Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Surviving Sliver of the Old Lord & Taylor Store

On the corner of Broadway and 20th Street stands what is left of the elaborate 1870 Lord & Taylor store -- a busy cast iron montage of pillars and balconies, deep-set windows and dormers, and the dramatic Second Empire mansard cap over the corner that most distinguishes the building.

The structure was Lord & Taylor's third.  Cousins Samuel Lord and George W Taylor opened their first dry goods store in 1826 on Catherine Street.  By the outbreak of the Civil War they had moved to Grand Street and Broadway and in 1869, having established a reputation among Manhattan's carriage trade, needed a yet larger store.  Upscale stores like Tiffany's and Lord & Taylor's rival Arnold, Constable & Co. had relocated northward to the Union Square area that same year.

Purchasing land from the Goelet family (895-899 Broadway) and the Badeau family (the corner lot at 20th Street only a block south of the new Arnold, Constable store), Lord & Taylor prepared for their move.  James H. Giles was commissioned to design their emporium.  A Brooklyn architect who was responsible for a few lower Manhattan cast iron buildings as well as the earlier gothic-style Christ Church in Williamsburg (where he even designed the organ cabinet), Giles went all-out for the new store.

NYPL Collection

His five-story extravaganza, costing half a million dollars, departed from conventional cast iron designs.  Rather than creating a facade pretending to be stone, his was unabashedly cast iron.  Architectural critics of the day praised the innovation; one of the few criticisms being the overall beige color rather than a polychromed paint scheme.

Shoppers ride the hand-hoist elevator on Lord & Taylor's opening day in 1870 - NYPL Collection
Thousands of shoppers crowded into the new store on November 28, 1870 through the impressive main entrance on Broadway, south of the corner building we recognize as the Lord & Taylor building today.  Hand-hoisted elevators carried customers from floor to floor to sample the latest in imported merchandise.

The emporium enjoyed tremendous success in the new location, prompting further additions towards Fifth Avenue.  This growth was due in part to Lord & Taylor's innovative marketing -- they were the first, for instance, to install Christmas windows -- the start of a treasured New York tradition.

NYPL Collection

As other large retailers moved further uptown so did Lord and Taylor, building their present location at 38th Street and 5th Avenue in 1915 and abandoning the grand cast iron structure.   Almost immediately the old store changed.  That year the main section on Broadway lost its cast iron facade and was refaced in stone.  Little by little, only the corner building at No. 901 Broadway was left intact.

The 20th Century was not kind to No. 901 Broadway.  Used for loft space and manufacturing for decades, by the 1980s it was grubby and rusting and largely empty.  Despite landmark status, the future for the old Lord & Taylor store was grim.

A series of owners, starting with Darius Sakhai in 1995, reversed the trend.  The upper facade was restored and tacky storefronts replaced.  In 2006 Joseph Sitt paid $17.375 million for the building and three years later resold it for just under $25 million.  Although still not completely occupied the surviving sliver of Lord & Taylor's 19th Century emporium seems to have a brighter future.

non-credited photographs taken by the author


  1. OMG - thank you so much for posting this! I am a great fan of great architecture and the Gilded Age. I live literally a few blocks from this building, always pass its front, but never knew it was a remnant of the Lord & Taylor. I did know that that area was called "The Ladies Mile", but could not recognize that building!
    Thanks and congrats for a wonderful blog!

  2. We taped the new Bravo show "Mad Fashion" here!! I had no idea it was the old L&T building!! Cool!! Thanks for posting!!!!!

  3. wow. that's another side note to building's history. thanks for that. great building (what's left of it), isn't it?

  4. It was my understanding that Lord & Taylor was located in a five story building at Broadway and 20th Street, and Arnold Constable (no comma following Arnold, after the store's 1925 reorganization), in a six story building (originally constructed with four stories) with a multiform, mansard roof at Broadway and 19th Street extending from Broadway to Fifth Avenue with the main entrance on B'way. Need to take a hop over there to see what building's where. Excellent piece.

  5. And now it is added to "former Lord & Taylor" store buildings. The latest department store loss on Fifth Avenue is bitterer than many others I can remember. There's nothing left but far-too-expensive or way-overtouted.

  6. I am the great granddaughter (Dorinda Dercar) of James Henry Giles, the architect. After my great grandmother, Mary Carolyn Giles passed away, James Henry moved to Pittsburgh, PA, where he remarried and designed some buildings there. James Henry's son, Gilbert Elliott Giles (my grandpa) was also a gifted artist, invented a version of a battery powered flashlight, among many other useful gadgets for which he never obtained patents. I reside in New Mexico now, and teach voice and acting. If anyone has any other info or photos of James Henry, please contact me through my name on Face Book.