Saturday, February 13, 2021

The 1856 126 Chambers Street


In the first decades of the 19th century John Atkinson was a member of the shipping firm John & Francis Atkinson, a member of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, and a director in the Bank of New York.  He leased the house at No. 126 Chambers Street from Trinity Church.  Following his death his widow continued living in the fashionable home until around 1830.  She was followed by dry goods merchant Samuel Holmes.  

In 1851 Holmes purchased the property from Trinity Church and in 1856 replaced the house with a commercial structure.  (There is a possibility that Holmes enlarged and renovated the old house, rather than demolishing it completely.)  Five stories tall, the Italianate style building predicted the loft buildings that would take over the neighborhood following the Civil War.  A cast iron storefront supported the stone-faced upper floors where the architrave openings wore molded sills and lintels.  

The structure was still under construction when tragedy occurred.  Tall commercial buildings utilized hatchways to haul heavy goods up and down.  The open, unguarded shaftway in the unfinished structure posed a significant danger.

German immigrant Christian Meyer was a framer--or window installer--who, according to the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer on October 17, 1856, was "recently engaged on the new building No. 126 Chambers street [and] was found dead yesterday morning in the basement of those premises."  At about 6:00 on the previous evening the 32-year old Meyer was seen "partially intoxicated."  It was supposed that he had fallen through the hatchway to the basement.

The completed building filled with dry goods and apparel related firms.  Loder & Lockwood, dry goods jobbers, was among the initial tenants and would remain through 1867.  They shared the building with C. B. Churchill & Co., merchants in "cloths, cassimeres & vestings."

The early 1870's saw a number of auction houses move onto Chambers Street.  Among them was Osgood & Co. which leased space in No. 126 by 1872.  Run by Clinton B. Osgood, his ample salesrooms were the scene of auctions of household and commercial furnishings.  On April 12, 1872, for instance, not only was upscale domestic furniture like black walnut bedroom and parlor suites sold, but "500 stools suitable for dining saloons."

In late spring 1876 space was leased to two men named Cohen and Grossfeld for their start-up cloaks and suits manufacturing company.  The New York Herald reported "They obtained considerable credit about the city, probably $30,000 or $40,000."  (That would be equal to as much as $984,000 today.)  But when the partners failed to make payments on their debts, a deputy sheriff arrived to take possession of the property.  He was shocked to find not a garment factory, but an empty loft.  On August 4 the New York Herald reported, "It is now said that Messrs. Cohen & Grossfeld have absconded."

More upstanding tenants in the 1870's were H. Kohnstamm, makers of "colors and dye stuffs for flower and feather manufacturers;" Walsh & Brown, makers of ladies', misses' and children's fine shoes; and boot and shoe manufacturer Henry O. Van Gelder.

In the fall of 1878 a fair was held to help raise funds for the completion of the new St. Patrick's Cathedral.  The women of  St. Joseph's Church on Sixth Avenue supported the cause by manning a booth.  On November 16, 1878 the Journal of the Fair reported that "Mr. Brown, of the firm of Walsh & Brown...yesterday sent an elegant pair of ladies' gaiters, valued at $15, to the ladies representing St. Joseph's Church."  The value of the expensive shoes would be around $400 today.

Henry O. Van Gelder's name was also in the newspapers that fall, but for more concerning reasons.  The Evening Post reported that at 7:30 on the morning of September 3, 1878 he "left home for his business as usual, but did not reach his store."  Two days later the 60-year old was still missing.  The police released a description, saying he was "five feet eight inches in height, with gray hair and beard, but no moustache.  He was dressed in a dark suit of clothes, and carried a silver watch and chain."

The crisis worsened on September 5 when Van Gelder's son received "an incoherent letter from him saying that his mind was affected, and that he intended to commit suicide as soon as he could arrange for the transfer of a trust fund that he held for his niece," according to The Evening Post.   Van Gelder was eventually found and his plans of suicide thwarted.

Dry goods and shoe merchants gave way to more industrial tenants in the 1880's and '90's.  In the mid-1880's two importers of hardware and cutlery, William Burkenshaw and Harrison Bros. & Howlard were in the building.  Another hardware and cutlery firm, Henry A. Tilly joined them around 1890.

Wenck, a perfumery, leased space by 1882, and H. Kohnstamm & Co., manufacturers of "paints, oils and colors" was here the following year.  

Music & Drama, May 20, 1884 (copyright expired)

M. J. Stoddart & Co. ran a suspicious marketing scheme in December 1884.  It published an announcement in the Buffalo Evening News that read:

A Big Offer--To introduce them in Buffalo and vicinity, we are going to give away 1000 self-operating washing machines; if you want one, send us your name.  Address on a postal card at once M. J. Stoddard & Co., 126 Chambers street, New York.

David H. McConnell leased space on the third floor in 1890 for his seemingly unconnected Union Publishing House and California Perfume Company.  He had started his career as a Bible salesman and had come up with an innovative marketing tool.  He offered a free vial of perfume with every Bible purchased.  When he soon realized that perfume was more popular the scriptures, he added that business as a sideline.  

The publishing was done from the Chambers Street location and the perfume was manufactured in Rockland County, New York and marketed here.  

David McConnell narrowly escaped catastrophe on March 28, 1895.  The Evening World reported that the fact that he "was not burned to death or blinded and horribly disfigured for life this morning is wholly due to the promptness and bravery of his young woman clerk, Miss Josie Sawyer, and L. J. Miles, who is also employed in the office."

Just after 10:00 that morning McConnell was using cleaning alcohol in his office and Josie was assisting him.  He dropped the bottle which smashed on the floor, splashing his clothing with the flammable liquid.  The fumes were almost instantly ignited by the gas jet over his head and within a moment McConnell was engulfed in flames from the waist up.

The newspaper said "Miss Sawyer screamed for assistance.  Mr. McConnell threw off his coat, but his hair was blazing and so was his shirt about the shoulders."  Josie Sawyer tore off her apron and threw it over McConnell's head to smother the flames.  Hearing the commotion, L. J. Miles rushed in, took the apron and smothered the rest of the flames.

In the meantime, the alcohol had seeped through the floorboards and the timbers in the ceiling between the second and third floors were on fire.  Another employee ran to the street and turned in an alarm.  After firefighters pulled up 20 square feet of flooring, the fire was extinguished.

David McConnell posed with his bandaged hand after being treated for burns.  The Evening World, March 28, 1895 (copyright expired)

The New-York Tribune lapsed into 19th century sexism in saying, "Then Miss Sawyer showed that while she was equal to the emergency she was a woman after all, and she fainted and was carried to a place of safety, where her hands, which almost miraculously had not been badly burned, were attended to."

David McConnell was taken to the Hudson Street House of Relief, "his hair and mustache badly singed, his hands fearfully blistered and his face scorched," said The Evening World.

McConnell was still in the building as late as 1906.  By then his perfume company had been renamed Goetting & Co.  It would become a household name decades later as Avon Products, Inc.

The turn of the century saw horse-related firms taking space in the building.  C. M. Moseman & Brother, dealers in saddles and harnesses, was here by 1898, and William Knox, maker of "horse clothing" had space by 1901.

C. M. Moseman & Brother received a large military contract at the outbreak of the Spanish American War.  On April 30, 1898 Brooklyn Life reported "Some three weeks ago the Messrs. C. M. Moseman & Brother, 126 Chambers street, New York, received from Major General Roe an order for sixty saddles, bridles and other trappings which make up the equipment of field and staff officers' horses."  The article detailed the high-end equipment for the officers:

The order included one russet-colored pigskin Whitman saddle and saddlecloth, bridle, martingales, and breast-place for Gen. Roe and each officer of his staff, and for every brigade commander and every brigade staff officer in the National Guard of the State.

The firm remained in the building at least through 1924.  In 1908 it was marketing "The Kinnell Self-fitting Emergency Overshoe" for horses, guaranteed to prevent slipping on ice and asphalt.

The first centuries of the 20th century saw hardware related tenants like Wells Brothers; A. Z. Boyd Company, hardware manufacturers' agents; Wright Mfg. Co., makers of "high-speed hoists, screw hoists, differential hoists;" and the White Star Battery Company.  Somewhat surprisingly, another saddlery goods firm, M. Hancher, moved into the building in 1929 and would remain through 1940.

By 1943 the store space was home to the Colonial Café.  It was the scene of a ruckus on the night of February 1 that year when two plain clothes officers tried to serve a summons to manager Samuel Siegel for serving liquor to drunken patrons.  But those drunken patrons had other ideas.

Officers Thomas Rooney and his partner were set upon by five men.  Eventually the "fracas," as described by the Daily Argus, was quelled and the men arrested on charges of assault.  The Colonial Café remained in the space through 1955. 

The last quarter of the 20th century saw tremendous change the Tribeca neighborhood.  In 1981 the Aloha Restaurant was in the ground floor, replaced by Mudville9, which called itself a "saloon/restaurant," in 1994.

Better known simply as Mudville, the popular bar-restaurant remains in the space.  In 2009 the upper floors were converted to residential space, one loft apartment per floor.  

photographs by the author

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