Friday, June 28, 2013

The 1896 B. Altman Stable -- Nos. 135-143 W. 18th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Victorian ladies who made purchases in Sixth Avenue’s grand emporiums that made up what was known as the Ladies’ Mile did not expect to wrestle their packages home.  Among the many services provided by the high-end stores was free delivery.   Purchases were wrapped and bundled to be sped to their destinations in attractively-painted delivery wagons; often arriving there before the lady of the house returned.

By 1896 bachelor merchant Benjamin Altman was one of the main players on Sixth Avenue.  His massive B. Altman dry goods store which stretched from 18th to 19th Street catered to the carriage trade, offering gowns from Worth and Pingat of Paris and bonnets from Madame Eugenie’s and Virot’s.  Nine years earlier Altman had doubled the size of his store and added modern conveniences like elevators and electric lights.  The increased business meant increased deliveries and, therefore, a larger stable was needed.

Down the block at Nos. 135 through 143 West 18th Street stood the old Germania Brewery and a one-story brick stable building.  In 1893 the brewery had failed and in a foreclosure sale that year the vacant four-story brick building along with the abutting stable was sold for $93,498.

On January 13, 1896 Altman announced yet another extension of the store along with a new commodious stable building.  The New York Times reported that “Plans for one of the largest retail dry-goods establishments in the world have been filed by Kimball & Thompson, architects of the Manhattan Life Building, on behalf of B. Altman & Co., for remodeling the latter’s present establishment on Sixth Avenue, and for an addition running through the block from Eighteenth to Nineteenth Streets.”

To accommodate the extension fifteen houses would be razed.  The Times, in two exhaustingly detailed sentences, described the architecture as “Spanish Renaissance, the effect being obtained in the character and grouping of the windows, with towers at the angles, and commodious entrances from the street.  The detail will be simple, preserving a quiet, dignified effect, and, at the same time, not losing sight of the fact that a building covering such a great area must be well lighted, while there must be also secured a sense of solidity in the general effect of the exterior which can only be realized in the grouping of the windows.”

The architects were simultaneously given the task of producing a new stable for the company on the site of the existing brewery and stable.   This would be no run-of-the-mill stable building.

The machinery to run the department store was built into the basement level of the stable.  “There will be boilers of combined capacity of from 1,000 to 1,200 horse power, a number of dynamos for the lighting of the building, which will aggregate at least 6,000 sixteen-candle-power lamps; also the pumps and tanks for elevators and other necessary machinery, so that the basement of the store will be free for the handling of goods and the convenience of employes,” said The Times.

The newspaper added “The stable will be one of the most complete in this city, and the fittings will favorably compare with those of the best private stables.”

The architects’ plans to house all the machinery in the stable building rather than the store itself eliminated the possibility of fire that would endanger customers and expensive goods.

The completed stable was, to say the least, impressive.  Faced in granite and limestone, the Renaissance Revival structure stretched 125 feet wide and rose five stories with two decorative corner towers.  The two central bay doors were mimicked by flanking window openings.   The sturdy design, while undeniably utilitarian, was at the same time dignified and handsome.
photo by Alice Lum

Inside the building was a hive of activity as grooms cared for the teams of horses, leading them up and down interior ramps, feeding and watering them and tending to their well-being.   Dozens of drays were maintained, axles greased and damaged parts replaced.   Boys rushed back and forth with packages to be packed onto the delivery vehicles and shipped out to all parts of the city.  One can imagine a scene of well-orchestrated chaos.

Six years later, in 1902, Roland Macy pushed over the first domino that would eventually result in the end of the Ladies’ Mile.  He moved his department store from 6th Avenue and 14th Street to 34th Street, startlingly far north of the retail district.   By this daring move he started the northward trend of department stores and Benjamin Altman would be the first to follow suit.

Package-laden drays drawn by horses came and went through the cavernous doors -- photo by Alice Lum

On December 11, 1904 The Sun reported that Altman intended to build “an enormous store” on Fifth Avenue, diagonally across from the exclusive Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.   But one Sixth Avenue retailer was unwilling to accept the tide of change.

Civil War hero Joseph B. Greenhut had joined the management of the immense Siegel-Cooper store across the avenue from Altman’s in 1896.  In 1902 he and his son Richard took control by buying out Henry Siegel.  As rumors of the impending death of the Ladies’ Mile increased, so did Greenhut’s conviction to keep the district alive.

On April 21, 1906 Greenhut, with Henry Morgenthau, purchased the 88,000-square foot Altman store for $2.5 million.  “Included in the deal also is the new granite-front stable in Eighteenth Street,” reported The Times.

A little over a year later the old Altman store was nearly ready for opening under Greenhut’s management.  In August 1907 more than 400 workmen were busy updating and renovating the building.  Greenhut focused especially on the package delivery to draw new customers.

The Times reported that “The new establishment will open Sept. 17 as the department store of Greenhut & Co., the newest thin of its kind in New York.  The store has been remodeled throughout, particularly the basement delivery department.  The facilities for expediting the delivery of packages have been greatly extended.  A tunnel runs from the basement wrapping and marking rooms under the sidewalk to the stables of the company in Eighteenth Street.”
photo by Alice Lum
Carts from the store’s basement now ran directly underground to the stable where the packages were loaded into delivery wagons and “auto trucks.”  The arrangement eliminated the need for store boys to rush along the sidewalks.  Now, assured the newspaper, packages “will not be exposed in the street for a minute until they reach their destination.”

Three years later, on March 9, 1910, the New-York Tribune announced that the store had hired architect G. W. Springsted to remodel and improve the stable building at a cost of $10,000. 
Wagon wheels were repaired on this interesting device in 1915 in the stable building -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Greenhut’s faith in the Ladies’ Mile, despite the great expenses he poured into his buildings, eventually proved futile.    In 1914 the Siegel store failed, followed by the Greenhut company a year later.  The bankruptcy documents assessed the stable building at $124,741—about $2 million today.

The stable building was purchased by Philadelphia-based William R. Warner & Co.  On December 9, 1916 The American Contractor noted that architects Buchman & Fox had been hired to renovate the old structure at a cost of $125,000.

On May 13, 1948, little had changed to the exterior of the old stable building -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Ladie’s Mile along Sixth Avenue and the adjoining blocks suffered hard times through most of the 20th century.  The old B. Altman stables became loft space for small factories, offices and workshops.  In 1996, while the avenue was experiencing a rebirth and the grand old emporiums were being renovated and restored, the lower floors of No. 135-143 West 18th were used as a factory while commercial offices took up the higher floors.

Workmen do masonry repairs on June 6, 1950 -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Then in 1998 the building was renamed the Altman Building with 15,000 square feet of the cavernous structure revamped into an event space.   Renovated office space on the higher floors attracted new-age tenants like Eyeblaster, a provider of digital marketing services and technology.

The building that once bustled with teams of horses, deliverymen, and gowns from Paris packaged in paper-wrapped boxes survives today with, at least on the exterior, little change.

photo by Alice Lum

1 comment:

  1. What a beauty of a building! Thanks for this post as I wasn't aware of this gem. Wow!