Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Barnett Bros. Department Store - 289-295 Columbus Avenue

The dignified remains of the limestone ground floor peers above the regrettable storefront today.   photo via landmarkwest.org

When millionaire Edward Clark died in 1882, he was perhaps better known for his real estate development on the Upper West Side than for his career with the Singer Sewing Machine Company, the source of his fortune.  He left a large amount of undeveloped property to his one-year old grandson, Frederick Ambrose Clark.

Among the boy's holdings was the southeast corner of Ninth (later Columbus) Avenue and 74th Street.  Around 1894 a commercial structure was erected on the site and leased to the Barnett Brothers department store.   Formed by brothers E. G. Barnett, I. L. Barnett and I. H. Barnett, the store rapidly grew and on October 26, 1895 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that architect George H. Griebel had been hired to enlarge the building.  "It has not yet been decided whether to add one story to the present structure or to build an annex in the rear."  It appears that a second story was added.

On November 23, 1898 Printers' Ink wrote "There is a store in New York, at the corner of Seventy-Fourth street and Columbus avenue.  It is getting to be quite a store.  Only a few years ago it was an unimportant concern in a single store-room.  Now it occupies a building two stories high, half a block long, and fifty or sixty feet deep."

Barnett Brothers' rapid success was due mostly to its Upper West Side location where few such stores were yet operating.  "It is a better store and a bigger store each year," said Printers' Ink.  "The trade comes to it because it is convenient.  It is a good deal easier for people in the neighborhood to go to Barnett's than it is to get on a car and go three miles to Wanamaker's."

A portable sewing machine could be had for the equivalent of $60 today.  The Delineator, September 1901 (copyright expired)
Barnett Brothers was a true department store, offering not only dry goods and apparel, but housewares, china and glass, and other items.  As the neighborhood developed and the population increased, so did the store's business.  On February 15, 1902 the Record & Guide reported that the Clark Estate (Frederick, known as "Brose," was still a minor, at 19-years-old) had again hired George H. Griebel--this time to replace the two-story building with a "six story brick and stone dry-goods store."  Griebel estimated the construction costs at $350,000--a significant $10.5 million today.

The result was a handsome blend of commercial neo-Renaissance and Beaux Arts styles.  The ground floor was faced in limestone and the upper stories in beige brick.  Formal Renaissance-style pedimented enframements graced the corner openings of the second floor; while ebullient Beaux Arts wreaths and cartouches dripped from the cornice above the fourth floor.  Griebel's proposed six-story structure was, in fact, just four at completion.

Now in its impressive new building Barnett Brothers continued to expand its offerings.  In its March 1906 edition The Millinery Trade Review noted "Barnett Bros...have opened on the third floor of their well-appointed establishment a millinery department...The department presents a particularly handsome appearance, occupying about one-third of the floor, the remainder of which is devoted to the garment stocks."  Saying that there would most likely soon be a workroom for custom trimming hats, the article noted "The fittings are in mission oak and the soft green rugs make an effective setting for the many-hued millinery display."

That same month the store opened its Comestible Department, a sort of precursor of the gourmet shops in today's department stores.  The selling of food in department stores was a trend that greatly upset the city's grocers.  At a meeting of the New York Wholesale Grocers' Association Herman Rohrs growled "Pretty soon these dry goods stores will be advertising coffins free in order to induce people to buy flour.  They'll be offering inducements to people to die."

The store hosted a tasting event following the department's opening.  New-York Tribune, March 6, 1906 (copyright expired)

Just before Christmas in 1907 burglars broke into the building through an alleyway window and eluded the night watchman by hiding behind counters.  They made off with a tray of gold rings.  It was one of a string of similar burglaries in the neighborhood--a grocery store's cash register was stolen, and seven revolvers taken from an automobile supply store, for instance.  And then the crooks revisited Barnett Brothers.  On January 3, 1908 The New York Times reported "This time they got a trayful of watches, but the theft proved their undoing, for the detectives traced it to them."

The arrested thieves, John Townsend, a.k.a Red; his brother George; and William McGlynn, alias Fatty, gave full confessions (although "Red" Townsend was intoxicated at the time).  It was not the brazen deeds of the trio that amazed detectives and the public, but their ages.  "Red" was 10-years old, his brother was 8, and "Fatty" McGlynn was 9.

In June 1910 Barnett Brothers was reorganized after being purchased by the 14th Street department store Rothenberg & Co.  Now only one of the Barnetts remained as part of the organization.  The Pottery, Glass & Brass Salesman reported that the new owners proposed "completely remodeling the china and glass department and some other departments.  About $15,000 will be expended for new fixtures along."  The article added "The Barnett store is one of the largest and most up-to-date in that part of the city."

Frederick Ambrose Clark began selling off his significant Upper West Side holdings in the years following the end of World War I.  On February 26, 1921 The New York Herald reported "Barnett Bros., who have occupied the building at the southeast corner of Columbus avenue and Seventy-fourth street since its erection thirty-five years ago, have purchased the property."  Calling the building "a landmark in this section," the article placed the selling price at $350,000, or just under $5 million today.

Surprisingly, the department store survived only a few more years.  On January 27, 1925 The New York Times reported that the building "formerly occupied by Barnett Brothers Department Store...has been leased to the Flohar Realty Corporation."  The operators signed a 42-year lease and announced that the architectural firm of Sugarman & Berger to make significant changes.  "The building is to be completely altered with the addition of two stories," said The Times.

Above the street level shops was a floor of offices and showrooms on the second floor, and "studios and non-housekeeping apartments" on the upper floors.  Three of the studio apartments on the fifth floor were leased by the Federation for Child Study and converted to schoolrooms.  

The organization was the outgrowth of the Society for the Study of Child Nature, formed in 1888 by five women with the goal of studying children from "the mental, moral and physical view points."  A pioneer organization in the research of child development, it was by now supported by grants from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund.

In the meantime, the ground floor shops were leased to small businesses like "Mickey" Connor's barbershop in No. 293.   His opening night party on November 8, 1925 was a joyous affair.  The Irish-American newspaper The Advocate reported "There were song and dance in plenty and other things."

The corner shop was leased to the Seventy-fourth Street Restaurant, Inc.  The firm sold its lease in October 1930 to the Lincoln Cafeteria, Inc.  The space would see a succession of restaurants during the Depression years.  Bill's Chop house opened in 1932, and Andrew Jainke's restaurant was here in 1935 when the owner was held up at gunpoint at 2:00 on the morning on January 20.

The gunman, 22-year-old James Toomey, made off with $14 from the cash register, but not without a fight.  As Toomey rifled through the register, Jainke started to lower his raised arms.  The crook fired a single shot and Jainke pounced.  Hearing the gunshot, three policemen rushed into the restaurant.  The New York Post reported "Toomey fought desperately when the three patrolmen arrested him for violating the Sullivan law by possessing a .32-caliber revolver and for robbery."

Toomey never made it to jail.  He was taken to Flower Hospital with broken ribs and scalp lacerations.  His admittance card listed the place and circumstances of his injuries as "unknown."  He died on the operating table there.

Another renovation completed in 1943 resulted in apartments on the upper floors, along with a dental lab on the third and a gymnasium on the fourth.  The corner shop continued to house a restaurant and in the spring of 1950 it was leased to the Paddy Jordan Restaurant Corp.

Traces of the rusticated limestone ground floor exist on the 74th Street side.

Nine years later the shops were consolidated into a single store, taken by Pioneer Supermarket.  What remained of Barnett Brothers' limestone storefronts were covered over by an unflattering facade.  The upper floors, however, still hint at the department store and a time when Upper West Side ladies shopped for the latest in hats and fancy "comestibles."

many thanks to reader Joseph Miceli-Magnone for suggesting this post


  1. Thank you for researching and putting this mystery to bed for me. It's been 43 years! LOL

  2. Wonder what it looked like 100 years ago. The first floor at least...

    1. I was unable to find any period photos, which surprised me given that many dept stores used their buildings in advertising.