Saturday, March 9, 2024

The 1861 Nos. 79-81 Leonard Street


In 1859 William C. Walker and Marion Penman demolished the two story buildings at 79 and 81 Leonard Street (likely converted former residences) and began construction of a modern store and loft building.  Completed in 1861, its cast iron storefront included fluted Corinthian columns that upheld an entablature and modillioned cornice.  

The four upper stories were faced in white marble.  Worthy of a doge's palace, the second and third floor windows were capped with dignified Renaissance inspired pediments.  The second floor openings were fronted by elegant, blind balustrades.  The architect gave the façade the appearance of two buildings with quoins that flanked each three-bay-wide section, and by separate marble cornices.

Decades later, in December 1912, the trade magazine Silk would recall, "this immediate neighborhood in Leonard Street has been a Mecca for buyers of drygoods and silks for nearly three-quarters of a century."  And so, 79-81 Leonard Street filled with textile-related tenants.

Among the earliest was the dry goods firm of Van Volkenburgh, Bro. & Co., headed by Edward and Philip Van Volkenburgh.  In June 1864, it had an opening for a teen boy, the advertisement for which was specific:

Wanted--By a dry goods jobbing house, a boy, of from 16 to 18, to learn the business; one residing with his parents and bringing good references preferred.  Apply to Van Volkenburgh, Bro. & Co., 79 and 81 Leonard st.

Simultaneously, one of the brothers was looking to fill a personal position.  Directly under the advertisement for the teen office worker, another read:

Wanted--A Protestant coachman, to go a short distance in the country; must understand the care of a cow.  First rate reference required.  Apply to 79 and 81 Leonard st.

In 1871, the newly-formed Townsend & Montant, "mercantile auctioneers," leased a large space in the building.  Its purpose was to liquidate manufacturers' left over stock at the end of a season, or the inventory of businesses that had gone bankrupt or otherwise closed.  

Townsend & Montant would remain in the building at least through 1895, conducting sales of sometimes staggering amounts of textiles.

The Evening Post, October 8, 1872, (copyright expired)

An auction held in May 1876, however, was special.  The New York Herald reported on May 24, "This sale was ordered by the directors and treasurers of many of the greatest manufacturing companies in the country for the purpose of fixing a price for the goods to be offered.  For a long time past there has been no little want of confidence among the dry goods merchants of New York on account of the instability of prices."  The article called the auction "a very significant event in the annals of the dry goods trade of New York, the like of which is not recorded."

The commercial vibrance of the Tribeca neighborhood following the Civil War was reflected in the Leonard Street property values.  Olin G. Walbridge purchased 79-81 Leonard Street on February 11, 1882 for $102,500.  He resold it a month later, on March 17, for an $162,500.  Walbridge had netted an astounding profit of about $1.7 million by 2024 standards.

By 1895, the Germania Mills had its offices and showrooms here.  The firm's factories were in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and advertised, "fine beavers and overcoatings."  

At the time, the building was owned by the Very Reverend Eugene Augustus Hoffman, dean of the General Theological Seminary.  Although a cleric, he was immensely wealthy and owned vast amounts of property in the Tribeca district.  

In 1897, Hoffman leased the building to Deering, Milliken & Co.  Founded in 1865, it was among the largest textile firms in the country.  Extra space was sublet to tenants like W. Stursberg, Schell & Co., commission merchants.

Deering, Milliken & Co. remained in the building for decades.  An advertisement in Asia, The American Magazine on the Orient in June 1920, provided an exhaustive list of the textiles it sold, including "brown sheetings, shirtings, drills, bleached cottons, flannels, woolens, printed and dyed shirtings, voiles, organdies, poplins, etc."

The third quarter of the 20th century saw a renewal of the Tribeca district as artists moved into former industrial lofts, and restaurants and galleries took over the store spaces.  Although not yet officially converted for residential use in 1977, at least one artist had moved into 79-81 Leonard Street.  

On January 19 that year, The New York Times profiled Argentine-born artist Raquel Rabinovich, who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Edinburgh.  She created "subdued abstractions" in oils and "monumental glass sculptures."  On the third Thursday of each month, she held a lecture in her loft here.  That summer, the C Space gallery run by Marina Urbach opened in the basement of the building.

An interesting tenant took the store space at 79 Leonard Street in the fall of 1985.  The New York Times remarked on October 18, "The Socialist Bookstore, at 79 Leonard Street...has a vast selection of left-wing books and records."  

The store gave way to the New York Marxist School by 1990.  In March that year an exhibition titled "Femmes Vitales" opened, featuring paintings and sculpture by women artists.  Associated with the New York Marxist School was the Brecht Forum.  On April 17, 1990, The New York Times called it "a newer and more specialized theater space that serves as an artistic home to Jane Goldberg, its resident 'topical tapper.'"  The article explained, "It was the 'Stradivarian floor' that drew Ms. Goldberg, who spotted it while taking a course at the school.  But the homey, slightly disheveled space, with its battered upright piano and political posters, has just the right gemutlich quality for Ms. Goldberg's zany tap."

The Brech Forum made way for the TriBeCa Lab, a small theater, around 1992.  In May that year Upright Citizens Brigade was staged here, and in October Criminals in Love opened.

The upper floors of the dignified marble building were officially converted to residential use in 2011.  A duplex apartment engulfs the second and third floors.  There is one sprawling apartment on the fourth, another duplex on the fifth, and a new penthouse level on part of the roof.

photographs by the author
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