Edifice Complex

Broadway Rising

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A 19-story, 110-unit condominium is set to rise midblock on Broadway between Leonard and Franklin Streets, replacing three low-rise buildings and continuing the skyward surge of development on TriBeCa’s eastern edge. To assemble the parcels and development rights for the planned condo at 351-357 Broadway, Toll Brothers City Living paid separate owners a total of $94 million.

The final property purchased by the developers in that block’s high-stakes Monopoly game was 351 Broadway, a humble four-story brick structure that housed the New Fancy Food deli. Due to its strategic location, that site had become a hot commodity, changing hands three times from 2012 to 2015 as its price soared from $862,000 to $13 million to $21 million.

The scale of the planned 193,000-square-foot condo was made possible by the purchase, for $8 million, of the air rights from 359 Broadway, a landmarked five-story Italianate building next door, where the famed Civil War and portrait photographer Mathew Brady kept a studio from 1853 to 1859.

The surviving Brady building is a vivid reminder of a time when the character of lower Broadway was less vertical than horizontal, the rushing river of commerce and fashion threatening to overflow the banks of the great avenue during shopping hours.

“See what an amount of moving matter,” observed South Carolinian visitor William M. Bobo in 1852, looking up and down Broadway from the verandah of Barnum’s Museum below City Hall Park. “The throng upon the sidewalks—see what a continual press . . . . This is the hour for the fashionables to show themselves upon the street; it is a regular business to promenade Broadway at this time of day.”

Downtown Broadway was the city’s premiere shopping and hotel district in the mid-19th century, anchored by A.T. Stewart’s Italian Renaissance-style “marble palace,” a lavish department store constructed in 1846 at Chambers Street and expanded over the years. (Today known as the Sun Building, it is home to less glamorous tenants like Modell’s and the city Department of Buildings.)

“So many smartly dressed women strolled along the sidewalks or hurried from one shop to another,” according to architectural historian Charles Lockwood, “that from a distance both sides of the street appeared to be ‘one sheet of bright, quivering colors.’”

Shopping and promenading could be thirsty work, prompting many to stop for a break at Thompson’s, a “lady’s saloon” on the ground floor of 359 Broadway that Henry James and his brother, William, frequented as children. If Broadway, as James recalled in a memoir,

was “the feature and the artery, the joy and the adventure of one’s childhood,” then Thompson’s was “a house of delight,” where the brothers, after enduring a painful session at the dentist, would dig into dishes of ice cream, “deemed sovereign for sore mouths.”

Suitably refreshed, visitors often headed upstairs to Brady’s Daguerrotype gallery to partake of another popular diversion of the age: sitting for a photographic portrait. In 1853, the year after the stone-fronted commercial building at 359 Broadway was completed, the New York Tribune tallied a hundred daguerrean studios in New York and Brooklyn. While working-class Manhattan galleries tended to be situated on the Bowery, the more prestigious establishments preferred Broadway, and by 1854, Brady’s studio was one of three daguerrean galleries within the single block between Leonard and Franklin on the “dollar side” of Broadway (as the west side of the street was known, distinguishing it from the generally less desirable “shilling side”).

The block was bookended by two of Brady’s daguerrean rivals: Jeremiah Gurney, on the corner of Leonard Street, and Marcus Aurelius Root, on the corner of Franklin. Other neighbors on the block that decade were Wiley & Halsted, a book concern, at No. 351; Williams & Stevens, purveyors of looking glasses and picture frames, at No. 353; James Beck & Co., a dry goods dealer, at No. 355; and William H. Geib & Co., a piano shop, at No. 361.

Visitors to Brady’s gallery entered through a street-level door and were immediately presented with a handsome assortment of his portraits arranged in rosewood-and-gilt display cases. Two flights up, one entered a sumptuous reception area, its ceilings frescoed, its walls decorated with gold paper and satin, its floors carpeted with velvet tapestry.

“In the center is suspended a six-light gilt and enameled chandelier,” observed Humphrey’s Journal in 1853, “with prismatic drops that throw their enlivening colors in the most costly needle worked lace curtains, while the golden cornices, and festooned damask indicate that Art dictated their arrangement.” Lest any wavering customers doubt Brady’s prominence in the field of portraiture, the walls were hung with Daguerrotypes—unique images on silvered copper plates—of presidents, generals, monarchs, and noblemen.

The gallery, regularly thronged with clients and gawkers, was described by a photography journal as “the very Rialto of fashion and elegance,” according to Brady authority Mary Panzer. “The eminent men who visit New York,” the journal explained, “are taken at once to Brady’s rooms that they may not only see all our great men grouped together there, but that they may see themselves as others see them.”

Behind the reception room was the business office, an elaborately decorated ladies parlor, and two rooms where customers sat for their portraits, according to Robert Wilson, author of Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation. On the two floors above, the plates were developed and mounted. Customers generally walked back out to Broadway, portrait in hand, within an hour of their sitting.

Among the New Yorkers photographed at Brady’s were Henry James and his namesake father. The experience made the boy self-conscious about his brass-buttoned jacket, a garment of “scant grace,” while the metal apparatus employed to keep his head still was so uncomfortable that he described it archly as “Mr. Brady’s vise.”

Today, the room where James sat for his portrait is occupied by the Original JACHS Manufacturing Company, a menswear firm. On the ground floor, a shop called PS Fabrics has crammed the old Thompson’s Saloon space from floor to ceiling with a phantasmagoria of colorful textiles and trimmings. But apparent remnants of the saloon survive both overhead (denticulated crown moldings) and underfoot (burnt-umber and yellow floor tiles).

Outside, the bricks of the downtown-facing side wall of the building, which will soon be hidden by the new condo, were painted until 1988 with the words “359/Brady’s/Gallery.” In the 28 years since, the whitewash that covered the words has faded just enough to reward a squinting, street-corner nostalgist with the faintest, tantalizing glimpse of part of the Brady sign—a ghostly letter S at the level of the top floor.


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