Monday, December 26, 2016

The Lost Grover & Baker Bldg -- No. 495 Broadway

Cosmopolitan Art Journal 1860 (copyright expired)
In 1820s the neighborhood of Broadway and Broome Street was filled with brick faced homes.  At No. 495 was the boarding house of Eunitia Bicknell.  Among her respectable boarders were William Purcell, sexton of St. Thomas' Church, and his wife Adelaide who worked as a milliner.

But by the middle of the century those residences were quickly being demolished and replaced with commercial buildings.  Eunitia Bicknell's house was the site of the St. Nicholas Exhibition Room by 1854; where entertainments like Campbell's Minstrels and White's Serenaders were staged.

That year William Emerson Baker was in New York from Boston, where he and his partner William O. Grover manufactured sewing machine.  The former tailors had improved the earlier machines, building on the 1846 patent of Elias Howe.  Grover had by now received six patents of his own and the Grover & Baker machines were the fiercest competitors of Isaac Singer's devices.

The New-York Daily Tribune reported on August 10, 1854 that Baker had been approached by a man who identified himself as the Prince of Monaco.  "Mr. Baker of Boston, who is now in this city with the sewing machines of Grover, Baker & Co., declares that a man answering the description of the Prince's factorum, called upon him and offered to trade rights in land in the principality of Monaco for a sewing-machine!  The Prince, failing to annex his pen-patch kingdom to the United States, offered to trade his presumptive rights there-in for a Yankee sewing-machine."

Although the attempted ruse seems incredible today; the innovative sewing machines were indeed drawing the attention of European royalty.  Prince Napoleon Bonaparte had purchased one from North and Avery, for constructing military uniforms; while his sister, Princess Matilda, bought a Grover & Baker model.  The Tribune said "a little war is said to have taken place in the Court, all about the respective merits of the Yankee sewing machines.  The Empress stood umpire to the contending parties."

By 1857 Grover & Baker had opened a showroom at No. 495 Broadway.  Their machines were not only functional, but decorative.  The cast iron bases were ornamental and the cabinetry was finely crafted.  The New-York Daily Tribune noted on January 9, 1857 "Grover, Baker & Co. employ, to a considerable extent, the cabinetwork cases by Ross & Marshall, of this city, which makes the machine an ornament and by no means the least really valuable ornament of the sitting-room."

Newspaper advertisements for Grover & Baker's "Noiseless family sewing machines" began noting in September 1859 that they could be seen "temporarily at 501 Broadway."  The reason for the short-term abandonment of No. 495 Broadway was that the firm was updating its building.  George H. Johnson, architectural designer for Daniel Badger's Architectural Iron Works, fashioned a remarkable Gothic Revival facade for the formerly unremarkable structure.

Illustrations of Iron Architecture, published by the Architectural Iron Works in 1865, reproduced the design.  (copyright expired)

Grover & Baker was in its refurbished home early in 1860.  The elaborate iron facade was dominated by a screen of Gothic tracery and thin twisted colonnettes within a three-story arch.   The firm's name was emblazoned on an entablature above a complex Gothic corbel table.  The cornice was crowned with intricate filigree cresting.

Cosmopolitan Art Journal admired the remodeled building, saying that the firm's success was so great "that the establishment of Grover & Baker has become one of the features of Broadway--for its magnitude and beauty.  The front of their composed wholly of cast iron, arch, fret work, cornice, window frames and all, showing how beautifully this metal is adapted to building and ornamental purposes."

The material allowed for previously impossible expanses of glass.  The two ground floor windows were 14 feet high and five feet wide; each a single pane of plate glass.  The second floor, where the Ladies' Parlor was located, held windows 10 feet tall.  Cosmopolitan Art Journal wrote "Entering the place the observer is at once in a large and elegant sales room, twenty-five feet wide by two hundred feet long.  The sales room which is elegantly furnished, is lighted by seven chandeliers, of six burners each."

Along the right side were counters and cabinets for the sale of needles, thread, and other sewing supplies.  The opposite side of the selling floor displayed the sewing machines.

Ornate cabinets held sewing supplies in the elegant ground floor showroom (left).  Upstairs, buyers learned how to operate their new purchases.  Cosmopolitan Art Journal 1860 (copyright expired)

Upstairs, buyers were instructed on using their new machines in the Ladies' Parlor.  "Skillful and obliging lady operators are in attendance, to render necessary assistance, and an hour or two generally suffices to initiate the most inexperienced into the mysteries of the whole thing."

Testimonials reprinted by Grover & Baker seem, at times, a bit exaggerated.  In November 1860 the New York Christian Advocate and Journal said "We know one lady whose appreciation of this machine, after a trial of years, is such that she would part with almost every other article of household furniture before she would allow it to be taken."

The use of the sewing machines was put towards the war effort after rebellion erupted in the South.  On November 13, 1862 The New York Times advised "The Ladies Relief Association, at the Rooms of Grover & Baker, No. 495 Broadway, ask contributions in money, or material to be made into clothing for the soldiers.  Donations of yarn will be very acceptable."

Grover & Baker continued to improve their product.  They developed the first portable sewing machine and in 1863 were awarded their tenth patent.  The Home Journal remarked on April 13 that year "we...[have] recently seen some ladies' cloaks elaborately embroidered with this Sewing machine.  The work seemed to excel anything executed by hand labor.  Beside being more rapidly and cheaply executed, the work has a more regular and consequently a much more beautiful appearance."

Less expensive and more portable machines, like this one, were less ornamented.  Harper's Weekly, April 11, 1863 (copyright expired)

Things were going extremely well for the firm.  In 1865 Grover & Baker was producing 1,000 machines per week.  Domestic models, called "Family Sewing Machines," ranged in price from $45 to $100; about $1,500 for the most expensive model in today's dollars.

The company received a financial jolt in 1867 when fire broke out in the cellar packing room at around 6:00 on the evening of February 22.  Although firemen responded quickly and "by their energetic labors, succeeded in subduing the flames before they had reached the upper floors," as reported by The New York Times, there was $25,000 in lost stock, only $15,000 of which was insured.

George H. Johnson's elaborate Gothic facade was falling from favor at around the same time.  In July 1869 John Buckingham spoke on "Iron Construction" before a meeting of the New York Draughtsmen's Association.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that he "made some very sarcastic remarks on the building on Broadway occupied by Grover and Baker, that it was 'just a big iron window stuck in front, without a particle of design about it.'"

An undated stereopticon slide captured the unique building.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

But Grover & Baker had other problems to concentrate on.  Despite their constant improvements, by 1870 their technology was outdated and their patent protections were expiring.  The Financial Panic of 1873 decimated sales and forced them to leave No. 495 Broadway.   Two years later the company was taken over by the Domestic Sewing Machine Co. and production of the Grover & Baker machines was halted.

No. 495 Broadway was taken over by woolen cloth merchants Edson Bradley & Co.  The firm was run by Edson Bradley; his son, William G. Bradley; son-in-law Hugo Hoffman; and a Mr. Church.  Unfortunately, the Financial Panic dealt a disastrous blow to their company as well.

Edson Bradley, described as "being fifty years of age, five feet ten inches in height, and weighs 220 pounds" with "grey hair and florid complexion," lived in Westchester County.  On Sunday afternoon, December 21 he left in a horse and buggy, saying he was going to take a drive.  But he never returned home.

After friends and family supposedly did an exhaustive two-day search, the police were notified.  The New York Times said that relatives "also state that Mr. Bradley has a large amount of money in his possession when he left his home, and it is supposed that he has been foully dealt with."

What the family did not know was the creditors of Edson Bradley & Co. had been having him followed by private detectives.  Bankruptcy proceedings had been discontinued when he promised that "given time he would be able to collect most of the firm's notes, and settle on a basis of seventy cents on the dollar."

When Bradley went for his "drive" that Sunday, he ended up in Brooklyn at the home of his son-in-law, where the partners of the firm, except for Church, plotted.  Detectives followed Bradley and his son to the Fifth Avenue Hotel.  On Christmas Day The New York Times reported "The elder Bradley escaped out of the ladies' entrance, and started for the Grand Central Depot."  A detective followed him to Buffalo, where he stopped to telegraph his son, and then to the Clifton House hotel in Canada.  He had with him $70,000 in gold.

On December 27 The Times updated its readers, denouncing the family's suggestions of "'aberration of mind,' 'mysterious disappearance,' and other charming theories with which the neighborhood and anxious creditors were entertained."

Hugo Hoffman confessed everything to police.  When he returned to his Brooklyn home, guarded by a detective, The Times said "Here his wife and Mrs. Bradley proceeded to upbraid him in anything but gentle tones for what they termed his falseheartedness and treachery to the other members of the family."  All three men were arrested and charged with a number of offenses.

No. 495 Broadway saw a rapid turnover of owners from 1887 through 1890.  Butler Brothers occupied the building by 1894.  Founded in the 1870s by brothers Edward, George and Charles Butler, the importing firm opened its New York location in 1880. 

Like Grover & Baker, Butler Brothers would have to temporarily move out of No. 495 when its landlord, Jeremiah C. Lyons commissioned architects Buchman & Deisler to replace the old building with a modern commercial structure.

photograph by the author

Completed in 1898 the New Era Building, an Art Nouveau tour de force, survives.  And despite its masterful design, one cannot help but wish the extraordinary Grover & Baker building were still around.

1 comment:

  1. There is a very attractive and detailed lithograph of the G&B interiors and exteriors at the Library of Congress website.