. Like its predecessors, the firm was sometimes plagued with union problems, and that year 40 girls walked out on strike, halting production of a $25,000 Government order for 100,000 black neckties for the United States Army. Samuel Kramer, head of the firm, insisted he was caught “in the middle” between the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, which which he had a contract, and the A F. L. which called the strike. Fortunately for Kramer (and the Army), the girls came back to work the next day.
Bon Marche, deemed by The New York Times as “a store known for its well-styled, inexpensive furniture, took over the building in 1955. In 1960 the newspaper said that “while it is geared to young budget-minded people, it is attracting their parents, too.
“Customers of all ages can be seen toting anything from a collapsible Fiberglas screen to a small children’s chest out of this shop at 26 East Fourteenth Street. Although furniture has to be hauled down a whole flight of stairs, taking a purchase home saves pennies.”
Bon Marche remained at the location until 1963; however retained space in the building for warehousing. Then in 1990 the building was converted to a day care center on the ground floor, classrooms, gymnasium and locker rooms on floors two and three, and offices on the top floors.
In 1999 it became a condominium, with the New School acquiring the upper floors as the Parsons School of Design annex. Following a 2014 cleaning and repainting of the façade, a health club took over the sidewalk level. After having survived a period of rust and neglect, D. & J. Jardine’s remarkable cast iron façade is pristine once again.
photographs by the author