Monday, January 14, 2019

The Lost Manhattan Market - 34th Street and 11th Avenue

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In 1870 there were two large markets in Manhattan--the Washington and Fulton Markets.  But they were both far downtown, inconvenient to a city migrating northward, and markedly outdated.  The Architectural Review complained in January 1870, "The city government has decidedly failed to furnish that necessary and complete convenience of supply and arrangement of supplies, that the requirements of this large population demand."  But that was about to end.

"New York is at last to have a market, which will be worthy of the commercial capital of the continent," said the journal.   A group of "enterprising gentlemen" including Paul J. Armour, William M. Johnson and J. Eugene Flandin had formed the Manhattan Building Company and were poised to erect "a magnificent structure, at the foot of Thirty-fourth street, North [Hudson] River, and comprises about eighty city lots."  The American Builders' Journal chimed in saying "No finer location could be found in this city for the purpose, as ere many years Thirty-fourth street will be the central line of the metropolis."

The massive plot stretched from Eleventh to Twelfth Avenues and between 34th and 35th Streets.  The proposed building would be the largest under one roof in America.  To facilitate shipping and receiving, a 300-foot long dock would be erected on the river.

Architect H. G. Harrison had been hired to design the gargantuan building.  The American Builders' Journal deemed his plans "certainly very grand and imposing, and admirable adapted for the purposes intended."  Constructed of Philadelphia brick with limestone trim, it would sprout ornamental iron towers 70-feet high on the corners (The Architectural Review called the style "Byzantine" and The Manufacturer and Builder deemed it "Lombard.").  The central portion on Eleventh Avenue rose three floors to accommodate offices and restaurants.  It was topped by a cast iron flรจche.  There were 1,500 windows, 160 of them on 34th Street alone.  The cast iron elements were fabricated by Daniel Badger's Architectural Iron Works.  Three vast lattice-work iron arches created a cavernous interior space unbroken by a single column.

The cost of the project was estimated at $1 million--more in the neighborhood of $19.5 million today.   The New York Herald noted "On its ample floor an entire army corps could be paraded, and room left for 20,000 spectators besides."

Ground was broken on February 22, 1871 and one year later to the day the cornerstone of the "nearly completed" building was laid by Mayor Abraham Oakley Hall.   The New York Times called the ceremonies "impressive" and noted "The building was gayly decorated with flags of all nations.  About 5,000 persons were present."

The president of the company, Paul J. Armour, mentioned that "the Metropolis of the New World, preeminent in everything else, was most grossly deficient in its market facilities."  This one, he said, would be the largest in the world.

Mayor Hall noted in his address that the site was "curiously enough on the very spot laid out in 1807 by the city authorities as a proper site for a market in the distant future."  By now, according to the Oneida Circular on March 4, 1872, the cost had risen by another $500,000.

In August 1872 The Manufacturer and Builder described the nearly-completed building in superlatives.  The dock would be "one of the largest docks in the world."  The main arch, which rose to 138 above the floor inside, was "the largest now forming the covering of any structure known."  And the main entrance would be "ornamented by the largest clock in the world.  This indicator of time is already near to its completion, and is, at contract price, to cost $37,000."

Inside were 1,027 stalls--half for retail sellers and half for wholesale.  "These will be used by meat, vegetable and other produce vendors, who will be charged from $3 to $9 per week according to position and size," explained The Manufacturer and Builder.  But the vendors would enjoy a cooperative arrangement--sharing in the overall profits of the Manhattan Market.

The docks were decidedly less grand than the Market structure.  Here live cattle were unloaded to be butchered inside.  Harper's Weekly, July 1877 (copyright expired)
At the Twelfth Avenue end, close to the river, were the "mammoth fish market," the butcher stalls and the abattoir, or slaughterhouse.

New-York Tribune, November 27, 1872 (copyright expired)
Three blocks away was the Manhattan Rendering Company, on 38th Street and the river.  The stench of the dead animals and swarms of flies there worried a reporter.  He visited the Manhattan Market to investigate whether the same nuisance would happen here.  He happily reported on July 12 "At either side of the building and through the central line are drainways, through which all refuse will be carried to the river as often as any one or more or all of the 1,000 croton water hydrants are let play upon it."  It fact that butcher waste would be dumped directly into the Hudson River did not seem to concern anyone.

The Manhattan Market opened on November 11, 1872 with a "concert that drew together no less than 30,000 people," according to The New York Times.  By then the total cost--including the docks and outbuildings--had risen to $2 million--a staggering $41.4 million by today's standards.

Seven months after opening the stockholders reported "that they are quite satisfied with the progress" and said that half of the retail stands had been rented and four wholesale meat firms were in operation.  But the magnificent market had from its start a formidable enemy--Tammany Hall.  Politicians were financially embedded in what The Times called the "Washington Market Ring" and would later say they "attacked the scheme with every weapon available to men whose interests are imperiled."

On July 21, 1874 The New York Herald reported "For six months after the market was opened the business conducted within its walls gave flattering promises of the success of the institution; but from that time forward business began to fall off until the retail trade was abandoned."  The newspaper attributed the problem "to opposition of the owners off Washington Market, a bitter rivalry having existed between the two markets."  At the time of the article the Manhattan Market building was scheduled to be sold at foreclosure auction within the month.

The property which had cost millions was sold to Dr. Henry Draper for $250,000.  He turned his attention to increasing and improving the abattoir operations.  The New York Herald reported on the improved processes on July 29 the following year.

"Cattle are landed from barges at the dock, and driven through a tunnel into the market.  The advantages of this are obvious when the scene of the terror occasioned by the raid of Texan steers through our streets last summer is recalled."  The pens for the individual butchers are constructed in the strongest manner, and the appliances for preventing accidents are simply perfect."

Cattle were led through a tunnel from the barges directly into the abattoir.
The finished product was loaded directly onto the vessels from the dock.  Harper's Weekly, July 1877 (copyright expired)
In conjunction with the abattoir section was a new rendering room, "where the offal and fat are rendered immediately after the animals have been killed.  There is not the slightest oppressive odor arising from the process, as the work is done by means of air-tight vats."  Draper told reporters that he intended "to leave no stone unturned to make it the model market of the metropolis."

The Board of Health was pleased with the remodeled facility.  At a meeting in February 1876 Sanitary Superintendent Dr. Day reported "on the very admirable conditions of the immense abattoir in the western half of the Manhattan Market," according to The Medical Times & Register on February 5.  "This seems to be quite a model institution."

But while the abattoir portion of the building was going well, the market proper was still under siege from political forces.  A letter to the editor of the New York Times published on February 24 1878 suggested that the building could best be used as an armory.

In his article "A Day on the Docks" in The Century on October 1879 Charles H. Farnham wrote "The great, useless Manhattan Market was the single exception to general activity.  It was empty, quiet as a cathedral, and even more spacious.  The market-scene contained two Sisters of Charity, pacing silently over the pavement to a solitary butcher's stall."  Within the year it was closed altogether, including the slaughterhouse.

But not everyone was willing to cave into political corruption.  On March 6, 1880 Harper's Weekly reported "For some time past there has been a movement going on for the re-opening of Manhattan Market...and at length a company for this purpose has been formed under the name of the 'Metropolitan Market Company.'"   Newspapers and individual businessmen were supportive, none more so than The New York Times, which was traditionally anti-Tammany.  The newspaper laid the blame of the closing directly on Tammany leader John Kelly, "who scented the danger to the interests of the Market Ring."

The New-York Daily Tribune joined the push for re-opening, interviewing produce vendors and butchers and printing their favorable comments on May 16, 1880.  The communal efforts were successful and on August 31 The New York Times happily reported "The opening of the Manhattan Market is fixed for Tuesday, Oct. 5, but on Monday evening, Oct. 4, the building will be illuminated and thrown open to the public for inspection."

Tammany Hall, unaccustomed to defeat, was not a foe to be casually dismissed.  At midnight on Wednesday, September 8 fire broke out in the building.  It was not completely extinguished before Thursday noon.  "When the engines were taken away they left behind them two blocks of ruins--one block of ashes and twisted beams and tottering walls representing the finest market-house in America, and one of the handsomest and most prominent public buildings in this City," said The Times.  The new owners surrendered, telling reporters on September 21 they had "decided to dissolve the company, wind up its financial affairs as soon as possible and allow the property to revert to its former owners."

It was, however, not the last breath for the structure.  On April 30, 1881 The American Architect and Building News reported simply "Manhattan Market is to be rebuilt."  Three days earlier the New-York Central and Hudson River Railroad had filed plans "for the erection of 26 buildings on the ground former occupied by the Manhattan Market."  The New York Times reported "They are to be used for market purposes, will be built of brick and stone, and be two stories high."  Architect Joseph Richardson drew up the designs, utilizing as much of the surviving facade as possible.  The reconstruction cost the equivalent of $2.85 million today.

While the main structure was gutted, Richardson was able to salvage much of the 11th Avenue facade. Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, April 1883 (copyright expired) 
Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly commented on the rebuilding, saying "The immense arching roof has disappeared, and along either side of the block...extends a roof of lofty, roomy stores for the storage of hay, and produce of all sorts."   The Manhattan Hay and Produce Exchange moved in, along with meat vendors, including the Manhattan Beef Company, the Chicago Beef Company, George Hotonkiss & Co., and Armour & Co.

The railroad's interest in the building was its location--perfectly situated on the Hudson River for the receipt, storage and shipment of freight.  Tracks were laid on the river side and loading platforms formed a U around the western portion of the building.

Once a year a highly-anticipated auction of unclaimed freight was held here.  On March 6, 1884 The New York Times reported "Eighty-four men, eleven women, and a precocious boy shouted at a voluble auctioneer for five hours, yesterday, in the Manhattan Market."  Among the successful bidders was a restaurant owner who purchased a "mammoth signboard for 25 cents," a sailor who bought a crate of plug tobacco for 70 cents, and a woman who picked up an "old-fashioned piano" for $10.

The renovated building continued to house both the railroad and market vendors.  In 1904 the Butchers' Advocate announced that "Plans have been C. Wellesley Smith, architect of the New York Central Railroad Company, for improvements to be made to the Manhattan Market."  The article noted "It is to be equipped with two new storage coolers, new fronts and put into decidedly more modern shape."  Also included in the renovations were new stairs and elevator, and insulated floors.

The Edwardian modernization did away with the cast iron towers. West Side Studies, 1914 (copyright expired) 
The structure that stubbornly resisted eradication survived for three more decades.  A portion was demolished in 1932 and the last remnants of what had been the most magnificent market building in the world were razed in 1938.

The Manhattan Market looked rather beleaguered on May 17, 1927.  from the collection of the New York Public Library 
Part of the structure was already being demolished on February 7, 1932.   from the collection of the New York Public Library 
Its site today is occupied by another gargantuan structure, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

photo by Javitscenter

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