Thursday, January 5, 2012

The 1858 Cast Iron No. 620 Broadway "The Little Cary Building"

photo by Alice Lum
For five years the spectacular Crystal Palace had drawn thousands of tourists and New Yorkers who marveled at the technological advancements of science and industry. Opened in 1853 as an International Exhibition – a World’s Fair in today’s terms—it highlighted steam engines, farm machinery and the newfangled Otis elevator under a vast iron and glass canopy.

But then on the afternoon of October 5, 1858 the magnificent structure burned and collapsed within twenty minutes.

The exhibitors scrambled to find a new venue, not wanting to lose the publicity offered by the exhibition. They found it at 620 Broadway, a just-completed commercial building erected by real estate speculator Henry Dolan.

Until a few years earlier the stretch of Broadway was lined with elegant Federal-style homes. George H. Andrews had lived at No. 620 in a house that, not long before, had been used by The New York Club.

Dolan turned to architect John B. Snook to design his six-story structure on the site. The result was an eye-popping cast iron Venetian palazzo. Tiers of paired Corinthian columns supporting graceful arches were separated by spans of cast iron pretending hard to be masonry.

Whether Dolan sought to save costs, or whether the architect and the foundry owner cheated a little is unclear; but No. 620 Broadway was a miniature version of the Carey Building completed two years earlier at No. 105 Chambers Street.

The same foundry, Daniel D. Badger Co., had cast the elements of the Cary Building for architects King & Kellum. Badger was a pioneer in cast iron architecture and the Cary Building was a visual masterwork. Snook and Badger’s combined efforts resulted in a scaled down but equally-impressive near-copy.

On September 11, 1858 Scientific American urged inventors and manufacturers to submit articles for exhibition at the “Great Fair and Exhibition of the American Union for Inventors, Manufacturers, Mechanics, Etc.” which, it said, would continue through the year 1859.

The New York Times floridly announced the opening of the Fair of the American Union on December 22. Making a point that the new building was fire-proof, the newspaper said “The American Union, as most of our readers are aware, is a new Association, which has arisen from the ruins of the Crystal Palace, and therefore is entitled to be considered a sort of Phoenix, to which ornithological marvel it was indeed repeatedly compared by the orators of the occasion.”

The Times recounted that “Articles destroyed in the Crystal Palace had to be reconstructed, and the majority of the exhibitors had lost heart and hope. However, some of the most hopeful went to work, hired a suitable, and, all things considered, a fine building, collected together what specimens of inventive skill their owners were willing to display, and last night the public were invited to gratify themselves with the result.”

Fluted, paired Corinthian columns support ornate arches -- photo by Alice Lum
The building was filled with innovative devices for the public’s amazement. On the first floor, along with clocks and watches by Howard & Davis of Boston, were electric machines, printing stamps, atmospheric flour bolts, counterfeit coin detectors and other astounding items such as the “India-rubber-roofed house—warranted water-proof.”

While the Robertson’s Band played on the second floor, visitors roamed among sewing machines, enameled furniture, Mexican hammocks and blankets, and other household objects. The newspaper article noted that “Especially did the ladies admire the ‘Princess Royal Patent Looped Extension Bridal Skirt, without a Stitch,’ a marvelous triumph in crinoline.” The writer urged that “An Altar Apron, very ancient, beautifully wrought in linen, taken from a church in Palermo, Sicily, during the revolution of 1848, exhibited by Mrs. Mount, is really worth a visit to the Exhibition for its own sake alone.”

The fourth floor was devoted to art works including plaster casts and marble sculptures.

With the closing of the fair, No. 620 Broadway began the more-expected life of a commercial building. In 1860 James Moses Quinby operated his carriage manufacturing business here. His business with the South was so extensive that he built two highly-profitable factories there; one in Montgomery, Alabama and the other at Columbus, Georgia. Intensely patriotic and loyal to the Union, Quinby suffered major losses when the Civil War forced him to abandon his branch factories.

Another carriage builder, Tomlinson, Demarest and Co. was here in 1869 when it patented its American Improved Velocipede; reportedly the "strongest, best constructed and most perfect velocipede yet produced."

The American Improved Velocipede was marketed from here in 1869.
The Fair of the American Union may have been long gone, but new inventions still appeared here. Mitchell, Vance & Co., had its business at No. 620 in 1864; a manufacturer of chandeliers and gas fixtures “of every description.” But that year they included in their inventory the Automatic Gas Machine. The contraption of gears, handles and tanks was, according to the firm, “the most certain, convenient, and simple method of producing a light of unrivaled brilliancy and steadiness, being the most pleasant and economical light known.”

The Automatic Gas Machine was guaranteed "free from all danger of explosion" -- print American Agriculturist January 1864 (copyright expired)
Advertisements assured it was “free from all danger of explosion,” and “emits no offensive odor, is perfectly clean.”

Jerome Kidder sold his Electro-Medical Apparatus here in 1876.--The Popular Science Monthly September 1878 (copyright expired)
John Horton was another gas fixture manufacturer in the building in 1870. The same year that Horton moved in, “Nicoll, the Tailor” opened his shop in the building. His arrival marked the movement of the garment industry into this section of Broadway, pushing the more industrial concerns out.

Nicoll, the Tailor would be here for a long time, changing his wares with the times and styles. In 1879 he advertised in Puck Magazine a “grand display of Fall & Winter Goods. Pants to order --$4.00 to $10.00. Suites to order $15.00 to $40.00. Fall overcoats to order from $13.00 up.”

Four years later he marketed his custom made “bicycle suits made to order” and “tourists suits.”

Close inspection reveals the bolt heads connecting the cast iron facade to the structure -- photo by Alice Lum
By now No. 620 Broadway was filled with apparel firms. One of them was clothiers Newborg, Rosenberg & Co. In 1887 the store hired Michael Nathanson as a salesman. The man had recently been released from a ten-year prison sentence for highway robbery.

Before long he stole approximately $100 worth of clothing from the store.

While Nathanson pleaded guilty, he explained to the judge that it was all his landlady’s fault. He had owed her $20 and she told him she would forget the debt if he would steal a coat and waistcoat for her husband.

Once he had done as she directed, she exclaimed, “Now I have you! Get me all the clothes you can. If you don’t I’ll go to your employers and tell them you’re a thief.”

Justic Duffy sent for the landlady. When she denied the story she was released. Nathanson went back to jail. The New York Times pronounced his story “diaphanous.”

The cast iron did its best to appear like a masonry structure -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1897 Schloss Brothers, manufacturers of umbrellas, occupied the top two floors here. On the ground floor was L. Luska, dealer in Japanese goods; L. Goldin, capmaker, on the second and third floors; and Samuel Shapiro, clothing manufacturer on the fourth.

Just before daybreak on February 7 of that year fire broke out on the uppermost floor of Schloss Brothers. The floors were equipped with amazingly early examples of automatic fire alarms; but they failed to work until the flames had burned through the roof.

By the time fire fighters arrived, both of the Schloss Brothers floors were destroyed and the fire was not extinguished for two hours. The umbrella makers suffered $5000 loss and water damage to the lower floors amounted to a total of $6,000. Damages to the building were around $5,000.

As promoted, the “fire-proof” cast iron façade remained intact.

The building remained mostly filled with garment and millinery concerns during the first years of the 20th century – Eisner, Krulewitch & Co., menswear in 1906; and Samuel D. Lasden, ladies’ hats in 1907, for instance. Along with his menswear business, Samuel Krulewitch also ran his real estate business from here.

A year after Samuel D. Lasden moved in, a fire started in his shop in early afternoon on July 18, 1908. The Evening World remarked that “It fortunately occurred after the noon hour, when every one of the tenants in the building, which houses numerous shirt waist, hat and novelty concerns, had gone home for the half day.”

Firemen fought the stubborn fire for an hour and while they contained it to the second floor, there was considerable damage by smoke and water to other floors, amounting to $20,000.

Steinfeld Brothers was in the building in 1911, manufacturing the inventive “telescope cot bed.” Priced at $3.00 each, the portable beds were perfect for “your camp, motor boat, yacht, automobile, summer home, bungalow, lawn or porch.” A year later, with world tensions mounting, Field Service magazine mentioned that “The Steinfeld Telescope Cot Bed is well spoken of by some officers.”

For over a decade, beginning in 1911, Selchow & Richter Co., toys, operated from No. 620 Broadway. As Christmas 1922 approached, the company advertised Parcheese for $1 and the electric Illuminator Artist.  For fifty cents the shopper could buy Miraclum, advertised as “bewildering and perplexing. The Magic Hand does the work in a mysterious manner.”

The middle of the 20th century was harsh for the Noho area. Ornate cast iron buildings rusted and once-grand structures were dingy and neglected. In 1946 the electrical equipment company, Halliwell, Inc. was doing business from No. 620. The days of shirt waist fashions and men’s waistcoats were long gone.

Fortunately the neighborhood experienced a rebirth towards the end of the century. Around 1980 the building was converted to residential co-ops and approximately twenty years later the residents decided to paint the façade.

The historic stone-imitating colors that John B. Snook had originally used were not to be. Instead cream-colored columns and arches explode against a splashy blue field. The colors were meant to make the architecture stand out. And indeed, they do.

The AIA Guide to New York City was less moved by the non-historic color choice than the replacement windows the co-op installed. “The Daniel D. Badger Co. constructed the vigorous Corinthian cast iron frames, now contrasted with thoughtless, lifeless, flat, bronze-anodized aluminum windows,” it criticized.

But, whether the windows or the color scheme are to one’s liking or not, the gem of a building at No. 620 Broadway is a priceless example of early cast iron architecture.

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