|photo courtesy Lori Stone
The block of Thomas Street between Hudson Street and West Broadway was lined with handsome brick homes in the first decades of the 19th century. One of them, Nos. 41 and 41-1/2 Thomas Street, would become the scene of one of New York City's most infamous murders. In 1836 it was an upscale brothel owned by Rosina Townsend. Newspapers described the oil paintings and rich furnishings and draperies of the parlors. The Sun reported "Several young women occupied apartments in her house."
Among them was Helen Jewett. On night of April 9, 1836 a repeat client, 19-year-old Richard P. Robinson visited. He rushed out the back door and over the fence at around 3 a.m. Mrs. Townsend smelled smoke and, upon investigating, discovered Helen's body. She had been struck on the head three times with a hatchet and then her bed set afire.
|Robinson flees the scene of the murder, hatchet in hand, in this contemporary pamphlet illustration. original source unknown
No one forgot what happened in the house. On November 30, 1869 The New York Herald announced "The buildings Nos. 41 and 41-1/2 Thomas street, where the murder of Ellen [sic] Jewett was committed in 1836, are being torn down to make room for stores."
The narrow strip that added the "1/2" to the 32-foot wide address was most likely a horse walk--a narrow passage between houses that led to the rear yards. The property had been purchased by Erastus Titus, the owner of the major Washington Street bakery Erastus Titus & Co., makers of "ship bread and crackers." On January 21, 1870 the architectural firm of Youngs & Outcolt filed plans for a "5 story and basement iron front first class store."
The architects blended the Italianate and Second Empire styles. The first floor sat above the street level, facilitating the loading and unloading of drays. Its cast iron front was similar to storefronts being installed at the time--paneled piers at the sides, columns with elaborate Corinthian capitals, and a bracketed cornice above the entablature. The four identical upper floors were separated by prominent intermediate cornices and flanked by rusticated piers. Engaged Corinthian columns separated the openings. A bracketed terminal cornice completed the design.
Shortly after the building was completed Thomas Street was extended, giving the building the new address of No. 84. It became home to the New York office of Scholle Brothers, California wool dealers.
In 1878 the The Real Estate Record commented that Scholle Brothers, "have for years past, made it their study to bring California wool to this market in such a cleanly state that it could defy all the pretensions of those offering Austrialian wools to American consumers" and noted that they had grown "from a small beginning to become the richest wool merchants of California."
That year Scholle Brothers branched out into New York real estate by erecting five "brown stone mansions," as described by The Real Estate Record which "require more than a passing notice."
The firm was sharing the Thomas Street building with Fletcher Manufacturing Company at the time. The firm had been founded in Boston in 1793 by Thomas Fletcher, a cotton weaver who had arrived from Manchester, England two years earlier.
The firm manufactured "narrow goods, tapes, fringes, rufflings," and similar wares. Two of its most important and profitable products came with innovations in fashion and housewares--corset laces and lamp wicks. In 1886 The Providence Plantations explained "With the discovery of petroleum and the use of one of its products, kerosene oil, in 1858, came a greater demand for lamp wicks. Their manufacture was increased, and to-day the company's output is larger than that of any other factory in the United States."
Scholle Brothers moved to No. 53 Broad Street by the mid-1880's and Fletcher Manufacturing moved to Nos. 18-20 Thomas Street. In their places were Fairbanks & Co. and John Sanderson, "dealer in cotton duck and cotton goods."
Especially for the times, Fairbanks & Co. was a fascinating operation--what would be called a testing laboratory today. Scientific journals routinely reported on activities here. On January 16 and 17, 1884 the annual meeting of American Society of Civil Engineers was held. The Programme For Annual Meeting for the 17th listed:
At 11.30 A. M., at the Department of Tests and Experiments of Fairbanks & Co., 84 Thomas street, by invitation of that firm, members will view the practical working of large horizontal and vertical Autographic Testing Machines, under the direction of Mr. A. V. Abbott, engineer in charge.
In the summer of 1886 mainstream New York newspapers became interested in one particular test--that of the structural materials to be used in the subways. On August 20 The New York Times reported "Dr. Albert R. Ledoux, the chemical expert of the Electrical Subway Commission, tested various samples of asphaltic concrete yesterday at the Fairbanks Testing Works, No. 84 Thomas-street. Samples provided by various manufacturers underwent tests for tensile strength and crushing strength. The Electrical World reported that Dr. Ledoux "thought the tests had been eminently satisfactory."
The testing lab continued in the space into the 1890's, under the new name of Olsen. Architect Rafael Guastavino had been perfecting his "Tile Arch System" for several years; a process that would revolutionize architecture for decades. Guastavino proudly marketed his interlocking tile system for its exceptional strength. On March 13, 1890 it was put to the test here.
The Jewish Messenger reported "This method is by no means an experimental one, as a large number of buildings have already been erected with it and many others are in process of construction." With that in mind, the results were happy ones. "The test of ultimate tensile strength made by Olsen, of 84 Thomas street, were very satisfactory." Guastavino's distinctive tile arches can be found throughout the city today in places like Grand Central's Oyster Bar.
No. 84 Thomas Street remained in the Titus family for half a century. On January 18, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported that Erastus Titus Roberts had sold the property to Caroline Selick.
|In the early 1940's the Corintian capitals still survived. photo via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services
In 1943 the building was converted to a storage warehouse, with the fourth floor reserved for manufacturing. Another renovation completed in 1964 continued its use for storage, with manufacturing now only on the second floor.
Artists were attracted to the vast lofts of Tribeca in the last quarter of the 20th century. In the early 1980's the trend arrived at No. 84 Thomas Street as lofts became the homes and studios of sculptor Beverly Pepper and, on the top floor, artist Todd Stone and his wife, Lori.
Stone, who works in watercolor and oil, was born in New York City in 1951. His work, originally abstract, expanded to include landscapes and cityscapes.
Pepper, who died in 2020, is best known for her site-specific, monumental works. Examples are exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among many others.
A tragic accident took place in Pepper's studio and gallery on January 26, 1983. Among the sculptor's workers was 25-year old Susan Edmonson. That afternoon a 500-pound, 10-foot iron sculpture toppled over, crushing her. She was pronounced dead at St. Vincent's Hospital.
In 1986 No. 84 was officially converted to apartments, one loft dwelling per floor.
On September 11, 2001 Todd Stone witnessed the attack on the World Trade Center from here. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum and website recalls "Stone remained on the roof throughout most of the day, sketching and taking pictures of what he saw unfolding a few blocks away. When the towers collapsed, dust and ash settled on the roof and seeped into his home through a skylight."
Unable to "rid his mind and spirit of the horrific images," according to the site, Stone began a series of 16 paintings entitled Witness. Ash from the the World Trade Center was rubbed into the water color paper, changing it from white to dull gray. The series is displayed in the 9/11 Museum.
|Todd Stone's series Witness includes this powerful watercolor. image via 9/11 Memorial & Museum
many thanks to Lori Stone for suggesting this post