Gardner A. Colby established the drygoods firm of Gardner Colby & Company in Boston in the 1850's. When his son, Gardner Robert Colby, came of age, he joined the firm as a partner. The senior Colby was also a major stock holder, along with Charles L. Harding and Jarvis Slade, in the Boston-based Merchants' Woolen Company. The professional relationships of the four men would all come together in New York City.
In 1863 Gardner Robert partnered with Jarvis Slade under the firm name Slade & Colby. Three years later he moved his family to the upscale suburb of East Orange, New Jersey to oversee the New York activities of that firm as well as his father's interest in Merchants' Woolen Company.
In 1865 both Colbys and Jarvis Slade began a real estate project in the rapidly changing Tribeca neighborhood. The wooden structure at the southeast corner of Franklin and Church Streets was demolished and on October 2 a modern Italianate-style loft building was begun. The Superintendent of Buildings listed the owners as "Slade & Colby" and the building as a "first-class storehouse" with "stone front." It took dual addresses of No. 97 Franklin Street and 257 Church Street.
The report of the Board of Aldermen documented the date of completion as April 28, 1866. The architect of 97 Franklin Street, whose name has been lost, blended the Italianate style with elements of French Second Empire. (He was almost assuredly the same architect who designed No. 247-249 Church Street at the opposite end of the block for Slade & Colby, begun on August 14, 1865. The two bookend-like structures share many architectural elements.)
Ironically, the same year that Garner R. Colby moved to New York and No. 97 Franklin Street was completed, his partnership with Slade was dissolved. In 1866 he and his father partnered with Charles L. Harding in the drygoods commission firm of Harding, Colby & Co. with offices in both Boston and New York City.
Perhaps surprisingly, the firm did not move into the new building. Instead it was leased to other drygoods firms, like importers Lane, Lamson & Co., one of the earliest tenants.
|The Commercial & Financial Chronicle, January 12, 1867 (copyright expired)|
David Lane, now the senior partner in the firm, eventually became a prominent member of Manhattan's business and social circles, earning a membership in the exclusive Union League Club and living comfortably at No. 11 Park Avenue. Upon his retirement around 1880 the firm was dissolved.
In the meantime, in May 1872 Jarvis Slade had sold his interest in No. 97 Franklin Street to the Colbys for $33,000, in the neighborhood of $683,000 today.
By then the Chicago-based wholesale drygoods firm of Bowen, Whitman & Winslow had been in the building for at least four years. The volume of the company's business was evidenced by the theft of two bank notes on December 2, 1868--one for $5.607.13 and the other for $5,608.18. Both checks had been made payable to Hoyt, Sprague & Co. and would total about $200,000 today.
The company issued an announcement regarding the stolen notes in The New York Herald on December 10 and cautioned the culprit "We hereby warn all persons against negotiating these notes, as payment has been stopped."
It did not take long for the thieves to be captured. When 25-year-old James W. Tallmadge was arrested in a Cleveland bank trying to negotiate the checks a few days later, the mystery was solved. His two teen-aged accomplices quickly confessed their guilt.
Sixteen-year old employee James. W. Morrison admitted to William H. Van Slyck, an executive with Bowen, Whitman & Winslow, that he had taken the envelope with the notes off Van Slyck's desk. He then passed it to William Lewis, an 18-year-old, who tried to sell them. That did not work.
So Lewis gave them to Tallmadge, "a well-known character in Police circles," according to The New York Times, who tried to sell them in various cities. Tallmadge professed his innocence, saying he had no idea that the notes were stolen.
The New York Times focused less on the admitted crime than on the system's failure to process the accused. After Tallmadge had sat in jail for a week without being interrogated by a Magistrate, the newspaper railed on December 22, 1868, "Instances of such illegal and reprehensible detentions of persons accused of crimes are unhappily becoming quite frequent in the Metropolitan Police Department, and some measure out to be adopted with a view to the prevention of such willful outrages on the part of the Police."
Sharing the building with Bowen, Whitman & Winslow was Halsted, Lord & Co., makers of ties and bows. The firm seemed to have been doing well, advertising in The New York Herald on February 24, 1869 for "First Class Hands Wanted--On bows, wide end ties, &c.; must bring sample of work." And in August that year the company was looking for "50 first class bow hands."
And so it was most likely a conflict between the partners and not business troubles which prompted the firm to dissolve in December 1869. William A. Lord continued the business, now named Wm. A. Lord, and a year later was still doing well. In August 1870 he was seeking "scarf and bow hands" noting that "first class ones only need apply; work given out." The mention of giving out work referred to the practice of allowing women to do piecework at home, therefore enabling them to take care of children. In 1871 Lord moved his operation next door to No. 75 Franklin Street.
The Colbys lost their other major tenant that year as well. On October 8, 1871 the Great Chicago Fire broke out. It burned for two days and destroyed more than three square miles of the city. Bowen, Whitman & Winslow suffered major losses, including the homes of brothers James H., Chauncey T. and George S. Bowen. The firm did not survived and was taken over by two other woolen firms.
Sharing the building in 1875 were Loeb & Co. and Oppenheim Bros. A well-known women's apparel manufacturer, Oppenheim Bros., headed by Albert D. and Charles J. Oppenheim, had operated from No. 46 Howard Street through 1874. Now in its new location it aggressively beefed up its staff, looking for 100 "first class cloak finishers" and "a few experienced [sewing machine] operators" in October 1875.
Apparel manufacturers today use what is called a "fit model," a live person who tries on sample garments to make sure the patterns are correct. Such was the case in September 1875 when Oppenheim Bros. advertised for "A young lady with a good figure and stylish appearance to try on cloaks and suits."
Either Oppenheim Bros. was doing a phenomenal business, or conditions in their factory were intolerable. Only five months after it advertised for 100 workers in October 1875, it sought the same number of "first class dress and suit makers" on March 10, 1876. The ad promised "high prices to good workers." The company remained at No. 97 Franklin Street until about 1879, when it moved to No. 22 White Street.
It was about 1878 when W. M. Humphrey's, men's scarf manufacturer, moved in. That firm was soon joined in the building by May & Mayer, wholesale woolens merchants, operated by Mayer May and Leopold Mayer.
The firm's good name was dragged into a scam by a teen-aged con artist in September 1882. Isaac Strauss, 18-years old, went into the store of trunk dealer Charles Schwartz in early September. He told Schwartz that he was a salesman for May & Mayer and was owed $200 in commissions. Sadly, he owed a doctor's bill of $75 which he needed to pay. Was it possible, he asked, that Schwartz might loan him the money for the doctor until he was paid by May & Mayer? It was possible.
But when the boy never returned, Schwartz went to May & Mayer for he money. There he discovered that Strauss was not an employee, nor did the firm owe him anything. Isaac Strauss was arrested "to answer a charge of false pretense."
May & Mayer declared bankruptcy in 1883, replaced by the Dry Goods Association headquarters, and J. M. Valentine & Co., commission dry goods merchants. Also in the building in 1889 were J. Falkenberg, "lambrequins" (the decorative drapery hung over doors and windows, or draped from a mantelpiece or shelf), the Medicated Rubber Co., and underwear maker A. H. Strouse.
Repairs were done following a December 26, 1889 fire. The renovations cost around $33,000 in today's dollars; but only J. M. Valentine & Co. stayed on, apparently leasing the entire building.
The company suffered a near-tragedy on January 23, 1894. The Evening World reported "Through the breaking of a cog-wheel this morning the freight elevator at J. M. Valentine & Co.'s wholesale cloth dealers, 97 Franklin street, fell from the sidewalk to the basement, a distance of about twenty-five feet." Inside the elevator were 50-year-old Thomas Bell and 64-year-old James Prentis (described by the newspaper as "two old men"). Both porters, they were taking a load of freight in the elevator when it plunged. Bell sustained a fracture of the left leg and Prentis suffered a broken ankle. "J. M. Valentine & Co. state that the men were riding on the elevator against orders," said the article.
|New-York Tribune, January 30, 1897 (copyright expired)|
The New-York Tribune described J. M. Valentine & Co.'s broad array of offerings, saying it "does a large importing business in woolens, silks, linings, moreens; English, French, and German dress goods, cravanettes, mohairs, cashmeres and a large assortment of ribbons." The article added that "the splendid exhibit in the shirt and drawer department renders this part of the great warehouse a most attractive and convenient place."
It was no coincidence that the building had other Valentines as tenants. J. M. Valentine's son, Charles Abernethy Valentine, graduated from Columbia College and then studied architecture. On August 1, 1895 he formed a partnership with William Orr Ludlow as Ludlow & Valentine, opening their offices at No. 97 Franklin Street. Ludlow headed the engineering, structural and business end of the firm, while Valentine focused on the design. Also leasing space was A. T. Valentine, dealers in domestic woolens.
In 1897 the massive drygoods firm of Frederick Vietor & Achelis absorbed J. M. Valentine & Co. Established in 1828, Frederick Vietor & Achelis now added this building to its locations at No. 76 Leonard Street and 107-109 Worth Street. That same year A. T. Valentine and Ludlow & Valentine moved out.
The Colby estate (Gardner R. Colby had died on June 20, 1889) sold the Church Street building in December 1898. Frederick Vietor & Achelis had moved on by the turn of the century.
In February 1904, M. Gardner & Co. moved in. The importing firm dealt in "union linens," among other goods. It was founded in 1879 by Moses Gardner, a Polish immigrant. He had retired in 1899 and only five months after his firm moved into the Church Street building, he died at the age of 85.
When the United States entered World War I a wave of patriotism swept the country. Manufacturers, businesses and banks contributed monetarily to the war effort and urged their employees to donate. Yarn merchants F. J. Hutchinson & Co. was at No. 97 Franklin Street at the time, and when more than 100 percent of its workers contributed to the Liberty Loan drive in the spring of 1918, it was honored with an "Industrial Honor Flag" by the Advisory Trades Committee of the Liberty Loan.
The committee explained "An Honor Flag, with six stars, was awarded to concerns having obtained subscriptions from 60 per cent of their employees, a flag with seven stars was given to those obtaining 70 percent, &c. In cases where a one hundred per cent record was established an Industrial Honor Flag with ten stars was awarded."
Around the end of the war, the ground floor of No. 97 Franklin Street became home to the Scandinavian Building and Mutual Loan Association. It remained through 1929, when it moved to No. 302 Broadway. The move may have been prompted by the major upheaval caused by the city's expansion of the subway. On December 3 that year the owners of No. 97, William H. and Thomas M. Claflin, sued the city for $25,000 in damages caused by the subway construction.
Dry goods and apparel firms continued to call No. 97 Franklin Street home through the Depression years, including Deering, Milliken & Co., and Cohn, Hall, Marx & Co.
The Tribeca renaissance arrived at No. 97 in the third quarter of the 20th century. By 1976 off-off Broadway Tostos Theater was in the building. Derlo Wilson's play, Now She Dances! described by The New York Times as "dealing with homosexuality, based on Oscar Wilde's 'Salome'" opened in May that year.
By 1979 the Process Studio Theater was in the building. It presented A Pair By Guare, "an evening of one act plays by John Guare in May that year; and The Basement theater was below ground in 1982. That year the upper portion of the building had been converted to apartments, just one per floor. The Process Studio Theater was operating here at the time. By 1998 Up & Co. art gallery had moved in.
Today the ground floor is occupied by the James Perse clothing store.
photographs by the author