Saturday, June 27, 2020

The 1871 Peake, Opdycke & Co. Store -- 427-429 Broadway

In 1854 proprietor George W. Harpel promoted the "enlarged and refitted" City Hotel at Nos. 427-429 Broadway.  Not only was it a mere three minute walk from the Harlem, Hudson River and New Haven Railroad Depots, but "Meals [are] served at all hours, either in their apartments (without extra charge) or in the private dining rooms or in the halle a ménage, which is attached to the Hotel."   By the end of the Civil War the hotel had been renamed the Tontine Hotel.

Broadway bustles with traffic and pedestrians around the Tontine Hotel (far right) in 1870.  The building would be demolished soon after this photo was taken.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The district around Broadway and Howard Streets was becoming increasingly commercial at the time.  In 1870 prominent attorney and judge Abram J. Dittenhoefer demolished the hotel and hired Thomas R. Jackson to design a modern loft and store building on the site.

Jackson had earlier been the head draftsman in the office of esteemed architect Richard Upjohn and contributed to the design of the rebuilt Trinity Church, completed in 1846.  For Dittenhoefer's project he used the relatively new technology of the cast iron facade.

Used for over a decade, the process involved bolting pre-fabricated cast iron elements to the masonry fronts of buildings.  They could imitate carved stone, be easily cast with elaborate decorative elements and—most importantly—would be fireproof.    By now the process had been perfected and cast iron facades were quickly gaining widespread acceptance.  Jackson used it to full advantage, lavishing the facade with elaborate French Renaissance decorations.

An advantage of cast iron was the speed of construction it allowed.  Work began on Nos. 427-429 Broadway on July 1, 1870 and was completed six months later, on January 12, 1871.  Above the handsome storefront where free-standing Corinthian columns on pedestals separated the windows, four identical stories were separated by intermediate cornices.  They mimicked the ground floor with engaged Corinthian columns upholding a series of round arches that created a hypnotic rhythm.  The sprandrels overflowed with frothy French elements.  The bracketed terminal cornice was capped with a triangular pediment which announced 1870.

The building's first tenant was Peake, Opdycke & Co., fur merchants.  Winter fashions for both men and women in the 19th century included costly fur coats, robes, hats and other items.  The firm marketed skins from buffalo, which were hunted for heavy carriage robes, beavers for men's tophats, and minks, sables and other animals for top coats, muffs, and collars.

Peake, Opdycke & Co. said its "splendid goods are sold by most of the leading retail Dry Goods Merchants in all the leading cities and towns."  Demorest's Monthly Magazine, April 1871 (copyright expired)

But despite the high quality of its goods and its aggressive nation-wide advertising campaign, the firm was on shaky financial footing.  On October 9, 1873, just two years after Peake, Opdycke & Co. moved into the new building, The Nation reported that it had failed.  But the writer placed the blame on the banks and customers, not on the firm.  "The action of the savings-banks in hoarding greenbacks at this time is severely criticised," it said, adding that Peake, Opdycke & Co. "transacted a large dry goods, jobbing and importing business--one of the largest in the city--and their failure was brought about by the difficulty experienced in making collections."

On November 1873 a large announcement in the New-York Tribune informed dry goods merchants of an enormous close-out sale of "their large stock of over one million dollars at an immense sacrifice."  

Space in the building was soon taken by the wholesale drygoods firm of Bartlett, Reed & Co.  In August 1875 it was looking for a clerk, insisting that he "must be sober and capable."

The next major tenant came in 1876.  On July 1 the Real Estate Record reported "Judge Dittenhoefer's store, on the southwest corner of Broadway and Howard street, has been rented to John M. Davies & Co., at $30,000 a year."  The journal pointed out the 50-percent reduction in rent.  "Peake, Opdycke & Co. formerly paid $60,000 for the same property."  John M. Davies & Co., a manufacturer and seller of "gents' furnishing goods," paid annual rent equivalent to $738,000 today.

Difficult to see from the street, the date 1870 is cast into the pediment.
Founded around 1840, John M. Davies & Co. was later described as "the leading house and originator in men's furnishing goods.  Mostly all the first-class furnishers of New York either got their schooling there or emanated from it."

Upon the death of John R. Davies the firm was renamed Robert K. Davies & Co.  The Rochester, New York newspaper the Democrat & Chronicle said "When Robert K. Davies succeeded...the business was looked upon as one of the most successful in New York City."  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on April 2, 1880 touted its Easter goods, including "novelties in neck dress, gloves and handkerchiefs, dress and fancy shirts, hosiery and underwear."

Trouble within the company's workforce started in 1884 when a new factory superintendent named Schautz was hired (at a significant $3,000 annual increase in pay, or about $69,500, over his predecessor, named Straub).  Straub was fired for being pro-union.

A female employee later explained "Although Superintendent Straub was a union man and we all liked him very much, we continued our work as before when he was discharged to make room for Mr. Schautz, for we belonged to no union and did not consider the matter any special grievance of ours."

Schautz immediate let it be known that he intended to "thoroughly reorganize the working system of the factory."  That included "the most rigid economy."  He immediately reduced the workers' wages by 10 percent.  The staff noticed, however, that cronies of the new superintendent were brought in at higher wages.  Long-standing cutters were fired and "some of the new men got $4 and $5 a week more than the old ones," complained a worker.

The breaking point came in 1887 when Schautz told the female workers he needed to cut their wages to $3 and $4 per week, depending on their positions (about $111 in today's dollars).  They refused, saying "no respectable girl can board and clothe herself on that amount."  Schautz agreed.  Or at least he appeared to.

A worker told The New York Times "We were deceived, however, for in a few days came a wholesale cut averaging 50 per cent on all classes of work."  Schautz refused to meet with the women, as did Robert Davies.  The entire female workforce walked out.  On July 21 The Times reported "The factory is practically shut-down for the present, only a few cutters being at work yesterday and no girls at all."  Schautz remained firm and told a reporter that he "thinks the girls will submit to his terms in a few days."

A reporter who attended a meeting of the women "was surrounded by a bevy of the girls, who all wanted to explain at once the exact situation of affairs," said The Times.  "All we want is a fair show, said one."  The group suggested that if finances were so tight, perhaps Schautz should "knock something off his own salary."

The strike was resolved, but the end of the line for the venerable firm was on the horizon.  Three years later, on April 8, 1890 the Democrat & Chronicle reported that "The great gents' furnishing house" of Robert K. Davies had failed.

S. Hirsch & Co., button dealers, had shared the building with Robert K. Davies for several years by now.  Firms like these employed "cashiers," whose highly responsible positions entailed the handling of cash receipts and payroll.  They were highly trusted but newspapers repeatedly ran stories of dishonest cashiers.

And on June 29, 1888 The Evening World began an article saying "Another cashier has gone wrong and has been arrested in Montreal."  He was Albert E. Krahl, the cashier of S. Hirsch & Co.  Two weeks earlier he entered a check into the books of $900 for payroll.  He then changed the check to $3,900, cashed it, paid the employees then disappeared.  When he did not appear for work the books were checked, showing there was another $2,000 missing--a total of nearly $140,000 today.

The Evening World, July 15, 1889 (copyright expired)
Detectives had gone to Brooklyn to question his neighbors.  One mentioned that on the Saturday before his disappearance he "purchased a new suit of clothes adapted to cold weather," according to The Evening World.  The article went on to say "He had married a young and beautiful girl five months ago, and by keeping close to the lady and watching her movements they traced Krahl to Montreal."  The wayward cashier was extradited for forgery.

The Celluloid Company operated from the building around the same time.  It manufactured "waterproof collars and cuffs that will not wilt, are not effected by moisture and look just like linen."  An advertisement in The Eaton Rapids Journal on August 17, 1894 said they "are all the fashion now."

Men's linen collars and cuffs in the 1890's were not part of the shirt, but sold separately.  The practice meant that soiled collars and cuffs could be simply changed out, and worn collars simply thrown away without sacrificing the shirt.  The celluloid collars and cuffs were easily cleaned and did not wear out.  A collar cost 25 cents, and a pair of cuffs 50 cents--or about $15.30 today for the set of cuffs.  The up-to-date firm boasted a telephone in its office by 1895.

In 1909 Nos. 427-429 Broadway had became home to several railroad offices.  Now known as the Lackawanna Building, that year it housed the offices of The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Co.; and passenger and freight agents J. L. Homer, P. M. Ahern, and J. J. Byrne.  All of the tenants would still be in the building through 1916.

That all ended in 1919 when the structure was sold to Frederick Brown.  In reporting on the sale on July 12, the New-York Tribune noted "The building is vacant."  The sale price was equal to $2.42 million today.

New tenants included The Wahl Co., importers of fountain pens and pencils; and the Corona Importing Corp., dealers in novelties like Christmas tree ornaments, toys and mechanical items.

The International Office Equipment Magazine, February 1922 (copyright expired)

As Soho transformed to Manhattan's art center in the late 20th century, the Nancy Hoffman Gallery opened in the building by 1991.  In the first decade of the 21st century the performance space Hub, an off-shoot of Performa 17, was here as well.

The 1871 structure has survived amazingly intact, including the ground floor, normally the first to go.  It still commands attention on the corner of Broadway and Howard Street after a century and a half.

photographs by the author

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