The History of 311 Broadway
Tom Miller, who writes about the history of Manhattan buildings at Daytonian in Manhattan, has allowed Tribeca Citizen to create a database of his Tribeca posts. If you enjoy these, and you will, then you should definitely check out his website, which also has write-ups about buildings all over the island. And don’t miss his book, Seeking New York: The Stories Behind the Historic Architecture of Manhattan—One Building at a Time.
The textile and millinery businesses had already taken over the area around Broadway and Duane Streets by 1856. The small building at No. 311 Broadway housed three milliners—Madame Rogers, Elizabeth Gordon, and Elizabeth McLean—as well as George W. Tuttle’s “fancy goods” retail store where mothers could buy “baby jumpers.” But that year all four would have to find new accommodations.
Brothers John and David Jackson Steward demolished the buildings at Nos. 311 and 313 Broadway and began construction on a high-end commercial building. Successful merchants themselves, they jumped on the speculative real estate bandwagon which was moving up Broadway.
The name of their architect has been lost. However the five-story building he designed, completed in 1857, testifies to his marked ability. The Italian Renaissance façade was clad in white marble. The molded enframements of the openings went beyond the expected with blind panels and complex projecting cornices. Mitred quoins rose up either side to the ornate metal Italianate cornice.
Among the Stewards’ early tenants was Lindeman, Wehry & Co. which operated its store at ground level by the mid-1860s. Owned by John G. Linneman, Anthony Degreiff and George Wehry, the store stocked bolts of cloth and other dry goods items.
On August 16, 1869, the shop received a delivery of high priced fabric. Not all of the crates had been carried into the store from the sidewalk when a wagon pulled up at the curb. Suddenly three men jumped from the wagon, tossed one of the cases into the rear of the vehicle and sped off.
The following day The New York Times reported the incident with florid Victorian prose, saying the thieves “revived for the occasion the deprecating method of the ‘butcher-car dodge,’ but employed an express wagon and a fast horse as more consonant to the particular work in hand.”
The case contained “satinets” valued at $2,000—more in the neighborhood of $36,000 today. The New-York Herald wrote, “They were chased however, through New Chambers street.” The Times was less charitable to the bystanders and, perhaps, a bit more precise. “Of the hundreds passing up and down the street only a carman named John Riddle had seen [the thieves] in their act, and he gave chase and raised the alarm.”
Two policemen, Officers Shannon and McCafferty joined in the chase. At the corner of City Hall Place and Duane Street, Officer Shannon grabbed the bridle of one of the horses; but it broke. Just then one of the thieves produced a firearm and shot twice.
“Away went horse and wagon and thieves until, reaching Chatham-street, a collision occurred and the wagon broke down, the thieves jumped out and escaped, abandoning the wagon and contents,” reported The Times. The Herald added that the satins were intact.
Although the wrecked wagon was stenciled “J. Carlton, No. 868 Broadway,” the police felt it was of little evidence. The Times said the identity of the wagon’s owner “did not aid in finding a clew to the thieves, as they had undoubtedly begun operations by stealing it with the horse attached ready for their adventure.”
In the spring of 1872 the Steward brothers signed what would be their most important lease. Fairbanks & Co., based in Vermont, was a well-known and highly-successful manufacturer of scales. In March that year the firm announced, “The rapid increase of our business, the constant introduction of New Modifications of Scales, which demand additional room for their display, rendered it impossible for us longer to do justice to ourselves and the public at our old warehouse. We take pleasure, therefore, in calling to the attention of our friends to our removal to the spacious and elegant store 311 Broadway.”
By 1874 Fairbanks & Co. had opened branches in Boston, Montreal and London. The factory, located in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, employed 600 full-time workers. On October 17 that year, the New-York Trade Reporter lauded, “To say that these scales are the best of their kind, is simply to utter what everybody knows. The reputation of the concern is inter-continental; their scales penetrating not only all parts of this country, but foreign countries as well.”
The broad array of scales available at No. 311 Broadway included personal-sized instruments as well as industrial scales. As Christmas approached in 1876, the New-York Daily Tribune listed unusual gifts. Among them was “An Original Holiday Gift. Both useful and ornamental—Fairbanks’ Family Scales; Fairbanks’ U.S. Standard Postal Scales.”
Fairbanks & Co. employed 18-year old John Steinberger as an “entry clerk” in 1879. The teen found himself in serious trouble on Monday, July 28, that year. He and a friend were walking along East 3rd Street when, according to him, “a gang of some 20 roughs gathered about them and knocked them down.”
Outnumbered and in danger, Steinberger pulled out a “clasp-knife” from his pocket and warned the rabble. As he retreated, the toughs “threw boxes and ash-barrels” at him. Just then Police Officer Peter Rose appeared. Steinberger thought his lucked had turned. But things between the two quickly became confused.
Officer Rose told the boy, “Young man, you had better go home.” Instead, Steinberger “appealed for protection to the officer,” according to The Times a few days later. Rose, suspicious as to why the teen refused to leave, told him in a sterner voice to “clear off.” He did not.
Although John Steinberger “declared positively” he never touched the policeman, Officer Rose had a stab wound when he brought the young man into the police station. Steinberger was held to await trial for felonious assault.
The head of Fairbanks & Co. was Henry L. Clapp. An erudite traveler, he was a member of the London literary club, the Lotos Club. After Clapp’s wife died in 1881 the millionaire often traveled with his physician and close friend, Dr. J. A. Towner.
But when he disappeared in the fall of 1882 with no such trip planned, there was considerable and understandable concern at his Broadway office. On November 4, The Times reported that he “left his home on the morning of Saturday, October 21, to be absent a few days, with considerable amount of money in his possession. Since that date diligent search has been made, but nothing has been heard from him.”
Fairbanks & Co. spokespersons insisted there was “no motive whatsoever” in his disappearance and hinted at foul play.
A communal sigh of relief accompanied the arrival of a cable from Europe on November 4. Clapp explained that he went to see a friend off on a steamship. He agreed to accompany him “down the Bay” and return on the pilot boat. But while the two friends were chatting in the ship’s saloon, the pilot boat returned to New York. Now trapped on the ship Clapp was obliged to continue the trans-Atlantic voyage with only the suit he had worn to the dock.
Two years later, in June 1884 Clapp and Dr. Towner sailed for England. On July 10, 1884, a disturbing wire arrived from London which read, “Henry L. Clapp, of New-York, a member of the Lotos Club, of that city, is lying in a dying condition in the rooms of the Army and Navy Club, where he was stricken with paralysis yesterday.” The New York Times reprinted the telegram with the headline, “A New-Yorker Dying Abroad.”
As it turned out, the reports of Clapp’s impending death were overstated. He returned to New York, and continued running Fairbanks & Co., was a director in the United States Life Insurance Company, a member in the exclusive Union League Club and was, according to The Times, “in close touch with the active and forceful men of the day.”
He eventually married “the daughter of one of the old families of Malta” and retired to the Villa Zammit, Pieta there.
In the meantime, in April 1887 the aging David Jackson Steward sold No. 311 to William Waldorf Astor for $220,000. The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that the “five-story marble building” was still under lease to Fairbanks & Co. at $18,000 per year until 1891, “with the agreement on their part to keep it in repair.”
In 1901, after Fairbanks & Co. had been at No. 311 Broadway for three decades, Astor leased No. 418 Broome Street to the firm. In their place the ground floor store of No. 311 Broadway became home to the Holz Clothing Company in 1902.
To celebrate its first anniversary, the men’s furnishing store offered a “birthday gift” to its customers during the week of May 11, 1903. Gentlemen purchasing a Holz suit—ranging from $7.50 to $15.00—would receive a $3 “Fancy Vest” for free. Those customers purchasing a smaller item, amounting to $1 to $2, would receive a free 50 cent scarf pin. And purchases over $2 would get the buyer a $1 gold-filled watch fob.
By 1906, Holz Clothing had been replaced by the Bridgeport Athletic Mfg. Co. store. Here athletes could shop for baseball equipment like a $1.50 “craven horsehide” catcher’s mitt; or a waterproof fielder’s glove for $1.75. Tennis rackets were priced at between $2.75 and $3.50; while a professional model baseball bat could be had for 50 cents.
Three years later the David T. Ambercrombie Co. was here. Ambercrombie had already supplied custom-made tents and other equipment to Dr. Frederick A. Cook’s expeditions up Mt. McKinley and to the Far West when the explorer announced in 1909 he had reached the North Pole. But not everyone thought he actually did.
On September 8, 1909, The Times reported, “David T. Ambercrombie of 311 Broadway… declared yesterday that no man who knows the Brooklyn explorer intimately will question that he was the first to reach the north pole… Dr. Cook would not say he had discovered the pole just for the sake of getting a reputation.” (Incidentally, Cook took Ambercrombie’s custom-designed tent with him on the North Pole expedition.)
Meanwhile, the L. C. Smith & Bros. Typewriter Co. had opened its New York offices upstairs. The firm’s typewriters were manufactured in Syracuse, New York. An advertisement promised, “We can prove that our typewriter will do more and better work and do it longer than any other typewriter.”
The company also provided typists to local businesses. Mrs. Mary Stroker headed up the L. C. Smith Typewriter Companies Employment Bureau. The Evening World described her as “very business-like.” Mary’s employees would do the typewriting work either in the Broadway location, or on site at the client’s office.
Early in January, 1908, Robert MacGregor arrived at the office, looking for a job. McGregor had red whiskers, prompting The Evening World to describe him as “forty years old and with his rubicund cheek adornments appeared responsible.”
Mrs. Stroker soon had reason to question his responsibility. He told her he was charged with electricity and magnetism, which he had acquired when he touched a dynamo at the Edison Electric Company, where he had been formerly employed.
Then, noticing her plaid shirtwaist, he declared it was his family’s tartan and she must be of the Clan MacGregor. She denied that and hurriedly ended the interview.
But a week later MacGregor was back. He handed Mrs. Stroker a sheet of folded paper “with an air of mystery.” She did not open it, but listened patiently while he told her that he was going to buy Edinborough Castle, marry her, and set up “a new clan MacGregor.”
She listened patiently because, unknown to MacGregor, she had passed a note to a stenography student instructing her to find a policeman. The moment the policeman appeared in the doorway MacGregor left. The sheet of paper bore a poem of love, including the lines
I’ll love you while old winter holds his sway
And we will Married be,
When the birds sing tra la lee,
Upon our wedding day
It was not the last Mary Stroker would see of Robert MacGregor. He reappeared on January 21 and this time was tossed out. But five minutes later a messenger arrived with a note that read, “You are my soul’s desire, marry me and we will never see a typewriter again. Invitations to our royal parties will be written with diamond pens on gold-laid paper smothered in mother-of-pearl.”
Mary Stroker had had enough and sent for the same policeman, Officer Gallagher, who arrested MacGregor. The Evening World reported, “In the Centre Street Court he protested his true love for Mrs. Stroker, and said he would make her a millionairess even though times were hard. So they sent him to Bellevue to think it over.” (Bellevue Hospital was noted for its insanity ward.)
No. 311 Broadway saw a range of tenants throughout the early decades of the 20th century. In April, 1918, the Water Supervision Company took a floor, and the K. & S. Nicola exporters leased the second floor.
In 1920 another exporting firm, M. & J. Btesh, was in the building. On July 10 that year the firm’s 16-year old messenger boy, Ralph Sasson, was sent to the Foreign Banking Corporation to deposit $11,000 in Liberty Bonds and a $75 check. He never returned.
With what seemed to him to be unlimited funds, the boy traveled from city to city, cashing one bond at a time. He finally ended up in Montreal where he intended to stay. In the meantime, his employer and his family were left wondering if he had been murdered or kidnapped.
Sasson’s big mistake came in November when he reentered the United States to buy an automobile. When he attempted to return to Montreal, he was arrested by Canadian customs authorities for attempting to bring the car into Canada without paying duty.
The boy’s father, Israel Sasson who was a broker at No. 366 Broadway, traveled to Montreal to bring him back to New York to face prosecution. It was not until then that Ralph discovered that his mother, overcome with worry and grief, had committed suicide three weeks after he disappeared.
When he was arrested Sasson had liquidated the remaining $7,500 in bonds with a Montreal brokerage firm.
In 1922, the Eugene H. Tower company was in the retail space. Dealers in paper and novelties, the store was somewhat of a precursor to today’s craft shops. An advertisement on April 6, 1922, announced, “Girls—Learn to make paper hats, dresses, favors and decorate for parties… Our expert will also teach you, free of charge, how to make Bead Necklaces of Sealing Wax, Lamp Shades and hundreds of clever paper novelties that will make you the perfect hostess.”
Throughout the 1920s the upper offices were mainly occupied by legal firms.
Then in August, 1948, the Hagstrom Company, headed by Swedish immigrant Andrew G. Hagstrom, purchased the building. The Times noted, “the transaction marked the first change of ownership for this parcel in sixty-one years.” Hagstrom, who paid “all cash,” announced he intended to use the entire building for its mapmaking, art and photographic company.
In 1968 Hagstrom Company was acquired by MacMillan Publishing. The Hagstrom store moved to 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue. Today a gruesomely-monstrous modernization has obliterated anything attractive at street level. But other than the replacement windows, the upper floors look much as they did in 1857 when the handsome marble-fronted building was completed.
Photo credits from top: Tribeca Citizen; Real Estate Record & Builder’s Guide.