Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"The Waist House" No. 865 Broadway

By the mid-19th century, the tradition of Manhattan’s fashionable residential neighborhoods was a northward migration away from the ever-expanding commercial districts.  But the residential nature of the blocks between Union Square and 23rd Street was astoundingly short-lived.

When E. W. Clawson erected his fine four-story brick home at No. 865 Broadway in 1843 he most likely anticipated spending many years here.  And yet only seven years later the Clawson family was gone and their home taken over by the Esther S. Leverett school.    That year The New York Mercantile Union Business Directory noted that along with Esther, Alphonse Perrin and D. Cherbuliez were instructing young ladies in French.

Joseph D. Beers owned the building by the 1860s.  As the War of the Rebellion raised patriotic fervor, the former Clawson home was leased to Major Halasko’s Drill Academy.  The military school staged an exhibition at Niblo’s Garden on the afternoon of Saturday, January 24, 1863.

The New York Times reported “There were in attendance about sixty of the pupils, who, by the way, style themselves New-York Cadets.  The exercises opened with Company drills, and then an amusing play, so cast as to bring the entire class upon the stage, and to give them an opportunity of exhibiting their proficiency in drill, was given.”  The newspaper noted that the Garden was “crowded to its utmost capacity” and the audience was “evidently greatly pleased with the exercises.”

Joseph Beers was an active player in the real estate field.  In 1869 he had the brick house totally renovated.  Although the alteration permit listed Charles B. Wood as the owner; there is little doubt that Beers still owned the building and would continue to do so for decades.  It was most likely a clerical error.  Charles B. Wood was an architect and the permit omitted the architect’s name.

The renovations resulted in a stylish cast iron façade and storefront and an up-to-date mansard roof.  Cast iron was recently popular for commercial structures, not only because of the rapid process of bolting the new face onto the structure, but for its relatively low expense and the fireproof qualities.  The new “Commercial Palace” styled façade pretended to be stone with rusticated piers running up the sides and vermiculated keystones over the openings.

The revamped structure became home to Howard & Co., jewelers.  Like other upscale jewelers, the firm also offered “real bronzes, of fine make and finish,” and other expensive decorative items.   But perhaps its most profitable business was in Waltham watches.  Howard & Co. was the exclusive agent for that firm.

Howard & Co. ambitiously entered the mail-order market by 1872 when it targeted the Far West in an advertisement in Appletons’ Journal.   Readers requesting a catalog and price list could order a watch, delivered “by Express,” with no obligation to pay until the watch was examined.  The advertisement advised “Residents of California, Oregon, and other distant places will find a great advantage in dealing with us.”

An advertisement in the New-York Tribune listed several of the models available in the store.  Included were “the new small-size Ladies’ Stem-winder,” presentation watches, and “a full line of Stem-winding Watches for gentlemen.”

But the Howard & Co. soon failed.  Perhaps all those watches being shipped to the West with no down-payment and no way of tracking down the recipient proved to be a bad idea.  On December 22, 1872 The New York Times reported that Howard & Co…have reduced the prices on their goods twenty percent, having determined to close out their stock.”  The newspaper said “Chains, rings, lockets, bracelets, &c., of elegant design, and especially suited for presents, may be purchased at this store at very low prices.”

Two years later, Charles B. Wood was called back to alter the structure again.  The mansard roof was replaced by a full fifth floor, faced in brick, which closely mimicked the architecture below.

The store space was taken over by a fashionable “hat and fur store.”  The shops along this stretch of Broadway catered to New York’s carriage trade.  Only Manhattan’s upper class could afford to shop at No. 865 Broadway in 1875.  Annie Johnson was not among them.

On Saturday evening, November 20 that year Annie strolled into the shop.  She browsed through several items, and then chose a hat.  When the clerk turned his back to wrap the item, he heard the door shut as Annie abruptly left the store.

The New York Times reported that “immediately after her departure the clerk missed a seal-skin sack valued at $200.”  The highly popular accessory was no small theft.  The price tag would translate to about $4,450 today.

Annie Johnson, who gave her occupation as a dressmaker, was subsequently arrested and held at a staggering $2,000 bail.  She “pleaded her innocence of the theft.”

By 1883 interest in Asian culture and decorative arts had swept the country, heavily influenced by the Aesthetic Movement.   Every up-to-date home had a room or at least a corner devoted to an Asian motif.   The store where Annie Johnson pilfered the sack was now home to The First Japanese Mfg. and Trading Co.  As Christmas neared that year, it advertised “Ornamental and useful holiday gifts in porcelain, bronze, silver, screens, cabinets, and curios.  An Inspection Solicited.”

The store used lectures by experts in home décor as an interesting marketing ploy—experts who no doubt stressed Asian decoration.   On Monday, February 15 1886 at 3:00 Edmund Russell gave “a lecture on the decorative arts” at the First Japanese Trading Company’s gallery.

An interesting advertisement appeared in The Sun later that year, on December 5.  The one-line ad informed shoppers that “Christmas Cheap Counters Are Ready.”

In the first years of the 1890s Harris Brothers, manufacturers of expensive gloves, held a long-term lease on the building.  The first signs of trouble appeared in late September, 1893 when The New York Times reported that the firm had sought to sell its lease.  “It seems the rental is $12,500 per year, until next May and $13,000 per year thereafter for five years.  There was no bid.”

Almost simultaneously, the Joseph Beers estate negotiated with John Pettit to trade the Broadway building for the Electrical Exchange Building on Washington Street.  The deal was conditional on Pettit’s being able to raise a loan of $150,000 on No. 865 Broadway.  When that did not happen the deal fell through and the Beers estate retained possession.

Unable to get out of its lease, Sigmund and Albert Harris continued to struggle on.  Their merchandise included ladies’ kid gloves, and suede and “castor mousquetaires.”  Three months later, as the holidays approached Harris Brothers launched a half-price sale to attract customers.  “Variety and quality unsurpassed,” promised the advertisement on December 9.

Although the firm “rallied temporarily,” according to The New York Times months later, business “afterward went down steadily.”  The Harris brothers were forced to declare bankruptcy.   The humiliation was too much for Albert.

On Saturday morning, October 6, 1894 he got up around 6:30 in his home at No. 103 East 72nd Street.  Two days later The New York Times bluntly reported “Arising before the rest of the family, he went down into the parlor, and, after closing the heavy doors, blew his brains out.”

No one in the house heard the shot and it was not until a family member went to call him for breakfast and found his room empty, that his body was found.

Well-to-do Victorian families avoided the scandal of suicide and Albert’s was quickly hushed.  The report of the undertaker who was hired to remove the body simply read “sudden death.”  Sigmund had taken the pistol from the body.

When rumors of suicide reached the East 77th Street Police Station, Policeman Walter Thompson investigated.  “The family told Thompson that the story of suicide was untrue; that Harris had died o heart failure, having been taken sick on Friday afternoon,” reported The Times.

But the whispers in the neighborhood persisted and Police Captain Strauss was unconvinced.  He sent a plain-clothed detective to the house “with the warning that if the full facts were not at once reported to the station house, every one in the house would be put under arrest.”

The Times wrote “This warning had the desired effect.”  Albert’s son and a family confidante, Charles Lessen, went to the station and laid out the facts.

Lessen explained “that the family had not intended to violate the law, but thought that they had a right to conceal the suicide.”  The Times noted that Harris “had been depressed for some time, owing to business troubles.”

For a few years immediately following Harris Brothers’ moving out, No. 865 Broadway was home to the Lindenborn Auction galleries.  In April 1895 one auction, lasting more than a full week, offered the entire contents of “Rophine Rouis, of Fifth Av.”  The exclusive “bric-a-brac and lamp store,” which also had a branch on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, had gone under.  D. Lindenborn’s auction advertisement mentioned “lamps, shades, and artistic furnishings.”

In a situation eerily similar to that of Albert Harris, two months after the auction sale, George W. Rouis, cousin of Rophine Rouis and former manager of the Fifth Avenue store, committed suicide by shooting himself in the right side of the head.

Following Lindenborn in the building was the John Forsythe Company.   The firm manufactured and sold men’s apparel and accessories; but this location would be solely dedicated to its women’s wear—the shirt waist.  The building was dubbed “The Waist House” by June 1899.

On Sunday February 18, 1900 Forsythe advertised its new line of “real rumchunda waists and squares.”  The three sidewalk-level show windows were given over to the new display which the ad promised “will produce a profound sensation.  Nothing like it has ever been attempted before.”
John Forsythe deemed the new goods to be on the cutting edge of fashion.  “Ladies going abroad this year will find Waists made from the Real Rumchunda Squares extremely fashionable.  We have them in larger assortment, and in more exclusive styles than any house in Europe.”  The advertisement mentioned the “Special Exhibit on Third floor, where you may buy the Waists and Neckwear to match or the pattern lengths as you desire.”

John Forsythe advertised his hand-knit sweater as "indispensable for Skating, Riding, Driving, Golf, Etc."  The New-York Tribune, December 15, 1901 (copyright expired)
The Waist House continued to prosper.  In 1904 Forsythe renewed his lease—signing a new agreement for 10 years at $18,500 per year.  The following year he grabbed the opportunity to purchase the building.    His line of ladies’ apparel grew and in 1906 had made the third floor the Corset Department where the well-known Redfern whalebone corsets could be purchased.  In other areas of the building women could shop for walking suits and shirt waists, including “pure Irish linen hand embroiders shirts waists” and “Baby Irish crochet lace waists.”

In September 1907 John Forsythe brought his men’s and women’s businesses together when he expanded into the former Ditson Building next door.  On September 22 The New York Times announced “John Forsyth, [sic] originally using the single building at 865 Broadway, has taken over the adjoining structures up to and including the Eighteenth Street corner, and by reconstruction has converted the whole into one establishment with 185 feet of street frontage.”

It was apparently an over-aggressive move.  In June 1910 the Bank for Savings initiated foreclosure proceedings and on August 5 the building was sold.  Within two weeks the buyer, Edward Kates, had resold the property to Mrs. E. Blumenthal.  Her ownership, too, would be short lived.  On June 1, 1911 the building was sold in yet another foreclosure sale.  The purchaser, ironically enough, was the Beers Realty Corporation.

Beers moved the fire escape from the rear to the front of the building in 1912.  That same year it leased the store and basement to Fry and Friedsam, ribbon merchants.  That fall the Plymouth Raincoat store moved in.  It was a temporary move for Plymouth, prompted by being “ousted” from its Sixth Avenue store.  An October 24 advertisement explained “Our store leased over our heads by unreasonable landlord, forcing us to vacate with large stock on hand…We have therefore taken Temporary Store at 865 B’way.”

Beers Realty still owned No. 865 Broadway when it leased the entire building to the New York Edison Company for a term of 15 years in December 1922.  The firm kept the first floor retail space intact, while converting the upper floors to “factory” space.

Despite its 10-year lease, New York Edison Company was apparently gone from the building by 1939 when Womrath Book Shops and Libraries, Inc. took an entire floor “which will be occupied by the firm’s mail-order department,” advised The New York Times on December 2.  The following year Imperial Drug Exchange took a full floor.

When Kitty Less bought the building in 1941 the decline of the neighborhood was reflected in the property values.  “The tax valuation of the parcel is $53,500” reported The Times, “of which $42,500 is on the land.”    The $11,000 building value would amount to only about $177,000 today.

Throughout the rest of the century the building would see the comings and goings of small businesses like the wholesale sunglasses firm doing business here in 1951 and ’52.  The company advertised “aviation type” sunglasses at $4.20 per dozen.

By the turn of the 21st century the neighborhood saw a revitalization and many of the vintage structures along Broadway were restored as trendy restaurants and shops rediscovered Union Square.  No. 865 has not been so lucky to date.  The cast iron façade, veiled by the zig-zagging fire escape, wears a paint of dull and flaking maroon paint.  But its location within the Ladies’ Mile Historic District promises that a renaissance is just a matter of time.

photographs by the author

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