Saturday, April 11, 2015

Starkweather & Gibbs' No. 750 Broadway

Orlando Bronson Potter started out as an attorney in Boston.  But after he arrived in New York in 1853 he would take on many roles.  He became influential in Democratic politics and served as U.S. Senator from New York.  While in the Senate in 1861 he developed a plan for national currency, secured by national stocks, that was adopted by Congress in 1863.  The Democratic Northwest newspaper called him the Father of the National Bank System.

Democratic Northwest, December 25, 1884 (copyright expired)
He was back in New York by the 1870s and in 1873 tried his hand at real estate development.  The Bond Street neighborhood, Manhattan’s most exclusive residential district in the early 19th century, had seen the encroachment of commerce for more than a decade.  The New-York Tribune would later note “In 1873 he purchased some property at Astor and Lafayette-places, and erected a large building there.  This was done just after the panic when business was almost paralyzed.”  The plan worked.

The Tribune added “In personal appearance Mr. Potter is a rather large, well-built man with clean shaven face.  He dresses in plain clothes looking much like a prosperous farmer.  In fact, he has a large farm on the Hudson.”

Potter continued to transform the area north of Houston Street, buying up venerable homes  and replacing them with modern commercial structures.   On August 13, 1881 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide noted that Potter had hired architects Starkweather & Gibbs to design “a large building, to be built on the corner of Astor place and Broadway.”  Potter had acquired the houses at Nos. 746, 748 and 750 Broadway and those stretching from No. 1 to No. 7 Astor Place.

The Guide said “It will be 83x107 feet, seven stories with basement and sub-cellar, and constructed of brick and terra cotta.”  Potter knew he wanted a new building; he just was not quite sure what it would be for.  “The ground floor will be used for stores; what the upper stories will be used for has not yet been determined.”  The architects estimated the cost of the structure at $225,000—in the neighborhood of $5.3 million today.

Within two weeks Potter had made a decision.  On August 26 plans were filed for a “seven-story iron store and Hotel, tin roof, brick, terra cotta and iron cornice.”  The cost had already risen to $250,000.

Construction on the building would take two years.   Starkweather & Gibbs produced an exuberant neo-Grec structure that exemplified late Victorian taste.  The heavy cast iron base was composed of hefty stylized piers interspersed with unique pencil thin columns, the capitals of which were placed three-quarters of the way up.  Above, creative use of red brick, brownstone and terra cotta resulted in an imposing yet lively design: mythical heads served as keystones at the second floor, ornate capitals interspersed on the long brick piers and a heavy cast iron cornice.  The $250,000 cost provided by Starkweather & Gibbs in 1881 was grossly underestimated.  The New York Times placed the cost of the completed structure at $600,000—a startling $14.5 million in today’s dollars.

Apparently Potter changed his mind again.  It does not appear that the upper floors were ever used as a hotel.  Instead Fechheimer, Goodkind & Co., a manufacturer and dealer in men’s and boys’ clothing took the majority of the building.  The firm was founded in San Francisco in 1862 by New Yorkers Martin S. Fechheimer and Henry Goodkind.  Now, in 1884, they established a New York branch and moved into the new Broadway building.  Both men moved back to New York, leaving Charles Fishel in San Francisco as a manager.

In 1884 The Industries of San Francisco noted “The firm deals exclusively in men’s and youth’s clothing, which is made for it by the best manufacturers in America, under the direction of the New York house, and is of the latest styles and the best selected materials.”

There were only two other tenants in the building in 1884.  Sharing the upper floors with Fechheimer, Goodkind & Co. was Hutchinson, Pierce & Co.  Founded in 1840, its factories were located in Norwalk, Connecticut.  In 1884 New York’s Great Industries said “The specialty of the concern is the ‘Star Shirt,’ which for style, fit finish and quality of material, bears the highest reputation in the trade and the public generally.  The firm manufactures shirt waists and underwear and everything in the way of linen collars and cuffs, and fine dress shirts.”

The hefty cast iron base featured unique, stylized columns and piers.
The ground floor store and basement was leased by Underhill, Slote & Cornell, a men’s and boys’ clothier and tailors.  The sub-basement was shared by Fechheimer, Goodkind & Co. and Hutchinson, Pierce & Co. as storage space.  It was there, on February 10, 1886, that disaster would begin.

Deep below street level packing boxes stacked near the furnace smoldered, then caught fire around midnight.  The New York Times wrote “The building is one of the most substantial structures on Broadway, and was deemed fireproof.”  The problem was not the fireproof qualities of the brick, stone and iron—it was the immense quantity of flammable materials stocked by the clothing firms.

Guests in the Sinclair House hotel next door smelled smoke at about 1 a.m.; but it was not until the night clerk, Nicholas Lattimore noticed smoke coming from the upper windows of No. 750 Broadway that a fire alarm was sounded.

“When the big iron door leading to the hoistway, which runs from the cellar to the roof on the Astor-place side of the building, was forced open the firemen were driven back by the volume of heated smoke which came from the cellar.  The fire was burning in the subcellar, but owing to the smoke it could not be reached until the vault lights along the sidewalk were broken out to make an outlet for the smoke.  The blaze was not under control until about 5 o’clock,” reported The Times.

While the fire was contained to the lower levels, damaged to the building was estimated at $8,000.  But smoke, which had filled the entire building, destroyed quantities of goods upstairs.  Underhill, Slote & Cornell estimated their losses at $40,000; Fechheimer, Goodkind & Co. at between $45,000 and $50,000; and Hutchinson, Pierce & Co. set their losses at between $15 and $20,000.

Advertisement from "A Brief Historical Sketch of The Old London Street" 1887 (copyright expired)

Two weeks later Underhill, Slote & Cornell opted to minimize its losses with a fire sale.  “Fire is rarely a public benefit, but through the medium of fire there is now afforded an opportunity to heads of families to lay in a stock of Spring and Summer ready-made and custom clothing at prices within the reach of all,” reported The New York Times on February 26.  The newspaper explained that the store’s stock “was for an hour or two enveloped in smoke.  No water or fire touched a garment, and the huge piles of garments on the counters show not the slightest trace of damage.”

Nevertheless, the smell of smoke on the high-end clothing made it impossible to sell a full retail price.  The 30-day sale ranged from 10 to 40 percent off and consisted of “trousers, waistcoats, business and visiting coats, of all the best materials and fashionable cut.”  The newspaper warned potential bargain hunters “Since the sale opened on Monday the store has been thronged with eager buyers, and the big stocks of goods are rapidly disappearing.”

On October 31, 1891 Henry Goodkind retired and Charles Fishel stepped into his position.  The name of the firm was changed to Fechheimer, Fishel & Co.

In 1897 the expansive ground floor retail space was been taken over by another men’s outfitter, Jos. Fowler Shirt & Collar Co., which had been doing business nearby at No. 685 Broadway.  The firm’s factory was in Glen Falls, New York.  A clever advertisement noted “Style alone won’t ‘make’ a collar.  Neither will Quality nor finish; but Style, Quality and Finish combined make Fowler’s ‘Popular Price Collars’ the most desirable line before the trade.” 

A year later, Joseph Fowler died at the age of 58.

In 1897 Joseph Fowler took over the retail store.  The Mail & Express got the name wrong when it published this sketch.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

One of the executives in the building in 1899 was John A. Faust who earned a salary comfortable enough to afford his rent at the elegant Windsor Hotel on Fifth Avenue, across the street from the Helen Gould mansion.   Faust was just preparing to leave the hotel at 3:00 on St. Patrick’s Day, 1899 when he stopped to talk to its proprietor.   The minor delay nearly caused Faust his life.

“I had just come down from my room, on the second floor, and was about to speak to Mr. Leland, who had also at that moment come down stairs, when I happened to hear a peculiar noise overhead, and, looking up through the shaft made by the stairway, I saw tongues of flame shooting out overhead and great clouds of smoke rolling out.

“’My God,’ I cried, grabbing Leland by the arm, and pointing up, ‘your house is on fire.’”

A parade watcher on an upper floor had tossed a match into a waste basket.  When the basket caught fire, he panicked and ran.  The small fire quickly spread.

Instead of fleeing the building, Faust attempted to get to his room.  But when he got to his corridor he became disoriented in the thick smoke.  When he attempted to retrace his steps, the flames reach the landing, blocking his route.  He groped along the hall until he found a closed door behind which he hoped was smoke-free air and a chance of escape.

“I pounded on the door in an agony of despair, and shouted, but there was no answer and the flames at the other end of the corridor were sweeping nearer and nearer every moment.

“Again and again I pounded and shouted, and what maddened me all the more was the belief that I could hear voices beyond the closed door.  The dense smoke rolled in on me in great masses, choking and blinding me, and I gave myself up for lost.”

Suddenly an unknown person came to Faust’s rescue.  “I had reached the last notch, when I gathered all my remaining strength for one fierce onslaught on that door.  Quick as a flash it was opened and I was dragged forth into the light and air.  The rapidity with which the thing was done almost unnerved me, but I ran on until I reached the air.”

Faust and his unknown champion were saved.  But the magnificent Windsor Hotel burned to the ground.

In 1902 the ground floor was taken over by the newly-chartered Broadway Trust Company.  By 1905 Hutchinson, Pierce & Co. had moved northward to No. 842 Broadway and the vast loft spaces were gradually broken up.   The Commercial and Industrial League, a Republican organization, established its offices here by 1908.  That year, on September 16, “actor-orator” Edward Vroom spoke at a noon-day meeting.  The New York Times mentioned “Mr. Vroom has long been active in Republican campaigns.  He is of old Dutch-American stock and his people for many generations have been active in American politics.”

As the magnificent Woolworth Building neared completion in 1912, the Broadway Trust Company received permission from the State Banking Department to leave No. 750 Broadway for the more modern and glamorous new structure. 

Brothers Abraham and Aaron Sherwin, clothiers, moved their operation into the building.  Their financial success was such that Aaron lived in the Ansonia Hotel and rode about in a five-passenger limousine driven by his chauffeur.  In 1913, far north of Astor Place, “Blind Joe” McKevwitt had sold newspapers at the corner of Broadway and 66th Street for 40 years.  The fates of McKevwitt and Aaron Sherwin would cross paths on November 8 that year.

That night the 65-year old blind man had closed up his newsstand and was attempting to cross Broadway.  A bystander, Peter Crinnon, took the man’s arm to help him across the wide and busy street.  The New York Times said the following day “he closed his stand soon after 9 o’clock and depended on the kindness of those he met to help him across Columbus Avenue and Broadway.”

At the same time, Aaron Sherwin’s chauffeur, was on his way to pick him up at the Hotel Manhattan.  “Silently over the slippery pavement came the heavy touring car with both front lamps out, according to witnesses.  Crinnon did not see it until it was almost upon him.  He tried to pull McDevwitt out of its path, but the blind newsdealer, unconscious of his danger and frightened by the sudden fierce seizure of his arm, was apparently rooted in the spot,” reported The Times.

Witnesses told police that Wright did not sound his horn and “was driving fast and in a reckless manner.”  At the last minute “Wright slammed in his brakes, but the pavement was too slippery for a sudden stop, and before he could turn out the machine passed over the two bodies and skidded twenty feet down the street before Wright halted it at the curb.”

When Wright was informed that the old man would probably die, he fainted.  At the police station he was asked why he was running without his headlights on.  “He said that two hours before the accident at Sixty-sixth Street he had run into the rear of another automobile at West End Avenue and Seventy-fourth Street.  The collision, he said, had destroyed both his lights.”

Blind Joe, indeed, died of his injuries and Wright was arrested, charged with homicide.  But there would be more to the case.  The family of “Blind Joe” McKivwett sued Abraham and Aaron Sherwin for damages.  Court papers said the news dealer was the main support of his two sisters and a brother, who “was helpless.”  On March 11, 1915 a grand jury found the Sherwins liable and awarded the relatives $12,000.

The abundance of decoration included well-executed keystone faces.

In 1913 Jonas G. Goldsmith leased the entire building “for a long term of years” at a rental of $40,000 a year.  The Sun reported on August 24 that the building “will be extensively remodeled by the tenant.”  Three months later advertisements for space boasted “building entirely renovated, passenger, also freight elevator; automatic fire alarm.”  Calling it “The Astor Place Building,” the new owner listed loft spaces at $4,000 per month and the store and basement at $4,500.

The building continued to lure apparel firms.  Gluckman & Keilson, clothing manufacturers, moved in, and in February 1919 Superior Pants leased the second floor loft.  Levine Brothers, hat makers, took the fifth floor.  Tragedy would strike that firm on August 4, 1923.

Charles Hulzman was a packer for Levine Brothers.  That afternoon he took a break and went to the men’s room.  When he did not return to his post his foreman went looking for him.   His body was found five floors below.  Investigators surmised that he had leaned too far out of the window to get air and fell.

By the mid 1930s lofts had been converted to office space and attracted several labor unions as tenants.  By 1937 the United Shoe Workers Union was here and would remain in the building at least into the 1940s.  The Cleaners and Dyers Union, Local 239, of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America also established its headquarters here.   A large percentage of garment workers were Jewish and on November 21, 1938 the Cleaners and Dyers Union demonstrated its feelings about the emerging power of the Nazi movement.

The German Consulate was located at No. 17 Battery Place.  Ninety members of the union picketed outside that afternoon.  The New York Times reported they were “carrying placards denouncing Germany’s persecution of racial and religious minorities and shouting: ‘Send Hitler to the Cleaners!’”

After an hour of picketing, the union’s general manager, Alex Hoffman, handed “a statement of the attitude of the union” to Paul Schmidt, secretary of the consulate.  The Times noted “Mr. Schmidt accepted the statement without comment.”

In 1942 the Manhattan Savings Bank was formed here--a merger of the Manhattan Savings Institution, the Metropolitan Savings Bank and the Citizens Savings Bank.  The bank would remain here until 1951 when it moved to No. 385 Madison Avenue.

Throughout the 1950s the ground floor was home to Birnhaum Auction Gallery.  It was known nationwide for its sales of period English, French and American furniture.  In 1974 Cathedral Auction Galleries took its place in the building. 

Somehow, throughout it all the wonderful cast iron ground floor escaped modernization.

Not long afterward the upper floors were converted to 175 residences.  Despite the expansive dimensions of the former lofts, interior photographs suggest that the developers crammed as many apartments as possible into the space.

The exterior of the remarkable building with its wonderful cast iron base survives beautifully intact—a delicious survivor along a stretch of Broadway which has suffered too many losses.

photographs by the author

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