Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Dry Goods, Irish History, and Lap Dances - 279 Church Street


In 1866 Meyer Rosenthal and Betsy Levi completed construction of two identical commercial buildings at 273 and 279 Church Street.  They replaced small, wooden structures.  Above their cast-iron storefronts were three floors of red brick, trimmed in brownstone.  Handsome Italianate style cast metal cornices with foliate brackets capped the design.

Typical of the buildings rising in the neighborhood, 279 Church Street filled with dry goods merchants, including importer of Irish linen goods and white goods, William Whiteside, here by 1869.  In the last decade of the century, William Henry Wardell & Co., makers of handkerchiefs; shirt maker Solon & Kommell; and Foster Black & Company, underwear manufacturers; occupied the building.

The Brookside Knitting Company supplied some of the raw materials used by the Foster Black & Company.  The extent of the latter's business was evidenced in orders in the summer of 1887 that totaled $40,000 (about $1.46 million in 2024).  Foster Black & Company received an invoice, backed up with signed receipts that proved the goods had been received, and the bill was paid.

In fact, the materials had never been shipped.  The president of Brookside Knitting Company, George Haywood Carpenter, had forged the bills of lading, pocketed the $40,000, and disappeared.  Court documents later said, "The flitting took place last July and Carpenter's description was telegraphed far and wide with the information that a warrant was out for him."

The management of Foster Black & Company was as dogged in his pursuant was were the detectives.  Court papers said, "Ever since his sudden departure last summer, the Foster Black Company...has kept a sharp lookout for him.  Carpenter was a graduate of Princeton and word was sent to the graduates of his class now living throughout the country to notify the Foster Black Company at once should his whereabouts become known to any of them."

Months later, in January 1888, Carpenter was tracked down and arrested in Jacksonville, Florida.  Given Carpenter's wealth and social standing, rather than put him in a cell, "the  Sheriff gave him two guards and allowed him to remain in his own private rooms guarded by them," reported The World on February 2, 1888.  But the article continued, "When the guards went to arouse him this morning they found only a stuffed figure in the bed." 

The search was on again.  Carpenter was finally traced to the home of his father, the Rev. George Carpenter, in Chillicothe, Ohio.  On June 23, 1888, the New-York Tribune reported on his arrest, saying, "He consented to return to New-York without a requisition and he arrived in this city...yesterday."

Around 1905 the building was purchased by Patrick Murphy, owner of P. Murphy & Son.  The publishing firm was narrow in its field, and its books dealt almost exclusively with Irish history.  In 1907, for instance, it released the two-volume Irish-American History of the United States by the Very Rev. John Canon O'Hanlon.  In 1913 it published the Atlas of Ireland, and in 1915 released Irish Pedigrees; or The Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation, by John O'Hart.

In 1917 Patrick Murphy leased the entire building to the Standard Mills, exporters and jobbers of dry goods.  The firm would remain into the Depression years.  The first signs of decline to the vintage building came on September 15, 1941, when The New York Sun reported that the store and basement had been leased by George L. Garber "for the storage of office furniture."  The Garber Company occupied the entire building at 404 Broadway.  

In 1941 the storefront was intact.  A large "For Rent" sign is pasted on the window.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Real change, however, came in 1991 when the ground floor was converted to what the Department of Buildings described as a "theater, (no motion pictures)."  The owners of the Harmony Theatre bricked in the cast iron storefront, blocking prying eyes from seeing inside.

image by Michael Minn, via

The Harmony Theatre had good reason to want privacy.  Undercover vice inspectors who visited the club in the summer of 1998 found nude lap dancers entertaining the customers.  The New York Times reported, "Those city employees reported seeing mutual groping of naked women and male customers.  One inspector said simply, 'I observed one female who appeared to be having sexual intercourse with one of the male patrons."

It was enough for Justice Stephen G. Crane of State Supreme Court.  On August 4, The New York Times reported that he "allowed the city to shut down the Harmony Theater in lower Manhattan, which it did last night."  The next morning the club's attorney, Harold Price Fahringer, argued to the court that "he could show that his clients had adapted to the city's new standards."  The New York Times reported, "the dancers have taken to wearing tops and bottoms, Mr. Fahringer said."

Four years later a much more respectable theater opened here.  On September 5, 2004, The New York Times reported that George & Martha, "a political satire by Karen Finley," would open at Collective: Unconscious on September 17.  The theater was comprehensively described by Inside New York 2008:

Its maximum occupancy may be 74 people, but this "all-ages volunteer-run, non-profit, multi-use performance venue" is one of the best places in the city for developing musicians to show off their stuff and get scouted by indie labels.  The upstairs houses a small auditorium for musical acts and plays, while the downstairs is currently home to the Tank, a non-profit organization that hosts film, comedy, music, dance, public affairs, new media, and theater events.

Collective: Unconscious left in 2011 about the time that Slavik Gofman purchased 279 Church Street.  He presented his plans to open a trendy wine bar, Muline a Vino, in the ground floor space to Community Board I in May 2012.  According to The TribecaTrib, he announced, "What I'm saying is, this is an ugly building and I'm here to improve it."  Swaying the Board was crucial, since his acquiring a liquor license was in their hands.

The Board was swayed and Slavik's plans went forward, including the admirable restoration of the storefront.  The ground floor has been home to several tenants since then, while at the second floor, a blade sign reading "BURLESQUE" survives as a reminder of a darker, if more colorful period of the building's history.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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