Saturday, June 22, 2013

The 1891 Warren Building -- Nos. 903-907 Broadway

photo by Alice Lum
In 1890 the stretch of Broadway between Union Square and Madison Square was Goelet Territory.  The fabulously wealthy land-owning family famously acquired real estate which it never sold; instead developing its holdings, collecting rents, and becoming richer.

Sitting symbolically in the middle of it all was the old Peter Goelet mansion, an eccentric survivor from Broadway’s residential days; now completely engulfed in commercial structures, many of which were built and owned by Goelets.

On April 17, 1879 Harriette Louise Warren married Robert Goelet, the brother of Peter.  Robert’s personal fortune was estimated at around $12 million at the time.  Before the end of the year Peter would die, increasing Robert’s wealth even more.

The new Mrs. Goelet was the daughter of eminent lawyer George Henry Warren.   The well-respected Warren was a leading force in the operations of the Metropolitan Opera and a director of the Union Trust Company.   

Reportedly it was Harriette who chose Stanford White and the firm of McKim, Mead & White as the architects for the striking Goelet Building, erected at the southeast corner of Broadway and 20th Street in 1886.  Harriette’s father would follow suit four years later when he called upon the architects to design a commercial building on the opposite, northwest corner.   The resulting 7-story neo-Renaissance building was completed a year later.  Like the Goelet Building it faced, it was named after its owner—the Warren Building.

Also like the Goelet Building, the Warren Building was most likely mostly the work of Stanford White.  Both buildings took full advantage of the diagonal orientation of Broadway which created non-rectangular plots.  While the Goelet Building featured a soft, rounded corner; the Warren Building was crisp and angled with a chamfered  corner.

A variety of materials resulted in a lush façade—a two story arcade, most likely of marble, supported five floors of buff-colored brick lavished with terra cotta and marble ornamentation.   At the fourth floor cast iron balconies added dimension.   The exuberance of decoration prompted Brickbuilder magazine to complain it was “atrociously overloaded.”

photo by Alice Lum

The new building replaced old structures like George W. Croney’s tailor shop (The New York Times noted he “preferred to be known as an agent for an English woolen house”) and stretched fifty-eight feet up Broadway and 70 feet along 20th Street.

The Union Square neighborhood attracted high-end jewelers like Tiffany & Co. that catered to the carriage trade.  Among the first premium retailers in the Warren Building was jeweler Charles Seale & Co.  In September 1891 William Dix entered the store and claimed he had a customer interested in diamonds.  He signed a “memoranda” and walked out with $1,478 of gems (almost $35,000 today).

When Dix failed to return, Charles Seale had him arrested.  When the prisoner appeared before Justice O’Reilly in the Tombs Police Court on October 3 charged with grand larceny, his defense was questionable.  According to The New York Times, “In court he said that he had lost the property.”
Terra cotta lion heads stare down from the cornice above the wonderfully-encrusted facade -- photo by Alice Lum
Another jeweler in the building was Strasburger & Co., importers of Swiss watches.   Like Seale & Co., its expensive goods attracted shady characters.   An especially dangerous customer entered the store at around 5:30 in the afternoon on March 9, 1894.

Reuben L. Armstrong “made a trifling purchase,” according to The New York Times, and paid for it with a $20 check drawn on the National City Bank of Brooklyn.   (The “trifling purchase” would be worth about $500 in today’s dollars.)   The store clerk recognized that the check was a forgery and sent a messenger to retrieve a policeman.  Policeman McCullough arrested Armstrong and led him to a Sixth Avenue horse car that would take them to the station house on West 13th Street.

McCullough had no hand cuffs with him and “as he was an undersized man, simply kept his right hand upon Armstrong’s shoulder,” explained The Times.  It would not be enough.

The prisoner fumbled in his pockets, pulled out a revolver and shot the policeman in the abdomen.  But because Officer McCullough was slightly bent over, the bullet failed to seriously wound him.  “The weapon was discharged, but the ball, after tearing a big hole in the policeman’s uniform and slightly scarring his skin, fortunately did no further damage,” reported The Times.

McCullough blew his whistle and four policemen descended upon the street car and the would-be cop killer.  “Armstrong was taken to the station house.  He insisted that he had no intention of shooting the policeman, and had merely attempted to throw away the revolver, together with a number of checks which he had in his pocket,” said the newspaper.

At the police station his situation became worse for Armstrong.  While he claimed the forgery of checks was not his idea—it had been suggested by a companion—and he was recognized as being wanted for horse stealing.

That same year the original show windows along East 20th Street and at the corner were replaced, however the general appearance of the arcade remained intact.

The dry goods dealers Hass Brothers was in the building at the turn of the century.   Among the firm’s employees was 25-year old Dudley Fanning who lived far north at No. 105 West 119th Street.  A few weeks before Fanning was to leave on a buying trip to Paris in 1902, he was at his summer house in Spring Lake, New Jersey.    An automobile spooked the horse pulling his carriage, which overturned; however the bachelor Fanning seemed “but slightly hurt.”

The young man was possibly more injured that it appeared.  He was staying in London on his way to Paris on August 10 when he drove “into the court yard of the Hotel Cecil in an automobile and had declared that he was the Saviour,” said The Times.  The newspaper reported the following day that he “will remain in the Infirmary until to-morrow, when he will be taken before the Lunacy Commissioners.”

A representative of Hass Brothers told reporters “Mr. Fanning has been in our employ for a year.  He has always been a sober, steady man, and the only reason I can give for his present state is that he met with an accident three weeks ago, which may have deranged him.”

This father, real estate dealer Thomas M. Fanning asked reporters to respect the family’s privacy, adding “It is a very sad thing for a young man to leave for a business trip in perfect health and suddenly lose his mind.”
The white marble second floor survives -- photo by Alice Lum
Among the businesses in the building in 1909 were T. J. Keveney & Co., importers of linoleum and commission merchants of carpets and rugs; and the manufacturing jewelry firm of A. Ludwig & Son.  Brothers Emil and George Ludwig lived together at No. 3609 Broadway and were motor boat enthusiasts.  The men were members of the New York Motor Boat Club located at 147th Street and the Hudson River.

Tragedy struck when, on August 25, 1909, the brothers took a motor boat onto the Hudson River and somehow one or both fell overboard.  In attempting to save each other, both were drowned.

In 1912 The American Hatter reported that “Young Bros., the popular New York Hatters, will open a new store at 903 Broadway, northwest corner of Twentieth street, where space has been leased for a term of years at an aggregate rental of $100,000.”   The hefty rent and the recognized name of Young Brothers may have been responsible for the substantial renovation of the retail level that year.
A 1912 advertisement noted the store would be closed for Decoration Day -- (copyright expired)

The marble columns were taken away and the show windows, which had extended slightly into the sidewalk area, were brought flush to the façade.

Young Brothers continued to sell men’s hats from the Warren Building into the 1920s.   But by now the more prestigious retailers had moved further up Fifth Avenue.  The building filled with a variety of a small offices and manufacturers like the Primus Company that dealt in “umbrella accessories.”  The firm occupied a full floor for nearly a decade in the 1920s and 30s.
By May 26, 1920 when this photograph was taken, the balconies were lost and the modern storefronts lined the sidewalk.  photogrpah from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

At some point the Warren Building’s wonderful cast iron balconies were lost.  The structure was purchased by the Ridless family in the second half of the century and in 2009 began work on replacing the mid-century store front with something much more architecturally sympathetic.

The “atrociously overloaded” Warren Building is a visual joy; sadly overlooked because of its location across from the attention-grabbing Goelet Building.
photo by Alice Lum


  1. Impressive looking building - and still in good shape. I like the building material color chosen.

  2. I am in the process of walking the entire length of Broadway, a few blocks at a time. Incredible buildings such as this are abundant from White Street (beginning of Broadway) to 23rd st. Such wonderful architecture and history on every street corner of Broadway thus far. I hope to finish my trek of Broadway by late summer, and then I'll conquer 5th Ave.