Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Industrial Splendor -- Nos. 95-99 Mercer Street

photo by Alice Lum
By the last decades of the 19th century few traces of the once-residential neighborhood around Mercer and Spring Streets remained.  The two- and three-story brick homes built in the 1830s had mostly been replaced by the large industrial lofts that would earn the area the nickname the Cast Iron District a century later.

At the southwest corner of Mercer and Spring Streets in 1883 six small buildings held out.  But they would not last much longer.  On March 31, 1883 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that David Taggart had leased Nos. 95 and 97 Mercer Street and the adjoining homes around the corner at Nos. 106, 108, 110 and 112 Spring Street . 

Taggart’s aggressive control of the large chunk of valuable real estate was a signal of changes to come.  James S. Watkins was one of the property owners, and Elizabeth Watkins was named in another of the leases as “life tenant.”  It is probable that Taggart now was engaged in a waiting game.

In 1895 the six houses were demolished and construction began on a impressive store and loft building.  Designed by G. A. Schellinger, who had been busy in the past years designing a range of structures from tenements and factory buildings to high-end apartment houses in the Upper West Side, it would stand out among the cast iron fronted buildings in the area.  The architect chose brick, stone and terra cotta to produce a factory building that would have been equally at home among the high-end stores of Broadway or Sixth Avenue.

The retail space at street level featured vast shop windows made possible by their cast iron frames.  Schellinger dispensed with ornamentation along either the rusticated stone base or at the second story (which he striped with bands of pale yellow brick and stone).  Above the egg-and-dart cornice, however, he let loose.

The third through fifth floors were marked by soaring three-story piers that created the appearance of grand arched openings.  Between each set of three grouped arches, massive Baroque ornaments dripped from the cornice.  The cartouches of these were repeated in the cast iron spandrel panels between floors.  Above it all, a deep cast iron frieze below the bracketed cornice crowned the structure.

Engaged brick columns uphold the entablature of the top floor. photo by Alice Lum
The building was completed in 1896 and many of its tenants were engaged in the silk trade—the Silk District having recently engulfed the area.  On May 17, 1902 the dealers locked their doors when a general strike was called.  The New York Times reported “All silk dyers, helpers, and finishers have been called out by their organization, and, as a consequence all work of the kind performed by them ceased for an indefinite period at 4 o’clock this afternoon, the union having given the men until this time to finish their jobs and get all silk out of possible damage.”

One tenant, however, had other problems on his mind.  Benjamin B. Tilt was a wealthy silk manufacturer who lived at the enviable address of No. 5 East 67th Street.  He was the proud owner of “a French racing machine,” as described by The Times; and on Friday night, three days before the strike began, he took stock broker Frank W. Duryea for a ride.

Before the night was over they would have a third passenger—albeit an unwilling one.  As Tilt drove south on Seventh Avenue at 135th Street “at a tremendous speed,” according to The New York Times, mounted Policeman Neal  tried to stop them.

“Neither headlight was burning, he said, but the men were sounding the horn incessantly.  He called to them to stop.  The paid no attention, but at One Hundred and Twenty-ninth Street they slowed up and the policeman jumped in between them and told them to come along to the West One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street Station as his prisoners.”

Instead, one of the men said “Let’s give the cop a ride.”  Tilt tore down Eighth Avenue at full speed.  When the officer tried to grab the controls, he was warned to stop “or he would blow the machine up, and all its passengers along with it.”  So the policeman sat between the men, blowing his whistle non-stop until finally he pleaded “Stop this damned machine and I’ll let you go!”

The two men were laughing as Tilt turned off the power and applied the brakes.  It did not stop for a full block; at which point five policemen leaped into the car.  “Two of them remained in it with Neal, and then the machine traveled docilely enough to the station house,” said The Times.

Benjamin Tilt was held on $500 awaiting trial (astonishingly, about $13,000 today).  The speed-addicted silk dealer was unaffected by the incident, however.  “The two men left court together, saying that now they would make a trip to West Point, and would run the machine in faster time than that they were making when they were arrested,” reported the newspaper.

photo by Alice Lum
Other tenants in the building at the time were wholesale silk dealers Greff & Co., and the Phoenix Silk Manufacturing Company.  Phoenix, which would stay on in the building for years, had factories in Paterson, New Jersey, and Allentown and Pottsville, Pennsylvania.  The firm advertised “ribbons, dress silks, lining silks, and tie silks.”

By the time of the Great Depression, the silk district had moved northward.  The SoHo neighborhood filled with a variety of small manufacturers, like the George L. Robbins Company which took space here.  Hard times prompted robberies and burglaries and the firm would become a target in August 1931.

On August 11 The New York Times reported “Six robbers cowed a secretary and a bookkeeper in the office of the George L. Robbins Company, leather novelty manufacturers...about 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon and escaped with a payroll of $465 lying in a pasteboard box on a radiator.”

The hodge-podge of tenants at mid-century included Sel-Fast Undergarments, Dunrite Products, Inc., and the Industrial Drug Supply which stayed on for at least a decade.

As the 21st century neared, SoHo was rediscovered.  Artists took over the sun-flooded factory lofts, and galleries renovated the street level retail spaces.  In 1980 the building was converted to “joint living and working quarters for artists in residence” on the upper floors and the Art et Industrie gallery found its home here through the 1980s.  It was replaced in the 1990s by the Jacques Carcanagues gallery.

Today SoHo is a vibrant mix of galleries, restaurants and shops.  In 2005 Burton Snowboards took over the first floor of No. 95 Mercer Street selling boards and related gear like goggles, boots, helmets, and outerwear.  An innovative refrigerated cold room affords customers the ability to test how well the clothes protect against frigid winter temperatures.
photo by Alice Lum

Except for a 20th century fire escape on the Mercer Street fa├žade (including the bite it took out of the cast cornice), G. A. Schellinger’s dignified factory and office building survives almost entirely unchanged.

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