Thursday, November 26, 2020

The 1870 Nichols, Bartnett & Co. Building - 477-479 Broadway

In the early years of the 19th century the Rhinelander family was one of the oldest and wealthiest in New York.  Philip Jacob Rhinelander had arrived in New York in 1686.  He amassed considerable property holdings and his son, William, augmented the family fortune in the sugar business.

William's son, William Christopher Rhinelander, married Mary Rogers on October 4, 1816 and moved into a fine home at No. 477 Broadway.  The property stretched through to Mercer Street where the family's carriage house stood.  But, as The Sun explained decades later, "That neighborhood, which was then a residential one, was soon afterward invaded by business."  In 1840 Rhinelander commissioned Richard Upjohn to design a spacious mansion far north at No. 14 Washington Square.

Typical of the Rhinelander family, William did not dispose of the Broadway property, but leased it.  Following the upheaval caused by the Civil War he demolished it and the abutting house at No. 479 and hired the architectural firm of H. W. Smith & Sons to design a modern replacement structure.

The architects chose cast iron facades for both the Broadway and Mercer Street elevations.  The decision contributed to the speed of construction.  Started on July 12, 1869, the building was completed only eight months later, on March 31. 1870.

Five stories tall, the structure featured elements of the French Second Empire style.  Each floor was delineated by a molded cornice.  Engaged Corinthian columns separated each of the gently arched openings.  The complex terminal cornice featured foliate brackets and dentil molding.

The ground floor held two retail shops.  One became home to the Nichols, Burtnett & Co. fancy goods store which manufactured goods on the upper floors.  On August 21, an advertisement in The New York Herald sought "Muff Finishers--Six muff finishers wanted; high prices and stead work.  Apply to Nichols, Burtnett & Co., 477 Broadway."

New-York Tribune, December 22, 1871 (copyright expired)

In the second store was another well-known fancy goods merchant, Hugh O'Neill.  In April 1871 the firm was looking for "An experienced man, who thoroughly understands the lace and fancy goods trade."

Operating from the upper floors in the mid-1870's were Ball & Ray, milliners; artificial flower importers Berliner & Karcher; and apparel manufacturers Isaac & Hackes.

By 1879 one of the stores was home to another fancy goods dealer, Henry Levy & Son, operated by Henry and Sampson H. Levy.   Like Nichols, Burtnett & Co. it also had manufacturing space in the building.  The New York Times said "Besides importing fancy goods they manufactured fine plush and leather goods."

The store was the victim of a clever con artist that year.  On December 15 the New York Herald reported "Sometimes [Frank] Fox, occasionally [James L.] Jones, more frequently [Morris] Cohen, but under one name or another a strange, eccentric being, has for months been projecting himself into the experience of confiding shopkeepers and credulous officials."

The man posed as a newspaper reporter and finagled free or discounted goods from store keepers.  Police supposed he would be easily tracked down by the consistent descriptions.  "He was lame, they all agreed; had dark hair, a scar on the cheek and a deformed jaw--altogether an unprepossessing creature, one would suppose; and besides all this, they said, he had an abnormal development of brass [i.e., boldness].  On the last feature opinion was unanimous," said the New York Herald.

On November 28 he walked into Henry Levy & Son and presented a calling card inscribed "Frank Fox, New York Herald."  He told Henry Levy that he was doing a report on revival of trade (the country was coming out of the Financial Panic of 1873).  After the interview he promised to give the store good coverage in both the Herald and the New York Telegram.  But then he was hard to get rid of.

"But the pseudo reporter lingered.  He bowed himself toward the door, but he lingered still, and it was only when his loudly expressed admiration of a four-dollar pocketbook had been rewarded by a  present of it that he took himself off."  The scam interview cost Henry Levy & Son the equivalent of about $100 in the item.

After having been in business for more than two decades, Henry Levy & Son surprised the industry when it went bankrupt in December 1884.  The New York Times commented, "The failure was unexpected...The causes were the general stagnation in business, poor collections, and depreciation."

The building continued to house garment manufacturing firms.  In the first years of the 1890's the cloak manufacturing firms of Lewis Gruer & Co. and H. Abrams & Co. were here.  Both had significant problems to deal with.

In the summer of 1890 a strike of 26 cutters at Meyer Johnasson & Co.'s cloak factory dominoed into a general walk-out of more than 10,000 workers city-wide.   In response, Lewis Gruer & Co. and some other firms locked its union employees out.  The scheme backfired as the non-union workers joined the cause.

"These manufacturers were to-day surprised to learn that the tables had been turned upon them and that they themselves were now the locked-out parties, as the result of an amalgamation of employees of the trade to aid their previously locked-out fellow craftsmen," reported The Evening World on June 16.

Harris and Morris Abrams had founded H. Abrams & Co. in No. 477 Broadway in January 1871.   Only a year later, in October, the firm was in serious trouble.  As creditors pressed for payment, the men assured that they had $25,000 worth of goods in stock.

Yet when the sheriff arrived on October 22 to "take charge of their store," he "could find only about $3,000 worth in the store," reported The Sun.  Lawyers for one of the creditors accused the Abrams brothers of "fraudulently shipping their goods out of the State and preparing for a failure."

And, indeed, investigators were able to track down shipments of the goods to various locations in Pennsylvania.  It was returned to New York and sold for the benefit of the creditors.  Now what could not be tracked down was Harris Abrams.

While his brother stayed and faced the music, filing personal bankruptcy in November 1899, Harris Abrams and his wife fled town.  He personally owed Boessneck, Broesel & Co. $6,000--more than $190,000 in today's money.  The firm hired a detective to find him.  Charles T. Pfaltz discovered the pair living in Toronto on February 22, 1893 where Abrams was arrested.

At the turn of the century the lace and "novelties" importing firm of Sidenberg & Co. was the major tenant.  The success of Richard Sidenberg's operation was reflected in his sumptuous summer home in Greenwich, Connecticut, abutting the property of millionaire H. O. Havemeyer.  The firm remained in the building through until 1909, after which it moved to Fifth Avenue and 17th Street.

The Sun, March 7, 1909 (copyright expired)

Following the removal of G. Sidenberg & Co. the embroidery firm of Stein, Doblin & Co. leased the entire building from the Rhinelander estate.  It sublet space to shirt maker L. Loery & Son.

Fairchild's Men's Wear Directory, 1911 (copyright expired)

The partners of Stein, Doblin & Co. incorporated in 1912 and almost immediately relocated to No. 935 Broadway.  Although its former landlord was gone, L. Loewy & Son remained.  As had been the case with Lewis Gruer & Co. years earlier, the firm was hit with a labor strike in 1913.

After ten weeks of no budging on either side, the employees were infuriated when L. Loewy & Son hired non-union employees.   The Evening World said "There have been frequent encounters between the strikers and guards and strike breakers and many windows in the firm's big plant, which extends through from Broadway to Nos. 50 and 52 Mercer street, have been broken by stones thrown in these fights."  On April 10 tempers boiled over and took an ugly, violent turn.

The Evening World reported "Three times this morning the police had had to drive crowds of pickets away from the Broadway plant, and shortly after 10 o'clock when three strikebreakers started for their homes a crowd followed them.  They booed and hooted at them and finally took to throwing bits of brick and refuse from the street, and in Crosby street the men turned on their assailants."

Fearful, two of the non-union men drew revolvers.  The strikers fled for cover as about six shots rang out.  One of them did not move quickly enough.  "Only [Isidor] Streir remained behind, toppled to the sidewalk by the bullet, which struck him like a club in the back, and firmly convinced that he had been killed, the strikebreakers fled."

Two policemen and a throng of strikers chased the men into the subway where they were captured.  In the meantime, Streir "lay on the sidewalk moaning that he was shot and dying."  In fact, he was barely injured, thanks to his heavy clothing.  The bullet "had torn through his overcoat and been stopped there partly by the heavy wadding over the shoulders."  It did not break the skin, but merely bruised it.

The Seventh Regiment Gazette, November 1918 (copyright expired)

L. Loewy & Son, Inc. remained in the building into the 1920's.  The Depression years saw Wellmade Leather Goods Co., Inc. and the Century Curtain Company as tenants.

The two separate store spaces survived in 1941.  photo via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services.

In a surprising coincidence, Stein Doblin Lace Co. was organized in 1994 in the building its predecessor had left more than half a century earlier.  In 2003 Pearl River Mart opened in the ground floor.  Described by The New York Times as "a Chinese department store," it had been on Canal Street for seventeen years.  Marianne Rohrlich, writing in The Times on March 6, said "A vast assortment of bamboo or straw window shades and shoji blinds are available" and "an enormous kitchenware department offers a large array of chopsticks, and there are bargains on ceramic dinnerware."

The store remained until 2015 when it was forced to close due to a "significant rent increase."  On December 19, 2018 Dolby Soho opened in the space.   The three-month pop-up was self-described as "an experiential space where science meets art and technology meets imagination."

After 150 years the handsome cast iron building is remarkably intact.

photographs by the author

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