Thursday, January 5, 2017

The 1868 Appleton & Co. Bldg -- Nos. 90-94 Grand Street

Daniel Appleton opened his bookstore on Exchange Place near the Bowery in 1825.   Selling mostly imported books, his business grew at a dizzying pace.  He soon outgrew the shop, moving to Clinton Hall at Beekman Street in what would be the first of many moves.
Shortly after taking son William into the business in 1838 Appleton moved to No. 200 Broadway.  A decade later he retired and William partnered with his brother, John Adams Appleton.  The firm moved once again, this time to Broadway and Leonard Street; and then to Nos. 443 and 445 Broadway.
By the end of the Civil War D. Appleton & Company was more than a bookstore.  It was one of the most successful publishers in the nation, producing school books, religious tracts, encyclopedias, and a wealth of other texts; along with stereopticon slides, pamphlets and cabinet photographs.   Simultaneously the neighborhood around Greene and Grand Streets was rapidly transforming to one of commercial buildings.
Ann Howard had inherited a large amount of property in the area and in 1867 she commissioned architect Griffith Thomas to design a store and factory building at Nos. 90 through 94 Grand Street, on the northeast corner of Greene Street, as the new home of D. Appleton & Company.   Thomas was already a well-known architect, having produced many beautiful structures.  But he was not without his critics.  Even in writing his obituary 22 years later--normally reserved for remembering only successes--The American Architect and Building News was surprisingly critical.
While the article admitted "he has done more to build up this city in the past forty years than any two men in the same line of effort," it flatly added "Much may be said in his favor, very much indeed, but on the other hand it is not to be denied that much of his work was commonplace."
The writer could have been speaking specifically of the Appleton & Company building.  While it conceded that Thomas carried out "magnificent architectural ideas;" the completed Grand Street building was typical of his work.  While a handsome and refined structure, five stories high and faced in stone, it was not out of the ordinary for commercial structures.  The design included an attractive cast iron base for the retail store; and while essentially Italianate in style--including the triangular pediment above the bracketed cornice--it revealed splashes of the newly-emerging French influence such as the segmental-arched openings of the upper floors.
An 1868 advertisement depicted the new headquarters (copyright expired)
D. Appleton & Company was in its new home in 1868.  Among its new publications that year was the three-volume History of the World.  The set was available in a choice of three bindings--cloth, "library leather," and "Half Morocco."  The least expensive retailed for $3.50, and the Half Morocco sold for $5.00--about $86 today.
Along with its many text books on languages, novels, and the American Annual Cyclopaedia (marketed as a "register of important events for the year") published that year, Appleton printed large publications like The History of the Navy During the Rebellion, a two-volume work which included full-page engravings "in chromo tints," woodcuts, and steel engravings.  An advertisement promised "No purely fancy sketches find a place in the work, but all the engravings represent actual scenes and objects of interest." 
An interesting publication released in 1868 was the Dictionary of the Bible by Dr. Wm. Smith.  The 3,200 page work was intended, in part, "to guard against all influences hostile to Christian faith and love."  Appleton published it in semi-monthly installments of 48 pages, available for 30 cents each.
With the Civil War fresh in the minds of every American, D. Appleton & Company looked for traveling salesmen to peddle The Great Campaign Book to retailers.  On September 5, 1868 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald.  "Agents wanted to sell the best Democratic Campaign Book in the field.  It is recommended by Mr. Pendelton, General Hancock, Governor English and others.  A great chance for active agents.  No better book in the market."
The broad variety of books printed and sold in the Grand Street building was evidenced in a list entitled, "Books Recently Published by D. Appleton and Company," in back the 1869 History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne.  Among the titles were Meteors, Aerolites, Storms, and Atmospheric Phenonena; Electricity in its Relations to Practical Medicine; New York Illustrated, containing Illustrations of Public Buildings, Street Scenes and Suburban Views; and Five Weeks in a Balloon, or, Journeys and Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmen.
D. Appleton & Company's extraordinary success led to its establishing a separate printing and bindery factory in Brooklyn around this time.   The Grand Street store had around 100 full-time employees and the firm was printing several million volumes each year.  And so, keeping with its tradition, only three years after moving into the Grand Street building, D. Appleton & Company moved out; relocating to Nos. 549-551 Broadway between Prince and Spring Streets.  On March 8, 1871 The New York Times noted "We believe this is the eighth removal by this eminent publish-house since it was founded, nearly half a century ago, by Mr. Daniel Appleton."
The Appleton Building became home to the dry goods and importing firm A. Rusch & Co., which had been in business since 1830.   The wealth of principal Adolph Rusch was obvious when he prepared for a two-year trip to Europe in May 1874.   Seeking to lease his summer estate on the Hudson River palisades in his family's absence, he described it in an advertisement in The Sun.  "A beautiful Residence, with all modern improvements, 18 rooms, furnished, commanding views of the Hudson, New York and Long Island; large grounds, with abundance of all kinds of fruit."
When Henry Albegg was taken into partnership, the firm was renamed Albegg & Rusch.  In 1890 a new salesman was hired to sell woolen dress goods on commission.  Before long he employed his son, Edwin K. Ross, to assist him.  As seems to be the case with many young men in the 1890s, the young man was lured by horse racing and fast living.
In September 1892 Henry Albegg returned from Europe and looked over the books.  He discovered that some expensive woolens had been delivered to Joseph Rothschilds on Church Street, but there were no entries for the transactions.  When Rothschilds was taken to Police Court, he insisted that he had paid for the goods--giving Edwin Ross $196.05 for $700 worth of stock.  In fact, according to Abegg, the total value of the missing stock "may be $9,000" (a considerable $245,000 today).
Ross was trapped and wrote a letter to his employers "admitting the thefts," according to Albegg, "and stating that he had squandered the money at the races and in other ways."  But Joseph Rothschilds was not off the hook, either.  The New York Times reported on September 27, "Justice Grady remarked that no honest man would have purchased the goods at such a sacrifice, and held Rothschilds for receiving stolen goods."
The scandal shamed the Ross family.  The Times noted "Since the arrest of Edwin K. Ross, his father has not put in an appearance at the store nor made any comments on his son's behavior."
Henry Aubert subleased an office from Albegg & Rusch in 1897.  The 58-year old ran the Jersey City Manufacturing Company, making "plain and embroidered flannel underwear for women, children, and infants."  He employed a number of girls in his New Jersey shop and used the Grand Street office for transacting business.
 While Aubert and his wife Mina lived well, employing two servants in their two-story house (described by The Sun as "handsomely furnished"), business was exceptionally bad that year.   At around 9:00 on Sunday night of August 2, 1897 Mina said goodnight to a maid, Louisa Koch, then remarked "You need not mind calling us in the morning."
Around 1:00 in the morning Louisa saw Aubert going downstairs to the kitchen in his nightclothes.  She thought nothing about it until she went down to prepare breakfast around 7:00.  A letter was propped against the milk pitcher "addressed to George Raven, 458 Central avenue, with instructions on the envelope to have it delivered immediately," according to The Sun.
Louisa hurried to Raven's home.  When he read the letter he asked if she had seen the couple that morning.  "I'm afraid something has happened," he said.  The letter, written in German, read:
Dear Friend Raven:  Please do me the favor to call at once at 45 Lindon street and take charge of my house and business.  Inclosed key is for the office.  The middle drawer of my desk is open and you will find all keys, including a letter.
Raven and Louisa rushed back to the house and knocked on the bedroom door repeatedly.  Finally Raven called for police who broke open the door.  Henry and Mina were lying on adjoining beds.  "Mrs. Aubert was on her back, her arms folded over her breast and her lips parted in a smile.  Aubert was on his side, with his face turned toward his wife," said The Sun.
The couple had opened the gas jets, causing their deaths.   Police theorized that Aubert's business troubles had driven him to suicide.  "It is supposed also that he confided his intention to his wife and that she decided to die with him."
Following Henry Abegg's death in 1904, Adolph Rusch and his brother Henry, renamed the firm  Rusch & Co. 
In 1909 Ann Howard died.  The elderly woman had been well known for her generous charitable contributions.  The New York Times remarked on March 21, "A promise made in her girlhood, to give a part of her income each month to the needy of her neighborhood and to maintain intact the holdings willed to her, was strictly kept."   Her Soho properties, including the former Appleton Building, had continued to appreciate.  "Shortly after her was found that, while her benefactions had been very large, her realty had increased in value to a considerable extent."
The Howard properties were sold at auction in March 1909.   In 1911 Rusch & Co. moved out and the building sat vacant until 1914 when its new owner, Charles Lane, leased it to leather goods manufacturers Weingarten & Gerberer.  The company made traveling bags, brief cases and other luggage-related products.
Luggage and Leather Goods, 1920 (copyright expired)
The Great Depression dealt a blow to the firm as customers cut back on luxury items.  Although Weingarten & Gerberer had three years left on its lease in 1931, Charles Lane released them from their obligations in April that year.  The new tenant, May Penn Stuffed Toy, Inc., did not fare any better.  Before the year was up it declared bankruptcy.

Despite the abuse and neglect many of the Soho structures during the 20th century, the Appleton Building survived mostly unscathed.  A facade restoration around 1998 brought the handsome 1868 structure--including the cast iron retail space--back to its former elegance.
photographs by the author

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