On March 14, 1859 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald:
Continuation of the Great Sale
At Weed's Mourning Store
The balance of this large and beautiful stock will be closed out at almost the purchasers own prices. The greatest inducements offered. Please call soon, as the business will be closed in a short time.
WEED'S Mourning Store
Mourning stores were essential to Victorian women, who wore black for a year following a relative's death and whose wardrobes were strictly regimented by protocol. But Weed's Mourning Store had to relocate for very good reasons. Its building was coming down.
The estate of Mrs. Astor Langdon had already laid plans for a modern retail structure to replace the old building and the one next door at No. 581. Five months later construction was well underway when tragedy struck.
A mason, Peter Caviner, was descending a ladder with his box of tools on the afternoon of August 19 when he lost his grip. He fell 20 feet to the ground where he died within only a few minutes. His body was taken to his home at No. 137 West 30th Street where The New York Times said "he leaves a wife and children."
The double building was completed in March 1860. While other commercial buildings rising throughout the district featured rows of arched openings, the architect of 579-581 turned to crisp, rectangular windows with architrave surrounds. The openings of each succeeding floor were slightly diminished, keeping the visual weight of the composition anchored.
The cast iron base was produced by Badger's Architectural Iron Works. Although they appeared to be a single structure, the two buildings operated separately. No. 581 became home to the Edward Lambert & Co. store which opened on Monday, April 23, 1860. It offered a variety of ladies' accessories like embroidered handkerchiefs, lace capes, and "real point lace collars and sets."
|New-York Daily Tribune, April 23, 1860 (copyright expired)|
The store of Warner, Peck & Co. was next door. That firm not only sold bronze and brass gas fixtures, but assembled them here as well. An advertisement on October 23, 1862 in The New York Times read "Gas Fixtures of every description will be found at the great manufacturing depot, No. 579 Broadway. Wholesale dealers particularly invited to call and examine stock."
Meanwhile, the upper floors filled with a variety of shops. Thomas W. and Charles Whittemore moved into No. 579. Their firm manufactured and sold looking glasses, like the enormous pier mirrors which filled the spaces between the windows in elegant Victorian parlors. And by 1862 James L. Warner had opened the New York branch of the London Stereoscopic Company here.
That store moved from nearby No. 534 Broadway. The stereoscope, or stereopticon, was a favorite accessory in 19th century homes. Families would pass around the gadget which produced three-dimensional views on slides. Full series of these slides offered armchair trips to foreign lands or humorous scenarios--essentially mini-plays on cards.
In August 1863, for instance, Warner advertised a new delivery from London of "the most splendid Card and Stereoscopic Photographs of their H. R. H. Prince and Princess of Wales, taken at their private palace, Sandringham. Also stereoscopic Views of the Exterior and Interior of the Palace."
The devices offered by the London Stereoscopic Company were not cheap. One model, made of rosewood, was offered at $20, nearly $700 in today's dollars.
Warner experienced some trouble on his way to work on November 13, 1864. As he walked along Bleecker Street, two men attacked him. The New York Times reported "One of the ruffians came up behind him and struck him a violent blow, and as he turned for the purpose of defending himself, the accomplice dealt a blow that nearly brought him down."
Although stunned, Warner fought back and managed to wrest himself free. He ran onto Broadway where his attackers caught up with him. One grabbed him by the throat and choked him until he fell to the pavement. "They then caught hold of the chain attached to a double-cased gold hunting watch which was in Mr. Warner's vest pocket," explained the newspaper.
The gold chain snapped and the thieves ran off with the valuable watch. But Warner's cries had alerted policemen and "after an exciting chase" James Wilson and C. Parker were captured. They were held on a staggering $1,500 bail each. The Times noted "Mr. Warner believes the assassins knew he had a $350 watch on his person."
By the time of the terrifying incident the Civil War had been raging for three years. Also occupying space in No. 579 was the Headquarters of Tompkins Cavalry. On June 20, 1863 it would become part of the 13th New York Cavalry Regiment, along with the Dames Light Cavalry and the Horatio Seymour Cavalry.
But ten days before that happened an officer lost a valuable item. An advertisement in the local newspapers announced "Lost--Thursday, June 10--A black leather valise, containing clothing and a pair of Officer's Epaulettes. A liberal reward will be paid on returning same to the Headquarters Tompkins Cavalry, 579 Broadway."
Among the first occupants upstairs in No. 581 was L. Binns's Millinery. In February 1861 the store had a sale which it touted as a "Great Amusement." The ad sheds light onto the extraordinary variety of hats necessary for very specific functions. "Opera bonnets at half price; evening bonnets, new styles, at half their value; skating hats for Ladies, new styles; ribbons, flowers, and feathers, at reduced prices."
L. Binns's both made and sold its hats here and was apparently doing a fine business. In 1862 the firm was looking for salesmen and three trimmers. It also offered a position to an apprentice, which would have been a teen-aged girl.
The following spring Binns's added another item to its offerings. "Children's Hats at L. Binns' Millinery--Opening of Children's Hats this week. Summer Bonnets, very stylish. Also Straw Bonnets and Travelling Hats."
By now Warner, Peck & Co. had become Warner, Miskey & Merritt. An advertisement in January 1864 may have hinted at troubles within the firm. "Wanted--A competent person to assist in the management of a lamp and gas fixture manufactory; one having a knowledge of the business preferred."
Whether they got their competent person or not, the business would not last much longer. On May 18, 1865 an announcement in the New-York Daily Tribune read "Gas Fixtures at Greatly Reduced Rates--As we shall close our store, No. 579 Broadway, on the 1st of July next, we are closing out our large assortment of Gas Fixtures and Bronzes at about cost."
The London Stereoscopic Company would remain in No. 579 at least through 1869, and Whittemore Brothers stayed on until about 1900.
Following Edward Lambert & Co. in the store next door was Siberia Ott's piano and organ showroom. At the same time, Charles Bruno's musical instrument shop was upstairs, as were the offices of the Finkle & Lyon Sewing Machine Co.
In 1866 Bruno listed himself in The Merchants' Directory as "importer and dealer in musical instruments, strings, etc., Robert Nunns' (Late Nunns & Clark's) piano fortes, and C. F. Martin's Guitars, 581 Broadway, New York, up-stairs." In the same directory, Siberia Ott touted "S. D. & H. W. Smith's American Organs are the best Reed Instrument made, and excel in purity of tone and excellency of workmanship."
|Like Bruno upstairs, Ott represented several manufacturers. Herald of Health magazine, July 1866 (copyright expired)|
The firms shared the building with another instrument dealer, J. F. Browne, harp manufacturer. Established in London in 1810, it moved to New York in 1841 and was now headed by George H. Buckwell. Illustrated New York called it "one of the oldest and best known harp manufacturing houses in existence" and said "The instruments of this house have long since become famous throughout the civilized world."
|The New York State Business Directory, 1866 (copyright expired)|
The Astor Estate owned both buildings in 1873 when it was slapped with fire violations. The Fire Department insisted that the structures be given a "fire escape and scuttle ladder." (A scuttle ladder would provide occupants access to the hatchway opening onto the roof in case of emergency.)
The 1870s saw a change in the type of tenants in both buildings. James McB. Davidson had moved his safe company into No. 581 by 1870. When notorious Tammany Hall leader William M. Tweed was brought to trial in 1873 on corruption charges, James McB. Davidson was pulled into the messy investigation. He had supplied New York County with safes in 1870, submitting an invoice for $16,940--a little over $300,000 today. While Davidson was paid the invoice amount, the "warrant' drawn for payment was $49.479. Where the missing $33,000 went was an issue.
Tweed's attorney attempted to discredit Davidson's testimony. He asked one witness, Henry W. Genet, "Did he carry on any other business at 581 Broadway than that of safe-making?"
"Not that I know of sir."
"Didn't he keep a drinking place there, or something of that kind?"
Genet seemed a bit taken aback, answering "Not that I know of, sir, unless as a family affair, the same as you might come into my house, and get a drink."
At the time the ground floor store was home to the showrooms of the American Clock Company. As Christmas approached in 1872, The Evening Post remarked on the Seth Thomas' Sons & Co. mantel clocks available there. "They are not only unrivaled as time-keepers, but are in conception, design, and construction highly credible productions in the fine and industrial arts; making the fully equal in finish and beauty to the best French mantel clocks, but much their superior in recording time, and sold at lower prices."
A few months later, on March 15, 1873, the Evening Mail (no doubt prodded by a financial nudge from the American Clock Company) wrote "The man is a very selfish or a very thoughtless one who indulges in costly luxuries for himself, while he omits to provide inexpensive comforts for his family; and yet how many of us are there who, with hundred dollar watches in our pockets, fail to furnish decent ten or twenty dollar clocks for our homes. The salesmen of the American Clock Company, No. 581 Broadway, can help you in selecting."
|The $2 clock would be about $40 today. New-York Tribune, December 23, 1873 (copyright expired)|
D. B. & H. M. Lester was in No. 581 by 1887. Makers and wholesalers of men's hats, it offered a dizzying array of styles.
|In 1888 the firm covered its political bases by offering The Cleveland Hat as well as The Harrison Hat. The Clothier & Furnisher (copyright expired)|
D. B. & H. M. Lester did business here until 1899 when David B. Lester retired because of "stomach trouble and other complications." Another millinery-related firm, Stein& Heilbrun had operated in the building for at least a decade. Importers and manufacturers of artificial flowers and "ostrich and fancy feathers," for the hat trade, it had a branch store in Paris.
Women's hat styles of the 1880s and '90s devastated some bird populations, a trend clearly seen in an announcement in Millinery Trade Review in October 1889. "Stein & Heilbrun, 581 Broadway, are receiving new styles of fancy feathers from Paris by every steamer arriving. All the scarcer kinds of birds, wings, and their arrangements with paradise plumage and aigrettes in tasteful mountings, will be found in the assortments. Their manufactures of ostrich plumes and tips in plain colors, black, and fancy shaded effects are selling readily."
A far different product was that sold by R. Rothschilds' Sons Company next door. The Cincinnati-based firm made and sold "bar, saloon, office and store fixtures." Organized in 1889, it opened its New York showroom in 1891.
|An R. Rotchschild's Sons Co. catalogue pictured items like a fully-outfitted cigar store and carved and painted cigar store Indians. (copyright expired)|
Although the firm had seemed to be doing well, it declared bankruptcy in July 1897.
The upper floors by now held millinery firms, like the building next door. Oestereicher & Meyer, "caps;" was here in 1899 as was Velleman & Co., "women's hats." A far different tenant, however, was the Government auction goods firm of Francis Bannerman.
The New-York Tribune noted on December 21, 1905 that he had been "for many years at No. 579 Broadway" and explained "The government sells to Bannerman large lots of military goods made obsolete by the change in army regulations." He did not sell everything, however; instead he set aside those items he felt had historic interest.
When he moved out of No. 581 Broadway to his own building nearby at No. 501, he included a military museum "said to be the best of its kind in this country" and free to the public. The Tribune reported "The original Washington pistols, used by George Washington, can be seen; also cannon used by the Rough Riders in the Spanish war, and all the flags and signals used by Admiral Dewey when he sank the Spanish fleet."
The explosion of a kerosene lamp in the "clothiers' linings" shop of Milius, Guggenheimer & Co. on January 24, 1901 at around 2:30 p.m. caused a small fire. Although it required a response from the Fire Department, it caused more panic than damage. The firm would remain in No. 581 at least through 1919.
Both buildings continued to house mostly hat-related companies. In 1920 N. A. Spiesberger, "millinery and ribbons," and J. Spiesberger "ladies' hats," shared the upper floors of No. 579 with the millinery shops of A. Baron and I. O. Daniels, and the "flowers, feathers, and trimmed hats" shop of S. Marks.
Next door Messrs. Lowenstein represented hat firms like the Standard Hat Works and Baron Bros. Millinery Co., headquartered in Dallas. By 1920 the hosiery, underwear and knit goods firm of J. Altmark & Son had moved in.
In 1950 the buildings were joined internally with Nos. 150 and 152 Mercer Street, directly behind. The changing personality of the neighborhood was evidenced in 1976 when apparel and hat firms were replaced with theater and dance companies.
By 1976 the Appelby Studio, a dance venue, had opened in No. 579. On September 19 that year Don McDonagh, writing in The New York Times gave a brutally honest review saying "The sense of puzzlement around by Mobius, a company of skilled dancers and limited creativity was epitomized in a dance called 'Really, Really (Truly) Really' on Friday evening at 579 Broadway. It was technically demanding, mysteriously self-involved and ultimately vacuous."
His opinion of Margie Gillis's performance at Appelby Studio the night before was only a little more positive. "It was a solo program of raw emotional expression without much intervening craft."
By 1990 the art gallery Coupe De Grace had opened here. But the 21st century would see even starker change. In 2017 the upper floors were converted to three to four "living-working quarters for artists" per floor, according to Department of Buildings documents.
The ground floor retail spaces were remodeled; however their historic cast iron elements and even the unusual Victorian entrance doors were preserved.
photographs by the author