Friday, November 18, 2011

Where Mary Todd Lincoln Shopped for China -- No. 488 Broadway

Photo by Alice Lum
By 1856 merchant E. V. Haughwout had amassed a fortune and lived in an elegant house on Gramercy Park with a private stable on 19th Street. He had opened his business in 1832 selling imported porcelain, china and glass and became one of the nation’s most esteemed merchants.

Haughwout expanded his business to include his own staff of designers, artists, glass cutters and engravers. In addition to his imported goods, the company manufactured pearl- and ivory-handled silverware and silver-plated hardware such as gas jets and chandelier parts. Here customers could choose blank French tableware to be hand-decorated to their specifications.

Broadway in the fashionable Bond Street area was becoming less residential as high-class commercial buildings replaced brownstone mansions. Here Haughwout commissioned architect John P. Gaynor to design an elegant showroom and workplace for his business on the site of three former mansions – Nos. 488 to 492 Broadway.

Haughwout planned his new emporium during a time of revolutionary architectural innovations – one of the most striking being Daniel Badger’s cast iron facades. Badger’s concept of hanging pre-cast iron sections to masonry buildings allowed for rapid construction, fire-proof facades and relatively inexpensive but elaborate decorative structures.

This site posed a problem though. Haughwout’s new building sat on a corner, requiring two iron facades.  The structure would have to support significantly more weight than a midblock building with a single metal face. Together Gaynor and Badger convinced Haughwout that an iron framework would strengthen the masonry structure and keep the cast iron fa├žade from pulling the building down—in effect laying the foundation for steel and iron framed skyscrapers to come.

At the Crystal Palace Exhibition a few years earlier Haughwout had seen Elisha Otis demonstrate his new elevator with safety brakes. Even though the proposed five-story building would not really need an elevator, Haughwout contracted Otis to build one—the first permanently installed passenger elevator in the world and, as the merchant knew, a superb marketing gimmick. Years before electricity, a steam generator in the basement powered the new contraption.

Completed in 1857, the building was remarkable. Gaynor borrowed the windows of the 1536 Venetian library of Jacopo Sansovino in designing his Ango-Italian palazzo. Dignified and impressive, it would induce Paul Goldberger, in his “New York, The City Observed,” more than a century later to say “It is one of those rare pieces of architecture in which everything fits together perfectly and yet with room for passion.”

Using Venetian inspiration, Gaynor produced a show-stopping commercial palace -- photo by Alice Lum
Haughwout opened the store “for inspection” on the evening of March 23, 1857. “No goods will be sold during that time, in order that our employees may devote their whole attention to those who may desire to visit our establishment,” said the announcement. Potential customers were invited to browse through three floors of showrooms. The manufacturing departments took up the fourth and fifth floors.

Beneath the glow of gasoliers, the store glittered with cut glass, silverware, Sevres dining services and china vases. Bronzes, parian statuary and clocks “of new and unique designs,” chandeliers from Cornelius & Baker of Philadelphia, French porcelains and silver-plated tea services filled the showcases.

Well-heeled patrons anticipated what Haughwout described as “The elegant and varied assortment of new goods with which we shall open has probably never been equaled in this country.”

In 1859, two years after the store opened, a sleek carriage awaits its owner outside E. V. Houghwout & Co.  A close look reveals gasoliers with milk glass shades inside illuminating the wares. -- print Library of Congress
At the time of the opening, E. V. Haughwout & Co. was also the sole importer of champagne from the French vineyards of De Venoge & Co.   Customers purchasing quality hand-cut champagne glasses could now enjoy one-stop shopping.

With his new store in place, Haughwout set out to improve its setting. As chairman of the Broadway Association he complained about the condition of the street. “While we justly pride ourselves upon the finest street in America, we are perpetually mortified at its dirty condition; while we welcome to its spacious promenade and splendid warehouses and hotels, representatives from all parts of the world, we are constantly in the humiliating position of apologists for the mud and dust which alternately bear testimony to the disgraceful neglect of the City Government,” he complained.

Under his leadership, the merchants of Broadway contributed to having the street cleaned three times a week by James Thompson for $150. Three years later Haughwout and C. F. Tiffany, Treasurer of the Association, would make headlines by suing the mayor over the expense.

In 1860 three ambassadors from Japan visited New York. Because, according to The New York Times, American glassware was of a type “almost unknown in Japan” E. V. Haughwout & Co. presented them with “three magnificent services of cut table glass as presents.”  Each service was fitted into polished rosewood cases, lined with velvet, and mounted with silver shields engraved with the name of each ambassador. They included “goblets, champagne and wine glasses, decanters, celery glasses, rice dishes, polished lapidary diamond saltcellars, ruby gilt finger bowls, liqueurs, clarets, and green hock glasses.”

A year later Abraham Lincoln moved into the White House along with the first lady and her notoriously extravagant tastes. Mary Todd Lincoln found the White House china to be mismatched and damaged and set out to replace it.  She climbed aboard a train for New York City, heading for E. V. Haughwout & Co.

The dinnerware she ordered would have a broad band of lilac, the color selected by Mrs. Lincoln because it came close to magenta, a highly popular color with ladies at the time. Beneath a rendering of the United States coat of arms was the motto E. Pluribus Unum. Along the border a two strands of gold cable intertwined.

Mary dropped off a deposit and returned home with the invoice to be processed by the government.  According to a Maryland journalist, Mrs. Lincoln “bought a lot of china for $1500 in cash and sent in a bill for $3000.”  The President refused to approve the invoice before sending it on to be paid by the government. The bill, he felt, was “exorbitant.”

Upon hearing that his $3000 invoice was being held up by the President, Haughwout wrote saying “You forget, sir,…that I gave Mrs. Lincoln $1500.”

Before E. V. Haughwout closed its doors for good, its distinguished patrons would include not merely the wealthiest and most celebrated names in the country, but foreign dignitaries and heads of state, such as the Czar of Russia.

The estate of Walter Langdon sold the building on March 5, 1895 for around $375,000. The stores catering to the carriage trade had begun moving northward and in the year just prior to World War I Haughwout’s once-elegant showrooms were home to various manufacturers. Among them were The Vulcanized Rubber Co. of New York; The Kursheedt Mfg. Company, makers of braids; Morris H. Pulaski, dealers in fancy goods and notions; and Cheney Brothers, a firm that made “silks and ribbons.”

On September 24, 1936 The Broadway Manufacturers Supply Co. signed a lease for the entire building. By now the glamorous history of E. V. Haughwout’s cast iron palace was long forgotten.

The middle of the 20th century was a dark time for the Cast Iron District. Ornate facades rusted under layers of grime and filth. Fergus M. Bordewich recalled in The New York Times in 1975 the character of Soho in the 1960s. “It seemed a strange, grim neighborhood then, characterlessly old, filled with buildings oddly ornate beneath their uniform layers of grime and dull paint.”  Structures that once housed high-end stores and expensive office space were now used as warehouses and small manufacturers. The E. V. Haughwout Building was neglected and deteriorating.

It was during this period, in 1966, that the Landmarks Preservation Commission held hearings to give the building landmark designation. Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Robert Moses was not pleased. Moses had come up with a scheme to build a $110 million highway through the lower portion of Manhattan. His Lower Manhattan Expressway would wipe out countless buildings, including the magnificent Beaux Arts former Police Headquarters and the Haughwout Building.

For decades, the wonderful clock, running once more, was surrounded by grimy, rusting columns and arches -- photo by Alice Lum
His plan hit a wall when preservationists stood firm. He struggled to keep the building from obtaining historic protection. Writing to the city’s transportation administrator he insisted that the Haughwout Building was of “dubious historical and artistic value. Certainly this is no way to dispose of the Lower Manhattan project.”

Moses lost the fight and No. 488 Broadway gained protection. It would be years, however, before the majestic emporium was restored.  In 1995 the deteriorating cast iron was restored under the supervision of preservation architect Joseph Pell Lombardi, including re-painting it in its original “Turkish drab” color.

Completely restored, the magnificent cast iron emporium gleams again -- photo by Alice Lum

Today the store where Mary Todd Lincoln purchased the White House china before the Civil War gleams again.  Contesting Robert Moses’ opinion that the building is of “dubious historical and artistic value,” G. E. Kidder Smith, in his “Source Book of American Architecture,” called the E. V. Haughwout Building “The greatest remaining single monument to cast iron.”


  1. gorgeous old building...good to see that the cast iron building has been restored..

  2. Those building were carefully planned and built with high standards to withstand future calamities. The details and wall decorations are also beautiful.