Thursday, March 16, 2017

Feathers, Furs and Violence -- Nos. 117-119 Mercer Street

By the last decade of the 19th century the neighborhood which would later be called Soho bustled with activity.  Since the end of the Civil War modern loft buildings had appeared--often clad in cast iron--changing the district into a major manufacturing area.

Annie Romel Lecour was a little late to the party.  On July 19, 1890 the Record & Guide reported that "Mrs. A. R. Lecour" had hired architect George Provot to design "two five-story and basement brick, iron and stone store buildings" at Nos. 117 and 119 Mercer Street.  The two small structures on the site had already been converted to business purposes.  J. Schultz & Co. was still manufacturing straw hats for ladies in No. 119 just two months earlier.

Construction on the new buildings began in February 1891 and was completed on New Year's Eve that same year.  Costing $30,000 (a little more than $800,000 today), they were a departure from the cast iron or stone structures that had formed the area's architectural personality.  Provot's blend of Romanesque Revival and Renaissance Revival resulted in a surprisingly happy marriage.

Cast iron made its appearance in the framing of the openings and in the pencil-like columns of the two storefronts.  Heavy banded stone piers supported a stone entablature at street level.  The three-story central section above was clad in red brick; its piers banded with stone above and below each story, and capped with terra cotta capitals.  The cast iron framing allowed for large windows which flooded the factory spaces with sunlight.  Grinning, bearded faces peered from above lusty floral garlands within the spandrels.  The top floor, above a projecting stone cornice, featured arched openings separated by brick columns.

The Mercer Street area was the center of the millinery and fur districts and the new building filled with related firms.  Victorian women donned ambitious headgear that sprouted stuffed birds, feathers, flowers and netting.  Two of the first tenants in the new building, Julius Weille & Co., and Edward B. Goodman & Co., were importers and manufacturers of artificial flowers and feathers.  The much smaller operation of the two, Goodman had only three employees in 1894, surprisingly all men.

In 1894 hat trimmings manufacturer Jos. T. Goettler & Co. moved in.  During the presidential election, the firm advertised "Campaign trimmings of every description--gold and silver cords, pompons, metal and silk ornaments, leather straps, etc., etc. Everything required for Campaign purposes."

The newly-formed Metropolitan Fur Company also took space that year.   In September 1894 Cloaks and Furs wrote "The Metropolitan Fur Company...are showing a most desirable line of fur garments.  Their assortment of capes and jackets is particularly well made, and both the quality and the price will be found attractive to the judicious buyers."

Cloaks and Furs, September 1894 (copyright expired)
Other furriers in the building in 1896 were Wile & Rosenthal, and Sigmund Platky.   Platky straddled the millinery and furrier businesses by manufacturing "hatters' furs and skins" here.  He had started his own business in March, 1892 but in 1894 and '95 had suffered heavy losses, forcing him to sell the machinery in his Brooklyn factory to raise money to pay creditors.  He sold the equipment for which he had paid $9,000 for just $800.

As creditors continued to push for their money, Attorney Herman Joseph, who represented of them, went to Platky's office on March 5, 1896.  He was surprised to find that Platky missing and told reporters that "Mr. Platky had disappeared from his place of business."   Platky had skipped town.

Herman Joseph estimated Platky's liabilities at $25,000--nearly $730,000 today.

The following day The Brooklyn Eagle reported he had gone to Europe, "leaving his creditors unpaid."  Platky's lawyer, Joseph C. Rosenbaum, tried to put an optimistic spin on the disappearance.  He said "he presumed Mr. Platky had gone to Leipzig, where he has a wealthy brother, to get money to pay his debts," according to The New York Times.

In the meantime, Julius Weille & Co. was hiring.  In 1897 the firm advertised for "a good curler" and a few months later, in December advertised "Ostrich Feathers--Sewers and curlers wanted; good wages; steady work."

The building was the scene of a mysterious death the following month.  Martin Farrell was the building's engineer (in charge of mechanical functions like boilers, furnaces and elevators).  He and his wife lived on East 95th Street and rented a room to 24-year old Ellen Ryan.

For some reason Ellen came with Farrell to the Mercer Street building on January 2, 1898.  It was a Sunday and none of the businesses were open.  The highly suspicious visit of the unmarried woman to a deserted building with a married man would end in her death.

According to Farrell, he entered the building through the sidewalk "trap door," then opened the entrance door for Ellen.  The Times reported that he told investigators he "left her in the elevator and went down to look at his engine.  She had removed her wraps, he said, because she feared they might get soiled."

He said that as he "was working at his engine, he heard a scream."  He rushed to the elevator shaft to find Ellen lying at the bottom.  He called a policeman, then ran to the Church of St. Anthony of Padua on Sullivan Street for a priest.  Before help arrived the woman was dead.

The policeman did not find Ellen in the elevator shaft, but on the cellar floor.  Farrell backtracked to explain that he had dragged her there first, before summoning help.  The surgeon, however, was skeptical.  The New York Tines reported "He found her body crushed in the region of the abdomen, and also found bruises on her head and face."

Deputy Coroner O'Hanlon, somewhat astoundingly, said she possibly died from falling from a ladder.  "The police, however, decided to hold Farrell on suspicion of homicide."

In 1902 the building was occupied by Bennett & Lowenthal, "dealers in millinery novelties," on the third floor; Meiselman & Rosenberg, furriers; Weidman Brothers, furriers, on the fifth floor; and on the second floor by Paris Trimming Company.

On April 6 that year fire broke out around 8:30 a.m. in the Bennett & Lowenthal shop.  The blaze, which caused $10,000 in damage to the stock and the building, was the first in a string of fires to come.

The building was repaired and petticoat manufacturer Lewis, Hurwitz & Co. moved in.  Among its employees was secretary Ella Egan (referred to in then-current terms as a "typewriter").  The managers of Nos. 117-119 Mercer Street used a private security firm to protect the premises and Ella got familiar with one of its guards, 23-year old Edward De Veau.  The pair concocted a nefarious plot.

According to one of De Veau's co-workers, Walter Nelson, Ella told De Vau "that he could do an easy job by robbing her employer as he passed down the dark stairs with the firm's receipts."  When De Veau approached Nelson with the scheme, he went to the police.

He was told "to go back to De Veau and tell him that he was too nervous to do that kind of work, but that he knew a thug who would 'turn the trick off' for $15."  The "ex-convict" was undercover County Detective Mullen.

At 6:00 on the evening of November 4, 1903, Nelson and Mullen met De Vau at the corner of Mercer and Spring Streets.  De Veau handed Mullen a rubber hose filled with lead and commented that the job would be "like finding money."

The trio then went to Nos. 117-119 Mercer Street where the assault on Jerome Lewis was planned.  In the shadows were other plain clothe detectives.  Edward De Veau waited on the sidewalk as the men whom he thought were his accomplices went inside.  The following day The Times reported "when they had been up stairs several minutes Detective Rappolt placed De Veau under arrest."  Also arrested was Ella Egan.

In hopes to lessen the charges or get a plea deal, De Veau admitted to five previous robberies "with the aid of drugs."  Sure enough, when detectives searched his room they found chloroform and chloral hydrate, chemicals used to incapacitate his victims.  Rather shockingly, District Attorney Jerome quickly released Ella Egan.  He decided she "probably had no guilty connection with the case," although De Veau may have used her "to supply him with information about Mr. Lewis's habits."

Her release did not sway Jerome Lewis, however, and she was immediately fired.

Newspapers closely followed the court case.  Despite earlier word-of-mouth evidence that it was Ella who hatched the scheme, on the stand she "denied having informed De Veau of [Lewis's] movements and habits of carrying valuables, as has been stated, although she admitted that she had known the prisoner very well."

On November 24, 1903 De Veau was found guilty of a "robbery plot which might have resulted in murder."  He was sentenced to 10 years in the penitentiary.

Five months later, on April 14, 1904 at around 6:50 p.m., fire broke out in the Lewis, Hurwitz & Co. shop.  And on December 28, 1906 another fire occurred.  It started on the third floor of No. 117, extended to the roof, then spread into No. 119.  Along with Lewis, Hurwitz, & Co. in the buildings were apparel manufacturers M. Danzig & Co.; cloak and suit makers Leiman & Cohen; Queen Skirt Co.; Abrams & Rosenblum, men's pants; and cloak and suit manufacturers Gustave Stern & Co., and Samuel Margolies & Co..  By now the second floor had been converted for M. Josefsthal's restaurant.

Before the blaze could be extinguished, it spread to the abutting buildings at Nos. 113-115 and No. 121 Mercer Street. 

Once again Nos. 117-119 Mercer Street underwent extensive repairs.  While some firms moved, Lewis, Hurwitz & Co. moved back in as new tenants arrived in 1907.  Among these were C. I. David Company, "manufacturers of white and fancy vests," and Head Light Overalls.

C. I. David took the top floor of the combined buildings "where it will have more than double its present floor space," reported Men's Wear on May 8, 1907.   Head Light Overalls, based in Detroit, also explained the move of its New York office was for "larger quarters."  The firm targeted the railroad industry for its well-known, durable work apparel and used a locomotive's head lamp as its symbol.

Lewis, Hurwitz & Co. moved to the newly-completed Nos. 52-62 West 21st Street in 1910; just in time to avoid yet another fire in the Mercer Street building.   The store in the No. 119 side was home to art dealers Zinn Mfg. Co.  It suffered fire damage that fall and held a fire sale of "oil paintings, pastels, carbons in gilt and oak frames."  More than 1,000 framed pictures depicted "fruit, landscape, religious and other subjects."  Oil paintings in shadow box frames were sold for less than $1.

Within a few years the fur, millinery and apparel districts would move uptown resulting in a change in the tenant list at Nos. 117-119 Mercer Street.  In 1916 the West Side Paper Stock Co., took the store and basement where Zinn Mfg. Co. had been.  And the following year the Auto Signal Company signed a lease on an upper floor.

In 1918 the Mutual Gas Light Company leased the entire building.  It was one of the several firms supplying lighting gas to Manhattan users.   Electric lighting, however, was rapidly replacing the dangerous and inefficient gas; and in 1920 Mutual Gas Light renewed its lease for just one floor and in 1922 went out of business altogether.

One hold-over of the trimmings and apparel industry was the Acme Lace and Braid Manufacturing Company.  Jacob Szerlip worked as a machinist in the firm.  He left work on March 27, 1920 around 5:00 and was just about to enter the subway at Broadway and Prince Streets when, according to The New York Times, "he was confronted by a dark complexioned young man about 25 years old."

The man pointed a revolver at Szerlip and demanded "Hands up!"  Because Szerlip was carrying his tools, he hesitated.

"I said to put up your hands.  When I say hold 'em up you'll hold 'em up."

Before Szerlip could drop his tools, the crook shot him in the chest.  A nearby policeman heard the gunshot and ran to the scene just as the would-be robber jumped into a waiting automobile and sped up Broadway.  Szerlip was taken to Volunteer Hospital in serious condition with a bullet wound just above his heart.  Ironically, his brother, Dr. Leo Szerlip, had formerly been house surgeon there.

Throughout the next few decades the building would be home to a variety of tenants.  The W. & W. Leather Co. moved in in 1922; the Standard Picture Frame Co. was here in 1937, and the American Luggage Co. was in the building through 1940.  By 1948 the Koota Lighting Company called No. 117-119 home.  It would remain for at least two decades, offering "luminous ceilings" in the 1960s.

In 1997 the two stores were occupied by SoHo Sanctuary where, according to New York Magazine, "services include massage, Hauschka facials, full-body treatment, wraps, and other indulgences to put everyone at ease;" and Wolfman-Gold & Good Co. where imported home furnishings could be bought.

George Provot's interesting brick, stone and iron building survives essentially unaltered.  And after a century and a quarter, despite a suspicious death, an attempted mugging, and multiple fires, its bearded faces still hold their satisfied grins.

photographs by the author

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