Saturday, March 23, 2024

Isaac F. Duckworth's 1865 41 Worth Street


Around 1802, a three-story frame house was built at 41 Worth Street between West Broadway and Church Streets.  In the rear yard was a two-story house.  By around 1810, the main building was operated as a boarding house, and in 1821  it became the Eclipse House, a porterhouse (a tavern and restaurant where malt liquor, such as porter, was sold).  

Among the residents in 1857 was Rose Buchett.  On February 13, 1857, the New-York Tribune reported, "At a late hour on Wednesday night a fire broke out in the apartment of Rose Buchett, No. 41 Worth street, but it was extinguished before much damage occurred to the building. The police say that the occupant, while in a state of intoxication, set fire to her bed. The woman was badly burned."

At the time of Rose Buchett's horrific accident, change was again taking place in the Worth Street neighborhood.  Dry goods merchants were encroaching into what today is known as Tribeca, replacing domestic structures with modern loft and store buildings.  In 1862 Phil Laos Mills, a successful dry goods merchant, inherited 41 Worth Street.  Three years later, he partnered with John Gibb to established Mills & Gibb.  Around the same time, Mills demolished the old building at 41 Worth Street and hired architect Isaac F. Duckworth to design a replacement.

Duckworth had only been listed professionally in directories since 1858, and then as a carpenter.  But he would design several striking commercial buildings in the dry goods district, some of which--like 41 Worth Street--with facades cast by Daniel D. Badger's Architectural Iron Works.  For Mills, he designed a five-story store-and-loft building in the Venetian-inspired Italianate style.  

The use of cast iron streamlined the construction process, while allowing Duckworth to embellish the facade with elaborate details.  While the storefront has been brutally altered, it almost assuredly had fluted Corinthian columns.  Blind balustrades ran below the second floor openings, and  quoins with projecting panels ran up the sides.  Above each arcade of windows, the iron was cast to imitate stone blocks.  The intermediate cornices between floors were given rope molding, which was duplicated around the windows and lintels.  Fluted columns, complex keystones (each with a finial), and intricate corbels below each intermediate cornice added to Duckworth's splendid design.

Upon the building's completion, Mills sold it to brothers Samuel and Abraham Wood, whose family would retain ownership until 1954.  Among the first tenants of 41 Worth Street was Frothingham & Co., dry goods commission merchants.  Headed by William Frothingham, the size of Frothingham & Co.'s operation was evidenced on June 29, 1865, when The New York Times reported the firm's sales for the previous year at $1,224.926, or about $22.7 million in 2024.

Sharing the building with Frothingham & Co. in 1866 were Steinberg & Friedberg, importers of "hosiery, gloves, and gentlemen's furnishing goods;" and Thorn & De Camp, auctioneers.  Like other auctioneers in the district, Thorn & De Camp normally liquidated the stock of dry goods firms, like the auction on June 5, 1867 of straw goods "comprising full assortments, in the latest and most desirable shapes, for ladies', misses' and men's wear."  But that was not always the case.  A month earlier, on May 9, Thorn & De Camp had held a "special sale of cigars, wines and liquors."

Occupying space here in 1875 were Thomas P. Remington, Jr. and his partner Charles Westerman.  Remington had established his American Manufactured Goods dry goods business by 1856.  He would come to regret taking Westerman into his firm.  On September 16, 1876, the New York Herald reported that the latter had been arrested.  The article explained that on January 21 the previous year, Westerman had stolen "a $5,000 life assurance policy...valued at $1,300, from Thomas P. Remington, Jr."

Before Elisha Otis's elevators became commonplace, heavy crates of machinery, stock, and other items were hoisted up hatchways--open shafts outfitted with a block and tackle.  The hatchways were dangerous in themselves, often resulting in workers falling to injury or death.  But the hoisting process added to the danger by necessitating at least one employee to position himself below the item being raised.  One such operation ended tragically at 41 Worth Street on November 15, 1878.

With winter nearing, one of the tenants purchased a cast iron stove.  The New York Times reported, "While James Ekin, aged 50, was engaged in hoisting a stove up the hatchway of the premises No. 41 Worth-street, yesterday, the stove slipped from the rope and fell with terrible force on his head, crushing his skull in a frightful manner."  Ekin was taken to the Chambers Street Hospital where he died soon after being admitted.

Working in the building as a porter at the time was Emil J. Deckenbach.  Described by the New York Herald as "a young man of good character and steady habits," he went to Sea Cliff, Long Island, on October 14, 1879 to visit his mother and sister.  According to his sister, he left on the train for Hunter's Point at around 5:00 that afternoon, "taking with him two peach baskets which contained fruit, and about sixty-three cents besides his railroad fare."  Emil would not make it home alive.

The following day, Emil's sister received a note from an undertaker telling her that he was dead and that his body was awaiting burial at the morgue.  According to the New York Daily Graphic, he had been found in an unconscious condition at the 34th Street Ferry.  The New York Herald added, "He was placed in a hand cart and removed to the Twenty-first precinct station house, where it was supposed that he was suffering from the effects of alcoholism.  The odor of his breath, however, did not confirm the suspicion."  He died at the stationhouse.

Emil's sister did some investigating of her own.  When she retrieved the body, the "face was scratched and swollen, as if from a fall.  The nose was cut, and there was a contused wound on the side of the head, besides a discoloration beneath the left eye," she told a reporter.  With police attributing his death to alcoholism and knowing he left her home "in good health and spirts," she went to the 34th Street ferry where she found deckhand Thomas McFarland, who told of finding Emil on the Hunter's Point side of the ferry too feeble to board without assistance.  He was placed in a ladies' cabin, "where he vomited and became unconscious," reported the New York Herald.  

The sister's sleuthing reopened the case.  On October 23, the New York Daily Graphic reported, "Coroner Woltnian said to-day that he would make a thorough and searching investigation in the case of Emil J. Deckenbach.  It is now believed from the bruises found on his body that after alighting from the train at Hunter's Point he was either knocked down for the purpose of robbery or fell from the train."

The Waterloo Woolen Mfg. Co. moved into the building by 1881.  Organized in 1836,  the firm's mills, which were in Waterloo, New York, produced "woolen goods for men's wear; shawls; carriage cloths."

In 1894, Herbert Barton Stevens co-founded the dry goods commission firm of Stevens, Sanford & Hardy, which moved into 41 Worth Street.  Born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1855, Stevens had entered the woolen business at the age of 16.  Typical of the wealthy business owners in the dry goods district, he was a member of the exclusive Union League Club and owned a Newport, Rhode Island estate.

Herbert B. Stevens, Brooklyn Life, July 6, 1895 (copyright expired)

The dry goods commission firm of Schoff, Fairchild & Co., occupied space by 1888.  The New York Times said it "represents some of the largest manufacturers of woolen[s] in the country."  As the Presidential election neared, on August 22, 1888 the newspaper reported that George M. Fairchild, Jr. "is strongly in favor of the re-election of President Cleveland, as are the other members of his firm."

Among those partners was Frederick L. Holmquist, who had been made a member of the firm in 1883.  The Sun said of him, "Mr. Helmquist's reputation has always been excellent."  But he would be the undoing of Schoff, Fairchild & Co.

On April 3, 1891, The Sun reported "Frederick L. Holmquist is no longer a member of the firm of Schoff, Fairchild & Co...A small strip of brass has been tacked up over Holmquist's name on the sign in front of the door, and experts are at work on the books."

A month earlier, bills which the ledgers showed as having been paid were presented as being past due, "and notes given by Holmquist in the firm name were discovered," said the article.  Internal investigation revealed that Holmquist had been "speculating in Wall street."  He turned out to be a poor investor.  The Sun reported, "It was estimated yesterday that Holmquist's losses by speculation were over $50,000."  (The amount would translate to about $1.6 million today.)

Schoff, Fairchild & Co. quickly attempted damage control, saying "Holmquist's speculations would not in any way [financially] embarrass them, and that there would be no prosecution of their ex-partner."  Nevertheless, eleven days later the Evening Herald of Duluth, Minnesota reported that Schoff, Fairchild & Co. had gone under.

A significant tenant moved into 41 Worth Street on May 1, 1902.  The Travers Brothers Company started out as a twine store at 104 Duane Street.  Now, according to Hardware magazine on September 10, 1906, it was "a large distributing and manufacturing concern, with three large plants."

One of the Traverse Brother factories was at 542 West 52nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues.  King's Views of New York, 1906 (copyright expired)

In 1911 the H. W. Baker Linen Company took over the entire building.  Hiram Wilson Baker had co-founded the Boyce & Baker company in 1882, and in 1902 bought out his partner's share to establish the current firm.  It manufactured commercial grade linens for hospitals and hotels.

A problem with being affluent and well-known socially in the early years of the 20th century was that one's personal business was considered public.  And so when Baker and his wife Ella separated in 1912, the messy details became fodder for newspaper articles.  On June 15, the New-York Tribune reported that he had obtained a divorce in Reno, Nevada on the grounds of desertion.  The article said, "Owing to his wife's alleged persistent discontent, which, he testified, resulted in the breaking up of the home, they went to boarding.  Later she insisted on going to her mother's, in Brooklyn, and did so."  

Working for the H. W. Baker Linen Company in 1916 was 26-year-old bookkeeper Henry L. Steul, who was married that year.  The cheeriness of his new marriage turned to despair when, on the day he returned to work following his honeymoon, police walked up to his desk and arrested him.  The Bridgeport, Connecticut Evening Farmer reported on December 15, " He was charged with taking a $300 money order two days before his marriage.  According to the police, Steul said he spent the money in presents for his bride and for the honeymoon."

In December 1918, the National Hotel Men's Exposition took place in Madison Square Garden.  The Sun noted that H. W. Baker Linen Company "had one of the largest booths in the Garden."  At the exposition banquet at the Hotel Biltmore on December 20, Hiram Baker "was taken suddenly ill."  The Sun reported two days later, "He went at once to his home at 114th street and Riverside Drive, where he died yesterday morning."  Baker was 56 years old.

Association Men, June 1922 (copyright expired)

The firm continued to operate from 41 Worth Street for more than a decade.  Then, on October 20, 1939, The New York Sun reported, "Marcus Bros., cotton goods converters...have leased the five-story building at 41 Worth street...As soon as present alterations are completed, the lessees will take possession of the structure."

Marcus Bros. remained at 41 Worth Street through 1954, when, after owning the property for nearly nine decades, the Wood family sold it.  The building continued to be home to textile firms until the 1970s, when the Tribeca Renaissance saw artists, galleries and trendy restaurants taking over the former loft buildings.  

By 1975 the upper floors of 41 Worth Street were being used as residences, although the building was not officially converted to four cooperative residences until 1981.  In 2019 a rooftop addition, unseen from the street, added a fifth apartment to the structure.  The building was designated an individual New York City landmark in 2013.

photographs by the author
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