Saturday, February 3, 2024

The 1854 Mellen, Banks & Pomroy Building - 372 Broadway


The blocks of Broadway above City Hall were lined with elegant residences in the 1820s, but by 1845 commerce had already begun to transform the street.  In 1845 George Chester, a "glass stainer," operated from 372 Broadway, between Franklin and White Streets.  He was replaced the following year by the cabinet making shop of John Henry Belter, whose sumptuous Rococco Revival furniture would grace the parlors and bedrooms of the upper class.

Although dry goods merchant Samuel Wyman lived in Philadelphia in 1852, he was well aware of a trend in Manhattan that provided rich investment opportunities--the increasing commercialization of the district that would be later known as Tribeca.  That year he razed the former Belter building and began construction of a five-story, marble faced loft and store structure.  Construction took two years to complete.  Above the store level, Wyman's architect gave the openings of each of the succeeding levels slightly less ornament.  Those of the second and third floors, for instance, were framed by slender, paneled pilasters atop bracketed sills.  Prominent cornices were upheld by scrolled brackets.  The brackets of the second floor, however, were carved with foliate designs, and the windows had handsome keystones, absent from the third floor.  The openings of the fourth and fifth floors were simpler.  Above it all was a carved marble cornice.

On March 23, 1854, The Evening Post reported, "Messrs. Mellen, Banks & Pomroy have removed to the large and spacious building 372 Broadway.  Their assortment of goods in the upholstery line of business is not excelled by any other store in this city, being of their own importation, and of the best qualities, at the lowest rates."  By 1856 the firm had branched out, now offering "leather, bedding, beds."

Tenants in early 1860s included the Diebold Safe & Lock Co.; the fancy goods firm of James P. Cahen & Bros.; Muir, James, Rothchild & Co., dry goods jobbers; and William Muir & Co., arms dealers.  (Whether the Muirs of the two latter firms were related is unclear.)

The factory of William Muir & Co. in Connecticut saw increased activity with the outbreak of Civil War.  In April 1862 it was working on an order from the Union Army for 25,000 muskets when the Connecticut River flooded, severely damaging the canal that provided water to the factory.  On May 2, the management of William Muir & Co. sent a letter to the Commissioners on Contracts in Washington, explaining, "This untimely accident will prevent our making our first of May delivery of muskets."  A letter dated June 25, 1862 offered to assemble 30,000 new Springfield muskets at $16 each--or about $480 in 2024.

The tenant list in the post-war years was composed almost exclusively of dry goods firms.  Williams & Whittlesey Co., wholesalers of hats and furs was here in 1869.  The 1870s saw importer Solomon Ottenheimer; men's apparel maker Simon Mack & C0.; suit manufacturer Schultz & Kross; and Warner Brothers, corset makers, in the building.

Puck magazine, May 10, 1882 (copyright expired)

Warner Brothers was founded by Dr. L. C. Warner.  Its catalog boasted it was the largest corset maker "in the entire world."  Its Bridgeport, Connecticut factory employed 1,200 workers.  The firm remained here until September 1886, when Warner purchased the building a block to the south at 359 Broadway.  

The turn of the century saw the first of the more industrial tenants move in.  William F. Barnes, which manufactured office  and school furniture, would remain for years.

New-York Tribune, August 26, 1905 (copyright expired)

At 10:15 on the night of February 6, 1906, "an automatic alarm got the fire department out for a basement blaze," reported The Sun.  A policeman on the street sent in another alarm, "and Acting Chief Binns still another, because cellar fires are apt to bother," said the article.  Happily, this one did not spread as far as the street level, but nonetheless, the flood of water poured into the building by fire fighters ruined stock.  The Sun said, "Desks belonging to Walter F. Barnes were damaged several thousand dollars worth."  It noted, "J. P. Cahen & Bro., notions, occupy the upper floors of the building, which is stone."

Walter F. Barnes began seeing competitors move into the building in 1911 when W. H. Chamberlin & Co., makers of metal furniture, was listed here.  They were joined the following year by the Century Cabinet Company.

More than six decades after it first moved in, J. P. Cahen & Bro. was still here when World War I broke out.  (Perhaps because Julius Philip Cahen was now the president, the "James P." had been replaced with initials, and "Brothers" by now had become "Bro.")  

Born in 1843, Julius Philip Cahen knew something about war.  In 1862 he joined the Union Navy and, according to The Sun, "was serving on the gunboat Currituck when that craft took part in the historic convoy of the Monitor to Hampton Roads to attack the Confederate ironclad Merrimac."  On September 3, 1918, the 75-year-old veteran was seated at his desk here when he suffered a fatal heart attack.  (J. P. Cahen & Bro. would remain in the building into the 1920s.)

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

In 1992 a building materials firm and Eastern Graphics, a copy center, were listed in the building.  But something more nefarious and heart-wrenching was also taking place.  On March 23, 1992, The New York Times reported on spaces in the Tribeca neighborhood where "immigrants from China, Vietnam, Mexico and a few other countries," were living in unbearable conditions.  Included was the fourth floor of 372 Broadway where individuals and families were crammed in.

Among the tenants who had lived in "the encampment" was Abdulaye Kamara, who came from Senegal.  He paid $35 a week to sleep in a circuit-breaker closet.  He was earning $4.25 an hour as a stock boy.  A spokesperson for Councilmember Kathryn Freed was quoted in The Villager on September 2, 1992 as saying, "it was really dirty, cramped, slummy."

A renovation to condominiums was begun in 2013.  The developers renamed the building 6 Cortlandt Alley, in reference to the little street that runs behind the property.  The architects had to deal with with a coat of brown paint that covered the marble facade.  Happily, it was successfully removed, although the historic storefront had been destroyed long ago.  Completed in 2019, the conversion resulted in one apartment per floor above the store space, and a duplex within the new sixth and seventh floors, unseen from the street.

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

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