Thursday, August 27, 2020

The 1891 Schermerhorn Building - 696-702 Broadway

William Colford Schermerhorn (a distant cousin of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor) was educated in private schools and graduated from Columbia College in 1840.  An attorney, he lived in the family mansion at the corner of  Lafayette Place and 4th Street until 1860.  Late, as his former elegant neighborhood changed, he replaced former mansions with modern commercial buildings.

In 1890 he partnered with his cousin, Frederick Augustus Schermerhorn, to erect a substantial store and loft building one block away from his old home, at the northeast corner of Broadway and West 4th Street.  Architect George B. Post designed the imposing structure, which was completed in 1891.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, April 29, 1893 (copyright expired)
The tripartite Romanesque Revival design consisted of a two-story base clad in rough-cut brownstone, a brick mid-section which took the form of four-story arches, and a top section consisting of paired, two-story arched openings.  Here the individual windows were separated by thin, engaged and clustered columns; and the pairs of windows by brick piers wearing brownstone capitals.

Despite Post's solid reputation, the Schermerhorn Building was met with a biting review from the Record & Guide.  The writer said the site of the building could have provided opportunity, "having an unusually ample frontage on Broadway, and ample depth on the side street."  And he praised the entrance as being "in general very good and it is the most effective feature of the building."

The architectural critic of the Record & Guide noted that the entrance "spandrils [sic] are richly carved."
The critic found fault with the decoration of the mid-section, but admitted "This does not prevent this central part of the building from being impressive.  The main difficulty of the composition arises with the attic [i.e., top section]...The effect is undoubtedly awkward and ineffective."  The rather scathing critique went on in detail for half a page.

On March 17, 1891, just as the Schermerhorn Building was nearing completion, a massive fire destroyed the eight-story building at Nos. 104-106 Bleecker Street.  It took more than a day to extinguish the blaze.  Among that building's tenants was men's apparel manufacturer Hammerslough, Saks & Co., who suffered a loss of $300,832.35--an astonishing $8.7 million today.

An advertisement demonstrated that the firm could fit a customer of any size or shape.  (original source unknown)
Despite the massive financial blow, Hammerslough, Saks & Co. was able to relocate into the new Shermerhorn Building.  The firm consisted of Samuel Hammerslough and Andrew and Isadore Saks.  It was described as "one of the largest wholesale clothing businesses in New York."

At a time when many garment factories pushed back against organized labor, Hammerslough, Saks & Co. avoided strikes by working with the unions.  At a meeting of the Garment-Workers' Trade Council on November 25, 1893, complaints were received about certain factories "who were said to discriminate against union men and to give their work to sweating-shop contractors."  The minutes noted "Hammerslough, Saks & Co., it was stated, are employing union men only."

In 1894 Andrew and Isadore Saks retired, turning the management of the firm entirely over to Samuel Hammerslough.  The name was changed to Samuel Hammerslough & Co.

By now the name of the Schermerhorn Building was rarely used, most likely because of rampant confusion.  In 1888, three years before this building was completed, William C. Schermerhorn had erected a six-story structure at the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones Street which he also named the Schermerhorn Building.  And to make things more tangled, a third Schermerhorn Building, owned by John Jacob Astor, was located downtown at No. 96 Broadway.

Around 6:00 on the evening of October 25, 1895 three electricians who had been working in the building prepared to go home.  The entered the freight elevator and attempted to run it themselves.  The New York Times reported "Being inexperienced with the management of elevators, they stopped it so suddenly that the cable broke.  The elevator fell with sufficient force to smash the platform and throw the men in a heap on the floor."

The car plummeted to the sub-basement level.  An ambulance was called and the responding doctor "found all three suffering from shock and sprains of the lower limbs."  They all refused to go to the hospital and after resting awhile went home.

On November 12, 1900 a headline in The World announced "Samuel Hamerslough & Co., One of the Best-Known Manufacturers of Clothing, Retires from Business."  The building continued to house clothing-related businesses, many of them now in the millinery trade.

Among them were David Spero, a dealer artificial flowers for hats; Jacob Auslander & Sons, "caps and hats;" and Ury & Mendelson Bros., makers of "ready-to-wear, ready-to-trim and fancy hats."

Millinery Trade Review, January 1904 (copyright expired) 

Eva Wolf was 14-years old and an employee of Jacob Auslander & Bros.  The factory was on the sixth floor but on February 9, 1907 she was sent on an errand to the office of Jacob Auslander on the first floor.  Eva had never been to that floor and was unfamiliar with the layout.  As she went to leave, she passed through an open doorway which, unfortunately, turned out to be an elevator shaft.

Eva suffered severe injuries which kept her bedridden for six months and resulted in permanent injury to her legs and hips.  In 1911 her parents not only filed suit against Jacob Auslander, but against the estate of William C. Schermerhorn, which still owned the building.  The complaint alleged they "carelessly and negligently failed to protect or close an unprotected opening or shaft."  Eva was awarded $2,750 in damages--about $76,300 today.

In the building by 1907 was George C. Batcheller & Co., makers of women's foundations like its "Glove-Fitting" corsets, brassieres, and children's "waists" or undershirts.

This George C. Batcheller & Co. ad depicted a variety of items.  New-York Tribune, March 24, 1907 (copyright expired)
Also in the building at the time were millinery firms Warshauser & Rosemond and the Caton Hat Co., and artificial flowers and feathers dealer Berlinger, Brown & Meyer.  

Berlinger, Brown & Meyer had started business in April 1902.  On September 25, 1909 the New-York Tribune remarked "in this remarkably short period of time [it] has built up a business which involves over half a million dollars capital."  The article said that "as a result of Mr. [Philip L.] Berlinger's many trips abroad to France and Germany every year search of new styles and ideas, the trade throughout the country looks upon this house as the highest authority for the proper millinery styles in flowers and feathers to wear as the season approaches."

Millinery firms continued to fill many of the spaces.  Sharing the building with Berlinger, Brown & Meyer in 1913 were Oscar Glanckopf, Inc., George Rawak, and Warshauer & Rosemond, all of which manufactured "silk and velvet hats."  The Glanckopf operation was a substantial one, employing 128 women and 7 men that year.

Garment manufacturers and dry goods firms were still represented, however.  In 1917 L. Finkelstein & Sons, purveyors of "serges and poplins" was here and would remain several years.  And in 1921 J. Tartikoff & Sons and the related firm Tartikoff & Moss moved in--the former taking the top two floors and Tartikoff & Moss leasing the fourth.

A noticeable exception to the garment and hat makers was A. A. Marks, which leased space by 1918.   The firm manufactured artificial limbs.  In November that year it was looking for a "boy for office work" and promised future growth: "later to learn trade."

On March 1, 1946 The New York Times reported that Henry Modell, president of Henry Modell & Co., had purchased the building "for a sporting goods store and warehouse for government surplus goods acquired by the company."  Modell announced his store would open within a few weeks and the firm would occupy the entire building by February 1947.

The last quarter of the century began as a dark time for this section of Broadway and the upper floors of No. 700 Broadway sat vacant for years during the 1980's.  In 1983 Pottery Barn took a gamble by opening a store in the ground floor as a renaissance of the neighborhood was taking shape.  The store had unusually late hours, staying open until 9:00 during the week and 11:00 on Saturdays.  The chain's vice president of merchandising explained "We always try to tailor the hours to the neighborhood, and this is a very late neighborhood."

The store was still in the space on November 1989 when the National Audubon Society announced its intentions to create its national headquarters in the building.  On December 3, 1992 Cara Greenberg published an article in The New York Times entitled "A Tree Grows in Architecture: 'Green' Design'." She remarked on the work of Croxton Callaborative, the architectural firm in charge of the renovations.  The firm's director of interior design said that No. 700 Broadway "is now one of the lowest energy-consuming office buildings in the country," and pointed out several of the features, "like maximized use of daylight and low-toxicity paints."

The National Audubon Society moved out in April 2008.  The building received a restoration headed by architect Philip Toscano following its purchase that year by the legal firm Weitz & Luxenberg.  

On its website Seaboard Weatherproofing & Restoration notes "a simple facade cleaning and repair project turned into an extensive deconstruction and restoration."  Severe structural and surface damage was discovered, caused by years of freezing and thawing as well as the constant vibration from the Broadway subway.  

An Seaboard artisan works on the reparation of a terra cotta element.  photo via
Included in the extensive restoration was the complete dismantling and rebuilding of 40-feet section of a load-bearing wall on the eighth floor.  The final result is that George B. Posts's building looks much as it did in 1891 when it sorely offended one architectural critic.

photographs by the author

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