Saturday, July 11, 2020

The 1874 Martin Bates, Jr. & Co. Bldg - 489-493 Broome Street

photo by Beyond My Ken
Architect Jarvis Morgan Slade's father, Jarvis Slade, was among the first major developers to change the face of the neighborhoods later known as Tribeca and Soho from residential to commercial.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide would call him a "pioneer in this district" and say "it was mainly due to his influence that it was so rapidly covered with first-class buildings."

As a teenager J. Morgan Slade learned architecture in the offices of Edward H. Kendall.  He the opened his own practice at No. 346 Broadway and at just 20-years old received a significant commission--a five-story, 62-foot wide commercial building for silk merchant Martin Bates.

Located at Nos. 489-493 Broome Street between Wooster Street and West Broadway, the structure went up with lighting speed.  Construction began on August 1, 1873 and was completed four months later, on January 31.  Partially responsible for the rapid completion was Slade's choice of cast iron for the facade.  The ability to bolt large pre-cast sections onto the masonry frame was widely touted for its time-saving (as well as fire-proof) qualities.

Costing $75,000 to construct (about $1.65 million today), Slade had produced a highly restrained, sparsely ornamented building.  Each of the upper floors was essentially identical (the second floor received preferential treatment with its engaged columns sitting on paneled pedestals).  Even the capitals of the columns were understated.  While other architects were embellishing their cast iron columns with elaborate, leafy Corinthian capitals, Slade chose a simple ring of egg-and-dart molding that resembled a string pearls.

Slade's subdued capitals are quietly dignified.
Within the triangular pediment above the bracketed cornice was the date construction date 1873.

Bates moved his business, Martin Bates, Jr. & Co., into the new structure.  The American Hatter would later call the firm "one of the pioneer establishments in the fur business, dating back to the year 1834."  At the time of its founding in Boston it was Martin Bates & Sons.  Martin Bates, Jr. opened the New York office in 1845 and in 1853 the firm was renamed Martin Bates, Jr. & Co.

Furs not only provided Victorian consumers warmth but status, as well.  Martin Bates Jr. & Co. did a large sealskin business, requiring several vessels that steamed to Alaska for skins.  The American Hatter added that it also dealt in "buffalo robes, deer, elk beaver and all kinds of furs."

Directory of the Hat, Cap and Fur Trades, 1880 (copyright expired)

Bates leased space in the building to A. De Grieff & Co., a trimming goods importer.  The respected organization suffered humiliating press coverage in 1875.  On December 22 The New York Herald reported "No little stir occurred in the Custom House yesterday with reference to the customs seizure of the establishment of A. De Grieef [sic] & Co., of Nos. 489 to 493 Broome street."

photo by Beyond My Ken (cropped)
The firm had received 95 cases of dress trimming from Paris, the value of which it declared at $14,000.  Suspecting fraud, the Customs office sent inspectors Benjamin and Cosgrove sent to the Broome Street factory with orders "that no goods are allowed to leave the establishment without their knowledge and consent."  

The senior partner in A. De Grieff & Co. admitted that the goods were worth about $70,000; but deflected blame onto a fired clerk.  "We believe that these accusations against us of defrauding the revenue emanate from a discharged clerk named Bell."

After only six years in the building Martin Bates, Jr. & Co. moved to Greene Street in 1880.  Among Bates's Broome Street tenants at the time were Clinton H. Smith & Co., lace goods manufacturer; Wightman & Co., ladies apparel makers; and Fleitmann & Co., silk importers and commission merchants.

Established by Ewald and Hermann Fleitman who had arrived in New York from Germany in 1864, Fleitmann & Co. was by now among the largest commercial merchants in the city.  

Despite the intricate work required to produce high-quality lace goods, female workers of Clinton H. Smith & Co. made what today would be considered sweat shop wages.  An advertisement in 1881 read "Experienced operators on lace goods can get from $7 to $12 per week, steady work."   The higher end of that range would equal $300 today.

Dry goods merchant George Forbes occupied space in the building in 1887.  And that year he learned a lesson about drinking too much.  On May 20 he stumbled out of "a drinking resort" on 6th Avenue and hailed a hansom cab.  The driver, Benjamin Frankford, owned the cab as well as the livery stable where it was housed.  When they got to Forbes's home on East 87th Street, Frankford helped the inebriated man get to the door.

Later Forbes realized his gold watch and chain, valued at nearly $7,000 in today's money, were missing.  Hoping that Forbes had been too drunk to recognize him, Frankford boldly reappeared at his door the next day.  He said he was a private detective and was certain he could track down the thief.  Forbes handed him $10 as a retainer.

Frankford repeatedly returned, but never with the watch; only to get additional fees.  Finally, after having spent over $1,800 in today's dollars, Forbes realized he was being swindled.  Frankford was arrested and Forbes had learned a very expensive lesson about over-imbibing.

By 1892 I. Modry & Co., makers of "caps, laces and rufflings," and The Empire Manufacturing Co., children's dresses manufacturers, were the two major tenants.  I. Modry & Co., headed by Ignatius Modry (known as Ignaz), was a massive operation, employing 390 workers in 1892, only 15 of whom were men.  More than half of the operators were minors, with 50 of them under 16 years old.  The firm would remain in the building into the first years of the 20th century.

The building as photographed on April 13, 1916 looks little different today.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Following World War I the tenant list changed.  After the building was purchased in November 1917 by the Levett Sales Co., apparel related firms disappeared.  They were replaced by more industrial companies like General Platers' Supply Co. and the Parker Sheet Metal Works.  

New York Herald, January 26, 1919 (copyright expired)
The were joined in the 1920's by North & Herbert Co., Inc., dealers in machinery, automobile accessories and hardware; and Aerovox Wireless Corp, founded in 1922 as the Radiola Wireless Corporation, makers of radios and components.

Radio World, April 1926

The post-Prohibition years saw another type of tenant, the wine warehouse of De Boer & Miller, Inc. 

The Soho district would see dramatic change beginning in the 1970's as artists took over the old factory buildings.  The streets that had rumbled with delivery trucks increasingly saw the influx of art galleries, artist lofts and shops.  By 1971 the Fischbach art gallery was in the former Bates building and the following year the upper floors were converted to "studio and offices"--one per floor.

Fischbach remained in the building through the mid-1970's, joined by the Alessandro Gallery by 1976.  The Frank Marino Gallery was here in 1981.  Other commercial tenants over the next two decades would include The Handbag Workshop and the health food store Healthy Pleasures.

Another renovation completed in 2001 resulted in one sprawling apartment each on the second and fourth floors, and two each on the third and fifth.

photo by Beyond My Ken
Today the Martin Bates, Jr. & Co. building--designed by a young man barely out of his teens--is remarkably intact after more than a century and a half.

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