Friday, May 29, 2020

The Calhoun, Robbins & Co. Building - 895-899 Broadway

Cousins Samuel Lord and George W. Taylor opened their first dry goods store in 1826 on Catherine Street.  By the early 1860's they had moved to Grand Street and Broadway, and in 1869 once again followed the northward movement of the shopping district.  Upscale stores like Tiffany & Co. and Arnold, Constable & Co. had relocated to the Union Square area that same year.

The partners leased property from the Goelet family at Nos. 895 and 899 Broadway and the abutting southwest corner plot of  Broadway and 20th Streets from the Badeau family.  They commissioned James H. Giles to design the new Lord & Taylor emporium.  A Brooklyn architect who was responsible for a few cast iron building in lower Manhattan as well as the earlier Gothic-style Christ Church in Williamsburg (where he even designed the organ cabinet), Giles went all-out for the new store.

His five-story extravaganza, costing half a million dollars (just under $10 million today), departed from conventional cast iron designs.  Rather than creating a facade pretending to be stone, his was unabashedly cast iron.  Architectural critics of the day praised the innovation; one of the few criticisms being the overall beige color rather than a polychromed paint scheme.  

Thousands of shoppers crowded into the new store on November 28, 1870 through the impressive main entrance on Broadway.  Hand-hoisted elevators carried customers from floor to floor to sample the latest in imported merchandise.

The main entrance and the three bay sections on either side (at left) engulfed the 895-899 plot.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The northward tide of commerce did not cease and in 1914 Lord & Taylor planned its next move, to Fifth Avenue and 38th Street.  The corner of the building at No. 901 Broadway was detached internally from the sections at Nos. 895-899 and 10 East 20th Street.

That the buildings were no longer associated was made visibly clear by architect John H. Duncan who gave Nos. 895-899 Broadway a new personality.  The cast iron facade was pulled off and replaced by a limestone neo-Renaissance style front.  Its dignified, balanced design of rusticated piers and reserved decoration was a stark departure from Giles's Victorian confection.

Rather than separate the windows of the third through fifth floors with pilasters or columns, Duncan floated simple capitals on flat-faced piers.   Along the frieze below the iron cornice he placed sculpted lions' heads within rondels directly above each of the rusticated four-story piers.

Calhoun, Robbins & Company leased the entire building in 1914 and occupied almost all of it.  Space was subleased to publisher Hurst & Co., which released Adventures in Toyland and A Round Robin children's books that year.

Calhoun, Robbins & Co., an importer of "fancy dry goods," had been organized in 1858.  In its January 1915 issue, Notions and Fancy Goods noted "The removal of the business of Calhoun, Robbins & Co. from 408-410 Broadway, where they have been located for the past forty-seven years, to the building formerly occupied by Lord & Taylor, at Broadway, 19th and 20th streets, marks a noteworthy epoch in New York's commercial development."

The firm owned the Lyon Brand of yarns which it produced in its mills in Pennsylvania.  But the scope of the products it sold went far beyond dry goods.   In the early 1920's they included "hair, tooth, nail and cloth brushes," whisk brooms, pocketbooks, purses, card cases, "tourist cases," beaded bags, soap boxes, thimbles, buckles, and scores of other items.

A gang of burglars had plagued the Broadway neighborhood for some time in the spring of 1922 and on May 17 they set their sights on Calhoun, Robbins & Co.  At 4:30 that afternoon four crooks entered No. 901 (the surviving corner of the old Lord & Taylor building) and hid.  When the employees had all gone home, they went to work breaking through a fifth story wall.

Their plan was upset by an informant.  The New-York Tribune reported "Captain Stapleton of the loft squad received a tip that the safe of the dry goods concern of Calhoun, Robbin & Co., at 895 Broadway, was to be blown in search of a pay roll of $120,000."  According to the tipster, "The plan of the yeggmen was to make a hole in a wall leading from an adjoining building."

An army of police--150 patrolmen and 100 detectives--surrounded the block.  Squads of men with rifles were stationed on the roofs of several buildings.  Once the area was secured, "detectives swarmed into the buildings, most of which are occupied by silk mercers and manufacturers of embroideries."

Investigators with flashlights searched "every nook and corner" of more than a dozen buildings.  And then, on the fifth floor of No. 901, "they found a complete yeggmen's outfit, including drills, jimmies, hammers, wrenches, mallets, four pairs of gloves, soap, and a half stick of dynamite, but no burglars."  A hole had been broken through to Calhoun, Robbins & Co.

When they heard the detectives coming up the stairs, the burglars fled to the roof.  A ten-hour search ended at daybreak with all four being captured, one of them having been shot three times.

Calhoun, Robbins & Co. remained in the building until 1928.  Afterwards it was converted for light manufacturing purposes.  In the 1960's the Grossman Stamp Company, manufacturers of collectors' albums and publishers of stamp-related books and brochures, was in the building.  Sussex Clothes, makers of private label ready-to-wear clothing for upscale retailers like Bergdorf-Goodman, Bloomingdales, and Neiman-Marcus, operated from the address in the 1970's.

In 1984 clothing manufacturer Saint Laurie, Ltd. purchased the building for $2 million for its manufacturing space and headquarters after having been at No. 84 Fifth Avenue for half a century.  

An interior renovation costing between $2- and $3 million was initiated by Beyer Blinder Belle, well-known for its work on vintage structures.  Architect Frederick Bland told The New York Times journalist Shawn G. Kennedy on April 11 "When completed, the layout will reflect the way commercial space was used when buildings like 895 Broadway were built, with retail and manufacturing space sharing the same building."  When Saint Laurie, Ltd. moved in, its staff included nearly 250 garment workers like cutters, sewers and finishers.  

On July 4, 1993 The New York Times announced the Equinox fitness center "just signed a lease for 26,000 square feet in the heart of the Flat-iron district at 897 Broadway, a space now occupied by the wholesale clothing company Saint Laurie."  The lower three floors were converted to the Equinox facilities with offices on the upper floors.  

Above the entrance the name "Equinox Building" has been applied.
Although the limestone is a bit grimy, above the ground level the building looks much as it did when the cast iron Victorian department store received its 1914 transformation.

photographs by the author

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