Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Bear Mill Manufacturing Building - 120 Franklin Street

The matching 1901 addition is seen at the left.
Theodore B. Rogers was the nephew of Jacob Rogers, described by the New-York Tribune as "the eccentric millionaire locomotive builder."  In 1881 he commissioned architect Jarvis Morgan Slade to replace the three wooden structures at the northeast corner of Franklin Street and West Broadway with a six-story loft and store building.  

Slade was a likely choice.  On January 29 that year The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted that his father, Jarvis Slade, "was a pioneer in this district, and besides acquiring a large interest himself, it was mainly due to his influence that it was so rapidly covered with first-class buildings." The article added that Jarvis Morgan Slade was "well known in the dry goods community."

The building was completed the following year, an edgy industrial take on the neo-Grec style.  Hefty stone piers framed the cast iron elements of the storefronts.  The upper floors were faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Slade had divided the five floors into three sections, defined by brownstone still courses.  Segmental arches and inset rosettes at the fifth floor drew the eye upward, while rough-cut stone bands accentuated the horizontal lines.  A deeply-overhanging bracketed cornice capped the design.

The building filled with dry goods related firms, like importers R. McBrainey and the Artistic Weaving Company.  The latter firm was based in Saxony, Germany where it manufactured apparel labels and ribbons.  It was part of a customs scam uncovered early in 1890 that went to the highest level of the Post Office.

The Postmaster-General, John Wanamaker, shared the same name with the Philadelphia retailer.  On January 29, 1890 The Evening World rhetorically asked "Has 'Honest John Wanamaker'...been "aiding and abetting the 'Trademark' John violating the custom laws by conniving at smuggling foreign dry goods through the mails?"  The newspaper said "There are a good many quaking hearts in the Post-Office and the Custom-House, but the employee who gave away the fact that two packages of dress labels bearing the name of the Postmaster-General has been seized as smuggling goods is the most uncomfortable man in the service to-day."

The ribbons, which were to be used as belts for Wanamaker dresss, were from the German Artistic Weaving Company's plant in Germany and were addressed to John Wanamaker in care of Adolph Kluge at the Franklin Street headquarters.  

Had the Postmaster-General been the actual recipient as opposed to a commercial customer, his packages could be sent through the mail like without being subjected to customs; but the attached silk labels clearly contradicted that: "John Wanamaker Costumes, Philadelphia."  

The Evening World said that Kluge who "is evidently of a modest and retiring disposition," appeared to be "very much disturbed over the notoriety into which he had so suddenly sprung on account of his private mail consignment of Mr. Wanamaker's labels."  It appears to have been the end of the German Artistic Weaving Company in New York.  The firm is not listed in the building after the clever scheme was uncovered.

In 1894 a tenant which was decidedly not part of the dry goods industry moved in.  On November 1 The American Enameling Company opened its new showrooms with a splash, auctioning 48,000 pieces of "gray enameled teapots, coffee pots, tea kettles, wash basins, lipped saucepans, dish pans, convex saucepans, Berlin pots, Dresden kettles, &c."

Owner Charles R. Cobbs demolished the abutting tenement at No. 211 West Broadway in 1901 and hired the architectural firm of Schweitzer & Diemer to enlarge his building.  In an early (and unexpected) example of architectural cohesion, the architects perfectly copied Slade's two-decade-old design.  Even the cast iron elements of the storefront were faithfully copied.  The addition melded almost seamlessly with the original structure.

The enlargement may have had to do with the Bernheim & Walter's new lease on the building.   Run by brothers Adolph, Eugene, Charles, the cotton converting firm had been founded by their father.  By now it was described by The Sun as "one of the largest firms of its kind in the city, controlling the Bear Mills Manufacturing Company."  The Bernheims' youngest brother, Otto, was not a partner, but was employed as a clerk.  Nevertheless, according to The Sun, "while not a member of the family firm, [he] had inherited enough money to make himself independent."  The New-York Tribune added "he had a large income and, it is said, a comfortable fortune."

Wealthy young men like Otto quite often lived in upscale bachelor apartments.  In 1904 the 27-year-old moved into the Hotel Sevillia on West 58th Street.   Otto apparently suffered from what today would be diagnosed as clinical depression.  His brothers said "he was of a morose disposition and inclined to fits of prolonged depression."  His mother was abroad in the summer of 1905 had promised to send a cable to him on July 24.  When it did not arrive, he was "very despondent."

The following morning the Otto's barber, Fred Schuppert, arrived at his apartment to shave him.  He found Otto on the floor unconscious with a bullet wound in the head.  The bullet had traveled completely through his head and exited the window.  Bernheimer died within the hour without regaining consciousness.  

His rooms, according to The Sun, contained "the photographs of a number of young women."  One in particular seems to have been a sweetheart.  Several letters on scented, colored stationery were signed "Your ever loving, darling Kitty."

No investigation was launched into the young man's death; although there was one puzzling detail that would raise the eyebrows of forensic detectives today.  The Sun revealed "Although right handed he had apparently shot himself with his left hand, just behind the left temple."  

The Bernheimer brothers reorganized the firm within a year of the disturbing incident.  In 1906 the company was renamed Bear Mill Manufacturing.

The firm experienced a rash of thefts in 1909.  Shipments of raw goods consigned to Bear Mill Manufacturing were disappearing before reaching Franklin Street.   By the beginning of June $50,000 worth of linen had been stolen--a significant $1.42 million today.  Detectives followed up on a hunch by haunting the Hudson River piers where the goods came into the city.

On June 1 a shipment was scheduled to arrive at the New Bedford Steamboat Company pier.  The private investigators watched several young men who were loitering around the pier as a crates were loaded onto delivery wagons.

Sure enough, one of the men approached a clerk and showed him a seemingly authentic order for a case of linen consigned to Bear Mill.  The Sun reported "The clerk delivered to the man a case worth $1,800.  Three others put it on a wagon and drove away."  The four thieves made it only a few blocks before being nabbed.

Bear Mill Manufacturing remained in the building for years.  Charles Bernheim was its president by 1918, when he was elected a trustee of the East River Savings Association as well.

At mid-century the Hood Rubber Products Company occupied the building.   The Massachusetts-based firm was founded in 1896 by Frederic C. and Arthur N. Hood for the manufacture of rubber footwear.  In 1929 it merged with the B. F. Goodrich Company, continuing to manufacture the Hood brand and B. F. Goodrich brand rubber and canvas shoes.

Hood Rubber closed its plants in 1969.  It was not especially long before the transformation of Tribeca as a district of loft homes, trendy restaurants, galleries and shops arrived at the corner of West Broadway and Franklin.  In 1981 the ground floor housed the 211 Bar and Restaurant; and in 1994 the upper floors were converted to a total of ten sprawling residences.

The ground floor saw a succession of tenants.  In 1995 Layla, a restaurant owned by Robert De Niro and Drew Nieporent, opened.  The New York Times said on November 29, "This Middle Eastern fantasy was designed by Christopher Chesnutt with lifelike montages of belly dancers and water-pipe smokers, plus mosaics made of pottery shards."

In 2003 WaterMoon gallery sold Chinese and Tibetan antique furniture, Tibetan carpets, and Chinese porcelains and ceramics from the West Broadway store.  The rare items dated from the Neolithic era to the Ming Dynasty, according to The New York Times journalist Rita Reif on March 10 that year.

Wine bar Vinovino was here in 2009, followed by Centrico, which opened in 2011.   It was not a run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant, Times food columnist Kris Ensminger noting its menu "includes oxtail enchiladas, tuna tostadas and wild mushroom quesadillas."

The structure remains astoundingly intact after nearly 140 years.  Its addition, almost indistinguishable despite being two decades younger that the main building, is remarkable.

photographs by the author


  1. I am always grateful for your blog, but this is my chance to come out against the word "edgy". I HATE the work "edgy"; it's real meaning is "nervous", "anxious", "ill at ease", please just say "cutting edge" or "avant garde" or anything that isn't an example of the sometimes idiotic way the English language changes.

    1. I'm sorry to have offended you.

    2. Oh no, no; there was no offense. I'm sorry you felt the need to apologize. I just hate the word "edgy". You write a great blog. Keep up the good work. If I see the word "edgy", again, I'll just cringe and continue reading.

  2. [Use in a sentence] -- Karl is a bit edgy sometimes in the morning.

    1. It makes me edgy to think strangers are commenting about me.