Friday, April 18, 2014

Lamb & Rich's 1883 No. 486 Broadway

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

In 1879 the neighborhood of Broadway and Broome Street was a commercial area of light manufacturing and apparel and fabric-related businesses.  At the southeast corner stood No. 486 Broadway, a four-story loft building occupied by just such concerns.

On the first floor of the Broome Street side, at No. 437 was the stationery store of Ernest Renstow and on the Broadway side cloth dealers Adams & Allen operated their store.  The second floor was occupied by Stewart Hartshorn whose company manufactured window shade rollers.  A. Seligman leased the top two floors.  He was a corset manufacturer and importer of cotton and linen goods.

During the last week of March that year Arthur D. Weeks purchased the building in foreclosure and The New York Times reported that he intended “to demolish it to make room for a handsome building.”  Despite his intentions to raze the structure, Weeks insured it for $35,000.  Within a week it was gutted by fire.

On April 3 around 9:30 in the morning, according to The New York Times, fire broke out on the third floor.  “The flames originated from some unknown cause, in the rear of the third floor, among a quantity of manufactured stock ready for shipment.”

Arthur Weeks never got around to replacing the burned building.  Instead the property was transferred to William De Forest by 1882 when he commissioned the architectural firm of Lamb & Rich to design a modern store and loft structure. 

The architects were a busy pair at the time.  The year before they had completed, among other projects, four houses for Anthony Mowbray at Nos. 821 to 827 Madison Avenue, The Strathmore apartment building at No. 1674 Broadway, and 30 architecturally-harmonious houses for John C. Henderson far uptown on Henderson Place and the surrounding blocks.

Lamb & Rich’s finished building, completed in 1883 was the epitome of 1880s design taste.  The hulking orange-red brick structure was, for the most part, Romanesque Revival in style.  But the architects dipped into Moorish Revival and added a touch of Queen Anne as well.  Rough cut brownstone, terra cotta, cast iron and glass highlighted the brick and relieved the mass of the Broome Street façade.
Note the creative cast iron ribbons around the circular motifs in the frieze.  Whimsical bosses adorn the window spandrels.   photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

The relatively narrow Broadway elevation was just two bays wide; each arched opening emphasized by brick eyebrows.  The windows of the fifth and sixth floors were grouped together within a cast iron framing.  Here the spandrels were decorated with seemingly-random floral bosses influenced by the Aesthetic Movement.

It was on the wide Broome Street side that Lamb & Rich pulled out the visual stops.  Three stories of cast iron nestled in between what to the eye became brick towers.  In this middle section a steep mansard roof broke the straight planes of the flanking brick sections.  Four bell-shaped caps on the corners of each tower completed the design.
photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

The architects were apparently pleased with the completed building.  Among the initial tenants were the offices of Lamb & Rich. 

Another early occupant was the Davis Quilting Frame Company which had offices on the fifth floor.  H. T. Davis was President and Chairman of the firm, owning $65,000 worth of the stock.  Two of the other trustees, Kelly Gavin and Tennis H. Cox held $5,000 in stock each.  Despite Davis’s substantial majority, he struggled for power with the two.  The New York Times said “For some time past Messrs. Girvin and Cox have been running things their own way, outvoting several little proposition of the President.”

Things came to a head at the meeting of trustees in the office on July 7, 1885.  “At yesterday’s meeting,” reported The Times the following day, “[Cox and Girvin] voted an adjournment to prevent Mr. Davis from presenting a motion.  The result was a quarrel, in which Mr. Davis drew a revolver on his opponents.”

When Davis pulled the gun, Cox rushed to the elevator.  On the street he found a policeman who returned to the fifth floor office.  Davis was disarmed and arrested.  His story was radically different from that of his partners, however.

“Mr. Davis claimed that Mr. Girvin had sprung at him with a cane and that Cox had attempted to draw a pistol on him; that he started to flee, but was pursued into the hall, where he drew the revolver in self-defense.”

To prove his story, Davis insisted that Cox be searched.  No weapon was found.  The three were taken to Jefferson Market Police Court where Davis was charged with pointing a pistol at Girvin.  Three days later the men appeared before Justice Ford.  Girvin reiterated that Davis “pointed a revolver at him and made murderous threats.”  Davis held fast to his story, as well.

According to The New York Times on July 10, 1885, “Mr. Davis insisted that he was attacked by Girvin and Tennis H. Cox, the other Trustee, and kept them at bay by putting his hand in his pocket.  Mr. Davis also insisted that Mr. Cox had a Derringer pistol and that he could not draw it because it became entangled in his pocket handkerchief, and that Mr. Girvin menaced him with a hickory cane.  An attempt was made to prove that Messrs. Cox and Girvin had threatened Mr. Davis’s life.”

Unable to untangle the conflicting stories, the judge decided to hold Davis for trial.
photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

On November 3, 1888 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on a major lease signing.  “The Mechanics’ & Traders’ Bank will remove in January to No. 486 Broadway, corner of Broome Street.”  The bank took the ground floor, becoming the building’s most visible tenant.

In the meantime the upper floors became home to companies that drew less sensational press than the Davis Quilting Frame Co.  Wilson Brothers opened their New York salesroom here in 1889.  The menswear manufacturer had branches in Paris and Chicago as well.  In announcing the move, the firm made “special mention” of its white shirts, negligee shirts and neckwear “because we have added greatly to our facilities for manufacturing in each of them.”  Wilson Brothers imported much of its shirting materials and noted “Many of these fabrics are well adapted for fine Night Shirts and Summer Underwear.”
H. Robitsek & Co. advertised in The American Stationer on March 13, 1890 (copyright expired)

Also in the building at the time was H. Robitsek & Co.  The firm imported leather to be manufactured into purses, chatelaine bags, card cases and other leather accessories.  It had branches in Vienna, Berlin, Paris and London as well.

The Philadelphia department store of Partridge & Richardson had an office in the building in 1894, managed by W. G. Miller who lived in East Orange, New Jersey.  Each morning he took the local train at 8:05 that arrived in New York 35 minutes later.  The morning of January 15 seemed no different other than a thick fog.  Miller later recalled that the fog “did not seem to make any difference, for the train whirled along at its usual rate of speed.”

This morning would definitely be no normal commute.  An Extra Edition of The Evening World hit the streets at 2:00 with the headline “RAILROAD HORROR.  Perhaps 25 Lives Crushed Out on Hackensack Meadows.”  The South Orange express ran into the Dover express in the fog at the Hackensack drawbridge.

Miller, unbelievably, proceeded on to work.  The Evening World said “He walked three miles after the accident, boarded another train at the Delaware junction, and was one of the first passengers to reach the city after the accident.”

Before leaving he assisted in removing two of the dead from the wreckage.  “There had been seven bodies recovered when I left the scene of the accident,” he told a reporter in his office at No. 486 Broadway later. 

The horrific situation makes his walking away to go to work somewhat inexplicable.  “When I left the scene nothing whatever had been done towards sending for relief trains or physicians,” he said.  “I walked several miles to the junction and caught a train to the city.”

In 1898 the N.Y. Sewing Machine Emporium was “Up Stairs” here.  The company leased and sold several makes of the machines to manufacturers.  It was a well-chosen location as the silk, woolen and apparel district clustered around the building.

N.Y. Sewing Machine Emporium offered instructions on the machines "thorough and gratis."  The Sanitary Commission Bulletin, March 1898 (copyright expired)
That same year the Mechanics’ and Traders’ State Bank survived a run on the bank.  Fernando Baltes was President and was asked to resign “because his business transactions outside of the bank were found by the Directors to be such as to create unfavorable comment,” reported The New York Times on October 22.  Unfortunately, the “unfavorable comment” reached the ears of depositors and on October 21 a mob of panicked customers descended on the tellers.

One man tried to cut in line, yelling “But I want my money right away!”  The Times said “When he was reached in the line he handed in a check for $70—his entire account.  He grasped the bills feverishly, stowed them carefully away in a well-worn wallet, and when he reached the street ran as fast as his legs would carry him, evidently fearing that some one would pursue him and take his hoard away.”  The newspaper reported “Many women in the line seemed on the verge of hysteria until they were paid.  The men gallantly gave them the right of way.  When the women got their bills they stowed them away in many queer pockets and receptacles, and seemed happy.”

One man received his savings; but then thought better of it.  “Another depositor presented a check and received $600 in shining twenty-dollar gold pieces.  When he got outside he appeared to be thinking the matter over, and five minutes later was back again handing the gold pieces in to the receiving teller.”

By 3:00 when the doors were closed depositors had withdrawn about $370,000—a significant $10 million by today’s standards.  Yet 126 other customers had faith and deposited $117,000 during the near-riot.  The bank weathered the one-day storm and continued on at No. 486 Broadway until 1901.  That year the bank moved north to the corner of Broadway and Prince Street.

On November 21, 1906 when William Waldorf Astor purchased the building it was filled with apparel companies and fabric dealers.  Narragansett Woolen Co.; E. B. Reynolds & Co., dealers in “cloths and cassimeres;” Thistle Fiber Mesh Underwear; Verdier & Hardy underwear makers; and Peerless Union Underwear Co., were all in the building.

In 1910 a substantial list of raw silk importers and “thrown silk” dealers were here.  Among them were Jardine, Matheson & Co.; L. Jouvard & Co.; and Universal Silk Mills.

The building received bizarre press in 1915 as a result of a teen-aged girl’s active imagination.  Helen Pelkus had been employed by Mrs. Joseph Ormorsky of No. 32 West 24th Street to care for her young son.  When Mrs. Ormorsky noticed items missing from the house, she discharged the 14-year old nanny.

Helen went back to the Lincoln School in Bayonne, New Jersey and the Ormorsky household returned to normal—for awhile.  At the time New York was terrorized by the Black Hand, the organization that had assassinated Franz Ferdinand of Austria and was now responsible for bombings and other forms of extortion.  In June 1915 Mrs. Ormorsky opened a letter that read:

I am letting you know I am coming over some day and kill your boy.  If you want to save him, you will have to give me some money.  I took the stamps you missed.

The author had drawn a dagger below which was written “This is what I am going to kill your boy with.”  The back of the envelope read “Return to Jack the Ripper, 486 Broadway.”

Not only Mrs. Ormorsky, who immediately went to the police, but her neighbors were terrified “and they saw that their children did not get out of their sight,” reported The New York Times.  Detectives had a pretty good idea of who Jack the Ripper was, and they did not look for him at No. 486 Broadway.

Helen Pelkus was arrested at her school on June 19 “on a charge of having sent a black hand letter.”  The Times explained “The girl was arrested after detectives had scanned the writing of many of the Lincoln pupils.  She confessed and said she did not think the matter was very serious.”
Terra cotta tiles, creative brickwork and two sets of surviving small-paned windows add charm - photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

Lamb & Rich’s wonderfully unconventional building survived through the 20th century when many of the loft and commercial buildings of the district suffered abuse.  In 2012 the top two floors were converted to “joint living quarters for artists.”  A clothing store occupies the former Mechanics’ and Traders’ Bank space.  An unfortunate but necessary set of complicated fire escapes screens the Broome Street façade like cast iron scaffolding; yet the fantastic design shines through.

many thanks to Joseph Ciolino for suggesting this post


  1. The fire escapes are unfortunate in regard that they do block the design of the building, but are not so offensive to make it horrible,
    and fortunately are painted a dark color which make them an interesting design/work in themselves. Just think , they could have been painted white
    or another bright color which would indeed be an abomination. Absolutely stunning building none the less, I hope it has landmark status.

  2. Another great article, illustrated with stunning images. I will definitely check out this building next time I am in New York.