Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The Fred'k Vietor & Achelis Building - 247-249 Church Street

Although Jarvis Slade was primarily a dry goods merchant, he recognized the potential in real estate.  In 1865, as the Tribeca neighborhood transformed into the city's dry goods district, he began construction on a five-story loft-and-store building at 97 Franklin Street, and the following year broke ground for another at the opposite corner of the block, at 247-249 Church Street.  Slade almost assuredly used the same architect for both structures, since their resemblance is undeniable.  And he may very well have been Slade's 40-year-old son, Jarvis Morgan Slade, who would design several buildings in the dry goods district.

The sandstone-faced 247-249 Church Street was completed in 1867.  A blend of Italianate and Second Empire styles, its five floors were clearly defined by molded sill courses.  The upper story openings were encased in subtle architrave frames.

Among the first tenants was Almy & Co., dry goods selling agents, which occupied space by 1868.  Among its clients was the Worumbo Manufacturing Co. of Maine, which made wool fabrics like "dahlia beaver" and "blue beaver."  The firm was joined in 1875 by Fred'k Vietor & Achelis, importers and jobbers of dry goods; and in 1888 by wool merchants Patterson & Greenough. 
The building became home to the offices of the Woolen Goods Association by 1888.  It was the scene of an "important special meeting" on November 23 that year, with members coming from as far away as Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.  A committee of 25 manufacturers and commission merchants was chosen to travel to Washington DC to lobby the Secretary of the Treasury to reclassify cloths known as "'worsteds' or 'diagonals' or otherwise" as "woolens" for customs purposes.

The late 1880s and early 1890s saw firms like the Brookside Knitting Mills and the commission house Faulkner, Page & Co. in the building with Fred'k Vietor & Achelis.  The latter was the victim of bold thieves on January 13, 1890.

The granite sidewalks of Tribeca were routinely stacked with boxes of incoming and outgoing goods.  On that day, a case containing 100 shawls valued at the equivalent of $5,000 in 2023 was snatched by three men.  A detective quickly tracked George Austin, George Wilson and Marcus Raymond to the house of Ellen Kane on Allen Street.  The New York Times reported on January 16, "The property was all there, and so were a number of burglars' tools."  All four were arrested, charged with grand larceny.

On April 10, 1896, world-renowned journalist John A. Cockerill died while on assignment in Egypt.  At the time, Walter Louis Lienau worked for Fred'k Vietor & Achelis and, it seems, was on very friendly terms with Cockerill's wife, Leonora.  Shockingly, two months later, on June 15, the Syracuse, New York newspaper The Evening Herald reported that the two had married.  The couple had gone to Police headquarters shortly before midnight four days earlier and asked to be married by a justice of the peace.  "Everything went well until the part of the service was reached which reads: 'And do you promise to love, honor and obey?" said the article.

Apparently an adherent to the growing women's movement, "Mrs. Cockerill made strenuous objections to this, and the ceremony was gone over again, the objectionable word 'obey' being left out."  Now bound as equal partners, the happy couple left in their carriage.  The newspaper noted, "not until Saturday did it come out that the bride was the widow of John A. Cockerill."

Fred'k Vietor & Achelis was founded in 1842 when Frederick Vietor partnered with his cousin, Thomas Achelis.  Thomas had arrived in New York in 1834, six years after Vietor.  Their success was such that in 1900 the firm leased the entire Church Street building for its cotton goods business, and another office was opened on Spring Street to handle its silk goods.  At the time, the firm was headed by its founders' sons, John Achelis and Thomas F. Vietor.

An executive with the firm in 1907 was Nicholas M. Smith, Jr., who had joined Fred'k Vietor & Achelis around 1882.  Manager A. R. Prior described him as "one of the most popular men in the dry goods business."  Smith was married in the spring of 1907 and moved with his "young wife," as worded by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, to New Rochelle.  As he left work on the evening of November 22, Smith mentioned that he would be "down a little earlier than usual" the following morning, "to attend to a couple of very good customers before noon time."  Those meetings would never take place.

According to the two live-in maids, the Smiths had "an angry dispute."  Then, at around 12:30 the following morning the maids were awakened by a gunshot.  Terrified, they locked themselves in their room on the top floor.  About an hour later, a neighbor began pounding on the front door, screaming that the house was on fire.  

Fire fighters arrived and found Mrs. Smith dead in her bed, shot in the chest.  "When the firemen entered the house the second time, one of the terror-stricken maids came down the stairs," reported The Evening Post.   The other maid was trapped and had to be rescued by ladder.  Later, the responders also found the body of Nicholas Smith.  The Evening Post reported that Smith "is supposed to have shot and killed his wife...and, after setting fire to the house, killed himself."

Despite the evidence (Smith had left a careful inventory of the valuables in the house), at the Church Street offices Thomas Vietor quickly refuted the possibility of murder-suicide.  He also stressed to a reporter from The Sun that he knew of no enemies of Smith.  He therefore surmised "that robbery was the motive, and that the murderer set fire to the house in the hope of covering up his tracks."

With America's entry into World War I, Fred'k Vietor & Achelis landed a massive contract with the U.S. Army to supply "brown denim" for uniforms.  In 1918, the firm supplied 3,532,500 yards of fabric, billing the Government just over $1 million.

After nearly six decades in the building, Fred'k Vietor & Achelis left around 1931.  It received a renovation in 1932 by the architectural firm of Richard Berger & Sons.  The Corinthian columns of the storefront were replaced by flat stone piers at this time.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The remodeled building became home to cotton goods brokers Heineman & Sideman, headed by Percy Heineman.  Originally M. Heineman & Co., it had been founded by Heineman's father, Moses Heineman.  Two years after the firm moved into the building, Percy Heineman suffered a fatal heart attack while on vacation in Miami, Florida.  He was 47 years old.

Heineman & Sideman remained in the building at least through 1943.  In the mid-1940s, it was home to Tikern Corporation, makers of camera supplies.

As the Tribeca neighborhood underwent a renaissance in the third quarter of the century, 247-249 Church Street was renovated to apartments above the ground floor in 1989.  

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

No comments:

Post a Comment