At noon on Wednesday, June 10, 1868 the "valuable plot of ground" engulfing Nos, 537 through 541 Broadway was sold at auction. The property, just north of Spring Street stretched back to Mercer Street, making a substantial block of six building plots.
Peter Gilsey and Benjamin Franklin Beekman were both directors in the Merchants Life Insurance Co. of New York. It may have been this connection which brought then together to purchase the Broadway properties. They commissioned architect Charles Mettam to design two handsome buildings clad in cast iron.
James Bogardus had begun experimenting with pre-fabricated cast iron architectural elements in the 1840s. By now the process had been perfected and cast iron facades were quickly gaining widespread acceptance. The large sections which often imitated carved stone could be quickly bolted to the brick fronts of buildings, could be easily cast with elaborate decorative elements and—most importantly—were touted as fireproof.
Completed on April 30, 1869, the two structures at Nos. 537-539 and No. 541 successfully pretended to be a single building. The upper floors of Mettam's five-story design included Corinthian columns between each of the upper story openings, rosettes within the spandrels, and paneled piers along the sides. The architect crowned the structure with a bracketed cornice supporting three pediments--two arched and one triangular. Three immense and eye-catching urns perched atop it all.
Danish immigrant Peter Gilsey was apparently interested in the project only as an investment. He was a well-known hosteler and was simultaneously erecting his lavish Gilsey House hotel further north on Broadway at 29th Street. The deed for the northern portion, No. 541, was in his name.
Benjamin F. Beekman, on the other hand, was slightly more hands-on. He came from one of New York's oldest Knickerbocker families, tracing his American roots to the 17th century. In 1848 he had founded a millinery business. When his brother Samuel was taken into the firm in 1860, it became known as S. A. Beekman & Co.
Nos. 537-539 were owned by the Beekmans and now became home to the successful manufacturer and importer. Samuel Beekman's background was in dry goods rather than millinery and the company now branched out to include "fancy goods."
|The store offered a "larger if not better" selection of imported fancy goods on December 24, 1873, New-York Tribune (copyright expired)
That same year, in February, Benjamin Franklin Beekman died of pneumonia at the age of 46. He was the President of the West Line Railroad of New-Jersey, the Exchange Savings Bank and of the Merchants' Life Insurance Company; as well as Director in two other railroads and another bank. His obituary called him "a man of high character and of a most generous nature [who] gave largely to the poor."
Two years later, on August 28, 1877, The New York Times noted that "The straw goods and millinery trades have suffered severely by depreciation in values" and reported "The large firm of S. A. Beekman & Co., manufacturers and wholesale dealers in straw goods at Nos. 537 and 539 Broadway, and at Franklin, Mas., have failed."
The article added "Their failure has caused much surprise, and the creditors express much sympathy for them...The firm were reputed to be very wealthy."
It was not only the millinery and dry goods firms that suffered from the financial depression. Among the tenants of the Broadway building was W. A. Ransom & Co., one of the oldest jobbing firms in the shoe trade. Founded in the 1840s, it was the leader in its field and its business had recently been valued at $500,000. On February 23, 1878 it, too, declared bankruptcy.
In the fall of 1883 the retail space at Nos. 537-539 was home to Hellman & Herrman, "gentlemen's furnishing goods." Most of the upper floors were occupied by straw goods dealers William Knowlton & Sons. Portions of the third and fourth floors were leased by apparel-making companies, Alexander Goldberg, and Sodekson Brothers, makers of panteloons.
No. 541 had two tenants. The first floor was home to hat dealers Deuzer, Stern & Co., while the upper floors were leased by D. L. Newborg & Brothers, cloak manufacturers.
On the evening of September 18, 1883, at around 6:45 smoke was seen coming from the basement. By the time firefighters arrived, the fire had gained headway. The New York Times reported "The smoke emitted by the burning goods was so dense that no person could live in the basement, and the fire had to be fought from the street."
The highly flammable items in the workrooms, including straw, glue and fabrics, fed the inferno. "When the fire was almost within control in the basement the flames made their appearance on the fifth floor on the Mercer-street end of the building. The fire had eaten its way up one of the numerous openings to the fifth floor, and was soon bursting through the roof."
When the blaze was finally extinguished, the 75-foot wide structure was partially destroyed and the tenants had sustained combined damages of more than $390,000, including lost stock--around $9.5 million in 2016. Charles Mettam's cast iron facade, as intended, had withstood the fire.
D. L. Newborg & Brothers stayed on after repairs were made. But only eight months later the firm suffered another setback. On the morning of May 30, 1884 David L. Newborg was arrested for counterfeiting.
Wendell, Fay & Co. held the trade mark for a certain high-end type of flannel. A Providence, Rhode Island haberdasher, J. B. Barnaby & Co., purchased 120 suits of clothing from Newborg & Brothers, which bore the first-rate label of Wendell & Fay.
Suspicious, the retailer checked with a representative of Wendell & Fay. "Investigation showed that the goods were not such," reported The Times, "and members of the two firms caused Newborg's arrest."
In the meantime, artificial flower dealer Thomas A. Wood & Co. had taken space in No. 537-539. One of the girls employed by the firm was Mary Griffin, described by The Times as "pale and delicate in appearance." Things went downhill for Mary when she took a romantic interest in a handsome new supervisor in 1883.
"It was said that she was enamored of a Frenchman, who at that time was foreman of the workshop, and that her affection not being returned it affected her brain," explained the newspaper. Mary's behavior became so unusual that it "excited apprehension" among her co-workers. She was finally fired.
Mary's unrequited infatuation drove her nearly mad. She returned to the factory twice. The first time she brought along a large wooden stick and set to work smashing stock. When a clerk tried to eject her, she turned the stick on him.
She came back on August 21, 1885, but was refused admission to the elevator. So she "sent a large stone crashing through it," reported The Times. "She was arrested and Justice Murray committed her for examination as to her sanity."
Millinery and apparel firms continued to lease space in the 1890s. Grauer & Co., cloak makers, was in No. 541 in 1892; and Spaul & Borch, neckwear manufacturers, was in No, 537-539 by 1893.
Among that firm's employees was Mrs. Bertha Kovalsky, who lived in Woodhaven, Long Island, with her 14-year old son Herman. The 32-year old widow performed "home-work," a common practice by which women did piece work in their homes, rather than in the factory. On Saturday morning, January 27, 1894 she traveled to the city to deliver finished neckties to the firm.
She did not return home, and by Sunday night her teen-aged son finally became alarmed enough to notify police. He went to Police Headquarters and told the sergeant on duty he was sure "that his mother was locked up in the building."
Police went to Nos. 537-539 Broadway and were told by the watchman that he was certain he saw Bertha leave around noon that Saturday. Nevertheless, they searched what The Evening World called "a great six-story iron-front affair." The newspaper said "Each floor in turn was searched, but there was no trace of the missing woman."
As the party had nearly exhausted its search and was heading to the roof, "a scream from the lower part of the building" was heard. The World reported "The screams continued. When the four searchers got to the third floor, looking over the baluster they saw rushing down the stairs to the ground floor a woman. Her hair was steaming behind her, and in the dim, uncertain light which came from a single gas jet, she looked scarcely human."
With the police and her son clambering down the stairway, the woman fled out onto Broadway through the door that had been left ajar. "The neighborhood was searched for an hour, but she could not be found," said The Evening World.
Three days after her initial disappearance, police feared Bertha had "become insane after being locked in an office building...for over thirty hours." The New York Times noted "Her disappearance is a mystery, and there is no reason known for her absence."
In the last quarter of the 19th century every stylish Victorian home had an exotic, Asian-inspired room or nook. Women who intended to keep up with the trends purchased hand-painted fans, silk kimonos and Japanese-style curio cabinets. The fad provided an excellent niche for the Morimura Brothers who opened their store of “Japanese goods” directly across Broadway, at No. 540, in the 1880s.
The brothers were highly successful and, despite making their livings by selling Japanese imports, worked hard in their personal lives to assimilate into their new surroundings. In 1889 The New York Times said “they dress and talk like Americans and mix in the best society of the city.”
|Morimura Brothers displayed Japanese goods at No. 539; while upstairs Louis Graner & Co. made cloaks. photo from the collection of Morimura Bros. Inc.
At the time of that comment, Morimura Brothers had moved into the larger store space at No. 537-539 Broadway four years earlier. The highly-successful store remained in the building until 1904, when Neuburger Co., importers of laces, took the retail space.
During the World War I years, two auction houses were in the building--Chas. Shongood, and Van Praag & Co. By the time of the Great Depression, a much different type of tenant joined the hat and apparel firms here. Among them were Bee-Ell Electric Mfg. Co., and the Herba Medicinal Laboratory.
The latter firm found itself in hot water with the Federal Trade Commission in January 1937. Headed by Giacomo LaGuardia, the firm produced herbal remedies like "Stomatic Tea and Tonic, " "Rheumatic Tea," and "Renal Tea." It advertised the products as "effective in the treatment of stomach acid, indigestion, headache, nervous disturbances and other ailments."
The Government's investigation exposed LaGuardia as a quack. It ordered him to cease making the claims, as well as guarantees "that they have therapeutic value for treating skin diseases, vertigo, headache and other diseases." The order also directed LaGuardia "not to represent that he is a great specialist in the diagnosis or treatment of human ailments."
|In the first decades of the 20th century, the building had survived relatively well. photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
|But by the second half of the century it had lost the 2nd floor balustrade along Nos. 537-539 and ghastly storefronts had been added. photo by Edmund Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The last quarter of the century saw a marked change to Nos. 537-541 Broadway. Sylvia Whitman opened her dance loft in 1974, soon joined in the building by the Lucinda Childs dance loft. Throughout the decade the building would house the additional dance art spaces of Douglas Dunn, the David Gordon Studio, Trishe Brown Studio, and Russell Dumas dance. Douglas Dunn opened the Rio Grande Union, Inc. a studio theater, in the 1990s, which is still in the building in 2016.
The nearly 150-year old building is a handsome example of the grand emporiums which rose along Broadway in the post Civil War years. A restoration begun in 2002 resulted in, among other things, the replacement of the second floor balustrade.
photographs by the author