Saturday, December 12, 2020

The 1859 Ivison & Phinney Building - 48-50 Walker Street


The 20th century fire escape not only obscures the dignified facade, but slices through the cornice pediment.

In the years immediately following the end of the Civil War a flurry of construction took place in the district that would become known as Tribeca.  But Josiah Lane was a decade ahead of the trend.  In 1857 he demolished the two old structures at Nos. 48 and 50 Walker Street, between Church Street and Broadway, and hired architect Robert Griffin Hatfield to design a substantial replacement building.

Lane was apparently working hand-in-hand with the occupants of the old buildings.  Publishers Ivison, Phinney & Co. had operated from the address since, at least, 1841.  Now the firm would be among the initial occupants of the new building.

Completed in 1859, it was designed in the Italianate style.  A cast iron base supported four stories clad in marble.  Handsome Italianate style pilasters and shallow pediments gave the structure a courtly appearance.

On February 9, 1859 a notice in the New-York Daily Tribune announced the Ivison & Phinney had taken "for their enlarged business the new large marble double store 48 and 50 Walker Street...where they will offer greatly improved facilities for the accommodation of Booksellers, Teachers and Merchants."

The move signaled another change for the firm.  The ad said "In consequence of the increased demand for their School and College Text Books, [Ivison & Phinney] have decided to give their exclusive attention to Educational Works."

The firm's extensive business required the large building.  Later that year, on December 8, the Buffalo, New York newspaper The Advocate, described Ivison & Phinney's Series of American Educational Works.  The comprehensive collection of textbooks included "the standard Readers, Spellers, Mathematics, Arithmetics, Histories, Grammars and Geographies; works on Philosophy, Chemistry, Botany, Anatomy and Physiology; a French and German series; the most approved systems of Musical Instruction, Penmanship, Book Keeping, Drawing, etc."  According to the article "15,000,000 of the Series have already been sold, and the circulation is steadily increasing."

Ivison & Phinney also published The Educational News from the building.  It was a journal of "matter interesting to teachers," which was send free to subscribers.

Sharing the building with Ivison & Phinney was the bookbinding firm James G. Shaw & Co., which occupied the two upper floors.  The firm had gained a sort of ignominy a year earlier.  One morning in June an employee, Michael Cancemi, was walking to work when, it was alleged, he broke into a shoe store, stole a pair of boots and some cash, and was making his escape when he was captured.  In the struggle Officer Anderson was shot dead.

Another policeman, hearing the shot, rushed to the scene and saw Cancemi running away.  He caught the bookbinder, who said he had merely been a witness to the crime and had fled in fear of being implicated.  The trial was covered in newspapers as far away as London.  And although there was no evidence against him, after his third trial The New York Times reported on July 13, 1858 "Yesterday Michael Cancemi was sentenced to be hung for the murder of Eugene Anderson, the execution to take place on the second of September."

Another James G. Shaw & Co. employee landed in the courtroom in 1861, but for more clear-cut reasons.  John Dooley had worked for the company for 12 years and, according to The New York Times, "had the full confidence of his employers."  But toward the end of 1860 small amounts of stock continually disappeared.  The newspaper reported "The services of Detective Tiemann were invoked to discover the rogue."  His investigation uncovered Dooley, who had been selling blank books to a dealer on Division Street.  "Justice Osborn sent him to prison," concluded the article.

In July 1863 Ivison & Phinney introduced a new textbook, Saunders' Union Fourth Reader, described by The New York Times as "an excellent selection of pieces for reading and declamation, accompanied with correct principles for delivering them to the best effect."  Within the year the firm reorganized as Ivison, Phinney, Blakeman & Co.

Late on Friday night, March 4, 1864 a fire broke out in James G. Shaw & Co. on the third floor.  It was not the blaze, but the volume of water necessary to extinguish it which caused the most damage.  Shaw & Co. suffered $8,000 in losses--nearly $135,000 in today's money--while Ivison, Phinney, Blakeman & Co. incurred $3,000 in damages.  Josiah Lane estimated the damages to his building at $1,000, or about $16,800 today.

By the early 1870's Ivison, Phinney, Blakeman & Co. had moved to Greene Street.  Its place was taken by importer Bruno Falke.  He found himself in deep trouble in 1878 when, as reported by the New York Herald on October 27, he was charged with "a certain entry of goods, wares and merchandise at less than the true measure."  He was arrested on charges of defrauding the Government.

Also in the building at the time was another importer, James P. Farrell.  As had been the case with James G. Shaw & Co. years earlier, J. P. Farrell & Co. had a trusted employee who was systematically robbing the firm.  Joseph Egan was 20 years old in 1879 and, according to the Times Union, "has been in Mr. Farrell's employ since childhood's happy hours, and was much liked by his companions in the store."

Egan's downfall came only because Brooklyn Detective James Roche was not overly busy on the evening of May 17.  He noticed Egan walking along Atlantic Street with a bundle which, according to the Times Union, "appeared to cause him considerable uneasiness."  Roche followed him to a pawn shop and, after Egan left, went in to investigate.  Egan had taken $10 for roll of new cashmere.  The detective then trailed Egan to his boarding house.

"When Roche informed Egan of his business the latter showed his inexperience by confessing that he had robbed his employer.  On searching the young men's trunks the officers found about 129 pawn tickets, representing articles valued in all at about $4,000."  There were also un-pawned goods in the room, like expensive shawls.

Egan, who "appeared deeply penitent, and promised to make reparations if set free," was jailed.  James Farrell was in Europe on a buying trip, so his business manager, P. H. Keenan, was informed of the situation.  As he delved deeper into the case, the seriousness of Egan's crime became more evident.  On May 27 the Times Union reported that Keenan had appeared in court "to make three more complaints against Egan."  The trusted young man had been pawning goods at more than 60 pawn shops across the city and the total amount stolen so far topped more than $100,000 in today's money.

At his trial that December Egan explained his motive.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on December 27, "He was led into crime by his infatuation for taking chances in the Louisiana Lottery."  He was sent to the State Reformatory at Elmira.

The last decade of the 19th century saw four textile and apparel firms in the building.  Bauman & Sperling, cloak makers, were here by 1892.  In 1896 the firm employed 22 men, 16 women and 4 teen-aged girls.  Sharing the building were Hyman Starr, makers of sweaters and athletic knit goods; silk merchants C. A. Schmidt Co.; and D. & E. L. Mayer, importers of cotton batting.

D. & E. L. Mayer was still in the building in 1900, occupying the first and second floors and the basement.  The top three floors were home to B. M. Shane & Co., makers of umbrellas and parasols.  On November 12, 1900, according to the Star-Gazette, "A big lot of cotton batting on the second floor...became ignited early this morning, probably from overheating."  At 2:00 a.m. a fourth alarm was called in as the fire spread throughout the upper floors.  When it was finally extinguished the police estimated the loss of goods at more than $600,000--at staggering $18.8 million today.  Damage to the structure was placed at $75,000.

In repairing the significant damage, the building's owner, John Boyle, had the architectural firm of John F. Kelly & Co. increase the height to six stories.  The renovations, completed in 1901, were remarkably (and surprisingly) sympathetic to R. G. Hatfield's 1857 design.  They continued the uninterrupted line of piers and capped the structure with an Italianate style cornice and pediment perfectly appropriate to the original structure.

The women's apparel maker Max Roth moved into the remodeled building.  A labor dispute in the spring of 1903 turned ugly as striking women were attacked.  Labor tensions in the early 20th century were often marked by violence and the sex of the protester was not a factor.  On May 3 a delegate of the Ladies' Waist Makers' Union complained to the Central Federated Union that "some of the women pickets of the union at Max roth's establishment, Nos. 48 and 50 Walker-st., where there is a strike, were having a hard time."

They were, indeed, having a hard time.  A gang attacked the picketers and, according to the New-York Tribune, "One young woman was so badly injured that she had to be taken to the hospital and, according to the delegate, her condition was critical."  The man alleged that "the Five Points Social Club might have been responsible for these attacks."

Max Roth's operation was enormous, employing over 400 men and women in the Walker Street factory.  At around 9:00 on the morning of March 27, 1905 a piece of paper caught fire on the fifth floor.  Before it was stomped out, one girl smelled the odor and screamed "FIRE!" and ran from the room.   Pandemonium ensued.

The Buffalo Enquirer reported "In an instant the stairs were packed with a struggling mass of humanity.  The girls, the greater part of whom were either Italian of Jewesses, fought with each other to gain the entrance.  They hit and scratched and kicked, all the while screaming at the top of their voices."

The male employees seem to have reach the sidewalk first.  "All the men, it is said, escaped without a scratch, their superior strength enabling them to brush the girls aside or jump over their heads."  A policeman, realizing he was powerless to handle the panic-stricken mob, sent in an alarm from a nearby fire box.  The responding firefighters were able to finally get all the "struggling mass" out of the building.  The article said "Upon reaching the streets several of the girls were found suffering from hysteria" and noted "that no one was killed is considered miraculous."

Among those 400 workers were young teens.  It was a situation which resulted in Max Roth being slapped with three New York State Labor violations in 1909:  Employing children under 14, employing children under 16 without Board of Health certification, and employing children under 16 for more than eight hours per day.

In a striking case of deja vu, panic gripped the employees of Max Roth on the morning of March 22 that year.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported "A flash of flame caused by a small piece of fluffy material used in making shirtwaists, catching fire from a machine on the fifth floor of a shirtwaist factory at 50 Walker street, Manhattan, started a cry of fire, this morning, and sent nearly 500 girls and women shrieking to the elevator, stairways and fire-escapes."  As had been the case four years earlier, the fire was immediately extinguished, but "the panic it created was not abated for nearly an hour afterward."

Once again it was hysteria, not physical injury, that was the more serious problem.  The newspaper reported that "a dozen or more of the factory's employes [sic]" had to be treated by ambulance surgeons (the 1909 equivalent of EMT's) "before they recovered sufficiently from their hysterics to be sent home."  One girl, 18-year old Stella Soklow, had to be hospitalized.  "Her attack of hysterics refused to yield to treatment in the street."

Within two years Max Roth had left No. 48-50 Walker Street.  The building was now occupied by Hitchins Hosiery Mills; Meyer Brothers, makers of pants; and C. Navsky & Bros., makers of boys' and children's clothing.

In 1916 Nitke Leather Goods Company leased a floor.  The firm manufactured leather "trunk straps, suit case straps, handles and corners, etc." according to an advertisement.  The history of fires in the building continued when one broke out in its space on July 1, 1921.  The trade journal Hide and Leather reported that "stock and machinery of A. Nitke, leather trimmings, 48-50 Walker street, was damaged."

By mid-century many of the apparel and textile firms had moved northward to the new Garment District above 34th Street.  As it had been nearly a century earlier, in 1950 Nos. 48-50 Walker Street was home to publishing firms.  Music publishing firm Tullar-Meredith Co. and Universal Music Publishers shared the building.

The last quarter of the 20th century saw a renaissance in the Tribeca neighborhood and in 1987 the Walker Street building was converted to loft dwellings.  Two years later the Azuma Gallery was operating from the ground floor.  And other than the disfigurement created by the fire escape that gouged a hole into the pediment, the dignified design of the venerable marble building shines through.

photographs by the author

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