Saturday, September 5, 2020

Robert Mook's 1869 Cast Iron 483-485 Broadway




In 1869 Manhattan's theater district had moved northward from the neighborhood which would later be called Soho.   That year the Broadway Theatre, originally built as Brougham's Lyceum, was demolished as developer Helen Langdon laid plans for a modern store and loft building on the site.



from Memories of Fifty Years, 1889 (copyright expired)
Architect Robert Mook received the commission to design Nos. 483-485 Broadway.  Clad in cast iron, the five-story building extended through the block to Mercer Street.  Mook divided it vertically with stacked pilasters, nearly matching those on the ends.  The floors between the rusticated storefront with its engaged Corinthian columns and the modillioned terminal cornice were given little ornamentation.   

The spartan treatment went as far as the columns between the windows.  Rather than capitals Mook gave them a ring of egg-and-dart molding.  Nevertheless, he added three classical urns atop each of the piers above the cornice.

Among Helen Langdon's initial tenants was William H. & Co.  William H. Lyon had an interesting past.  Born in Holland, Massachusetts in 1819, he was educated as a lawyer, but instead went into teaching.  He was principal of the Clyde High School in Wayne County, New York when Samuel Morse put his telegraph in operation.  Fascinated, Lyon experimented on his own and subsequently invented a "printing-telegraph."  On July 11, 1844 the Clyde Eagle announced "With this machine Mr. Lyon is able to write with pen and ink with the same facility that Professor Morse scratches characters upon paper with points of steel."


The impressive William H. Lyon as he appeared in 1884.  By the time of this photograph he had been nominated as a both a mayoral and congressional candidate.  The Civil, Political, Professional and Ecclesiastical History of the County of Kings (copyright expired)
The following year Lyon changed his professional course once again.  He moved to New York and opened his wholesale dry goods business, the Yankee Notion and Fancy Goods company.  Later renamed William H. Lyon & Co., the successful firm took the store level and the top two floors--50,000 square feet--in No. 483-485 Broadway in 1870.

In 1884 historian Henry R. Stiles said the firm "import goods from Europe, China, India, and Japan, and their sales extend not only to every State in the United States from Maine to California, but also to Mexico, West Indies, South America, and Canada."

Also in the building was the dry goods firm Hecht Brothers, on the second and third floors.


Wm. H. Lyon & Co.'s extensive offerings went beyond dry goods. The Christian Union, December 18, 1878 (copyright expired)  
Fire broke out in the building on the night of January 30, 1879.  In the course of battling the blaze, Fireman Edward McGaffney of Engine Co. 33 was permanently blinded.   Two days later William H. Lyon & Co. placed a notice in The New York Herald that read:

To The Trade:  The fire in the lofts of Nos. 483 and 485 Broadway will cause no delay whatever in transacting our business.

On March 7, 1877 attorneys had been attempting for a month to compile a jury to try Thomas Cleary on charges of attempting to bribe an alderman.   The following day the New-York Tribune reported on their frustration.  "As the people came and went, the ordinarily bad air of the court-room got worse and worse.  The Judge buried his nose in a bottle of smelling-salts.  The lawyers drew their handkerchiefs wearily across their brows and looked frequently at the clock."

But then, wrote the newspaper, "The dreary level of the mental shallows through which the lawyers have all day been wading was happily broken when Bernard Hecht came on the stand.  He is a fancy goods importer at No. 485 Broadway."  Although Hecht admitted to having an opinion in the case, he "felt himself entirely competent to adjudge the evidence impartially."   Cleary's attorney was not convinced.  "The defense, acting on their settled policy of excluding intelligent men, challenged him for bias."

Hecht had other problems to deal with before the month was up.  On Saturday night, March 26, 1887 fire again erupted within the building.  It caused $100,000 in damages to Hecht Brothers, who carried insurance of only $75,000.  The different would amount to about $683,000 today.  The New-York Tribune reported "William H. Lyon & Co., dealers in white goods and hosiery, who occupied the first, fourth and fifth floors of the same building, refused to make any statement as to their losses or insurance."

Whether the fire prompted the decision to close William H. Lyon & Co. is unclear.  But in December 1889 the firm closed out all its stock at half the wholesale prices.


The artist got the cornice-top urns slightly wrong, and omitted the middle one.  New-York Tribune, December 29, 1889 (copyright expired)

Taking William H. Lyon & Co.'s place in the building was Weil, Haskell & Co.  In its November 1889 issue The Clothier and Furnisher reported that the firm "will occupy the old stand of W. h. Lyon & Co., 483 and 485 Broadway, after the first of January where they will be glad to meet their old friends, or whoever may be in search of good goods from first hands."  

The "good goods" made by Weil, Haskell & Co. were men's and boys' clothing.  Their product line included "boys' waists," flannel shirts, night shirts, "underwear, hosiery, novelties, etc., etc." according to an advertisement that year.


The Clothiers' and Haberdashers' Weekly, February 7, 1896 (copyright expired)
Having been in the building for three decades, Hecht Brothers may have shocked the dry goods community when it failed in 1899.  Both Bernard and Meyer Hecht followed up by filing personal bankruptcies that August.

Replacing them at No. 483-485 was William Meyer & Co., makers of embroideries, handkerchiefs and lace.  The firm employed a relatively small work staff of 15 men and 12 women.

The estate of Helen Langdon still owned the property in 1904.  By now Weil-Haskell Company and William Meyer & Co. shared the building with Rich & Hochster, makers of tortoise shell goods.  The success of that firm was evidenced in the luxurious living conditions of William R. Hochster who lived with his wife in a seven-room apartment in the Ansonia Hotel.  The Evening World deemed him "a man of large means."

The Hochsters returned from dinner at around 10:00 on January 17, 1904 to a shocking scene.  Because it was Sunday, their two maids had the day off.  Burglars had ransacked the apartment.  "The thieves took away jewelry valued at about $2,500 and left a lot of silverware strewn over the floor," reported The Sun.  The haul would equal just under $75,000 today.

Hochster's firm used the sub-cellar as storage space.  It was a condition that had deadly consequences that summer.  On June 29, 1904 fire, discovered just before noon, broke in the sub-cellar.  The New York Times reported "About fifty girls employed by the Weil-Haskell Company and William Meyer & Co. behaved calmly and reached the street unharmed, but frightened."  

It took firefighters three hours to extinguish the blaze, which did the equivalent of $3.6 million in today's money.  But far worse was the toll the toxic fumes of the burning celluloid took on the responders.  As they attempted to enter the cellar, "The firemen and their officers did not flinch, but reeled and fell where they were at work, and were carried to Broadway or Mercer Street by gasping comrades."

The following day The Evening World ran the headline: "Firemen Dying From Fumes of Gas and Smoke / Victims Swept Down Like Soldiers On Battlefield."  Of the nearly 50 hospitalized firefighters, the article said "It is feared that four firemen will die."

The history of fires in the building seem to have weakened the internal structure.  In 1908 W. G. Langdon hired esteemed architects Clarence True and Warren Conover to make renovations.  Their plans called for "remodelling [sic] the five story loft building...and strengthening the fourth and fifth floors."

On December 21, 1910 the New-York Daily Tribune reported that William Meyer & Co., "one of the largest embroidery firms in the country," had leased the old W. & J. Sloane building on Broadway and 19th Street after having been in No. 493-495 for nearly two decades.

Smaller firms now took over the building.  In 1914 the Aluminum Sales and Manufacturing Company operated from the second floor, William Reichman & Co. was on the third, Benjamin Shrage was on the fourth and Aaron L. Small on the fifth.  The Small company manufactured muslin underwear, employing 58 women, 4 men and one teen under the age of 16.

In 1916 building became home to three businesses, all co-owned by Frank Levy and Frederick W. Ellis.  Wholesale sellers of "bedding manufacturers' supplies" Taylor & Ellis moved into the store and basement.  Their goods came from L. E. Ellis & Son upstairs.  Also in the building was the Frank Levy Paper Company, makers of envelopes and dealers in cardboard, tissue and blotting papers, and "book papers."


The names L. E. Ellis & Co. and Frank Levy are prominently displayed on the facade in 1920.  Geyer's Stationer, September 9, 1920 (copyright expired)
The Frank Levy Paper Company had been in operation since 1882.  On September 9, 1920 Guyer's Stationer noted that the firm's salesroom and warehouse "is in the heart of the paper trading district."


The cast iron urns were the building's most distinctive element.  photo via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
As the decades passed, little changed to the building's exterior appearance.  In the 1930's the Weiss Shirt Co. operated here; and by the early 1990's the warehouse of Donghia Furniture and Textiles was in the building and would remain into the 21st century.



A renovation completed in in 2020 resulted in office and retail space throughout the venerable building.  At some point the wonderful rooftop urns, which were still in place in as late as 1973, were removed.  They were a significant loss to Robert Mook's rather austere design which relied so much on their whimsical touch.

photographs by the author

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