Thursday, October 1, 2020

Henry Englebert's 1868 Marble Fronted 408-410 Broadway

Elias S. Higgins was a carpet merchant, the principal in E. S. Higgins & Company.  But as construction in New York resumed following the end of the Civil War and the Tribeca district began its transformation from a residential to commercial neighborhood, he turned to real estate development as well.

Between 1866 and 1869 he would work with architect Henry Englebert on at least three projects.  The earliest of these replaced the old Apollo Hotel with its well-known Apollo Rooms where banquets and balls were held as early as 1844, along with the commercial building next door (408 Broadway) which had recently been home to Wm. S. Vanderbilt & Bros., merchant tailors.

Ground was broken in 1866 and construction was completed two years later.  Engelbert had created two identical Italianate style structures.   Above the cast iron storefronts rose four stories of gleaming white marble, arranged in two sections divided by an intermediate cornice.  Rusticated piers framed each building.  Both of the two upper sections held two-story arches separated by Corinthian pilasters on paneled pedestals.  The arches of the middle section were segmental, while those of the upper section were fully rounded.

Among the initial tenants was was Calhoun, Robbins & Co., importers of "fancy dry goods and small wares."  The firm had been organized in 1858.  It had barely moved in when the gold panic known as Black Friday took place on September 24, 1869.  Caused by a conspiracy between Jay Gould and James Fisk to corner the gold market, it caused gold prices to plummet and an economic depression was narrowly averted by the actions of President Ulysses S. Grant.  The effects of Black Friday trickled down to merchants like Calhoun, Robbins & Co.

New-York Tribune, March 9, 1870 (copyright expired)

Another fancy goods dealer in the building by 1872 was Isaac F. Stillitz, whose showrooms were on the third floor.  On the afternoon of March 25 that year, three men entered the building and hid in the hallway water closet.  They remained there until the employees had left, then broke into the Stillitz showroom.  The New York Times reported they "stole ten dozen of pocket-knives, valued at $85, and some articles of small value."  (The knives would be worth about $1,840 today.)

Isaac F. Stillitz turns out to have been relatively lucky in his loss.  The men escaped by forcing open the scuttle (or hatchway) to the roof, then traveling over the rooftops until forcing open another scuttle at No. 404 Broadway.  In that building they broke into two safes and removed a large quantity of jewelry valued at more than $25,600 today.  They broke open the street door to escape.

The trio went separate directions.  The box containing the jewelry was entrusted to one man and Stillitz's goods to another.  At around daylight Patrolman Mitchell was suspicious of the box he saw a man carrying up Broadway near Spring Street, and asked him what was inside.  Told that it was clothing, he asked to see inside.  The man then threw the box to the ground and ran.  Mitchell instructed a private security guard to watch the box while he pursued the burglar.

When the crook realized the cop was gaining on him, he turned and pointed a weapon, threatening to shoot.  (It turned out that the pistol was, in fact, a large door key.)  "The policeman, who had drawn his revolver, informed the desperado that unless he surrendered at once he would blow his brains out."  The culprit chose to retain his brains and was arrested.

The early 1880's was an unsettling time for wealthy capitalists as economic anarchists targeted banks and millionaires with bombs and death threats.   In the spring of 1882 two wealthy New Yorkers, William H. Vanderbilt and Cyrus W. Field, received mail bombs which, thankfully, did not detonate.  Professor R. Ogden Doremus examined the boxes and reported "The gun cotton in the infernal machines...was powerful enough to kill two men."

Postal investigators sought out experts to examine the components in an effort to track down the terrorists.  They brought one of the boxes to Calhoun, Robbins & Co. to possibly identify the box and covers.  The Sun reported "Several members of the firm gathered...examined the box critically.  They said that the 'T-137' was a German mark, and that the 157-8c. was a private mark of some retail house in this city."  They then sent for a young man from the packing room.  His knowledge of boxes was prodigious. 

"The young man picked up the box, turned it around and over, glanced at the picture of the peasant girl, slammed the box down on the table, pulled out a well-worn note book from his hip pocked, and yelled promptly, 'In America.'"

Asked who made it, he thumbed through the book again and advised "Go to J. F. Hitchcock, 72 Duane street."  He then went back to his packing room.  His tip gave investigators the first clue that resulted in a chain of valuable information.

Business owners had to be constantly on guard against swindlers and cheats, not only from the street by from within their companies.  Tenants H. M. Richards & Co. and Browning, King & Co. would both be victims.

Browning, King & Co. were clothiers whose superintendent of the packing department, John Masterson, was a trusted employee.  But he was arrested in June 1883 after it was discovered that he and an accomplice, John Ford, had swindled the firm out of $20,000--a significant $527,000 in today's money.

Jewelers H. M. Richards & Co. were the victim of slick con artists the following year.  Matthew Webb, Jr. and Henry Rice, 23 and 25-years old respectively, set up a jewelry firm (in name only) and hired a 16-year old messenger boy, Alfred Wieck, as their unwitting accomplice.  Webb and Rice constantly renamed their business and moved around, making tracing them difficult.

Weick was paid $6 a week, which was enough for him not to ask questions.  He was sent to jewelry firms with printed order forms from the fake company.  Rather astonishingly, jewelers, including H. M. Richards & Co., fell for the ruse and turned over small amounts of jewelry.  The orders amounted most often to about $45--around $1,180 today--enough to keep the crooks in business but not enough to arouse suspicion.

The scam worked until late July 1884 when Weick brought an order to Thomas W. McAdams.  The letterhead read Conkling, Frye & Lewis, which was not listed in the city directory.  The clerk, Philo Scofield, suspected he was being hustled and packed up a wad of cotton in a package and then followed Weick.  The teen went to another jewelry store where he was given eight lace pins and five pairs of earrings.

The New York Times reported "Mr. Scofield had by this time secured Detective McCabe...and the two followed the boy until he joined Matthew Webb, Jr."  Both were arrested and on the way to the station house Weick pointed out Rice on the street.  Alfred Weick was let go, but Rice and Webb were held on multiple charges of swindling.  H. M. Richards & Co. suffered a loss of about $1,700 in today's dollars.

In 1887 Nevius & Haviland moved in.  The American Stationer reported on February 3 that year "Nevins & Haviland, the well-known manufacturers of wall-papers and dealers in all sorts of odd things for wall decorations, have removed to 408 Broadway, where, with increased facilities and better accommodations, they expect to serve their patrons even better than in the past.

The American Stationery, February 3, 1887 (copyright expired)

Nevius & Haviland's factory was at the corner of Tenth Avenue and 42nd Street.  The block contained similar industrial buildings, all of which were stocked with "paper, chemicals and inflammable materials," according to The World.  In the pre-dawn hours of October 19, 1893 a fire broke out which spread from one building to another until the entire block was engulfed.

The World reported "A crowd of at least fifteen thousand people was congregated this morning...gazing wonderingly at the blackened ruins of one of the largest, most destructive and costliest fires that New York has suffered in over a decade."  Nevius & Haviland estimated its damage at $150,000--nearly $4.5 million today.

Calhoun, Robbins & Co. suffered a tragedy on August 29, 1906.  There were no safety regulations for elevators at the time and shafts were often unguarded by gates or doors.  Among Calhoun, Robbins & Co.'s employees was the messenger boy George Swenson.  That day he fell down the shaft.  The New-York Tribune reported "Although he fell two stories and was severely injured, the surgeons at the Hudson Street Hospital believe that he will recover."

New-York Tribune, September 25, 1909 (copyright expired)

On October 21, 1913 the New-York Tribune reported "Calhoun, Robbins & Co., dealers in notions etc., and for half a century located at Broadway and Canal street, have arranged to occupy the old Lord and Taylor store at Broadway and 19th street in 1915, when the present lease expires...The lease involves the property at No. 895 and 899 Broadway."

The building continued to house dry goods dealers for years.  In 1921 silk manufacturer Max Hyman was here.  His premises were robbed of $6,000 worth of silks on the morning of August 6.  Somewhat shockingly, in pressing charges he identified three other silk dealers--Abner Friedman, Abraham Schwartzbart, and Isadore Weingartner--as the thieves.  The men were foiled when Abner Friedman offered to sell a portion of the stolen silk to another dealer.  He was unaware that the businessman was a relative of Max Hyman.

In 1950 the building received a renovation.  It resulted in salesrooms on the first and second floors, and light manufacturing space above.  In the mid-1990's the store at No. 410 was home to Ad Hoc Softwares where decorative and useful items for the home like perfume decanters could be purchased.

Another renovation completed in 2008 accommodated a trade school on the second and third floors and offices on the top two floors.  It became home to Spin Magazine by 2009.

Although the Corinthian capitals of the cast iron storefront have been lost, overall the marble fronted building looks much as it did when it opened in 1869, just four years after the end of the Civil War.

photographs by the author

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