Monday, March 14, 2022

The Lost R. G. Dun Building - 290 Broadway


photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1859 Robert Graham Dun took control of The Mercantile Agency.  The company had been formed in 1841 by Lewis Tappan to provide reliable, unbiased credit information to its subscribers.  Dun renamed the firm R. G. Dun & Company and continued to expand its scope.

In 1897 R. G. Dun & Company embarked on the construction of a new headquarters building at 290 Broadway, at the northeast corner of Reade Street.  The architectural firm of Harding & Gooch, composed of George Edward Harding and William Tyson Gooch, went to significant lengths to make it a fire-proof structure.  

The 15-story, steel-frame building would sit upon a five-story granite base.  The upper floors were clad in "light-colored brick and terra cotta," according to The New York Times.  On October 16, 1897 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that The American Enameled Brick & Tile Co. was furnishing 300,000 "of their semi-glazed white front brick."

But most interesting was the interior woodwork--always the Achilles heel of a "fire-proof" building.  All of the wood was treated by the Electric Fireproofing Company, which provided all the wood for the United States Navy ships.  The Record & Guide noted that the electrically-treated wood "is used freely, but with absolute safety."  The journal said that "every bit of wood in [the R. G. Dun Building] is fireproof."

The architects released the above rendering as the building neared completion.  The New York Times, May 15, 1898 (copyright expired)

Completed in the spring of 1898, the R. G. Dun Building's Renaissance Revival design was embellished with Beaux Arts elements, like the frothy decorations on the Broadway façade, and the garlands of the uppermost floors.  Construction cost $1 million, according to Portland Daily Press, or about 32 times that much today.

Calling the R. G. Dun Building "a model office structure," on May 15, 1898, The New York Times wrote, "Rising in graceful proportions to a commanding a new business building which will at once arrest the eye and enlist the attention of passers-by."  In addition to pointing out the electrically-treated wood, the article said "All the floors are fire-proof, those in the first story and basement, halls, and lavatories being entirely of marble mosaic and elsewhere of artificial stone."

The "large and handsome" restaurant of M. Heumann engulfed the entire basement level.  The New York Times noted, "A new and effective feature of the decoration of this restaurant is the lining of the walls with semi glazed terra cotta in blended colors."  It was one more effort at fire-proofing.

R. G. Dun & Company occupied the top five floors.  The other floors quickly filled.  When the building opened, the Barrett Manufacturing Co., "the largest manufacturers of Roofing Materials, &c. in the world," according to The New York Times, occupied the eighth floor.  Other of the initial tenants were the American Real Estate Company, and the American offices of The Times of London.  Several financial institutions took space, including the Popular Banking, Savings & Loan Association; the Universal Trust Company; the Co-Operative Building Bank; and the Montauk Co-Operative Savings and Loan Association.

Two years after the building opened, its fire-proof qualities were tested.  On March 17, 1900 the Record & Guide reported, "On Saturday, soon after one of the offices had been closed, a fire broke out in the Dun Building...The fire apparently originated in a desk or a waste paper basket, and the other pieces of furniture in the room were quickly ignited.  In a few moments there was a fierce blaze at work attacking the trim and structure of the building."

But Harding & Gooch's materials did their job.  "The furniture was consumed, but, so far as the building is concerned, it did not add so much to the blaze as the equivalent of a match-stick," said the journal.  And yet, "as everyone who has been in it knows, [it] is one of the most handsomely decorated office buildings in the city, and lacks nothing in the matter of woodwork of other ornament or use."  The fire was confined to the furniture, and "burnt itself out as harmlessly as a fire in a grate."

Flammable items like the tables and desks in the Philip Rixton offices, above, were the only victims of the 1900 fire.  photos by Byron Company, via Art Resource

The first decade of the 20th century saw the architectural offices of Colson & Hudson in the building, and those of John T. McWhirter, a dealer in chemicals.  

In 1909 McWhirter was the center of shocking publicity.  In August he was sued by Grace E. Van Everon, who told the courts that in 1907 he and her mother, Mrs. Imogene Parmelee, had murdered her father "by giving him whisky and drugs during his last illness."  McWhirter then moved into Imogene Parmelee's apartment and "completely dominated her and her affairs."

On August 6, The New York Times reported, "By reason of her mother's unsettled condition, Mrs. Van Everon says, her mother began to resort to drink and drugs administered to her by McWhirter from the time of Mr. Parmelee's death."  Imogene Parmelee survived her husband by only two years, dying on July 12, 1909.  Her will left everything to McWhirter.  Grace Van Everon claimed that the witnesses signed it after the fact, and "that it was not her mother's free and voluntary act," but was "procured by fraud, threats, and undue influence exerted upon her by McWhirter."

But then something happened.  Mysteriously, two weeks later, on August 19, The New York Times reported, "Mrs. Grace E. Van Everon of Ocatello, Idaho, temporarily living here...has withdrawn her objections to the probate of the will."  No explanation of her stunning reversal was given.

The restaurant space was taken over by R. M. Haan & Co. in December 1919, after having been on Park Row for two decades.  The Record & Guide noted that they "will remodel it," and added, "The Dun building has long been famous as one of the high class office buildings immediately above City Hall Park, and in addition to being the home of The Mercantile Agency, R. G,. Dun & Co., houses many prominent businesses."

The Broadway facade of the R. G. Dun Building (far right) in 1903.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The building was threatened by fire again in 1926 when a massive blaze broke at 296 Broadway on the night of April 15.  Firefighters rushed to the upper floors of the Dun Building to engage the it's standpipes in fighting the blaze from an high vantage point.  Someone, however, had turned off some of the valves, creating excess pressure to those that were open.  The New York Times reported, "lines of hose burse and the firemen were unable to obtain any water pressure on the upper floors of that building."

One of the elevator operators, 24-year-old Joseph Brew, was trapped when the deluge of water short-circuited the power to his elevator.  "Firemen rescued him, and later two men of the savage corps were compelled to chop their way through another elevator door when the car was stalled on the seventh floor."  Scores of employees streamed out into the street and no one in the Dun Building was injured.  Nevertheless, because of the malfunctioning standpipes, fire shot across the passageway between the two structures and the furnishings on three floors were badly damaged.  "Ten floors of the Dun building were also damaged by water and smoke," said The New York Times.

In March 1933, R. G. Dun & Company merged with a competitor, John M. Bradstreet to form Dun & Bradstreet.  The firm was still listed at 290 Broadway until 1952.  On June 23 that year The New York Times reported that a syndicate had purchased the building, which "is under lease to the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

The FBI remained in the building for over a decade.  Then, in 1969 a demolition permit was issued.  The site became a municipal parking lot.  Then, in December 1987, the Federal Government announced plans to build one of two new structures "to ease congestion in the United States Court House and other Government buildings nearby" on the property.  The Ted Weiss Federal, alternately known as the Foley Square Federal Building, designed by Helmuth Obata & Kassabaum, opened in 1995.

photo (cropped) by qwesy qwesy has 
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1 comment:

  1. Interesting how different the artist rendering is from the finished product for a building close to completion.