Monday, March 29, 2010

The Arnold, Constable Dry Goods Store

Arnold, Constable & Co in 1894 -- King's Photographic Views of New York (author's collection)
Some years ago I guided a well-traveled friend to the corner of 19th Street and Fifth Avenue to show him the former Arnold, Constable Dry Goods building.  He gasped when he first saw the Fifth Avenue facade.

"Just wait," I said.  And we moved closer to the corner until the entire 19th Street side was visible.   "Have you ever seen anything like this?" I asked.

"Not outside of Paris," he answered.

Actually, the original entrance to the old Arnold, Constable Dry Goods store was on Broadway.  As the firm grew, so did the store; additions being added until at last the monster emporium spanned the entire length of 19th Street, taking out the former home of actor Edwin Booth with it.

Aaron Arnold, a British emigrant had opened a small dry goods business in 1825 on Pine Street in lower Manhattan, planting the seed of what would become the oldest department store in America.  In 1842 he took on James Mansell Constable as his partner, preferring to separate their names by a comma rather than an ampersand like his rival Lord & Taylor.

By 1857 the partners moved to Canal Street, where a five-story marble clad store awaited which was dubbed Marble House.  Offering "Everything From Cradle to Grave," Arnold, Constable & Company gained a reputation among the ladies of the monied carriage trade.  Business continued to boom and Marble House, only a decade later not only was the store cramped, but the retail district was moving northward

A second store was planned near Union Square.  The resultant 1869 five story marble, brick and cast iron palace designed by Griffith Thomas on Broadway at 19th Street incorporated large arched windows that allowed exceptional daylight into the selling floors.  A mere three years later Thomas was called back in to enlarge it down the 19th Street side.  He created a French Second Empire extravaganza -- Walt Disney Victorian architecture on steriods! 
A monumental two-story mansard roof was added to the entire structure.  The French-style architecture was most likely intended as a hint of the European goods offered inside -- gowns from The House of Worth in Paris, French china and imported silks.  The carriages that parked outside carried New York's feminine elite.  Mary Todd Lincoln was a regular shopper and the account ledgers read like the social register:  Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Astor for example.

Wiilliam Schickel designed the final westward additions and even established his offices in the building.  Despite a change in materials, the cast iron Broadway facade giving way to brick and masonry towards 5th Avenue, the additions are nearly seamless.  When the 5th Avenue end was completed, Arnold, Constable & Company became the first department store with a 5th Avenue address.

5th Avenue facade looking east down 19th Street
James Constable died in May of 1900.  Fourteen years later the store moved again, razing the Vanderbilt mansion at 40th Street and 5th Avenue for a new, more modern store.  Luckily for New Yorkers this grand old lady remains, a striking remnant of a fashionable era.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

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