Friday, July 26, 2019

From Silk Goods to Art - 104 Franklin Street

In the first half of the 19th century the block of Franklin Street between West Broadway and Church  Street was lined with the elegant brick homes.  At No. 104 was the residence of Major Joseph Delafield and his wife, the former Julia Livingston.   A son, Maturin Livingston Delafield, was born in the house on February 17, 1836.

Delafield was a veteran of the War of 1812.  He was president of the Lyceum of Natural History (later named the New York Academy of Sciences) when he held a meeting of the group in the house in 1845.  The Delafield family was still in residence as late as February 1855 when "a dangerous lunatic," as described by the New-York Enquirer, was caught attempting to break into a rear window.

But change overtook the Tribeca neighborhood following the Civil War.  In 1866 Philadelphia dry goods merchant Isaiah Vansant Williamson demolished the Delafield house to make way for a modern loft building.

If Williamson, who was described by John Wanamaker decades later as "the city's foremost dry goods merchant," originally intended No. 104 Franklin Street as the New York branch of his business, it never came to pass.

He was almost undoubtedly involved with two other wealthy Philadelphians, Joseph Frailey Smith and Henry Lewis, in the speculative project.  As No. 104 rose, its identical twin was being erected by Smith and Lewis.  The carbon-copy designs and the triple Philadelphia connection suggest that the projects were cooperative, the details lost to time.

The buildings were completed in 1868--sandstone-fronted Second Empire-style lofts with cast iron storefronts.  The pilasters which separated the openings of the upper floors echoed the Corinthian columns of the storefront.  Sill courses separated each floor and a prominent cast iron cornice crowned the whole.

Stone carvers created paneled piers, ornate capitals and delicate moldings.
Well before No. 104 was officially completed the store of William J. Best opened in the ground floor space.  Best dealt in imported Irish linens, the sort of high quality items that graced the tables and bedrooms of wealthy families.  The pricey goods were a temptation for Charles Miller on February 14, 1867.

The twenty-one-year old sauntered into the shop, "under the pretence [sic] of making a purchase," according to The New York Times.  Suddenly he jumped into action, grabbing up 14 pieces of linen valued at more than $5,100 today, and about three dozen handkerchiefs.  The newspaper said "His greed for plunder proved his ruin."

A man running down Franklin Street with his arms laden with tablecloths and handkerchiefs drew the attention of pedestrians.  He was subdued and turned over to Officer Stevens who "forthwith" conveyed him to court.

William J. Best's shop remained here until 1872 when it moved down the block to No. 119 Franklin Street.   In the meantime, Dexter, Lambert & Co. had moved into the newly-completed No. 104 from No. 294 Broadway in 1868. 

Now composed of George R. Dexter, Catholina Lambert, and Charles Barton, the firm was founded in 1849 by Anson Dexter for the manufacturing "dress and mantilla trimmings." 

Dexter, Lambert & Co. was, according to the 1882 A History of Industrial Patterson, the first firm to engage in silk ribbon weaving in this country.  "To this house belong the credit of being the pioneers in this branch of the silk industry."  The book's author, Levi R. Trumbell pointed out that Dexter, Lambert & Co. obtained its raw silk from John Ryle's mills in Paterson, New Jersey.

John Ryle was known as the "father of the United States silk industry" and in 1869 would be elected as Mayor of Paterson, New Jersey.  One of 17 children, he had started out in the silk industry in his native England as a "bobbin boy" at the age of five.  By now his was among the largest silk mills in the country.

It was probably not coincidental that John Ryle & Co. moved into the newly completed No. 104 at the same time as Dexter, Lambert & Co.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on December 21, 1868 sought "Skein Silk Dyer--To take charge of a dye house; regular employment to a sober and competent man.  Apply to John Ryle & Co., 104 Franklin st."

The size of the both operations had been documented in The New York Herald's article on silk production on October 26 that year.  "The mill of John Ryle & Co. keeps 300 operatives employed, whose aggregate wages amount to $50,000 per annum."  The article listed the New Jersey mill's 3,256 silk-winding spindles, 952 doubling spindles and 8,663 other spindles and spooling frames."

The same article said "A very beautiful branch of manufacture is that carried on in the factory of Dexter, Lambert & Co.--ribbons, fringes and gimps.  The machinery required is of the most complicated kind and varies in the different departments from the dyeing room, with its odorous vats and compounds, to the upper floor, a very labyrinth of looms--ninety-six in number."

The looms were capable of producing $1 million in product per year--nearly 18 times that much by today's figures.  Dexter, Lambert & Co. employed 202 workers in the Franklin Street building at the time, "half of whom were young boys and girls, all making good wages."  The article noted "This establishment is only ten months in operation, and has apparently a prosperous future before it."  The firm's Patterson mills, incidentally, employed about 1,000 workers.

The Sun revisited Dexter, Lambert & Co. in July 1869, reporting that it was making "60,000 to 70,000 yards of dress trimming per month."

At the time Peter Turner was a foreman in the Paterson facility.  His name appeared in newspapers later that year for a tragic accident and a subsequent eerie "visitation."  On Monday, August 30 Turner was killed on his way home from a picnic.  His death soon prompted a mystery.

Turner had been paid "a considerable sum of money recently," according to The New York Herald, which he had hidden inside his house.  A search was made "from garret to cellar" but the cash could not be found.  Then, two days later, neighbor John Howarth knocked on Mrs. Turner's door "and informed her he had a dream in which the deceased had appeared to him."

According to Howarth, Turner told him to look under a pile of rubbish in the cellar, where he would find a "blacking  box" (a wooden shoe polish crate) containing $140, about a third of the total.  Several men joined in the search and, indeed, in the exact location the box and the $140 were recovered.  The New York Herald vouched, "Mr. Howarth, the dreamer, is said to be a conscientiously veracious man" who would never lie about previously knowing the location.

In the meantime, with no ghosts in the firm's New York offices, business continued as usual.  On September 20, 1870 it advertised for "Good power loom ribbon and trimming weavers and pickers up at our factory in Paterson, New Jersey.  Apply to Dexter, Lambert & Co., 104 Franklin st."

In 1872, the same year that William Best relocated, Dexter, Lambert & Co moved to No. 466 Broome Street.  The Franklin Street building saw a variety of tenants, including skirt manufacturer J. Schoenhof, here by 1880; and Joseph Walker & Co., "stamped linen" merchants.

Jacob Schoenhoff was a colorful figure who began business in 1855 as a partner in Hoeber & Schoenhoff.  That firm and the subsequent business, Rosenheim & Schoenhoff both failed.  In 1872 Schoenhoff started on his own in the Franklin Street building.  His bad luck in business continued, the skirt firm failing in 1888.  Rather stunningly, President Grover Cleveland almost immediately appointed him Consul "to a small town in the pottery district of England," according to The New York Press.

Isaiah V. Williamson died in Philadelphia on March 7, 1889.  His death prompted accolades nation-wide that recounted his vast philanthropies, including the founding of the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades a year earlier.  Eight months later his estate sold No. 104 Franklin Street to Samuel Inslee for $75,000--more than $2 million today.  Inslee made a hefty profit when he resold the building on January 2, 1891 for $82,500.

Tenants at the time were John E. Quintance, commission agent, and Ambrose Wood who operated the American branch of James Wood & Co., one of the largest woolen mills in England.  Upon Ambrose Wood's death on March 14, 1897, The New York Press called him "prominent in the dry goods trade as an extensive importer of woolens and dry goods for the last thirty years."

While dry goods firms--like the American Knitting Mills Co. which manufactured underwear and "Men's fancy seamless half hose"--continued to occupy the building after the turn of the century, other industries were soon represented.  Among them were the Warren Chair Seat Mfg. Co., makers of the Met-Cane and Warren brand seats, here by 1904; and Henry K. Barnes, "oak and mineral tanned belting," firm.

In 1914 the drug firm J. J. Bigelow & Co. moved into the second floor, and in 1916 John Hood, the Boston-based dental equipment company took the third.  Following World War I the wholesale produce district was edging up to the dry goods district.  By 1929 Simone Saitta operated his fruit importing business in the building.

Velveray Corporation of America was here during the Depression years.  Like the original tenants, it dealt in silk goods; but it carried the new synthetic fibers like rayon, as well.   Its founder and president branched out in December 1939 by forming the Central Processing Corporation in the Franklin Street building.  The New York Times announced it would "engage in the business of novelty printing."

On September 19, 1944 the Hanover Bank & Trust Company sold No. 104 to a seemingly unlikely buyer, St. Luke's Hospital.  The transaction was purely an investment, however, and within three weeks the building was sold to the Continental Converters Corporation.  The textile firm called No. 104 home until 1957.

The change in Tribeca from a gritty, industrial neighborhood to one of galleries, restaurants and loft residences was first evidenced at No. 104 when The Loft Gallery opened around 1961.  It was followed in the 1980's by the Poole Willis gallery.

By 1985 the store where Charles Miller had tried to make off with an armload of linens in 1867 was home to Aesthetics a boutique shop.  Upstairs was Pentacle Dance Works, dance performance space and non-profit arts promotion organization.

The store became home to the antiques store Antik around 1997.  The New York Times noted on September 6, 1998 that it specialized "in modernist design."  Run by Juliet Burrows and Kim Hostler, it featured items like the pottery of Danish ceramist and painter Axel Salto.  In 1999 they offered 40 vases and 20 drawings by the artist.

A renovation completed in 2005 resulted in one residence each on the second and fifth floors, offices on the third and a dance studio on the fourth.  The 20th century fire escape that zig-zags down the front and droops its extension across the top of the storefront unfortunately distracts from the handsome 1866 design.

photographs by the author

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