Friday, December 27, 2019

William T. Bure's 1870 297 Church Street

Until November 1869 the 23-wide property at No. 203 Church Street (later renumbered 297), between White and Walker Streets, held a simple one-story wooden building.  But the neighborhood was seeing rampant change in the post-Civil War years as former houses and small shops were replaced by modern loft buildings.  And merchant Claus Puckhafer had grander plans for the plot.

On October 29, 1869 architect William T. Bure filed plans for a "5-story brick first-class store."  Relatively prolific in the area, Bure may have been miffed that the Real Estate Record & Builder's Guide listed his name as "W. T. Biers."

Completed the following year, like most of its contemporaries the building had a cast iron storefront; this one from the catalog of G. R. Jackson Burnet & Co.  The four upper stories were faced in marble.  Bure had designed a commercial take on the popular French Second Empire style.  The curved corners of the openings rested on decoratively-carved Doric pilasters and the side piers were handsomely paneled.  Below each floor were especially handsome stringcourses and carved corbels below each pilaster.  The energetic cornice, with its arched pediment received the identical treatment.

The structure was an investment for Claus Puckhafer, whose business was never listed here.  Among his first tenants was the garment manufacturer J. Newberger.  His was either a start-up business or he was experiencing growth, for he placed several help-wanted ads that year.  And Newberger was exacting in his demands.  An ad on April 5, 1870 read "Boy Wanted--In a wholesale house, to make himself generally useful. One not afraid to work" and two weeks later another announced "Pressers Wanted--Accustomed to Press linen; highest prices paid.  None but first class presses need apply."

Another advertisement in The New York Herald on August 21 that year reflected the owner-worker relationship in many Victorian shops.  "Operators Wanted--Those accustomed to bind and having their own machine."  The idea that a seamstress would have to supply her own sewing machine today is preposterous.

Another apparel maker in the building at the time was Abraham Levy.  Burglary was a major problem for shops like his--the costly fabrics and finished goods easily fenced.  In August 1871 Levy was victimized, the thief making off with "ready made clothing, cloth, sewing silk, and other goods valued at $280," according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  The heist was worth about $6,000 in today's money.

A tailor, Marx Goldstein, was arrested when the goods were found in his shop six weeks later.  He claimed to have purchased the stock from a man named Solomon Abrahams "confessedly at a really nominally price," according to the Daily Eagle.  Levy insisted in his complaint that Goldstein knew the goods were stolen.

On October 22, 1880 Owen Jones bought the "five-story marble front warehouse" at public auction, paying the equivalent of $811,000 today.  Jones was an American success story.  Born in Wales in 1815, he came to America at the age of 16 and lived on a farm near Utica.  In 1833, at 18-years-old, he traveled to New York City and obtained a job as a dry goods clerk.  Within six years he had saved enough money to start his own small store, eventually growing the business to a substantial operation on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea and garnering a fortune.   When he died in 1884, just four years after buying the Church Street building, his estate was estimated at $2 million--more than 25 times that much today.

The tenant list throughout the 1880's continued to be involved in the apparel industry.  Among them were Simon A. Swan, "importer of linen goods;" McCoun & Lee, makers of "cardigan jackets, jerseys, etc.;" and the New York Ladies' and Boys' Waist Manufacturing Company.

The latter operation was run by Russian-born Jacob Zion.  A speculative real estate project in 1892 earned him the reputation of a Simon Legree.  Zion purchased a large amount of land near Camden, New Jersey, and dubbed it Ziontown.   On August 26, 1892 The New York Herald reported "Thirty families, comprising 130 persons, were induced to come from New York to Ziontown last February by Mr. Zion, who sold them lots at an average of $75 each, and promised to all who bought the lots steady employment in his shirt factory."  The families were for the most part Russian Jews and the factory where they were promised work was to be built about six miles from Zionville.

The suburban factory was indeed built; and Zion sent a man named Epstein to manage it.  "Epstein was an overbearing man," said The New York Herald.  "He had a large family, and he began to discharge operators to make room for his sons."  One of the first to be fired was a boy named Lutzki.  When he complained, saying he had been hired unconditionally upon buying his plot of land, he was thrown out of the factory.  "Mr. Lutski came to take his son's part and Epstein, who is a powerful man of big frame, struck him."

The workers' salaries were reduced by crippling fees--25 cents a week for steam power, 50 cents for the use of the sewing machines, and $5 per month installments on the cost of their lots.  The Herald reported "Thirty Hebrew families, comprising almost the entire population of the hamlet of Ziontown, are on the verge of starvation."  The article described a weeping mother holding a half-starved baby, men "with tears in their eyes" who declared their families had had no bread nor meat for days, and "emaciated children fighting for green apples." 

The newspaper said "They attribute their pitiable condition to Jacob Zion, of the New York Ladies' and Boy's Waists Manufacturing Company, No. 297 Church street, New York.  They denounce Zion as a swindler and Epstein, his manager, as a tyrant and brute."

At the turn of the century Maurice Roth, cotton goods dealer; L. W. Samuels, hosiery; lace and ribbon merchants Goldwater Bros.; and the International Suspender Company were in the building.  Their operations were threatened early on the morning of  January 24, 1905 when a fire broke out around the corner in the Cosmopolitan Restaurant in the basement of No. 35 Walker Street. 

Although a passing police officer smelled smoke, he could not determine where it was coming from.  After ten minutes he turned in a fire alarm, but because of the location below street level the responding firefighters could not find it for another ten minutes.  When they finally gained access to the restaurant it was engulfed.

The blaze spread upward into the Walker Street building, then to No. 297 Church Street.  "The flames entered the first and second floor of this building," said the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  All four of the tenants suffered damages, but the building was saved.

Nacht & Co., cotton goods converters, were in the building by 1916 and in 1918 Delphi Mills moved into the store and basement level.   At the end of World War I the Government found it had a surplus of materials no longer needed.  In 1919 Delphi Mills and another tenant, B. Flaumenbaum, purchased a massive amount of denim material.   Delphi Mills spent $11,500 on the cloth, nearly $170,000 today.

In the 1940's the storefront was still unaltered.  via NYC Department of Records & Information Services

By the last decade of the 20th century the Tribeca renaissance had caught up to No. 297.  Barocco Alimentari occupied the storefront where Delphi Mills had once sold military surplus denim.  On January 31, 1990 The New York Times' food critic Florence Fabricant reported "Restaurants are opening retail food stores right and left.  the latest to sell prepared food is Barocco in TriBeCa."  She called the shop's hearth-baked breads "stupendous."

The food shop moved out just before a renovation, completed in 1999, resulted in one apartment per floor above the store.  Although the cast iron storefront has been altered and has lost some of its decorative elements; the upper marble-faced floors, while dirty, are remarkably intact after a century and a half.

photograph by the author

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