In 1839 John Mason died in his stylish mansion on the southeast corner of Broadway and Bleecker Street. Known as the "father of the Chemical" bank, a founder of the New York and Harlem Railroad, and a large Manhattan landowner, he was one of the city's wealthiest citizens. His daughter, Mary Mason Jones, would rule as a queen of New York society.
As the turn of the century approached, the fine brick mansions along this section of Broadway had been replaced by commercial buildings. On the site of the Mason house stood a six-story brick and stone structure that stretched the length of the block to Crosby Street. The building was owned by Benjamin Lichtenstein and its ground floor was home to the Empire State Bank. Manufacturers, mostly involved in the apparel business, filled the lofts above.
On November 6, 1895, The Sun reported somewhat poetically, "A flaming bulletin in the vapor-laden sky attracted the election crowds to the neighborhood of Bleecker street and Broadway last night." Many in the throng mistook the red glow for election night bonfires, but it was catastrophically not so.
No. 640 Broadway was ablaze. The fire burned so furiously that firefighters were unable to save it The following morning The Sun reported "The fire had burned to the ground all of this bank's building except the Broadway wall and a part of the Bleecker street wall. This left the vault exposed, but it was well guarded by the flames that still burned around it and the walls above that threatened to fall at any minute."
|The Empire Bank building on November 6, 1895 as seen from the Crosby Street end. The Clothier and Furnisher (copyright expired)|
The building was a total loss, estimated by The Clothier and Furnisher to be "fully $1,000,000." By the end of the month investigators had labeled the blaze "incendiary," or arson.
The devastating loss was too much for the already shaky Empire State Bank. It applied to the Supreme Court for dissolution on February 18, 1896. The New York Times explained "The premises of the Empire State Bank at 640 Broadway were burned on Nov. 5, 1895, and in consequence of the poor business done by the bank for the past few years the Directors and stockholders decided not to continue the business."
Lichtenstein immediately moved to rebuild. He commissioned the well-known firm of DeLemos & Cordes to design the building and construction commenced before the end of the year. Completed in 1897, the nine-story loft structure filled the old site and, in honor of his previous long-term tenant, was given the name The Empire State Building.
Although the new building would be admittedly industrial, DeLemos & Cordes gave it the smart appearance appropriate to its Broadway address. The facade of buff brick trimmed with stone was ornamented neo-Classical touches--cartouches and round windows fitted within arches, for instance. A handsome detail were the two broken pediments above the corner openings of the seventh floor. They included stone finials which, from the street, echoed the classical busts within the pediments over drawing room doorways of some English manor houses.
Among Lichenstein's first tenants was L. Tanenbaum & Bro., real estate operators. The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reminded its readers on January 30, 1897 "Mr. Tanenbaum has for years made a specialty of the sale, rental and appraisal of property in the mercantile district, and with great success." The journal added "The new office is well located and is supplied with up-to-date fittings and furnishings."
1897 was a mayoral election year and a passionate group of Republican businessmen formed the Commercial Men's Tracy Club to back their nominee, Civil War general and former Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy. They established their headquarters on the ground floor of the Empire State Building where they meet weekly prior to the election.
As the day neared, fervor rose. On October 22 the candidate addressed a standing-room-only crowd. The New York Times wrote "The assembly room on the ground floor was filled to the doors. About 400 people were present and a large number were refused admittance."
Tracy was running against former Brooklyn mayor and educator Seth Low. Millionaire attorney and United States Senator Chauncey Depew opened with remarks that would spark outrage today, saying in part "The world would not come to an end if Seth Low died. There are others."
The nominee lightened the mood by turning to humor. "Mr. Low is a good man. He will give us the best government he knows how. But he doesn't know how."
In the end, both candidates were trounced by Robert Anderson Van Wyck.
Henry Supp was a successful general commission merchant. When No. 640 Broadway opened he moved his offices here. Young and unmarried, he lived with his parents on West 90th Street. Following the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, he joined the 71st Regiment and fought in Cuba where he was among the troops who charged up San Juan Hill.
His neglect of his business, while laudably patriotic, took its toll. The New York Times said on July 1, 1899 that "he had not prospered since he went a-soldiering." His financial reversals made him do the unthinkable.
Supp's sweetheart was the windowed Josephine Bennett who lived with her sister and brother-in-law at No. 6 111th Street. The couple was to be married in August 1899. He called on her on May 15 and the following day she noticed a brooch set with pearls and diamonds was missing. No one in the family, of course, wanted to suspect her fiance.
When Supp returned from a business trip to Philadelphia on Thursday, June 29, he went to see Josephine again. When the hour became late, the family made a bed for him on the sofa. After he left the next morning, Josephine realized the $200 ring that she had left on the parlor mantel was gone.
The brokenhearted woman knew "that none but Supp could have taken it," and she had him arrested. He admitted to police that he had taken both items of jewelry. We can assume that the engagement was called off.
A news item that was, perhaps, even more shocking than the Supp case appeared in the papers in the spring of 1901. The New York Times reported "Consternation was caused in the main hallway of the Empire State Building, 640 Broadway, yesterday noon by the appearance of a nude man on the staircase."
The bizarre incident started when a man entered the elevator; but as it started to rise he told the operator he changed his mind and did not want to go upstairs after all. The conductor brought the elevator back to the ground floor where the man got out and frantically started disrobing; tossing his clothing around the lobby.
Policeman Hatch was called and he tried to persuade the man to put on some of his clothing that was scattered about the hallway. Instead the "wildly excited" man attacked. The Times reported "Hatch subdued him after a fierce struggle, and as an ambulance came from St. Vincent's Hospital, succeeded in getting some garments adjusted on his body."
Robert Birmingham fell unconscious in the ambulance. The 43-year old was from Noank, Connecticut and told doctors he had had a similar attack about two years earlier. At the hospital he was diagnosed with catalepsy and hysteria.
In the meantime, the upper floors were filled with a variety of manufacturers, like H. Goldfarm, makers of ladies' hats; J. Levin & Co., skirt manufacturers; and the Crescent Trimmed Hat Company. George Reis & Brother moved in in 1904. The firm manufactured woven labels and tapes. Their 5,000 square foot factory filled an entire floor.
Crescent Trimmed Hat Company was among the largest of the tenants, occupying the sixth through eighth floor. At 2:30 on the afternoon of March 22, 1905 the factory was in full operation when a fire broke out in a pile of hat boxes on the sixth floor where 66 young women worked.
Firefighters from the station at 155 Mercer Street quickly arrived. Their efforts were temporarily hampered by terrified shop girls. The New-York Tribune reported "On the sixth floor they were stopped by the stampede of panic stricken girls from the upper floors. Patrolman Dorn of the Mulberry-st. station helped them drag a score of fainting women out of the crush." In total more than 300 women worked in the top three floors.
Another policeman helped save hysterical women on the lower floors. "Patrolman McCabe worked like a Trojan on the fifth floor. When he had got all the women safely out his blouse was torn and his helmet entirely demolished. There were no fire escapes and most of the women would have been cut off on the stairways if it had not been for the work of the policemen."
A boy employed by the Newell-Putnam Manufacturing Company on the fifth floor tripped in the stairwell. The Sun reported "The crowd trampled on him and he was dragged out half conscious and taken to St. Vincent's Hospital." He had sustained severe internal injuries.
"The fire gutted the three top floors of the Empire State Building," said The Sun the following day. The loss was estimated at $50,000, just under $1.5 million today. "The flood of water ruined nearly every office in the building."
|On February 4, 1906 the New-York Tribune displayed an example of G. Reis & Brother's embroidered lettering and suggested "bridal trousseau initials can be stitched on all towels and tablecloths." (copyright expired)|
The Empire State Building was quickly repaired. George Reis & Brother continued on here, joined by J. Abrahams & Co., importers, the Royal Worcester Corset Company, and real estate operators L. Tanenbaum, Strauss & Co., Inc.
|The price of the Adjusto Dowager corset would be equal to about $83 today. New-York Tribune, May 5, 1907 (copyright expired)|
By 1909 the Kolovitz Millinery Company occupied the second floor, directly above Regeman's Drugstore. For the third time in less than 15 years fire broke out in the building, this time on the second floor. The firm used flammable components such as feathers and artificial flowers in manufacturing its fashionable headwear. Somehow a pile began smoldering, causing a serious smoke condition.
The New-York Tribune reported "Two hundred girls employed in the upper flors, who were just about ready to quit work for the day, became wildly excited as the smoke from the finery swept out and up the staircases and elevator shafts."
Tony Sarino, the elevator operator, ran the cab repeatedly up and down through the smoke, bringing as many girls to safety as he could. Seventy-five young women, not willing to wait, crowded down the fire escapes. The Sun noted "Several girls collapsed after reaching the street."
The Tribune's headline announced a shocking detail "Girls Kissed The Hero" and reported "When all were safe the girls surrounded 'Tony' Sarino and three of them kissed him, much to the confusion of 'Tony,' who said he had only done his duty."
Undaunted, George Reis & Brother remained in the building. New tenants in 1910 were Aaron Cohen & Co. and H. Jackson, both dry goods jobbers. The ground floor drugstore was replaced by Walter J. Vogt's novelty store by 1914.
Vogt's manger was Bernard Behrendt. Late on the afternoon of June 16 that year he suffered frightening chest pains in the store. His wife came from their home on West 106th Street and by 9:00 he felt well enough to walk the few blocks to the taxicab stand.
Mrs. Behrendt cautioned the driver that her husband was ill and to drive slowly. Behrendt leaned his head on his wife's shoulder and closed his eyes. When the cab reached their house the driver and Mrs. Behrendt realized he was dead.
Leather businesses like Campbell Perkins Co. and F. Gonzales & Co. were in the building by 1919. There were 90 other small companies in the building that year when, almost unbelievably, the building was the scene of yet another devastating fire. This time it resulted in dramatically heroic rescues.
Charles U. Schwartz and his 18-yer old secretary, Clara Friedman, were trapped on the top floor on the afternoon of May 20. As fire and smoke filled the office, they climbed out onto a ledge. Crowds on the street shouted to the firemen who were fighting the flames from the roof of an adjoining building.
"Several firemen lowered themselves to the roof of the Empire State Building with ropes and crawling to the edge of the roof let down a rope which Mr. Schwartz tied beneath Miss Friedman's shoulders," reported The Sun. The fire fighters then hauled her up to the roof. They then repeated the procedure for Schwartz.
In the meantime, policeman Leo Carey found Herman Schein, a fur buyer, overcome by smoke inside, and then stumbled over the unconscious body of 16-year old Edna Schlinger. The officer carried them both to safety. Minutes later Fire Lieutenant John A. Coffey emerged with 18-year old Gertrude Hillman. He had found her lying unconscious across a table on the ninth floor. Firefighter August Gruben soon carried Mary Mighton out of the smokey building.
Despite its infamous history with fires, the once-again repaired building filled with tenants. In 1920 there were 70 firms in the building, at least seven of which were in the silk trade. Alpine Lining Co. made "cotton, mohair and silk pocketings and sleeves," and Luxenberg & Friedlander manufactured men's and youth's clothing. The ground floor store was home to the Fulton Phonograph Company.
Then, on October 7, 1921 The New York Herald's headline read "Hundreds In Peril In Broadway Blaze. Young Women Crowd Escapes or Flee by Elevators at Bleecker Street." Fire had broken out in the fifth floor offices of the Arrow Leather Goods Company.
The newspaper reported "Thick clouds of smoke were emitted from the windows, adding to the hysteria of the young women." Once again an elevator operator was hailed as a hero. The Evening World said scores of workers were unable to get to the fire escapes and "jammed the halls on the Broadway side." William Brahm, "with the elevator shaft choking with smoke, ran his car up and down, carrying a capacity crowd at every trip." And once again the newspapers reported on the heroic efforts of the fire fighters who carried dazed or unconscious victims from the building.
A different type of terror came on November 29, 1927. The Solvent Sales Company was on the eighth floor and Harry Minkoff was going about his routine. Then at around 3:45 things became anything but normal when he was faced with a sawed-off shotgun. The New York Times reported "The door swung violently open and three men stalked into the room, each carrying the stubby weapon of Chicago gangdom."
One of the thugs commanded "No noise now, and nobody will get hurt. Get in the inner room, all of you." He looked at the young stenographer, Mauri Nathan, and barked "That means you, too, girlie."
While one man remained in the outer office, the other two bound the hands and feet of the employees with picture wire. Once again, Mauri was warned to keep quiet while the men's pockets were searched.
The robbers took $325 in cash, a diamond ring valued at $1,500 and a diamond scarfpin worth $125 from the employees. The unlucky customers lost a total of $564. The victims were warned not to move until the bandits were out of the building. They made off with a haul equal to about $34,700 today.
The Empire State Building was sold in September 1929, a month before the Stock Market Crash. It would be perhaps the last time No. 640 Broadway was referred to by that name. In 1930 construction started on the iconic skyscraper on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street that absconded with the title.
In 1937 the Broadway store space was home to Sidney Ellenberg's luncheonette. It was taken over by 1946 by the two-story Downing Town Sportswear store and factory. That year police were plagued with a wave of safecracking and loft burglaries in lower Manhattan.
Police suspected five East Side gang members. They were spotted on Saturday night, November 16, in an automobile. Detectives followed them to a Bowery saloon, but after the men left the cops lost them.
Then, shortly after midnight, they were spotted leaving the cellar of No. 640 Broadway. The detectives closed in. Speaking in language straight from a gangster movie, one of the suspects growled "We're on our way to a coffee pot, and all of a sudden you guys shove pistols in our faces."
Near the Crosby Street entrance the detectives found 53 bolts of expansive gabardine cloth belonging to Downing Town Sportswear. Using forensics surprising for the day, a detective noted that the crystal was missing from the wristwatch of one of the suspects. It was found inside the crime scene. And footprints on the wrapping paper of the fabrics was matched to the shoes of three of the burglars.
By now the blocks of Broadway just above Houston Street were becoming shoddy. Firms like National leased space in No. 640 Broadway in 1950. That year it advertised in Popular Mechanics "Sell dress fabrics to friends, neighbors. Stylish, beautiful materials. Year round profits. No experience needed."
But a decided change was soon to come to the building. The 1960s saw political and social upheaval across America and it landed squarely in the former factory spaces of No. 640. In 1965 the offices of the May 2nd Movement were here. The group, which took its name from the date of its first public protest against the war in Vietnam, provided legal counseling to those seeking to avoid the draft.
The New York Times mentioned the "movement's cluttered office in a shabby loft building at 640 Broadway" on October 18, 1965, when it explained "it holds that the struggle in Vietnam is between the American 'imperialists' and a 'freedom movement of the oppressed people.'"
In 1971 the building housed the offices of the Law Commune, which counted among its clients the antiwar activist and member of the Chicago Seven, Abbie Hoffman. The firm successfully defended the Black Panthers on December 10 that year. The group had been charged with 156 counts of bombing, arson, attempted murder and other crimes and the eight-month case cost the Government $1.5 million. New York Magazine reported "Two hours later they were up in the Law Commune office at 640 Broadway, swigging the Asti Spumante from the bottle amid what one of them called 'a warm goo' of hugs and tears."
Two members of the Law Commune, Carol Lefcourt and Veronika Kraft broke away and formed the "downtown sisterhood" branch of Bellamy, Blank, Goodman, Kelly, Ross & Stanley in 1973. The all-female legal firm announced it would take on "nonprofit cases to challenge discrimination against women, while operating a private practice to pay the bills."
Surprisingly, their former client, Abbie Hoffman, was living in the building when he was indicted on September 5, 1973 on charges of "possession and sale of cocaine valued at $500,000." The building was by no means residential, and it can only be assumed he had found sanctuary here at the time of the Law Commune's tenancy.
|The Broadway elevation of the long, skinny structure is only as wide as was John Mason's mansion.|
As the 20th century became the 21st, the now-trendy Noho district filled with shops, restaurants and loft apartments. In 2006 the basement level of No. 640 Broadway was home to Nom de Guerre, described by Fodor's New York City as a "hipster hideaway" with "racks filled with vintage T-shirts, military-inspired jacket and pants, limited-edition sneakers, and haute-street denim."
The following year the upper stories were converted to living-working quarters with just two and three apartments per floor.
|The architects' renderings, submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, explained the intended restoration. via ny.curbed.com January 23, 2015|
The building was purchased by Winhaven Group in 2012 for $32.5 million. Although the lower floors had been greatly altered and the original entrance on Broadway vandalized; preservation architects Joe Levine and Bill Higgins of Higgens Quesebarth & Partners hoped to recreate the historic entrance during a 2015 rehabilitation. The careful restoration included bringing back the EMPIRE STATE BUILDING carved into the entablature above the entrance.
photographs by the author