Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Silk Exchange Buildling -- No. 487 Broadway

The new Silk Exchange Building at 487 Broadway gleams amid its brooding neighbors-- photo NYPL Collection
During the last decade of the 19th century the blocks along Broadway north of Canal Street bustled with busy businessmen and shoppers. Once a thoroughfare of high-toned residences, it now was lined with cast iron or brick-and-stone commercial buildings.

Here, at the southeast corner of Broadway and Broome Street in the center of the silk district, wealthy developer John Townsend Williams began work on a loft and office building in 1894. While the Broadway exposure was an expected 28 feet wide, the plot stretched 200 feet back to Mercer Street along Broome. Williams understood that the long, narrow site would require careful designing.

The busy John T. Williams not only was a real estate developer, but he acted as his own architect and contractor. Collaborating with William Birkmire, he had already begun work on the Central Bank Building when he purchased this property, and would be simultaneously designing and constructing Lord’s Court, another early skyscraper.

While critics would later pooh-pooh the design of Lord’s Court as “rather plain,” they would have no such complaint regarding No. 487 Broadway.  Completed two years later, it was a “modern twelve-story structure,” according to The New York Times. Williams used limestone, buff-colored brick and terra cotta to create an airy and attractive sliver of a building that stood out in stark contrast to its neighbors.

Williams accentuated the tall, narrow Broadway façade by collecting the fourth through tenth floor window as a tall central arch. Massive brick corner pilasters rose six stories to support the base of the arched windows and decorative spandrels. In explosive contrast to the relatively undecorated limestone base, the upper floors were lavished with intricate terra cotta ornamentation.

Deeply cast terra cotta capitals and swirling sprandrel designs added to the riotous decoration -- photo by Alice Lum

Three entrances—on Broadway, Broome and Mercer—provided convenient access to tenants and clients alike.

The completed building quickly filled with tenants, many of them in the silk industry. Among these were the Phoenix Silk Manufacturing Company, Cheney Brothers, William Ryle & Co., Nonotuck Silk Company, Belding Brothers’ Company, Sauguoil Silk Manufacturing Company, William Schroeder & Co., Liberty Silk Company, W. Guerin et Fils, Pelgram & Meyer and E. Geili & Co.

Even the copper cornice brackets drip with ornament -- photo by Alice Lum
The high number of silk merchants resulted in the building earning the name The Silk Exchange Building.

In 1899 Williams offered the building for sale. Several potential buyers negotiated for the up-to-the-minute office building, but it was James B. Haggin who won out. Haggin, whom The Times referred to as “the Western millionaire,” paid Williams $850,000 for the building. The Evening Post called the sale “one of the best transactions effected in a long time.”

The exuberant ornamentation has caused the building to be called "wedding cake-like" -- photo by Alice Lum
As the 20th century began, not all the tenants in the building were involved in the silk trade. In 1900 the law office of David Asher Hamburger was here as well as Jose Rosemena’s advertising office.

Although on January 23, 1910 The New York Times remarked that the building was “in the heart of the silk trade; which shows no disposition to change;” that change was indeed coming.

The Broome Street facade -- photo by Alice Lum
A. C. Neidermeyer was already a tenant in 1907. The firm manufactured and sold “hand, toilet and triplicate mirrors, metal stand mirrors, shaving stands, leather novelties.” In 1912 Thomas P. Taylor was here, selling “notion specialties” that included “hair rolls, pompadours, ladies’ belts, bustles, collar foundations, hose supporters, sleeve protectors, and embroidery hoops.”

That same year, as the silk district inched further uptown, rumors began circulating that the Silk Association of America would abandon its headquarters in the building. Although the association secretary Ramsey Peugnet denied the stories, the group met on July 8 to “determine the feeling of the trade down town regarding the advisability of joining the uptown movement that has become so general within the last year or so,” according to reporters.

The Times noted that “For a considerable period the Silk Exchange Building has been the centre of the old silk market, and has also housed the Silk Association. It still contains the New York offices of several out-of-town concerns, but in view of the gradual uptown trend of the trade it is believe that a building more centrally located would offer these offices to better advantage.”

photo by Alice Lum
Before long, there were no silk merchants left at No. 487 Broadway.

Yet even without its namesake industry, the building continued to attract tenants. In the 1920 Henry S. Bragdon, formerly of 115 Worth Street, moved his offices here as did Roebuck Manufacturing, makers of wire screens. The next year Newman Clock Company, manufacturers of “portable recorders and keystations” – in short, time clocks.

Casket, an industry trade magazine was published here during the 1930s and by 1938 the Banco Di Sicilia Trust Company was here.

The Soho neighborhood grew gritty and neglected. By the 1960s and ‘70s the intricate structures along Broadway were grime-covered and cast iron facades stood rusting away. But a Renaissance soon occurred that saw the restoration of the century-old buildings and their renovation into trendy new stores and residential spaces.

In 1985 No. 487 Broadway, now known as the Haggin Building, was converted into 25 residential units. Today residents of what the Department of Buildings called “joint living work quarters for artists” live where deals for “thrown silk” and exotic neckwear were once made.


  1. Love learning the histories of the old SoHo buildings - and esp. glad that they've survived for new purposes, albeit much more trendy ones than "thrown silk."

    BTW - did you notice in the first photo that, in the lower right, there's a sign for a vegetarian restaurant? Kinda cool for 1895!

  2. Another of my pet favorite buildings. Thanks for the insights.

  3. A vegetarian restaurant in 1895, when everything was about oysters and hind roasts and stuffed quails, must have had a hard go of it!

  4. 1895? Don't think so - not with those cars in the picture...

  5. The first photo dates from 1935-1938 and is by Bernice Abbott, see

  6. Sorry wrong link, here it is

  7. Thanks so much for this post, Tom! I traveled to Manhattan (from Baltimore area) last Saturday for the express purpose of walking around Soho and photographing the great buildings there. This one really jumped out at me - I had done some research on about a dozen buildings beforehand, but for this one, I didn't know anything about it. Thanks again for really digging into its history... I had a great Saturday being in Soho, and your post now makes it even better.

    1. Glad it was helpful. I love Baltimore, by the way. There's a small cemetery there I stumbled across that is entirely Egyptian Revival...incredible!

  8. Hi Tom,

    Great posts as always. Is this the tallest building in NYC with fire escapes?

    1. Wow. Tough question. Can't hazard a guess, but checking it out.

  9. Thanks! I'm looking into it as well. I'm a tour guide!

  10. A company called Craftsman Briars made a funky water cooled tobacco pipe there (probably in 40's). The pipe was called a Well Kool. Its interesting that they were at that location.

  11. Thank you for this article, I found it very interesting as John Townsend Williams was my gg grandfather and I know next to nothing about him. Do you have any more articles on the other buildings he built as I would love to read them. Thank you!