Monday, November 14, 2016

The Lost Domestic Sewing Machine Bldg -- Broadway and 14th Street

Close inspection reveals extraordinary architectural details, like full-story figures.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The concept of a sewing machine first appeared in the 18th century.   Inventors in several countries improved the device; but it was not until 1851 that Isaac Merritt Singer patented his American machine.  Singer's name would eventually become nearly synonymous with the sewing machine.

Norwalk, Ohio businessmen N. S. Perkins and William Mack started their Domestic Sewing Machine Company in 1864, making machine parts.  They were bought out six years later when Eli J. Blake and his brothers, James, David, and George, incorporated the firm to manufacturing complete machines.  Post-war business was phenomenal.  In 1872 the firm turned out nearly 50,000 hand-built machines.

At the time Union Square was rapidly changing from an exclusive residential enclave to a business district,  On the southwest corner of 14th Street and Broadway sat the former mansion of Cornelius Roosevelt, grandfather of Theodore Roosevelt.   As more and more business buildings replaced the elegant homes, the Blakes set their sights on Union Square for a headquarters which would exemplify their significant success.

Cornelius V. S. Roosevelt died in 1871.  His mansion was subsequently demolished and architect Griffith Thomas was put to work designing an imposing cast iron skyscraper eight stories tall.  The Domestic Sewing Machine Co. building was completed in 1873.  Dominating the Union Square streetscape, the French Second Empire style structure was frosted with caryatids, pediments of varying design, dormers which terminated in ornate oculi, and balustraded balconettes.  Rising above the intricate cast iron roof cresting was a high, faceted corner cupola topped by a cast iron crown-like railing.

The building was formally opened on June 24, 1873.  The New York Times described the main show window--composed of three plate glass panels and wrapping the corner--as "perhaps the largest in the City, being twenty feet across."  The company's showrooms were on the first floor, where sewing machines were exhibited.  "The room is finished in black-walnut, mahogany, and marble, with attractive mirrors, and the carpet is a costly Moquet, while the walls are handsomely frescoed," remarked the newspaper.

The expansive glass of the corner show windows was a phenomenon.  Wax mannequins can be glimpsed inside, above the shoulders of the well-dressed Union Square shoppers.  illustration by Louis Maurer, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Domestic Sewing Machine Co. went beyond merely making and selling its machines.  The firm also manufactured paper dress patterns.  On opening day the show window contained a "very costly and beautiful imported wax figure, magnificently attired in a dress which was made by one of the Domestic machines," reported The Times.  "Another attraction was a handsome paper pattern of a lady's dress, and a Domestic machine operated by steam by means of a band of No. 20 cotton."

The entire second floor was devoted to the pattern department.  "The room is elaborately furnished, and in it more than a hundred persons are employed."  The fourth through eighth floors contained the offices where several hundred more employees worked.   The dome, dizzyingly high above Union Square, was a tourist destination.  The building was, to date, the tallest cast iron structure ever erected.  The New York Times noted "During the day the elevator was kept continually running to accommodate visitors, many of whom availed themselves of a view of the City from the rotunda."

Female shoppers flocked to the Domestic Sewing Machine Co. showrooms.  On September 18, 1873 The Times remarked on the previous day's "opening of the Fall fashions."  "A large and varied stock of elegant fabrics was displayed, and during the entire day the show-room was filled with lady visitors who expressed themselves highly pleased with the exhibition."  The writer added "Every week there is a constant increase of visitors and their show-room is fast becoming a fashionable resort."

But trouble loomed on the very near horizon.  A month after the article the Financial Panic of 1873 swept the country--the 19th century counterpart of the 1929 Crash which resulted in the Great Depression.  The completed building had cost the firm $300,000--more than $6 million in 2016 terms.  In addition, Domestic Sewing Machine did not own the land, but rented it from the Roosevelt estate at $30,000 per year.  Paying for its new headquarters and meeting expenses would be a colossal burden at a time when shoppers began cutting back on luxury items--like $60 domestic treadle sewing machines.

A few years later the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide would look back with disdain at the over-spending on grand business structures; pointing out the Domestic Sewing Machine Building specifically.  "It is not likely that a similar lunacy will affect rich men and great corporations for a generation to come."

The first hints of serious financial difficulties came in November.  Notes paid by the company bounced and on November 20 The New York Times reported "finding it impossible to meet their engagements they were obliged to suspend."  Financial experts clicked their tongues over the directors' unwise spending.  "It is stated that the company from its first start aimed at an amount of business rather in excess of their means to carry it on successfully," reported the newspaper.

The officers of the firm put on a brave face and a week later diverted the public's attention from financial problems.  For several years New Yorkers had complained that the Central Park commissioners failed to efficiently notify citizens when the ice on the park ponds was safe for skating.   Now, according to an announcement by the Park Department around November 28, "a red ball will be displayed on the Domestic Sewing-machine Building, when the ice is safe for skating."

By the time Adolph Wittemann photographed Union Square around 1880, a huge DOMESTIC sign had appeared on the building's roof.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The company struggled on, fighting bankruptcy and pretending that all was well.  The directors spent lavishly to decorate the building for the Fourth of July celebrations in Union Square in 1876.  A reporter wrote that it "was girdled on every story with gas jets closely placed, and shining through small colored globes, while a bright circle of colored gas lights crowned the top of he lofty tower of the building."

The country began to emerge from the financial depression in 1879; but the Domestic Sewing Machine Co. was nonetheless plagued with misfortune.  Early in 1880 the company's factory at 29th Street and Seventh Avenue burned down.  The third and fourth floors of a large four-story building on West Street were leased and the factory was re-established there.  A few months later, on the night of July 29, fire swept through that building, at one point threatening the entire block.

Newly-weds ignore the silver hollow ware and other expensive wedding gifts to focus on their Domestic Sewing Machine in an ad published around 1880.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Six years later, after the factory was moved to Newark, New Jersey, the company was still struggling.  The wages of factory workers were cut to help ease the financial stress.  Then, on Saturday April 17, 1886 the 800 workers "made a demand...for the restoration of the old wages."  Their demands were met with a lock-out when they arrived for work the following Monday.

The superintendent told reporters the "sudden shutting down of the factory" had nothing to do with the workers' demands, but it "resulted from carrying a heavy stock."  He estimated that the shut-down would last about two weeks.

One method used by the Domestic Sewing Machine Co. to increase business was to offer domestic machines on an installment plan.  That worked well until a customer stopped paying, as was the case with Mrs. Barbara Dalton who purchased a machine late in 1887 but fell behind on her payments.

On February 28, 1888 Edward Van Zandt, a company representative, went to Mrs. Dalton's home at No. 418 East 48th Street to repossess the machine.  He was accompanied by a City Marshall. Things did not go well.

Van Zandt ended up in jail after Mrs. Dalton accused him of assaulting her "in such a manner that she is at present confined to the house," as reported in The New York Times on March 6, 1888.  Where the City Marshall was during the affray in puzzling, because Van Zandt alleged that the woman, in defending her sewing machine, "attacked him with a shovel and he did not touch her."

The would-be repo man was forced to stay in jail "to await Mrs. Dalton's recovery" before they could fight it out in the courtroom.

On July 26, 1890 after a "hotly-contested election" the Blake brothers were voted off the Board. The New York Times noted a surprising wrinkle concerning "the handsome building" on Union Square at the time, noting "it will revert to the owner of the land on which it stands in 1892, according to terms of the lease."

The new directors hired architect L. Adams and spent $1,800 on modernizing the interiors  the following year.  It exhibited in the 1891 Jamaica International Exposition, the island nation's entry into the World Exposition trend.  The Times said "The Domestic Sewing Machine Company's exhibit is the wonder of the women folk."

But none of the Board's efforts could stave off the inevitable.  On January 13, 1892 200 employees of the Newark factory were fired, after having been idle for nearly a month.

And as if the company had not received enough unfortunate press, tragedy happened during the massive three-day celebration of the 400th Anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World in October that same year.   As the parade traveled down Broadway past Union Square on Wednesday October 12, Martin Hoyser leaned far out of a window of the Domestic Sewing Machine Building to get a better view.  He plunged from his fourth-floor vantage point, and died in the New-York Hospital the following day.

On June 1, 1893 the company was put into receivership.  The following month the lease-holds on the building were put up for auction.  Announcement was made at the time that "There is due more than $11,000 of rent besides other charges."  There was not a single bid made.

Finally, in December 7, 1895 the Domestic Sewing Machine Co. was declared bankrupt.  The Broadway Improvement Company, headed by Roosevelt & Son, took over the Union Square property.   The lavish building which, essentially, had caused the collapse of a successful corporation became home to a series of small business and shops over the next three decades.

A shoe store occupied the ground floor around the turn of the century.  Retractable canvas awnings deflected summer heat and protected goods in the show windows from sunlight.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

But by the late 1920s the fussy Victorian cast iron pile was decidedly out of architectural fashion. On January 8,1928 The New York Times reported that Union Square "is about to lose one of its most venerable landmarks, the old iron-front Domestic Building on the southwest corner of Broadway and Fourteenth Street."

William C. Demorest had assembled the Broadway and Fourteenth Development Corporation and leased the property from the Roosevelt estate for 84 years.  Prolific architect Emory Roth was commissioned to design the $15 million, 20-story office and store building to replace it.  With much altered lower floors, that building survives.

image via

1 comment:

  1. Domestic Sewing Company was at 96 Chambers Street, Manhattan, from c. 1867 to 1872.