Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Surprising Survival - The 1861 Wedge-Shaped 158 Reade Street

The widening of Reade Street in 1860 mutilated the rectangular plot where the two old buildings at No. 309 Greenwich Street and No. 158 Reade Street had stood.  The Reade Street site was now a pie-shaped wedge that no doubt presented a challenge for the architect designing a replacement building.

Charles G. Carley was, it seems, undaunted by the odd shape of the plot.  Leasing it from the Corley family, he commenced construction of a three-story business building that same year.  Completed in 1861 it was an unpretentious take on the commercial Italianate style.  The simple cast iron storefront was designed to house at least two shops; while the two red brick upper floors held offices.  Brownstone was used in the sills (which sat on tiny stone brackets) and their elliptically arched lintels.  A deeply-overhanging wooden cornice was supported by scrolled brackets.

Little & Sheppard, tobacco merchants, seem to have been the first tenant in the ground floor.  The store was listed here by 1862.  Meanwhile, "attorney and counsellor" William H. Meeks moved into an upper office.

Meeks, who was the son of attorney Joseph Meeks, had practiced law since 1846.  He lived far uptown at No. 112 East 56th Street and had a summer home in Islip on Long Island.  He divided his professional time between law and real estate--routinely placing advertisements for upscale homes for sale.   Visible in politics as well, he was nominated as a candidate for Presidential Elector at the Republican State Convention the same year he opened his Reade Street office. 

Lawyer Charles Denison was listed in the building in 1865.  He very likely worked for Meeks.   That year Morris W. Hanna operated his produce business from the ground floor, most likely having replaced Little & Sheppard who no longer appeared in the city directories here.

Litigants were at times summoned to William Meeks's office to give depositions in upcoming court cases.  In 1874 a bitter battle erupted between George C. Huntington, who owned the building at Nos. 28-30 West Broadway, and a former tenant, James K. Spratt.  When Huntington refused to renew Spratt's lease and, in fact, rented the space to a new tenant, Spratt retaliated by smashing the building's plumbing pipes.

The men received a summons from State Supreme Court Justice A. R. Lawrence which read in part "We command you, that all business and excuses being laid aside, you and each of you appear and attend before William H. Meeks, Esq., at his office, No. 158 Reade street...on the 25th day of July, 1874, at 12 o'clock, in the afternoon, to testify."  The men appeared, but it did not necessarily end well.

Spratt refused to take an oath when Meeks's presented his Bible, and further refused to answer any questions.  Meeks called it "disobedience;" Spratt said he was following his attorney's instructions.  The judge was not understanding and ordered Spratt arrested, brought to the courtroom to give his deposition, and was fined $10 for the court's troubles.

The ground floor spaces continued to house produce businesses.  In 1876 the W. K. Howard & Co. and Arthur Richardson operated here.  Richardson was still here in 1897 when he signed a petition asking the City to established an East River ferry from Market Street to the Wallabout Market in Brooklyn.  The signers assured the Board of Aldermen that the ferry would "facilitate the transaction of our business" while reaping new income for the City.

William H. Meeks was last listed at No. 158 Reade Street in 1890, just short of three decades after moving in.  In 1898 Edward J. Sweeny ran his real estate office upstairs, and the following year commission merchants Goodman & Sons took over the former space of A. Richardson.  The Reade Street neighborhood was quickly becoming the "butter and egg" district and Goodman & Sons's notice in the New York Produce Review on May 3, 1899 noted "we will handle all grades of Butter and Eggs."
The New York Produce Review, November 30, 1898 (copyright expired)
Goodman & Sons was followed by "butter, eggs and poultry" merchants Tancer Bros., first listed in 1908; which was followed by Philip Mandelker, another butter, poultry and egg jobber who moved in in 1915.  Mandelker had barely opened business on Reade Street before he found himself in serious trouble.

On July 14 the United States Attorney ordered 105 cases of "shell eggs" shipped by Mandelker to New Jersey seized and condemned.  He was charged with "adulteration in violation of the Food and Drugs Act," and the complaint alleged "the eggs consisted, in whole or in part, of a filthy, decomposed, and putrid animal substance."  Mandelker pleaded guilty and paid a substantial $1,000 fine--nearly $25,000 today.

Mandelker seems to have learned his lesson.  He remained in business at No. 158 Reade Street into the 1920s, his advertisements in 1922 promising "Absolute Satisfaction Guaranteed."

Butter and eggs jobbers Samuel Pfeiffer and I. Roth were here by 1930 when the industry was terrorized by the mob.  On August 19, 1930 The New York Times reported that a hearing held by the Attorney General the day before had exposed "A widespread organization of 'racketeers, guerrillas and gangsters.'"  Pfeiffer and Roth both testified, despite what the Assistant Attorney General said were definite threats by the mob "to kill any one who persisted in defying the gang's will."

Butter and egg dealers who balked at the mob's price fixing told of having the tires on their delivery trucks slashed and their customers being intimidated to cease doing business with them.  Samuel Horowitz, manager of the 1,000-member Jewish Grocers' Association, said "All of our truckmen, without a single exception, have been threatened with harm."

I. Roth's reluctance to testify prompted Assistant Attorney General William B. Groat, Jr. to ask if he were afraid.  Roth did say that he had been clearly warned against patronizing a Utah egg supplier who refused to work with the mob.

"A few days ago a man I never saw before walked up to my place and told me to stop getting eggs from the Utah outfit.  He told me I was a nice young fellow with a family and 'it would be a shame to get bumped off.'"

Pfeiffer was even less eager to talk.  He pleaded, "I have a wife and children to support and I have to work."  Groat was not all that sympathetic.  "Well, so have the people who buy eggs."

On March 1, 1935 The Times reported that "A triangular parcel at 158 Reade Street, held by the Corley family since 1848, has been sold."  The 75-year old building already showed its age, and the subsequent decades were no kinder.  By the 1970's it was mostly vacant, neglected and abused.

In the mid-1970's things looked bleak for the old structure.  photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 

But change to the neighborhood was on the horizon as the Tribeca neighborhood changed from produce and eggs to art galleries, restaurants and boutiques.  In 1996 a renovation of No. 158 designed by architect John Petrarca resulted in a single-family home.

The sympathetic treatment of the exterior replaced the decayed cornice and hefty wooden brackets with an appropriate, if more restrained version.  The facade is now painted, and the cast iron storefront filled in with a grid of wood and glass.  The survival of the pie-shaped building is surprising and remarkable.

photographs by the author

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