Friday, February 10, 2023

A Remodeled Brothel - 70 Greene Street


By the mid-1850s the 25-foot-wide house at 70 Greene Street was home to sash-maker Elijah Yerks.  It was replaced by a more modern home in 1860 by Catherine M. Jones, who used it as an investment property.  Her choice of locations was, perhaps, surprising.  By now Greene street was in decline and increasingly filling with bordellos.  Greene Street had conceivably become the most notorious red light district in Manhattan.

And so, not surprisingly, 70 Greene Street became one of the district's "bagnios."  Court papers filed in October 1868 said in part:

Houses of ill-fame appear to have been selected and made to serve as places of abode for a score or more of applicants of "good moral character" upon whom citizenship purports to have been conferred.  To illustrate: No. 70 Greene street--a common bawdy-house--stands upon the files of the courts as the residence of forty-two newly-made American citizens.

It may have been the bad press, or simply the commercialization of the area that prompted Catherine M. Jones to step in.  On August 31, 1872, the Record & Guide reported that she had hired architect J. H. Coster to alter the building "from tenement to a store."  His renovations resulted in a handsome red brick structure trimmed in sandstone.  Instead of a cast iron storefront, as was becoming increasingly popular in the Soho district, Coster used stone.  His neo-Grec design included wide bandcourses that connected the openings of the upper stories.  The lintels grew less decorative with each succeeding floor--from incised scrolled carvings at the second to nothing at the fourth.  The modifications, completed in 1873, cost Jones $10,000, the equivalent of $229,000 in 2023.

An advertisement on February 4, 1873 offered lofts for rent.  "First Rate Location for offices of out [of] town buyers or a commission merchant," it said.  Commission merchants represented manufacturers whose factories were outside the city, like silk or woolen mills.  Among the initial tenants was Siegfried Swarsenski, a "manufacturing furrier," who would remain at the address for decades.

By 1880 Swarsenski had been joined in the building by another fur dealer, D. W. Gitchell.  That year in November the first of the silk merchants moved in, The New York Silk Manufacturing Company.  Firm firm's offices and showrooms were here, while its factory was in Marion, New Jersey.  

In its July 1881 issue, the Hatter and Furrier said The New York Silk Manufacturing Company "have the finest factory in the country."  The article noted the firm was "making a specialty of hat bands and bindings and have for the present season supplied a large percentage of the hat manufacturers from the great variety they produce." 

Hatter and Furrier, May 1882 (copyright expired)

By the late 1880's Siegfried Swarsenski was the last of the furriers in the building.  In 1889 Strange, Kelly & Bennett, makers of silk ribbons, occupied space; as did Simon, Israel & Co.   In 1890 Clothier and Furnisher said the latter "have a handsome store at 70 Greene street" and were "showing a very attractive line of flannelettes, flannels and materials for manufacturers of summer clothing."

Clothier and Furnisher, July 1890 (copyright expired)

In 1896 Siegried Swarsenski employed 21 men, two women, and two girls under 21-years-old.  They worked 45 hours during the week and another five on the weekend.  After being at 70 Greene Street for more than two decades, the firm relocated to University Place in 1898.

It appears Swarsenski's space was taken over by the waist manufacturer I. Silverberg & Son.  Waists were the most popular item of female apparel at the time.  The tailors blouses were worn by women of every social class.

Change to the building was about to come, however.  On December 28, 1912, the entire building was offered for lease, and in 1916 it was rented to partners Frank Mormando and Lawrence Lobesco.  The days of furs and silks was over.  The partners had just formed the American Waste Paper Co., "to deal in waste papers of all descriptions, according to The Waste Trade Journal.

The showrooms that had been deemed "handsome" a decade earlier, were converted to waste paper storage, and the storefront was altered with a loading dock.

A truck loading dock was installed at street level.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In 1949 the Jones estate sold 70 Greene Street.  In reporting the transaction, The New York Times noted, "The building...has been owned by one family for almost 100 years."

It continued being used for waste paper purposes for most of the century.  In 1966 the J. P. Waste Co., Inc. occupied the building.  But change, again, was coming.

In 1983, as the Soho district was rapidly becoming the artistic center of Manhattan, the upper floors of 70 Greene Street were converted to the joint living/working quarters of artists.  The loading dock was removed and that year the Friedus-Ordover Gallery moved in.  It exhibited photography, sculpture and painting.

In 1985 the Rosa Esman Gallery moved into the building.  One of its early exhibitions was "East Village Funktional," described by The New York Times as "Zany art for today."  Esman explained, "The pieces are by East Village artists and have nothing to do with modernism or post-modernism.  If anything, it's kitsch."  The Rosa Esman Gallery remained in the space through 1990.

A much different ground floor tenant arrived in 2010 when Technogym, an Italian maker of "high-concept fitness equipment," as described by The New York Times in October that year, moved in.  It still occupies the space.

The brick-and-stone building that got a 1872 maker-over after its scandalous past stands out among its cast iron neighbors on the Soho block.  

photographs by the author
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