Thursday, December 1, 2011

The W. & J. Sloane Buildling -- 880-888 Broadway

photo by Alice Lum
The stretch of Broadway just above Union Square saw the rise of grand emporiums in the years after the Civil War. Arnold Constable & Company erected its Second Empire extravaganza in 1869, to be followed a year later by Lord & Taylor’s similar ornate structure.

Across Broadway, between 18th and 19th Street, W. & J. Sloane would build something entirely different.

By now the Sloane firm had come a long way from its founding in 1843. William Sloane had learned the craft of weaving in his native Scotland. Nine years after arriving in New York, he opened a store on Broadway across from City Hall where he sold oilcloth floor coverings and carpets. When his brother, John, joined him in 1852 the firm became W. & J. Sloane.

The store had gained a reputation for high-quality goods by the end of the Civil War and catered to New York’s carriage trade. With the death of their father and uncle, William’s three sons – John, William D. and Henry T.—carried on the business.

Like other businesses, the Sloane company followed the northward march of commerce; moving to 501 Broadway in 1855, to 591 Broadway six years later, then to 649-655 Broadway. In 1881 the Sloanes were ready to relocate again.

Property was purchased on the east side of Broadway, lots 800 through 880, in the city’s most fashionable shopping district. Architect William Wheeler Smith was put to work designing a store that would look nothing like any of the surrounding emporiums.

Deeply-molded panels of garlands and foliage were just a hint at the intricate ornamentation -- photo by Alice Lum
Completed in 1882 it was six stories of brick, stone, cast iron and terra cotta that melded Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic elements into what has been called by some the “Commercial Palace Style.” Cornices above the first, third, fifth and sixth floors accentuated the horizontal, while shallow brick pilasters stretched upward. Smith playfully embellished the façade—particularly within the terra cotta capitals of the pilasters—with birds, monsters, angels and other fantastic figures.

Above the entrance is the year of the cornerstone laying -- photo by Alice Lum
The $400,000 building was termed by “King’s Handbook of New York City” as “a solid, graceful edifice” that was “scarcely vast enough for the display of the large stock dealt in by W. & J. Sloane.” The handbook went on to say “They control the product of a great number of domestic and foreign carpet-mills, and moreover import the best work of other mills of Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, England and France.” It was, said King’s, “indisputably at the head of the carpet and rug industry of this country.”

An angel is flanked by a serious owl and a crow on one capital, while a cherub is accompanied by scary monsters.  In the panel above, a lone squirrel enjoys the abundance of acorns among the oak leaves -- photo by Alice Lum
Not content with their tremendous success in the carpet and rug business, the Sloane brothers branched into related areas: interior design, upholstery, and antiques. Nearly every major hotel in New York—the Waldorf-Astoria, Plaza and Savoy among them—was decorated and carpeted by Sloane. When Czar Nicholas II of Russia was coronated, the rugs were supplied by W. & J. Sloane.

The six floors of showrooms were filled with acres of goods. On October 21, 1889 The New York Times remarked that “Ladies who visit the store go into ecstasies over the magnificent carpets, tapestries, portieres, and furnishings. They say they really never saw anything like it.”

The article listed items such as “attractive brocades for furniture coverings and hangings.  One piece has pink roses on a ground of reseda. They are so artistically wrought that they seem to be the actual flowers. A splendid assortment of skins is a feature also. The Mongolian leopard and tiger skins are very fine.”

photo King's Handbook of New York City, 1895

W. & J. Sloane’s impressive building was assessed by the deputy tax commissioner in 1892 at $3 million.

Not only did the business provide immense fortunes to the Sloane brothers, but the growth of the company necessitated the addition in 1898 of a nine-story warehouse on 19th Street adjoining the store. William Wheeler Smith was once again commissioned to design the harmonious structure.

Workers pose alongside the side delivery entrance while a horse-drawn dray awaits -- photo American Architect & Building News, November 28, 1885
On December 9, 1904 John Sloane, the president and head of the firm, died. He had been an employee of W. & J. Sloane since he was fifteen years old. By now the firm was much more than a carpeting store. In 1905 Sweet’s Indexed Catalogue of Building Construction said “W. & J. Sloane have their own corps of designers and decorators, skilled painters, plasterers, fresco workers, carvers, cabinet markets and other artisans to whom any undertaking, whether simple or elaborate, is capable of satisfactory execution. They have their own Wood Working Factory where they make to order Special Design Furniture, as well as Wood Trim of the highest class.” The firm employed a staff of over 500 at the time.

An advertisement pictured the "whole carpet" made to order for the new Sherry's -- The Architectural Record 1903
The company designed and wove custom-made Aubusson and Beauvais tapestries, curtains and fabrics. Sloane was essentially the sole source for “whole carpets,” which would be designed in-house and manufactured at Sloane mills. The company kept a staff in the Middle East to select Oriental rugs to be imported for sale in the Broadway showrooms.

And yet W. & J. Sloane continued to branch out. By 1909 its product line included linoleum for motorboats. On July 10 of that year The Motor Boat magazine deemed the company the “leading house which furnishes linoleum to the motorboat manufacturers and owners…They make a specialty of it, and are the largest firm, both wholesale and retail in the United States.”

As the high-end stores moved up Fifth Avenue, so did W. & J. Sloane, erecting its new headquarters at Fifth Avenue and 47th Street in 1912. The Dry Goods Reporter announced that “William Meyer & Company, importers of laces and embroideries, for many years at Broadway and Broome Street, celebrated the opening of their new saleroom, 880-888 Broadway, corner 19th Street, on August 1st.”

Sloane leased the building to William Meyer “for a long term of years,” and the article went on to say that “the beautiful sales room gave every evidence of the extensive alterations that have been going on for some months past.”

Two cherubs hold a wreathed "S" for Sloane -- photo by Alice Lum
William Meyer manufactured and imported embroideries, laces, handkerchiefs, white goods, nets and veilings. It owned mills in Switzerland and was the sole selling agents for certain Irish linens. The firm shared the building with other apparel companies, including Burton, Price & Co., sellers of ribbons, and the necktie firm of Excello Cravats.

By the 1950s, when the New York Pressing Iron Company had its headquarters here, the building was known as the Schwartz Building. That company would continue doing business in the building into the 1970s.

At the time that W. & J. Sloane was carpeting the coronation of the Csar and building a new warehouse behind its store, Austrian-born Sam Weinrib was selling used carpeting and linoleum from a pushcart. The immigrant’s tiny business was expanded by his son and by 1981, just as W. & J. Sloane had been, was the most prominent name in New York for carpeting and upholstery—ABC Carpet & Home.

One massive, embellished column supports the deeply-recessed entrance of the restored building -- photo by Alice Lum
That year ABC purchased the old Sloane building and renovated it, treating the historic façade with care. The firm is still there today, the largest importer and retailer of wool carpeting in the United States. It is an amazingly appropriate use for the former carpeting showroom; a stunning building which, after its construction, was nominated as one of the “best ten buildings” in America.


  1. The details found in this building is superb. I hope we could preserve it until the next 50 years or more.

  2. I found a copy of my grandfathers registration for WW2 where he stated his employer was NY Pressing Machinery Corp at 888 Broadway, NY, which must have been this building.