In the 1840's, when James and Ellen Bingham lived in the two-story wooden house at No. 201 Church Street, the neighborhood was still respectable. But within the decade things would drastically change. Operated as a rooming house in 1853, it was home to multiple tenants, including Sarah Johnson.
On August 23 that year the New-York Daily Tribune reported that residents "yesterday morning found a dead body of an infant in the sink in the rear of the premises." There was little doubt that the child was Sarah's, and its paternity may very well have been behind the its cruel death. "Suspicion rested upon a mulatto girl in the house, named Sarah Johnson, as it was ascertained that she had given birth to a child on the previous night. The infant, however, is white." Sarah claimed that she accidentally dropped the baby into the sink. "She is however charged with doing it willfully," said the article.
The Tribeca neighborhood continued to change as, following the end of the Civil War, factory buildings rapidly replaced the old houses. In 1867 William G. Hackstaff, Jr. hired the well-known architect Isaac F. Duckworth to design a five-story replacement structure at No. 201 Church Street. Although Duckworth attached cast iron facades to many of his striking buildings throughout the district, this one was faced in sandstone above the cast iron storefront. His Italianate design of arched openings with molded surrounds was repeated on each floor.
|Paneled side piers and carved keystones add to the elegance of the utilitarian structure.
A renumbering of Church Street gave the building its new address of No. 295. It was home to various dry goods-related businesses in the subsequent years, like Milmo Cotton Co.; Bondy Bros., apparel manufacturers; and Herman Levy & Co., makers of cloaks. In 1890 J. R. Leeson & Co., thread merchant, was in the building, and the following year it would become home to another, more visible, thread dealer.
For more than 25 years William Clark had been the general manager of the Clark Thread Company of Newark, New Jersey. In January 1891 he incorporated the William Clark Company and leased the store here for his sales room.
Two years later King's Handbook of New York City remarked "The thread manufactured by this company is distinguished from others by the letters N-E-W, and notwithstanding the fact that it has been on the market but a short time, it has been favorably received, owing to its meritorious qualities." The 74-year old Clark, whom the handbook called "one of the oldest living thread manufacturers," handed over the active management of the firm to his two sons, William, Jr. and Robert K. Clark. It was Robert who oversaw the Church Street office while William managed the mills at Westerly, Rhode Island.
There the firm had erected a village of sorts for its factory workers. Small houses provided "all the comforts of a refined homelife can be enjoyed," according to King's Handbook, and there was a building used as a chapel and night school, as well. (The need for a night school suggests that children were employed during the day.)
|King's Handbook of New York City, 1893 (copyright expired)
William Clark and his brother, George, had been sent to America from Scotland in 1866 to expand the company business, J. J. Clark & Co., later renamed Clark Thread. By George's death in 1873 they employed more than 1,000 employees in the only thread factory in the country. Exactly why William broke away to start his own firm is unclear--he certainly had amassed a significant fortune in the existing company. But the schism would cause problems down the road.
In 1897 the Clark family had had enough of William's trademark infringements. They sued to stop William Clark Company from using the "Clark's" name in the same typeface and identical logo. They further complained that his "N-E-W" was unacceptably similar to their "O-N-T" (for Our New Thread).
|Clark Thread Co. complained that the round logo was deceptively similar to its own. The Dry Goods Economist, 1893 (copyright expired)
In the meantime the upper floors continued to house garment and textile related firms. Tenants in the 1890's included cloak manufacturer Adolph Rosezweig, and Korn & Haber, another clock and suit maker.
In 1902--the year that William Clark died on his yacht near his home in Paisley, Scotland where he had retired--Meyer Brothers occupied the store and basement which had housed the William Clark Company showroom. The upper floors, according to The New York Times, were "occupied by hosiery concerns."
On the night of February 3, 1902 Policeman Boll saw smoke escaping from the cellar level. "When the firemen broke in the door the smoke overcame them so fast that all retired to the street," reported the newspaper. Six fire fighters were overcome by the smoke and a second alarm was called in. The damages were estimated at more than $600,000 in today's dollars.
Only three years later the building would be damaged by flames again. During a blizzard at 4:00 on the morning of January 25, 1905 fire broke in the kitchen of Mrs. Grace's restaurant at No. 35 Walker Street. "The flames were discovered at the very height of the blizzard," reported the Brooklyn Daily Standard Union, and "threatened to destroy the wholesale dry goods' district before it was extinguished."
Fueled by the high winds, the inferno spread to Church Street. Heavy damages were suffered in No. 297, and at No. 295 the International Suspender Company was dealt significant losses.
While most of the tenants continued to be apparel-related, one was strikingly different. By 1917 the Salvage Disposal Corporation operated from No. 295. An advertisement the following year read "We buy old, new iron, metal, machinery, merchandise of every description." It was perhaps the first hint of change in the Tribeca neighborhood as the apparel trade began moving northward.
That migration was complete by the last quarter of the century. In the early 1980's Reven Service Company operated from No. 295, offering a service to homes and businesses using the currently popular Venetian blinds. On July 7, 1983 The New York Times advised "Reven will wash and refurbish custom-made blinds only. The charge for washing, retaping and re-cording two-inch blinds is $8 per tape; the charge for washing one-inch blinds is $5 per tape. In Manhattan, Reven will pick up for orders over $30."
|The 19th century garment workers would be shocked at the appearance of interiors of the upper floors. photo via Brown Harris Stevens
photographs by the author