Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Renwick & Sands' 1868 29 Howard Street

In 1859 the block of Howard Street between Broadway and Lafayette Street was lined with brothels, saloons and low-end rooming houses.  The two-story building at No. 29 was home to John Hanselman's "lager beer saloon and dwelling."   But change was on the horizon.

The following decades saw the old brick and frame buildings converted or demolished as the neighborhood transformed from residential to commercial.  In 1868 Edward Mathews purchased No. 29 and commissioned the architectural firm of Renwick & Sands to design a modern loft building on the site.

Completed within the year, a two-story cast iron base upheld three floor faced in gleaming white marble.  James Renwick, Jr. and Joseph Sands had created a striking structure which, while holding on to mid-Victorian decorative details like dripping garlands of fruits, was highly influenced by the new neo-Grec style.  Incised rosettes and geometric designs adorned the pilasters.   The extraordinary stylized capitals of the fifth floor were nearly whimsical, and the paired brackets joined by a single capital which upheld the cornice were equally unique.

Among the earliest tenants was Finlay, Gourlay & Finch, shirt makers.   Working conditions within the lofts were gruesome, especially in the summer months.  The finished shirts were sometimes soiled by the sweat of the workers and by the dust and grime that entered through the open windows.  Before they could be shipped to the retail stores, they were sent to the compahy's laundry in Jamesburg, New Jersey.  On August 12, 1872 the firm advertised for "Ironers on White Shirts--Laundry a short distance in the country."

Work in the steamy, hot atmosphere of a laundry was no less harsh than the in loft.  It appears that ironers quickly came and went, for nine months later in May 1873 the company advertised "Wanted At Once--six first class ironers, for Jamesburg Shirt Factory.  Apply to Finlay, Gourlay & Finch, 29 Howard st."

The two-story cast iron base is unique even in Soho.

Within the year the firm was reorganized and renamed Downs, Gourlay & Finch.  The new partner, Daniel H. Downs, wrote a check to himself in August 1873 for $1,000 (about $22,000 today).  But when he arrived at the Bowery National Bank he realized he had dropped it somewhere along the way.  He offered a $5 reward for its return in the newspapers; although the chances of that happening were most likely slim.

It happened again in February 1876.   The bookkeeper had earlier drawn a note payable to the firm, due six months later.  But when the date came no one could find it.  The firm placed an announcement in newspapers warning "All persons are hereby cautioned against negotiating a note drawn by Downs, Gourlay & Finch, payable to their own order six months after date; amount $1,200.22; dated August 23, 1875; mislaid, lost or stolen from their office."

The monetary hit could not have come at a worse time.  The Financial Panic of 1873 ruining banks and businesses and wiping out the personal fortunes of millionaires.  The firm reorganized again, now becoming simply George Gourlay.  But none of the efforts were enough.  On April 21 1878 the New York Herald reported that Gourlay was on the brink of bankruptcy.  "The family and friends of Mr. Gourlay have given him financial aid in order that he may make a settlement of fifty cents on the dollars in secured notes."

Trailing fruits and vegetables--even including ears of corn--adorn the cast iron columns.

The 1880's saw Gilbert Isaacs, clothing manufacturer; Stewart, Warren & Co., "manufacturing stationers;" and Wilken & Black, dealers in tailors' trimmings in the building.  

In 1888 Stewart, Warren & Co. became "unpleasantly familiar," as worded by The Evening Telegram, with a gang of forgers.  The article explained that the firm "does a very large check manufacturing business and have to be constantly on guard against these rogues."  A nicely dressed member of the gang would appear at an office and present a letter written on Stewart, Warren & Co. letterhead.  It "requested the loan of one of their blank checks as an order had come from another customer for just such checks on the same kind of paper, and the firm were entirely out of samples."  

Suspicions were raised in September when the bookkeeper of Heissenbottle, Nearing & Co. noticed that the firm's name was misspelled and refused to supply the check other than by mail.  "The fraud came out at once when inquiry was made," said The Telegram.  Stewart, Warren & Co. notified police headquarters that "check raisers were apparently planning a raid on some of their customers."  The article warned businessmen "Indications point to the existence of a gang of check forgers and raisers in this city who are laying in a stock of blanks as the first step toward getting ready for business."  The newspaper also warned the crooks.  "The police are prepared to deal with them."

Ely C. Carter, maker of lace curtains, was in the building in the mid-1890's.  It employed an all female staff.  Of its 29 workers, 10 were under 21-years old and one under 16.  They worked a 54-hour week.

The last of the apparel companies in No. 29 was forced to find new accommodations when the entire building was leased by the S. Orchman Trunk Co. in September 1915.   The Great Depression years saw John Reiner & Co., dealers in industrial and construction equipment, here from 1933 through 1937.

Other tenants included the envelope maker Anca Printing Co., here by 1950; and the Empire Belt & Novelty Co. in 1955.

The upper floors were converted to "joint living/working quarters for artists" in 2003, one per floor.  The storefront became home to the Ralo Tibet Carpet store, which remained until around 2014.  In 2018 the art gallery BDDW opened here.

photographs by the author

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