Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Altered John Q. Aymar House - 680 Broadway


John Quereau Aymar was a son of John Patrick Aymar who had made his fortune in importing enormous amounts of West Indian cargo--rum, sugar and such--from the West Indies.  In 1821 John and his brother Benjamin formed B. Aymar & Co. which sailed clipper ships between New York and California, and to the West Indies.  Like their father, they imported brandy, mahogany, coffee and port wine.  

John married Elizabeth Dickson in 1825 and they would have three children, Mary Dickson, Elizabeth, and John, Jr.  He and his family lived in the elegant residence at No. 42 Greenwich Street.

John, Elizabeth and their two daughters posed in the Greenwich Street house around 1833.  attributed to George W. Twibill, Jr., from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The family suffered tragedy when John, Jr. died on January 12, 1830 at 15 months of age.  At the time the Greenwich Street neighborhood was becoming increasingly commercial.  Wealthy families were moving north to the neighborhood around Broadway, Lafayette Place and Bond Streets.

Around the mid-1840's the Aymar's moved to No. 680 Broadway, between Great Jones and Bond Streets--among the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in the city.  Faced in white marble, the Italianate style house rose three stories above a high English basement.  Its floor-to-ceiling parlor windows were most likely fronted by a cast iron balcony.

Mary Dickson Aymar married Joseph Gaillard, Jr. around 1854 and the newlyweds moved into the Broadway house.  The couple went to the Powelton House near Newburg, New York in the summer of 1856.  It was there that Mary died on July 26 at just 29 years old.  Her funeral was held in St Bartholomew's Church, then nearby on Lafayette Place, on three days later.

Joseph Q. Aymar involved himself in charitable causes and by 1855 was the treasurer of the Eye and Ear Infirmary on Mercer Street.  He and Elizabeth lived quietly in their refined marble mansion, rarely appearing in society pages.

Once again the Aymars saw their neighborhood being invaded by commerce in the years preceding the outbreak of the Civil War.  In 1859 they moved to No. 102 Fifth Avenue and sold the Broadway house to the East River Bank, which had been founded seven years earlier on Third Avenue.

The bank altered the house for business, removing the stoop, and converting the elegant interiors to commercial space.  Among its first tenants in the upper floors was physician A. Van Antwerp whose medical office was in the building in 1861.

In 1868 the famed photography studio of Sarony & Co. moved its gallery into No. 630 Broadway.  Born in Quebec in 1821, Napoleon Sarony had come to New York City around 1836.  He became known for capturing the images of some of the most famous people of the period.  The Evening News said decades later "Among his first sitters were Peter Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, Longfellow, Charlotte Cushman, Forrest, Booth, John McCullough and Ristori."

This photo of actress Charlotte Cushman was made in 680 Broadway around 1870.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Sarony & Co. was joined in the building in 1869 by M. J. Paillard & Co., dealers in music boxes.  In evenings after dinner well-heeled families entertained themselves in their parlors either by piano music (normally played by a daughter) or by an expensive music box.  The often-complicated machines played several tunes and many had interchangeable rolls, increasing the number of available songs.

In July 1869 an article in the American Phrenological Journal announced "the celebrated Schreiber Cornets and Band Instruments with water valves are sold by the well-known firm of M. J. Paillard & Co., No. 680 Broadway, New York.  They are noted for their purity of tone, ease with which they may be blown, uniform direction of bell, and beauty of appearance."  Depending on the model, the music boxes could imitate "from six to twenty" band instruments.

An ad in The Nation on September 9, 1869 announced Sarony & Co's new "College Department" for class pictures, run by Napoleon Sarony's son, Otto.  copyright expired

M. J. Paillard & Co. manufactured its music boxes in St. Croix, Switzerland.  An article in The Christian Union on December 11, 1878 began, "The acknowledged headquarters for Musical Boxes in this city is the store of Messrs. M. J. Paillard & Co., 680 Broadway, opposite the Grand Central Hotel."  It went on to say, "Their stock includes both large and small boxes.  In the larger ones, in addition to the cylinder, are introduced bells, drums, castanets, reeds, and a bellows arrangement, concentrating in some of the more costly styles the effect of a complete orchestra."

Guide to the City of New York, 1872 (copyright expired)

Sarony & Co. moved northward in the mid-1870's, but M. L. Paillard & Co. remained for decades.  As technology changed, the firm adapted.  In 1898 it advertised that it was now selling Gram-o-Phones.  Nevertheless, changing tastes in home entertainment doomed the once globally-famous firm.  In April 1900 a days-long auction was held in the premises.  An announcement in the New-York Tribune on April 16 listed not only a striking variety of music boxes, but the show cases, desks, safes, chandeliers, typewriting machines and all the other fixtures.

In the meantime, the East River Bank continued on in the ground floor.  By 1917 it had become the Bower & East River Bank, and by 1921 the East River National Bank.  

A renovation was initiated in 1920 to extend the banking room into the building next door at No. 682 and install a new storefront.  At the time the upper floors held a millinery firm, an apparel manufacturer, a feather wholesaler (important to the millinery businesses in the neighborhood), and a coffee importer.

Astoundingly, as 20th century loft buildings rose all around it, the Aymar house survived.  During the Depression years a branch of the National City Bank of New York occupied the ground floor.  Then a renovation completed in 1942 resulted in "light manufacturing" on the first floor with the second through fourth floors "to be vacant," according to Department of Building documents.

In 1975 the building was home to the newly-formed Ace Banner & Flag Co. in 1975.  While the firm manufactured mainly nylon flags with embroidered stars and gold fringe, for example, it marketed a clever novelty in 1978.  The Truce Flag was a small white flag, signifying a peace offering.  An article in The New York Times on July 26 suggested that if a reader needed to apologize or end a spat, "personal or business, what you could do is get a little white flag, and put it on the bed table or your office desk."

The final decades of the 20th century saw another major change in the Broadway neighborhood.  In 1981 the owners were given permission from the city "to convert the oversized building at 680 Broadway from manufacturing to residential use," as reported by the Village Voice on December 24.  The renovation, completed in 1982, resulted in commercial space on the ground floor and living/work quarters for artists in the upper portion.

Today the 1920 storefront is virtually intact and, amazingly, the marble façade and cornice of the upper floors survive, although the Victorian details of the openings have been shaved flat.

photographs by the author

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