Thursday, December 19, 2019

From Dry Goods to the Arts - 41 White Street

The columns of the upper floors were originally graced with Corinthian capitals like those on the ground floor.

In the 1830's, when the well-to-do merchant Joshua Naas lived at No. 41 White Street, the neighborhood was filled with fine residences similar to his in the three-story house.  But two decades later the area had drastically declined.  Frederick Baumann ran the former Naas house "for furnished lodgings," as described by The New York Herald in 1859.  But the actual use was far more nefarious. 

Early on the morning of March 9 that year detectives raided No. 41 White Street and arrested four people, including 17-year old Eliza Sinclair.  The New-York Daily Tribune entitled the article "Breaking Up A Panel-House" and called the house "a place where it is reported that strangers are nightly robbed."  A "panel-house" was a brothel with cleverly disguised doorways in the rooms.  When the victim had fallen asleep or was otherwise distracted with a female, an accomplice would sneak into the room through the panel and steal money from the man's clothing.

Following the Civil War the neighborhood again experienced change as manufacturing buildings replaced the old houses.  Samuel D. Babcock was a well-known banker who turned his attention and his money to real estate development at the time.  He would erect many structures in the Tribeca district and in 1868 began construction of a striking five-story loft building at No. 41 White Street. 

Babcock's architect, who name has been lost, faced the building in cast iron.  His design drew from the Italianate and French Second Empire styles.  The storefront, located above a short stoop, featured Corinthian columns.  Each of the upper stories was separated by a molded cornice.  Engaged columns between the windows wore Corinthian capitals similar to those at the store level.

Babcock sold the newly-completed building to Andrew T. Hall on May 15, 1869.  Among his initial tenants was Paul Mares, an importing and commission merchant.  He had not operated from the new building for long before he found himself in deep trouble.

On the morning of March 25, 1870 Detective Applegate arrested Mares.  The New-York Tribune said he was "implicated in this smuggling business," referring to an earlier arrest of two other importers doing business on Broadway.  The men were accused of "smuggling $500,000 worth of goods into this port during the last 18 months."

One of Mares's cohorts in the scheme was Isidore Wolff and the incident did not change their unscrupulous ways.  Both were indicted on May 19, 1870 for issuing false invoices.  The Sun reported "they were caught cheating the Government out of import duties."  It was the last No. 41 White Street--or New York City--would see of Paul Mares.  The Sun reported that "after their trial they were released on bail, subsequently escaping to Europe."

A more law-abiding tenant was Friedlander & Co., described by the The Evening Telegram as "the most extensive manufacturers of silk dresses and cloaks in this country."  In January 1880 Elizabeth A. Deery was hired as an assistant designer and draper at $12 a week, "which could be increased to $20 per week by over work," according to the newspaper.  Her base salary would equal about $305 a week today.

Shortly after Elizabeth started work expensive materials--like silks, velvets and "costly ribbons"--began disappearing.  The owners finally enlisted the aid of undercover detectives.   Suspicion fell on Elizabeth and another worker, Lizzie Sully, was enlisted to covertly watch her.  On September 22 as Elizabeth was leaving work she was arrested by Detective Fogarty.  "On her person as found a lady's cloak and twenty-one pawn tickets, representing silk and velvet goods to the amount of $400," reported The Sun.  In her room on East 33rd Street "they found silks, velvets, and ribbons to the value of $800."

That was a fraction of what she had made off with.  The firm estimated its total loss at between $2,500 and $3,000--upwards of $76,000 today.  Further investigation revealed that Elizabeth had not worked entirely on her own.  The Evening Telegram explained that the detectives "also ascertained that wine suppers were almost nightly given to cutters and other employes of Friedlander & Co., through whose contrivance the robberies would be easily effected."

Another tenant which had employee troubles was dry goods merchant W. H. Ayres.  In 1893 15-year old William Monsees was employed as the firm's messenger boy, tasked with delivering notes and packages and performing other odd jobs.  On January 13 that year he was sent to the Central National Bank with a $100 check to be cashed.  A week later, on January 20, The Sun reported "He did so, but failed to return with the money, most of which he spent in travelling about the country."  When he was arrested at his home in Hoboken he had only $28 left.

The factory staff of Friedlander & Co., rather surprisingly, included no women.  The 28 men employed by the firm in 1895 worked a grueling 66 hours per week.

William H. White purchased No. 41 from William A. Burnham for $57,500 on February 19, 1907 (about $1.58 million today).  At the time the store and basement rented for $3,000 per year and the lofts at $2,400.

The post-World War I years saw the tenant list of No. 41 begin to diversify.  Dry goods merchants continued to operated from the building, like Frisch & Hunter, linen merchants, and Schwab & Wolf, "cotton goods and novelties;" but by 1921 the British Pipe Co. was also here.  The firm was looking for agents that year for its "fast selling fine imported brier smoking pipes."

Greater change would come in the last quarter of the century.  In 1986 the Collective for Living Cinema moved in--clear evidence that the Tribeca renaissance had arrived on White Street.  Motion Picture magazine announced that "the Fall 1986 season will feature, on Friday nights, a series entitled Living Cinema--In Person, with personal appearances by filmmakers; on Sundays, Expanding Cinema; and on Sundays, In Retrospect, a series of historical theme shows."

The theater screened films not shown at main stream venues.  On December 16, 1988, for instance, The New York Times announced "'My Friend Ivan Lapshin,' a film by Soviet director Aleksei Gherman based on stories by his father, Yuri, will be shown today through Thursday at the Collective for Living Cinema, 41 White Street...The film is set in a remote village in 1937, and recalls people and events from the narrator's childhood."

A renovation was begun in 1991.  Completed the following year it resulted in a remodeled theater on the first floor and apartments above.  The theater, which was originally the Tribeca Cinema, became the off-Broadway Workhouse Theatre by 1996, and the Flea Theater at the turn of the century.  In 2013 the Flea Theater broke ground for its own $18.5 million complex on Thomas Street.  

In January 2018 the non-profit Church Street School for Music and Art announced it would be moving into the space.  In the meantime, other than the regrettably lost column capitals, the cast iron building survives intact after 150 years.

photographs by the author

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