Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The 1915 Brooks Brothers Building - 346 Madison Avenue


Henry Sands Brooks opened his haberdashery shop on April 7, 1818.  Following his death in 1833, Henry Jr. headed the business until 1850, when his sons, Elisha, Edward, Daniel and John took the reins.  The brothers renamed it Brooks Brothers.  Seven years later they moved northward from Catherine Street to the northeast corner of Broadway and Grand Street.  By then Brook Brothers catered to an exclusive clientele.  The suit President Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865, for example, had been purchased at this store.

On June 13, 1914, the Real Estate Record & Guide hinted that Brooks Brothers was moving from its fourth location.  "The real estate market was enlivened this week by several transactions, the most prominent involving a Madison avenue and 44th street corner, where by a prominent downtown clothing establishment, for thirty years at Broadway and 22d street, joins the growing colony in the neighborhood of Grand Central Terminal."

Within a week ground had been broken for Brooks Brothers's new 10-story headquarters and store, designed by La Farge & Morris with Clinton & Russell.  The Record & Guide said, "The facade has been designed in a dignified yet simple manner in the style of the Italian Renaissance and which will harmonize beautifully with the Hotel Biltmore, diagonally opposite and the new Yale Club being erected on Vanderbilt avenue."  The structure would cost $750,000 to construct (about $22.7 million in 2023), not including the custom made fixtures, counters and lighting.  Not mentioned in the article were the specifications for "a shower bath" for the use of executive staff.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

The building's tripartite design included a three-story stone base, a subdued red brick mid-section, and a show-stopping, two-story top section of double-height arched openings framed in stone and separated by Corinthian pilasters.  The architects placed the main entrance on 44th Street, where two-story engaged columns upheld a massive entablature and cornice.  

A window directly above the Renaissance style Madison Avenue entrance was framed in intricate carvings that included the Brooks Brothers insignia of the Golden Fleece, used by the firm since 1850.

Like any proper haberdashery, Brooks Brothers offered the accessories and other miscellaneous items gentlemen would need.  Its tobacco department sold the Brooks Brothers brand "346," named for the Madison Avenue address.  The firm's button-down collar shirts had been marketed under the Polo name since around 1902.  (Coincidentally [or not], in 1964 25-year-old Ralph Lauren, recently discharged from the US Army, took a job here as a clerk.)

When the firm erected its new headquarters, its president was Francis Guerin Lloyd, who also served as the vice-president of the United States Savings Bank.  Conservative, proper, and wealthy, he lived in an art-filled Bernardsville, New Jersey estate where he raised Scottish Terriers.  He had worked for the firm since the age of 14, was made a partner in 1879, and became senior partner upon the death of John E. Brooks in 1896.

Staunchly patriotic, he was one of the prominent New Yorkers chosen to welcome home returning troops in January 1919.  It was an honor that seven of those men, including Lloyd, refused when they discovered that William Randolph Hearst was also on the list.

Hearst had rankled many Americans by vilifying the British Empire in his publications, and steadfastly opposing the U.S. entry into the war.  Lloyd's letter of refusal echoed the sentiments of others, saying in part:

Mr. Hearst's attitude, as expressed by the newspapers which he controls, toward our entrance into the war and toward our chief ally has been too notoriously subversive of all that I regard as the best ideals and spirit of the United States to permit me to service with him on a committee to welcome the returning troops.

The following year, on October 6, 1920, Francis Guerin Lloyd left his Bernardsville home, headed for the office.  He never made it.  The 72-year-old died on the way, presumably the victim of a heart attack.

Lloyd's insistence on quality and conservative dress resulted in jackets being displayed on tables inside-out.  The practice enabled customers to readily see the workmanship involved in the goods.  That ended in 1966, according to Town & Country magazine, when HRH Prince Philip (on a trip to New York without his wife) visited the Madison Avenue store and commented that the tables looked "untidy."

At the time of the Prince's remark, the name Brooks Brothers had been synonymous with quality in men's apparel for decades.  Author F. Scott Fitzgerald "dressed his star-crossed heroes in Brooks suits," pointed out The New York Times journalist Gilbert Millstein in 1976.  And writer John O'Hara "took the measure of his protagonists by the cut of their clothing (the good guys went to Brooks; the heels wore padded shoulders and severely pegged pants)."  Author Mary McCarty titled one of her most famous short stories "The Man in The Brooks Brothers Suit."  

Millstein noted that over the years Brooks Brothers had dressed "Astors, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, five generations of Morgans and Clark Gable."  Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson all wore Brooks Brothers suits when they took the oath of office.   And when President Gerald Ford met Emperor Hirohito in Tokyo in 1975, he wore a morning coat and ascot from Brooks Brothers.

photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times, July 2020

But back home in America, times were changing in men's fashion.  Writing in The New York Times in May 8, 1976, Lawrence Van Gelder began an article saying, "Brooks Brothers, one of the nation's venerable bastions of sartorial conservatism, is phasing out all custom tailoring."  Brooks Brothers president Frank T. Reilly explained that there was simply a "declining demand" for custom-made suits.  The decision shocked many customers, who mourned the end of the 158-year tradition.  Gilbert Millstein said, "my reaction (I will try not to exaggerate) was one of disjointure: a slight dizziness, a sense of being in Cleveland, a feeling of malaise of the kind induced by discovering that one has left home in one blue sock and one black."

The stately 44th Street entrance.

The end of custom suits was a hint of things to come.  America's embrace of casual business attire, the rise of affordable brands like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and J. Crew, and finally the onslaught of COVID, brought the venerable firm to its knees.

In July 2020 Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy.  Lisa Birnbach, author of the 2010 True Prep, wrote, "Maybe we should blame the bankruptcy on the perception that one buys suits at Brooks Brothers, and who wears a suit anymore?  I get that.  Everyone is wearing sweatpants or ugly shorts with a button-down shirt and tie for Zoom meetings."

In January the following year the property was placed on the market, the listing noting the site could be used for an office or residential tower.  In the meantime, in February 2022 the newly formed Piazza Italia rented space in the building.  Partner Dennis Ulrich described it as a "collective office and network concept that will facilitate the ability of Italian companies to grow both their business and brand awareness in North America."  In December, Bindi, an Italian dessert company, opened a holiday pop-up store in the ground floor, offering panettone, pandora and ice cream.

Office space on the upper floors and the main showroom floor continued to be offered for lease.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Andrew Cronson for requesting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to 


  1. That's the Hotel Biltmore, not Baltimore. You should do a write-up on that building, now, I believe, also gone.

  2. A building- and once venerable clothier- of pitch-perfect proportions. Is there a photo of what was on the land prior to 346?

    1. I have not come across a photo of the corner prior to this structure

  3. I worked in this building (for Brooks Brothers) from 2016-2019. Working for this company was not a positive experience for me, so I can't say that I'm sad to see it go under. Aside from the parts accessible to the public, the rest of the building was stripped long ago of any original detail and is very industrial (concrete floors / walls, exposed ductwork, etc). There is also only 1 elevator (a very old - if not original - service elevator) which services the entire building - including the remaining 7 floors of office space above the store, so getting in / out or anywhere within the building is a chore in and of itself.