Monday, January 6, 2020

The Lost Gilsey Building - 169-171 Broadway

from Illustrations of Iron Architecture made by The Architectural iron Works of the City of New York, 1865 (copyright expired)
Born in Hobro, Denmark in 1812, Peter Gilsey's parents died when he was still a boy.  He arrived in New York City in 1827 "alone and friendless," according to the New-York Tribune years later.  He was nearly penniless, as well.  But he was ambitious and relentless.  He obtained a job in the Grow & Christopher piano factory and slowly saved enough money to open a small cigar shop on the Bowery near Prince Street.

Gilsey invested his profits into real estate and, according to historian Matthew Hale Smith in 1871, "has been content to seek for wealth in that class of investments."  Within three decades of landing in New York harbor Gilsey had amassed a sizable fortune and set out to erect an office building which would double as headquarters for his tobacco business.  He eyed the southwest corner of Broadway and Cortlandt Street where Bogert's bakery stood; but, as The Buffalo Courier recalled decades later in 1911, the "old baker refused to sell."

Matthew Hale Smith explained that Bogert "was noted for his love of whiskey and cigars."  And so, "with a good supply of fine liquor, and a quality of well selected cigars, Mr. Gilsey visited the owner in his domicile on Long Island.  Who drank the whiskey, and who smoked the cigars is not known.  But Mr. Gilsey brought back a well executed lease, giving him control of the property for twenty-five years."

Smith described Bogert as "a shrewd, cautious, 'skittish' sort of man to deal with."  The lease clearly directed that when the lease expired whatever building had been erected upon the plot would revert to him.  At an aggregate rent of $20,000, Gilsey would be paying the equivalent of $24,700 per year today on the land.

Gilsey hired architect John W. Ritch to design his building and Ritch, in turn, turned to Daniel Badger to execute his designs.  Badger’s concept of hanging pre-cast iron sections to masonry buildings which he had developed a few years earlier allowed for rapid construction, fire-proof facades and relatively inexpensive but elaborate decorative structures.

Completed in 1854 the six-story structure cost $60,000 to construct according to Matthew Hale Smith--or about $1.85 million today.  Ritch relieved the visual bulk with prominent cornices that created three sections.  Within each were uninterrupted piers that accentuated the verticality of the structure and anticipated the skyscraper movement to come.  On both sides above the ornate bracketed terminal cornice were triangular pediments.  They contained cast iron banners that announced the building's name--an element Badger would repeat three years later in the elaborate Cary Building.

Gilsey moved his own offices into the building and began leasing space.  Among the first to sign was haberdasher M. Wilson, who announced he had moved into "a spacious establishment in the Gilsey building," on December 19, 1854.  He listed among his offerings "a large assortment of shirts, stocks and collars, carefully manufactured, and suitable for every market in the States."  

Wilson had competition within the building in April 1855 when merchant tailor Joseph Lee moved his store in.  Above the street level shops the offices were occupied by a variety of tenants, like jeweler John I. Moffat; publishers' agent Charles t. Evans; and James Marriner, real estate agent.

By May 1855 Dr. John Bull's office was here.  He produced Dr. John Bull's Sarsaparilla which he deemed "the greatest spring and summer medicine in the world."  An advertisement in The New York Herald on June 6 touted its miraculous properties:

For Sick Headache, Loss of Appetite and bilious attacks, take a dose or two of Dr. John Bull's sarsaparilla, and you will be cured in a few hours, as hundreds who have tried it are willing to testify.  It has every good quality to recommend it, being exceedingly nice to the taste.  Children like it, and ask for it.  It is free from all drugs and minerals, and perfectly safe to use at all seasons.  In fact, is has been truly called, "Nature's best friend and assistant."

The offices of Butler, Hosford & Co. were in the building in 1859.  The firm manufactured the "Paragon self-generating gas light, making its own Gas in the burner as wanted, safely from burning fluid."  And within three years jeweler James Alexander was here.  He doubled as a sort of pawn broker, advertising "liberal advances made on Merchandise, Diamonds, Watches and Silver Ware, &c., or purchased for cash at the full value."

Quimby, Smith & Co. was one of several jewelers in the building in 1870.  Reconstruction Illustrated and Explained, 1870 (copyright expired)
Several real estate agents called the Gilsey Building home in the early 1870's, including J. O. Hoyt, W. P. Seymour, and T. B. Peck.  A somewhat surprising tenant, at least from a 21st century viewpoint, was E. Richmond, the New York agent for the Kentucky State Lottery.  He published the winning numbers in newspapers in 1873 and directed "Prizes cashed and information given by addressing E. Richmond, No. 4 Gilsey Building."  The office would remain for years, later taken over by B. Nathan, who also represented the Missouri State Lottery. 

The nation celebrated its Centennial on July 4, 1876 in grand style and New York threw a two-day party.  The New-York Tribune entitled a nearly-full page article "The City In Gala Dress" and said that on Broadway "Every building, no matter how insignificant, had a flag waving."  Certainly not insignificant was the Gilsey Building which "was gayly decorated with small flags flying from each of the windows."

A riot of signs cover the ground floor shops in 1906.  photo by Irving Undershill from the collection of the Library of Congress
Peter Gilsey died on April 8, 1873, six years before his lease on the property expired.  Although his estate was forced to give up the building, the project had been massively profitable.  In 1871 Matthew Hale Smith had noted "Since 1861, the income from the building has exceeded $75,000 dollars a year."  That figure would translate to about $1.6 million today.

Real estate operators continued to lease in the building in the 1880's and '90's; but the changing times were evident in at least one tenant.  In 1889 Miss Lamb leased Room  No. 33 on the third floor for her typewriting school.  An advertisement in March that year promised "typewriting taught in one month" and assured "Pupils qualified as expert typewriters in one month, or money refunded.  The finger movement taught."  Student could also received instruction in stenography and "manifolding and addressing of envelopes" and "forms of business and social correspondence."

If Bogert had refused to sell his valuable corner plot in 1854, his family was no less resolute in 1906.  (On December 10, 1911 The Buffalo Courier would comment that the building "now brings the Bogert family nearly $50,000 a year, which is probably five times what the old baker paid for the property.")  

The City Investing company was formed in 1904.  It targeted the Broadway-Cortlandt corner for its massive City-Investing Company Building.  But the Bogert family stubbornly refused to sell.  Therefore, in 1907, the skyscraper went up around the Gilsey Building.  Designed by Francis Kimball, it was at the time the largest office building yet constructed in terms of square footage.

One of several Young's Hat stores was in the building at the end of World War I.  New-York Tribune, March 21, 1921 (copyright expired)
In reporting on the City-Investing Building in its April 1907 issue, Fireproof Magazine assumed that the Gilsey Building's future was now secure.  "It looks now as if [it] were destined to have a long lease of life before it still, and it will continue for some time to be the center of reminiscence by the few remaining old inhabitants who used to buy their pipes, tobacco and sometimes their cigars from Peter Gilsey."

A stubborn hold-out, the Gilsey Building was dwarfed by the City-Investing Building in 1907. photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Library of  Congress 

The article recalled the building's beginnings.  "Time was when the Gilsey building, one of the first professedly 'office' buildings in New York, was quite a sensation.  It was elaborately described in the daily papers of the time when it was built.  Its exterior, of cast iron, was regarded as a very original design in progressive cast-iron architecture."

While the corner was no longer feasible for massive construction, the pre-Civil War structure was quickly becoming an anachronism and its owners found it more and more difficult to attract new tenants to the out-of-date structure.

On December 22, 1926 The New York Sun reported on the coming end of the Gilsey Building, announcing that the Chemical National Bank would be erecting a six-story structure on the site.

photo by Erik Drost
Today the massive 54-floor One Liberty Plaza, completed in 1973, engulfs the site.  Along with the City-Investing Building (later known at 165 Broadway) the 1908 Singer Building was demolished to make way for the skyscraper.


  1. There is another really good photograph of the City-Investing Building dwarfing the Gilsey Building on the website. It was published four days after this post. Search: Million Stories 1913. Also notice behind City-Investing is a really good silhouette of the top of the Singer tower.

    1. That is a great shot. And thanks for the link, too.