Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Marble J. Bauer & Co. Building - 650 Broadway


As early as 1838 Constitution Hall was located at No. 650 Broadway amid some of the most sumptuous residences of the city.  On February 24, that year the Morning Herald announced that "A Fancy and Civic Ball is given at 650 Broadway on Monday next."   And in 1853 the Board of Aldermen agreed to discontinue using Constitution Hall as an annual polling spot.

The building was owned by Hamilton Fish, son of Nicholas Fish the first Adjutant General of New York.  At the time of the Board of Aldermen's decision, Hamilton Fish had just completed a term as United States senator and had been governor of New York from 1847-48.

In 1860, as this section of Broadway was quickly changing from residential to commercial, Fish began to improve the old building with an extension to the rear.  But his mason soon found a disturbing problem.  The building next door at No. 652 had essentially no foundation and there was imminent danger of both buildings collapsing.  Constitution Hall was therefore demolished and a new building begun.

Fish's architect produced an especially handsome Italianate style commercial building faced in marble above the cast iron storefront.  The identical second through fourth floors were defined by intermediate cornices, and slender Corinthian columns separated the vast openings.  The windows of the fifth floor took the form of a graceful arcade with carved spandrel panels.  

Among Fish's first tenants were furniture makers Fisher & Abrams on the second floor; and Thomas A. Wilmurth, manufacturer of mirrors who occupied the store and the third floor.  The top floor was "fitted up for artists' studios," according to The New York Times.  They were leased to artists James Cafferty, George W. Bull, M. Mathews, A. Placeman and George R. Allen.

The specialty of Fisher & Abrams, according to The New York Times, was "enameled and cottage furniture."  Between midnight and 1:00 on December 8, 1860--only weeks after the building's completion--fire broke out in the varnish room.  Before the blaze could be extinguished it had caused about $5,000 damage to Fisher & Abrams's stock--nearly $160,000 today.  Thomas A. Wilmurth suffered about half that amount in damages.    The New York Times noted that each of the top floor artists "is a sufferer to some extent, in consequent of some of the pictures having been damaged by smoke."

Fisher & Abrams remained in the repaired space, reorganizing as J. W. Fisher & Co. the following year.  An advertisement in The New York Times the following October touted:

First-Class Enameled Furniture--Plain, decorated and grained; solid walnut and oak sets; mattresses, spring beds, &c.  Suites from $25 upward.

The price of the suites of furniture mentioned would equal about $750 today.  The advertisement also noted that the store was located in the "marble building."

Thomas A. Wilmurth gave up the store following the fire and it briefly became--somewhat surprisingly--a "concert saloon" with the deceptive name of the Stuyvesant Institute.  In May 21, 1862 The New York Times noted that the program that night included "The Alleghanians, Vocalists and Swiss Bell Players," and on August 1 that year George Christy's Minstrels were performing.

The Stuyvesant Institute closed down following a law passed in April 1862 outlawing concert saloons.  The New York Times reported that the new law "nominally extinguished the pretty waiter girls, fiddling, lager beer and other luxuries, in one fell swoop."  The act specifically forbade "the performance of theatrical, operatic, ballet, negro minstrelsy, negro or other dancing, or any other entertainment on the stage" without an exhibition hall license.  The space now became the "extensive saloon of Ayers & Thompson," as described by The New York Times.

It was a scene of an incident much more disturbing than minstrelsy later that year.  On October 20, 1862 The New York Times reported "At a late hour on Saturday night, several men became involved in a fight at the saloon No. 650 Broadway...During the affray, stools and chairs were freely used."  The riot turned potentially deadly when James Williams pulled out a "dirk-knife," or dagger, and stabbed John McLoughlin in the side.

Three men were arrested, including Williams and McLoughlin.  The police surgeon who dressed McLoughlin's wounds at the station house "pronounced him to be in a very critical condition."

Louisa Lander was a well-known sculptor who had relocate to Rome to work in 1855.  On April 7, 1862 The New York Times reported that she "has taken a studio at No. 650 Broadway, with the intention of remaining in the City a short time.  Miss Lander is at work on a bust of one of our eminent citizens."

By 1864 the saloon space had been taken over by a much more respectable tenant, the Eighth National Bank.  Others in the building were the Baltic Fire Insurance Company and musical instrument maker J. Bauer & Co. on the second and third floors.  That firm received a silver medal in 1865 for its display of a "collection of Musical Instruments" at the American Institute Fair.

On the night of August 6, 1865 burglars got into the Eighth National Bank by "wrenching off an iron grating over a window," according to The New York Times, while the night watchman was taking a meal break.  Before they could break into the vault, they heard the watchman returning and fled.

The New York Times reported, "In their sudden retreat they left behind them a coat, a heavily loaded revolver, and a quantity of gunpowder, with which they intended to blow open the bank safe."  An important clue for detectives was a note in the pocket of the coat.  It gave the crooks careful instructions:  

Bill:  You must make the attempt to-night, for I cannot go there.  There is three of you and you can go through the work.  There is lots of bonds and green fellows in the bank.  Should you be detected, do as I told you.  Set fire to the stairs and escape by the room.  That damned detective has seen me, so I must keep out of the way.
                                                                Yours in haste.    
P.S.  I think you are sure of success, as no person lives in the building, and be sure you blow up the safe at 11, as the noise might be heard.

Apparently the writer knew when the watchman was absent from his post at 11:00.  And although they failed in their attempt to rob the bank, they were successful in setting fire to the building.  The blaze was mostly confined to the bank, although J. Bauer & Co.'s "extensive piano forte wareroom" was damaged by water, smoke and steam.

Tragically, the smoke and water destroyed many of the artworks in the top floor studios.  The New York Times reported, "The front room occupied by Mr. [Victor] Nehlig, was totally destroyed, with all its contents; not a particle of the valuable artistic 'properties,' studies, sketches,--the accumulations and work of a lifetime, were saved, and in addition to these, a large national, historical picture of the battle of Gettysburgh, on which many months of severe study and labor had been bestowed, was totally destroyed."

The studios of two other artists, Otto Sommer and Ernest Parton, "were also utterly destroyed with all their contents."
George H. Hall was luckily in his studio when the fire erupted.  He saved all his paintings and those of Mrs. A. Henshaw and Juliana Oakley in adjoining studios.  

Julius Bauer & Co. represented the well-known piano maker William Knabe & Co.  Trow's New York City Directory, 1867-68 (copyright expired)

In the spring of 1868 J. Bauer & Co. took over the entire building.  An announcement in Musical Review on March 18 noted "We take pleasure in stating that the well-known musical house of Messrs. J. Bauer & Co. are making extensive alterations at their place of business, and will shortly occupy the whole of the beautiful four-story [sic], marble-front building at No. 650 Broadway, as the depot of the world-renowned Knabe piano-fortes."

The article explained that the former Eighth National Bank would now become the principal showroom, "the second story as a piano-forte wareroom and the remainder as wholesale departments for the sale of various kinds of musical instruments."

Trow's New York City Directory, 1870-71 (copyright expired)

J. Bauer & Co. remained in the building until 1880.  Following their departure Hamilton Fish hired architect M. R. Williams to design a new storefront.  

At the turn of the century the building was home to apparel and millinery tenants, including B. Schapiro, manufacturer of flowers and feathers for hat makers.   The heirs of Hamilton Fish retain ownership until November 21, 1917 when 65 "lots, plots and buildings" were sold in a "dissolution sale" by his estate.

The block was decidedly industrial in the 1940's.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Throughout the next decades the building would house small manufacturers.  As late as 1994 the Criteria Thread Co, Inc. was in the ground floor space.  By then this stretch of Broadway had already transformed into what the Community Board called "an artists neighborhood."

In 1995 renovations were made that resulted in an "eating and drinking" establishment on the first floor, a photo processing lab on the second, and small manufacturing spaces above.  

That "eating and drinking" establishment was Wendy's fast food restaurant and the announcement of its coming drew backlash.  On November 1, 1995 The Villager reported that residents were taking the chain and the Department of Buildings to court, claiming Wendy's "does not fit in with the character of the neighborhood."

A representative for Community Board 2 said "The increase in numbers of bars and restaurants are destroying the very fabric of our community."  The battle was soon lost and on November 15 The Villager reported "Noho residents who tried to keep a Wendy's fast food restaurant from opening in their neighborhood were unsuccessful as the restaurant opened Monday."

The restaurant is still in the space after more than a quarter of a century.  Sadly, the white marble façade above has been painted, but the graceful 1860 design survives.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. This may be the most under-stated Wendy's location ever. The same location had a much louder storefront twenty years ago. Good to see.