Friday, March 3, 2023

The 1883 L. Toplitz & Co. Building - 113 Greene Street


Once lined with the homes of respectable citizens, Greene Street had become one of Manhattan's most notorious red light districts by the time of the Civil War.  On March 28, 1873, the Evening Telegram reported, "Blanch Ogden, a tall, fine looking woman, the keeper of a den at No. 113 Greene street, was arraigned for keeping a disorderly house.  With her were five of the inmates, young girls, not one of them over sixteen years of age."

On March 12, 1882, Italian immigrants Michael Vozello and Francisco Sierso "quarreled," as worded by The New York Times, in the house.  "Vozello struck Sierso on the head with a billet of wood, inflicting a severe wound," said the article.  "Vozello was arrested."  It would be, perhaps, the last arrest in the disreputable place.

Within six months hat maker Lippman Toplitz purchased the lot.  He would testify a decade later, "It was a poor building on that property.  I didn't buy the building at all, only for the sake of the lot."  Toplitz was a pioneer in the commercialization of the scandalous area.  "When I bought that [property] there were quite a number of other old building[s] on that block that have since been torn down and business buildings put up."  He noted that at the time the "hat and cap trade" was moving into the area.

Architect Henry Fernbach designed what Toplitz termed, "an ordinary business building" on the site.  Modern architectural historians might disagree.  Construction began on September 28 that year and was completed six months later, on March 31, 1883.  The five-story loft and store structure had cost $32,000 to construct, or about $875,000 in 2023.  Ferbach's handsome commercial take on Romanesque Revival featured a robust cast iron storefront.  Beefy pilasters upheld an entablature decorated with a delicate floral motif and crowned by a prominent cornice sitting on rounded brackets.  Recessed, centered double doors opened into the store, while a second set led upstairs.  

White stone and black brick contrast with the red facade, while rosettes enliven the cast iron lintels.

The upper floors were clad in red brick and sparsely trimmed in stone.  Cast iron framing enabled vast grouped windows at each level, their lintels decorated with full-relief rosettes.  A Romanesque arcade at the top floor was unified by a running brick eyebrow.  The corbels of the cornice were executed in brick and the cornice in terra cotta.

L. Toplitz & Co. shared its building with E. Millen & Co., shirtmakers.  In its November 1889 issue, The Clothier & Furnisher wrote, "This house manufactures complete lines of full dress shirts, night shirts, and pajamas."  A month earlier it had reported, "Their large line of open front and back shirts, as well as their embroidered goods, are meeting with large sale everywhere."

The Clothier & Furnisher, October 1889 (copyright expired)

In 1894 Ruben, Weil & Beller, cloak makers, replaced E. Millen & Co. in the building.  The firm employed 75 men, 35 women and 10 teenaged girls, who worked 59 hours per week and 10 on Saturdays.  By now, L. Toplitz & Co. not only manufactured goods, but was also importing "children's headwear."  

A fire broke out in the basement on the evening of February 24, 1896.  Fire fighters from Engine Companies 20 and 27 responded, and quickly discovered the thick smoke created dangerous conditions.  The Press reported, "Foreman William Reilly and Firemen Maher, O'Neill, Corley and Dooley, all of Engine Company No. 20, were overcome while fighting the blaze in the rear part."   Reilly had just returned to duty after having been sick for two weeks.  He lost consciousness and was carried out of the burning building by his comrades, prompting the newspaper to say he "narrowly escaped death."

The blaze was confined to the basement and store level.  Following the repairs, Ruben, Weil & Beller did not return to 113 Greene Street.  In their place another sizable cloak maker, Baumann & Sperling, moved in.  

By the turn of the century, the operation of L. Toplitz & Co. had scaled back.  The firm employed only five men and 11 women in 1900.  In 1901 the French-based silk and chiffon firm of Descours Genthon Cie. was operating from the address, and by 1903 L. Toplitz & Co. was gone, replaced by three cloak makers:  B. Lasker, Kleinfeld & Kaufman, and Mendetz Brothers.

The elevator boy at the time was 18-year-old Frederick Stark.  On July 13, 1903, he somehow stepped into the empty shaft, plummeting four floors to his death.

In 1909 a portion of 113 Greene Street was occupied by the large cloak-making factory of A. G. Mandes.  Abutting the building to the rear was the underwear factory at 112-114 Prince Street.  On March 16, 1909 a violent explosion in the Prince Street building rocked 113 Greene Street and blew out several windows.  The Sun reported that "three hundred girls in the cloak factory of A. G. Mandes...were panic stricken, and the assistance of the police was necessary before the forewomen could get them safely down the stairs."

In 1941, 113 Greene Street looked almost exactly as it does today.  The house that Lippman Toplitz demolished most likely looked much like those to the right.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

A month later Descours Genthon Cie. was rocked by a different type of upheaval.  In 1901 the firm, based in Lyons, France, had hired Alfred Schottlaender to manage the New York operation.  After he was found dead on August 17, 1908 a close inspection of the books was made.  On April 20, 1909 The Sun reported that the firm "disclosed yesterday the fact that Schottlaender...was an embezzler to the amount of $55,043.35."  That massive theft would equal nearly $1.7 million in today's money.  The firm's attorneys said, "The thefts were covered up until after Schottlaender's death by means of false cross entries and that there was absolutely no suspicion of his wrongdoing until long after he died."

Interestingly, while many of the garment firms in the neighborhood moved northward past 34th Street, 113 Greene Street continued to house apparel related companies.  In 1919 yarn merchant Barnet S. Milman leased the store and basement.  The following year the Ray Waist Co. moved in.  Already here were Morris Katz, and the Palace Waist Co.

Garment Manufacturers' Index, January 1921, (copyright expired)

As the Soho district transformed from industrial to artistic, 113 Greene Street was a pioneer in its metamorphosis.  By the 1960s upper floors had been quietly converted to artists lofts.   (It would not be until 1982 that they were officially deemed "joint living work quarters for artists" by the Department of Buildings.)

The store where Lippman Toplitz sold hats in 1883 became the Washburn Gallery in 1981.  The David Beitzel Gallery opened in 1986, and around 1991 Anna Sui established her boutique here.  It would be a Soho fixture at least until 2017.  

Anna Sui's invitation to her fall line in 2011 featured a delightful drawing of the shop.  image via The Fashion Show, 2022.

Henry Fernbach's striking 1883 structure is astonishingly intact.  Even the storefront, almost always the first to be modernized, is almost perfectly preserved.

photographs by the author
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