Thursday, February 22, 2024

A Limestone-Faced Phoenix --93-95 Franklin Street


When the Civil War erupted, Swedish-born marine engineer John Ericsson lived in the Federal-style house at 93 Franklin Street.  Years earlier, in 1844, he had designed the U.S.S. Princeton, the first screw-propeller warship.  Now his engineering mastery was called upon by the Union Navy.  He designed the ironclad Monitor, which defeated the Confederate Merrimac in the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862.  On March 12, he was honored at a special meeting of the Chamber of Commerce for his successful contribution to the Union's victory.

The performance of the Monitor prompted increased Ericsson's workload.  On September 3, 1862, an ad appeared in the New York Herald reading:

Wanted Immediately--At 93 Franklin Street, several mechanical draughtsmen to work upon drawings of iron-clad steamers.  Those engaged, who may be drawn in the coming military draft, will be immediately discharged by the Secretary of War.  None but first class draughtsmen need apply.

Ericsson was most likely renting 93 Franklin Street, and in 1864 he purchased another Federal style house at 36 Beach Street.  He may have been hurried along in the move by his landlord.  That same year, William Watson demolished 93 Franklin and its neighbor at 95 and began construction on a modern, limestone-faced loft building.

Completed in 1866, 93-95 Franklin Street was a commercial version of an Italian palazzo.  Above the cast iron, Corinthian columned storefront, tall windows in dignified molded frames sat below prominent cornices.  Stacks of quoins ran up the side of the building, which terminated in a bracketed cornice.

The building's first tenant was the wholesale dry goods firm Davis, Rhodes & Co., which moved in before construction was completed.  On March 5, 1865 it advertised "Choice Goods Cheap."  The names of several of the yard goods it offered would sound alien to customers today, like jaconets, mozambiques, de laines, and drills.

Sadly for the owners, things did not work out.  On November 13, 1867, an announcement "to the trade" in the Evening Express noted:

In consequence of two of the partners declining business, on the 1st of January next, DAVIS, RHODES & CO, 93 & 95 Franklin Street, will sell, for cash, their entire stock of goods, in lots to suit purchasers, at the LOWEST PRICES the same Goods have been sold at the late Auction Sales. Their stock embraces a great variety of dress goods, cloths, Kentucky jeans, flannels, blankets  &c, &c, &c.

In 1869, L. Levenson & Co., makers and jobbers of clothing were here, as was the dry goods firm Loder & Lockwood.  The latter not only sold textiles, but made clothing for select customers.  An ad in the New York Herald on June 2, 1869 read, "Wanted--A Tailor of custom work who understands cutting and making clothes to order.  Call at 10 o'clock at 93 and 95 Franklin st, to Loder & Lockwood."

Among the tenants in the 1890s was Wilson & Bradbury, dry goods commission merchants, which also had a branch in Philadelphia.  The firm was established in 1852.  Also here was the New York office of Fenton, Cooper & Co.  The Belfast-based firm made Irish linens.  

Frederick Hazleton ran the Franklin Street operation of Fenton, Cooper & Co.  Working closely with him was John Emison, the cashier and bookkeeper.  Because Hazleton spent much of his time traveling, Emison had a power of attorney to sign checks.  The temptation proved too much in 1894.

On October 12, Hazleton returned from a two-week trip.  The Evening World reported, "He expected to find from $50,000 to $60,000 in [the] bank to his credit.  He found only $4,000."  He immediately had his bookkeeper arrested.  With Emison behind bars, Hazelton went through the ledgers.  "A closer examination of Emison's books showed the shortage to be $53,000," said The World.  (The figure would translate to a staggering $1.86 million in 2024.)  As it turned out, the 38-year-old married man had gambled the money away in the stock market.  "It is said that he has lost most of the $53,000 in Wall street speculations."

The turn of the century saw other dry goods and apparel-related firms in the building, including E. McConnell & Co., The S. Herbert Golden Co., and Tim & Company, dealers in "white and fancy linen and cotton shirts, men's and women's collars and cuffs."  Shirts and collars were made and sold separately, and Tim & Company introduced a novel style collar in 1908.  Because collars were buttoned onto the shirt, neckties would often snag.  The buttons on the firm's "Ti-Easy" collars were separated from the tie by a cloth band, preventing snags.

Dry Goods Reporter, December 26, 1908 (copyright expired)

Gotham Underwear Company operated from 93-95 Franklin Street at the time.  The firm's tag line was "The Underwear of a Gentleman."  An advertisement in Hampton's Magazine in 1909 urged, "

Don't grill--don't sizzle--avoid clinging, suffocating under-garments for summer weather.  Try the cool loose fitting soft texture Gotham Summer Underwear and Pajamas.  They permit free circulation of air and freedom of motion, are sensibly cut over roomy patterns and tailored in a faultless manner.

At 6:15 on the evening of June 24, 1913, what the New-York Tribune described as "a spectacular three-alarm fire" broke out on the third floor of 93-95 Franklin Street.  There were four tenants in the building at the time--Wilson & Bradbury, linen dealers; I. Weinman, "elastic webs" merchant; handkerchief maker Adam Brickerhoff; and one floor was used by the Independent 5 and 10 Cent Stores for storage of inventory.

The fire spread quickly, trapping several factory girls who had just been preparing to leave for the day.  The New-York Tribune reported they "became excited and ran upstairs to the roof, and by crossing several adjoining roofs, reach the street by the fire escape on Nos. 253 and 255 Church street." 

The conflagration spread to five nearby buildings.  Five firefighters on the fire escape at the third floor were nearly killed.  The New-York Tribune reported "a back draft hit the five men unawares and a sheet of flame caught Lieutenant McKenna, throwing him against [firefighter] Simonetti.  Simonetti was thrown down the well to the fire escape below and only saved himself by clinging to the iron ladder."  Another fire fighter leaped over the railing as the flames "licked his face and ears."  He dangled from I. Wienmann's metal sign until coworkers could rescue him.

Two hours into the battle, the fire seemed under control.  Deputy Chief Binns and another firefighter entered the ground floor of 93-95 Franklin Street.  The New-York Tribune reported that Binns "had hardly reached the stairs leading to the cellar, when there was a loud crash.  Timbers from the floors above came tumbling down, carrying with them a part of the second floor.  Binns and his assistant were struck by the flying debris, but were unhurt."  In the aftermath of the inferno, "Only the walls were left standing," said the article.

Architect Robert Teichman was commissioned by the William Watson Estate to salvage what he could from the burned out shell.  On November 14, he filed plans for a "two-story brick and stone loft and office building."  As it turned out, Teichman was able to rescue three floors.  Now essentially a stump of the former distinguished structure, 93-95 Franklin Street was leased to Cohn, Marx & Co., dealers in imported and domestic textiles.

93-95 Franklin Street became an abbreviated version of its pre-fire self.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

George Gfroehrer was the night watchman for Cohn, Marx & Co. in 1922.  The married Long Island resident earned $23.08 each week (about $400 today).  On the night of April 19, he was making his rounds when he stepped into an open elevator shaft.  His fall to the basement was fatal.  A Workmen's Compensation hearing in 1925 awarded his family the $603.90 funeral expenses they had paid.

Better Waists, December 1921 (copyright expired)

An advertisement in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on November 20, 1943 sought females to deliver inter-office mail.

GIRLS--Very fine opportunity for future with a large textile firm. Experience unnecessary. We prefer high school graduates who are neat in appearance and mentally alert. To such girls we offer work in our mailing department distributing mail to various departments. The work and surroundings are pleasant, with definite possibilities for advancement. Apply PERSONNEL DEPARTMENT. 3d Floor 93-95 Franklin 8t.. N.Y.C

A renaissance of the Tribeca district in the last quarter of the 20th century finally arrived at 93-95 Franklin Street in 2001 when plans were filed for the building to be "enlarged vertically."  In an astounding renovation, three floors were added that seamlessly meld with the 1866 architecture.  The  restoration architects left no hint to the casual passerby that the top floors are not original.  There are now eight apartments in the building.

photographs by the author
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