Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Intriguing 1867 No. 540 Broadway

photo by Alice Lum
With the Civil War ended and New York’s men back home, Broadway between Canal and Houston Streets continued to develop as a fashionable commercial area.  Elegant hotels and high-end shops catered to the carriage class and new store and office buildings replaced brick Federal-style homes.

In 1867 the five-story store and office-space building was completed at No. 540 Broadway, designed by David Jardine.  The street level store front was constructed of cast iron, but it was the upper section that drew attention.  Here the design stepped out of the architectural box.

Rusticated piers framed the gray stone façade.  Recessed windows were separated by stylized, carved pilasters joined by arched lintels with elaborate keystones.  The carvings were cut into the flat surfaces, anticipating the Eastlake-style incised decorations of a generation later.  While other buildings of the period sprouted deep cornices and Corinthian capitals, this gray beauty expressed austere but subtle reserve.

No free-standing columns with ornate capitals decorate No. 540 Broadway - photo by Alice Lum
Above it all, a cast metal cornice, most likely chosen from a manufacturer’s catalogue and more in line with contemporary styles, announced the construction date.

Among the first tenants of No. 540 was Richardson & Co., publishers.  In addition to its publishing business, the company manufactured and sold parlor and lawn games.   The same year the building was completed and Richardson & Co. moved in, it advertised the new “Field Martelle;” a sort of croquette-meets-billiards game.

“The enthusiasm with which the ‘Parlor Martelle’ has been received during the past winter in all social circles, is an assurance that the ‘Field Martelle’ will prove as universally popular, and is justly styled the Queen of the Lawn,” the firm boasted.  “All persons who have seen the ‘Field Martelle’ pronounce it the most elegant out-door game yet invented.”

The game, indeed, must have been elegant.  For a complete game, “with full instructions, and neatly and strongly boxed,” the consumer would pay $20; about $300 by today’s standards.

The stylized pilasters and capitals were created by incised, flat carving -- photo by Alice Lum
On an upper floor in 1876 young girls toiled away in the shop of Alansen White, Jr. making artificial flowers.  

In the last quarter of the 19th century every stylish Victorian home had an exotic, Asian-inspired room or nook.    Women who intended to keep up with the trends purchased hand-painted fans, silk kimonos and Japanese-style curio cabinets.   The fad provided an excellent niche for the Morimua Brothers who opened their store of “Japanese goods” here in the 1880s.  The brothers were highly successful and, despite making their livings by selling Japanese imports, worked hard in their personal lives to assimilate into their new surroundings.  In 1889 The New York Times said “they dress and talk like Americans and mix in the best society of the city.”

Within a few years another Japanese merchant, Yesabro Wooyena, would lease space here, remaining until at least 1902.

Despite a case of rust due to neglect, the metal cornice is in overall good shape -- photo by Alice Lum.
The area gradually changed from one of high-end shopping to the center of the dry goods district.  In 1900 Williston & Knight Co. opened its headquarters in the building.  One of the country’s largest button manufacturers, its factory was in Easthampton, Massachusetts.    President William H. Chapman lived at 116 West 85th Street on the trendy Upper West Side and was a member of several clubs.

Two years later Williston & Knight joined with two other substantial button makers, creating The United Button Company—the largest such firm in the country.

At the same time, Louis Baerlein & Co. was here, makers of “hosiery, gloves and furnishing goods.”  Louis Baerlein had founded the business around 1870.  The aged Baerlein died in 1900 and two years later his partners, Isadore Baumgart, Jacob Meyer and Henry Musliner change the firm’s name to Baumgart, Meyer & Muliner.

No. 540 continued to attract apparel companies like Jacob Groetzinger and the New York Merchandise Company; although Levin & Goldberg also ran its office furniture business here in 1913.  In the 1920s the Somerset Shirt Company was located in an upper floor. 

Jeanne Perkus was 21 years old and a bookkeeper for Somerset Shirt Company in 1925.  The young woman had a fright on the hot summer day of August 22 when she stepped out of the Manufacturers Trust Company bank at Broadway and Canal Street.

Perkus had picked up an envelope containing the company’s payroll--$172.  No sooner had she left the bank than she felt a tug on her arm and the envelope was gone.  A man ran up Broadway and the bookkeeper was on his tail, yelling “Stop!  Thief!”

Like a scene from a silent movie, the robber was chased by Perkus, a policeman and an ever-increasing crowed.  He ran to Broome Street and turned west, turned south on Mercer Street, and east on Grand Street, ending back on Broadway where he had started.  Patrolman George Colby overtook Albert Oswang who was identified by Jeanne Perkus.  But there was no money envelope.

Oswang explained that he had simply been running to catch a surface car.  There had, obviously been a mistake.  Why he ran in a circle was not addressed.

Suddenly a passerby broke through the crowd and handed Oswang an envelope saying “I guess you dropped this, Mister.”  Inside was the $172 payroll.  Jeanne Perkus returned to No. 540 Broadway, Albert Oswang was taken to Police Headquarters, and Broadway returned to normal.

photo by Alice Lum
In January 2011 Paradoxal, a film production company that specializes in music videos, commercials, television programs and short films, leased the 5,500 square feet above street level.    Looking for “creative” space, the firm was attracted to the “high ceilings good light, and an open floor plan” consistent with the image it wanted to establish in the marketplace.

Little has changed in the outward appearance of the remarkable gray stone building.  The Soho neighborhood is now lined with trendy shops and galleries and where the Morimura Brothers once sold Japanese bric-a-brac, customers now shop for shoes.


  1. The Morimura Bros are now remembered as the primary importers of Noritake china- until 1940 Noritake wares bore a prominent back mark of an M in a wreath.

  2. As seen here with a sign that says "Desks" in the last scene of the movie classic "An Unmarried Woman": https://imgur.com/a/BXMi8Oc