Friday, October 10, 2014

A Soho Standout -- No. 169 Mercer Street

photo by Alice Lum
As large loft buildings rose in the neighborhood just south of Houston Street in the late 19th century, the little two-story brick building at No. 169 Mercer Street held on.  In 1880 J. T. Kelley had purchased the old structure to manufacturer his “artificial flower fixtures.”  But 11 years later it was being used as a social club, The Old Homestead.

The Evening World reported on a card event here in 1891.  “A euchre tournament will be held at the ‘Old Homestead,’ 169 Mercer street, for the Weazel cups, which will represent the team euchre championship of New York City.  The first series will be played on Thursday evening, March 19.  Two men will constitute a team.”

Unfortunately for the euchre playing gentlemen, they would soon have to find a new clubhouse.  When wealthy publisher Thomas W. Strong died his real estate holdings were liquidated to settle the estate.  Among the properties sold at auction on March 9, 1893 was No. 169 Mercer Street. 

Auctioneer Richard V. Harnett & Co's March 1893 notice laid out the location and size of No. 169 Mercer Street, top right (copyright expired)

No doubt the buyer, the Japanese Fan Company, intended to return the building to manufacturing.  If so, the firm soon changed its mind.  Early in July 1894 it sold what The New York Times called “the property at 169 Mercer Street…with old building” to Francis Stiebel for $39,000.  As the newspaper intimated, it was the increasingly valuable real estate in what decades later would be deemed the Cast Iron District and not the old structure Striebel was buying.

A year later there was a new owner—Adam Tucker.  He promptly demolished the two-story structure and began work on a modern commercial building.  On August 6, 1895 builder P. J. Brennan began construction of a new warehouse building on the site.

In March 1896, a few months before the structure was completed, the Real Estate Record & Guide called Brennan “an experienced, reliable and successful mason and builder” and called No. 169 Mercer Street “the work of an expert.”

The seven-story store-and-loft building was completed on June 1, 1896.  A two-story cast iron front was framed in limestone.  Here a vast centered show window was flanked by two sets of double entrance doors—one for the retail space and the other for the upper floors.  Above an intricately-carved cornice, five stories of gray brick soared upward to medieval ornaments at the topmost floors.  Bearded faces, engaged columns and elaborate carvings set the building apart from its cast iron fronted neighbors.

Intricate floral decorations, bearded faces and basket-weave carving along the cornice distinguished the facade -- photo by Alice Lum

Tucker’s venture would not prove successful.  In 1903 the building was sold in foreclosure.  William H. Taubert made the winning bid at $69,250 on November 16, 1903.  The Sun noted the purchase price was “about $1,700 less than the debt on it.”  Taubert quickly resold the property to Isaac Stiebel (possibly a relative of Francis Stiebel who had bought it a decade earlier), who sold it again in July 1905.

In the meantime, the building had filled with apparel firms.  The Novelty Hat Company, Jacob G. Asher, “importer of furs,” and B. J. Grossman operated their businesses here.  In 1904 Grossman and his partner dissolved their partnership, Grossman & Deutsch, and Grossman struck out on his own.

Cloaks and Furs announced that Grossman would “continue the business of manufacturing misses’ and children’s furs at the old stand, 169 Mercer street.”  The trade journal added “Mr. Grossman intends to satisfy the trade this season by making a line that will be hard to beat and goods that will come up to sample.”

In the years before World War I additional fur and apparel companies moved in.  In 1911 S. J. Manne & Brother, fur manufacturers, employed 10 men and four women in its shop.  At the same time H. Siegal & Brother and the Commercial Thread Co. were here.

In 1913 Bilenko Bros. & Rabinowitz leased the 7th floor.  A year later when the fire inspectors came through the building, Arnold Rabinowitz was among the tenants personally hit with fines for violations. 

Federal Headwear Co. was here in 1915, and in 1921 Irving M. Poons “importer of straw goods” leased space; but by now the apparel and millinery districts had moved northward above 34th Street.  The complexion of tenants in No. 169 Mercer Street was about to change.

Mid-century saw the Soho area decline.  The Mercer Street building became home to small operations like the Southern Screw Co. and hardware dealer Leo Zelinger.  In the 1950s the street level retail space was the restaurant equipment store of Regan Purchase and Sales Corporation.

But if anything is certain in Manhattan, it is that neighborhoods continually change.  By the last decades of the century Soho lured artists who took over the vast, sunlight-flooded loft spaces for studios.  Art galleries abounded at street level and one-by-one the old factory and warehouse buildings saw new life.

Unlike many of its neighbors, No. 169 Mercer Street had suffered little architectural abuse.  In the early 1980s it became home to the Metro Pictures gallery; and by 1987 the TERN gallery was here.  Then in 1993 floors above the gallery/store space were converted to “joint living-work quarters for artists,” as described by the Department of Buildings--one gargantuan residential space per floor.   The Department of Buildings specified that “at least one occupant of each unit to be certified as an ‘artist’ by the Department of Cultural Affairs.”

Reflective of the avant guard tone of the neighborhood, in 1999 the store space was home to Radio Hula.  The Hawaiian-themed store not only sold tropical apparel and items; but organized hula dancing for both men and women.
photo by Alice Lum

As it did in 1896 No. 169 Mercer Street, with its light-colored brick and creative ornamentation, stands out among its more utilitarian-looking neighbors.  

1 comment:

  1. So glad I stumbled onto this post! My grandmother's brothers and cousins had a hat store in this location: Argonne Hat Works/Goldner Hat Company. I've found records in city directories c. 1925 with the information. Thank you for taking the time to tell part of the story.