Tuesday, February 16, 2021

J. Morgan Slade's 1884 654 Broadway


In the 1830's the well-to-do merchant Edwin Post lived in at No. 654 Broadway, among the finest residences in the city.  By the end of the Civil War the neighborhood was almost entirely commercial and in 1866 the publishing firm of Charles Scriber Company moved into the former dwelling.

As tall loft buildings transformed the neighborhood in the last quarter of the century, real estate broker Daniel Birdsall demolished No. 654 in 1883 and hired architect Jarvis Morgan Slade to design a modern replacement building.  

The two made a likely pair.  Birdsall specialized in loft and warehouse buildings, and J. Morgan Slade had been designing loft buildings in Tribeca and Soho since the mid-1870's.

The six-story structure was completed in 1884.  Slade's cast iron facade was overall neo-Grec in style, but he utilized pencil thin columns backed by lacy panels to soften the often stiffly geometric lines of the style.  Each of the identical floors was flanked by beefy banded pilasters and intermediate cornices defined each level.  A triangular pediment crowned the terminal cornice.

Seen at the right, the pediment was intact when this photograph was taken in 1904.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The building filled with apparel and millinery firms, like Albert Shumway & Son, one of the oldest millinery companies in the city.  Other early tenants included milliners Herman Kratzenstein and John Somerville & Co., and "women's and infants' furnisher," A. A. Dreyspool.  

By around 1904 the ground was home to the Physical Culture Restaurant.  An offshoot of the Physical Culture Publishing firm located nearby at Nos. 29-33 East 19th Street, the two operations promoted physical health through exercise and diet.  Both were operated by Bernard MacFadden.  Physical Culture magazine provided articles on healthful living--exercise, avoidance of smoking and drinking, nutrition and such.  But it was the accompanying photographs of nearly naked men which accompanied some articles that drew the attention of more priggish types.

The revealing illustrations in Physical Culture shocked many.  (copyright expired)

The restaurant, too, drew attention in 1906.  On March 29 The Sun reported that Bernard MacFadden had been arrested on charges by reformist Anthony Comstock "for exhibiting in his physical culture restaurant at 654 Broadway posters advertising the physical culture show then being held at Madison Square Garden."  The article explained "The posters contained pictures of some of the star athletes who competed in a similar exhibition the year before.  The athletes were of both sexes."

The judges disagreed in the case, Justice Deuel contending "that it is detrimental to public morals to exhibit the photographs of athletes clad in union suits [i.e., underwear]," and Justice McKean said "it was very bad for the public morals to place such pictures in a public place."  On the other hand, Justice Zeller disagreed, saying that he "could see nothing harmful whatever about the posters."

In a sort of compromise, both MacFadden and the restaurant's manager were found guilty and then given suspended sentences.  It drew the wrath of Anthony Comstock who erupted in court demanding that MacFadden be "dealt with severely" and saying "This man MacFadden things he is above the law."

Comstock's tirade was interrupted by Justice Zeller who said, "You disagree with me about these things, but I think my standard of decency is as high as yours.  I see nothing harmful in these pictures."  The Sun concluded its article with, "Comstock subsided and the case ended."

The Physical Culture Restaurant would operate in the space into the World War I years.  In the meantime, the upper floors continued to house apparel and millinery firms.  A. A. Dreyspool Co., one of the first tenants, was still here in 1915.  Other tenants were the Liberty Hat company, Pants of Superior Brand, Inc., shirt makers Baum & Rabinowitz, and knee pants manufacturers Hindes & Geller.

Dry Goods Economist, September 12, 1914 (copyright expired)

Daniel Birdsall & Co. still owned the building in 1922 when it leased the former restaurant space to the State Army and Navy Merchandise Corporation.  It and similar stores sold off surplus military clothing the Government no longer needed with the end of World War I.   Upstairs, as the garment district inched northward, the tenant list was slightly changing.  The Commercial Headwear Co. signed a lease that same year, and other tenants included the National Belt & Bag Co. and the Crescent Lace Manufacturing Company.

The building was threatened with fire at 3:00 on the morning of January 20, 1938.  Described by the Daily News as "a stubborn, smoky fire," it broke out in the basement.  To access the blaze, firemen "drilled through the ground floor."  Luckily the fire was extinguished before it could spread upward.

As the neighborhood transformed to one of trendy shops and restaurants in the last quarter of the 20th century, No. 654 was converted to joint living-working quarters for artists above the store level.  At some point the pediment atop the cornice was lost, but overall J. Morgan Slade's handsome cast iron building is intact after nearly 140 years.

photographs by the author

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