The formal opening of the elegant Madison Square Park in 1847 prompted residential development within the surrounding blocks. Around 1849 or shortly thereafter construction began on No. 1153 Broadway near the southwest corner of 27th Street. The three-story Italianate-style house-and-store was an ample 24 feet wide. It was completed by 1851 when Joseph Oatwell listed both his residence and his business here.
Oatwell was described in directories as a "marble cutter," a term which diminished his artistic skills. His stone carving operation was further up Broadway, at the corner of 35th Street. The store at No. 1153, his "warerooms," showcased examples of Joseph Oatwell & Son's work, mostly marble mantels.
Respected within the industry, he had been a delegate from New York City to the State Convention of Mechanics in Utica in 1835. And in 1840, while still located on Sullivan Street, his workers' expert artistry received a silver medal at the American Institute's annual exhibition for "the best chimney piece."
Oatwell had barely set up his operation in the new building when he was sued by a supplier, Dietz, Dietz & Weed. The problem was that Oatwell had given the firm two promissory notes, totaling $504, or about $16,500 in today's money. But when his creditors grew impatient for their funds, they took him to court on February 9, 1852. Oatwell countered that they "had taken them at usurious interest." The jury was unmoved and ruled for the plaintiffs.
The size of his stone cutting and carving facility was evidenced in 1853 when he offered space for lease there. "Room to let, with steam power--A good room, 35 by 40 feet, suitable for some light manufacturing business." Mid-19th century work conditions were reflected in his adding "not extra hazardous." Those interested were told to inquire a Joseph Oatwell & Son, 1,153 Broadway.
By the spring of 1856 it seems Joseph Oakley was ready to retire. An auction in the store was held on March 27 to liquidate the stock. Auctioneers Pells & Co. described the broad range of marbles used in the finished mantels. "Sale of Marble Mantels by auction...at the warerooms of Mr. J. Oatwell, 1,153 Broadway, comprising mantels of Italian statuary, ordinary, veined and sienna, Spanish orocatel, black and gold, Lisbon, American statuary and mosaic marbles." (The term "statuary marble" referred to high-quality stone like Carrara.) The announcement added "Many of the mantels are modern designs, and all well executed."
Joseph Oatwell died upstate in Hughsonville, New York seven years later. on February 14, 1863. His obituary noted simply, "for many years a resident of New-York City."
At the time, wealthy New Yorkers exhibited their culture and refinement by filling their homes with European paintings and sculptures. Art dealers haunted the auction houses of France and Italy where they purchased artwork--some good, some not--for clients many of whom were more interested in quantity than quality. For most collectors, the very concept of "American art" was laughable.
But in November 1869 a bold move was made by daguerreotypist Abraham Bogardus when he opened the Bogardus' American Fine Art Gallery. Bogardus had taken over the entire building at No. 1153. At its opening Bogardus not only presented American oil paintings; but examples of his photography--an almost entirely new field of art. Many of the artists were there for the private viewing on the evening of November 15.
The New York Times reported the following day, "The gallery is not a very extensive one, but it contains already about one hundred paintings by native artists." After mentioning many of the artists and paintings, it focused on three works. "The most noticeable are William Hart's 'Sylvan Scene, Maine,' and Van Elten's 'Autumn in the Shawangunk Mountains.' De Haas' 'West Hampton Beach' is also worth of attention, though not one of his best pictures."
|Art critics were taken with Maurice Frederick Hendrik de Haas's Westhampton Beach, executed in 1868.|
Then the writer digressed as he spent as much column space describing the party as he had the artwork. "In one of the upper rooms tables were loaded with flowers, fruit and all the delicacies of the season. The most fastidious could find something here to suit his exquisite tastes either in the eating or drinking line. The punch and the segars were indeed choice and excellent and ample justice was done to both; but they were not in any way used to excess, for the party dispersed about eleven o'clock amid much good feeling and tobacco smoke."
Although neither critic mentioned Bogardus's photography--it may be that that branch of the gallery was not ready yet--it was a major part of the business. On September 1, 1871 The Photographer's Friend described: "The first floor is fitted up in superb style. The front portion is devoted to photographic specimens, stereoscopic views, chromos, engravings, carved goods, artists' fine materials, frames and velvet passepartouts. On this floor the orders are all received. Adjoining this salesroom on the same floor is a 'Fine Art Gallery,' filled with the choicest oil paintings by celebrated artists, all framed with elegance and good taste."
The writer was shocked at the prices for some of the paintings. "Some of these masterpieces are valued at three thousand dollars." (It was understandable sticker-shock, equal to more than $62,000 today.)
On the second floor were the artists' work rooms where photographs and prints were matted and framed. The sky-lit third floor held the "operating and printing rooms," and Bogardus's private office. The extensive operation required a staff of about 20. The Photographer's Friend ended its article saying "The place has an air of cheerfulness and thrift."
|Bogardus produced this rather severe looking selfie. original source unknown|
The same year that Abraham Bogardus opened the Broadway gallery he was called upon by P. T. Barnum to help in a law suit against spirit photographer William H. Mumler. Mumler repeatedly produced double-exposure photographs of a living sitter with the phantom form of a deceased relative looming behind. But for Barnum he went too far when he publicized a photograph of former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her martyred husband.
|Mumler's photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the dead President was a sensation - from the collection of the Allen County [Illinois] Public Library|
Barnum hired Bogardus to fabricate a portrait of him with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. The resulting image was produced in court as evidence. Although Mumler was not found guilty, it was the end of his career and he died nearly penniless.
|Bogardus's image of Barnum and Lincoln -- original source unknown|
Bogardus's Fine Art Gallery was gone by 1877 when No. 1153 was owned by "Madam" Eliza Rallings as her upscale dressmaking shop. She was described by The New York Times as "a fashionable milliner and dress-maker."
Eliza had an secret enemy, possibly a competing dressmaker, who successfully managed to cause her intense grief early in 1878. Like most modistes, in order to supply expensive gowns to Manhattan's socialites Eliza sailed to Europe to study the newest fashions and, in some cases, bring back items.
As she neared New York harbor on the White Star steamship Adriatic in March, customs agents were waiting. The Times reported on March 13 that Special Treasury Agent Brackett had "received private information recently" that Eliza "intended to smuggle a large quantity of valuable goods, partly on orders for her customers and partly for sale in her shop."
When her two large "Saratoga trunks" were taken off the ship, she swore a declaration that they contained mostly personal effects, and named a few articles liable to duty. She was no doubt shocked when, just as her trunks were about to be taken to the Broadway shop, they were seized by Customs officials.
"The scene in the seizure room of the Custom-house yesterday would have driven an average woman mad," said The Times. The writer was astonished that Eliza had managed to stuff all the items into the two trunks at all. "In the first place, there were 24 Spring bonnets, evidently of the newest Paris designs. Certainly nothing like some of them was ever seen in this country before." There were also "a variety of cloaks and other outer garments" and the writer could not resist mentioning that "One mantilla was perfectly gorgeous."
Then came the dressing gowns, the dresses, the underwear and the rolls of expensive fabrics. "To give any notion of the style of these dresses would require columns of space," noted article. The large box of trimmings "alone might turn a town full of women green with envy." The newspaper estimated the retail valued at upwards of $10,000; more than a quarter of a million dollars today.
While Eliza was hit with $3,500 invoice, her true punishment was worse. Officials said the goods "will probably b e kept in store a year, until the principal articles are out of fashion."
The bad publicity and the financial loss may have been responsible for Madam Ralling's closing her shop. The following year she leased the building to J. G. Johnson for $2,500 per year for his furniture store.
Eliza sold No. 1153 to shoe manufacturer and retailer Henry J. Mahrenholz around 1889. His store offered fashionable men's footwear at prices around $375 a pair today. Around the time of his opening the Broadway store, Mahrenholz's name became more well-known for his personal problems than his shoes.
|The Evening World, December 6, 1889 (copyright expired)|
In the spring of 1889 his daughter, Carrie, "a young lady accomplished and personally attractive," according to The New York Times, fell ill and died. Her death came so abruptly that there was no time to summon a priest to administer the Last Rites.
Mahrenholz notified an undertaker. When he learned that Carried had not received the sacraments, he mentioned that there might be a problem getting a permit of burial from the Catholic Church. Indeed, the Church refused to allow the girl's body to be interred.
Mahrenholz went to Father Ducy of St. Leo's Church the following day; but he was at first avoided, left waiting for "an unreasonably long time," and finally told "you must accept that answer." Mahrenholz was understandably infuriated. "My daughter was a spotless as the Virgin Mary, and I should be an inhuman father if I did not feel indignant and incensed at this outrage."
Carrie received a Protestant funeral and her body was cremated. Her father went further, telling the managers of the crematorium he wanted all the bodies in the family plot in Calvary to be disinterred and cremated. He publicly renounced the Pope and the Catholic Church saying the incident "illustrated a narrow, bigoted spirit."
The matter may have ended there if Vicar General Thomas Scott Preston had not tried to discredit Mahrenholz. He told reporters that Mahrenholz's assertion that he had purchased the Calvary plots was patently untrue, saying "not one foot of ground was ever sold in it from the time it was opened until this day."
Now dishonor had been added to insult and cruelty and Mahrenholz fired back. "I should have let this matter rest if the Vicar General had not made this public attempt to force a lie down my throat," he responded in his own mini press conference on June 3, 1889. "He has assailed my veracity and I am ready to meet him with documentary evidence."
With that he produced the contract, dated September 6, 1869, proving his purchase. "I will leave it to any unprejudiced man as to who is the liar in this controversy."
Henry Mahrenholz was still at No. 1153 Broadway when he was called for jury duty in 1895. The case involved the death of Bridget Malone on July 25 that year. The woman was attempting to board a Third Avenue cable car when she fell backwards, hitting her head on the pavement. Conductor Robert Lawless was on trial for her death.
Mahrenholz was as outspoken in his opinions now as he had been six years earlier. When Lawless was called to testify in his own defense, he blamed the motorman for the accident. He claimed he had rung the bell signalling a passenger wanted to board, and when it did not stop, he rang three more times. The car was still moving when Bridget fell.
Mahrenholz interrupted the court proceedings with his own take. "You conductors ring too quick, anyhow. The motorman can't understand you."
Lawless's attorney, H. W. Mayer, asked for Mahrenholz's removal from the jury. It was a lucky break for the defendant. The jury ruled that Bridget Malone's death was accidental and Lawless was released.
By 1899 both No. 1151 and 1153 Broadway were owned by Emma A. Hopkins. The store in No. 1153 was being leased to the floral shop of J. H. Small & Sons. It was run by John H. Small and John H. Small, Jr., who also had a branch in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and another in Washington DC.
|The Washington Times, March 29, 1902 (copyright expired)|
The flowers and plants sold by J. H. Small & Sons came from their greenhouses outside Washington. John H. Small, a pioneer in floral decoration, opened his first store in Washington DC in the 1870s. John Jr. continued operating all three shops after Small died on February 14, 1909 at the age of 84.
Interestingly, when Emma A. Hopkins died in January 1913, her will demanded that the two Broadway properties be held in trust during the lifetime of her 38-year old son. She directed that the income from the buildings go to her two grandsons. This meant that neither building could be sold while J. J. Hopkins was still alive.
In August 1914 Dr. Bernard Dernberg arrived in New York City and within a few days had established the headquarters of the benignly named German Red Cross in the upper floors of No. 1153 Broadway. The offices were, however, much more malignant.
The war in Europe had erupted two months earlier and before long newspaper reporters and Government officials were closely watching Dernberg's activities and those of other Germans, including Dr. Karl Fuehr and Captain Ewald Hecker. Eventually the "German Red Cross" was exposed as a propaganda office and German military fund-raising organization.
On July 15, 1918 The New York Times revealed "The whole German propaganda which was put into operation before the European war was a month old, and the purpose of which was to debauch public opinion in the United States in favor of Germany and Austria-Hungary, is one the eve of being exposed." Deputy Attorney General Alfred L. Becker told reporters "The headquarters of the propaganda machine were at 1,153 Broadway, in the offices of the German Red Cross Commission.
Dernberg had been deported after his attempts to "justify the murder of the passengers on the Lusitania." In the meantime the German Red Cross had collected an estimated $1,985,000 towards the German war effort.
By then J. H. Small & Son was gone. In 1916 the Estate of Emma A. Hopkins leased the building to Max Schwarz. in April that year he commissioned architect Alfred Freeman to do $7,000 in renovations, including the installation of "new fronts" to the store.
In 1920 the telephone had become an essential fixture in offices, hotels and most residences. To keep up, the New York Telephone Company opened five employment offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, one of which was at No. 1153. An advertisement on June 12, 1920 was enticing:
Girls Wanted--$15.00 a week to start. Permanent work. Regular increases with many opportunities to soon reach earnings of $85 to $100 a month. Positions open in several departments. No experience required.
The $15 weekly wages would be equal a yearly salary of a little over $9,500 today.
Emma Hopkins had wanted the side-by-side buildings to remain in her estate for the benefit of her grandsons, and assumed the provisions in her will would ensure that. She had also assumed, however, that her son would pay the taxes. He did not.
By December 1938 when the buildings were auctioned off the unpaid taxes had amounted to more than $1.5 million in today's dollars. The new owner converted the ground floor space to a restaurant, with offices on the upper stories.
The Fifth Avenue neighborhood had suffered by mid-century, with tawdry, small businesses taking the one-upscale shops and offices. One of the offices in No. 1153 was home to the publishers of the Business Guide at mid-century. Its advertisements in 1953 touted "Buy from manufacturers, wholesalers, branded merchandise; thousands of items; mail order, direct selling, personal use."
Another tenants was the Broadway Mercantile Corp., importers and wholesalers of cheap novelty items. In October 1956 it hawked "money-making Christmas Items" like the "fully automatic top squeeze cigarette lighters for $5 a dozen; "teen-age jewelry" at $5 per dozen; and photo ID bracelets for the same price. "Here is a Real Buy!" screamed an ad in Billboard on October 13, 1956. "Men's Billfolds. Smooth Redwood, Tanwood, Alligator and Black Leather." Those, too, sold for $5 per dozen.
|photo via Commercial Observer, July 21, 2015|
The remainder of the 20th century was unkind to the embattled little building. By turn of the century the storefront had been mostly obliterated and garish, clashing vinyl awnings vied for attention. But the burgeoning, trendy Nomad neighborhood would soon put an end to flashy stores. The office building build in 1991 directly next door was renovated to the boutique Broadway Plaza Hotel in 2016.
A substantial renovation of No. 1153 began around the same time, completed in 2017. The frame of the 1916 cast iron storefront has reappeared and the upper stories retain their domestic appearance of 170 years ago.
photograph by the author