Thursday, October 12, 2023

The Marble-Faced 1862 80-82 Leonard Street

The firm of Brown Brothers & Co. was founded in 1818, a branch of a British banking house.  In his 1862 The Old Merchants of New York City, Walter Barrett wrote, "James Brown built for his dwelling-place a magnificent palace in Leonard street.  It was a large double house, with a court, and an entrance for horses and carriage from the street.  It was located at No. 80 Leonard street, half the block from Broadway towards Church street." 

Two years before Barrett's book was published, Henry Young had demolished the old Brown residence and hired architect James H. Giles to replace it with a modern loft and store building.  Completed in 1862, its cast iron storefront was executed by Daniel D. Badger's Architectural Iron Works.  The upper four floors were clad in gleaming white marble.  Gile's commercial take on Italianate architecture featured two double-height sperm candle arcades (so named because the thin columns are similar to the candles manufactured from the oil of sperm whales).  Diamond-shaped quoins ran up the sides, paneled spandrels separated the floors, and an arched corbel table ran below the marble cornice.

Among the first tenants of 80-82 Leonard Street was the "fancy dry goods" firm of Zinn, Dorrance & Co., which became Zinn, Aldrich & Co. around 1866.  That year, according to court papers, the firm sold "goods to the extent of $900,000 or a million of dollars."  That figure would translate to $38.5 million in 2023.

The importing firm of Smith & Beare occupied part of the building by the early 1870s.  It dealt in "silks, satins and laces of all kinds."  The senior partner, William H. Beare, found himself behind bars in May 1871.  The New York Dispatch reported on January 7, 1872 that he had been charged with "smuggling into this port over $60,000 worth of silks and laces.  The articles were of the most costly kind."

Beare had declared the goods at one tenth of the value.  The  day after his court appearance, The New York Dispatch was unforgiving, saying, "The proof against the accused was clear and explicit.  There could be no doubt of the intention to defraud the Government in this case."  To the writer's indignation, the jury acquitted Beare.  In what today would be a basis for a defamation suit by Beare, the newspaper accused, "How much he paid certain officials to secure this favorable one of those mysteries that only a Congressional Committee...can determine."

The other tenants in the 1870s were Strauss, Lehman & Co.; and Harding, Colby, & Co.  The latter were commission merchants for woolen mills.

Bulletin of the National Association of Wool Manufacturers, 1876 (copyright expired)

Perhaps the first of the manufacturers to occupy space in the building was the pants maker William Eichkerlin.  In 1891 he employed five men, three teenaged boys, fifteen women, and nine girls under 21 years old (two of them younger than 16).  Factory work was grueling, and they worked 59 hours per week and nine hours on the weekend.

The mid-1890s saw the auction house of Field, Chapman & Co. operating from the address.  The firm auctioned off excess stock, or the inventory of merchants that had gone out of business.  On September 10, 1896, for instance, it auctioned 8,500 "pieces of dress silks," according to The New York Times, from the mills of Ashley & Bailey Company in New Jersey; and just over a week later, on September 22, 1896, an auction of "13,000 dozen Japanese silk handkerchiefs" from the firm Lin Fong & Company was held.

The Phoenix Silk Manufacturing Company occupied a loft in 80-82 Leonard Street.  And so, when it decided to auction 15,500 cartons of surplus stock that had built up "through the dull period of the Spring and Summer," according to The New York Times, Field, Chapman & Co. was was the obvious choice.  The auction of silk ribbons was held on September 22, 1898 and drew "buyers from many of the large cities throughout the country."

At the time of the auction, Harding, Colby & Co. was still in the building, reorganized by now as Harding, Whitman & Co.  Its newest member, William Whitman, was born in 1842 in Annapolis, Nova Scotia.  The comfortable lifestyles of merchants like him were reflected in his memberships in the Eastern Yacht Club, the Eastern Country Club (both in Boston), the Union Club, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the meantime, 80-82 Leonard Street had been sold in 1885 for $164,000 (just over $5 million today).  In 1900, the Tuckerman Estate hired James C. Hoes Sons to install a new storefront at a cost of $1,500.  It appears, happily, that the Badger ironwork was preserved.

The updated storefront may have been for a new tenant, Stursburg-Shell & Co., the "well-known commission house" of menswear, as described by the American Wool and Cotton Reporter in June 1904.  The firm would remain in the space for years.  One of the partners, Julius A. Stursberg was proud of his roots, and was a member of the Germanistic Society of America.  It was a fidelity that may have caused him problems with the advent of World War I and rampant anti-German sentiments that accompanied it.

In August 1904, commission merchant C. Bahnsen moved into the building.  In reporting the move, The New York Times explained that C. Bahnsen & Co. was "selling agents for the Gera Mills, Passaic, N. J. and other dress goods manufacturers."

The Culebra Hat Co. was perhaps the only tenant not involved in apparel and drygoods in the building in 1909  Life magazine, June 17, 1909 (copyright expired)

Following World War I, Bedford Mills occupied the basement, store, and second floor of 80-82 Leonard Street.  Court documents explained, "The first floor was devoted to its executive, accounting, and sales offices; the basement was used for the storage of sample cases of various kinds of its merchandise; and the second floor was used for a sample room and stock room."

The president of Bedford Mills was Edward Kearns, who lived with his family in a handsome house on West 84th Street and maintained a country home in Cedarhurst, Long Island.  On September 8, 1920, Kearn's wife and two children were in Cedarhurst.  The 55-year-old sat at his desk at 80-82 Leonard Street "talking to friends," according to the New-York Tribune, when he suddenly collapsed and died.  The responding physician attributed his death to apoplexy, known today as a stroke.

The Phoenix Manufacturing Company was still in the building in 1932 when Victor H. Franklin, a son of one of the founders, suffered public humiliation.  The Sun ran a multi-line headline that read: "Franklin Held on Girl's Story / Salesman Put Under $3500 Bail in Nassau County / Maid Tells of Annoyer / Says He Entered Apartment and Wrote Threatening Notes."

Franklin had been arrested on burglary and harassment charges.  He was identified by an 18-year-old maid in the apartment of the Henry Frankels as the man who had entered the apartment "on several occasions" and who had "annoyed her by leaving threatening notes in the mail box and under the door."  A grand jury exonerated Franklin, but the damage to his reputation had been done.  In 1938 he sued The Sun for libel.

The building continued to house apparel and textile-related firms throughout the following decades.  Then, on May 30, 1994, 22-year-old Alberto A. Raposo took out his anger with the supervisor of 80-82 Leonard Street, Hector Ruiz, by setting fire to the building.  He torched another structure Ruiz oversaw at 79 Worth Street a month later.  Thirty-three firefighters were injured and one killed in the two blazes.  The New York Times described 80-82 Leonard Street as being "destroyed."

A year later, on June 18, 1995, Christopher Gray, writing in The New York Times, described 80-82 Leonard Street, as "a cold, burned-out shell."  The fire had destroyed the marble cornice, but, otherwise, the striking facade had survived intact.  "The owner says a restoration of the near," said the article, as a "projected residential conversion."

The renovation, including a restored cornice, was completed in 1997.  The handsome, marble-faced structure houses ten apartments.   The store and basement, home for decades to textile firms, houses a gym.

photographs by the author
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