Monday, June 15, 2020

The Lost Edgar Laing Stores Building - Murray and Washington Streets

The lines of the "Bogardus Building" anticipated the sleek designs to come a century later. from the collection of the Library of Congress
In the early 19th century two sprawling markets were located near the rivers on either side of Lower Manhattan--the Washington Market on the west and Fulton Market on the east.  Vendors traded in produce from New Jersey and Long Island, fresh fish and oysters, and meats.  Those doing business at the Washington Market focused mainly on fruits and vegetables

The Washington Market - from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Washington Market had opened in 1812.  An unexpected presence in the early 1840's was Laing & Randolph, coal dealers, whose coal yard and offices were located at No. 250-258 Washington Street, at the corner of Murray Street.  By 1843 the successful firm had three other coal yards throughout the city.

Edgar Hall Laing, Sr. was born in 1810.  Now, in addition to his coal business he was the first president of the Irving National Bank.  He apparently recognized that the Washington Market property held considerably more financial potential than its use as a coal yard.   In 1847 he commissioned James Bogardus to design a five-store complex on the site.

It was an early commission for Bogardus.  A year earlier the inventor was hawking his cast iron “eccentric sugar mill” and listed himself in the city directory as “eccentric mill maker.”  But his development of cast iron as an architectural medium would revolutionize architecture and engineering--enabling relatively inexpensive and fire-proof construction.  The cast sections were assembled on site and the fa├žade was attached to the new structure.  The technique made possible large window openings and complicated ornamentation.

A close-up photo of the battered building taken in the early 1970's shows pencil-thin engaged columns and a few surviving decorative elements (right)  from the collection of the Library of Congress
The Edgar Laing Stores, completed in 1849, broke ground in other ways, as well.  It had a pre-fabricated cast iron frame system and its rounded corner and understated ornamentation are credited by some contemporary architectural historians as a predecessor to the Chicago School.  It was the first self-supporting multi-story structure with iron walls.

So new was the concept that on May 4, 1849 The New York Herald reported "This species of building is entirely new in this country, there having been, as yet, but four [sic] completed, which are situated at the corner of Washington and Murray streets, an inspection of which will at once satisfy the beholder of their utility and superiority."  The article noted that the cast iron buildings could be completed with the same number of workmen in half the time of a masonry structure.

With his market stores completed, Laing continued to diversify.  On October 31, 1850 the New-York Daily Tribune reported on his "magnificent project for the ultimate Removal of the Slaughter-Houses from the thickly populated districts."  Laing's massive project on 39th Street between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues would consolidate no fewer than 50 slaughter-houses that dotted the city.  The newspaper called it "the most salutary and thoroughly beneficent improvement contemplated" in the city.

In the meantime, the Edgar Laing Stores filled with produce dealers.  J. Wheaton & Co., provision merchants, were here in 1851; as was the store of George Walker.  That year Walker advertised a shipment of "Glenfield Patent Starch" from England.  His ad said "The Glenfield Patent Powder Starch has now been used for some time in that department of the Royal Laundry where all the finest goods are finished for Her Majesty, Prince Albert and the Royal Family."

Edgar Laing had died on March 4, 1852.  His wife, Sophia, did not retain possession of the Washington Market property for long.  In April 1853 the stores were sold at auction.

George Walker had added a somewhat surprising product to his line that year.  While he still handled the Glenfield Starch, he now also advertised "Imported Cigars in Quantities to suit purchasers--City and country grocers, hotels, &c, supplied on the most liberal terms."  Another merchant with an unexpected product for sale was J. A. Clark.  His ad in The New York Herald on May 8, 1853 hawked "Firecrackers, of Gold Chop, together with every known (and many entirely new) descriptions of fireworks, for sale as reduced priced."

from the collection of the Library of Congress
Grocers and provision dealers continued to occupy the Edgar Laing Stores as the decades passed.  The businesses included John F. Kothe's "fine retail grocery store" in the early 1870's; and wholesale grocers and product merchants Kothe & Stemmerman; Gennerich, Hilsman & Co.; G. Pustkuchen; and J. E. Laird.

The Financial Panic of 1873--an economic depression as devastating as the Great Depression of 1929--greatly affected the already desperate poor.  Early in 1874 the Reform Association for the Relief of the Aged and Destitute Poor was organized and asked for donations of food from wholesale grocers.  On February 26 The New York Herald announced that the merchants of the Edgar Laing Stores had pitched in.  J. E. Laird provided one basket of turnips, Gennerich Hilsman & Co. gave a bag of flour, G. Pustkuchen donated a bag of barley, and Kothe & Stemmerman provided one box of macaroni.

Over the succeeding years produce dealer George H. Barteis; A. S. Stone, wholesale fruit merchant; and Maruice A. Lippman Co., Inc. fruits, occupied stores.

As the Washington Market was flattened, the landmarked Edgar Laing Stores stood alone.  from the collection of the Library of  Congress
As the second half of the 20th century dawned, the sprawling Washington Market complex, now surrounded by towering commercial buildings, was an inconvenient presence in lower Manhattan.  After the Hunts Point Cooperative Market was completed in the Bronx in 1962, the vintage Washington Market buildings were slated for demolition.

On December 20, 1970 The New York Times architectural journalist Ada Louise Huxtable wrote "Washington Market is gone.  It is now 38 acres of pink (handmade brick) rubble...Well, not quite all."  Not yet demolished were a group of Federal-style houses (later relocated) and the Edgar Laing Stores building, which had been earlier been designated a landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Now better known as the Bogardus Building, it was carefully dismantled in 1971, the pieces numbered for subsequent reconstruction, and the sections stored in a nearby vacant lot.

But, unprotected, a large number of the panels were stolen in 1974.  An editorial in The New York Times lamented "Clearly, the thieves were less interested in history and art than in the high price of scrap iron."  Twenty-two broken panels were discovered later in a Bronx junkyard, but two-thirds of the historic facade had already been scrapped, sold for $90 per truckload.

A surviving scrap of the Edgar Laing Stores Building is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In response, with the cow already out of the bar, the Landmarks Commission moved the remaining 59 panels to a secure city-owned building.  But on July 11, 1977 Ada Louise Huxtable reported "Now someone has stolen the building again.  It isn't easy to steal panels weighing about a ton and a half each.  You have to like scrap iron a lot."

On the site of the Edgar Laing Stores building and its neighbors today is a residential building.  To memorialize the lost architectural treasure, a passingly similar building was erected in 1983, ironically in the Fulton Street Market, where the competitors of the Edgar Laing Stores had operated a century and a half earlier.

The Fulton Market building pays homage to the Edgar Laing Stores.  photo by Jazz Guy
many thanks to Pam Frederick for suggesting this post


  1. On the site of the Edgar Laing Stores building and its neighbors today is NOT Washington Market Park.

    It is a Whole Foods at the base of a luxury condo that covers the whole block.  Washington Street is demapped there.

    1. Gosh. So forceful in your correcting! Thanks for the clarification .

    2. I love your site. I only meant to be precise, and not to scold. Have you done the newly reconstructed 74 Grand Street yet? It follows this story nicely:

      "[...] Because 74 Grand was located within the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, the Landmarks Preservation Commission negotiated a legal agreement that required its owner, a cooperative called SoHo Equities, to dismantle the facade piece by iron piece, then store these architectural elements in a dry, secure, indoor location and reinstall them on any new building erected on the site.

      "In committing the owners to such rigorous salvage and reconstruction, the commission sought to avoid a repetition of perhaps the most darkly comical episode in its history, the loss of the disassembled cast-iron facade of the 1849 Laing Stores, a city landmark, which was brazenly stolen from a TriBeCa lot in 1974. [...]"

  2. More architectural vandalism occurred on upper Second Avenue, where architectural elements—a wooden tower using the ends of stylized beer barrels—were stored after the demolition of the Ruppert Brewery. The unprotected wooden tower was torched and destroyed by vandals.

    Maybe a possible "vanished" post, unless you've already done it?

    1. I have not done a Ruppert tower post. I'll look into that.