Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The 1832 Thomas Barron House - 39 White Street

Astoundingly, the cast iron base was inserted under the masonry house.

By any accounts, the three-story, 25-foot wide brick-faced house Thomas Barron erected at No. 39 White Street was elegant and refined.  Begun in 1831 and completed a year later, it featured the best elements of the Federal and newer Greek Revival styles.  The triangular pediments above the openings were echoed in that above the single-doored entrance, flanked by two fluted columns.  The Greek Revival style forewent the Federal peaked roof; yet two Federal-style arched dormers perched above the bracketed Greek Revival cornice.

Born in Woodbridge, New Jersey on June 10, 1790, Barron began work as a clerk in his father's store at the age of 14.  In 1814 he moved to Manhattan and soon formed a drygoods business with J. I. Coddington, and by the time he erected his White Street house had amassed a significant personal fortune.

In his 1882 History of Union and Middlesex Counties, W. Woodford Clayton wrote "Having amassed a competency he withdrew from active business life, and thereafter devoted his time to unostentatious philanthropy, to study, and his favorite sport of fishing."  He was instrumental in the founding of the New-York Historical Society and upon its incorporation in 1809 donated $10,000--more than $210,000 today.  He was also highly involved in the American Geographical Society and the American Museum of Natural History, and a director in at least two insurance companies.

The Barron family's residency would be short lived.  In 1835 the house was purchased by Seth Grosvenor, principal in Seth Grosvenor & Co. at No. 122 Broadway.  He was, as well, a director in the North Western Insurance Company, the National Bank, and was for years a trustee of the "Common Schools."

Concerned for the underprivileged, Grosvenor was moved during the winter of 1843 by a man who entered his office and introduced himself as Jones.  Explaining that that he was a nephew of Alderman Jones, who was collecting money for the poor, he asked for contributions.

On February 6 The New York Herald entitled an article "Look Out For Swindlers" and exposed Jones as a fraud.  "How much money he has succeeded in procuring in all, is not known, of course, but he did get $10 from Seth Grosvenor, Esq."  It was a generous $350 donation in today's money.

The newspaper was clear in its opinion of the crime.  "We know of no kind of swindling which so richly deserves the state prison as that which takes advantage of the sufferings of poor widows and orphans...Any person who can cause this villain Jones to be arrested, or taken to the police office, will do a service to the public."

Grosvenor died in 1856.  The extent of his massive fortune was revealed in his will.   Among the many bequests were $30,000 to the Board of Education "to be expended in books to form a library for the Free Academy," $100,000 to the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Jews, and $10,000 each the Mercantile Library and the New-York Asylum for Lying-in Women.  Those amounts alone would top $4.5 million today.

At the time of Grovenor's death the once elegant White Street block had changed.  Homes were slowly being converted or demolished to make way for commercial structures.  In 1860 the Grosvenor estate made a remarkable decision regarding No. 39.

In order to accommodate a store, the entire house was raised and a new floor inserted.  (The more expected route would have been to gut the first floor and add a story on the roof.)  The difficult engineering project was remarkable enough to warrant a lithograph of the work as it proceeded.  Completed in 1861, its new ground floor was fronted by a handsome cast iron storefront with fluted Corinthian columns and pier.  A full top floor now took the place of the dormered attic.

The lithograph released by Brown & Adams in 1860 was entitled "Raising of House No. 39 White Street, N. York."

The renovated building became home to dry goods firms, including Henry Attwell & Company.  Henry Attwell and his partner, James R. Whyte, were dealers in "linens, white goods and embroideries."  The firm would remain in the building for decades.

Elias Otis's elevator had been invented only seven years earlier and freight elevators would not become commonplace until after the turn of the century.  Goods were hoisted up and down by means of pulleys through hatchways--in effect open shafts.  It was a dangerous and sometimes fatal process.

Charles F. Bedt worked on the fourth floor of No. 39 White Street in 1864.  The 14-year-old was helping lower goods in January 9 when he lost his footing and fell to his death.

The boy's death was one of a string of tragedies related to the building over the next two decades.  Among the tenants in the early 1870's was Henry Sulzbacher & Co., clothing manufacturers.  Its head, Henry Sulzbacher, was born in Germany and had made a successful life in America.  The New York Herald described the family's home as "an elegant brown stone front and furnished in a very costly style."  Henry Sulzbacher and his wife had three children.

The Financial Panic of 1873 wiped out many firms.  In January 1876 Sulzbacher sold his business "as it did not pay," according to him.  He was still involved, however, going to the White Street building every day as usual.  The change in circumstances apparently weighed more heavily on his 35-year old wife.

Two weeks later, on February 2, Sulzbacher left for work as usual at 7:45.  At 10:00 his wife gave instructions to the cook, Margarette Dingman, about dinner; and then soon afterward came back to the kitchen saying she would help with the pudding by peeling apples.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  About 45 minutes later Mrs. Sulzbacher asked Margarette to go upstairs and light all the fireplaces.  The task took about an hour.

When Margarette returned to the kitchen she found her employer hanging from a piece of clothesline.  The New York Herald said her body "was still warm, but the life extinct."

By the early 1880's Samuel E. Hopkins operated his wholesale hosiery factory in the building.  He and his family lived comfortably on Shore Road in Clifton, Staten Island.

On April 15, 1884 Samuel West arrived in town.  He and Hopkins were acquainted through business.  West's father was a woolen goods merchant in Philadelphia and his brother ran a wholesale hosiery firm in Germantown, Pennsylvania.  Hopkins owned a sailboat and offered to show his friend the the lower harbor and take a "pleasure sail" through the Narrows.  They agreed on Thursday, April 17.

It was a lovely day and Hopkins brought along his 12-year-old son, Stoddard.  Hopkin's brother, B. B. Hopkins, later explained "The boat was cranky, being a pilot's yawl made into a sailboat."  Nevertheless his brother was a good sailor and was familiar with the bay and its various conditions.

Witnesses overheard Hopkins remark that the rudder was "out of gear," and one later said "as the boat left the shore she was seen to veer wildly, while Mr. Hopkins was leaning over the stern trying to fix the rudder."  It was the last anyone would see of the trio alive.

The following day the tugboat General Rosecrans came upon the empty sailboat floating bottom up in the Narrows.  It would not be until three weeks later, on June 9, that the body of Samuel E. Hopkins was found on a beach on Fire Island.  The following week on June 15 West's corpse washed ashore at Long Branch, New Jersey.  The boy's body was never recovered.

The piers have sadly lost their Corinthian capitols (and the surviving examples on the columns have been brutally damaged).  The small-paned transoms are wonderfully intact..
No. 39 White Street continued to house apparel firms.  One of the original tenants, Henry Attwell & Company was still here when it filed for bankruptcy in June 1895.  Deutsch & Co., cloak manufacturers were here at the time, as was L. Fibel & Brother, makers of shirts.  In 1896 that firm employed eight men, four boys, six women, and six girls.  They all worked 58 hours a week.

No doubt by the time The Colonial Real Estate Association purchased the building on May 1, 1903 many of the domestic elements of the upper floors, other than the lintels and cornice, had already been stripped away.  The firm paid $55,000 for the property, just over $1.6 million today.

Among its tenants in the first years of the 20th century were David S. Austin, makers of umbrellas, here by 1903; and Weed & Brother, dealers in "linings, trimmings, cotton flannels, sheetings, etc."

On October 1919 the linen firm of Turtle Brothers, based in Belfast, Ireland, purchased the building.  The New-York Tribune noted it would used the entire building "as a local headquarters."  Turtle Brothers initiated a renovation, completed in 1920, which resulted in "offices and showrooms."

Dry Goods and Apparel, February, 1920 (copyright expired)
Despite its original assertion, Turtle Bros. leased upper floor space.  In 1921 Margaret and Louis Schwagerl took space for their stationery firm, L. A. Schwagerl & Co.  The same year space was leased to The Magnet Trading Corporation.  And by 1922 E. E. Alley Co. was here.  The firm supplied hotels with linens, including "dish toweling, cotton towels, huck towels, turkish towels, waiters' and servants' aprons" and "table padding and cloth table tops."

Garment Manufacturers' Index, 1920 (copyright expired)

Turtle Brothers remained in the building for decades.  In the 1960's it was purchased in the 1960's by the Taylor Linen Company.  The firm leased space to another fabrics concern, the Anderson Textile Refolding Company.

Other than a coat of white paint, the building looks the same in this 1940 tax photo.  from the NYC Department of Records & Information Services.
The rediscovery of Tribeca arrived at No. 39 around 1987 when the Alum Dance Foundation, operated by Samuel Alum, moved in.  The space was home to the Samuel Alum Dance Company until 1989 when a conversion of the building was begun.  The renovation, completed a year later, resulted in one apartment per floor above the store.  A penthouse was added in 2014 to accommodate a top floor duplex.

Few passersby could imagine the the four upper floors are, in actuality, an 1832 house miraculously raised above the store in 1860.

photographs by the author

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