Saturday, October 5, 2019

Henry Fernbach's 1869 No. 85 Walker Street

The capitals of its ground floor cast iron column have been lost and a century-and-a-half of grim has blacked the light-colored stone. 
In 1862 H. Larsen advertised himself as a "Practical Piano Forte Maker" at No 85 Walker Street.  He promised that in his shop (in what was most likely a converted dwelling) he had "New and Second Hand Pianos always on hand.  Old Pianos Repaired and Tuned and taken in exchange for New; and Packed and Shipped to any part."  But the days of Larsen's piano store were drawing to and end.

The first years following the end of the Civil War saw a burst of development in Manhattan, notably in what we today call the Tribeca district.  On April 18, 1868 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted "Charles Zinn & Co. have made a contact to erect a first class store on the south side of Walker st. (No. 85) to be commenced immediately."  The report added that the architect was Henry Fernbach.

Fernbach was busy designing loft buildings in the district at the time, and is responsible for several structures on the Walker Street block.  For Charles Zinn & Co. he blended the Italianate and French Second Empire styles to create a pleasing factory and store faced in light sandstone.  The cast iron storefront was typical of the period.  Its columns, which were graced with sedate Doric capitals, upheld an entablature and cornice.

The upper floors were essentially identical, each separated by a running bandcourse.  The segmentally-arched openings wore unusual rusticated eyebrows.  A bracketed sheet metal cornice finished the design.

The building was completed in 1869 and rented to Hall, Black & Co.  Perhaps no accessory was more critical to a woman's summer wardrobe than a parasol and on April 14, 1869 the firm advertised:

Parasols !
Parasols !!
Parasols !!!

No Revolution !!

"Let Us Have Peace"

We propose to offer goods in our line at Prices that will At All Times fully meet the Erratic exigencies of the Trade.

In another advertisement that spring the firm touted its products as "The Finest and Cheapest Parasols in the Country."

Perhaps Hall, Black & Co.'s prices were too low.  For whatever reason the firm was gone within three years.  An advertisement in the New York Herald on October 7, 1872 offered: "For Rent--With or without power, an entire Building, near Canal street, will be divided to suit tenants."

The building filled with firms related to the apparel industry.  Among them was another umbrella and parasol manufacturer, the American Manufacturing Co.  It was a family business with Asher T. Meyer as its president and Theodore A. Meyer its secretary.  Another brother, Siegmund T. Meyer was involved in the firm as well.

Asher Meyer was highly involved in Jewish charities.  He was a director of Mount Sinai Hospital, and as summer approached in 1878 The Jewish Messenger reported that he was one of the wealthy businessmen who were "arranging excursions for poor children."  The article said "The first excursion will take place in June, and the company will include the children of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Free Schools."  The outing was so successful and a second one was quickly planned.  Soon afterward The Jewish Messenger promised,  "No pains will be spared to render the excursion a memorable one; beside the sail up the fiver, there will be varied sports in the beautiful grove, a full band of music, simple refreshments at intervals, and a treat."  (The "treat" was kept secret so its "enjoyment will be all the keener.")

In May 1884 Asher Meyer was granted a patent for his improved "umbrella and parasol rib."  It was just one of several his inventions, including the machinery to produce the umbrellas.  Finance and Industry noted around the turn of the century "The extent of this business can be better understood when we state that this company makes on an average a thousand dozen frames daily."

Sharing the building by the mid-1880's were J. Lowenstien & Co, "fringes, cords and passementerie [i.e., decorative trimmings];" Lengemann & Burne, "jobbers of fancy goods, notions and small wares;" and George Robinson, "lace and premium ruffing."

Lengemann & Burne was established here in 1883 by John Lengemann and Richard C. Burne.  In 1885 New York's Great Industries said "The premises occupied are very spacious and extensive, and are well fitted with every convenience and facility for the accommodation and display of the large and valuable stock."  

Also here at the time was yarn and worsted merchants A. J. Cameron & Co., run by Alpin J. Cameron and W. P. Denegre.  In the 19th century juries were by no means made up of the average citizen's peers; but were drawn from the merchant and upper classes.  And Alpin Cameron seems to have been a favorite of the courts.

On December 4, 1887 he was selected as foreman of the December Grand Jury.  Two years later, on August 6, 1889, The New York Times reported that he had been chosen as foreman for the August Grand Jury.  And following the horrifying train collision in the Fourth Avenue [Park Avenue] tunnel approaching Grand Central in which six persons were killed and seven injured, The Sun reported on March 3, 1891 that "Judge Fitzgerald appointed Alpin J. Cameron, manufacturer of yarns of 85 Walker street, foreman of the Grand jury sworn in yesterday."  Of particular importance on the calendar was the tunnel disaster.

By now importer C. G. Hubert was leasing space.  His advertisement in The Sunday Inter Ocean on February 2, 1890 read:  "Wanted:  I Want a Traveler who sells dry goods and general stores to add a small line of staple novelties on commission."  Another tenant was not doing so well that year.  The Press reported on November 4, "Henry Sobel, importer of notions at No. 85 Walker street, is in the sheriff's hands.  His liabilities are thought to be $12,000."  (It was a significant debt, around a third of a million in today's dollars.)

Another tenant in trouble before long was Olga Schwarz, who operated an umbrella factory.  On December 15, 1899 the Clothier's and Haberdashers' Weekly reported "The stock and machinery of Olga Schwarz, umbrella manufacturer, of 85 Walker street, were sold last Wednesday by order of the assignee."

The turn of the century saw a nearly complete turnover in tenants.  Schulman & Goldstein, manufacturers of capes, moved in around 1899.  Its factory employed eleven men, one male teen, and nine woman who worked 60 hours per week in 1901.  That year H. A. Eisner, window shade manufacturer, was here, as were Jacob Fein, maker of capes and suits, and Rudolph Sommer & Co., jobbers in "cloths, cassimeres, etc."

Like Alpin J. Cameron, Rudolph Sommer was called to serve on a jury in 1902 following the murder of Walter S. Brooks.  Sommer was a member of the coroner's jury weighing evidence.  On May 14 they heard the testimony of an unwilling witness, Alfred P. Tostevin.  The New York Herald reported that "He first refused his name, without giving good reason, and later assumed a tone that apparently prejudiced the jury against him."  A sub-headline for the article read "Jury Dislikes His Ways."

Rudolph Sommer & Co. was still in the building in October 1910 with a fire broke out it its factory space.  It was fortunately extinguished before substantial damaged was incurred.

The tenant list in No. 85 Walker Street following World War I was less involved in apparel and dry goods than in more industrial operations.   The store was home to E. Schoonmaker Company, Inc. by 1919.  It made and sold automobile tire and accessories.  And in 1922 Richards-Wilcox Mfg. Co. took space on the upper floors.  The firm would remain at least through 1927, manufacturing the Ideal brand "elevator door hangers, door controllers and interlocks."

In 1926 Peterson Bros. Corp. was incorporated here "to manufacture machinery and hardware."  Among its clients in 1936 was the city's Department of Sanitation.  That year Steel magazine announced that the firm "has been appointed representative by Lamson & Sessions Co., Cleveland, manufacturer of bolts, nuts, cap screws, etc." for the New York and New Jersey area.  The firm would remain at No. 85 Franklin Street until 1968.

That was the year that the Tribeca renaissance caught up with the building.  A renovation resulted in a studio apartment on the first floor, one apartment each on the second and third, and a duplex on the upper two floors.  The Department of Buildings noted: "Apartments to be occupied by Bonafide Artists and their families only."

Indeed, the duplex was home to a bonafide artist in 2017.  photo via

In 2017 the duplex was put offered for sale at for $5 less than $5 million.  Real estate listings said it was the first time on the market since 1969.  Unfortunately the owners of the apartments in the building seem to have no interest in cleaning the blackened facade or updating the infrastructure so as to do away with the unsightly fire escape.

photograph by the author


  1. What is the history of 237 East 20th Street NY, NY?

    What is the history of Post Graduate Hospital which was bought by Columbus Hospital 226 East 20th St NY NY which became Cabrini Hospital 227 East 19 Street and is now Gramercy Square Condominiums. Specifically the space now occupied by a building called “The Modern” built by Gramercy square after they demolished the morge, was that morge built on a hospital cemetery? Perhaps usedny one of these hospitals to bury still born enfants? Or nuns? Thx

    1. drop me an email with specific questions like this, please.