The History of 394 Broadway

seeking-new-york-by-tom-millerTom 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.


John W. Southack had garnered a fortune through his furniture business by the outbreak of Civil War. When the Leland brothers opened their magnificent Metropolitan Hotel in 1852, for instance, he received the $50,000 contract to furnish it. The Carrollton, Ohio, newspaper the Carroll Free Press reported on April 9 that year that “All of the parlor furniture will be of rosewood, covered with brocatelle, and superbly carved.” That single deal would be worth about $1.6 million today.

Despite the ongoing war, Southack began construction of an elegant new business building at No. 394 Broadway, between White and Walker Streets, in 1864 to replace two old buildings he had purchased seven years earlier. Completed the following year, the five-story store and loft building was clad in white marble above the cast iron base. The Italianate design included two-story sperm candle arches (so called because the thin engaged columns resembled the candles made from the oil of sperm whales) paneled spandrels, and a carved marble cornice.

George A. Davis & Co. advertised on the building’s facade (second from left) in this 1864 print by Thomas Bonar.

Southack constructed the building as an investment, keeping his own business at Nos. 194-196 Broadway to the south. Among his initial tenants was George A. Davis & Co., manufacturers and jobbers of men’s and boys’ clothing. The firm moved in even before the final construction details were complete. In the summer of 1864, the firm advertised: “Wanted—A lad from 15 to 19 years of age, in a wholesale house; must be a fair writer, correct at figures, and have good references; a German preferred.”

That same year the company contributed $100 to the U.S. Sanitary Commission’s Metropolitan Fair. The fair was held to provide clothing and “men’s furnishings goods” for the war effort. The generous donation would equal a little over $1,500 today.

The high quality of the goods sold by George A. Davis & Co. was evidenced when what The New York Times called “a swindling gang” stole a coat from the store in May, 1866. Its wholesale value would be equal to about $315 today.

Another of the initial occupants was the Magnolia Oil Company, which had its offices here by the summer of 1865. While its name brings to mind a fragrant floral oil in pretty bottles; it was in fact a recently-organized petroleum firm getting in on the oil discovered in Pennsylvania. A similar firm, the Cleveland Cherry Valley Oil Company, was organized that year. Its prospectus described the oil wells being drilled on its Cherry Valley farm, and noted, “The adjoining farm is owned by the Magnolia Oil Company, of New York, who are likewise developing their property.”

George A. Davis & Co. continued to hire. On June 30, 1865, it was looking for a “competent stockkeeper for a wholesale clothing house” and noted, “none others need apply.” The following month an advertisement appeared for “An intelligent and reliable youth, from 15 to 21 years old; must be correct at figures and attentive to business.” (Apparently the lad hired the year before did not work out.)

George A. Davis & Co. moved to No. 26 Park Place in 1868, around the time that Strasburger & Nuhn moved in to No. 394 Broadway. Strasburger & Nuhn was an importer of “toys, china ware and German fancy goods.”

The German-born partners seem to have employed mostly German immigrants. One of them was George Fritz, whose brother, John, arrived in New York in the fall of 1868. John found employment in a commission house on Broadway and lived in a boarding house at No. 40 East 4th Street in the neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany.”

On the morning of January 21, 1869, a policeman arrived at Strasberger & Nuhn, asking for George Fritz. He carried a letter written in German by John Fritz. The news was devastating—the note explained that John no longer wanted to live, and George was informed that his brother was dead.

At around 11:00 on the night before Police Officer Edwards passed John on Astor Place near Lafayette Place. A few seconds later he heard a gunshot and ran back. He found John dead on the sidewalk. At the morgue the letter to his brother was found in his pocket.

John had left work at 8:00 in good spirits. But when he arrived home he found a letter waiting for him from Germany. Its contents, according to investigators, “gave him great uneasiness and depression of spirits.” He may have received word that a sweetheart had a change of heart. He tidied up his room, neatly packed his effects in his trunks, and in his letter to George said he would find $500 in one of them (more than $9,000 today).

A change in management resulted in a name change to Strasburger, Fritz & Pfeiffer in 1870 and then just Strasburger & Pfeiffer the next year. Run by Oscar Strasburger and George F. Pfeiffer, the firm touted its variety of toys as Christmas approached in 1871. Buyers were invited to view “Our Holiday Exhibition” of German, French and English toys. The ad insisted the display “will surpass anything of the kind ever exhibited in this country.”

The store offered everything from musical instruments to druggists’ sundries to masks (an ad from the New-York Tribune in September 30, 1872).

The New York Times was not above disguising advertisements as news in the 1870s. On Christmas Eve, 1873, it reported, “So long as their holiday exhibition lasts, Strasburger & Co., of No. 394 Broadway, will sell their unsurpassed stock of toys and general holiday goods at retail. They have some of the best toys in the City on sale.”

Strasburger & Pfeiffer remained in the Broadway building until 1885 when the firm dissolved.

A year earlier, corset manufacturers Joseph Beckel & Co. had moved in. The firm was headed by Joseph Beckel who had been a partner in Beckel Bros., opticians, as early as 1852. In 1867, he had made a dramatic change in professions by founding his present firm. By now it operated three factories, in Brussels, in Germany, and in New Haven, Connecticut. The American factory alone employed upwards of 250 workers.

In 1884, the year the firm moved to No. 394 Broadway, New York’s Great Industries wrote, “Their New York establishment is unusually eligible and central in location, being situated in the best wholesale section of Broadway, the premises of large size, thirty feet by one hundred and seventy-five feet in dimensions, and wherein is displayed the largest ad most complete stock of fine corsets to be found in the metropolis.”

Beckel’s son, Benjamin, was a partner in the firm; as was Isaac Strauss. The firm’s catch-line was “Choosing the right corset is the first step towards a perfect fitting gown.”

There can be no question that one of the firm’s corsets was beneath the wedding gown of Joseph Beckel’s daughter in 1898. Wealthy American mothers could achieve no greater social success than seeing their daughters married to nobility. On December 6, 1898, The Sun ran the headline “Great Names Yoked” and explained, “The marriage of Martha Washington Beckel to the Baron Burkard von Muenchausen took place at 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon at the residence of the bride’s father, 50 West Sixty-ninth street.”

The article described Martha as “the daughter of Joseph Beckel, a wealthy corset manufacturer” and Muenchausen as “the owner of large estates near Hanover, Germany, and traces his descent from the famous Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Muenchausen, the untruthful.” It added that Martha’s “baptismal name suggests the opposite pole of veracity.”

The two had met in Germany a year earlier. The ceremony in the Beckel mansion was peppered with titles. “The Baron was attended by his brother, Rembrandt Muenchausen, who acted as best man, and the Baron von Schmidt, who was head usher.” The marriage received newspaper coverage nationwide.

In the meantime, another garment company in the building was besieged by labor problems. In the summer of 1890, workers at the Mercantile Cloak Company went on strike. Things turned ugly when replacement workers attempted to enter the building on July 2. The Evening World reported, “When their employees appeared and tried to enter the shop, they were pummeled by the strikers, who forbade them with vehement gesticulations to enter. Some were frightened away by the crowd and escaped unmolested.”

They may have been the wiser of the group. “Those who persisted were seized and hustled away by force. There were quite a number of these, and in a few minutes Broadway for two blocks was the scene of a dozen running fights with one helpless man in each case the centre of a fighting cyclone of enraged men.” It took 17 policemen to subdue what threatened to become an all-out riot.

The firm had been founded in 1881 by Isaac S. Plaut as Plaut & Goldsmith. It was reorganized in 1887, about the time it moved into the Broadway building, as the Mercantile Cloak Company. The successful firm did about half a million in sales that year. But Plaut’s string of bad investments and his addition to gambling took its toll.

Three months after the affray between union and non-union workers, the Mercantile Cloak Company failed. Although Isaac S. Plaut owned the Hotel Vendome at Broadway and 41st Street as well, his gambling and investment losses were enormous. An unidentified friend told a reporter from The Evening World on October 28, “The only trouble was that he indulged his sporting tastes too much. About a year ago he was worth $100,000, but he has ‘blown in’ all that and much more in the ‘street’ and elsewhere. He must have lost at least $150,000 in speculation.” The New York Times chimed in, saying, “Mr. Plaut’s sporting proclivities are well-known to the trade.”

In January, 1895, the estate of J. W. Southack commissioned architect M. C. Merritt to do $2,000 worth of renovations that included “new water closets” and a structure on the roof to hold a 1,500-gallon water tank. It was apparently at this time the stylish mansard floor was added.

Two years later, on November 13, the entire building was nearly lost in a spectacular fire. At the time M. Weil & Sons ran its linens and “white goods” store in the ground floor. There were just three other tenants in the building—the factory of the Consolidated Manhattan Suspender Company was on the second; shirt dealers Lehman & Koenig on the third; and the Standard Cloak and Suit Company on the remaining three floors.

The fire broke out on the fourth floor and traveled quickly up the freight elevator shaft. All three of the topmost floors were gutted and the lower floors were heavily damaged by water. The total cost of the blaze was estimated the following day at $40,000—nearly $1.2 million today.

M. C. Merritt was brought back by the Southack estate to handle the repairs. Not surprisingly, this time a “fire-proof shaft for freight elevator,” costing $8,750, was included in the plans.

Among the new tenants in the restored building was the Standard Waist Co. The waist, or shirt waist, was the most popular item of apparel for 1890s and early 20th-century women.

Although the Broadway neighborhood was changing, No. 394 continued to attract tenants involved in the textile or garment industries throughout the first years of the 20th century. In 1900, A. Schaap & Sons, wholesale clothing and commission merchants signed a lease. When Shaw Bros. moved in the week of February 7, 1904, The New York Times mentioned that the building was within the “linen district.” Shaw Bros. imported linens from Scotland, Ireland and Germany—both as yard goods and as finished items, like hemstitched napkins.

In 1912, Leban, Milner & Co. took the second floor. But change was on the horizon. In 1914, the Frank Tourist Co., what today would be termed a travel agency, was in the building. The office specialized in vacation tours. That year it offered tours to the White Mountains, Yellowstone Park, Glacier National Park, and Lakes George and Champlain, among many others. A one-week tour the Adirondack Mountains cost $46; while a 27-day tour in California was $145.50.

After owning the property for 63 years, the Southack estate sold No. 364 to Abraham Schaap in March 1920 for $110,000, or about $1.3 million today. Having been a tenant in the building for 20 years, by now A. Schaap & Sons had branched out into the auctioneer business—selling off the stocks of failed apparel firms or the overages of others. On June 24, 1921, for instance, a massive auction in the Broadway building offered 1,000 pieces of “art embroidery,” 5,000 imported waists, and “3,000 yards of fine silks.”

Schaap leased space in the building to similar firms, like J. Frenkel, auctioneer, who occupied the second in 1921. Like A. Schaap & Sons Frenkel sold off surplus dry goods.

A. Schaap & Sons made a more dramatic move at diversification in 1933 when it placed the highest bid, $120,000, for all the assets of the bankrupt Brentano Book Stores at auction. Irving Schaap told reporters on July 6 his company “is ready to put more money into further stabilizing the business if necessary.”

Abraham Schaap died at the age of 86 in his Central Park West home on June 13, 1944. His sons, Irving, Maurice, and Joseph continued to operate the business. At the time their tenants in No. 394 included shirt manufacturers Samuel Solow & Son, and Philip Marayonov & Son.

On January 7, 1957, The New York Times reported that A. Schaap & Sons had sold the building. “Despite a change in the area from a clothing center to textiles and allied lines, the Schaap interests have remained at 394 Broadway, but now are liquidating their business. This will be the last of the major clothing establishments to depart the section.”

The following April Reiss Fabrics took the store space. But if the Schaap brothers had intended to retire from business, they had soon changed their minds. They were still operating from No. 394 in the 1960s, advertising “a complete stock of jobs and regular lines always on hand… Auction and commission merchants.”

And other textile firms continued to scoff at the change in the neighborhood; occupying the upper floors of the marble-faced building well into the 1990s.

The Tribeca renaissance caught up No. 394 in the first years of the 21st century. In what The New York Times called “hipster replacement,” the store space was transferred to Moto in August 2008. The newspaper said it “has a vaudevillian feel, complete with marble-topped tables, Edison bulbs and a rusty old bike handing above the front door.”

The space became home to the interior design and home furnishings store, D’Apostrophe, by September 2013. Although the storefront was long ago obliterated, the marble facade above is intact after one devastating fire and more than 150 years.


Photo credits from top: Daytonian in Manhattan; the collection of the Museum of the City of New York; New-York Tribune.