Friday, June 19, 2020

Charles Mettam's 1874 500 Broome Street

The retail spaces on West Broadway did not exist until 1992.  photo by Tdorante10 (cropped)

In the first half of the 19th century comfortable brick-faced houses lined Broome Street and South Fifth Avenue (later West Broadway).  But in 1874 they were rapidly making way for modern commercial buildings, such as the one George Marchand began at the northeast corner of the intersection on August 6.  

Marchand hired Irish-born Charles Mettam to create the five-story structure at No. 500 Broome Street.  The well-respected architect had been chosen to design the canopied catafalque that bore the coffin of President Abraham Lincoln through the streets of New York in 1865.

His eccentric design blended the neo-Grec style with a touch of Second Empire that demands pause.   The West Broadway elevation, faced in brick and trimmed in stone, was mundane, little different from scores of commercial buildings being erected at the time.  But the Broome Street facade, clad in cast iron from the Aetna Iron Works, was singular.

The French Second Empire style upper openings, three on Broome and two on West Broadway, were separated by sedate engaged Doric columns.  They were flanked at the corner and sides by neo-Grec paneled piers, the capitals of which upheld intermittent cornices.  Each overblown capital suppored what was essentially a robust platform for the pier above.  The motif was carried on even at the terminal cornice even though there was nothing for the platforms to support.  The piers of the storefront included a charming touch in the form of single, delicate tassels that hung from fluted bands at midsection and from below the capitals.

Marchant's building went up with remarkable speed, completed in just over four months on December 21, 1874.  An advertisement in The New York Herald the following April offered "Elegant first loft to let--at 500 Broome street, corner of south Fifth avenue; well lighted' fine entrance; hatch in the rear; suitable for any first class business."

The "first loft" meant the second floor and the "hatch" referred to the shaftway through which crates and other items were hauled up and down by a system of pulleys in the days before freight elevators were common.  Hatchways were by nature dangerous and this one caused a tragic accident in the summer of 1876.

The New York Evening Telegraph reported on August 12, "An inquest was held this morning by Coroner Eickhoff in the case of William Mulligan, the boy who was killed by falling through an open hatchway, at No. 500 Broome street, last week.  The jury returned a verdict of accidental death and recommended that in future the proprietors of the store keep the hatchway closed except when in use."

Young Mulligan most likely worked for Seth G. Babcock & Co., woolen merchants.  Run by Paul Babcock, Jr. and Seth G. Babcock, it was the only tenant listed in city directories that year.  The following year it was joined by Paul Gumbinner, lace merchant, and the Keep Manufacturing Co., makers of Keep Custom Shirts.

Founded in 1866 Keep Manufacturing Co. sold its products in its own retail stores.  In 1877 Alexander M. De Leuw worked as the firm's clerk--a highly responsible and trusted position that required the handling of large amounts of cash and keeping the books in order.  But the 21-year old, according to the New-York Daily Tribune, "was led into dissipation."  To fund his expensive lifestyle, he began falsifying the payroll records and skimming money.  His shaky scheme fell apart in December 1877 when it was time for the books to be audited.

Having embezzled $10,000--more than a quarter of a million in today's dollars--De Leuw destroyed the books and disappeared.  Detectives played a hunch and notified New Orleans officials to be on the lookout for him, since the De Leuw family was "well-connected" there, according to the Tribune.  It paid off and on January 28, 1878 the New-York Daily Tribune reported that De Leuw had been arrested there.

Employees in garment factories worked grueling schedules, normally between 50 and 60 hours during the week and 9 hours on Saturdays.  During the summer months the conditions in the shops were inhumane.  On July 3, 1885 The New York Times reported on a novel idea being launched in Syracuse, New York.  "An energetic movement is in progress here to inaugurate the popular half holiday scheme.  It is the intention to secure Saturday afternoons during July and August."  The Saturday "half-holiday" would mean that workers would work half days "during the heated term."

The following year Keep Manufacturing got on board with the idea.  The New York Evening Telegram reported on May 6, 1886 that the management gave its employees "the Saturday half-holiday, commencing May 8."

The following summer George Marchand sold No. 500 Broome Street to Thomas Barrett for $40,000 (just over $1.1 million today).  It became headquarters for the Thomas Barrett & Son firm, dealers in "rags and paper stock" and "general paper."  Long time tenants Keep Manufacturing  and Seth G. Babcock & Co. soon moved out; but Barrett continued to lease part of the building to R. Smith & Co., a cloak manufacturer. 

In the winter of 1890-91 a general strike crippled the apparel industry.  In reporting that several of the firms "have granted the demands of their striking cloakmakers" on January 21, 1891, The Evening World revealed where its sympathies lie by using a term most often reserved for corrupt Tammany Hall leaders.  "The same was the case at Boss Smith's shop, 500 Broome street."

As had happened with Keep Manufacturing Co. nearly two decades earlier, in 1896 R. Smith & Co. discovered that $175.50 was short in the accounts of one of their salesmen, Maurice Lapp.   It seemed to Smith that it was most likely a mistake, since Lapp, who had worked for the firm for more than two years, made $1,800 a year plus about $250 in commissions--around $65,000 today.

Nevertheless Smith went to the police station and asked that Lapp be surreptitiously watched "until they could go further into the books," according to The New York Times on March 8.  Smith said that if there was significantly more money missing, the firm would press charges.

There was.  Lapp realized that the noose was tightening and confessed to his employers that he had skimmed money, offering $2,000 if they would drop the case.  The New York Times reported "The firm refused to do this, and at once put experts upon the books."  The auditors discovered "that the defalcation would probably amount to $15,000 or $20,000." (As much as $628,000 in today's money).  

Audaciously, after being arrested on March 6, Lapp "confessed his guilt, and said that if the firm would only take the $2,000 he offered them, they would not lose much, if anything."  Instead he was held on a charge of grand larceny.

Thomas Barrett died on February 23, 1913 leaving at estate of just over $4 million.  The Sun reported that he "gave his interest in the firm of Thomas Barrett & Son to his son, Nicholas J. Barrett.

Before long Nicholas would have to address a problem that threatened both his business and his building.  On July 19, 1919 the New-York Tribune noted "West Broadway has long been suffering from a depression."  The article was not about financial troubles, but structural ones.  "The cellars of most of the buildings along the street between Canal and Springs Streets have been lower than the sewer level."  

A spokesperson for Thomas Barrett & Son told the newspaper "the poor sewer system has caused tremendous damage.  We are looking forward to the construction of some new sewers.  Perhaps we shall then be able to eliminate this needless loss."  (Work on a new system of sewers had already begun, thankfully.)

Thomas Barrett & Son remained in the building for decades.  It was still run by Nicholas J. Barrett in 1939 when The History of Paper Merchandising in New York City wrote, "Although originally a wrapping paper house entirely, Thomas Barrett & Son has expanded its activities to include almost every line of paper made, especially fine and special papers."

The original appearance of the West Broadway side can be seen in this photo from around 1941.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
The paper firm was followed in No. 500 by the Food Trading Corporation, listed as dealing in "spices, seasonings, seasoning sauces, processed herbs and meat extracts for food."  In 1977 the factory filled 100,000 cans of seasoning each day.  

By now the Soho neighborhood was becoming increasingly residential and not all of the loft dwellers appreciated the smells.  On September 11, 1977 Carl Glassman reported in The New York Times "outside the plant, the aroma is sharp enough to make some residents sneeze.  Inside, it's almost thick enough to grind."

The firm's vice president, Max Scherer waved off the complaints.  He insisted the neighbors were healthier by inhaling the herb-infused air.  "It's good for you.  They all like it.  They never get colds this way."

In 1990 a gut renovation and conversion to residential space for certified artists was begun by United American Land Company.  The facade work was executed by Fifield, Piaker and Associates under the guidance of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Completed in 1992, it included four new shops cut into the West Broadway side.

1 comment:

  1. This building is very cool even the age was old but still exist and look strong building..