Saturday, December 9, 2017

James Swan's 1854 "Steam Factory" - 159-161 Mercer Street

The aggressive lintels, cast iron storefront and ambitious cornice were added following a devastating fire in 1874.

James Swan was a pioneer in the commercializing the Mercer Street block between West Houston and Prince Streets.  In 1854 he erected a factory building on the site of the two houses at Nos. 131 and 133; the same year that construction was completed on the new Firemen's Hall next door at Nos, 127-129.

Simultaneously the firm of McNab, Carr & Co. was formed.  The fledgling brassworks that moved into Swan's building would eventually become a substantial manufacturer of "all kinds of brass cocks, plumbers' brass work, globe valves, gauge cocks, steam whistles and water gauges also wrought iron pipe and fittings and plumbers' and gas fitters's tool," according to Illustrated New York in 1888.

McNab, Carr & Co. advertised in Debow's Review in 1857.  (copyright expired)
McNab, Carr & Co. was fully operating in the building in 1855 and the following year was advertising for additional help.  An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune sought "A good brass cock maker."  The high quality of the firm's products was reflected in its submissions to the 1857 exhibition of the American Institute.  McNab, Carr & Co., received awards for the "second best gauge cocks," the "best stop valves," and "the best panel of brass ware."

McNab, Carr & Co. shared the building with two other tenants.  The machine shop of M. Baragwanath was not so successful, however.  On October 4, 1857 an auction was held in the building of "a large quantity of machinery, tools, &c."  The equipment from the failed business, consisting in part of cutting engines, fly wheels, belting, and drills was deemed by the auctioneer "worthy of the attention" of machinists.

Also in the building was the surgical and dental instrument factory of H. Hernstein, and the "steam-fitting and plumbing factory" of E. V. Haughwout & Co.  The three plants were able to operate because of a steam plant to the rear of the building which was highly-touted.

An 1858 advertisement in the American Medical Gazette and Journal of Health placed by H. Hernstein boasted that his "extensive stock of Surgical, Dental and other constantly being replenished and added to from his Steam Factory, Nos. 131 and 133 Mercer Street."

Working in one of the factories that same year was William Booker, a knife grinder.  On the morning of November 4, 1859 he stopped in Meschutt's coffee saloon--apparently the pre-Civil War version of a Starbucks--only to be involved in what The New York Herald called "a desperate affray."

Booker had no sooner entered the place when George F. Finnegan and George W. Hill "began jeering him."  The pair was described by the newspaper as "reputed gamblers."  The New-York Daily Tribune added more information on Finnegan, calling him a "professional gambler" who had recently "committed a rape upon a ballet dancer."

According to Booker, before he knew what was happening, Finnegan "proceeded to blows, threw him upon the floor, pounded him with his fists, and also with a pistol."  While Booker lay on the floor, Finnegan shot his gun, the bullet lodging into the floor by Booker's head.

Hearing "the row" a passing police officer rushed into the saloon and arrested the two attackers.   News of their arrest quickly spread reached the gamblers' cronies.  The Herald reported "There was quite a representation of the fancy and gambling fraternity in court to hear the result of the examination."

William Booker was understandably late for work.

In 1859 McNab, Carr & Co. moved out when it opened its expansive factory in New Jersey.   By now E. V. Haughwout & Co. had either purchased the building or had leased it.  On November 13 that year it advertised available space in the building, noting as always, "with steam power."

A new tenant in the spring of 1860 was F. Ashley, whose factory produced his patented "screw egg beaters and churns."  By 1862 Krantz & Schnmidt, makers of "instruments," and George H. Pages gas fixtures foundry were here; and by March 1865 Howe & Bouvier, scale makers had moved in.

The Financial Panic of 1869--sparked when Jay Gould and James Fisk attempted to corner the gold market--may have been the reason that "several shops" were available in the building in April 1870.  As had been the case for nearly two decades, the advertisement touted "with steam power."

One worker in the building that year was German immigrant Jacob Schaffer.  On the same block, at No. 141 Mercer Street, was a boarding house run by Barbara Ordner.  He apparently offended the feisty proprietor on August 13, for she was taken to the Jefferson Market Courthouse "for breaking a lager beer glass over the head of Jacob Schaffer...and injuring him severely."

Nos. 131-133 Mercer Street was owned and managed by Strouse Brothers by now.  On October 20, 1870 Seligman Strouse was cited for an "unsafe rear wall."  Three years later Strouse Brothers received citations for not having fire escapes.

In the meantime the empty factory spaces had filled.  In 1871 Otto Loehr's photographic apparatus and camera box business was in the building.  Around the same time the woodworking shop of Kern, Werle & Barth moved in.

Herman Barth worked for Kern, Werle & Barth in 1873.  The 19-year old was involved in a devastating accident on July 7.  The New York Herald reported that "while at work in the sawmill" he "had two fingers and the thumb of the left hand cut off."

The Fire Department's citation of no fire escapes in 1873 was of little consequence on September 23 the following year.  There was no one in the building at 1:45 in the morning when fire broke out.

Kern, Werle & Barth's saw mill had been taken over by Otto Schlee.  The second floor was occupied by picture frame and looking glass manufacturers Sigler Brothers, the third by Otto Loehr.  A rear building was occupied by Jacob Sauter's "French millinery box factory" and David Glein's wood turning business.

The fire started in the boiler room below Schlee's saw mill.  The New York Times remarked "Owing to the inflammable nature of the contents of the building the flames spread rapidly and soon enveloped the building in the rear, which was almost completely gutted."

The fact that Firemen's Hall was next door no doubt saved the building from complete destruction.  Strouse Brothers estimated the damage at $12,000, more than a quarter of a million by today's terms.

The 20-year old factory received a modern make-over as part of the repairs.  A new cast iron storefront by Ayers & McCandless Iron Works, was installed, which featured thin, paneled pilasters with Corinthian capitals.  The foundry was most likely responsible for the bold cast iron lintels and the ambitious new cornice, as well.

The new, modern cornice would have been equally at home atop a Broadway retail store.

 Undeterred, Otto Loehr was still in the building in 1881 when he received two awards from the American Institute--one honorable mention for his photographic dark tent, and another for his "stereoscopic camera box."

Sharp's Publishing Co. moved into the renovated building.  The firm produced periodicals like the 34-page monthly, the American Milliner and Dressmaker.  Fashion-minded ladies could subscribe for $1.50 a year.  Pettengill's Newspaper Directory described the magazine in 1878, saying in part "It is one of the neatest publications of this kind.  It is thorough in the execution of its illustrations, in its descriptions of styles, and in its literary department."

The presence of the fashion magazine was evidence of the arrival of garment and millinery manufacturers in the Mercer Street area.  By 1880 a major tenant in Nos. 131-133 was A Reves & Son, apparel makers.  The firm was doing well that year, advertising in June for "operators on gingham suits and ulsters; none but good hands;" and again in November for a "first-class operator on fine dolmans; high price paid; none but good hand need apply."  The latter advertisement hinted at the no-nonsense environment of the shop:  "Come ready to work."

Sharing the building that year was Bernstein & Co., "chenille makers," and Robert Cunningham, a dealer in feathers.  Feathers, along with ribbons and artificial flowers, were an important element in ladies' hats.

Cunningham was the focus of a possible insurance fraud investigation in 1883.  On the morning of Friday, June 8, according to his wife, "he put on his best clothes before leaving home for business."  After spending a few hours at his Mercer Street office, he headed home.  Around 11:30 a man jumped from the rear of the Hamilton Ferry boat which was headed to Brooklyn where Cunningham lived.

The Sun reported that one witness "saw him go overboard, and with several others saw the man struggle for a time in the swift current and finally go down."  A boat was dispatched, but only a man's hat was recovered.  In the lining was a piece of paper that read "Robert Cunningham.  148 Fourteenth street.  South Brooklyn."

There seemed to be no reason why Cunningham would have killed himself.  The Sun noted "His business was prosperous, he had a comfortable income, and his domestic relations were happy."  He did, however, have a $25,000 life insurance policy; motive enough in 1883.

The insurance company put private detective Robert Pinkerton on the case. While a sign on the door of Cunningham's Mercer Street business read "Closed on account of the death of Robert Cunningham," Pinkerton began to suspect that the feather merchant was far from dead.

He told reporters that, for one thing, there was only one eye witness.  And, as reported by The Sun, "His struggle in the water was so short and he sank so quickly that many who ran to look when the cry of 'Man overboard!' was raised did not see him."   And his son admitted that he "frequently heard his father speak in condemnation of suicide."

Pinkerton suspected the suicide was a hoax.  He suggested to the press that "a hat had been thrown overboard and that then a false cry of 'Man overboard!' had been raised."

But Cunningham had, indeed, died.  His body was carried by the currents and found later in the East River.  That did not end the legal drama, however.  The insurance companies argued with the family's attorneys as to whether it was suicide or accident.  And the Union Ferry Company was censured by a jury for its life saving procedures (it had taken over 20 minutes to launch a life boat).  In the end, the family received none of the insurance benefits.  Because it was proved that Cunningham had paid the premiums with company money, the funds went its creditors.

In the spring of 1886 Mercer Street was renumbered.  Nos. 131-133 received its new address of Nos. 159-161.

At the turn of the century the J. S. Plummer & Co., dealers in "importers of straw goods," was leasing the entire building from Stouse Brothers; while subleasing to other firms.  The company was headed by brothers Charles and Walter Burr.

The firm was founded in 1861 by Jerome S. Plummer.  A family operation, Charles entered the firm when he married Plummer's daughter, Carrie.  Walter followed suit by marrying Carrie's sister, Florence.  When Jerome Plummer died in 1895, the Burr brothers took over the business.

Walter (top) and Charles Burr were young, handsome and wealthy in 1902 when these photos were taken.  from New York the Metropolis, 1902, copyright expired.

In the summer of 1905 Charles's family, like all moneyed New Yorkers, had left the city.  And like most wealthy businessmen who remained to conduct buiness, he was staying at his club, the exclusive Union League Club.  The cost and bother of keeping a city house staffed and maintained for a single occupant made little sense.

Charles attended an outing of the Mystic Shriners at College Point in the middle of June.  The New York Times reported "He ate heartily of clams and fish."  The following day he fell ill.  The clams which Burr heartily ate were tainted and he died at the Union League Club the following Monday night.

Walter Burr continued on with the business, renewing the lease "for a long term" on the Mercer Street building the following year.

J. S. Plummer & Co. was gone by 1921 when Jacob Kaufman manufactured leather bags in the building.  It continued to house a variety of manufacturers past mid-century, while the Mercer Street block was experiencing a decided decline.  Nos. 159-161 Mercer Street was, like most of its neighbors, bedraggled and abused by the early 1960s when the first signs of renaissance appeared.

Abstract Expressionist painter and sculptor Gene Vass and his wife, apparel designer Joan, moved into the vacant top floor factory loft in the building at that time.  They, like other pioneering Soho artists, actors and intellectuals, were in fact violating building department laws.

It was here that Joan Vass held her first fashion shows.  They were not glamorous accommodations.  Buyers could reach the space only by a freight elevator. 

The upper floors would not be legalized until 1995 when they were deemed by the Department of Buildings as joint living and working quarters for artists.  Before then the Cast Iron Gallery had opened at street level.  The gallery not only showcased contemporary art, but provided events.  On November 23, 1991, for instance, it hosted a "Storybook Hour, with the Japanese children's book illustrator and author Shomei Yoh."  The gallery tempted participants by noting "Japanese rice cookies and Japanese yogurt will be served."

In 2006 the Cast Iron Gallery was replaced by the boutique, Nave.  That retailer was replaced in 2010 by Marni, still in the space today.

photographs by the author


  1. Trow's 1880-1881 directory (Vol 94) lists the following residents:

    Page 292: "Congdon George E. imp. 159 Mercer"

    Page 1242: "Plummer Jerome S. strawgds. 159 Mercer, h 1276 Pacific, Blklyn [...] Plummer J. S. & C0. strawgds, 159 Mercer"

    Page 1567: "Ullmann Joseph, fnrs, 159 Mercer, h 244 W. 51st"

    This seems to contradict: "In the spring of 1886 Mercer Street was renumbered. Nos. 131-133 received its new address of Nos. 159-161." In 1880 Henry Bernstein and Antonio Reves were at the presently-numbered 133 Mercer, not 159 Mercer a/k/a the formerly numbered 133 Mercer. Presumably Cunningham was also located at the presently numbered 131-133 Mercer.

  2. In Trow's volume 90 (1876-1877), in addition to Plummer, there was Alexander Henderson at 159 (straw goods, p. 602) and Edward O. Bird at 161 (hats, p. 109) and Daniel W. Meeker (hats, p. 931) and Henderson & Meeker & Bird at 161 (hats, p. 603) John W. Coedy at 159 (hats, p. 242). In 1878, Henderson's partner Edward Bird gave an affidavit in a lawsuit (that went up on appeal) called Knox v. Abbott. Knox was apparently suing to restrain Abbott and other creditors of Knox's father from taking Knox's property, claiming father and son ran separate and distinct businesses. Bird disagreed. The evidence included an invoice from Henderson & Bird dated Sept. 1877, with the address of 159-161 Mercer Street.

  3. The webmaster of the SoHo Memory Project Blog grew up and still lives at 159 Mercer Street.

  4. "periodicals like the 34-page monthly..." is impossible. Likely this was 36 pages, consisting of 32 interior and a 4-page cover. People often disregard the front or back covers when counting interior pages, or don't count blank pages. But they all exist.

    1. Interesting point. The magazine marketed itself as having 34 pages; so without time travel we may never know.