Saturday, February 25, 2023

John B. Snook's 1878 121 Spring Street


David O. Hogan lived at 90 Greene Street in the 1850's.  He made his living as a hackman, or carriage driver, and volunteered as a firefighter, or "laddie," with the Oceanus Engine Co. No. 11.  His respectable neighborhood was on the verge of serious decline.  Two decades later, John Ryan who lived next door at 121 Spring Street, was arrested for running a gambling operation in his house.  But the district was changing again at the time, as vintage homes were being razed to make way for modern loft buildings.

Catherine Lorillard Wolfe inherited $12 million (around $275 million in 2023) following the death of her father in 1872.  While she greatly used her fortune for philanthropic causes, like her father she also ventured into real estate development.  In 1878 she purchased the former Hogan and Ryan houses and hired architect John B. Snook to design a replacement store and loft building on the site.

Ground was broken on May 22 and construction was completed just six months later, on November 30, 1878.   Snook faced the building in red Philadelphia brick trimmed with sandstone.  A handsome cast iron storefront featured a robust Corinthian column at the corner and matching pilasters at either side of the store.  The entrance to the factory spaces upstairs was placed to the rear, at 90 Greene Street.  Snook's neo-Grec design incorporated stone bandcourses that connected the openings and doubled as lintels, and a bracketed cornice with a fringe-like frieze. 

The Soho district was filling with millinery firms at the time.  Wolfe's early tenants were Corn & Co., and the newly-organized Raymond J. Bennell, both hat makers; as well as A. L. Philips & Co., "cloak, furriers' and hatters' trimmings" merchants.  It was not long before Corn & Co. was the victim of burglars.

Julius Corn's firm occupied the ground floor and an upper floor.  On February 23, 1879, the New York Herald reported that George Cautine had pleaded guilty of stealing "ninety-five dozen hat bodies."  A hat merchant on Avenue A, Franz Wallehalter, was also arrested and charged with receiving stolen goods.

The following year, in November 1880, Corn & Co. filed for bankruptcy.  The Hatter and Furrier reported: 

The spacious store at 121 Spring street, corner of Greene, formerly occupied by Corn & co., has been refitted and will now be occupied by three firms:  C. H. Merritt of Danbury takes one half of the Spring street store, the other portion is rented to Adolph Wimpfheimer...The Greene street apartment is rented by Meyer Mercy of Newark, and will be used as a sample room by Frank Riley.

The magazine followed up in January, saying "C. H. Merritt, No. 121 Spring street, is making a specialty of stiff hats, with flexible brims.  Buyers are taking hold of them with eagerness."

Beginning in March 1882 a devastating financial depression swept the country that would last slightly more than three years.  Two of the tenants here would not survive it.  Raymond J. Bennell, who had borrowed $15,500 from his father-in-law in 1879 to start his business, and Meyers & Cohen both failed.

Catharine Lorillard Wolfe died on April 4, 1887 and bequeathed 121 Spring Street to her sister, Dorothea Wolfe Hoffman.  At the time the millinery industry was sharing the neighborhood with silk merchants.   Dorothea's primary tenant in 1888 was Johnson, Cowdin & Co., manufacturers of silk ribbons.  The firm's factory and mill were in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.  

As the turn of the century approached, Sicklick Embroidery also operated from the building.  In December 1899 the firm was looking for an "experienced salesman" and "experienced applique cutters."  In both instances, the ads were titled "Bonnaz," referring to the embroidery machines invented in France in 1865 by a maker named Bonnaz.  In 1901 Sicklick Embroidery employed 7 men and 20 women, who worked 59 hours per week.

A year earlier Johnson, Cowdin & Co. had exhibited at the Paris Exposition.  Its accomplishments there smacked of today's Olympics.  The firm brought home a gold medal, three silver medals and four bronze medals.  The Report of The Commissioner-General for the United States said in part:

Johnson, Cowdin & Co. are among the few American ribbon manufacturers who take silk from reelers and spin, dye, weave, and finish their products by their own skilled operatives.  By attention to every process under one perfected interlocking organization the exhibitors are able to arrive at satisfactory results.

The judges were particularly impressed with a "brocade sash ribbon about 102 lines in width in pompadour effect, made with two and three colors."

The early years of the 20th century saw textile and apparel businesses moving into the building.  They included fabric merchants Silverman & Black; cloak and suit manufacturer Weltman, Pollack & Co.; and textile makers S. J. Hall & Son.

Silk magazine, December 1908 (copyright expired)

L. Hyman & Son, "dealers in paper, stationery, and blank books" had been located from across the street at 116 Spring Street for several years.  Then, in 1911 the firm leased the store and basement of 121 Spring Street and relocated in February 1912.  

The company was unusual in that one of the partners was a woman.  Frustratingly, because of the custom of the period, she was always referred to with deference to her gender only as Miss Hyman.  On July 25, 1914, for instance, The American Stationer wrote, "H. Z. Hyman, of L. Hyman & Son, dealers in stationery and office expected to return from his vacation on Monday next.  Until his return Miss Hyman will continue to act as buyer."  And three months later the magazine noted, "Miss Hyman, of L. Hyman & back at her desk, after spending a month touring New England."

The upper floors, occupied by textile dealers like Jansen & Pretzfeld, were joined by the Fordham Manufacturing Company, which took the second floor, in 1916.

American Silk-Journal, January 1912 (copyright expired)

L. Hyman & Co. was looking for delivery drivers in 1918.  Their religion-specific advertisement would raise eyebrows today: "Drivers:  (Jewish), experienced, wanted for paper and twine warehouse.  Only those having worked in such line need apply."

L. Hyman & Co. would remain in the building at least through 1921.  Other tenants in the 1920s included Ell-Jay Middy Co., apparel makers; and the Strong Machinery & Supply Company, which took space in 1927.

The New York Times, June 8, 1920 (copyright expired)

The Soho neighborhood would once again see drastic change during the third quarter of the 20th century.  In 1983 the Sonnabend Art Gallery moved into the store space, and two years later the lofts were converted to joint living-work quarters for artists. 

The Standard Casing Company occupied the ground floor space in 1941.  The building remains essentially unchanged today.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The Rosa Esman Gallery opened here in 1984, replaced by the O. J. Gallery 121 in 1987.  Today the audio products store of Bang & Olufsen occupies the ground floor.

The artist lofts were converted to condominiums in 1996, one per floor.  

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

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