The Greene Street neighborhood developed a sordid reputation following the Civil War. Brothels occupied many of the former homes and 121 Greene Street was not an exception. At around midnight on January 17, 1862, for instance, a patron was removed after "during the act of coition, he was attacked with palsy," according to Dr. Edward C. Sequin. (He most likely suffered a minor stroke.) And the New York Dispatch reported on January 12, 1879, "When Justice Otterbourg ordered a complaint to be made against No. 121 Greene street, he no doubt hoped the police would get the evidence to convict. Possibly the thing was impossible. The surrounding neighbors could not very well go into court to complain, being in the same business."
At the time of Justice Otterbourg's frustration, things were changing in the Greene Street neighborhood. Millinery and drygoods firms were inching northward and the old two- and three-story houses were being replaced by commercial structures.
Julius and Adolph Lewisohn operated the millinery supply firm Lewisohn Bros., which imported and manufactured ostrich feathers, artificial flowers, "bristles, hair, vegetable fibre, &c." In 1882 they purchased and demolished the buildings at 121 and 123 Greene Street and hired architect Henry Fernbach to design a replacement loft and store building. Fernbach was busy in the Soho area at the time. As a matter of fact, he was simultaneously designing the two abutting buildings as 125 and 127 Greene Street.
Construction began on June 28, 1882 and was completed nine months later--the use of a cast iron facade enabling the rapid rise of the six-story structure. Ferbach's ornate design, a commercial blend of French Renaissance and Second Empire, featured columns with elaborate capitals (a close inspection reveals a melding of Corinthian and Ionic orders), and fluted pilasters at the ends with stylized acanthus motifs. Each floor was defined by an intermediate cornice. The entablature of the terminal cornice was distinguished by acanthus leaves alternating with brackets. Prominent antefixes sprouted above the cornice.
Sharing the building with Lewisohn Bros. were the offices and showroom of the hat manufacturing firm Ferry & Napier. It was founded by George J. Ferry in 1856 and became Ferry & Napier in 1879 when he partnered with Ernest Napier. The factory in Newark, New Jersey employed 250 workers.
In 1883, according to The Evening Post, Ferry became suspicious of the Newark bookkeeper James F. Bull, "because the profits of the factory fell behind what they would naturally be." He sent Bull on vacation and then brought in the head bookkeeper, who worked in the Greene Street office, to examine the books. He immediately discovered embezzlement. The clever Bull had meticulously recorded the weekly payroll, and the individual figures were checked by the factory supervisor John W. Green. What Green did not double-check, however, were the totals. Each week Bull padded the total payroll amount by $10 to $50. The Evening Post reported, "Ferry thinks the total sum taken will amount to between $3,000 and $4,000." (The higher amount would equal approximately $112,000 in 2023.)
Both men were fired, the supervisor "for negligence" for not discovering the scheme. Somewhat surprisingly, after the 52-year-old Bull admitted his guilt and paid back what he could, Ferry did not press charges.
In the early 1890s Levi Bros. & Blum, which dealt in "notions and dressmaking supplies" was in the building. For years it had been "the largest importers of high-class Notions in the country," according to The Evening World on January 19, 1894.
Also in the building at the time were two furriers, Albert Herzig, Sons & Co., and Isaac Levi. The former employed 75 men, 60 women, and 22 girls under 21 years of age in their shop. The staff worked 53 hours a week.
In 1893 Isaac Levi took an extended buying trip to Europe, leaving brothers Adolph and Montague Berhard in charge of the New York operation. He shipped $100,000 worth of furs from London, a significant three-and-a-quarter million in today's dollars. A year later he told a reporter, "They did not remit any money last year, and explained that the crisis in America had prevented sales." (That crisis was the Financial Panic of 1893.) The excuse made sense, and Levi was unsuspecting.
He arrived back in New York at the beginning of 1894 to discover that Adolph had gone to Europe in December. "Montague told me that my goods were all in bond, and a short time after my arrival he also left for Europe," said Levi. "My suspicions were not even then aroused."
But in March, he visited the custom house brokers where he discovered that only half of the goods were in the warehouse. An investigation showed that the brothers had sold much of the inventory before leaving the country. But if the Berhards thought they could live the high life on their ill-gotten fortunes abroad, they underestimated their employer. On May 1, 1894, The Press reported, "Isaac Levi of 123 Greene street, said yesterday: 'I caused the arrest of Adolph and Montague Bernhard in London." The Evening World noted, "At the prisoners' lodgings a large quantity of valuable property, said to belong to Mr. Levi, was seized." And Isaac Levi was much less forgiving than George J. Ferry had been. "They were remanded for a week this morning in London, and will be brought back here for trial."
In 1905 Harry L. Block leased the building "for a long term of years." His firm manufactured "ladies' and misses' skirts." He subleased space to apparel maker Natkin & Laitin; cotton goods merchant Siegbert & Co.; and silk dealer Max Kempfer.
Siegbert & Co. was headed by Samuel Siegbert who, according to The New York Press, "made a fortune in Prairie du Chien, Wis., and lived lavishly in a fourteen-room apartment." That apartment, where Siegberg lived with his wife and daughter, was on the sixth floor of the Ardsley Court on Central Park West. But his otherwise idyllic life was tortured by back pain.
On February 25, 1905, the family had breakfast together, after which Siegbert went into his study. A few minutes later the telephone rang. The New York Press reported, "Asked over the building telephone if any one had fallen from her apartment, Mrs. Siegbert ran to her husband's study and, finding the door locked, called for help. The door was forced, a window was found open, and, looking down into the court behind the house, Mrs. Siegbert saw her husband's body and fell back unconscious."
Explaining that Siegbert had been "crazed by lumbago pains," the article said his gruesome plunge from the sixth floor window landed him head first on an iron fence where "one of the sharp points pierced his skull, holding him transfixed. His neck was broken and one of his legs was fractured in two places."
Max Kempfer was the victim of an all-too-familiar crime in the Greene Street building over the decades. In January 1908 he had 16-year-old employee Moses Neufeld arrested on grand larceny charges for stealing a large quantity of silk. The teen still had the goods when he was apprehended. In court on January 7, the boy's attorney asked Magistrate Kernochan permission to request that Kempfer devalue the silk from $47 to $25, "and thus reduce the charge to petit larceny," according to The Sun. The magistrate said he was willing to allow it, but Kempfer was less sympathetic. The Sun reported, "Mr. Kemper said he couldn't conscientiously swear to a different valuation on the silk." Neufelt was held on $1,000 bail awaiting trial.
A new type of tenant arrived following the end of World War I. The Peerless Doll Company operated from the building in 1918, and the following year doll maker Reisman Barron & Co., Inc, took three floors. A notice dated December 29, 1919 called the new location "one of the largest and most complete doll factories in the city."
An advertisement in Toys and Novelties in April 1920 noted, "One entire floor is used for our head factory, which has an output of over sixty thousand head[s] per week, another is used for the manufacture of the complete doll, our third floor is used for storing all raw materials."
Also in the building in 1921 were the Victory Box Company, Inc., makers of cardboard boxes; and Samuel Hymes & Sons, cotton converters. The latter firm however, was about to cease business.
On July 16, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported that brothers Philip and Irwin Hymes had been arrested on grand larceny charges. In a desperate attempt to keep afloat the company which their father had founded, they had defrauded two banks by providing false financial statements. They obtained large credit lines as well as $25,000 in cash. The two institutions filed charges after Samuel Hymes & Sons filed bankruptcy on February 5, 1921.
The Soho neighborhood was industrial and gritty in the 1950s and '60s. The I. H. Manufacturing Co. occupied space in 121 Green Street, where it made "TV picture tube boosters and accessories, sockets for tubes, transistors and crystals." But change was on the horizon. The third quarter of the century saw Soho discovered by artists, who used the vast industrial lofts for studio and living space. The store fronts became galleries and cafes.
Two views of the building in the 1980s. Despite the abuse, the historic elements of the architecture, including the original doors, survived. images via josephpelllombardi.com
In March 1978 the Pincar Gallery opened in 121 Greene Street. The upper floors were converted to cooperative housing in 1988 by the architectural restoration firm of Joseph Pell Lombardi. On June 12 that year, The New York Times mentioned, "When a building at 123 Greene Street became a residential co-op recently, the unrenovated 4,000-square-foot floors sold briskly for about $800,000 apiece."
Galleries came and went. In the early 1990s the Sperone Westwater Gallery was here and would remain at least through 2000. Modern Age Gallery exhibited from 1992 to about 1995, and Douglas Blau had space in 1993. By 2014 the ground floor was shared by the Proenza Schouler boutique and Warby Parker eyeglasses, the latter opening in April 2013.
Sadly, Greene Street is too narrow for the observer to get an optimum perspective of Henry Fernbach's striking cast iron building. It is wonderfully intact, including the delicate capitals, often the first elements to rust and fall away.
photographs by the author
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