Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Striking 1868 289 Church Street

The Church Street block between White and Walker Streets had been a respectable residential neighborhood in the 1830's.  Two decades later businesses had taken over most of the homes.  In 1851 J. Fenner, "celebrated Bootmaker from Paris" had his shop in the two-story house at No. 195 Church Street, "one door from White."

But by the time of the Civil War the district had noticeably degraded.  In the rear yard of No. 195 Church Street was a smaller structure which drew the attention of law enforcement in 1864.  On April 20 Police Captain Petty "made a descent on the policy shop of Joseph Lewis, 195-1/2 Church Street," as reported in The New York Herald.  His men "seized a wheel used for drawing numbers for gambling purposes, and other cheap implements much in vogue for the sporting fraternity.  As no games of chance were being played at the time the officers entered no arrests were made."

Three  years after that incident Moses Ely demolished both buildings and erected a modern loft and store building on the site.  Designed by Charles Duggin and completed in 1868, it was a unique take on the French Second Empire style.  Three stories of sandstone sat upon a cast iron store base.  Each floor, separated by a paneled band, featured creatively designed openings.  Their shapes and treatments were highly unusual and created a striking facade.  The bracketed cornice sat upon a frieze of projecting panels.

The ground floor seems to have housed a bar-restaurant from the beginning.  Either in the cellar or in the rear was a separate "wine room."   The owner's health soon declined and in 1870 he was forced to sell.  He advertised the two businesses separately.  One ad offered "A fine barroom, lunch and oyster house for sale; best locality," and another a "First Class wine room for sale--at 195 Church street, for less than half what it cost, to a responsible tenant; sickness reason for selling."

It was about the same time that Church Street was renumbered, giving the building its new address of No. 289.  While apparel factories operated on the upper floors--Bernard Sprinz's "cloaks" factory was here in the mid-1880's--the ground floor would be a saloon for decades.

By 1885 it was owned by Henry Murken.  That year he advertised it as a beer saloon.  But as early as 1890 he had branched out into "liquors."  Although one of Murken's employees was looking for a new job in 1892, it was apparently an amicable split.  His advertisement gave Murken's saloon as his contact address:

A First-Class downtown man, rapid and careful mixer, seeks position; is sober, steady and capable; best references.  Address Barkeeper, 289 Church st.

Henry Murken ran the saloon until 1894, when F. Oppermann, Jr. took over the lease.  Tenants in the upper floors at the time included Isaac Seidel's suspender and apron factory, and H. Blauner & Co., "cloaks."  In 1896 Blauner had a sizable staff, employing 29 males and 2 females.  It is unclear how many were underage, but a factory inspection noted that minors worked only 49 hours per week.

The saloon changed hands twice before the turn of the century.  Louis Lohmeyer signed the lease in 1896 and three years later Jacob Ruppert took over the space.  Ruppert owned one of the major Manhattan breweries and ran several saloons throughout the city.  The practice of breweries operating their own saloons was common, and it gave them the opportunity to sell only their own brands.  The Ruppert saloon would remain into the early years of the 20th century.

By then the upper floors were home to J. & H. Laitin, wholesale furriers.  The shop produced fashion accessories like "white Thibet boas;" scarves made of sable, mink, nutria, Russian blended muskrat, or gray fox; and the highly-popular fur muffs.  The retail price for a sable scarf in 1902 was as high as $48--a significant $1,450 today.

No. 289 was showing its age by now.  In 1908 and 1909 it was deemed an "unsafe building" by inspectors.  The problems were corrected and J. & H. Laitin remained in the building until 1912 when the Ruden Press took over the upper floors.  

The World War I years saw a quick succession of leasees.  In 1918 the building was leased to Emilio Zucca and Joe di Bellucci and the following year to Morris Golden.  

Prohibition, of course, put an end to the more than half-century use of the ground floor as a saloon.  In the 1930's and '40's it was home to Sidney's Luncheonette.

Sidney's Luncheonette advertised "Soda" on its enamel sign in the 1940's.  photo via NYC Department of Records and Information Services.
A renovation completed in 1967 resulted in a residential triplex on the upper floors.  It was most likely at this time that the storefront was remodeled.  The design made use of surviving cast iron elements and, while not faithful to the less interesting original, resulted in a believable Victorian front.

In the early years of the 21st century the building was the studio of owner and artist Steven Rand.  He transformed it to a work of art in itself in the fall of 2006.  At night the windows, one by one, changed pulsating colors.  The structure itself was now a kinetic work.

photographs by the author