Friday, July 31, 2020

Samuel A. Warner's 1889 27 Howard Street



The building's most prominent feature, its parapet, has been sadly lost.
Once home to respectable, well-heeled families; the Howard Street block between Broadway and Elm Street (later Lafayette Street) had seriously declined by the late 1840's.  Mary Campbell lived at No. 27 Howard Street on May 6, 1848 when she was assaulted by Edward McKenna who, according to The New York Herald, attempted "to violate her person."  By 1855 the house was operated as a brothel, known as "Mrs. Hardy's."

The block began to change again in the first years following the Civil War as the vintage two- and three-story former homes were demolished for modern loft buildings.  In 1888 real estate operator Samuel Inslee purchased No. 27 Howard Street and commissioned architect Samuel A. Warner to design a replacement factory and store on the site.

This project was by no means the first time the men worked together.  In 1886 Inslee had hired Warner to design the little Mitzvah Chapel at No. 420 West 57th Street; and the following year to design a five-story loft building on Worth Street.

Inslee's five story, cast iron clad structure was a medley of styles--neo-Grec, touches of Queen Anne, and Romanesque Revival.  The understated base forewent the ornate Corinthian columns evident in so many cast iron storefronts in favor of simple paneled pilasters.  The side piers of the second and third floors followed suit, and those of the fourth took the form of fluted Corinthian pilasters.  The fifth floor turned to Romanesque, its windows deeply-recessed within an arcade.  Crowning the design was a pierced parapet above the modillioned cornice.  



The building filled with tenants associated with the garment industry.  In the 1890's Mahaffy & Philips, dealers in buttons and trimmings; Jung & Turnbull, "dress and cloak trimmings; and Brice & Johnson, "dry goods and notions," shared the building.  

As the turn of the century passed, the tenant list began to diversify.  Meyer & Brother was in the building by 1905 and would remain for several years.  The firm dealt in "indestructible pearl hat, stick and lace pins" as well as "pearls and jewelry."  

And by 1906 Peter Woll & Sons operated from the address.  Based in Philadelphia, the firm was founded in 1858 "in the business of preparing bristle for brush-makers," according to The American Carpet and Upholstery Journal in January 1903.  By the time the New York branch opened at No. 27 Howard Street, the firm had broadened "by the addition of curled hair, bed feathers and other kindred lines."

In fact, the manufacture of curled hair was Peter Woll & Sons' main product in the Howard Street location.  The natural material was sterilized and sold in bulk to be used as mattress and upholstery stuffing.   Automobile makers preferred it for car upholstery and the medical profession touted its benefits.  In his 1913 book The Modern Hospital Dr. John Allan Hornsby declared, "there is no material for the hospital mattress that will take the place of curled hair.  It is expensive, and will cost for the average mattress $8 to $10, but, because of its porosity, it can be easily fumigated."

In 1912 the diverse tenant list included importer Robert P. Smyth, an importer.  His well-intentioned gesture for his wife went horribly wrong on June 11 that year.  Smyth's wife had suffered a nervous breakdown and that evening he took her for a car ride around Brooklyn "in hope the fresh air would benefit her."

As he entered an intersection Smyth realized a Myrtle Avenue trolley was bearing down on them.  "Mr. Smyth tried to turn out and avoid a collision," reported The Evening World, "and the motorman, Robert Brothly, tried to stop his car, but both were too late."  The vehicles collided.

Mrs. Smyth's nerves were already fragile and her although husband held her in her seat, she was traumatized.  "The crash of braking glass, the shouts of the trolley passengers and the jolt of the collision were too much for her, however, and she fainted."  She was taken to the nearby police station where a doctor attended to her.  Smyth took her home in a taxicab in much worse condition than before the ride.  "It was said she was suffering from hysteria," said The Evening World.

In 1915 the wholesale paper firm W. M. Pringle & Co. reorganized with new upper management.  Walden's Stationery and Printer reported "The concern has leased the first floor and basement of 27 Howard Street, and alterations have been made preparatory to carrying a stock of paper."


Walden's Stationery and Printer, March 10, 1916 (copyright expired)
The wide variety of businesses in the building continued throughout the succeeding decades.  Samuel Piser, dealer in braids, was here during the World War I years; the Forte Leather Goods Company leased a floor in 1919; and the Globe Brush Manufacturing Company signed a lease in 1922.  Other tenants included Vanity Leather Goods, makers of hand bags and pocket books, in the 1920's and Marks Woodworking Machine Co. in the 1940's.


A grainy tax photo shows the parapet around 1941.  photo via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
The last quarter of the century saw a noticeable change in tenants as the Soho neighborhood changes from industrial to artistic.  The New York Center for Visual History made No. 27 Howard Street its home in the 1970's.  On October 8, 1979 Robert Palmer, writing in The New York Times, advised that "An educational film series on New York City in the 1930's, which will cover the Depression and the 1939-1940 World's Fair, as well as facets of family life and ethnic groups" was in production at the Center.

At the turn of the century jewelry and decorative accessory designer Ted Muehling opened his shop and studio in No. 27.  A 1975 industrial design graduate from Pratt Institute, he was first known as a jeweler, and then broadened into glassware, vases and other decorative items.

The New York Times columnist Pilar Viladas noted on August 11, 2002 "Ted Muehling has long been fascinated with organic form; just ask the many fans of his jewelry designs."  Viladas focused on his new collection of porcelain decorative accessories.  "Some pieces, like the egg-shaped lantern, were inspired by the translucency of porcelain itself."  A coral-textured porcelain spoon was offered for $125.

When Ted Muehling left No. 27 Howard Street in 2011, Michele Varian moved her home furnishings store from Crosby Street into his former space.  The variety of items available included from vintage furniture, artwork, children's toys, tabletop and barware, and lighting.  The store remains in the space.

Two years later the upper floors--where curled hair was once sterilized and packaged, and where indestructible pearl hat pins were made--were converted to spacious residences.  

The current monochromatic paint scheme disguises the architectural elements of the upper floors, and the loss of the parapet is more than regrettable.  

photographs by the author

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