Monday, January 26, 2015

The Lost 'Old London Streets' -- 728-730 Broadway

The facade of rough-cut stone was meant to imitate London's Bishopsgate.  photo by Robert L. Bracklow, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On January 29, 1862 the Hope Chapel of the Church of the Messiah at No. 730 Broadway, was not offering a religious service.  That night an audience was spellbound by Capt. Williams South Sea Whaling Voyage.  It was the first step in a theatrical tradition for the site.

Soon millionaire merchant Alexander Turney Stewart, who owned the land, converted the church into a theater—the Broadway Atheneum Theatre encompassing Nos. 728 and 730 Broadway.  By 1865 it had been taken over by English actress Lucy Rushton as The Lucy Rushton’s New-York Theatre.  On December 23, 1865 School for Scandal opened here.

Alexander Stewart's theater on the site was briefly known as the Globe.  sketch from the collection of the New York Public Library

In the 1873 Augustin Daly leased the building and opened it on January 21 as Daly’s New Fifth-avenue Theatre.  Only a year later it had become Fox’s Broadway Theatre; then Alexander Stewart opened his Globe Theatre—a bawdy architectural confection sure to attract the attention of Broadway passersby.   The stream of proprietors continued when the popular team of Harrigan & Hart took over on October 29, 1881, opening their Theatre Comique.  Their successes were highly outweighed by their flops.  Years later the New-York Tribune would quip “The best that ever happened to them there was the burning of the theatre.”

Indeed the building burned to the ground on December 23, 1884.  The charred lot sat vacant for three years.  But in the meantime, a diverse group of businessmen were brewing an unlikely endeavor.

On October 2, 1886 The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted “A company is being formed in this city, to be called ‘The Old London Street Company,' who have leased a plot of ground…on the site of Harrigan & Hart’s former theatre, Nos. 728 and 730 Broadway, east side.  The property belongs to the Stewart estate.” 

The Guide laid out the syndicate’s intriguing idea.  “The object of the proposed company is to build a copy of Bishop’s Gate, London, erected several centuries since.  This will front Broadway.  The interior is to be laid off in two streets—reproductions of old London shops.  There will be at least forty such houses, each street being 20 feet wide and 150 feet long.  They will be rented for various purposes and, when completed, will be publically exhibited.”  The newspaper noted that “Clarence W. Smith is the architect in charge.”

The idea had come from the 1883 Old London Street Exhibition Company’s enclosed reproduction streets in England.  That exhibition had been a huge success.   The New York Times later explained “A New-York gentleman thought if a ‘Street’ was an attraction in London one would be in New-York.”

The group of businessmen attempted to purchase the original buildings; but was unsuccessful.  The Times suggested that the New York version would be better, anyway.  “The architect determined to reproduce only a few of the buildings in the London exhibition, and the result is that the New-York Old London Street is a great improvement over the London one.”

On New Year’s Day 1887 The Record & Guide followed up on the progress.  The stone and brick building featured a entrance that replicated Bishopsgate.  Visitors immediately entered “a famous old London inn,” The Tabard.  Then, “once inside the visit will apparently find himself in the streets of London of the sixteenth century.  A floor of asphalt stamped into a resemblance of the old-time London paving stones, houses accurately copied from the originals in London, wisp lights, people in costumes of the time represented, and, in fact, all the sights and scenes of the old time will be accurately reproduced.”

The two “streets,” High Street and Elbow Lane, divided the interior into three sections.  Reproduced houses included the residences of Sir Richard Islington and Isaac Walton, and the old Gunpowder Plot house.  

The tableau was enhanced by an old London church which prompted The New York Times to write “Never an old church of old London had such attractions.  No bells are in its tower, and one are needed.  There instead is a Hamilton vocalion organ, waiting to send such music through the ‘street’ as never was heard near the original old church.”  A choir of singers was posted in the church “to enliven the exhibitions with music,” said The Guide.

On the second floor were shops “for the sale of fancy articles.”  The investors had come up with an 1880s version of the shopping mall. 

While Clarence W. Smith was the architect in charge, the businessmen took no chances.  The Guide reported that “George H. Birch, F. S. A., the English architect who planned the London building, will arrive from England this week, for the purpose of personally supervising the final details of the work.”

As the quaint structure neared completion, The New York Times reported on the preview given to reporters.  “Everywhere the visitor turns he is confronted by the counterpart of some historic building of old London.  Near the entrance is the ‘Old Queen’s Head,’ that noted hostelry of Islington where Sir Walter Raleigh was accustomed to sit and puff the pipe that caused his servant to deluge him with water.”

The article spoke of the Tabard Inn “that makes everyone think of Chaucer, and the ‘Devil Tavern’ with St. Dunstan hard to work and his tongs heating red hot in the furnace.”

Old London Street opened to the public on February 26, 1887 and The New York Times felt “if [the buildings] do not call up memories of times and persons of long ago it will be the fault of the observers and not of the buildings.”

Visitors wander among the reproduction structures -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

The exhibition was open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.  Adults were charged 50 cents and children a quarter.   Visitors were lured by numerous newspaper advertisements.  “Be Sure and Visit Ye Olde London Streete,” said an ad in the New-York Tribune on March 28, 1887.  “Old English music a special feature.”  Another placed in The Sun that same month quoted The New York World: “As if one were transported bodily across the ocean and into the middle of the sixteenth century” and The New York Herald “In every instance the marks of time have been very cleverly counterfeited.”

A successful marketing idea was implemented in April.  The Old London Street was the venue for a spring flower show—an attraction that proved as popular as Macy’s annual event over a century later.  The New-York Tribune reported on April 8, “The streets of ‘Old London’ bloomed yesterday afternoon with other flowers than those which have been transplanted from the florists’ hot-houses to make a part of the spring flower show.  Pretty faces under pretty bonnets peeped out of the latticed windows, and figures which are familiar behind the footlights walked the narrow passage ways between the quaint old houses.”

The management had sent invitations to most of the prominent New York stage figures and the newspaper said “many had availed themselves of the opportunity thus offered to see a display of beautiful flowers and to be come interested in the affairs of a bygone age.”

Unfortunately the Old London Street survived only a few months.  King’s Handbook of New York City later said “It was an attempt to reproduce a fragment of ancient London, and to combine it with nineteenth-century retail shop-keeping; but it was not a success.”

One block away at the corner of Broadway and 9th Street was Bunnell’s “dime museum.”   Like the famous Barnum Museum, it offered a collection of curiosities and oddities like bearded ladies, a living skeleton, and two headed calves.  It moved into the cavernous Old London Street in October 1887.

The New York Times gave its readers an idea of what awaited them on October 23, 1887.  “Here is what you can see this week in Mr. Bunnell’s quaint museum, under the very eaves of Izaak Walton’s house and the other famous buildings of the ‘Old London Street.’  King Theebaw’s hair mascots, the Fiji family, the Lilliputians, and Capt. Chittenden’s Alaska aboriginal abode, with 1,000 curiosities, will take up their quarters in the antique houses.  The ghost can be seen in the illusion hall, while wonderful automata occupy the annex hall.  In the main auditorium Mlle, Aucion, the famous German aerial artist, will give for the first time in America her exhibition 65 feet over the heads of the spectators.”

Bunnell’s had cut the admission in half—to 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.  It was, nevertheless, still the equivalent of about $6 in today’s dollars.   The inventive Mr. Bunnell came up with another money-making scheme two weeks after The Times article.  On November 8 it was announced that “Those interested in the election returns can quietly remain in their seats and learn the latest news at Bunnell’s Old London-Street Museum, 728 Broadway.  The announcements will be made from the stage every few minutes.”

On November 23, 1887, Bunnell’s advertised “This is my Thanksgiving Surprise to you:  The Wonderful Trained Seals. They don’t exactly TALK, but they do almost everything else—cry, sing, sew, smoke, dance, and play the banjo, drum, and tambourine.  Also Seventy performers on a grand continuous stage.”

Bunnell’s Museum survived only about a year in the seemingly-cursed Old London Street building.  On December 17, 1888 the odd structure became home to London and Liverpool Clothing Co.  On the day before opening The Sun remarked “The interior of the building is exactly the same.  The quaint old buildings of the London streets are a great curiosity.  Visitors attending this wonderful clothing sale will have an opportunity of seeing the Old World as it stood centuries ago.”

London & Liverpool included a dingy sketch of the interiors in an 1888 advertisement -- The Evening World, December 21, 1888 (copyright expired)

London & Liverpool Clothing Co. was barely more successful that its predecessors and was gone by 1896.  On March 8 that year The New York Times ran an article entitled "Eyesores on Broadway" and mentioned “The structure, with an old English stone front, known as Old London Streets, is owned by Judge Henry Hilton.  It is on the site of the Theatre Comique, and has not been profitable since the theatre burned.”

Desperate, Henry Hilton spent $5,000 in September that year to convert the Old London Street to a “stone and brick clubhouse.”  Called the Broadway Athletic Club, it was in actually not a clubhouse, in the purest sense; but a venue for boxing matches.

Victorian boxing could be brutal; as was the case on January 2, 1897 when “Johnny” Duffy of Boston was fatally injured during a match here with George Justice.  “The police placed Justice under arrest and locked him up in the Mercer Street Station,” reported The Times, adding “Thomas O’Rourke, manager and principal stockholder of the Broadway Athletic Club, was also locked up, as well as ‘Dick’ Roche, who was referee in the fight.”

In 1900 men in bowlers, boaters and fedoras (there is hardly a bare head in the house) anticipate Kid McCoy fight.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

The name of the club was changed to the Waldorf Athletic Club and fights continued.   But police made their presence known.  On November 5, 1897 The New York Times said “Inspector Grant and Capt. Chapman took a conspicuous part in the boxing show of the Waldorf Athletic Club, at 728-730 Broadway, last night…and the principals in each [bout] were warned against slugging.”

In April 1898 the Colonnade Company, “comprising four members,” began negotiations for the purchase of the Old London Street building.  The Record and Guide reported that “plans have been drawn by Edward H. Clark…for a fireproof mercantile building, with an elevation of 16 stories on Broadway and 12 stories on Lafayette place, to replace the old structure.”

Something, obviously, fell through in the plans and a year later, in February 1899, the renamed club—now the New Broadway Athletic Club—applied for a license to conduct boxing matches.  Newspapers mentioned that “The Police Commissioners have the matter under advisement.”

But the ill-fated building once again drew a bad hand.  On November 11, 1899 the New-York Tribune wrote “It does look as if fate were down on the Old London Street.  That building has stood right there, between upper and lower Broadway, and devoured money for years and years, and the more money is put into it the less ever comes out.  The Lewis bill threatens to put an end to one of the few and short periods of prosperity that the building has ever had.”

The Lewis Bill was a response to the violence of prize fighting.  Nine men had died in the ring in 1899 alone.   The Tribune realized that if boxing were prohibited by law, the “clubhouse” would fail.  “The demon of ill luck of the Old London Street has the institution by the throat, and it never let go of anything yet till it strangled it.”

The following year the unique building sat empty once again.  Scribner’s Magazine called it “that melancholic building still bearing the plaintive sign ‘Old London Streets’—which has been used for church services and prize-fights and has never apparently been a great success at anything.”

Finally in January 1902 The Evening Post Record of Real Estate Sales noted that the building had been sold by the Hilton estate to W. E. Finn, for what The Record & Guide said was “about” $1 million.   Within five months Finn was in the process of demolishing the distinctive structure; announcing plans for a $1 million “11-story brick and stone fireproof store and loft building” to replace it.

But, once again, something fell through.  On January 17, 1903 the Record & Guide noted that the vacant site was once again for sale.  “After tearing down the old buildings, the lots have been fenced and work abandoned.”

In November John Wanamaker purchased the plot for “a little less than $1,400,000,” according to The Evening World.  “It is thought the new owner will erect a hotel on the property, as several are needed in that part of town,” suggested the newspaper.

Instead the fenced-in lot sat abandoned and unused for another 13 years, when a brick and stone loft and store building was constructed.  It erased for good any memory of the quirky scheme that went horribly wrong.

The replacement building still stands a century later. photo


  1. "Demon of ill luck" indeed. But imagine if it were still extant..

  2. Fascinating, as always. I tried to send an email to the linked address today, with both a suggestion for a future building to consider, and a comment about a factual error on 7 #. 96th st., but the AOL post office rejected my address.

    Looking forward to the book

  3. I don't get that first photo, it's captioned on the MCNY site on the actual photograph as:

    Old London Streets, 1893 (present Wannameker), 8th St. & 4th Ave.
    View of Old London Streets, a multi-use building, at Waverly Place and Broadway. It was built in 1887 for shops and the early 1900s it was used as a recreational facility.

    The thing is, Waverly Place and Broadway are nowhere near 8th St and 4th (Lafayette) Ave which is way over by Astor Place, the notation on the image makes little sense and must be in error if it's Waverly at Broadway- 728 and 730 Broadway.

    1. Photographs are often labeled in error. It is a consistent problem when researching.

    2. Yeah I know how that goes, but you'd think whomever notated that photo would have known better.
      I lived near there at 1 University place for years and never knew the contents of this page was the history of that location!

      I remember exploring and salvaging a few things when 747 Broadway and the buildings on that block were demolished in 1973 where that high-rise apartment building was built in 1974, I never took photos of the site and have only found one poor photo of the buildings that were there.

    3. "Photographs are often labeled in error. It is a consistent problem when researching." Agreed. An even bigger problem is websites that use photographs with credit (sometimes in violation of copyright). Which is why it is so nice to see that photo credit protocols are so scrupulously observed on Daytonian in Manhattan. ---Christopher Gray

    4. Mr. Gray can thank himself for my carefully crediting illustrations. He pointedly instructed me the importance early on. It's something I've tried hard to express to other bloggers when I notice their failure to credit resources

  4. For some reason this comment form doesn't seem to like Firefox in the past, my comments would simply never post and silently fail, test to see if it works now.

  5. Looks like there is still a silent random failure of comments to post on this site using Firefox to reply to a comment Tom, my reply never made it.

  6. Trying Safari now to see if comments still silently fail to post, my reply to you Tom never posted, no confirmation or error ever comes up, must be a blogspot bug, it's been this way for months as comments I've posted always seem to fail except the one earlier today you replied to!