Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The 1908 Merchants' Building - 693-697 Broadway

photo by Beyond My Ken
Born in Germany in 1849, Philip Braender arrived in the United States as a teenager just after the end of the Civil War.  He began his career as a "mason builder" in 1871, but quickly moved into real estate development.  From 1877 to about 1892 Braender focused on erecting apartments, most of them for the German immigrant community.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide later remarked "there is scarcely a block between 63d and 125th street which does not contain evidence of his workmanship, in the shape of five-story flats."

During the last decade of the century he had branched out into other areas of the city.  In November 1907 he purchased the three five-story buildings at the southwest corner of East 4th Street, and the two smaller buildings on the side street.  It was a corner that had seen tremendous change.  Around 1843 the upscale Waverly House hotel opened on the site, amidst the mansions of some of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens (Cornelius Vanderbilt erected his 40-foot wide home at No. 10 Washington Place nearby in 1846).

The posh hotel sat in a quiet residential neighborhood.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
But the second half of the 19th century brought commerce.  The mansions disappeared, to be replaced by businesses, as did the Waverly House.  Now Philip Braender had grander plans for the corner.

On January 8, 1908 The American Architect and Building News reported that architect William C. Frohne was "preparing plans for a sixteen-story loft building."  The estimated cost, said the article, was $1 million; more than 27 times that much today.

Later that year the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide added "The three lower stories will contain stores and have elaborate show windows.  The upper exterior will be of light brick and terra cotta, with copper trimmings."  Frohme had included all the latest amenities:  "electric elevators, high-pressure heating, and an electric power plant."  (An independent generator was a near-necessity at a time when power from outside companies was not always dependable.)

Frohne released this rendering in July 1908.  Note the elaborate cornice crowned with torches.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, August 1, 1908 (copyright expired)

The soaring structure was completed before the year's end.  It was originally to be called the Braender Building; but during construction the name was changed to the Merchants' Building as evidenced in a carved cartouche above the Broadway entrance.

Each of the rusticated limestone piers sat on polished granite bases.  The cast iron show window enframements took the form of bundled sheaves.  Above the third floor cornice stern-faced owns raised their wings to uphold a decorative stone band carved to mimic the cast iron bundles around the storefronts.  The band reappeared above the 13th floor.  Fearsome lions' heads took the place of owls on the 14th floor.  Far from street level, they were executed in less expensive terra cotta, along with the banded and fluted columns of the 15th and 16th floors, which incorporated female faces into their Corinthian capitals.

photo by Phyllis Winchester

But the most striking element of Frohne's design was the effusive copper cornice, fabricated by Max Kestenbaum.   Although the original rendering showed gigantic torches lining the edge, they were downsized to a regimented row of anthemia, each the height of a man.  Upheld by enormous brackets, the massive cornice must have been blinding in the sunshine before the shiny copper obtained its green, weathered patina.

Architects' and Builders' Magazine, January 1909 (copyright expired)

Even while the Merchants' Building was under construction, apparel and textile firms scrambled to lease space.  In September 1908 the Royal Tailoring Corporation of Chicago rented two floors, a total of 18,000 square feet.  It was among the first of the more than a score of tenants who would manufacture clothing and millinery here.

Four years after moving in many of the apparel firms were rocked by a wide-spread labor strike.  Unions, which were becoming more powerful, sought improved working conditions, reduced hours, and better pay for their members.  But their strong-handed methods included intimidation of those workers who stayed on the job--too often resulting in physical injury or death.

Workers in J. L. Taylor & Co.'s factory were terrified by mobs of union members waiting for them on the street; to the point that they were afraid to leave the building.   On January 8, 1913 The New York Times reported "At the factory J. L. Taylor & Co., 693 Broadway, where disorder occurred on Monday night at closing time, there was renewed intimidation of the workers last night.  Automobiles took away 100 of the girl employees under police protection.  Twenty men employees, it was admitted by the manager of the factory, were prepared to spend the whole night in the place for fear of being beaten by strikers if they attempted to go to their homes."

Close inspection reveals that two tenants, William Rosenbaum  & Co. and Thos. A. Sullivan & Co. placed their names in metal lettering at the fourth and fifth floors.  Architects' and Builders' Magazine, January 1909 (copyright expired)
Philip Braender died in November 1916.  The Real Estate Record & Guide said "No less than fifteen hundred private houses, apartments and fireproof commercial buildings came from his hands."  Many of those structures, including the Merchants' Building, were still owned by his estate.

It was not labor problems, but an organized band of brazen thieves that plagued apparel makers in 1918.   On November 20 The Evening World reported "Silks and woolens to the value of almost $1,000,000 have been stolen from loft buildings in New York since the first of the year...They haul their plunder away in motor trucks."

The saavy burglars were aware of new forensic techniques and used a substance on their fingers to prevent prints.  "Cases are on record where they bored through brick and plaster walls to get their booty," said the article.  "They have smashed doors that were built like safe doors and have broken strong locks.  In some cases safes have been blown apart."

The Merchants' Building was on their list of targets.  Among the victims listed by the newspaper was Mark Bros., which had lost $2,000 in goods, nearly $33,000 today.

The Braender estate sold the building in September 1919 to Max N. Natanson for $900,000--in the neighborhood of $12.8 million today.  The following year in November Natanson sold it to Morris P. Altman.  The rapid-fire turnover of the property continued until, when Edward W. Browning sold it in September 1930, The New York Times remarked "the deal marked the nineteenth time the property had been sold since 1916 [sic]."

The Evening World, November 12, 1920 (copyright expired)
Despite the frequent buying and selling of the Merchants' Building, it continued to be fully-rented to apparel and millinery firms.  The same 1921 issue of The Haberdasher reported on three new tenants--the recently formed Shapiro Brothers, manufacturers of youths' and men's clothing; Benjamine Poe, neckwear;" Matthew Rosenbloom, shirts; and the new men's clothing firm Rosen-Edison Company, makers of their "Better-Made" brand.

The Good Value Hat and Cap Company was in Merchants' Building during the Depression years.  Workers at the time were paid in cash, a practice inconceivable today.  Once a week an employee would withdraw the weekly payroll from a nearby bank and then nervously return to stuff pay envelopes for each employee.  The routine was not lost on criminals, who sometimes watched the movements of cashiers and bookkeepers for weeks and then pounced.

Such was the case on October 16, 1931 when 20-year-old Lillian Elson returned from the Bank of America at Broadway and Third Street.  She stepped into the elevator with two other passengers.  Just before the operator closed the doors, three men joined them.  As soon as the doors closed, each of the men pulled out a pistol.  They ordered the operator to stop at the third floor, snatched the large envelope of bills from Lillian, and got off the elevator.  According to the passengers, they ordered "shoot up to the roof."

The men then ran down the stairs to make their escape.  But they neglected to pocket their weapons before reaching the lobby.  E. J. Rosenwald, who was entering the West Fourth Street entrance, saw the guns as they rushed past and shouted "Stop thief!"  His calls drew the attention of a 22-year-old soda clerk, Alfred Siegel.

As it turned out, Siegel was the last person the robbers would want to encounter.  He had been a football player in 1929 at De Witt Clinton High School and was currently awaiting appointment as a policeman.  The athletic young man took up the chase, focusing his attention on crook with the pay envelope.

John Virga apparently realized he was in imminent danger of capture, so he flung the payroll to the ground, hoping to distract his pursuer.  That did not work.   After a three block run, Siegel made a flying tackle on Washington Place.  The 27-year-old Virga was arrested and the envelope--containing $1,399.55 was recovered.

The cast iron sheaves of the storefronts, now painted blue, are mimicked in the stone course above the owls.  photo by Beyond My Ken
The Paper Box Makers Union had its offices in the building by 1929.  Labor unions had still not abandoned the practice of strong-arming strike breakers and owners.   After a five-year Federal investigation, officials arrived at the office on July 6, 1934 and arrested Charles Vonie, the union's business representative, and Joseph Parisi, the business representative of the Paper Box Drivers Union.  They were charged with coercion and conspiracy.  Assistant State Attorney General Benjamin Heffner said complaints had been made by manufacturers "who had charged they had been forced to sign union wage agreements."

Another millinery firm in the building at the time was the Goldy Hat Company.  The Great Depression significantly slowed business for apparel and millinery firms as Americans cut back on non-essential spending.  Joseph Markovitz had been working at Goldy Hat Company for about two years when he reported for work on October 21, 1935.  That morning he became one more victim of the Depression when he was told, according to The New York Times, "there was no work for him."

Markovitz was stunned.  He lingered, apparently trying to figure out what he would do now, how he would pay his bills, but could not come up with a solution.  "He remained there all morning, then went into the hallway, the police reported, and jumped from a window."  He had taken the time to write a note of apology which was found in his pocket.  "The body crashed through the wooden roof of a three-story building at 8 West Fourth Street," reported The Times.

Markovitz's tragic suicide was the first of three horrible occurrences to take place in the building.  The Mill Comb Manufacturing Company was a long-term tenant in 1940.  Its foreman, Aristide Blain, was a French-Canadian, earning the 43-year-old the nickname "Frenchy" among his co-workers.  What those colleagues may not have understood, however, was that while Blain did not mind the nickname, he was overly sensitive about other things.

On February 22 a 23-year-old bookkeeper, Frances Marks, was found murdered on East 101st Street.  Before long police announced that they were looking for a suspect in the case, known on the streets as "Frenchy."  Workers at the Mill Comb Manufacturing Company began teasing Blain, saying they heard he was wanted by the cops.  Blain took it all too seriously.

On Saturday night, March 23 Blain did not return home and no trace of him could be found.  Then, on Monday morning his employer, John Litterer opened the office to find Blain's body hanging from a door lintel by his belt.  A note to his wife was found on his desk:

I am wrongly suspected of murder but I am glad that you know I am as innocent as you are.  You and your daughters know I have always been home before 12 midnight.  I have so much other trouble that I decided to end it all.

Police confirmed that he "had nothing whatever to do with the murder, which is still unsolved," reported The New York Times.

Nine months later another body was found in the building--this time a victim of a gruesome murder.
At 6:10 on the morning of December 7, 1940 Raymond Franklin, a handyman in the building, arrived for work but could not get in.  Normally the night watchman, John C. Fischetti, answered his rings and admitted him.  Franklin forced a door and upon entering found the body of Fischetti near the chair where he normally sat throughout the night.  The pillow from that chair had been placed under his head--but it was the only evidence of kindness on the part of his murderer.  His skull had been fractured and a length of rope used to strangle him.  Police felt the motive was personal, since his belongings and a small amount of money were still on him.

It did not take detectives long to find the murderer.  Guiseppe Daviso was arrested on December 12 and charged with the crime.  The 46-year-old ex-con had asked Fischetti for a loan that night.  When the watchman refused, Daviso became enraged, striking him in the head, then strangling him.

Another victim around the time was William C. Frohne's copper cornice  By 1936 it had been removed, its scar covered over by patches of various materials.

The building continued to be home to apparel firms--like the Walforf Novelty Company which made trimmings, and the Leather Novelty Blocking & Stitching Company into the 1960's.  The owner of another, the Allied Fur Company, Norman Weissman, found a secondary way to make money.

On October 24, 1965 The Times reported "A detective posing as a fur buyer and two policewomen posing as models broke up yesterday what the police called a $200,000-a-week bookmaking operation when they raided a fifty-floor loft rented by a fur company."   While Weissman sold furs in the front offices, Arthur Sonnenschein, Martin Hirsch and Samuel Zorn ran a betting operation in the back.  All four men were arrested, and Sonnenschein was hit with a second charge of "having tried to bribe Deputy Inspector Paul F. Delise," who was in charge of the raid.

Two years later New York University owned the building.  While the school continued to lease space to manufacturers, it converted other sections for offices and storage.  When the "morgues"--or clipping libraries--of the defunct newspapers The New York Herald Tribune, The New World-Telegram and The Sun were donated to the university's School of Journalism in 1967 (more than 14 million clippings), they were brought to the 12th floor of the Merchants' Building.  Several hundred file cabinets were brought into the 8,000 square foot space to accommodate the collection.

A decade later NYU announced its intentions of converting the building to residences.  Democratic candidate for mayor Edward I Koch was not pleased.  He told the 400 guests at a gathering at the Americana Hotel on October 18, 1977 that the plan was "a clear perversion of a good objective.  We need housing but certainly not at the expense of jobs."

When New York Secretary of State Mario Cuomo asked rhetorically "Is it done in a sinister way?" Koch replied "I doubt it.  I think it's really an ineptitude."

As it turned out, Koch's opinion did not matter.  In 1980 the Merchants' Building was combined internally with nine other structures, including the 12-story 250 Mercer Street directly behind to create 277 cooperative apartments designed by architect Henry G. Greene.  Working on the exterior renovation was engineer Vincent Stramandinoli, who removed the materials from the old cornice where raw brick and the old steel frame were all that was left.

A much more reserved replacement cornice was fabricated which brings the Merchants' Building back--almost--to its 1908 appearance.

photograph by Phyllis Winchester
non-credited photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Phyllis Winchester for prompting this post

1 comment:

  1. This building stopped me in my tracks when I saw it. The owls are wonderful! So glad the cornice was replaced. Although not as grand as the original, it is still impressive. Thanks for the post!