At the end of the Civil War, thousands of working class New Yorkers returned home. Construction of new buildings, which had ground to a near halt during the war, surged. On May 17, 1867 The New York Times commented on "the extraordinary transforming" going on below Canal Street and said few "who have passed through the streets...can have failed to express astonishment."
The article pointed out the extravagant amounts owners were expending on the new structures. "This change has been going on since early in 1865. The vast fortunes accumulated during the war by down-town traders have here built themselves a lasting foundation, it is to be hoped, in iron, marble, and brown-stone."
Included in the article's long list of new structures was the Germania Fire Insurance Company building at No. 175 Broadway, commenced in May 1865 and completed just six months later. The cost was placed at $40,000--around $621,000 today.
Organized on March 2, 1859, the Germania Fire Insurance Company catered to, for the most part, the German-speaking immigrants who were more comfortable doing business in their native language. It was one of several organizations that served the German community, including the Germania Life Insurance Company and the Germania Bank.
|Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, June 4, 1898 (copyright expired)|
The architect of the Germania Building, whose name has been lost. created a four-story office building in the up-to-the-minute French Second Empire style. A stoop led to the first floor above the store space in the basement level. Three bays wide, the structure featured the trappings of the new mid-Victorian style--elaborate Corinthian capitals, foliate brackets, and an eye-catching decorative balcony. Urn-shaped finials graced the parapet which included the building's name and construction date.
While the main office of the Germania Fire Insurance Company was here, the firm continued to maintain a building on the Bowery in the German neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland. Sharing the building with the insurance firm was the New York Underwriters' Agency. It had been organized by four insurance companies, including Germania, to provide "the property owner one single policy in a combination of four companies."
Offices in the upper floors were leased out. The rapid growth of railroads In the mid-1870's led to the formation of dozens of small freight lines. On March 31, 1875 The New York Times laid out the various types of railroads--the "fast freight lines," the "trunk railways," and the "commission lines," for instance. The article noted that at least two railroad offices were located at No. 175 Broadway--The Commercial Express and The International Line.
About that time a competitive tenant moved in--the Commerce Fire Insurance Company. But the fledgling firm did not fare so well as its landlord. On May 7, 1878 The Times reported that its directors "have been discussing and considering the advisability of closing up the business of the company."
In the spring of 1890 Germania Fire Insurance Company left Broadway, selling its former headquarters to J. B. Lounsberry in May for $205,000, nearly $7 million in today's dollars. Lounsberry's tenants on the lower levels were the upscale Gotham Restaurant in the basement, the North River Insurance Company in the former Germania Fire Insurance space on the first floor, and gentlemen's tailors Tappen & Pierson on the second. The jewelry district was encroaching into the neighborhood as evidenced by the Equitable Jewelry Company and the Silver Novelty Company on the third floor., and diamond dealers E. Karelson & Co. on the fourth.
At around 11:00 on Christmas Eve 1891 fire broke out in the building. The New York Times reported that it "burned stubbornly for over an hour before it was subdued." The top two floors were gutted and the tenants on the lower floors suffered damage from smoke, water, and falling plaster. The Gotham, which The Times described as "an expensively-furnished restaurant," had about $2,000 in damages. Damage to the building itself was estimated at $4,000.
In May 1898 the building was leased by the German-American Real Estate Title Guarantee Co. In announcing the move, the Record & Guide opined "This is an important move and one that real estate interests will appreciate." The firm had operated from No. 34 Nassau Street, but had outgrown that space and "the management has though it advisable to get upon the thoroughfare of main business travel."
The German-American Real Estate title Guarantee Co. was a multi-service organization. It not only examined and insured titles to properties, it supplied loans and mortgages. Unfortunately, the Record & Guide's optimism for the firm did not hold true and in 1902 it declared bankruptcy.
In its place the Oriental Bank moved in temporarily, while it completed construction on its building across the street and the southeast corner of Broadway and John Street. A variety of businesses took offices in the upper floors, including jewelry merchants, one of which was the W. F. Doll Manufacturing Company.
On Saturday evening, December 20, 1903, thieves broke into W. F. Doll's shop at around 6:00. They broke open a showcase and made off with three dozen watches, four "watch bracelets," and about six watch fobs. The value of the goods was about $500. Newspapers reported "the police have no clue to the thieves."
|Jewelry firms occupied the upper floors in the early years of the 20th century. The stoop survived at the time of this photograph. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
A week later detectives made two simultaneous raids on apartments in the Bronx and arrested the suspected gang. Theirs was no small operation. Police found burglars' tools, an "outfit for tapping telegraph and telephone wires," a wireless radio apparatus, two revolvers, and check and date stamps. The Times reported "Inspector Fauor took the fingerprints of the four men and compared them with the marks on a bottle which was found after the burglary at the Bennett Manufacturing plant. The impression on the bottle, he said, tallied with the print of the index finger of 'Little" Alter's right hand."
By the time of the latest burglary, No. 175 had been owned by John G. Wendel for years. He operated his real estate office from the building, as well. A near hermit, he lived with his unmarried daughters in a mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street, constructed in 1856. He had amassed an extraordinary amount of Manhattan real estate and, subsequently, a massive fortune. But his eccentric and reclusive ways made him "a curious and impressive figure," according to one newspaper.
When he died in December 1914, leaving and estate of some $60 million, The Times said he was often dismissed as "an old fogy, a stand-patter, a foe of progress." It recounted the often-told story of his refusing a $1 million offer on the garden lot next to his outdated mansion. He needed it, he said, "for his dog."
Wendel's daughters were no less eccentric. They wore old clothes, hung their laundry in the garden, and, according to The Times two months after their father's death, “The sisters never ride in a street car and never in their lives have they been in an automobile. They never shop in the fashionable district, for things are too expensive there. They buy all their groceries and supplies in the inexpensive little shops over on Sixth Avenue and make their purchases personally, seldom letting them be delivered but carrying them home themselves and paying for them with cash. They are quick to see bargains and watch for them like the poorest housewife.”
|In 1923 No. 175 (left) still retained its rooftop finials, but a show window now took the place of the stoop and former first floor. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The Wendel Estate continued to manage its vast real estate holdings from No. 175. Georgia Wendel was now the owner of record of the property.
Several tenants in the building encountered problems in 1929. Attorney Stanley Shirk (a distant relative of the Wendel family) met a client, Josiah H. Scott, at the pier on May 6 as the ocean liner California docked. Shirk stood by while customs officials checked Scott's bags, then was "outraged" when a bottle of liquor was confiscated.
Shirk fired off a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, which said in part "Because of his illness his physician had prescribed liquor and Mr. Scott had the prescription filled in California...I hereby respectfully request that you instruct your subordinates to return this medicinal liquor without delay."
It turned out that getting the bottle back was not so simple. The Assistant Collector of the Port explained Scott would have to get a permit for the liquor from his local Prohibition Director and present that to the authorities in order for it to be released.
Another tenant in the sights of Customs officials that year was diamond broker Sidney Sherman. On the night of September 18 Charles Eechleirs arrived at Sherman's home on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. Why the 44-year old diamond dealer would have business with an employee of the Red Star liner Belgenland was explained when Customs agents raided the house.
In Eechleirs's shoe was $12,000 worth of unset, smuggled gems. The agents had focused in on Eechleirs after a long investigation, and followed him to the Sherman home. Not only were both men arrested, but the following morning agents went to No. 175 Broadway and arrested Sherman's 26-year old stenographer, Nina Silverstein. All three were charged with "conspiracy to violate the tariff and customs laws."
Nothing was out of the ordinary in the second floor jewelry store of Bennett Brothers two months later on December 19, Gail and Herbert Bennett's dozen employees were at work at 7:00 when the owners did their customary check of the stock. Everything was in place as it should have been.
But then, when they checked again at 9:30, a tray of rings was missing from a showcase. The Times reported "During the two and a half hours in which the tray must have been taken, customers were coming and going. At all times there were eight employes on duty, and customers were in the store in groups of from six to eight." The tray held 24 solitaire diamond rings, valued at $15,000. Police were called, but "there seemed to be no clue to its disappearance."
Earlier that year, on January 18, Georgiana G. R. Wendel had died. Calling the 79-year old an "aged spinster," The Times reminded had reminded its readers that she and her sister, Ella, "lived in seclusion" in the anachronistic mansion on Fifth Avenue. Stanley Shirk announced that the control of the estate would be handed over to Ella.
It would be a short-lived arrangement, however. Ella V. Von E. Wendel, "the last of her line," died in the old brick mansion in March 1931. In reporting her death, The Times ran a sub-headline that read "Huge Realty Holdings Valued at $100,000,000 Are Left With No Kin to Claim Them."
The mansion had slowly been closed up, room by room, over the years. The newspaper said "When Ella died, she had been using only her bedroom and the dining room, wandering only occasionally into a big front room on the top floor, where she and her five sisters had once learned the reading, writing and arithmetic which their father thought was the sufficient education of a young woman at the time of the Civil War."
The massive real estate holdings, including No. 175 Broadway, passed to the Wendel Foundation, with offices in No. 175. Ella's personal fortune of more than $36 million, went mostly to "public bequests."
No. 175 was home at the time to Patrick Francis Murphy's Mark Cross leather goods store. The Rosenstein Brothers operated their fabrics business from an upper floor. They were honored in 1933 by supplying the silk for gown Eleanor Roosevelt wore to the Inaugural Ball in Washington.
|In the 1930's the low block of 19th century buildings survived among towering modern structures. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
But as the decade wore on, a far different set of tenants would occupy the aging cast iron building. It was home by 1939 to the socialist group, the Workmen's Circle, "a national labor and fraternal organization." Within the decade the Yiddith Writers Union had moved in. A letter to its president, Dr. Louis Herdin, arrived on March 22, 1945 from President Franklin Roosevelt. The president lauded the standards of the Yiddish press, saying it had fostered and strengthened "the ideals of freedom and democracy for which we fight today."
As the end of the 20th century neared, No. 175 had become an unlikely Victorian survivor in a neighborhood filled with soaring skyscrapers. In 1997 it was joined internally with No. 177 and the two lower floors were seriously vandalized with a modern storefront engulfing both properties.
The window glass of the upper floors have been pained to match the facade and the decorative finials above the parapet were lost long ago. But the beleaguered beauty of the structure still peers down on Broadway after more than a century and a half.
photographs by the author