Wednesday, December 20, 2017

McKim, Mead & White's 1893 Cable Building - Broadway and Houston Street

photograph by Beyond My Ken
The rapid-fire development in the decades following the Civil War opened new neighborhoods to the east and west of Central Park.   The various street car companies rushed to add tracks and expand their services.  But with extended routes and more cars there came a problem.   The horses were often overworked and stifling summer heat took its toll.  One passenger wrote that the trip from Manhattan to Harlem could take an hour and twenty minutes providing that “no horse balked or fell dead across the tracks.”

The Chicago City Railroad Company found a solution to the problem when it opened its cable traction system in January 1882.   New York City firms took notice, among them the Broadway Cable Railroad Co., which joined other street railroad companies in converting from horse to cable power.

It was no small process, and in addition to the laying of miles of cable was the erection of facilities to power the system and pull the streetcars.   John D. Crimmins, a director in the Broadway Cable Railroad, Co. remarked on the grueling process during an on October 21, 1892.  He was interviewed by George Alfred Townsend "about the cable railroad system which he has been so largely instrumental in constructing on Broadway," as reported in the Record & Guide.  

"When will the Broadway Cable railroad be opened?" he was asked.

"I think not before December next.  It is the hardest job of the kind that has been done in this country."

The laying of the cable was especially difficult at corners and turns.  The "shive pit" at the corner of Houston Street and Broadway alone was 20-feet deep.  It was at this intersection that the company's massive headquarters building, sitting atop its powerhouse, was already rising.

The neighborhood had been among Manhattan's most exclusive residential districts in the 1830s.  No. 621 Broadway, for instance, had long been the home of Gerard Stuyvesant, son of Nicholas Stuyvesant and nephew of Peter Gerard Stuyvesant.  He fought commercial encroachment until his death in 1859.

But now Broadway was lined not with two- and three-story brick houses, but modern lofts and stores.  The Broadway Cable Railroad Co. had commissioned McKim, Mead & White to design its new structure, which would be given the obvious name The Cable Building.   The plot engulfed much of the block with 127.6 feet fronting Broadway, 200 feet along Houston Street, and another 128.8 feet on Mercer Street.   It would take nearly three years to complete construction.

The architects faced the challenge of housing mammoth equipment below ground--the four wheels pulling the steel cables were 32-feet in diameter--without disturbing the commercial and business tenants above.  The New York Times explained the solution:  "The foundations are entirely distinct and separate from those of the power room, containing the engines and machinery of the cable railway. As a consequent, not the slightest tremor or vibration can be felt in any part of the building."

Completed in September 1893, the Cable Building rose eight floors above street level.  A two-story limestone base supported beige brick embellished with Beaux Arts terra cotta decorations.  The tripartite design featured regimented arches at each of the three levels.  A chamfered corner at Broadway and Houston Street provided additional sunlight to the upper floors and allowed for an extra shop window at sidewalk level.

The arched motif ended, for some reason, abruptly above the Broadway entrance portico. The architects made certain to include Broadway Cable Railroad Co. cablecars in their rendering.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, November 12, 1892 (copyright expired)
On December 19, 1893 The New York Times wrote "The massive appearance of the structure is relieved by the graceful sweep of its broad arches, the tasteful ornamentation of caps and bases of piers, the mullions, the pillared entrance, and the magnificent cornice, which gives a sightly sky line."

The "pillared entrance" pointed out by the article was enhanced by 11-foot high bas reliefs of two classically-clad women on either side of a round opening containing a clock.  They were executed by sculptor J. Massey Rhind.

The striking entrance was featured in The American Architect and Building News on June 16, 1894 (copyright expired)
The offices and factories within the building received natural light not only from the exposed three sides; but from a 3,000 square foot interior light court.   Tenants could get from one side of the building to another by using the "glass-enclosed galleries" on each floor that straddled the light court.  
There were two passenger elevators and two freight elevators.  The freight entrance was on Mercer Street and the architects prevented the possibility of trucks jamming the street by included a "delivery room."   "Here trucks can drive in and load and unload under cover on a platform alongside the elevators," explained The Times.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide called the structure "magnificent" and said "its architecture expresses distinctly the highest achievement of the art in this country at this time."  

The Broadway Cable Railroad Co., which became the Metropolitan Traction Co. a year later, took up most of the eighth floor, along with its related companies.  The entire ground floor retail space was taken by William Vogel & Son.    Until now the firm had limited itself to manufacturing men's and boys' clothing for other retailers in its factory at No. 10 White Street .  Now it opened its own massive retail store.

The Evening World, September 20, 1893 (copyright expired)
On September 17, 1893 The New York Times remarked on the imposing new emporium.  “If the spacious ceiling were of a blue tint, its 1,200 electric lights would make it look like a couple of acres of the firmament dragged down and anchored in Broadway for the special benefit of William Vogel & Son’s imposing enterprise.”  
On April 17, 1895 The Evening World (no doubt prompted by a monetary inducement) offered a glowing review.  "Every man who wears substantial, stylish clothes and furnishing goods should visit the great store of William Vogel & Son, 611 to 621 Broadway...This firm manufactures its stock, and every garment is tested and sold at reasonable prices."

The article pointed out the sporting apparel.  "Wheelmen may find bicycle suits here in many styles, including the League pattern, and breeches in the bloomer and golf patterns, made of twills, chevlots and fancy tweeds.  Such 50-cent pretty neckwear is seldom seen in a Broadway house for the same money."

The upper floors filled with a wide variety of tenants, including architect Louis Korn; the building materials dealers Livingston & Nesbit; J. L. Walker & Co., makers of neckwear; the Pacific Rubber Company; real estate operators Lalor & Beringer; Knickerbocker Silver Company; the Royal American Enamel Company; and D. M. Schoenfeld, jewelry, among many others.

Less than three years after its opening, a fire broke out on the third floor of the Cable Building at about 6:00 on the evening of April 22, 1896.  The building was still heavily occupied.  Despite its fireproof design, The New York Time reported "It burned rapidly, and soon spread through three offices.
In the panic that ensued, there was a shocking absence of manly gallantry.  "There was a general rush for the elevators by those still in the building," reported the newspaper, "and it was reported that the men in their anxiety to reach the street crowded out the women, who took to the freight elevators."

While businessmen rushed to safety, the wife of the janitor, Mrs. Charles Kammerer, took control of a freight elevator.  She "did not hesitate to return to the floors above after carrying down the first lot of passengers."

The building suffered $5,000 damage (about $147,000 today); while the total loss to tenants, much of it from water damage, was about $20,000.

The Cable Building was the scene of tragedy on January 16, 1897.   Charles Rothchild had worked for the cloak manufacturer Benjamin & Caspary until 1896 when he struck out on his own.  His timing was bad, however.   The country was still suffering the effects of the Financial Panic of 1893 and, according to The New York Times on January 17, 1897, "The season...was disastrous, and, after spending most of his savings, Rothchild gave up the business three weeks ago."

When he left his Brooklyn home that morning he was despondent and his wife, fearing the worst, followed him to the Cable Building.

The Times reported "Just before 10:30 o'clock, Edward Lynch, an employe[e] of the Metropolitan Traction Company, was looking into the lightshaft from the east side, when he saw Rothchild at the western window.  The man cast aside his black derby and then looked down the shaft."  Lynch next noticed him on one of the shaft bridges.  "Rothschild raised the window, and, without looking out, jumped through the opening.  Lynch cried out.  Many persons who have offices abutting the shaft were attracted by the yells of Lynch, and saw Rothchild falling."

Among those who heard the screams was Mrs. Rothchild.  Running to the hallway she exclaimed "It is my husband!" and tried to reach a window.  She was held back by several tenants, one of which tried to convince her it was a "Mr. Smith," not her husband.  She broke away and saw her dead husband on the pavement below.

"She became violently hysterical, and finally started to climb out of the window to kill herself," said The Times.  She was subdued by tenants and taken to St. Vincent's Hospital.

In November that year a one-room office was leased to Charles G. Willoughby.  While growing up on a farm he had become fascinated with cameras.   Now he tried his hand at selling cameras and related products.  While he did well from the start, he became among the first to offer roll film, which was replacing the difficult glass plates.  It turned Willoughby's adequately-successful business into a booming enterprise.  It quickly outgrew the one-room operation in the Cable Building and by mid-century was among the largest camera dealers in America.

Just eight years after the building was completed, the cable car system for which it was erected was obsolete.  On May 25, 1901 the last of Metropolitan Railway Company's cables was taken up.   The Times reported "Nearly a thousand of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company's men last night removed the cable from Broadway to prepare for the installation of electricity on that thoroughfare."

Old street car men watched the process with nostalgia.  "When the end was passing by them over the wheels fully twenty of them clustered about that spot touched, each in turn, the departing steel rope, with the audible: 'Good-bye, cable.'"

The Art Metal Works was producing decorative home items here in 1906  Notions and Fancy Goods, January 1907 (copyright expired)
The building continued to be home to a variety of firms.  Among the tenants in 1906 were A. F. O'Connor, "atomizers and toilet novelties;" paper dealers White & Wickhoff Mfg. Co.; and the the Kelsey-Herbert Company, makers of "toilet mirrors and French stag ware."

Notions and Fancy Goods, July 1907 (copyright expired)
Little by little more millinery firms moved into the Cable Building, including the Florence Hat Company, headed by Jonas F. Durlacher.   He and his wife were delighted when his daughter, Adah, caught the eye of a double-titled French nobleman, the Marquis de Fauconcourt and Count d'Ollone.  The Times reported that he explained to Adah "he had inherited the titles of Marquis and Count, an that he had much wealth."

The couple was on their honeymoon in Atlantic City on November 3, 1909 when a telegram arrived at The New York Times Paris office.  A suspicious reporter had been digging into the Count's story.  The cable came from the Vicomte d'Ollone who said flatly that the bridegroom was an imposter.

With a copy of the message in hand, a reporter rushed to the Durlacher house in Brooklyn.  Jonas Durlacher was offended, saying "I don't believe a word of it" and insisted that his new son-in-law had produced passports to prove his pedigree.  "When he asked me for permission to marry my daughter a few weeks ago I told him that I would not consent to it unless he proved beyond doubt that he was all that he represented himself to be.  You see, I did not propose to have any bogus titles going into my family."

Durlacher marched to the telephone and demanded that the couple return to Brooklyn.   When they arrived the following day the Count responded "Preposterous!" to the accusations.

But later, in private, Henry Marie Gustave d'Ollone was forced to admit he had made up the story.  Although shocked and humiliated, Adah told reporters "that she still dearly loved her husband, and would not think of giving him up.  She had married him for love, she said, and not for titles or money."

The revelation caused problems for her father, however.   On October 20 Durlacher had been arrested on larceny charges.  Walter Schmidt of the Weideler Feather Company accused him of getting money "under false pretenses."  The Times reported "Mr. Durlacher publicly stated in police court that if Mr. Schmidt would not press the charge he would soon have plenty of money to pay, as his daughter was about to marry a wealthy French nobleman."

The day after d'Ollone's confession Durlacher was back in jail, held on $1,000 bail.

In 1926 Joseph Ruff ran his merchandising export business, Joseph Ruff & Co. from the Cable Building.  He was married to the daughter of the well-known merchant Jacob Rosenthal.  When Ruff went to Mexico City on August 23 that year, his father-in-law came along.

Rose Ruff received a frightening telegram on September 13 from her husband that read "Pappa kidnapped.  No danger.  Expect release today."  
On Sunday, September 12 Rosenthal, Ruff, and two friends, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Zahler, were in an automobile, traveling from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, when it was overtaken by bandits.  Everyone but Rosenthall was released.  Ruff waited nervously in his hotel room for three days before a letter arrived, demanding that 20,000 pesos be delivered by horseback to a spot on the road near where Rosenthal had been kidnapped.

Ruff told officials at the American Embassy and the local police, and asked permission to delivery the ransom.  But the Mexican authorities refused and sent two under-cover soldiers in hopes of capturing the gang.  It was a fatal move.

On September 15 the bandits recognized the approaching men as troops.  Not wanting to be captured with their hostage, they brutally murdered the elderly American with machetes.
A year later, almost to the day, Joseph Ruff died in his Woodmere, Long Island home.  The Times noted "Mr. Ruff was much shaken by the experience [of Rosenthal's murder], but his family said last night that his death was due to other causes."

In 1929 17-year old Helen Protovin initiated a surprisingly early example of sexual harassment charges against Henry Kahn.  The 41-year old was a resident buyer with offices in the Cable Building.  She went to his office in February answering a want-ad for a stenographer.  She was hired on the spot; but the next day "he made improper advances to her."  The teen rushed out and went to the police.  Kahn was arrested for disorderly conduct.

Although by now the greatest percentage of tenants were in the millinery business, there were at least two publishers here.  Fairchild Publishing had moved in around the turn of the century.  The publisher of journals related to the apparel, textile and home furnishings industries, its Women's Wear Daily, Daily News Record and The Retailing Daily became essential within the industries, and remain so into the 21st century.

The International Confectioner, founded by T. F. Harvey, was a trade journal for the candy and baking industries.  It remained in the Cable Building for decades, until Harvey's son, George U. Harvey, was forced to sell in June 1931.

By the Depression years the building had sprouted fire escapes.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Things were hard for the owners of the Cable Building, as well, at the time.  On January 12, 1930 The New York Times had reported "The eight-story commercial structure known as the Cable Building...will be sold at foreclosure proceedings on Jan. 30."

In the 1930s the United States saw a rise in Socialist and Communist organizations; one which sparked a backlash by conservative citizens.  On September 1937 a newly formed group, the Knights of Progress, opened its headquarters in the Cable Building,

Lewis B. Smith, the head of the group, said it was "dedicated to Americanism" and intended to combat "any subversive activities, schemes or plans aimed at the sanctity and security of these United States of America."   Among those targeted was President Franklin D. Roosevelt.   In reporting on the opening of the headquarters on September 14, 1937, The New York Times wrote "Assailing the Communists in particular, Mr. Smith asserted that his organization would "definitely show a direct tie-up between the Communist party and the present New Deal Administration."

The change in the Noho neighborhood in the last half of the 20th century was perhaps best exemplified when the cavernous former machine rooms below ground were converted to the Angelika Film Center in 1989.   Indicative of the trendy new neighborhood, the theater continues to screen independent and foreign films.

The ambitious 1893 copper cornice, somewhat surprisingly, survives.  photograph by the author
The McKim, Mead & White structure survives nearly intact--an imposing presence on the Broadway and Houston Street corner after 125 years.

many thanks to reader Peter Alsen for suggesting this post.

1 comment: