Saturday, January 2, 2016

Albert Kahn's Ford Motor Bldg -- No. 1710 Broadway

In the first decade of the 20th century what had been the carriage-making district of Broadway from Times Square to approximately 72nd Street was becoming known as “Automobile Row.”  The horseless carriage was rapidly taking over America’s roads with manufacturers cranking out around 200,000 automobiles a year.  By 1910 the industry-related buildings would stretch as far as 110th Street.

In 1911 the Times Square Auto Co. was doing business at No. 1710 Broadway, at the corner of 54th Street.  Selling both new and used automobiles, the firm advertised “Unusually Good Values This Week” on November 12 that year.  Among the vehicles offered were a 1909 seven-passenger Packard; a seven-passenger Locomobile touring car; and “toy tonneau” Rambler being sold at “sacrifice.”

Business was apparently good, for on Saturday, March 22, 1913 The American Contractor noted that the Times Square Auto Co. had commissioned architects Schwartz & Gross to design a two story addition to the "garage" at a cost of $70,000.  The amount of money automobile dealers could make was evidenced a month earlier when Times Square Auto advertised a late model Mercedes Limousine for sale.  Saying it would “sacrifice to quick buyer,” the firm noted that the original cost of the car was $11,000—about $271,000 in 2015 dollars.

In the meantime, architect Albert Kahn’s design for the Packard Motor Car Company’s 1903 factory had caught the interest of Henry Ford.  In 1909 Ford commissioned Kahn to design his Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park plant.  It was here that Ford perfected the assembly line method for his Model T.  And it was the beginning of a long relationship between the manufacturer and the architect.

Born in Prussia in 1869, Kahn arrived in Detroit with his rabbi father, Joseph, and his mother, Rosalie, in 1880.  At the age of 26 he founded the architectural firm Albert Kahn Associates.  With his brother, Julius, he originated a process utilizing reinforced concrete that revolutionized industrial construction.  

By the time Henry Ford considered an east coast Ford Motor Company headquarters in New York in 1916, Kahn had designed scores of buildings for him—including service stations and related structures in the New York area.

Ford’s ambitious project for Manhattan would replace the Times Square Auto Co.’s building at 1710 Broadway.  Working with his associate architect, Ernest Wilby, Kahn filed his initial plans in October 1916. Not only would there be offices and a showroom, the 16-story Ford Headquarters would include a hotel.  The cost of the project was estimated at $700,000.

Those plans would never see fruition.  They were soon drastically scaled back and in August 1917 Kahn filed the re-worked plans.  Now the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide announced a five story brick-and-stone showroom and office building, costing less than half of the original at $300,000.

The Architectural Review, July 1919 (copyright expired)

Completed in 1919, the Indiana limestone-faced structure utilized the same reinforced concrete frame process Kahn used in his factory designs.  The floors above the showroom level were relatively unadorned; the sparse decoration relying on carved medallions set into the spandrels.  The Architectural Review called it “an interesting example of modern construction and design,” saying that the “exterior is a simple straight-forward expression of the method of construction and of the plan.”  An attractive, shallow hipped roof of red clay tiles completed the design.

Ford motorcars are displayed in the showroom, including one with no chassis (left) -- The Architectural Review, July 1919 (copyright expired)
Vast plate glass windows fronted the street level showroom on two sides.  Inside, the walls were paneled in walnut wainscoting, above which was Travertine stone.  Oriental rugs covered the mosaic floors—what would be an unexpectedly luxurious touch for 21st century car buyers.
Iron railings flank the marble staircase and Oriental carpeting covers the mosaic floors of the Showroom -- The Architectural Review, July 1919 (copyright expired)
The elegance of the showroom was highlighted by the marble staircase centered on the rear wall.  It rose to a landing before splitting to the left and right.  Here windows not only provided additional light and ventilation, but gave a sense of height.  The Architecture Review noted “They break the solid wall which would be unpleasant in effect if left unbroken.”

Two views of the Reception Room above the stairs.  Note the cork-tiled flooring.  The Architectural Review, July 1919 (copyright expired)

At the top of the staircase was the Reception Room, paneled in walnut to the ceiling.  Guests waited on leather furniture which sat on Chinese rugs placed a cork-tiled floor.  Like the Reception Room, the executive offices which lined that room were paneled in walnut.  The furnishings were leather-upholstered walnut.  The stately but understated interiors were reflected in the ceilings, described by The Architectural Review as “conventional ornament in low relief."
Executives worked in walnut-paneled offices.  The Architectural Review, July 1919 (copyright expired)

Also on this floor were the offices of the foreign department and “a general office.”  The three upper floors were each arranged as one large, open room, the “general offices.”  Here a series of desks filled the space, the walls of which were lined with filing cabinets.  It was the early 20th century version of a cube farm.

Feminine car shoppers—or simply those who accompanied their husbands to offer advice—were treated to upscale amenities.  The women’s restroom on the showroom floor was “decorated and furnished very much like the boudoir of a private house.” 
Each pair of spandrel plaques was different from the others.
The auto parts supply room was hidden discretely under the staircase.  There was also a freight elevator capable of transporting an automobile to every floor in the building if necessary.

The rare appearances of Henry Ford in New York City always excited the press; but the reserved millionaire routinely managed to elude journalists.  On October 22, 1921 Ford’s private train arrived at Grand Central as part of a “tour of inspection of his Eastern plants and offices.”  With him were his body guard, secretary and four other employees.

The following day the New-York Tribune reported “He arrived quietly and unannounced, going to the Ritz-Carlton, where he had a suite reserved for him.”  Just before noon, Ford arrived at No. 1710 Broadway where he met with his New York representatives.

News leaked out and reporters rushed to the corner of Broadway and 54th Street; but they “found the illusive manufacturer already had departed.”  Ford contracted the rest of his business quickly, was back at the hotel by mid-afternoon, and then was spotted at Grand Central Station by a Tribune reporter.

The journalist wrote that he “caught sight of a slight, gray, quiet-mannered person in the crowd at the entrance to the outbound limited at Grand Central Station.  Except for the presence of a burly but vigilant male individual at his man’s elbow he was alone and undisturbed.  The slight gentleman said he was Mr. Ford.”

The reporter managed to get a few words with Ford, who explained “his visit here was simply for the purpose of looking over his business interests and attending to other personal matters.”

It was a rare appearance at No. 1710 Broadway of the man whose name was synonymous with the industry.  The workers here would manage Ford’s east coast operations with mostly long-distance direction from Detroit.

The Great Depression had a major impact on the automobile industry as the luxury of new motorcars became unaffordable to most consumers.  Ford Motor Company had always relied on independent dealers to sell its cars; but now Edsel B. Ford considered opening company-owned outlets to lower prices.

The move caused panic and outrage among the dealerships.  Independent dealers on Automobile Row moved to halt any Ford-owned outlet in Manhattan.  The New York Times reported on December 13, 1932 “Fearing that their business would be threatened, leading Ford dealers in this city have sent a round-robin telegram to the Ford Motor Company protesting against the possible establishment here of company-controlled retail branches.”

By the 1930s the showroom had received an Art Moderne makeover, including stylish armchairs and what appears to be a Thomas Hart Benton mural. -- photo by N W. Ayer & Son
The newspaper explained “They fear there would be a tendency among consumers to deal directly with the company rather than through independent dealers.”  In trying to mollify its dealers, executives at No. 1710 Broadway announced that “an explanatory statement” was being prepared in Michigan.

Although Edsel Ford denied that the plan would “in any way” interfere with the sales activities of established Ford dealers, they remained unconvinced.

Business slowly returned to normal following the end of the Depression.  As 1939 drew to an end, a friendly competition between Ford salesmen working in No. 1710 Broadway ended on New Year's Eve.  On January 3, 1940 the winners and losers were announced.

On the previous day The Times reported “Tomorrow two contesting teams of Ford salesmen at 1710 Broadway will partake at the Hotel Woodward of a novelty bean and chicken dinner—bean soup to bean pie for the losers and chicken for the winners.”

The year after the United States entered World War II, Ford Motor Company sold its New York headquarters building to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.   The group, which had been at No. 3 West 16th Street for 21 years, had grown to 300,000 members.  But more importantly, its president, David Dubinsky, was determined to expand the union’s reach into war-torn Europe.

He established an International Relations Department in the Broadway building with Jay Lovestone as Director.  In late 1943 Haakon Lie arrived at No. 1710 Broadway to appeal to the Jewish Labor Committee for funds for the exiled Norwegian labor federation.  Instead, the group sent him to David Dubinsky, who responded with a loan (which was reportedly never repaid).

The ILGWU worked feverishly to fight the Nazi regime with fundraising efforts.  On January 13, 1944 Dubinsky announced that the garment union had set its war bond goal at $25 million.  Fundraising events that year resulted in $2.2 million to aid civilian victims of war, more than $4 million in war bonds were purchased; and a bond campaign resulted in $8 million used for the construction of Liberty Ships.

Women at home were encouraged to help in the struggle.  In January 1944, 75 female members of the ILGWU were officially inducted into the Women’s Service Brigade, a civilian defense organization of the Union.  At the ceremony at No. 1710 Broadway the principal speaker was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The ILGWU did not forget its original purpose, of course.  On March 23, 1944 the Union managed to force employers to provide health insurance to union dressmakers.  The Times reported that the new contract “requires employers of 57,000 to contribute 3.5 percent of payrolls” to the health coverage.

New Yorkers who were concerned that labor unions equated with communism were no doubt relieved that same month when ILGWU election returns were reported.  Dubinsky announced that the 29 locals, “representing 100,000 members show that not a single Communist or party follower has been elected to any local office.”  He added “This is the cleanest mop-up of Communist influence in this union in the past twenty years.”

Later that year, on October 22, President and Mrs. Roosevelt were honored by the union.  The Times reported the following day “New York’s garment district reached record-breaking heights yesterday in its reception for President Roosevelt.”  The newspaper noted “The ILGWU headquarters at 1710 Broadway was completely blanketed with American flags and pictures of the President, and stretched 100 feet across the face of the building was the sign: ‘Welcome F. D. R., the Hope of America.'”

As the ceremony drew to a close, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia turned to Dubinsky and said “Dave, it was a swell, wonderful job.”  Eleanor Roosevelt chimed in with “ILGWU, as usual.”

The International Garment Workers’ Union provided educational programs in the building, as well.  Lectures given here in 1945 included “Can Government Dominate Industrial Relationship?” by Professor Selig Perlman; “Facing the Future,” by Dr. Harry J. Carman; and Prof. Horace Taylor’s “Organizing the Peace.”

A highly important event in the building in 1945 was the conference of the newly-formed Negro Newspaper Publishers Association.  President Roosevelt had earlier warned NAACP Director Walter White that the Justice Department was under pressure by powerful conservatives to indict the publishers of black newspapers for sedition.  Roosevelt’s advice led White to meet with the top publishers who formed the Association. 

The Association established a code of ethics that curbed sensationalism in the black press; but also united to attack discrimination.  One result of the Conference was a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt exposing the treatment of African American soldiers in the armed forces.

On July 8, 1967 the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union announced its plans to add three floors and a penthouse to No. 1710 Broadway.  With severe need for larger quarters, the union had been looking elsewhere.  But now, after structural investigation proved that the Broadway building could support an addition, architect Vito J. Tricarico was given the commission. 

Tricario’s plans included three floors set back on Hahn’s hipped roof.  The stone fa├žade was a sympathetic 60’s take on the original; however the roof was an odd mirror image—sloping up and out, rather than back.

Like Albert Hahn’s original plans for No. 1710 Broadway, Tricario’s renovations were never done.  By the mid-1970s the former showroom space was renovated to accommodate the Amalgamated Bank.

Photographed by Edmund V. Gillon around 1970, the old Ford Motor showroom area had been converted for a bank.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1981 the ILGWU membership had dropped by a third from its 457,000 level in 1967 when it proposed the rooftop addition.  The membership of 300,000 was the same as the year the union moved into the building.  The union’s president at the time, Sol C. Chaikin, attributed the decline to women’s clothing being manufactured overseas.

William Serrin of The New York Times commented on the situation on November 29, 1981.  “If the notion of a union occupying a building that once housed a giant American corporation seems to symbolize growing union power, the symbol ends there.”

By the end of the century the ILGWU was gone.  The building was sold to C&K Properties in 2003 for $23 million.  In June that year hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs leased No. 1710 Broadway for his Bad Boy Entertainment company.  Combs especially appreciated the fact that Ford Motor Company’s freight elevator was still intact—meaning he could drive his car into the building and take it directly up to his office.

Trouble was first noticed in the spring of 2015 when the C&K Properties missed mortgage payments according to Crain’s New York Business on June 12.  The firm put the building (which still housed Bad Boy Entertainment) on the market for just under $300 million, touting it as “a high-priced development site that can accommodate a 1,000-foot-tall condo tower.”

And sure enough, on December 17, 2015 The Real Deal reported that Extell Development had closed a deal with C&K Properties at about $247 million, “making way for a 60-story condominium-hotel tower.”

One of the last reminders of Automobile Row and a rare example of Albert Kahn’s architecture in the New York area, the days of No. 1710 Broadway are numbered.

non-credited photographs by the author
many thanks to Sean Khoursandi for suggesting this post 


  1. I can remember when this stretch of Broadway still had a few showrooms in the early 70's. I guess Ford was already gone, though. My karate school, Aaron Bank's New York Karate Academy was located close to here, above a Broadway Joe's hamburger joint. I recall a Dodge Duster that was displayed in a window nearby because the Roadrunner cartoon decal always caught my attention. Where do Manhattanites purchase vehicles today?

  2. This building is scheduled for Demo by Extell