Thomas Kelly leased the 23-foot wide building at No. 263 Sixth Avenue from John G. Sauter in 1881. The five-year lease began on July 1 at a per-year rental of $3,100--about $6,550 per month in today's money. Kelly was already well-known in the dry goods business, having started out in 1863. He currently had two stores downtown; one at No. 22 Park Place and the other at No. 17 Barclay Street. With this branch he would be following the uptown migration of the shopping district.
The avenue which was already seeing the rise of impressive retail stores would become the premier ladies' shopping thoroughfare in the city before the turn of the century. The five-story No. 263 anticipated the trend, its limestone-clad upper floors decorated in a reserved take on the latest neo-Grec style--incised lines and embedded rosettes being the extent of the ornamentation. The constraint of the lower floors was starkly contrasted with the exuberant cast metal cornice and parapet.
Two months before his lease commenced The Sun commented, "One of the most remarkable enterprises in this city is that of Thomas Kelly...He sells dry goods on the installment plan in the same way that furniture and other goods are frequently sold." The article mentioned that he sold everything "from silks and velvets to plain housekeeping goods and inexpensive dress materials" and that he "keeps a nice assortment of spring dolmans [i.e., blouses], mantles, and other wraps, all of which he sells at very reasonable prices."
|The lowest price for a silk and satin suit in 1882 equaled $400 today. The Sun, March 26, 1882 (copyright expired)|
The operation was a true department store within two years when the New York Furniture and Carpet Company subleased space. It was apparently a profitable enterprise which did not escape Kelly's notice.
At the end of his lease Thomas Kelly purchased the building. His business was successful enough that in March of 1891 he hired architects Boekell & Son to make interior renovations; mostly rearranging of walls. Within two years the New York Furniture and Carpet Company was out and Kelly had expanded into the corner building with his own furniture and carpet firm, the Mutual Furniture Co.
He still operated two other stores, one on West 27th Street and the other on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. On November 18, 1893 The Evening World entitled an article "Big Crowds At Kelly's Sales / Success Partially Due to His Credit System." It reported that "immense crowds" were taking advantage of the "great sale of clothing and furniture." Along with the clothing ("ladies' cloaks, silk and cloth suits, misses' and children's jackets," etc.), "blankets, comfortables, furniture and carpets, as well as all kinds of satins and velvets, are a specialty."
It was Kelly's marketing innovation of selling on credit that impressed journalists. On October 17, 1894 The Evening World noted "A special credit system affords those who prefer not to pay cash down an easy opportunity to get what they want." This was especially attractive for couples just starting out, said the article. "Those who intend to commence housekeeping and make their own homes should first visit Kelly's store and see what he can and will do for them. He will furnish their houses from top to bottom and clothe them, their wives and children, from head to foot."
Kelly's system was carefully thought out. He supplied an "elaborately engraved letter of credit" to customers with good credit. For those who preferred to pay cash, a five percent discount was given; and those credit customers who paid within 60 days received a three percent discount. But more startling was his guarantee policy. "If at any time within five years after a sale an article is damaged Mr. Kelly send for it, repairs it and returns it, all at his own expense," explained The Evening World on April 15, 1892.
Kelly improved the store in the summer of 1898 by hiring architect P. F. Brogan to design new ground floor show windows.
|The Evening World, November 19, 1901 (copyright expired)|
Unlike most of the Sixth Avenue emporiums which moved northward after the turn of the century, the Thomas Kelly store (which by now engulfed the entire corner, from No. 263 through 267 Sixth Avenue and Nos. 104 and 106 West 17th Street) remained well after its founder's death. The firm's concession to the changes was that by the end of World War I the firm dealt solely in furniture and household goods.
On May 21, 1920 an advertisement touted a renovation sale on "everything on our five crowded floors."
Our Building is to be remodelled. Everything must be sold. Each article is marked in Plain Figures. We will allow a Discount of 25% on every article Sold for Cash.
It was, however, not exactly true. While the building was, indeed, going to be renovated, it was not a remodeling of the Kelly store. Two weeks earlier the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide had announced "Kelly Estate Sells Landmark" and noted "The property had been occupied by the business of the late Thomas Kelly for 40 years and marks the passage of one of the oldest furniture establishments in the city."
The new owners converted No. 263 Sixth Avenue to lofts connected internally with the 17th Street buildings. In 1925 Sixth Avenue was renumbered, giving No. 263 the new address of 585.
|At mid-century a restaurant occupied the ground floor of No. 585 and a "human hair goods" store was next door in No. 587. via the NYC Department of Records and Information Services|
Today a gruesome brick veneer covers the storefront. But other than a layer of decades of grime, the upper floors are little changed since Thomas Kelly sold fashionable clothing to female shoppers in 1881.
photographs by the author