Friday, March 22, 2019

Benjamin W. Warner's 1869 58 Walker Street

Born in West Galway, New York, on June 18, 1810, Thomas C. Chalmers "was graduated with high rank from Union College," according to the Medical Record decades later.  The physician moved to New York in 1834 where he became affiliated with the New York Hospital.  He and his wife, Maria, lived comfortably at No. 25 West 17th Street in the fashionable block just off Fifth Avenue.

Maria died there on April 10, 1865.  Only fifteen months later, on July 26, 1866, the wealthy doctor married Virginia H. Boyd.  At the time of his wedding he was poised to add real estate development to his professional resume.

The 25-footwide brick house at No. 58 Walker Street had been converted for business by then.  Chalmers purchased the property and in 1867 began construction of a modern loft building on the site.  By May 1868 all five floors were up and interior fittings installed.  For some reason worked temporarily stopped and the structure was kept vacant for weeks.  It presented a splendid opportunity for a gang of youths.

On June 14 The New York Herald ran the headline "Arrest of  Juvenile Land Pirates--Lead Pipe Thieves--Malicious Destruction of Property."  The article explained that "For some time past the premises No. 58 Walker street, owned by Dr. Thomas C. Chalmers, have been unoccupied preparatory to undergoing repairs."  The band of seven boys, the oldest being 13, set up shop within the site, while they plundered its fittings.

Two days earlier, on a Friday night, foot patrolman McSweeny was making his rounds when he noticed movements within the building.  All of the boys were arrested as they tried to escape with a bag of lead pipe.  A subsequent examination of the site revealed the enormous amount of damage the delinquents had done.

The New York Herald reported that police "found that it had been completely stripped of the lead and iron water and waste pipes, the faucets and ashstands broken and ruined, partition walls forced down, the lead and tin torn from the roof, window glass and sash demolished and other malicious destruction of property, involving a loss of nearly $1,500."   The damage would amount to nearly $27,000 today.

The boys had obviously been confident that they could take their time.  "The young outlaws had carried a small stove up to the second floor, where they had cooked their own meals, the raw materials of which they are believed to have stolen from the markets."

The significant damage was a major set-back for builders Moore & Bryant and No. 58 Walker Street was not fully completed until 1869.  Designed in the French Second Empire style by Benjamin W. Warner, it was an impressive, marble-faced structure.  Each of the floors above the cast iron storefront was flanked by paneled piers and marked by prominent sill courses.  The flat-arched openings were separated by classical pilasters.   Recessed panels decorated the frieze of the bracketed cornice, which was crowned with large spheres on either end.

Chalmers's tenants exemplified the dry goods district which was taking over the neighborhood.  Among the first to move in were the apparel making firms Jacob Kobb, maker of cloaks, and S. Rothschild & Brother's.  It was most likely Kobb who placed two advertisements in The New York Herald on April 3, 1873.  He was looking for "a good presser on Ladies' Suits" and "A good cutter on Ladies' Suits."

It was Rothschild & Brother's who was looking for additional help in 1874.  "Hands on Ladies' Cloaks, to take work out, for plain and fine cloaks."  The specification "to take work out" referred to what was also called "home work," whereby women did the piece work in their homes.  It was often done by tenement dwellers who were paid by the item.

The scope of Rothschild & Brother's operation was evidenced in their want ad on December 17, 1876 in The New York Herald.  "Wanted--A lady as Assistant Designer for our wholesale suit and cloak establishment; must be a tasty trimmer and able to suggest suitable styles."  The firm took a modern approach in asking for resumes prior to an interview.  "Apply by letter only, stating fully former experience and employment."

At the time the store was home to M. Sockel & Co., apparel accessories dealers.  Late on the night of January 16, 1876, thieves made off with goods valued at more than $7,000 today.  The New York Times reported "The premises of No. 58 Walker street, M. Sockel & Co., was robbed by burglars on Sunday night, of fifty-four pieces of silk and cotton lace and fifty-five dozen of pearl buttons."

Japanese businessmen O. Yamada and M. Fukui opened their silk importing operation here by 1880.  The firm would remain in the building for several years.

The Silk Goods of America, 1880, (copyright expired)

Dr. Thomas C. Chalmers died on June 4, 1884.  Virginia received the 17th Street house, as well as No. 58 Walker Street and another house at No. 20 West 18th Street.

Virginia's tenants in the Walker Street building continued to be identified with the apparel industry.  Lichtenstein & Lyons, cloak manufacturers, was here by 1888 and in 1889 Levy & Miskend moved in.

The store space was taken by M. B. Ochs's Sons by 1885.  Founded in 1881, the firm's knit goods factory was on Houston Street and the Walker Street space housed its offices and showrooms.  In 1888 Illustrated New York wrote "The premises occupied in Walker street comprise a spacious floor and basement, which are fully stocked with a superior assortment of Germania knitting, worsted and cotton yarns, cardigan jackets and knit worsted and wool hosiery."

While M. B. Ochs remained in the ground floor space, all other tenants were gone within five years when M. Cohen & Co. took over all four upper floors.  The maker of cloaks and suits employed 40 men, 40 women, 6 boys under 18, and 20 girls.  A State inspection report in 1895 noted that the minors worked 45 hours per week.

On December 16, 1892 a fire was sparked in the basement where M. B. Ochs's Sons stored yarn.  The New York Times reported "The fire seemed at first to be a small one, but it soon appeared that the engines which went on a first alarm were insufficient to check the flames and a second alarm was struck."

Part of the problem was that the burning wool yarn created a thick, black and suffocating smoke condition.  The newspaper reported "the holding of the fire to the basement was accomplished by dint of hard work and much discomfort as the fire had to be fought at close quarters and at the risk of suffocation."

M. B. Ochs's Sons suffered losses of about half a million in today's dollars and damage to the building was estimated at $2,000 (about $56,000 today).  The fire did not reach the factory of M. Cohen & Co., but its stock was damaged by the thick smoke.

In April 1900 the Chalmers family sold No 58 to Anna C. Holbrook for $52,500--more than $1.5 million today.  Her tenant list included the Royal Shirt Co., H. H. Skirt Co., and S. Joseph, "clothing," in the upper floors, and Levy & Kadane, sellers of "furnishing goods," in the store.  More specifically, the store sold men's underwear and hosiery.

Other than Levy & Kadane, Holbrook No. 58 had an entirely new tenant list in the building in 1906.  The second floor was the factory of the Columbia Muslin Underwear Company, the third held the Pioneer Shirt Company, the fourth floor tenant was the Star Suspender and Neckwear Company, and the fifth was home to the underwear factory of E. L. Rosenfield.

The building was the scene of a devastating fire on March 17 that year.  The following morning The New York Times estimated the damage at $100,000 and describe the building as "wrecked."  As was the case in 1892, the fire started in the basement.

It "shot up through the elevator shaft, and burst through the roof," reported The Times.  "It ate its way through the floors from the rear, bursting out the windows and driving back men who were dragging lines of hose to the roof."  Again smoke was a major problem.  The newspaper described it as being "so dense that when the firemen were finally able to enter the building, they were compelled to get out within a few moments."

As the water poured down onto the stone sidewalk it froze, making conditions ever more dangerous.  "Chief Croker had a narrow escape from injury while mounting a ladder on the front of the building.  He was about six feet above the sidewalk when the ladder slipped on the ice and fell, throwing Croker to the ground."

The only significant injury came when a fireman of Engine Company No. 15 was "hurt by a comrade, who accidentally struck him on the foot with an axe."  The building however, suffered considerable damage.

The cast iron capitals of the storefront, lost during the 20th century, were recently refabricated.
Among the tenants in the refurbished building was clothing manufacturer I. H. Gold & Co., run by Isaac H. Gold and partner Moses S. Nathanson.   The factory would be the scene of an unsettling discovery just after New Year's Day in 1910.

On Saturday January 2 Moses Nathanson went to the office.  His wife was understandably concerned when he never came home.  She telephoned the office, but got no answer.  She then phoned Gold, but was told he was out of town and would not be back until the following morning.

When Gold was told of Mrs. Nathanson's message on Sunday morning, he rushed to the Walker Street building.  There he found Mrs. Nathanson and Policeman Michaelson already there and about to break in the door.  Gold used his key to enter the premises where a gruesome discovery was made.

Nathanson was dead, tied to a chair.  The gas pipe directly above his head had been broken, causing his death.  Papers and suits of clothes were scattered around the room and two letters, not yet placed in their envelopes, suggested Nathanson had been at work at his desk when interrupted.

The police dismissed the idea of a break-in and murder, theorizing that it was a well-staged suicide.  The coroner was less hasty in his decision, and ordered the Gold be arrested and held on suspicion of murder.

Two days later Gold was released.  The New-York Tribune reported "The Coroner and the police are satisfied that Nathanson was a suicide...Before ending his life he had tied himself to a chair.  Nathanson had taken out an insurance policy for $10,000 only two weeks ago, and recently he was despondent because of financial troubles"

The firm, later renamed C. B. Gold & Co., remained at No. 58 through the 1920's.  The building was purchased by Fairway Rayon Company in June 1946.  The store was leased to fabric dealer, Joseph Feldman Textiles.

By now No. 58 was dwarfed by the massive building next door, with the address of No. 401 Broadway.  Built in 1930 it rose 26 stories.  The two addresses were joined in tragedy in June 1954.  William H. Giles worked in the General Foods Corporation factory in No. 401 Broadway making electric cookers.  The 38-year old lived in New Jersey with his mother, his wife, and their three children.  For some reason Giles went to the roof of the building on the night of June 4 and jumped.  The following morning his body was found on the roof of No. 58 Walker Street.

After leasing the store for some years, Joseph Feldman Textiles purchased No. 58 in April 1955.  The gradual change in the Tribeca neighborhood was evidenced when the Electronic Specialties Supply Co. operated from the building in the 1960's.

Real change did not come to No. 58 until the 21st century.  A renovation and restoration by esteemed preservation architect Joseph Pell Lombardi in 2003 resulted in one sprawling residence per floor above the storefront.  The handsome renovation included replacing lost architectural details, like the Corinthian capitals of the storefront columns.

Luxurious residences occupy the floors where garment workers, including children, once worked long hours.  photographs via
non-credited photographs by the author

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