Friday, August 9, 2019

The Brunjes, Ockershausen & Co. Bldg - 288-289 West Street

When this photo was taken the buildings on either side had been demolished. photo via 

In 1859 Herman H. Brunjes, Peter Brunjes, Henry Luers, Jacob Fincke and Henry Attenhorn reorganized their sugar refining company as Brunjes, Ockershausen & Co.  It was about the same time that the firm erected a substantial refinery and warehouse building at Nos. 466 through 470 Washington Street, extending through the block to Nos. 288 and 289 West Street.  An early example of commercial Romanesque Revival architecture, the ground floor loading bays sat within massive brick arches.  The arched openings of the upper floors were arranged in pairs.  Below the cornice and simple pediment a brick corbel table and blind roundel provided interest to the otherwise un-apologetically utilitarian structure.

Although this 1869 rendering on a Brunjes, Ockershausen & Co. bill of sale depicts the West Street elevation (to the rear) of equal proportions, the West Street address always covered just two plots, as opposed to the three on Washington Street.

Although Henry Luers's son, Henry, Jr., continued in business with the other partners after his father's death in 1864, there seems to always have been tensions.  On January 17, 1865, for instance, Peter Brunjes filed suit against Luers's family members "relating to real and personal estate duly proved as the last will and testament of Henry Luers."  

The Luers family eventually got even.  Around the time the refinery was erected, the partners had taken out a $13,430 mortgage--around $418,000 today.  When the mortgage came due in the spring of 1875 the executors of Henry Luers's estate loaned the firm $38,000 with interest to pay the mortgage and continue operation of the business.  In order to ensure repayment, the firm "gave a mortgage of real estate to secure the payment of the bond," according to court papers.

Four years later the Luers family foreclosed.  On May 18, 1879 a judgment was entered in New York Supreme Court giving Elizabeth Luers $33,015.86 worth of "the stock and fixtures of a brewery [sic]."  On May 5, 1881 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Luers estate had received "in foreclosure" the West Street section of the refinery building.  The definitive cutting of ties came in 1885 when builders John D. McBrien and Samuel Smyth were hired to erect a brick party wall between the Washington Street and West Street buildings.

Now a separate structure, Nos. 288-289 West Street became home to the Frederick M. Stetler & Son warehouse.  Stetler and his son, Henry J., operated bonded warehouses in the city.   Frederick's success was a Horatio Algier-worthy story.

Born in the farm country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, he received a "common-school education."  At the age of 16, according to the New-York Tribune later, "he started from his country home for the metropolis with the determination of earning his own living."  He landed a job as a messenger boy for Arnold, Constable & Co. and slowly advanced within the department store.  After saving enough money, he bought an established bakery; then sold it at a profit to begin his storage warehouse business

Frederick lived in Jersey City Heights.  In the spring of 1897 he was thrown from a trolley car in Jersey City.  He suffered what the New-York Tribune described as "several hemorrhages."  Although he recovered from his injuries, he had never really felt well afterward.  About three months later, on July 1, he was feeling especially bad and his wife "prevailed on him to remain home...but he insisted upon going to his business," according to the New York Herald.  

Frederick made the trip to Manhattan and entered the office around noon.  He asked Henry to get him a glass of ice water, then "sank into the chair in which his son had been sitting," according to the newspaper.  Before Henry could return with the water, his 66-year old father had fallen unconscious to the floor.  He died before the physician could get to him.  The New York Herald reported "Apoplexy is believed to have caused his death."  [The condition is most often diagnosed today as a stroke.]

Five months later the Luers estate placed the West Street building on the market.  It was purchased by Herman Reessing on January 20, 1898 for $45,900 (about $1.53 million in today's dollars).

Reessing leased the warehouse to Julius Wolff, who hired architect A. N. Sloan in April to increase the height of the cellar, by lowering the "bottom," as described in the plans.  Two year later Reessing sold a fifty-percent stake in the building to Wolff. 

By 1906 the Diamond Match Company leased the building for storing its stock.  Matches are by their very nature highly flammable, and so when a fire broke out on April 25 that year there was no doubt a rush to control it.  Happily, The New York Times reported that the small fire resulted in "no damage."

Diamond Match Company was gone by the summer of 1919 when the building was offered for lease.  An advertisement in The New York Times that June described the up-to-date amenities:  "Electric elevator, Steam heat, Shipping platform.  Floor area of 40000 square feet; heavy carrying capacity."

Instead of leasing it, however, on December 5, 1912 The New York Press reported that Reessing and Wolff had sold Nos. 288-289 to wheelbarrow manufacturers The Lansing Company, of Lansing Michigan.  The article noted "The buying company will occupy the building."

The Lansing Company stored its wheelbarrows here through 1920.   In January 1921 the firm sold the building to Theodore Ficke, Jr.  The transaction came about when the massive Holland Tunnel project was getting underway.  In reporting on the sale, The New York Herald noted "The property is in the New Jersey vehicular tube terminal zone."

The Theodore Ficke Warehouses, Inc. was not in the building long before trouble arrived in the form of Federal agents.  In October 1923 eleven men were arrested in a "beer bribery plot" and the investigation was far from over.  On October 20 The Sun and The Globe reported "Two search warrants were given to Federal agents who went up to 289 West street to hunt for some alcohol.  That building is a warehouse and it had figured in the evidence against the eleven men."

The raid proved fruitful.  "According to the agents, they found 1,000 barrels of alcohol," reported the article.  "The value of the alcohol, according to the agents, was $400,000."  It was a significant amount, more in the neighborhood of $5.88 million today.  Theodore Ficke did not help his case by offering Special Revenue Agent Earle R. Barnard a $3,000 bribe.

Ficke had two other warehouses, one on Crosby Street and another in Brooklyn.  His largest client was the Federal Food Stores, Inc., owners of 200 grocery stores.  Having weathered the Prohibition raid, his problems only got worse in the spring of 1925 when the Federal Food Stores, Inc. went bankrupt.  The Standard Union ran an article entitled "Ficke Warehouses Hit In Wake of $4,000,000 Federal Food Crash" on April 21, 1925.  The article reported that the Theodore Ficke Warehouses "have upward of $3,000,000 worth of merchandise stores on its premises."  The same day The New York Times reported that the Theodore Ficke Warehouses, Inc. had been placed in involuntary bankruptcy.

Amazingly, the original bay doors survive.
Ficke might have seemed at first an innocent victim of his client's bad business practices.  But that picture changed a few months later in June when he was indicted as an accomplice in the Federal Food Stores, Inc. illegal practices.  On June 29, 1925 The Standard Union reported that Theodore Ficke, Jr. had testified "that he had signed duplicate warehouse receipts."  

Following Ficke, the West Street building was home to The North River Stores, Inc.  The warehouse was used for storage of "general merchandise."  The firm would remain here for years.

By the early 1980's the flanking structures were demolished and Nos. 288-289 West Street stood like a lonely relic of a much different era.  Despite that, in 1986 a conversion resulted in two loft apartments per floor.  Today the 150-year old structure is wedged between luxurious residential buildings.

1 comment:

  1. The new buildings look incredibly cheap and disposable next to it, when in reality, they are probably quite expensive. Sad.