Friday, December 13, 2019

Henry Fernbach's 1869 Marble-Faced Factory Building at 79 Walker Street

No. 81, at left, is a near match to No. 79.

On November 2, 1850 an announcement appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune: "Mr. Hardter, Professor of the German Language, and Director of the St. Matthews' Academy, takes the opportunity of informing is friends and the public in general, that he will resume his Evening Classes on Monday, Oct. 28, at the St. Matthews' Academy."  The school was part of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, erected in 1821 at No. 79 Walker Street, between Broadway and Lafayette Street.  It sat at the southeast corner of little Cortlandt Alley.

At the end of the Civil War the neighborhood was no longer residential.  The church that had housed the academy was razed in 1868 by Mayer and Simon Sternberger.  Simultaneously J. L. Seasongood purchased No. 81 Walker Street, next door, also owned by St. Matthew's.   He and the Sternbergers cooperated in their building projects.  They hired Fernbach two design two nearly identical structures on the sites.  In reporting on the project The Real Estate Record & Guide got Seasongood's name slightly wrong, calling the property owners "Susgood & Steinberger."

Six stories tall, No. 79, like its twin sister, rose six stories and was faced in marble (the Cortlandt Alley elevation was red brick).  Fernbach melded the currently popular Italianate and Second Empire styles to create a dignified commercial structure.   The four windows of each of the upper floors alternated between flat-headed and segmentally-arched openings.  Each floor was defined by a crisp cornice, and stacked quoins ran up the sides.  An extravagant terminal sheet metal cornice upheld a beefy central pediment.

Among the Sternbergers' first tenants was the dry goods firm of Rindskopf, Brothers & Co., run by  Abraham P. and Henry P. Rindskopf.   The company had barely moved in before it was the victim of what The New York Herald called "a nice little game and very nicely played."

In September 1869 a young man, William Morris, scammed so many merchants that the newspaper said there were "too many to list."  Morris "has a pleasant address, clear, bold look of the eye and spoke promptly and to the point.  He signified his wish to purchase goods as agent of Woods, Yeatman & Co., of the Cumberland Iron Works, of Tennessee."  Having chosen goods, he gave shipping directions to a Cincinnati address, and directed that the bills be sent to Woods, Yeatman & Co.

The article described him as "hurriedly stepping in and out of leading mercantile establishments, wholesale dealers in dry goods, groceries, crockery, boots and shoes, and hardware and the whole catalogue of merchantable goods, in fact, and with a sprightly business air and dash of go-ahead about him which, with good clothes, fine manners and a voluble tongue, go a good way in one's favor and leave a prepossessing effect."  Morris was captured, but not before he had scammed Rindskopf, Brothers & Co. out of $300 worth of "woollens and cloth goods."  The loss would amount to about $5,700 today.

Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Rindskopf, Brothers & Co. contributed to the relief effort by donating two cases of clothing.

Mayer and Simon Sternberger sold the building on April 30, 1873 to Uriah M. and Lucia E. Lee for $185,000--in the neighborhood of $4 million today.   The couple resold it in October 1875 to James and Frederick Ayer of Massachusetts.

Hoop skirts, which had been the fashion rage throughout the 1860's were falling from favor by now.  Nonetheless one manufacturer in the Walker Street building still forged ahead with the style.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on August 20, 1876 sought "Good Hoop Skirt Hands; good wages paid."

In 1869, the same year that No. 79 was completed, President Ulysses S. Grant established his Peace Policy, an attempt to treat Native Americans more humanly.  It included the establishment of reservations and providing them communities with quality merchandise at reasonable prices.  The Board of Indian Commissioners was formed to take bids on goods for the reservations.

On May 2, 1877 the Washington D.C. newspaper, the National Republican, reported "By direction of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the place for opening the bids on the 8th instant for Indian supplies, has been changed from 40 Leonard street, N.Y., to 79 Walker street."   

An unlikely presence in a building otherwise filled with dry goods and apparel firms, the office opened bids that spring for astounding volumes of merchandise, including 55 million pounds of "beef on hoof," 90,000 pounds of hard bread, 5.5 million pounds of flour, and 30,000 Mackinac blankets.  Later, in August, bids were received for 76,700 pounds of sugar and 9,118 pounds of rice.

Before freight elevators were common, hatchways were used to hoist crates and up and down between floors.  The shafts, which used a system of pulleys, were repeatedly the source of injuries or deaths.  On May 16, 1880 The New York Times reported "Charles Tully, aged 16, a porter employed at No. 79 Walker-street, fell through the hatchway of that building, from the fourth floor to the cellar, yesterday, and was instantly killed."

Among the tenants at the time was dress manufacturer Wm. F. Foster & Co.  The firm was looking for an "experienced girl on improved French overstitch machine" in February 1881; and in July for "respectable girls handy with the needle."  
Also in the building was Luchs Bros., makers of ruffles, "rufflings," and collars; and dry good goods manufacturer H. E. Frankenberg.  

The apparel and dry goods merchants reeled when President William McKinley imposed a tariff of up to nearly 50% on incoming raw materials in 1890.  The President said he did so to protect domestic manufacturers from foreign competition.  The ramifications, however, were increased consumer prices.

On November 1, 1890 the Chicago Herald called the tariff "villainous" and said that the costs of goods were now necessarily rising while wages stayed stagnant.  Among those complaining of the tariffs was Henry E. Frankenberg, who wrote to the President on October 6 saying "Dear Sir--I am obliged to change my prices on all articles affected by the new tariff.  Be assured that these are as low as the goods can be sold for."

In the fall of 1895 two former convicts, Charles Kasson (alias Jackson) and Charles Kronman (alias Miller), devised a crafty scheme.  They loitered around delivery entrances and when a messenger would pick up goods, they would casually make note of addresses.  Then they would speed to that location, pretend to be the intended recipient, and take possession of the goods.  

On October 1 the pair carried several rolls of silk into a pawnshop on First Avenue.  The price they asked was so low that the broker refused to deal with them.  A policeman followed and arrested them.  The Times reported "Later it was found that the silk had been stolen from Lord & Taylor's Grand Street store, and one of Frankenberg, of 79 Walker Street."

At the time H. E. Frankenberg employed one man (no doubt a supervisor), five women, five girls under 21 years old, and one under 16 years old.   The female staff worked grueling hours--56.5 hours during the week plus nine on either Saturday or Sunday, as the worker chose.

An exception to the apparel and dry goods firms in the building was Joseph A. Jones, manufacturer of umbrellas and "umbrella roofs."   On October 23, 1899 the firm was robbed by thieves--the identify of which might be shocking today.

Sometime after midnight a fire broke out nearby at No. 398 Broadway.  During the chaos several thousand dollars of goods disappeared from the Jones shop.  On October 27 the Clothiers' and Haberdashers' Weekly reported "Mr. Jones has preferred a complaint to the fire chief against the firemen who were stationed near his quarters during the fire."  Corrupt fire fighters were a scourge during the 19th century, sometimes going so far as to set fires in order to steal valuables.

It appears that the unscrupulous fire fighters launched a covert defense.  The New-York Tribune reported "Chief Croker...yesterday received two anonymous letters attacking the character of Joseph A. Jones, the umbrella maker, of No. 79 Walker-st."  The article noted "One of the letters is signed "A Friend" and the other "An Advertiser."  Chief Croker refused to be hoodwinked.  He ordered Deputy Chief Duane "to go on with the investigation of the alleged robbery."

At the turn of the century tenants included window shade manufacturer Carl Lindemann & Co., whose workforce of 19 men and 3 women put in 60 hours a week; the large "suspender trimmings" maker Scheinberg & Son (its 75 employees included 23 children); Meyer, Hummell & Co., hats and caps; and Baird Bros.

Brothers W. I. and A. W. Baird were headed to work at 8:30 on the morning of February 6, 1901 on a Broadway streetcar.   A gas stove kept the passengers warm.  Just as the car approached Spring Street the stove exploded, spewing glass and flames throughout the car.  The Evening World reported "The women passengers screamed and there was a rush for both exits.  Some of them became wedged in the doorways and one or two persons attempted to get out of the windows."  In the meantime, the car filled with suffocating smoke and fire broke out below the floorboards.

The newspaper reported listed the injured, noting "W. I. Baird and his brother, A. W. Baird, who are in business at 79 Walker street, were on the rear platform and were hurled to the street by the force of the explosion.  They escaped with some severe bruises."

Four businesses which shared the same president, Charles Scheuer, were here by 1904, the Crandall Wedge Co., makers of garters, Scheuer & Bros., leather goods, Webcroft Company, suspender makers, and the Crandall Web Manufacturing Company.   They shared the building with L. Robinson, maker of knee pants.

The estate of James C. Ayer still owned the property in 1918, when it leased the entire 25,000 square foot building to the Empire Carpet Company.   The firm sub-leased space to tenants like M. Gordon Company, which was here in March 1920 and advertised "Boy wanted, bright, office and errands; good salary; rapid advancement."    The same year, in August, the Automobile Sundries Company needed a stenographer.  Employment discrimination was routine at the time.  "Competent; permanent position; 6 months' experience required; Christians preferred." 

In 1921 two stationery firms here were, the Shaw Blank Book Co., and B. J. McAfee, which advertised its "mourning stationery."  By 1922 Paul N. Friedlaender Handles was in the building, selling handles for ship deck brushes, "squilgees," and similar marine equipment.

At last one apparel firm was in the building at mid-century.  The Famous Raincoat Company moved in in 1946 and stayed for 15 years.  In 1972 the Mar Shipping Corp. called No. 79 home; and T. & L. Sportswear operated on an upper floor.   That firm found itself in hot water with the United States Labor Department in October 1979.

The New York Times reported "Eighty-five actions charging sweatshop conditions in garment factories in the Chinatown area of Manhattan have been filed."  Included was T. & L. Sportswear.  Regional administrator of the department's Employment Standards Division announced that there was evidence "of the exploitation of Chinese workmen" and "The deplorable exploitation to which these Chinese workers are being subjected is a disgrace and contrary to the tradition of America."

The days of factories within the building were quickly drawing to an end at the time.  By 1984 Art in General, a not-for-profit art gallery had opened in the ground floor.  The 2013 Art on Sight by Lucy D. Rosenfeld and Marina Harrison said of it "Here some of the most thought-provoking exhibitions and events take place, ranging form dance performances to shows using analog technology for blueprints."

In 2016 Caspi Development began a restoration-renovation of the building.  While many Tribeca lofts had by now been transformed into residential space, Josh Caspi saw opportunity in modern office and retail space.

photographs by the author

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