In the first years following the Civil War wealthy dry goods merchant Jarvis Slade turned his focus to transforming the Tribeca district from one of old brick and wooden structures to modern loft buildings. Years later, on January 29, 1881, The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide credited him with creating the dry goods district. "This gentleman 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."
Among his earliest projects was the five story loft and store building at the southeast corner of Church and White Streets. He partnered with Gardner R. Colby to purchase the two old buildings on the site in October 1865.
The transaction involving the wooden house at No. 35 White Street would cause headaches for the seller, Samuel Keyser, before long.
But in the meantime, Colby and Slade commenced construction on their new building in 1866. Faced in light-colored sandstone, it was completed the following year. Although the storefronts opened onto Church Street, giving the building its address of No. 281 Church; the 75-foot long White Street elevation was architecturally treated as the front.
Stone piers embraced the cast iron storefront sections where free-standing Corinthian columns upheld the entablature. Each of the nearly identical upper stories was clearly defined by crisp sill courses. Corinthian pilasters separated the segmentally-arched openings and rusticated piers ran up the corners. A handsome French Second Empire cornice, supported on brackets, was capped by a pyramidal pediment.
Soon after the construction had begun, Samuel Keyser found himself in court. On the abutting Church Street property was a boarding house. For years the owners had a legal agreement with Keyser allowing them to share his rear yard--and most importantly his privy. In April 1866 they sued; their complaint saying in part, "when Slade and Colby were building they undermined the yard so that the fence all caved in; and the privy building was carried away by the boys of the neighborhood."
While the two parties fought over the lost privy privileges, Colby and Slade filled No. 281 Church Street with, for the most part, dry goods merchants. An exception was the silversmith firm of S. D. Johnson, here by the early 1870's.
On August 24, 1876 two burglars broke into Johnson's shop and made off with silverware valued at about $36,000 in today's money. Police were certain they knew who the perpetrators were--William Heany and Thomas Macaveny, the "well-known Fourteenth ward thieves," as described by The Evening Telegram. The pair was picked up on Hester Street the following day. "The prisoners, who are young men, denied any knowledge of the burglary," said the article. Despite the fact that the arresting officers apparently had no hard evidence against them they were held in default of bail.
In the first years of the 1890's a sixth floor, nearly hidden by the cornice and pediment, was added to the building which continued to house mostly dry goods businesses, like Letson & Hashagen.
|Just the the roofline of the new top floor can be seen above the original cornice.|
On December 1, 1895 Merck's Market Report said "a particularly excellent business is being done in the transparent glycerin soaps. Mr. Kropff speaks in the highest terms of the White-Rose soap, which is a star among the glycerin varieties." The article added that Mulhens & Kropff's "'Eau de Cologne' has held its own in the United States against all competitors for the last sixty years."
|The Puritan, February 1899 (copyright expired)|
The Eau de Cologne was somewhat pricey. A two-ounce sample bottle could be had by mail order in 1899 for 30 cents; nearly $10 in today's dollars.
Frederick Hashagen, a partner in Letson & Hashagen, was troubled that year. He left his Brooklyn house as usual on November 19, but instead of going to his office here he checked into the Grand Union Hotel under the name of J. S. Harrison. At around noon he was found dead in his room with a bullet wound in his chest. "The man is believed to have committed suicide," said the Brooklyn Daily Eagle."
It was possibly serious business problems that prompted Hashagen's desperate action. Within months Letson & Hashagen declared bankruptcy.
Sharing the building with Mulhens & Kropff in the first years of the 20th century were linen merchants R. Lindner and George P. Boyce & Co., and Cawley & Weixelbaum, makers of handles for canes and umbrellas. The latter moved into second floor in 1905.
In reporting on the firm's move Trunks, Leather Goods and Umbrellas described the new space as a "spacious and well lighted loft" and added "They will not confine the business to high class novelties, but make a specialty of good values in popular priced handles of European manufacture."
|Trunks, Leather Goods & Umbrellas, April 1906 (copyright expired)|
The Colby family still owned a portion of the property at the time. Henry F. Colby, who lived in Dayton, Ohio, died in 1916 leaving the holding to his wife.
In the first years following World War I Weissfeld Bros. & Gross was in the building. The firm manufactured hospital, restaurant and hotel items like lab coats, aprons, caps, "luggers," and such. In its May 1919 issue, American Druggist reported "This firm manufactures clothing and uniforms of every description and their many years' standing in this industry is ample evidence of the quality of the product." To bring home its point, the article said "A neat and clean looking, dapper druggist will attract new customers to his store apart from his regular trade which will recommend him for his appearance."
In September that year the National Retail Tea and Coffee Merchants' Association held its annual convention in St. Louis. It was a major affair, lasting three days. An important feature was a exhibition of goods by industry-related manufacturers and dealers. Two exhibitors came from the Church Street building.
In October Simmons' Spice Mill reported that Gardner Textile Co. had exhibited "table clothes, table sets consisting of a table cloth and six napkins, (boxed), napkins towels and other kindred articles used in the household." Rendrag Co., Inc. had also staged a display, theirs consisting of "various kinds of ladies' handkerchiefs, embroidered, packed in ornate boxes, three to a box."
Weissfeld Bros. & Gross and Gardner Textile Co. were still here in 1922, along with hospital linens manufacturer Geo. P. Boyce & Co.
|The Modern Hospital, February 1922 (copyright expired)|
The Colby family still retained ownership of the building in 1938--more than seven decades after its construction. On February 1, 1938. Lincoln Fabrics, Inc. occupied the store and basement levels and the long-established dry goods firm Henry Glass & Co. was on the top floor. The second and fourth floors were vacant. Fire broke out in the building that morning, destroying the store of Lincoln Fabrics. Smoke rose throughout the entire building. It was intense enough to damage the stock of Henry Glass & Co.
The last quarter of the century saw profound changes in the old dry goods district, now known as Tribeca. Where Lincoln Fabrics, Inc. had operated its store the trendy restaurant Arqua opened in 1987. On May 4 New York Magazine reported "The newest good place to eat Italian food, according to Italian-cooking expert Giuliano Bugialli, is Arqua."
A conversion completed in 2002 resulted in one sprawling apartment per floor above the storefront. Matteo Boglione opened his restaurant, White & Church, with partner Gian Perugini here in the summer of 2011. Through it all Slade & Colby's striking 1868 sideways-facing structure has remained remarkably intact.
photographs by the author