Although the fluted columns have lost their Corinthian capitals, the cast iron storefront is relatively intact.
In April 1854 the "three story and attic" house at No. 158 Chambers Street was offered for sale. The $23,000 price of the 26-foot wide property reflected the rising commercial value within the former residential neighborhood. It would translate to about $722,000 today.
Exactly two years later, in April 1856, an advertisement in the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer offered "To Lease--The new five-story store, No. 158 Chambers street." It was a dignified Italianate style structure, the cast iron storefront of which supported four stone-faced floors. The elliptically arched openings were graced with molded sills and lintels, and a bracketed cornice capped the design.
Within a month of the ad an announcement appeared in newspapers that read:
Removal--Richards Kingsland & Co. have removed to 158 Chambers street, where they will continued to manufacture Looking Glasses of all kinds, at prices for below any offered elsewhere.
Founded in 1790, the company was well known for its high-end, ornamental mirrors and had exhibited in the 1853 New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, better known as the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition. By the time it moved into its new location it had branched out into other products. An advertisement in the New York Herald on November 30, 1857 listed "richly ornamented pier, mantel, side wall and oval mirrors," and "engravings, paintings in oil and pastile, in handsome gilt, rosewood, black walnut and oak frames."
Unfortunately, the firm seems to have spread itself too thinly. Less than a year after signing its lease, an auction was held of the vast stock. The announcement explained simply, "as they are going out of business."
Angell & Co., wholesale dealers in foreign and domestic dry goods, soon moved in. In February 1859 the firm was looking for short-term extra help, its advertisement reading "Three of four tailors, accustomed to cutting, may find employment for a few weeks by applying to Angell & Co., 158 Chambers street."
The firm was apparently on the cutting edge of technology. In 1859 the Ericsson's Caloric Engine was introduced. An announcement said "Ericsson's Caloric Engine is no long a subject of experiment, but exists as a perfect, practical machine, daily at work in numerous and diversified uses, with undeviating success." On January 19, 1860 The New York Times reported that Angell & Co. had installed "a 24-inch Engine, to drive their hydraulic pumps."
The store as well as the fifth floor were occupied by the Knickerbocker Coffee & Spice Mills, run by William J. Stitt & Co., in 1869. At around 11:00 on the night of March 25 a fire broke out in the store. It was extinguished before it could spread to the upper floors, but resulted in about $96,800 in damages by today's standards. It was the first of a series of fires that would plague the building over the next few decades.
The upper floors contained a wide variety of tenants around the time. In 1871 L. Chapman's "plastic ivory umbrella handle" factory was here, and in 1876 P. I. Ronk & Son Co., butter merchants; Public Accountant John H. Allen; and builder Cyrus F. Loutrel were in the building.
Knickerbocker Spice Mills dealt with fire again in 1878. This time it broke out on the fifth floor at around 9:00 on the night of December 19. The New York Times reported "The flames spread with great rapidity, and when the firemen arrived they were bursting out of the upper windows of the building. Firefighting techniques had not caught up with the increasing height of commercial structures and the five-story building presented problems. "Owing to the great height of the structure the firemen experienced great difficulty in reaching the seat of the fire," said the article.
Next door, at No. 160 the Chambers-Street Hospital operated from a converted police station. The New York Times reported "The fire caused great excitement in the lower part of the City, owing to the proximity of the burned building to the Chambers-Street Hospital, and it was at one time feared that the mansard roof of the hospital would take fire. Fortunately, the wind was blowing in the opposite direction." It was a valid fear. When the blaze was finally extinguished the top two floors of No. 158 were gutted and a portion of the roof was burned off.
Richard Fisher moved his harness operation into the building the following month. His advertisement in the New York Daily Herald on January 8 read:
Harness--The proprietor of the cheapest Harness Store in New York has removed to 158 Chambers st., where he is selling Buggy Harness for $7.50, Stable Blankets 80c, Buffalo Robes $3.50.
The advertisement price of a horse blanket would equal about $21.00 today.
A tenant whose business was far different from any others was Thorburn & Titus, here by 1883. The firm dealt in garden seeds and gardening tools. In February 1883 The Tri-States Union reported on the firm's 1884 Annual Catalogue of Seeds. "It is a neat pamphlet of about 70 pages and contains a complete list of farm, garden and flower seeds, garden and yard implements and much other information that is useful to farmers," touted the article.
A frightening case of déjà vu occurred on April 24, 1887. The Brooklyn Times reported "A fire on the top floor of 158 Chambers street, New York, next door to the hospital, illuminated the neighborhood for ten minutes last night, and many people supposed the hospital was ablaze. The seventeen patients in the hospital kept to their beds. Most of them could not help themselves. A nurse fell down stairs."
The tenant list continued to be widely varied throughout the decades. In 1891 A. G. Butler, Inc., manufacturers of bronze and brass letters and figures was in the building; and in 1895 Harry L. Cohn, a dealer in cordials operated here.
In 1914 building contractor W. J. Lachner took the store space. and in the first years after World War I Fred Vogler's pneumatic truck tire business was in the building. The trend of more industrial tenants continued at mid-century when Alco Hardware was here through the 1950's.
By the late 1970's the Tribeca renaissance was catching up to No. 158 Chambers Street. Potter JoAnn Meehan was looking for both a place to live and a studio space. Several years later, on March 8, 1984, the Daily News reported "she bought her own retail and residential space in an abandoned Tribeca building that was about to become a co-op. After extensive renovations, she moved in and opened Chambers Street Pottery with the idea what whoever worked out of it would also have a retail outlet."
The renovations, completed in 1981, resulted in one apartment per floor above the store space. Meehan was perhaps its first resident. The renovations did not go far enough to eliminate the need for the rather unsightly 20th century fire escape which partly obscures the façade, although it can be seen as a reminder of the string of fires that plagued the tenants over the building's 165-year history.
photographs by the author
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