Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The 1860 Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly Bldg - 390 Broadway

Although the architect's name has been lost, the corbel table and cornice of No. 390 are remarkably similar to those of No. 388 to the left, designed by King & Kellum the same year

By the 1830s the residential nature of Broadway just below Canal Street was eroding.  James Stone and his son, Henry, ran their business from No. 390 Broadway, between White and Walker Streets, at least by 1837 and into the 1840s.   James listed himself as "plumber and engineer," but his advertisements better reveal his advanced skills.

Three separate ads in the Morning Herald on April 17, 1839 displayed the variety of items he devised and manufactured.  "Force pumps for deep wells," "Pumps, water closets and baths," and "garden engines & syringes."

The old building became the property of  Dr. Alexander McWhorter Bruen and his wife, Sarah Louisa, before 1859.  Sarah (who went by her middle name) was the daughter of Judge William Jay and granddaughter of Chief Justice John Jay.

That year they demolished it to be replaced by a modern commercial structure.   While the name of the architect has been lost, the original appearance of the building's Italianate design fell in line with the other buildings on the block, all constructed within a few years of one another.

Completed in 1860, four stories of stone sat above a cast iron storefront base. While other Italianate buildings featured tall arches, the architect inserted three sets of arched window frames into square headed openings at the second through fourth floors.  It was an ingenious and attractive way of preserving the arch motif while stepping away from the norm.

An 1864 print reveals the unusual window treatment of No. 390 (center) as compared to its neighbors.  print by Thomas Bonar from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The large dry goods establishment of Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly had operated from No. 388 Broadway.   Upon completion of No. 390 the firm merely moved next door.  The move came during trouble times, when tensions between the North and South were worsening.  Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly did a large trade in the South and the anti-slavery stance of its management caught the attention of the Atlanta newspaper, the Southern Confederacy.

On February 16, 1860 the newspaper's editor and owner, James Pinokney Hambleton, listed the firm on its Black List, saying in part "From the best and most reliable information, we present to the Southern people the names of wholesale mercantile firms of New-York, which are...enemies to our institutions.  We do this for the reason that we know no Southern merchant will expend the money that he has obtained from Southern slaveholders in building up and enriching a class of men who are stabbing at the vitals of this section."

Despite the boycott by some Southern clients, Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly continued to thrive.  On April 26, 1861, for instance, the California newspaper the Sacramento Daily Union reported that the firm had purchased at auction "the entire stock of the dry goods house of De Forest, Armstrong & Co.," which had failed.  "It was sold in one lump for $460,000 and paid for on the spot," said the article.  The massive bid, equaling about $12.9 million today, and outdid that of massive department store owner Alexander T. Stewart.

Exactly one week earlier the staff of Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly had been diminished by one when long-time employee George Tyler Burroughs was sworn into the Union Army.  The 28-year old, who had worked in the woolen department, marched off with the 71st Regiment, New York State Militia; but was almost immediately hospitalized with a case of dysentery.

According to the website, when he learned that his company was marching to the front, he "climbed out the window and caught up with his company--he was reprimanded but was allowed to remain."  Burroughs saw action in Manassas, Virginia in June, and at Sudley Springs and the Battle of Bull Run.

Only three months after he enlisted, he Burroughs was mustered out of service on July 31 and resumed his duties at Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly.  It would be a short-lived return.  On November 17 The New York Times reported that he had accepted the appointment of Quartermaster of the 43rd Regiment New-York Volunteers and on the previous afternoon he had been "presented with a beautiful sword, in testimony of the regard and esteem he is held in by his fellow clerks" at Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly.

Following the war No. 390 filled with dry goods and apparel-related firms, like furrier Leopold Haas who was here by 1869, and Isaac T. Myers, "importers of pearl buttons and fancy goods," at around the same time.

Myers lured potential customers by placing a glass showcase filled with examples of his "fancy goods" on the sidewalk in front of his store.  It was a tempting target for a gang of four teens on January 24, 1871.  According to The New York Times the following day, they smashed the glass "with evident intent to steal the fans, albums, pocket-books, and other articles, valued at $100, there exposed for show."

But Myers was quick to react.  "Scarcely had Mr. Myers made his appearance than the gang ran off."  All, that is, except for 19-year old Peter Maxwell who was nabbed by the angry proprietor.  The delinquent, who lived on Mulberry Street in the infamously impoverished and crime-ridden Five Points district, was arrested and held for trial.

While the gang did not make off with any goods that day, Myers was no as lucky on Saturday, August 28, 1875.   That afternoon a messenger was given a package to deliver just to Adriance, Robbins & Co., at No. 341 Broadway, only a little over two blocks to the south.  In it were "pearl buttons and combs valued at $75" (nearly $1,700 in today's dollars), according to the firm.

The following week The New York Times reported "While on his way there he met a stranger who claimed to be in the employ of [Adriance, Robbins & Co.], and the too confiding porter handed him the package.  Of course, nothing has since been seen of the stranger of the goods."

Interestingly, Adriance, Robbins & Co. soon moved to No. 390 Broadway.  Unfortunately it would not be a long-term stay.  In January 1878 the dry goods jobbers went under.  The auction of its entire stock later that month, including Irish linens, woolen goods and laces, was attended by "mostly peddlers and City retail merchants, doing business in a very small way," according to The Times.  The newspaper was shocked at the petty prices the goods brought, totaling $5,000.

Briggs, Entz & Co., described by Illustrated Boston in 1889 as "the famous English cloth manufacturers" (they were, in fact, importers), had been in the building at least since 1876.  It was headed by Benjamin L. Briggs, John F. Briggs and J. William Entz.  The firm's high-end fabrics were "standards with leading jobbers and high-class clothiers," according to the periodical.

The dry goods store of Cornell & Amerman was on the ground floor of the building in 1882 when enterprising thieves devised a clever plan.  The firm stored stock in the basement, the windows of which faced Cortlandt Alley to the rear.  Those windows were protected by heavy iron bars.  But the bars were spaced widely enough to allow bolts of fabric to pass through.

Somehow one crook managed to hide in the basement on September 4.  Under cover of night, his confederates broke two of the window panes and, using a "stout wire" hoisted bundles of cambric fabric out.   But in the middle of the heist a policeman entered the alley on his nightly rounds.  When he reached the rear of No. 390, he found one bolt of fabric on the pavement.  The Times reported "The thieves must have been surprised at their work by the approach of the policeman, and in their flight dropped one of the pieces in the street."  The inside man apparently escaped out the Broadway entrance.

Within months, after having been in business since 1849, Cornell & Amerman would dissolve.  Following George V. Amerman's death in 1883, Albert Cornell retired.

Dr. Alexander Bruen died in 1886 at the age of 78.  It seems that a question of ownership arose and in April 1888  Louisa was pressed to prove her rights to the title to No. 390.  Luckily she possessed a declaration dated April 22, 1867 which asserted that the "premises are the joint property of said Louisa J. and Alexander M. Bruen."

In February 1889 the Fire Department ordered the building temporarily vacated, saying "the premises 390 Broadway [are] not to be used for habitation or business" until fire escapes were installed.  Simon Bernstein, a principal with Caroline Adler and Morris Perlstein in the cloak and suit manufacturers, Bernstein, Adler & Co., was not impressed.

But, however, he discovered that the New York City Fire Department was a force to be reckoned with.  When investigators realized the firm was still operating within the building, Bernstein was arrested in August that year for contempt of court.

Somewhat ironically, seven months later the factory Bernstein, Adler & Co. suffered damage by fire--but it was in the building next door.  The fire broke out in No. 392 Broadway around 7:00 on the evening of March 4, 1890.  Like all the buildings in the neighborhood, it was filled with flammable materials.  As one newspaper put it the following day, "'Fire in the dry goods district' is an alarm that puts the Fire Department on its mettle."

Before long the entire building was engulfed.  According to The New York Times, "Its double walls prevented the fire from extending to the adjoining buildings," but nevertheless Bernstein, Adler & Co. "suffered severely by water."

At the time the game and toy manufacturer Selchow & Righter operated its wholesale store from the building.  Founded in 1867 as E. G. Shelchow & Co., its factory was in Bay Shore, Long Island.  Among the firm's best selling games was Parcheesi, which they had trademarked in 1874. 

Parcheesi was a top money-maker for Selchow & Righter.  (copyright expired)

Along with board games, Selchow & Righter manufactured cast iron toys and banks--items which would make any child-safety-minded mother cringe today.  As Christmas approached in 1898 the Home Furnishing Review pictured a cast iron toy safe, a miniature iron stove and a toy grocer's scales as examples of the firm's offerings.  "Selchow & Righter are American manufacturers, and make goods that cannot be equaled for their prices, either at home or abroad," said the article.  "Some of their games are most interesting and novel, and will appeal immediately to Young America, which is the judge and jury, as well as the court of final resort."

The Home Furnishing Review, December 1898 (copyright expired)

At the time of the article D. W. Shoyer & Co., knit goods commission house; musical instrument dealer M. E. Schoening; and W. Schwensen, cords and tassels, occupied the upper floors.  (William Schwenen, incidentally, had been arrested three years earlier for receiving $20,000 worth of stolen silks from William Steinborn, alias "Billy Balls," and John Lyons.)

Just after midnight on October 22, 1899 fire broke out in the basement.  The Times reported "The extreme depth of the structure and the fact that the fire was in the centre made the work of the firemen difficult and hazardous."  Not long after a third alarm was turned in the first floor collapsed.  Fire Chief Croker called the blaze "a most stubborn one" which took about two hours to control.   When it was finally extinguished, the building was deemed "destroyed" and the damages were estimated at, at least, $125,000, more than $3.75 million today.

While the newspapers may have thought the building was a total loss, Louisa Bruen disagreed.  She hired the respected architectural firm of Jardine, Kent & Jardine to refurbish the burned out shell.  The stone facade had survived the blaze and the architects' renovations did little to alter it.

The new tenants were nearly all involved in clothing manufacturing.  Friedman Bros. & Bisco made shirtwaists; Manheim & Schwartz manufactured shirts, for instance.  But two, Frederick A. Van Dyke and Gross Brothers, were far different.  The Evening World described Van Dyke as "a millionaire real estate dealer."  Gross Brothers were wholesale grocers.

The sons of those two firms brought humiliation to their families in the summer of 1903.  Van Dyke's 21-year old son, also named Frederick, and Henry A, Gross, Jr., were in Central Park on June 4 when wealthy socialite Mrs. Edward Hagaman Hall strolled in with her eight-year old daughter, Ethel, and her nurse, Rebecca Meloney.

Mrs. Hall, whom The Evening World described as "a tall, fine-looking woman," left Ethel and the nurse sitting on a park bench and headed off on a stroll.  She had gone only a short distance before Ethel ran up saying "Oh, Mamma, two men are hugging Rebecca, and she is awfully frightened."

The newspaper reported "Mrs. Hall said that she hurried back to the bench and found the two young men embracing Rebecca with great fervor despite her struggles and protestations."  Telling a court later that she was "justly indignant," Mrs. Hall kept her cool and pretended to engage Van Dyke and Gross in conversation until she could flag down a passing policeman.

Policeman Quin arrested the young men, whose wealthy fathers quickly posted bail.  But they were brought back before Magistrate Crane that same afternoon.  "They were represented by a lawyer," said the article, "who spoke for them and denied the charges.  They were both so nervous that they could not utter a syllable."

The judge listened to the testimonies of the nurse, the little girl and Mrs. Hall.  Shockingly today, while Rebecca Meloney "was positive in her identification," Crane scoffed at their complaint.

"It take no stock in women's identifications, and will have to discharge these young men.  Many an innocent man has been sent to State prison upon rash identification of women, and I don't propose that anything of the kind shall happen in my court."

Mrs. Hall stormed out with her daughter and the nurse claiming there was no justice to be had.  "The way things are conducted every Tom, Dick and Harry that comes along can hug or insult a woman with impunity.  It's a perfect outrage."

Louisa Bruen died on November 5, 1905.  She was interred in the burial ground on the Jay Estate in Rye, New York, where her husband had also been buried.  The Broadway building remained in the family.

Following World War I No. 390 saw a variety of tenants, including the National Dress Suit Case Co. and office furniture dealers Quick & McKenna. 

New-York Tribune, November 19, 1919 (copyright expired)
Quick & McKenna remained in the building well into the 1920s, as did Gross Brothers.  They shared the address with a wide variety of tenants including A. Irizzarry Co. and Jacinto Sala, Inc., both importers of chemicals and drugs; leather merchants Sala Guillo & Co. and Raper & Pleasso; and International Imports and Export Co., "general merchandise."

Adrian L. Quick, president of Quick & McKenna, and his wife Aline, lived comfortably in their White Plains, New York, estate named Gedney Farm.  But domestic tranquility crumbled in the early years of the 1920s.  By 1926 Aline had had enough.  She won a decree of separation and $125 a month alimony after charging Quick with "cruelty and excessive drinking."  Her husband explained away his heavy use of alcohol, saying "all of the marital trouble was caused by his wife's extreme extravagance."

As the 20th century progressed, the Broadway building continued to house textile and garment firms, including Wolf, Ain & Co. which took a floor in 1931, textile dealer Jacob A. Fortunoff, Inc. which moved in in 1939, and Supertex, manufacturers of mattress covers, which leased a floor the following year.

Textile firms still filled the building in July 1962 when fire swept through on the night of the 12th.  It had broken out around 8:00 in the third floor offices of Fursyn, Inc., dealers of synthetic furs and fibers.  The blaze burned out of control for three and a half hours, causing the fifth floor to collapse and destroying the roof.  When the fire was finally extinguished 16 fire fighters had been injured and one was still missing.

Tragically, the body of 38-year old Fireman John C. Farragher was discovered in the ruins the following morning.  Eighty firefighters had joined in the search for the father of three.

It was around this time that the Bruen family's ownership finally ended.  Alexander and Louisa Bruen's daughter, Alexandra Louisa, had married Rear Admiral George E. Ide.  It was their son, architect and aviation pioneer John Jay Ide, who sold the property.

As was the case in 1899, No. 390 was reconstructed and filled again with textile companies.  And through it all the wonderful triple arched windows within the square openings have survived.


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