Friday, April 1, 2016

Kewpie Garters and Theft -- Nos. 512-516 Broadway

In 1862 Broadway, between Broome and Spring Streets, was no longer the sedate residential block it had been.   The house at No 516 which had formerly been home to tailor Henry Howard survived; but next door was Wood’s Minstrel Hall.  In 1871 Josh Hart took over the theater, renaming it the Theatre Comique and changing the fare to popular variety shows.

The area continued to change and by 1881 New York’s entertainment district had moved further north.  It was replaced by the apparel and wholesale dry goods merchants.  Investors E. Livington, W. H. De Forest, and C. L. Perkins purchased and demolished the properties at Nos. 512 through 514, including, of course, the old theater; as well as the buildings on Crosby Street to the rear.

Their architects, Lamb & Wheeler, filed plans in June 1881 for a six-story brick structure containing “stores, &c.”  In addition to the brick, the plans called for Wyoming blue stone, iron, and “New’s patent brick roof, iron and slate cornice.”  The architects projected the price at about $300,000—nearly $7.2 million today.

Construction began on August 8 that year and was completed 12 months later, on August 31, 1882.  The eclectic facade was like little else in the neighborhood.  Lamb & Wheeler had placed the cast iron storefronts within a base of rough-cut stone.  The piers rose half-way into the second floor where they ended in capitals, of sorts, looking rather like unrolled scrolls.  Above, the verticality of the uninterrupted three-and-a-half story brick piers was emphasized by the stone quoins which ran zipper-like to the splayed lintels of the fifth floor openings.

The decoration of the stone spandrels of the third floor included formal carvings of medallions and lions’ heads, as well as purposely undressed blocks set in panels.  At the fifth floor they changed to delicate neoclassical swags. Most unusual was the top floor where rows of arched windows were filled with transoms of leaded glass.   A tall parapet included surprising lancet openings and stone supports adorned with carved faces.  The iron cornice, lost decades ago, was interrupted by tops of the brick pilasters which broke through the roofline.

Among the first tenants was J. W. Goddard & Sons, manufacturers of “trimming goods.”   Its manufacturing space was on the top floor, while it operated a store on at street level.  The firm employed 20-year old John Gray who little by little stole packages of goods which he sold across the river to Herman Havener, a Jersey City tailor.   By the time the company figured out who was responsible, Gray had made off with a staggering $10,000 worth of merchandise.

The young man was arrested on December 2, 1882; but was released in February following his indictment.  His former employer was outraged.  J. Warren Goddard told a reporter from The Sun “I feel that if an employee can steal $10,000 worth of goods, and then go free after conviction, there is very little inducement for citizens to try and bring offenders to justice…Here is a man who steals $10,000 worth of goods, confesses the fact without offering the slightest excuse, and he is at liberty.”

Goddard recounted his losses.  “We only recovered $18 worth of the goods, and the last package stolen.  Gray has turned over to us a horse and wagon he had purchased with $400 of our money, and that is all we can get.” 

And he threatened to find out who was behind the felon’s release.  “We do not yet know what influence has been used to secure his liberation, but we shall find out.”

Gray’s accomplice in the crime did not fare so well.  Herman Havener was sentenced on July 27 the following year to 18 months imprisonment.  Although he admitted to receiving the stolen goods, he appealed the sentence “on the ground that it was no crime against the laws of New-Jersey for a man to receive goods stolen in another State,” said The New York Times.  “The Supreme Court, however, decided against him.”

Sharing the sixth floor of the building with J. W. Goddard & Sons was the apparel firm of August, Burnheim & Bauer.  Like J. W. Goddard, the firm would be robbed by its own employee.  In 1885 Frederick Fishe was the cashier “and confidential man” of the firm.  The New York Times remarked that “he had access to funds of the firm and to the bank account.”  The newspaper added, twelve years later, that he was also known “on the race track” as Pinkey and “is not a stranger to the New York jails.”

The police first became acquainted with Fischel when he disappeared from August, Burnheim & Bauer on September 18, 1885.  When the books were examined, $90,000 was found missing.  He fled to Canada; but his conscience got the best of him and he sent a letter to his employers “confessing the theft, and giving the names and addresses of well-known gamblers in whose places he claimed to have lost all of the money,” reported The Times.

If Fischel thought that he would be safe from arrest in Canada, he was wrong.  He was tracked down and brought back for trial.  His addiction to gambling would repeatedly land him back in jail for crimes like forgery and robbery.

Still reeling from the $90,000 theft, August, Bernham & Bauer suffered another blow less than six months later when fire broke out early in the morning of April 22, 1886.   It had just received the new spring stock, as had J. W. Goddard & Sons. 

There were three other firms in the building at the time.  A. Laufer & Co., manufacturers and importers of hats, was in the store at No. 514, next to Goddard’s; August Brothers, makers of boys’ clothing was on the third, fourth and fifth floors; and Plonsky & Simon, neckwear makers, was on the second floor and part of the sixth.

The devastating fire was reported as far away as Kansas, where the Western Kansas World noted that the building was “one of the most valuable in the city.”   The building had no night watchman; but August, Bernheim & Bauer had installed a modern “automatic fire alarm.”   The system would have worked had it not been for the inaction of an alarm company employee.

The signal was received at 6:49 a.m.  But the man on duty assumed that there was a problem with the grounding of the wires and sent a subordinate to “go round to see what was the matter.”  When he got to the scene, the fire was intense.  Fire Marshal Sheldon later complained “The delay occasioned by the action of the man in charge at the automatic company’s office was about seven minutes.”

By the time fire fighters arrived, the fire was “coming out of the fifth and sixth floor windows…’in sheets.’”  At one point firemen were called back from inside the building when it appeared they might be cut off from below by the inferno.  “A few seconds later about 20 feet square of the brick roof fell where they would have been,” reported The Times the following day.

The multiple-alarm fire nearly gutted the top floor and by the time it was extinguished several fire fighters were removed to the hospital.   An early estimate of damages to the building was $25,000; but losses to the tenants was appreciatively higher.

Laufer & Co., whose selection of spring hats was mostly straw and light materials, said that half its stock—around $40,000—was destroyed.  The goods of the other firms were nearly wiped out, the total loss estimated at nearly $1.6 million—nearly 40 times that much in today’s money.

Perkins and Livingston still owned the building and were fully insured.  The structure was repaired, including the brick roof, and tenants were operating within a year.  All the firms except August, Bernheim & Bauer returned. 

The one new firm in the building was Fleisch & Co. makers of neckwear.  In December 1887 it was looking for someone to assemble boxes for its goods.  An advertisement in The Sun announced “Wanted, experienced hands on scarf boxes; glue work.”

The success of J. W. Goddard & Sons was reflected not only in J. Warren Goddard’s handsome residence at No. 10 West 33rd Street; but in the fact that one of its executives, Horace Jones, also owned mining properties in Mexico.

Just a year later, on November 17, 1888, the building was ablaze again.  An automatic alarm sounded just after 8:00 that night and this time response was quick.  Several fire companies were sent to the “six-story building with a fancy brick and stone front,” as described by the New-York Tribune.

The firefighters were hampered by the integrity of the structure and the heavy iron security shutters on the windows.  “The firemen had difficulty in breaking into the building and a still harder job in getting lines of hose up the stairways to the fifth story, where the fire was burning,” reported the newspaper.  It added “Firemen worked on the roof for an hour after the flames had got into the top story, but they could not cut through the thick layers of bricks.”

When the fire was extinguished, the damages were assessed.  The Tribune was of the opinion “the building did not appear to be greatly damaged, and it probably can be repaired for $2,000.”  The tenants were, again, not so lucky.  Water was responsible for most of the damaged.  A. Laufer & Co. lost $5,000 in hats; Plonsky & Simon figured they “probably will lose $10,000;” August Brothers put their losses as $25,000.

Fleisch & Co. and J. W. Goddard Sons were still in the building 1890.  That year, on September 18, J. Woodward Goddard died in his 33rd Street home at the age of 63.   Other tenants prior to the turn of the century included Blementhal Bros., “fur capes and cloaks;” and B. Blumenthal, importers of buttons.

By 1900 the lace importing firm owned by Henlein and Emil S. Levi  was here.  They formed Levi, Sondheimer & Co., when they admitted Samuel Kohn and J. Sondheimer into the firm.  The ambitious brothers helped form the Woodmere Realty Company with other investors in November 1909. 

The second decade of the 20th century saw No. 512-516 Broadway filling with firms involved in the knitting business.  In 1912 Arthur and Edwin Frankenstein moved the Arthur Frankenstein & Co. into the building.  The firm manufactured hose supporters, or garters.   Yale Knitting Mills was here by 1913.

A craze was sweeping America at the time.  Rose O’Neill had created baby cupid comic strip characters which she called Kewpies in 1909.  In 1912 a German manufacturer began exporting bisque dolls which became the rage among the American public.

Arthur Frankenstein & Co. took quick advantage of the fad and in February 1914 Notions and Fancy Goods reported that “The wonderful success of the trade advertising of 'Kewpie' garters” had encouraged the firm to start a national advertising campaign.    The firm would identify itself as the “manufacturer of Kewpie Garters” well into the 1920s.

A mystery arose in 1917 surrounding the secretary of Yale Knitting Mills, Henry Hirshman.  He had been ill for several months before he left for work on Friday, June 22.  That morning he handed his wife his watch and check book “to take care of.”  She told him she thought he should take them with him to the office.

He was dapperly dressed when he left the Brooklyn house, wearing a blue serge suit, a silk shirt, tan Oxford shoes and a Panama hat.  According to Isidor E. Hirschman, vice president of the company and Henry’s brother, “After he reached his office he put the watch in a drawer and left, saying he was going to a barber shop.”

He never returned to the office.  A search of hospitals revealed no trace of him.  Investigators were at a loss to explain his disappearance.

Firms in the Broadway building continued to be cursed with felonious employees.  Shapiro Brothers was doing well in 1918, having won a large wartime contract for supplying bandoleers—the broad belts with pockets for carrying ammunition worn by soldiers--to the United States Army.  But trouble came when 25-year old Jacob Wamb was sent to the Citizen’s National Bank on Friday, August 2 that year to bring back the payroll.

At the time, employees’ pay envelopes contained cash.  So Wamb, who had been employed by the company for over four years and “enjoyed a good reputation,” was entrusted with $4,607 in bills.  He never came back with the cash.

His reasons, according to his wife, were purely patriotic.  According to The Sun on August 7, she “said her husband was a British subject and had stated his intention of joining the British forces.”

It would be Frankenstein & Company who suffered employee theft next.  Max Spero had been a shipping clerk for the firm for 21 years.  A bachelor, he was earning $35 a week in 1921; in the neighborhood of $25,000 a year today.

The company had given him a gold watch on his 20th anniversary and said he received “two months’ vacation a year with pay” and that they gave him weekends off.  So in July 1921 when he confessed to pilfering up to $2,000 a year his employers were shocked.

On July 24 the New-York Tribune ran a headline that read “To Think Such a Fellow Got a Watch as a Gift!” and opined “Max Spero will get no more gold watches or week ends in the country at the expense of his firm that for twenty years has been showering favors upon him as a trusted employee.”

It was not an employee who robbed J. and S. Milberg, apparel manufacturers of its payroll in 1930.  Depression Era armed robberies were not uncommon; but on the afternoon of January 14 that year three hold-up men were uncommonly brazen.

While 300 employees were at work marking garments, four office workers were putting together the payroll—a total of $6,000 in cash.  Suddenly three “neatly dressed young men” walked into the door brandishing pistols.  One, wearing a handkerchief over his face like a Wild West bandit, pointed his gun at the four women and Lazarus Lipschitz, the accountant.  In an equally Wide West moment, he order them to “stick ‘em up.”

The terrified office workers were told to “keep quiet and nothing will happen, but if you don’t there will be plenty doing.”  As he spoke, his accomplices scooped up the cash into a bag.  They fled within a few moments of their arrival.

The iron cornice of the building (far left) appears to be gone by the 1930s.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Apparel and textile companies continued to populate the building throughout the first half of the century; among them the Loomcrest Company, Whittenton Mfg, knit goods, and Loom-Tex Corp.  But after mid-century the apparel district had moved north.  In 1958 Adolph L. Gross Associates, representatives of electronics manufacturers, was here.  And two years later Sony had its offices in the building.

The cast iron storefront at No. 512 is relatively intact.

The major change came in 1982 when, as the Soho district transformed from a gritty, industrial neighborhood to a trendy quarter filled with galleries and cafés, the upper floors were converted to artist studios with “accessory living.”   

photo by Town Residential

Today two stores occupy the ground floor, as has been the case for 130 years.  The upper floors, where mostly immigrant women one manufactured garters adorned with Kewpie characters, contain luxurious residential spaces.

non-credited photographs by the author

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