|Originally, a stylish mansard roof graced the now-abrupt cornice.|
In 1866 Eugene Pottier & Co. was located at No. 58 Walker Street, between Church Street and Broadway. Pottier described his operation in directories as "Importers and Manufacturers of French Artificial Flowers and Feathers; also, all kinds of Leaves and Materials for Flower Makers." That year he laid plans to erect his own substantial commercial structure down the block, at No. 47.
He hired G & W Youngs to design his new building. Brothers George and William Youngs had been in business at least since 1846 when they were hired by the City to build a "Tower for a Fire-alarm Bell." For Pottier's project, they turned to the Italianate style--somewhat expected for loft buildings in the area. By now cast iron facades had been utilized for nearly two decades and had proven to be both relatively inexpensive, fireproof, and quick to install.
Construction on the nearly 40-foot wide edifice began in 1867 and was completed two years later. The Pottier building's cast iron front, while stereotypical, was handsome. Above the storefront with its Corinthian columns, each of the nearly identical floors of arched openings grew slightly less high, visually grounding the structure. Perhaps its most charming feature was the mansard which sat above the attractive cast cornice, giving the building fashionable French touch.
Although No. 47 was not technically completed until 1869; Pottier began accepting tenants in 1868. Griffin, Henderson & Co., described as "importers and wholesale dealers of Fancy Goods, Notions, Hosiery and Furnishing Goods," was among his first.
The firm was already operating from the building in April that year when an employee headed to a Hudson River pier with a box to be sent to Missouri. It never made it to the boat. An advertisement in The New York Herald offered a $25 reward (worth about $420 today) for the return of "A zinc case, marked Massey & Keet, Springfield Mo."
S. F. Johnson was also in the building in 1868. He apparently enjoyed a brisk ride, for in October he was looking for a "stylish, active, first class saddle horse" and advertised that "for such will pay a fair price." He warned con artists that he knew his horses. "Unless answering this description please don't reply."
Nineteenth century merchants and factory operators were often plagued with sneak thieves within their staffs. Such was the case with Henry A. Merrill, who ran his dry goods business in No. 47. On December 13, 1869 he discovered that $200 worth of "sewing silk" was missing. It was no small pilferage, being the equivalent of nearly $3,500 today. He quickly discovered the culprit, a clerk named John F. Drawbridge.
The day after the theft Drawbridge was arrested. Under questioning the clerk gave up the name of his
cohort. He had sold the goods to Morris Phillips who ran a store on the Lower East Side. Henry Merrill had him jailed as well.
In the meantime, it appears that Eugene Pottier had a close companion named Flora in his artificial flower factory. But around 12:30 on the afternoon of November 30, 1870 Flora strayed. An advertisement in The New York Herald on December 1 offered a $5 reward for her return. "Lost--A White Spitz Slut, named Flora, in Canal street, near Mercer...The above reward will be paid to any one returning the same to E. Pottier, 47 Walker street."
Pottier remained in business until 1874 when he leased the building to Ellen Schmidt. Her long-term lease totaled a jaw-dropping $30,000.
It is unclear which business was the victim of a daring theft on February 1, 1875. In the years before snow removal, drays were replaced by horse-drawn sleighs for deliveries in the winter. That morning an expressman pulled up at No. 47 Walker Street and loaded four cases of hosiery and gloves, valued at $3,000, into the vehicle. Before he headed off to the pier, the driver went back into the building to get his shipping receipts.
The New York Times reported "During his absence, some unknown thief jumped on the sleigh and drove off with the goods in the direction of Grand and Varick streets, and made his escape." The newspaper described the markings on each case and noted "The sleigh was a track body on runners, and was painted red." Unfortunately the article added "No clue to the thief has been obtained."
At the time James Hazley ran a successful linen business at No. 89 Mercer Street. The son of a well-to-do merchant of Belfast, Ireland, he had a college education and was considered a "fine linguist." He and his wife had two children, but following her death things began to fall apart for the young immigrant.
His business fell off until he was forced to close; and he sent his children back to Ireland to live with their grandparents. The New York Herald later explained that "he met with reverses and retired from the business with very little money." Hazley found employment as a salesman with the dry goods firm of Max Weil & Co., here at No. 47. But understandably, the loss of his wife, his business, his children and his fortune still weighed heavily on him.
Around October 1878 he rented a third floor room in the boarding house of a Mrs. Bougher at No. 69 Macdougal Street. He came and went to work every day, but, as reported in the Herald, "had become morose, and was frequently heard to say that he was tired of life."
On Tuesday evening, February 18, 1879 Hazley had dinner with the family as usual at 6:00. Afterward he went up to his room. Two days later The New York Herald reported "That was the last seen of him alive, for yesterday morning his dead body was found upon the floor. The carpet was saturated with blood. The suicide's throat was gashed from ear to ear, the jugular vein and the windpipe being severed." The article said that the "blood stained razor, by which the deed had been done," was still clutched in the 39-year old's hand.
As the century drew to a close, the tenant list of No. 47 remained mostly dry goods and apparel firms. In 1882 the newly-formed Weicker & Reis moved in. Three years later New York's Great Industries called the firm a "responsible and strictly first-class importing house" and explained "The goods in which they are primarily interested, are laces, embroideries, lace curtains and lace novelties." The article noted "Messrs. Welcker & Ries occupy extensive and commodious premises, at No. 47 Walker street, which are taxed to their utmost limit."
New York's Great Industries did not ignore another tenant--Malcolm H. Smith, manufacturer of hoop-skirts and bustles. The firm had been in the building about seven years. The book noted that Smith made "as many as fifty varieties of hoop-skirts and bustles alone" and said "Constant attention is payed to the ever varying demands of fashion, and new designs in both bustles and skirts are brought out each season, carefully adapted to the requirements of the latest mode of drapery."
Also operating from No. 47 by 1887 were furrier S. F. & A. Rothschild (which Fur Trade Review said "offers buyers a good selection of fine garments"); underwear and hosiery dealers Rosendorf & Co.; J. S. Lesser & Co., "dealers in lace curtains and handkerchiefs;" buttons and dress trimmings firm Felix S. Klotz & Co.; and leather goods manufacturer M. Jacobowsky. They would soon all have to find new accommodations.
At around 7:00 on the night of April 26, 1888 the business on the upper floors were all closed and their employees had gone home. Workers in the first and second floors heard what sounded like an explosion, but disregarded it and went on about their business. Before long smoke was seen pouring from the fifth and sixth floor windows. The New York Times reported that soon, "second and third alarms were sent out, and a large force of firemen were soon at work." Two hours later everything above the second floor was gutted and the mansard level was gone. Damage to the structure was estimated at half a million dollars today.
Architects and builders J. W. Clark & Co. was given the contract to restore the damage. The $8,000 project fell short of replacing the mansard roof, sadly diminishing its architectural charm.
Despite its losses, Rosendorf & Co. moved back into the remodeled building. The firm would be shaken by tragedy later that year. Among its employees was 28-year old salesman Philip Baer who had worked for the firm since he was in his teens. He lived with his wife and three children in "a comfortably furnished flat" far north at No. 313 East 121th Street. The young couple's children ranged from 16 months to six years old.
On the morning of November 8 Baer told his wife he would be home early so take her to the Lexington Avenue Opera House where there was to be a ball. The Evening World reported that as evening approached, she had her servants prepare a light dinner "for him to eat as soon as he arrived home, and she had laid his evening suit out on their bed, so that it would not take him long to get ready for the ball." But he did not come home.
Although he had intended to leave work early, he was in fact a little late. He rushed to the elevated railroad station at Canal and Allen Streets. Just as he reached the platform, the train began to move away. The Evening World reported "As he rushed for the train the gates were slammed in his face." Witnesses said he held on to a bar connected to the car and pleaded "Let me on, conductor. Will you, please? I'm in an awful hurry."
The conductor responded "Get off. You can't get on. It's against the rules to open the gate."
Nevertheless, Baer clung on. The Times reported "He pleaded with the guard to open the gate and let him on, but the guard was obdurate and refused. Baer still held on to the gate and was dragged along to the north end of the platform, where his legs were caught between the moving car and the projecting railing and were terribly crushed." Unbelievably, Baer did not leg to. He was dragged another 50 feet beyond the end of the platform before he lost his grip and fell 30 feet to the pavement below. He died instantly.
A detective named Reap went to the Baer apartment to notify the widow. He said, "She was dressed with the children, in the hall, waiting for him." The New York Times dramatically reported "The news of his death fell like a shroud over the wife. The suit which Mr. Baer expected to wear to the ball will be on his body in its coffin, and will be buried with his remains on Sunday."
Another apparel firm in the building at the time was Brownold & Co., makers of children's clothing. A small operation, it employed just a dozen men who worked 48 hours per week; surprising at a time when many garment factory employees worked as much as 60 hours. Nevertheless, the company faced labor problems in the summer of 1890.
On August 6 The Evening World reported that "The troubles between the cloakmakers and the contractors have assumed a very serious aspect." That morning strikes had broken out in seven shops throughout the city and the Cloakmakers Union had submitted a list of demands to apparel firms, including Brownold & Co.
"The list was received with feelings of anger and disgust, for the contractors claim that the demands are so unreasonable and exorbitant that rather than accede to them they wll retire from business," said the article.
In fact, firms like Brownold & Co. had a point. They pointed out that for a garment which the sold wholesale for 75 cents, the union wanted its operators to receive 60 cents, the finishers 30 cents and the pressers 12 cents--a total of $1.02 on top of the cost of materials.
Brownold & Co. responded by firing the union employees. The Evening World predicted doom. "There is much trouble ahead and the atmosphere of the cloak trade is beginning to resound with rumors of impending troubles." But the labor problems were somehow ironed out and Brownold & Co. was in operation at least through 1898.
In 1905 the Brooklyn-based firm of D. & E. L. Mayer signed a $6,000, two-year lease for the entire building. The rent would be equivalent to about $6,700 per month today. The firm manufactured men's neckwear and would actually remain in the building until 1913.
George Bell had purchased No. 47 decades earlier and in 1916 his estate discovered that when Eugene Pottier had constructed it, someone had made a error. No. 49 Walker had gone up simultaneously; but it overstepped the property line. It was not an issue until Daniel P. Morse attempted to purchase No. 49 in March 1916. In preparing the title, surveyors discovered that eight inches of the building sat on the plot of No. 47. The Bell estate sold the sliver to Morse for about $2,500.
Following World War I apparel firms had mostly left No. 47. It became home to the pharmaceutical firm the Panama Drug Company by 1923 when a disturbing shortage was uncovered by Prohibition agents. In checking the company's inventory, agent Edward Crabbe found that 150 gallons of alcohol supposed to have been used in making products like cough syrup were missing.
Panama Drug Company's lawyer, E. Paul Yaselli, was a former Assistant United State Attorney who had gone into practice for himself. He met with Crabbe and another agent, Joseph King to discuss the problem. His solution was to give the Crabbe $200 "with the understanding that Crabbe would make a favorable report" on the shortage. That did not happen. Instead Yaselli was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury for bribing a Government agent.
The attorney had an excuse. "At the time of his arrest Yaselli stoutly denied that he had paid the money as a bribe," reported The Times on April 3, 1923. "He admitted making the payment, but claimed that the money was extorted from him by the two agents."
By the early 1930s the building housed two publishing firms, the Socialist Cooperative Publishing Association and the New York Evening Enquirer newspaper.
Among the periodicals published by the Social Cooperative Publishing Association was the German-language labor newspaper Volksseitung, described by The New York Times as "one of the oldest radical papers in the country. It had been established as a daily newspaper in 1878 and in 1932 employed 30 workers at No. 47 Walker Street. It was endorsed by the American and German Socialist Parties.
New York Evening Enquirer scored a scoop in 1935 when former mayor James J. Walker chose it to announce that he would not be seeking reelection. He sent a letter to its publisher, William Griffin, from Vichy, France to dispel rumors of his impending campaign. In it he said in part "Killing good stories is not my idea of a good time--but this one is a bit different" and explained "It has been a long, tedious and sometimes discouraging struggle, involving the self-sacrifice of those near me, to regain the fair measure of health I possess, and my purpose is to retain it as long as possible."
During World War II women took factory jobs as male employees went to Europe to fight. One of them was Belle Calloun who was hired to work at the Lincoln Wire Company in the fall of 1942. Starting out with no skills, the 29-year old Queens resident achieved the position of chief wire machine operator within eight months. She received a national honor on May 25, 1943 which most today would view as racist and demeaning.
The New York Times announced that she "has been selected as 'Miss Negro War Worker'" and reported she would "receive a $25 War Bond at the Negro Freedom Rally show at Madison Square Garden on June 7." The article explained that her selection was based in part on her perfect attendance and her membership in the labor-management committee of the factory.
Following the end of the war, Faben Products, Inc. moved in. It was a reincarnation of Frank Krupp's All-Nu Products which had manufactured lead soldiers until the Government impounded all shipment of lead following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Krupp no longer made the metal soldiers and now the firm produced toys like the cowboys and cowgirls mounted on horses and bucking broncos.
|This galloping cowboy was made by Faben Products, Inc.|
The newspaper was soon forced to find new quarters, however. In 1979 a conversion of the building to residential space above the ground floor was begun. Completed in 1981 it resulted in two apartments per floor. In 2015 the Alexander and Bonin Gallery moved into the ground floor space.
While a coat of white paint has erased the abuse of the 20th century, one cannot help but lament the loss of the stately mansard roof.
photographs by the author
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