Saturday, November 23, 2019

A Marble Beauty - 40 White Street

photograph by Pam Frederick

The once respectable nature of the White Street block between Broadway and Church Streets had declined by the last years of the 1850's.  The dwelling at No. 40 was being operated as a low-level boarding house with no shortage of violence and trouble.   James Roberts took a room in at the beginning of 1858, for instance.   He left on the evening of January 13, but would never return.  The New York Times reported three days later:

The colored man who was found, Wednesday evening, fatally stabbed in front of the Astor House, proves to have been James Roberts, a sailor, who lived in Philadelphia, but was temporarily staying in this City, and boarding at No. 40 White-street.

And five weeks later four female boarders were standing before a judge following a hand-to-hand battle.  The Times reported on February 22, "Virginia Davis, Georgiana Gordon and Ellen Davis, frail criminals in crinoline, so Catherine Kelly, of No. 40 White-street, alleged--were arraigned on a charge of assaulting and beating Mrs. Kelly (Feb. 17,) and sticking a penknife into her."

Before long the old house was demolished and replaced by a modern four-story loft building.  But it would not last.  At 2:30 on the morning of February 22, 1862 fire broke out and the structure burned to the ground; a loss of about $1 million today.

Four years later textile merchant Benjamin Marks purchased the lot and began construction on a handsome marble-faced loft building.   Completed in 1867 the 25-foot wide structure was a blend of the Italianate and French Second Empire styles.  

photograph by Pam Frederick

Each of the four floors above the inset cast iron storefront was defined by a crisp cornice.  The segmentally-arched openings with their hefty scrolled keystones were separated by engaged Corinthian columns.  The spandrel panels above the top floor windows were embellished with wonderful carved swags of roses--the epitome of Victorian decorative taste.  Atop the stone cornice, where we might expect a mansard roof given the Second Empire influence, the architect placed a parapet deeply carved with the construction date and surmounted by urns.

Most likely two matching urns originally perched on the ends of the parapet as well.  photograph by C. T. Brady, Jr. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The project was an investment for Marks.  He continued his business at No. 107 William Street.   His first tenant was J. P. & E. Westhead & Co., which moved in even before the building was technically completed.  The firm's advertisement in The Chronicle on October 27, 1866 announced its "removal" to the new address and described itself as "smallware manufacturers, and general commission merchants."

It would be a short stay.  On January 11, 1868 another ad in The Chronicle noted that J. P. & E. Westhead & Co. "have removed to 216 Church Street."

Banker Richard H. Bull paid $47,000 for the building on April 17, 1880.  The deal put an end to the rapid turnover in owners throughout the past four years.

Bull made some improvements by enlarging the building to the rear and adding a "sky-light roof" in May 1881.   Both designed and executed by W. McEvoy, the renovations cost Bull the equivalent of $20,300 today.  The updated building became home to drygoods and commission merchants J. W. Clark, Charles M. Rothschild & Co., and shirt maker M. Brown & Co.  

Clark was the target of a Dickens-like scheme in 1884, but proved to be too shrewd to become its victim.  On a day in May a 12-year old boy named George H. Luther appeared and with wide eyes explained, according to The Times, "that his father and mother were sick and his two sisters dying."  A little cash could help relieve the situation.

But instead Clark sent a messenger to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  Before an agent could arrive, the urchin slipped away.   The Times said "Shortly afterward young Luther obtained three months' rent from a banker on Broadway by telling the same story."

Luther's scams came to an end when he asked the wrong man for a hand-out.  According a New York Times article two months later, "A slender little boy with black eyes and a shock of dark hair entered a saloon at Seventh-street and Avenue A on Saturday night and asked Officer Joseph Saal, of Police Headquarters, for 8 cents to get back to Greenville, N.J."

Luther explained that he had come to Manhattan to find work, but had failed.  "His parents, he declared, were in a bad condition and he was hungry."  Officer Saal was not buying the story.  He arrested the boy and found 40 cents in his pocket, more than enough to cover his fare "home."  He was sent to the Juvenile Asylum and his father, Joseph Luther, "was held for examination for not restraining his son from begging after being warned."

Charles M. Rothschild & Co. was a well-respected retail drygoods firm.  Operated by brothers Charles M. and Jacob M. Rothschild, it was an outgrowth of their father's Cincinnati lace business.  Charles established the business in 1882 as M. Rothschild & Son, and then reorganized with his brother in 1886.   But the firm's suppliers were becoming nervous in the early months of 1887.

H. B. Claflin & Co. was one of the largest wholesale houses in the country.  When it pressed Charles M. Rothschild & Co. for a past due amount, the company asked for an extension.   A Claflin associate went to No. 40 White Street to ensure that everything was alright.  He was astounded to find the shelves mostly empty and reported "that goods have been repacked as soon as received and shipped to friends of the firm in other cities, the cases having marks on them known only to the consignees."

A sheriff arrived and confirmed the allegations.  On March 23, 1887 The Times ran a headline "Startled By A Failure" and said that "The lively proceedings caused a flurry in the trade and the excitement had not abated last night.  Rumors were as thick as snowflakes all day."  

Charles Rothschild expressed his "outrage," claimed all the goods were simply in the warehouse, and promised that "a suit for damages will be brought against Claflin & Co."

As it turns out, the merchandise had indeed been shipped off and the Rothschild brothers had a card up their collective sleeves.  A third brother, Abraham, reopened the business at the White Street address under the name of Meyer Rothschild & Co. later that year.  The New York Times explained "goods were shipped away by the old house just before its failure which were afterward brought back to the new house and sold."

But the creditors of the original firm did not take the insult lying down.  They had "found nothing left to attach" in the bankruptcy proceedings and now attacked the new business.  Abraham Rothschild was arrested and the operation was seized by the sheriff on August 29.  The development caused "much talk in the trade," according to a newspaper.

Shockingly, when the Rothschilds' attorneys appealed the original attachment claiming "that no fraud was shown," in October, the Supreme Court agreed.  The attachment was overturned and The Times reported "Rothschild & Co. now threaten to bring a suit against H. B. Claflin & Co. for $50,000 damages."

Indeed, the Rothschild brothers were not done with their creditors.  Although they did not reopen the business, they launched a flurry of lawsuits.  Their attorneys filed a $50,000 action for the false imprisonment of Abraham; two suits in the same amount for damages to Maier Rothschild, their father; and actions against about half a dozen suppliers.

It was not long before more drama played out at No. 40 White Street.  M. Brown & Co. had been a reliable shirt maker for years.  It had been founded by Marcus Brown around 1869.  In November 1887 he took his son, Harry, and nephew Samuel Brown in as junior partners.  Harry was put in charge of the financial end of the business.   That turned out to be a disappointing and disastrous decision.

On November 26, 1889 The Evening World ran a headline reading "Ruined By His Son" and another in The New York Times the following day proclaimed "Harry Brown's Rascality" and told the story of how Marcus Brown came to realize his business was in ruins.  

Samuel Brown heard reports that his cousin was dealing heavily in Western mines.  Harry, according to The Evening World, "denied them most emphatically and tried to laugh them off."  But Samuel dug deeper, only to discover that since entering the firm Harry had quietly siphoned off cash.  The firm's attorney Otto Horwitz estimated the amount at "from $70,000 to $80,000 and it might amount to $100,000."  And while he had invested $30,000 in a Michigan copper mine, he "had gambled away" the rest.  (The mine he invested in, it turned out, was a scam.)

Realizing that he was about to be exposed, Harry resigned on November 15 saying "that business was too wearing on him."  He left a letter for his cousin declaring he was "dead broke, going to leave town, could not bear disgrace, and had to pawn his jewelry in order to raise the means to get away."  His whereabouts were unknown.

Marcus Brown was understandably devastated.  He was called to a meeting with his creditors on November 26 "but was so overcome that he could hardly say a word."  At that meeting Marcus Brown's reputation and history saved his company.  The Times reported "it was the general desire to let Mr. Marcus Brown begin business again unhampered by any conditions regarding his fugitive son."

Drygoods merchants O. Mathews & Sons operated from No. 40 about the same time.  The success of the firm was reflected in the comfortable country estate Owen Mathews and his family enjoyed in the 1890's.  It was located in Flatbush, then still removed from Brooklyn proper and the site of summer homes of some of Manhattan's well-to-do.

In 1893 O. Mathews & Sons was the victim of burglars who had confounded police in the drygoods district.  Early that spring thieves got away with 150 dozen handkerchiefs and "a quantity of ready-made clothing."  On April 10, 1893 The Evening World reported "Capt. Cross, of the Leonard street police station, and Detectives Keogh and McDermott have been on the lookout for a gang of burglars who have robbed the premises of O. Matthews [sic] & Sons, at 40 White street, and Schalburg & Rabinski, at 46 Walker street, during the past two weeks."

A break came when the investigators followed 30-year old John Howarth, who had been "acting in a suspicious manner in Walker street."  They tailed him to Chatham Square where he was arrested and admitted to the Walker Street theft and to selling the goods to Leon Frank, "who keeps a fence at 3 Elizabeth street."  Frank was next to be arrested.  He too, confessed, saying he had purchased the Mathews & Sons goods from Edward Williams.  A third arrest was made.  The no-nonsense interrogation techniques of 1893 resulted in another speedy confession.

Shirt maker Joseph Boltansky & Son had other problems that year.   The industry suffered a rash of union strikes that year, but Bolstansky and his son took a hard stance.  On June 21 The Evening World reported "More shirt-makers' strikes were ordered yesterday" and "The men working for Isaac Boltansky, 40 White street, were locked out."

More problems came the following year when 22-year old Samuel Auerbach, a salesman for the Clark Thread Company, received payment from Joseph Boltansky & Son for a delivery.   Instead of turning it over to his employer, the young man took it to a printer on Third Avenue and ordered 500 duplicate checks.

But the printer, M. J. Roth, was suspicious and informed police.  They told him to give Auerbach only one of the new checks "as a proof" when he returned to pick them up.   He used the single check to pay his father $110.  But when L. M. Auerbach cashed it at a First Avenue saloon, the jig was soon up.

Joseph Boltansky & Son was a formidable operation, if not the most comfortable place to work.  Of its 48 factory workers in 1895, 24 were men and 24 women.  The rest were minors, two of which were described by factory inspectors as "children who can not read or write English."  They all worked 54 hours per week.

Following Richard H. Bull's death, his son, attorney Charles C. Bull, took over its ownership and management.  The Bull family would retain ownership until 1940.  

In October 1899 architect A. L. Perpignan was hired to install a new "new shaft."   It would seem that Bull intended to replace the old "hatchway"--the method of hauling goods up and down by means of pulleys through a dangerous void--with a modern elevator.

The building continued to house dry goods merchants as well as an occasional unrelated tenant.  In the first decade of the 20th century Kraut, Blum & Nadel, makers of umbrellas, operated here, for instance.  The store and basement were leased to linens dealers Robert McDade Co. in 1917.

McDade Co. renewed its lease in 1922; joined by two tenants on the upper floors, Murphy-Stephenson & Co., Ltd, suppliers of hospital linens; and cotton merchants and cotton and silk converter Thomas F. Donigan & Co.  Similar businesses leased space throughout the bulk of the 20th century.  As late as 1992 the ground floor was occupied by a wholesale dress goods, drapery and upholstery company.

Hint of change in the neighborhood came in the 1980's when Tanam Press moved into the building.  But the true sign of Tribeca's rediscovery arrived in 2000 with the upper floors were converted to a total of five apartments.

photograph by Pam Frederick
Little detail remains of the cast iron storefront.  The elaborate Corinthian capitals were lost decades ago.  And acid rain has badly deteriorated parts of the marble columns above.  But overall the elegant building with its highly unusual parapet and wonderful Victorian floral swags survives nearly intact.

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