Saturday, February 18, 2023

George H. Van Auken's 1901 78 Greene Street


The family of stock broker George Carpenter lived in the two-and-a-half story Federal style home at 78 Greene Street in the early 1840's.  The elegance of the neighborhood and the affluence of its residents were reflected in the sale of the Carpenters' furnishings when the family moved out in 1848.  The listing included a costly rosewood piano and mahogany parlor furniture.

Following the Civil War, the district became increasingly commercial.  By 1887 the former Carpenter house had been replaced with a business building owned by Sol Cohen.  He ran his seal and fur cap manufacturing business from the address.  At the turn of the century, the structure was inadequate and Cohen hired architect George Van Auken to design a replacement loft and store building on the site.

In its March 1901 issue, Cloaks & Furs announced, "The old building now occupying the premises at 78 Greene street, will shortly be removed to make room for a modern six-story loft building.  Sol Cohen, the well-known fur the owner."

Indeed the building would be "shortly" removed.  Ground was broken on March 10, 1901 and the lightning-fast construction was completed five months later on August 31.  The building had cost Cohen $30,000, or about $987,000 in 2023 terms.   Van Auken's Beaux Arts style brick-and-stone building stood out on a block almost exclusively lined with cast iron structures.  The wooden storefront within the two-story base was flanked by sturdy, rusticated stone piers.  On either side of the projecting show window were double doors--one for the store and the other to the upper floors.

The grouped windows of the second floor sat within a picture-frame-like surround of carved stone with a frothy French cartouche.  Similar grouped windows appeared in the three-story midsection.  Their expanses of glass allowed natural light to pour into the workspaces.  Van Auken alternated red brick and white limestone to create a striped effect.  A prominent stone cornice introduced the top section, where the openings were flanked by intricately-carved stone panels.  A cast metal bracketed terminal cornice crowned the design.

Working with his father was Michael L. Cohen.  In 1901 they employed ten men and two women who worked 54 hours a week in their factory making fur apparel.  Surprisingly, the Cohens moved northward within a few years.  Lofts were rented to apparel and textile firms like Frischknecht, Heilbrun Company, embroideries; F. Schmidt & Co., maker and importer of gloves, which occupied the second floor; and Weil Bros., dealers in "woolens and ducks."  (Duck is a type of canvas fabric.)

Two employees were involved in horrific incidents in 1903 and 1904.  The first involved accountant John J. Chase, who was hired by Frischknecht, Heilbrun Company in December 1902.  Described by the Brooklyn Daily Standard as "a tall man, well built, strong and robust," Chase lived in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.  On the morning of March 17, 1903, he left home, promising his 3-year-old daughter Valery that he would arrive home early to celebrate her birthday.  The article said he gave his wife 50 cents to buy her a new doll.  "Stopping only long enough to imprint a kiss on the lips of his other two children, a boy and girl, a few years older than Valery, Chase started for his work."

He walked to the elevated train station at 52nd Street.  About 50 other passengers waited on the platform with him.  As they filed onto the train, Chase lost his footing and fell between the car and the platform.  The Brooklyn Daily Standard said, "The train was in motion by this time."  Chase's right leg between the knee and thigh was pressed up against the third rail.

Passengers and train employees rushed to his aid, but he was tightly wedged in.  After he endured twenty minutes of agony,  a "wrecking car" was brought in to jack up the train enough to extract Chase.  The Brooklyn Daily Standard's headline succinctly capture the horror:  "Man Roasted To Death in 20 Minutes by 3d Rail."  Chase's death was not merciful.  He had lived through the ghastly ordeal, not dying until he reached the hospital.

At the time 25-year-old Lillian Read had worked as a "confidential stenographer and typewriter" for F. Schmidt & Co. for two years.  A native of Chicago, her position might be called an executive administrative assistant today.  The Post-Standard said, "She was attentive to her duties and is said to have performed them satisfactorily."  Her value within the firm was evidenced in her enjoying two-weeks off in the summer of 1904.

Lillian returned from that vacation on August 10.  The Post-Standard said she "appeared for business this morning as usual, but seemed to be somewhat downcast."  At noon the office staff, including her boss F. Schmidt, left for lunch.  Lillian, however, remained behind.  The article said, "Instead, she went into the private office of Mr. Schmidt, a small room partitioned off.  She locked the door and seated herself in a chair seat near the window.  Taking a bottle of carbolic acid, she drank the contents."

When Schmidt returned and found his office locked, he looked into the transom and saw Lillian slumped in the chair.  The door was broken open and she was taken to a hospital where she died.   The Post-Standard remarked, "There is much mystery as to the case of the suicide."

Other apparel companies moved into the building.  In 1909 the Powerful Clothing Company; and Priest & Reiss, both makers of waists (a popular, tailored women's blouse); and Borut Cloak Co., manufacturers of children's cloaks occupied lofts; while Reinhard Mfg. Co.'s salesroom was in the store space.  Reinhard Mfg. Co. had been incorporated in 1907 to manufacture silk ribbons.

In 1912 the South Norwalk Hat Co. moved into the building.  The firm not only manufactured men's hats, but "renovated" damaged goods.  Retailers who had damaged goods, like straw hats, brought them to South Norwalk Hat Co. for repairs.

The American Hatter, June 1912 (copyright expired)

Also in the building at the time were P. Moshkowsky & Son, makers of infants' wear; Nicholas Apfelbaum, manufacturers of women's underwear; and Tanner Souvenir Co., run by Walter S. Tanner, makers of leather goods.

In the fall of 1915, the ground floor space was used as a polling place for the Presidential election.  Hired "watchers" were common at polling sites, dispatched there to guard against voter intimidation.  This year throngs of suffragist watchers turned out across the city to ensure that no influence was being made against their cause.  The New York Times reported on October 20, "Some of the men at the polls seemed to take delight in assuming a facetious attitude toward the women watchers, declining to give serious answers to their questions."  

The need for the watchers, however, was evident.  The article reported:

For example, in the polling place at 78 Greene Street...a man, according to the suffragists, began the morning with electioneering.  The woman watcher on duty at once complained, but he did not stop.  The watcher, without wasting words, telephoned to headquarters, and within a few minutes Mrs. Frank H. Sumner arrived in an automobile, she being one of the minutewomen, ready all day long for just such emergencies.

Seeing what was going on for herself, the stalwart Mrs. Sumner got back in the automobile and drove to Police Headquarters where she made a formal complaint.  Within a few minutes a policeman arrived to move the electioneering man along.  "There was no more trouble in or around that booth," reported the newspaper.

By the Depression years, the garment district had moved northward, above 34th Street.  New types of tenants now occupied 78 Greene Street, like the hardware manufacturer Geringer and Weiss.  Working conditions at the time were difficult and The Daily Worker went so far as to describe Geringer and Weiss on January 18, 1934 as a "wholesale hardware sweatshop."  

Just having a job during the Depression was not enough to make the employees compliant.  In June 1933 The Hardware and Crockery Workers Union was organized and in January 1934 the workers of three factories, including Geringer and Weiss, walked out on strike.  The Daily Worker reported, "The shops are completely paralyzed, with the picketers refusing to permit any trucks to collect or deliver merchandise."  They demanded "better working conditions, specifically the decrease of working hours of the inside and outside men to 40 and 48 hours, respectively."

The industrial nature of the district was reflected in B & Z Steel occupying the building by the mid-1950's.  The firm dealt in "steel shelving, partitions, etc." according to a 1957 trade directory.  Three decades later, it was still here when a renovation, completed in 1985, resulted in a mixed-use building--retail, office space, and one apartment.  It was most likely at this time that a fire escape was installed, necessitating the gouging out of a portion of the cornice.  B & Z Steel now used space as a showroom.  Here metal filing cabinets, bookcases and shelving in several colors could be purchased.

The installation of a fire escape resulted in the cutting away of a third of the 1901 cornice.

By then, the Soho neighborhood had been almost completely transformed into one of Manhattan's art centers.  Visual artist Patsy Norvell worked from the building in 1991.  A pioneering feminist artist, she had founded the A. I. R. Gallery in 1972, the first in America to exhibit only women's works.

On January 2, 2007, Alison Gregor wrote in The New York Times, "B & Z [Steel] is one of the last operating businesses from the 1950s in what used to be an industrial neighborhood."  While the firm had moved its headquarters to Brooklyn, owner Robert Zeisel retained space in the building as a showroom.

Unlike so many of the Soho loft buildings, 78 Greene Street has never been converted to residential, other than the single apartment created in 1985.  Its bold red-and-white design continues to stand out among its neighbors as it did in 1901.

photographs by the author
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