Friday, March 11, 2022

Louis Burger's 1868 29 Mercer Street


The building boom that followed the end of the Civil War transformed the block of Mercer Street between Canal and Grand Street from one of low brick houses to tall loft buildings.  In 1867 Henry Cardoza commissioned architect Louis Burger to design a five-story loft-and-store building at 29 Mercer Street.

Completed in 1868, the handsome structure would have been comfortable sitting among the upscale emporiums of Broadway.  Above the cast iron storefront with its ornate Corinthian columns were four floors of gleaming marble.  Burger's design drew inspiration from the recent French Second Empire style--each identical story defined by a projecting intermediate cornice on diminutive brackets, and prim pilasters separating the elliptically arched openings.  A robust metal cornice with arched pediment crowned the design.

Among the first tenants was J. Sheldon, who operated his men's hat business here in 1871.  He was a pioneer in the migration of the millinery and apparel business into the neighborhood.

Perhaps the first of a long string of thefts at 29 Mercer Street came on July 10, 1875.  Herbert C. Armitage hung his vest and jacket in his office, and later returned to find the vest missing.  In it were his gold watch and chain and $75 in cash--around $1,800 today.  Investigators spoke to James Brown, who worked down the block at 9 Mercer Street.  He said he had watched two men "loitering around Mr. Armitage's place of business" that day.  The New York Herald reported on July 18 that Brown "saw one of them, whose name is Frank Hudson, come out with a parcel in his hand which looked like a vest rolled up."  Hudson was arrested and held on $1,000 bail awaiting trial.

Also in the building at the time were importers Pratt & Farmer.  On December 18, 1876 the owners discovered they had been robbed of 3,000 gross of buttons, valued at nearly $100,000 in today's money.  There was no sign of forced entry, suggesting an inside job.

Once again, it was a vigilant worker on the block who solved the case.  George Lagenhoff was a porter at 35 Mercer Street.  The New York Herald reported that he told police that on that morning, "between seven and half-past seven o'clock, he saw [Frederick] Meyers open the door of Messrs. Pratt & Farm's premises and then call a truckman, who was near by."  Meyers was Pratt & Farmer's trusted porter.  The witness said that the truckman drove up, the boxes of buttons were loaded into the truck, and then he drove away.  Meyers locked up the store behind himself.  He was arrested on Lagenhoff's information.

Hertlein & Schlatter, makers of "fringes and dress trimmings" operated from an upper floor in 1880.  Their was a large concern, with a second factory at 210 Canal Street.

Another victim of inside crime was the English-based T. I. Birkin & Co.  The Mercer Street office imported and sold the lace curtains that the firm manufactured in Nottingham, England.  Early in 1895 John W. Smith, the cashier and financial manager of the New York office, filed charges of forgery against the firm's selling agent, Andrew B. Dick.  According to Smith, between April 3, 1893 and then, Dick had systematically cashed forged checks drawn on the company amounting to $15,000--nearly half a million in today's dollars.

The New York Times reported that Dick, who was hired in 1892 "was traveling through the United States for the firm, and was a trusted man."  On February 20, 1895 The World reported that Andrew B. Dick had been arrested.  But there was a problem.  The police arrested the wrong man.  The following day The New York Times explained, "Through an unfortunate blunder John W. Smith was placed in the position of A. B. Dick, and vice versa."  The article noted, "Naturally, Mr. Smith is very much annoyed by the confusion of identity, and his annoyance is shared by a large circle of friends."

Apparel firms continued to occupy the building at the turn of the century.  Among them was William J. Boesen, makers of "pleatings."  Exactly one-half of his workers were teenaged boys, who worked 54 hours per week.  Sharing the building that year was Schlatter & Sacks, makers and importers of ladies' dress and cloak trimmings.  Charles W. Schlatter and Henry K. Sacks had formed the firm on January 1, 1899.

A factory inspection of Isaac Falkenberg and T. H. Ellson's women's neckwear shop in February 1903 resulted in a Health Department violation for "failure to provide sink and running water."  The firm would soon have other concerns to deal with.  Although it was doing a brisk business, according to The New York Times on July 6, 1905, "Falkenberg could not collect the debts owing to him."

Rose Scott, the manager, opened the premises on the morning of July 5 to a horrifying scene.  The New York Times reported, "Falkenberg had committed suicide by attaching a rubber tube to a gas fixture and turning on the gas.  He had taken the precaution to move a table to a place beneath the gas fixture to make sure that the tube would not be too short and slip from his mouth when he became unconscious."   In his pocket was a letter to his brother explaining that his failure to collect his debts had driven him to the drastic act.

Georgette D. Fahnestock purchased the building in 1915 and retained possession for more than two decades.  She sold it to Elisa Imperatrice in June 1938 for $4,000--about $73,500 by today's standards.  It continued to house small businesses until the turn of the 21st century when the Soho renaissance finally caught up with the address.  Today, each of the upper floors contains one apartment.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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