Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Callahan the Hatter - No. 140 Bowery

In 1932 the facade was slathered in advertisements, including a metal mesh that veiled the Federal style dormers.  Free-standing displays sit on the sidewalk.  photo by Charles Von Urban from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYW36FSYZ&SMLS=1&RW=1536&RH=731
On November 25, 1783 the last of the British left Manhattan.  Within the next few years things a sense of normalcy would return. 

From 1799 to 1802 butcher William Evert owned the property at No. 140 Bowery.  Although it is possible that he constructed the two-and-a-half story house here; it was most likely Henry Lovell, who as listed as owner in 1808, or Ernest Keyser, who was here by 1818.

The little frame house, like others in the area, reflected the Federal style.  Two prim dormers pierced the peaked roof.  Like Evert, both men were butchers.  But it does not appear that they ran their shops from the house at this time.  Keyser volunteered his spare time to Fire Engine Company No. 40.

The ground floor had been converted to business by 1825, when Michael Armstrong ran his dry goods shop here.  The space would change hands a few times over the next decade.  In 1837 Jonas Levy, a jeweler, was here; and by 1840 Ransom & Wigins' hat and artificial flower shop was here.

The women advertised in A. E. Wright's Commercial Directory in 1840 (copyright expired)

Sarah A. Ransom lived upstairs and she partnered with the daughter of another resident, Richard T. Wigins, in her enterprise.  Wigins ran a drugstore at No. 756 Broadway.  Also living in the house was Elizabeth Lloyd, the widow of Joseph Lloyd.

Sarah Ransom had apparently moved on by 1843; but Catharine Wigins was still listed as “milliner” here.  But the hat shop, too, would be gone by 1848 when Julius J. Newman lived upstairs and ran his clothing store in the building.  The following year Moses May’s jewelry store replaced him.

The shop would become home to Hyman Kaplan’s boot and shoe store by 1865 and he would do business here until 1868.  That was the year that John Callahan moved in.  He had arrived in New York from Ireland prior to 1860, bringing with him a thorough knowledge of hat making and a brilliant marketing sense.   He married Anne McKeon and, in 1860, established a hat making and retail shop.  Now in 1868 he moved the operation into No. 140 Bowery.  The shop that had seen rapid-fire turnover in proprietors was now home to Callahan the Hatter—and it would remain so for more than 60 years.

Callahan aggressively marketed his top-quality hats with clever advertising.  His phenomenal success allowed him to purchase the building.  While he grew his business, upstairs the Crager family was living.  Adolph and Julius ran their clothing store at No. 24 Bowery and would live here at least until 1876.

The Cragers may have been forced out by Callahan’s interior renovations.  In 1878 he hired architect Fred H. Coles to do alterations.  The cost to Callahan was $2,000—nearly $50,000 today.  It was most likely at this time that the Callahan store expanded upward into the residential space.

Three years later Fred H. Coles was back, filing plans now to “take out three windows, put in five and raise roof three feet.”   The ambitious plans were scaled back however, and the quaint dormers and peaked attic roof remained.

In the meantime, the Bowery had become sketchy at best.  In 1882, a year after Coles submitted his plans, author James D. McCabe described the street.  “Men and women in all stages of intoxication stagger along the pavements, and here and there is a sturdy policeman with some offender in his grasp, hastening on to the station-house. Vice offers every inducement to its votaries, and the devil’s work is done nightly upon a grand scale in the Bowery.”

Two boys, James Johnson and Mathew McMahon, were caught by police after burglarizing Callahan’s store in 1881.  They pleaded guilty on September 15.  Despite their youth, Judge Cowing sentenced Johnson to three years and six months, and McMahon to three years in the State prison.

Men’s fashion had embraced the silk hat by now and John Callahan was quick to react.  His exceptional success was reflected in numerous want ads.  On August 20, 1882 he advertised for “a first-class silk and Derby hat curler;” and the following year searched for “a young man as salesman in a retail hat store; none need apply except on who thoroughly understands the business.”  In 1886 he needed “a strong boy as porter.”

Callahan took up real estate as a sideline.  An advertisement in the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide in June 1885 offered property at the southeast corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 160th Street.  “Apply to Callahan the Hatter, 140 Bowery.”

While John Callahan’s fortunes were increasing, others were not pleased with his business practices.  On October 4, 1886 the New-York Tribune reported “At the meeting of the Central Labor Union yesterday at Clarendon Hall…a vote of censure was passed on Callahan, the hatter, of No. 140 Broadway, who keeps his store open on Sundays.”

Callahan used a custom poem to advertise his hats as electricity made an entrance in New York.  (copyright expired)
Callahan’s real estate dealings were such that on July 21, 1888 the Record and Guide reported that John Callahan, of 140 Bowery, the successful hatter and investor, has been proposed as a stock member of the Real Estate Exchange by Wm. F. Redmond, seconded by Peter F. Meyer.”  Later that year it said of him, “besides conducting his prominent hat emporium at No. 140 Bowery, [he] is becoming known as an almost equally prominent real estate owner.”

Callahan’s aggressive advertising campaign included around 700 signs around the city in 1889.  They cost him $21,000 and an associate would later say “That seems like considerable money, but it certainly paid.”  He established himself as the official hatter of the St. Patrick’s Day parade—the expense of which, as Macy’s department store would learn later with its sponsorship of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, was far outweighed by the marketing exposure.

Although the hat store now engulfed two floors, Callahan continued to rent the attic rooms.  Tenants in garret spaces on the Bowery, however, were rarely upstanding citizens. On November 19, 1892 Callahan’s renter Edward Devine, alias Clark, was arrested as part of a gang of 12 crooks.  The New York Times described him as “a burglar and sneak thief.”

On December 3, 1899 36-year old ex-convict Henry Ursprung, was living here when he was caught burglarizing No. 76 Duane Street. The Times flatly called the upper floor of No. 140 Bowery “a cheap lodging house.”

"Who's Your Hatter?" became a Hallahan by-line.  Bridgemen's Magazine, November 1903 (copyright expired)

In 1903 Callahan’s business was being run by James Galvin.  He steadfastly ran Callahan the Hatter while the Bowery continued to decline.  Finally, in the Depression years and in failing health, Galvin gave up.  On December 2, 1934 The New York Times reported that Galvin, “who, as ‘Callahan the Hatter,’ has been a 140 Bowery for nearly thirty years, was in the process of going out of business yesterday as a result of ill health, which had kept him away from his store for about a year.”

While heavily altered, the Federal architecture was still obvious -- photo Ny.curbed.com March 15, 2011
The remainder of the 20th century was not kind to No. 140 Bowery.  The handsome arcade show windows were replaced by a wall of glass and the quaint clapboards were veneered over in brick to match the mutually-owned No. 142 Bowery next door.  The first hint of trouble came in September 2007 when the two buildings were offered at $14 million.  The Real Deal reported “The properties are being marketed as a development or conversion site.”

No longer a favorite for “the devil’s work;” the Bowery had been discovered and low, vintage structures were rapidly falling in favor of sleek hotels and commercial buildings.  In 2011 the two-century-old dormers were discarded and the gaping wounds covered with a hideous black material.

photo by the author

But the loss of the dormers would no longer matter by spring of 2015.  The three buildings at Nos. 136 through 140 Bowery were sold for $45 million in the fall of 2014.   The Montana-based firm of Max A. Hansen and Associates filed demolition permits in May 2015, sounding the death knell of the 200-year old Callahan the Hatter structure.

many thanks to Daniel Choy Boyar for suggesting this post


  1. How one can so easily demolish 200 plus year old structures in NYC without any review process or landmark consideration is outrageous. No wonder so many developers are having their way with unprotected but noteworthy NYC landmarks these days. A pro-developer Landmarks commission also doesn't help the cause and the city is left with boring boxes that litter neighborhoods everywhere, cheaply built with little if any aesthetic value or streetscape qualities to offer as a replacement. Sad

  2. Some simply don't see, but how incredibly stupid.
    I still think on post-WWII Europe and how much was destroyed there, only to be rebuilt, at least in part. Some buildings and blocks were painstakingly reconstructed from photographs and plans - often using original bricks and mortar. Here, we use any destruction as a pretext to erasing everything or demeaning what we still possess. I look upon some developers as evil chickens - staring blankly at the piles of feed they must demolish for their immediate gratification. Yet these chickens even plan on future piles, making them scary incarnate.

  3. It sounded like you said the faux-brick cladding is covering a WOOD facade? If so that would make this the only wood frame with wood face building on the Bowery and one of only 2 or 3 in lower Manhattan. The building north, which had an extra story added in the 19th century was built at the same time and they would have made an 8 bay run of windows. Wow, there is not a single 8 bay wood facade in all of NYC and that fake brick had very likely preserved the original clap board siding if its in fact under there. What a remarkable thing it would be to restore these special survivors to their early 19th century state.