Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Lewis Broome's No. 12 White Street

In 1833 George W. Tucker demolished an old building at No. 12 White Street, between West Broadway and Church Street, to erect a Federal-style home.  Exactly one decade later, Tucker decided to convert the residence to a boarding house.  All new furniture was ordered and the rooms arranged to accommodate respectable tenants.  Finally, in January 1844 things were ready.

On January 15 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune:  “Board With Furnished Rooms—For two gentlemen and their wives, and three single gentlemen, can be had at No. 12 White-street, one block from Broadway.  The house is newly furnished throughout in the most costly manner.  The table supplied with the best that the market affords, and every possible attention paid to ensure the comfort of boarders.  References exchanged.”

By the third quarter of the century the quiet residential block had greatly changed.  Most of the old homes had been razed; replaced by modern loft buildings that most often housed retail shops at ground level.  The Kingsland family, for instance, had razed their house next door at No. 14 and the adjoining house at No. 16, in May 1867 to build a wide loft building.

George W. Tucker died on June 19, 1881, and two years later his sons, Clarence, Charles and Arthur, laid plans to upgrade the property at No. 12 White Street.  They commissioned New Jersey architect Lewis H. Broome to design a replacement structure—a money-producing loft building in the latest style.  The 34-year old architect would go on to become one of New Jersey’s most recognized architects—designing the exuberant City Hall in Jersey City, as well as the New Jersey State House.

Broome filed his plans in June 1883, calling for a “six-story brick stone and iron store” at a cost of $30,000 (in the neighborhood of $730,000 in 2015).  He masterfully combined two currently popular styles—neo-Grec and Queen Anne—to produce a vibrant façade of textures, shapes and decoration.

Incised, stylized sunflowers were a product of the Aesthetic Movement.
Broome had only a 24-foot wide plot on which to set a factory building.  He used the narrow and tall proportions to his design advantage—accentuating the verticality of the structure with incised lines in the brick piers, for instance, to draw the eye ever upward.  While much of the façade reflected the neo-Grec—the corbelled cornice brackets and stone bands, for instance—Broome splashed it liberally with Queen Anne elements like the foliate terra cotta trim below the stone sills.

Broome’s New Jersey connections may have been responsible for the choice of suppliers for the cast iron storefront.  The handsome pilasters bear the foundry mark of Mansfield & Fagan, Hoboken.

The Lowenthal Manufacturing Company took space in the new building.  A “ruffling house,” it manufactured the strips of frilled or pleated fabric so essential in Victorian gowns and costumes. 

Baseball had been around in America for decades by 1888; but by now the sport was rabidly popular.  The men working in the Lowenthal factory formed a company team and in July that year they sent out a challenge to two competing firms.  The team’s manager, Jake W. Steigerwald placed a notice in The Sun on July 24, 1888.  “The Lowenthal Manufacturing Company’s nine will challenge all ruffling house nines, Rosenthal Bros. and Silverberg Bros. preferred.”

Good natured competition and high morale among its employees could not save Henry S. Lowenthal’s business, however, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy that year with liabilities of $22,000.

Also in the building were the offices of the Sonneborn Rubber Comb and Novelty Co., which had recently moved from No. 63 Leonard Street.  The firm manufactured rubber items for the burgeoning electricity industry in its Morrisville, Pennsylvania factory.   It listed among its offerings “sheets, rods, tubing, key knobs, switch handles, insulator hooks, and mold works.” 

Working for the Sonneborn concern here in 1889 was Hannah I. Crowley, described by The New York Times as “a pretty young typewriter and stenographer.”  Edwin O. Sonneborn worked at Spielman & Co. at No. 46 Greene Street; but he often stopped by his father’s offices and the pretty young typewriter caught his eye.

Young Sonneborn’s passions got the better of his good judgment and he was arrested on August 1, 1889 on charges “of sending an obscene letter to Hannah I. Crowley.”  Victorian law enforcement did not look kindly upon lewd behavior and sexual intimidation of women.  Sonneborn’s bail was set at $3,000—an amount that would translate to nearly $80,000 today.

Problems came for Sonneborn Rubber Comb and Novelty Company in 1890 when the disastrous Johnstown Flood caused damage to its Morrisville plant.  The state’s Governor’s Fund for flood relief provided a disappointing $106.75 to the firm.

As had been the case with Henry Lowenthal, the Sonneborn Rubber Comb and Novelty Company found itself in financial trouble by 1891.  That year a judgment in the staggering amount of $71,492.77 was rendered against the company.  The entire operation, including the company’s “goodwill” was bought out by the Goodyear Vulcanite Company.
In the meantime, James Black & Co., importers of linen handkerchiefs, was in the White Street building.  The company’s factory was located in Belfast. 

In 1890 the company had hired Francis I. Flagg, a veteran of the industry.  In carrying out his responsibilities, he made repeated trips across the Atlantic.  Thomas Black described him as “a most exemplary man in every respect, faithful and conscientious in the discharge of business duties.  He was one of those quiet, conservative men that are most particular in their deportment with their fellows.”

On Wednesday, March 16, 1892 Flagg boarded the steamship Teutonic with his boss, James Black and Mrs. Black.  They were headed to Ireland to visit the factory; but something went horribly wrong.  James Black sent a telegram to his brother Thomas a week later, on March 22, informing him that Flagg was lost overboard at sea.  His terse message promised “particulars by letter.”

Thomas Black told reporters he could not fathom how this misfortune happened to the 44-year old bachelor.  “He had no enemies and those who knew him well were very fond of him.  He had no bad habits and was not convivial at any time.  I cannot understand how such an accident could have happened to him.”

When fire broke out in the building at 6:00 on the evening of January 24, 1894 it was initially deemed by investigators as “seemingly suspicious.”  But the following afternoon The Evening World reported that Fire Marshal Thomas Freal had changed his mind.  He said “that from the hasty investigation he made of the building…he came to the conclusion that there was really little ground for suspicion.

By 1909 Israel Gitenstein filled all five of the upper floors of No. 12 White Street with his dry goods jobbing operation.   The ground floor was occupied by Ireland Brothers, importers of embroidered linen and lace.

That year Gitenstein joined his brother, Abraham Gitenstein and William J. Elsesser to form another jobbing company, The Riverside Shirt Company, nearby at No. 256 Church Street.  Men’s Wear magazine noted “I. Gitenstein is in the same line at 12 White street, but the new corporation, he states, will have no connection with his business.”

Israel Gitenstein’s diversification seemed to be a good idea three years later.  On June 3, 1912 his factory was gutted by fire.  The bales of fabric and other flammable materials had smoldered in the closed rooms; but when windows were broken and air let in, a vicious backdraft erupted.

A second, then a third alarm was turned in, and 16 high-pressure hoses shot torrents of water from adjoining roofs at a rate of 12,000 gallons a minute.  The entire façade of the building seemed at one point to be on the verge of collapse.  The Times reported that firefighters were ordered down from the fire escapes by Deputy Chief Martin “because of the shaky condition of the front wall, which was succumbing to the battery of the powerful streams.  Hundreds of bricks were washed out of place and the building after the fire looked as if it had been under bombardment.”

The fire wiped out Gitenstein’s factory and caused $60,000 in water damage to Ireland Brothers’ stock.  Like the 1894 blaze, this one seemed suspicious.  But unlike that one, it was the work of arsonists.  And Israel Gitenstein was soon implicated.

On January 22, 1913 The New York Times reported on three confessions obtained by the Illinois State Attorney in his investigation of “the so-called ‘arson trust.’”  Business owners were being approached by adjusters who “pointed out to them how easy it would be to collect the insurance.”  Subpoenas were issued, as well, for the firm that provided the “trust” with the gasoline used in the arsons and for the driver who transported it.

On March 10 Benjamin Fink, called by the Attorney Frank Johnson the “torch” of the trust, caved in, giving investigators a thorough confession.  “Fink admitted everything when he saw there was no chance of being freed in the courts,” reported The Times, “inasmuch as his partner, Benjamin Kahn, had already been convicted.”

Listed among his $1 million in arson jobs was the “large wholesale dry goods house of Israel Gitenstein, 12 White Street; loss $200,000; insurance $300,000.”  The Gitenstein fire was important in solving the arson ring.  The New York Times noted “The New York police were warned several days before this fire occurred that Fink was going to start it.”

Repairs were made and the building continued to house linen and dry goods firms.  In 1927 Robert McBride Linen Co. leased the store and basement.  A decade later an apparel and dry goods-related firm would take over the building.  In March 1936 No. 12 White Street was leased as the New York office of the Brook Company of Richmond, Virginia.  The trucking firm transported fabrics for the dry goods concerns of the district.

A year later the company suffered a loss when one of its semi tractor-trailers disappeared.  Driver Harry D. Hasty and his helper George Kinlaw pulled up to the White Street building at around 3:30 in the morning on November 29, 1937.  Exhausted after the long trip from Richmond, the men checked into a nearby hotel.

When they returned in the morning, the rig, valued at $9,000 was gone.  Inside was $15,000 worth of rayons and silks.   Later the police found the empty truck and trailer in Brooklyn.

Ralph W. Gulda, retailer of sheets, took the store space in 1941.  But the dry goods district would be gone from Tribeca during the second half of the century.  As factories became residential space and former shops were converted to galleries and cafes; the White Light Art Gallery moved into No. 12 White Street in the 1980s, followed by the Art Collaborative gallery.  By the early 1990s the upper floors housed apartments.

The destruction of old loft buildings inched right up to No. 12 White when 6th Avenue was extended .
Lewis Broome’s striking red-and-white design stands out among the more traditional loft buildings on the block.  Its handsome façade is strikingly preserved after a history of more than 130 years that included fires and the narrow escape of demolition caused by the gouging of Sixth Avenue through the block.

 photographs by the author

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