Thursday, October 26, 2023

The 1929 Cone Export Co. Building - 57-59 Worth Street


During the second half of the 19th century, the district known today as Tribeca filled with handsome loft and store buildings designed for the dry goods trade.  Faced in marble, cast iron, or sandstone, they almost always featured a cast iron storefront.  A noticeable exception, however, was the six-story building at 57-59 Worth Street, at the northwest corner of Church Street.  Occupied by the Cone Export and Commission Company, its architect had apparently not aspired to commercial beauty.  The utilitarian, brick-faced factory and store might have been described as uninspired.

In 1927 the building at 57-59 Worth Street was prepared for demolition.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

In 1927 the Cone Export Company demolished its old building and hired architect Edward I. Shire to design a modern replacement.  If its predecessor had not been "an ornament to the street," in the vernacular of architectural critics, Shire's new design would correct that.  In an era of Art Deco jazziness, the architect looked to the Italian Renaissance for inspiration.  

As the nine-story building neared completion on June 23, 1928, The Evening Post called it the "latest improvement for the wholesale dry goods district," saying, "It has been designed in the early Florentine Renaissance period style of architecture by Edward I. Shire."   A two-story rusticated base upheld an unadorned, six-story midsection.  Each set of paired openings on the top floor sat within a slightly recessed arch, emphasized by a stone eyebrow.  They, along with the ornamental corbel table that supported the cornice, harkened to 16th century Italy.

The Evening Post noted, "The stories will be unusually high, providing excellent light and ventilation, and the top floor will have a clear height of about twenty-two feet, allowing for a mezzanine story if desired."  The building was opened on February 1, 1929, but even before construction was completed, it had been  nearly fully rented.  The Cone Export Company would occupy the basement through third floors.  Among the tenants were A. S. Haight & Co., which rented the fourth floor; Ely & Walker Dry goods which took the fifth; and Chatham Manufacturing Company, which signed a lease for the sixth.  

Photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Cone Export Company was the selling arm of the Proximity Mfg. Co. of Greensboro, North Carolina.  On October 14, 1920, Mill News explained, "It is through this department that Proximity and White Oak denims are sold all over the world."  The firm was founded by Caesar Cone and operated three cotton mills, textile factories, and print works there.

A. S. Haight & Co. manufactured underwear.  In 1932 the firm hired Rogers Meyer, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Virginia as a traveling salesman.  Meyer was progressive minded.  At a time when most salesmen took trains to their clients, The New York Sun said he "made frequent trips to the Middle West and North West...using airplanes as a means of transportation whenever possible."  That preference ended tragically when the plane he was on crashed into the San Francisco Bay in February 1937.  The 29-year-old left a widow and 19-month-old baby girl.

Working for the Chatham Manufacturing Company at the time was 27-year-old Curtiss Howard, the firm's assistant advertising manager.  In 1942, following America's entry into World War II, he left his job to join the Coast Guard even though, he explained later, "His only previous seafaring experience had been confined to yachting in Long Island Sound."  He would return to New York a war hero.

On December 14, 1944, the Navy announced that Lt. Howard had been the navigator of the cutter Eastwind off the coast of Greenland.  The vessel located the German warship Externsteine "caught fast in the ice."  After what The New York Sun called "a few salvoes from the Eastwind's guns," the German crew surrendered.  Using the Externsteine's own mines, the American crew blasted the ship free.  

Lt. Curtiss Howard boarded the Externsteine and supervised its 700 mile voyage to Reykjavik.  The New York Sun reported that, according to the Third Naval district headquarters, "he was the first American officer in this war, so far as they knew, who had been placed in command of a captured enemy ship." 

On July 5, 1956, The New York Times announced, "The American Telephone and Telegraph Company has leased the entire building at 59 Worth Street from Cone Mills, Inc., which recently moved to 1440 Broadway."  The firm occupied the property for six years before it was sold to the New York  Law School in 1962.  Renovations completed the following year transformed the former offices to classrooms, a law library, lounges, and other school-related facilities.

The New York Law School was chartered in 1891 by a group of Columbia Law School faculty members.  Within a year, it had became the second largest law school in the country.

Events within the new home of the New York Law School often reflected the changing times and the issues of the day.  On April 11, 1979, Judge Bruce McM. Wright of Criminal Court released Jerome Singleton, charged with attempted murder, without bail.  The New York Times said the decision "has created a furor" and said, "The judge, who is black, has accused the Police Department of racism."

On April 19, The New York Times reported, "Fourteen speakers at a crowded news conference held at Judge Wright's alma mater, the New York Law School, at 57 Worth Street, praised the judge for following the Constitution and only using bail to insure a defendant's presence for trial."

In 1982, the New York Law School implemented an innovative, ten-week course for teenagers.  On April 4, The New York Times reported, "students at Eastern District High School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn have been studying divorce law, child-custody rights, tenants' rights and abortion in a social studies class called 'Citizen and the Law.'  Attendance is high, and interest keen."

photograph by Jim Henderson

A bizarre incident occurred here in 1986.  Martin Sostre was described by The New York Times as "a national symbol of prisoners' rights in the 1960's and 70's."  During his 20-year prison term, which ended in 1975, he became a Black Muslim and diligently studied law.  While incarcerated, said the newspaper, he "won a series of court battles that established inmates' rights to practice religion, receive uncensored mail and obtain certain minimum conditions in solitary confinement."

In 1984 Sostre was accused of attempted murder when he shot a tenant in the Washington heights building where he worked as assistant manager.  He was on the run for two years before an attorney spotted the 63-year-old activist pouring over legal tomes in the library of the New York Law School at 8:00 on the evening of May 22.  The lawyer quietly notified police, who arrived and arrested Sostre.

Edward I. Shire's handsome Italian commercial palazzo remains essentially unchanged as it nears the century mark.

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1 comment:

  1. At the time, I remember, Judge Wright was labelled as "Turn-him-loose Bruce." Amazingly, that was more than 40 years ago!