Saturday, February 15, 2020

Mantillas, Mystery and Dry Goods - 293 Church Street

In 1867 Walter Jones demolished the old wooden structure at No. 199 Church Street (along with another in the rear yard) and began construction on a modern loft and store building on the site.  His architect, whose name has been lost, was up to date in architectural trends and turned to the recently popular French Second Empire style.

Completed in 1868 its cast iron storefront featured engaged columns and paneled piers.  The side piers of the second floor were rusticated, while those on the third through fifth were delicately decorated with incised designs.  Engaged Corinthian columns separated the segmentally-arched openings.  At the top floor the street address was prominently carved into the facade.

Interestingly, Walter Jones and his wife, Barbara, shared ownership of the building.  They leased the store to Herman Gershel who ran his mantilla shop here.  Mantillas had been a staple of Victorian fashion since before the Civil War.  Its various styles were worn either over the head, as a sort of veil, or around the shoulders like a shawl.

This woman to the left in this fashion plate wears a green mantilla.
In the early hours of January 26, 1871 fire broke out in the store.  Before it was extinguished $20,000 worth of damage--about $424,000 in today's money--had been done.  The New York Herald reported a shocking development.  It said that Herman's brother, Adolph, who was the bookkeeper, "has been arrested on suspicion of arson, in order to obtain the insurance of $10,000."

This came as news to Adolph who read the account in the evening papers.  His letter to the editor clarified that he had been summoned to the office of the Fire Marshal for questioning, but that he had never been arrested nor charged.

On August 28, 1876 Walter and Barbara Jones sold the 21-foot wide building to Henry H. Powers.  His family would retain ownership for decades to come.

Among Powers's tenants was clothing manufacturer A. & J. Levy.  A. Linger was an employee and in his off-time volunteered with the State National Guard.  The situation did not interfere with his work duties until the summer of 1877 when The Great Railroad Strike brought freight trains to a halt and subsequently threatened America's industries.  Federal troops and the National Guard were deployed to quell the numerous individual strikes.  Vickers was among those sent away.

In his absence he lost his job.  The Evening Telegram came to his defense, shaming his employers in its August 1, 1877 issue.  "Captain A. Lingner, of Company I, Eleventh regiment, a cutter for A. & J. Levy, clothiers, at No. 199 Church street, was dismissed from their employ for presuming to protect their lives and property."

By the time Leonard J. Haas & Co., cloak and suit makers, moved into the building the address had become No. 293.  In 1891 the firm employed fourteen men, two boys under 18, twelve women, and three teen girls.  The staff worked 59 hours per week.

Scandal centered around the head of D. W. MacLeod & Co. beginning in the summer of 1901.  Born in Ireland, Donald W. MacLeod had come to America as a boy.  He had started the firm, which imported woolens and linens, in 1877.  In 1889 he had married Harriet Bush (known as Hattie), described by The New York Press as "a strikingly beautiful woman."  The bride was 18-years old and the groom 52.

The New York Times noted on December 11, 1901 that MacLeod "is said to have amassed a large fortune," and The New York Press said the couple's house on Carroll Street in Brooklyn was "one of the handsomest in that section."  Their summer estate in Middletown Township, New Jersey, sat on 300 acres.

Trouble seems to have begun in April 1901 when Emma Frances Martin Rice sued her husband, Melvin, for divorce.  Newspapers printed the name of the woman she claimed was carrying on an affair with her husband--Harriet MacLeod.  Soon afterward Donald MacLeod stopped coming to the Church Street office, "because of ill health."

MacLeod's relatives were not so sure.  They tried to see him starting in April but were continually barred from entering the house.  Harriet insisted he was too unwell to have visitors.  She hired four guards to keep watch over the house.  In August a nephew, Donald W. MacLeod, Jr., went to the residence.  The New York Press reported on August 17 "One of the men on guard he said assaulted him and drove him away."

Harriet was not so concerned about her husband's health that she was unable to remodel their summer home.  She hired architect Thomas J. Emery to alter and enlarge it, including a library wing.

Finally Richard MacLeod went to court complaining that his brother "was being kept a prisoner by his wife in their home" and that "Mrs. MacLeod has three or four men constantly on guard at the house to keep her husband from going out or from seeing or speaking to his relatives."  On August 13 Deputy Sheriff McAuliffe arrived at the house with a writ of habeas corpus which demanded that Hattie produce her husband in court.  The New-York Tribune reported "He says that when he went to the house he was told that she was out.  Doubting it, he went in, and found her in the dining room.  Mrs. MacLeod admitted yesterday that her husband was in the house, but could not be seen."

Hattie showed up at court, but not with Donald.  Her attorney handed the judge an affidavit signed by a physician which claimed MacLeod was too sick to leave the house.  He also presented a letter signed by Donald MacLeod "in which he said he did not care to see his brother."  And there was another letter signed by him, which said he was aware of the bad publicity concerning Hattie and Rice, but declared "a belief in her innocence."  To the frustration of the MacLeod family, the judge dismissed the writ of habeas corpus.

On December 10 MacLeod's brothers picked up their morning newspapers to discover that he had died two days earlier.   The New-York Tribune mentioned "When Mr. MacLeod died on Sunday night the brothers were not informed, and knew nothing of the death until they read the notice on Tuesday in the papers."

The funeral was held in the Brooklyn house on December 11.  The New-York Tribune noted "Mr. MacLeod's two brothers...were allowed by the widow to attend the funeral and to view the body before it was taken to Greenwood Cemetery."  Noticeably absent from the service was Hattie.  "Mrs. MacLeod did not attend her husband's funeral.  Her lawyer said she was prostrated and unable to leave her room."  The article added "It is understood that the bulk of the estate, which is valued at more than $500,000, goes to Mrs. Hattie B. MacLeod, the widow."  That amount would top $15 million today.

It was not the end of the story.  Within the year Hattie was secretly married to Melvin Rice.  In a move that most likely infuriated her former in-laws, Hattie had her new husband appointed president of D. W. MacLeod & Co.

The MacLeod family were not through with her.  In 1906 they sued to overturn the will, asserting that "the provisions thereof, were secured by the fraud and undue influence" of Harriet and Melvin Rice.  The case dragged on for years.

No. 293 Church Street continued to be home to apparel and dry goods firms.  In the 1910's tenants included the hosiery and under firm J. Friedman & Co., the Equitable Suspender Company, and the Enterprise Clothing Company.

The building was still owned by the Powers family at the time.  In 1914 Harry S. Powers was slapped with a violation from the Fire Department demanding "fireproofing and structural alterations."

The export business of Ralph Kirsch was here by 1919 and would remain at least into the mid-1920's.  On May 13, 1922 a fire broke out in his shop; however the damage does not appear to have been significant.

The original appearance of the ground floor can be seen in this photograph taken around 1940.  via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services
By the last quarter of the century the shop where women once shopped for fashionable mantillas had become a food shop.  The string of owners had difficulty pleasing the Department of Health, however.  The shops were closed for violations in 1979 and in 1981.

Artists and others were making slap-dash renovations throughout Tribeca to make lofts intended for manufacturing residential and studio spaces.  It is unclear how long people had been living in the upper floors of No. 293 before renovations were completed in 2007 to make it legally compliant.  A subsequent renovation in 2013 refabricated much of the front facade.

The handsome, period-appropriate storefront dates greatly from 2013.
photographs by the author

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