Citizens of New York were understandably terrified when in 1793 a yellow fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia. Just two years earlier the disease had claimed 100 New York victims. So far the disease had not reached Manhattan, but Philadelphia was reeling and eventually 5,000 people, one-tenth of its population, would succumb.
And then in July 1795 the first yellow fever death in New York City came. Within a single week in August twenty-one victims died. Panic ensued and those who could afford to leave the city did so, moving to the fresh air of remote hamlets like Greenwich Village. Entire businesses moved north, following their patrons, or opened what were considered temporary branch offices. Realizing that if the epidemic were not gotten under control it would have to move, in 1806 the Manhattan Bank Company purchased a rural plot of land, one acre square, from Edward Williams.
As it turned out the bank did not have to relocate and the land running north along Broadway from what would become East 17th Street sat vacant for decades. But by the 1830's the expansion of the city was nearing the area. A banker, Samuel Ruggles, spearheaded the creation of Union Square in 1832. Completed in 1842, it was an exclusive enclave of upscale homes surrounding a tranquil, fenced garden with a central fountain.
The Manhattan Bank Company began construction of four speculative brick-faced homes in 1847. An ample 25-feet wide and four stories tall, the Greek Revival style houses were completed the following year.
Dr Thomas Ward purchased No. 866 from the bank in 1849. The high-end nature of the residence was evidenced in the fact that it was plumbed for lighting gas and boasted running water--both hot and cold. If the physician ever used it for his home and practice, it was short-lived. In the spring of 1850 he leased it to Customs House agent Jules C. Coutan and his wife for occupancy the following year.
The couple currently lived at No. 255 Greene Street, where Mrs. Coutan also ran her "young ladies' school." She gave the parents of her students a full year's notice concerning the change in locations on May 25, 1850. Her announcement in the New-York Daily Tribune read "Institution for Young Ladies--Madame Coutan respectfully informs the parents of her pupils that on the 1st of May next she will remove her institution to 866 Broadway, near Union-square The classes will reopen on Monday, May 5."
Private schools for well-heeled young ladies were highly important in the 19th century. The future socialites were schooled in music, languages, art and deportment. A fluency in French was crucial for ladies who would spend months in Paris each year.
Despite the relatively small scale of the house, the Coutans accepted out-of-town girls as boarders. An advertisement on September 10, 1851 described "Madam A. Coutan's French and English Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies, No. 866 Broadway near Union-square."
The Broadway neighborhood around No. 866 at the time was already changing as the upscale homes were being transformed for high-end businesses like dressmakers, merchant tailors and art galleries. Thomas Ward was aware of the trend and around 1852, when the Coutans left, he converted the ground floor to a retail shop. Philo Cole moved his family into the upper floors and his business into the shop.
An announcement in the New-York Daily Tribune on June 13, 1853 informed customers "P. Cole has removed his stock of Dry Goods from No. 689 Broadway to No. 866 Broadway, three doors above 17th-st., where he invites his customers and the public generally to give him a call. Our stock will comprise a full assortment of staple and fancy Dry Goods, Gentlemen's Furnishing Goods, &c."
Philo Cole was following the northward migration of his customers. He, like the other Broadway merchants near Union Square, catered to the carriage trade and carried costly, imported goods. An ad on September 18, 1854 announced "Just received, a large lot of Irish linens, table linen, damask napkins, blankets counterpanes, black silks, large lot of lace collars."
The range of his stock was head-spinning. In April 1866 he advertised not only "French skirts, newest style; also skirts made to order, of every variety;" but in a separate ad "staple and fancy dry goods, sheetings, shirtings, table linen, boys' wear, under wear, hosiery, kid gloves, mourning goods, colored and black silks, matting, druggeting and oilcloths." (Druggeting was a decorative woolen cloth mat placed under tables to protect costly carpets.)
The Coles augmented the family income by renting unused rooms. An advertisement in May 1855 offered "Furnished rooms to let in a small family, in suits or single, with gas, hot and cold water. Inquire of P. Cole, 866 Broadway."
It appears that Cole temporarily considered moving again in 1861. Dr. Ward advertised "To Let--House No. 866 Broadway, or Furnished Rooms, with full or partial Board. Will let for either a dwelling or business purposes." But his long-term tenant seems to have changed his mind. Four years later Cole's dry goods store was still here, advertising his newly arrive assortment of "linen sheets, bed ticks, mosquito netting, white and colored blankets, and a full assortment of housekeeping Dry Goods generally."
Nevertheless, it was about this time that Ward sold the property and Philo Cole did move on. Soon afterward Madame Maurice moved her dressmaking establishment in. Successful modistes were skilled designers who often employed a small staff of workers. They followed the Paris fashions closely and almost always styled themselves as "Madame." The best dressmakers amassed their own personal fortunes.
Madame Maurice lost her patience with one client who failed to collect an expensive gown as the summer season of 1871 began. Her pointed announcement in The New York Herald on July 28 warned "Mrs. Howard is requested to call for her dress before the 3d August next, otherwise it will be sold to pay expenses."
At the time the ground floor of the former house next door, No. 864, had been home to A. Iauch's "French Confectionery and Restaurant" for at least four years. By 1873 he had purchased and expanded into No. 866. He operated, as well, the A. Iauch's Hotel and Restaurant in the fashionable summer resort of Long Branch, New Jersey.
Iauch was a member of the Swiss Benevolent Society of New York, a group of successful businessmen intent on helping their less fortunate immigrant countrymen. On January 29, 1876 at 8:00 p.m. the group gathered for a meeting "at Mr. Iauch's, 864 and 866 Broadway."
He had ceased renting rooms in the upper floors around this time, leasing space instead to small commercial concerns. A school for instructing apparel workers operated here in 1877, offering classes in "The Shoulder and Breast Combination French Geometric system, for drafting ladies' waists and basques. Teaching will commence August 1. 866 Broadway."
Downstairs the patrons sipping chocolate and enjoying French pastries were mostly the feminine shoppers who visited the Broadway and Union Square shops--like Gorham Silver, Tiffany & Co. and Lord & Taylor. In 1884 New England: A Handbook for Travelers noted that "Iauch...keeps [a] ladies' restaurant which is much frequented."
Four about two years, beginning in 1884 The New York Dramatic News and Society Journal was published here. A subscriber paid $4 a year, or about $103 today, to get what advertisements promised were all the latest "telegrams and correspondence from every Theatre and Opera House in the United States and Europe. Also contains notes relative to the Legitimate, Variety and Amateur Stage and Society."
A. Iausch's restaurant was gone in 1885 and the two ground floor spaces were again separated. No. 866 became home to D. B. Bedell & Co., purveyors of expensive cut glass, fine china and similar household items. On March 21, 1885 The Record & Guide commented on the cut glass wares "worthy of admiration" available. "Olive trays, fruit bowls, butter tubs, with several odd designs in finger and salad bowls, are constantly being received by D. B. Bedell, 866 Broadway."
Shopping at D. B. Bedell & Co. was not an inexpensive prospect. And Victorian decorum demanded a range of specialized plates and containers for different dishes. Bedell's French and English porcelain, like Royal Worcester, consisted of "dinner, fish and game sets, separate plates, oyster plates, chocolate pots, single cups and saucers, salad bowls, glassware, jardinieres" as well as "flower vases, china lamps, clocks, asparagus plates and a variety of Fancy Articles." In 1896 a decorated dinner set cost as much as $250, more than $7,500 today.
As Christmas approached that year the New-York Tribune nudged shoppers toward D. B. Bedell & Co. "That glassware should be a favorite form of present in the glacial period of the year is a practical recognition of the 'eternal fitness of things' not always met with in the selection of gifts." After enumerating many items in the store's "finer selection of rich cut glassware," the article added "There is a new kind of American pottery made in Ohio and of which this firm has the exclusive sale in this city. It is artistically shaded in rich, dark green and browns, and the oddly shaped pieces have each a miniature bunch of leaves or flowers painted on them before they are glazed."
That "new kind of pottery" which the article failed to name was Rookwood, manufactured in Cincinnati. The journalist called it "certainly exquisite, and few importations on the market to-day can equal it in beauty of colorings or in the novel shapes of bowls, vases and jugs." It was high praise at a time when art pottery was just emerging and moneyed shoppers still look to England and Europe for high-end tableware.
|The Evening Telegram, December 22, 1898 (copyright expired)|
As the shopping district continued to move northward, D. B. Bedell & Co. closed its doors in 1899 and moved to No. 256 Fifth Avenue. The store became home to Morse Brothers menswear store and, by 1903, Fuller's Detective Bureau operated from an upper floor office. The firm was well-established, having been founded in 1876.
A distraught woman (or, most likely, her husband) visited the office in the spring of 1903 after having lost a valuable piece of jewelry. The bureau took the case and, while the client most likely envisioned investigators scouring pawn shops, it instead placed an advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on May 9:
A handsome reward will be paid for following article lost in this city between Sunday, 3d, and Thursday, 7th inst.: Pearl necklace, containing about 80 pearls, with three pearls pendant and diamond studded clasp.
The firm, headed by J. M. Fuller, remained at No. 866 for several years, marketing its expertise in 1904 as "banking, legal, commercial and private investigations; any section." In 1908 it offered services abroad as well. Entitling its advertisement on May 31 "A Detective," it described "Services including all legitimate civil and criminal investigations. American and foreign agents."
By 1915 the Broadway block was no longer upscale and small manufacturing shops moved into the building. That year the Princess Art and Embroidery Works took space, as did cloak makers Cohen, Nelson & Gussow.
In November 1921 the P. R. W. Holding Company purchased No. 866. Its main tenant at the time was the Bay State Fibre Co., sellers of cut-rate furniture. An advertisement in The Evening Telegram on June 16 that year offered "Reed and fibre furniture--warehouse overstock; priced at less than cost to manufacture."
|The Evening World, July 6, 1921 (copyright expired)|
The Bay State Fibre Co. would have to find new accommodations the following year when the New York Telephone Company took the ground floor and basement for "a branch office."
In 1923 the owners made alterations which resulted in an office (presumably to the telephone company's specifications) on the ground floor and factory space above. At the same time a fire escape was installed outside.
|The 1923 fire escape fronted the upper floors were signage attached to the facade advertised the tenants in this tax photo form the 1940's. The Broadway Book Centre occupied the ground floor. NYC Department of Records & Information Services.|
Neil Scott, a 20-year-old Harlem resident, was hired by the Ahluwalia family who owned the franchise restaurant in August 1986. But his violent temper did not make for a good fit. He had been repeatedly chastised for being both late and rude to customers. The last straw came when he got into an argument with one of the owners, pulled out a knife and slashed him. The wound required 13 stitches. But rather than press charges, the family simply fired him.
The restaurant was shut down by the Health Department for code violations for a few days in September. When it reopened on September 16 Scott appeared at around 3:25 in the afternoon. He asked one of the owners working behind the counter for his job back. When he was rebuffed, he pulled out a pistol and began firing. Four of the Ahluwalia family members were hit. Two did not survive.
By the turn of the century the Union Square neighborhood was in the midst of a renaissance. The Parks Department had completely renovated the park and business had returned to the several formerly boarded up buildings. In 2000 No. 866 received a make-over which resulted in a spruced-up storefront and two apartments in the upper floors.
photographs by the author