From Second Empire to Second Chance
Tom Acitelli Jan. 5, 2010, 11:40 a.m.
Lord & Taylor, one of the most successful and enduring department store brands, was known for its female elevator operators at one time. The operators on one side of the building were redheads, while those on the other were brunettes.
The (clearly innovative) retailer’s third instantiation in New York City was at the gorgeously ornate 901 Broadway, a building whose architecture has been described as reminiscent of that of Prague. One of the earlier buildings in New York City to be declared a landmark, 901 Broadway is one of the most architecturally unique buildings still standing in Manhattan. But, like many real estate stories here, this one could easily have ended unhappily.
The five-story cast-iron building, finished in 1870, right before the Prussians demolished the Second French Empire that inspired its design, was built on the site of a private residence to house Lord & Taylor, at the time an upscale dry goods store.
Lord & Taylor had, in 1869, entered into an agreement with Robert and Peter Goelet to occupy the property at 895-899 Broadway, and with the Badeau family for the corner lot at 20th Street and Broadway, according to the archives of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The Goelets and Lord & Taylor hired James H. Giles, a Brooklyn architect, to design 901 Broadway. The architect ignored the fashion of the times, eschewing the imitation stonework generally used for cast-iron buildings of the era, and received rave reviews. “The building under consideration is honest-proclaims itself to be iron at a glance. Its wealth of filigree acknowledges with all honesty what it is made of, and could not have been done in stone for millions,” said an 1870 New York Times review.
The Goelets were among New York City’s most significant real estate developers, erecting architecturally important buildings such as the Goelet Building (894-900 Broadway), the Gorham Building (889 Broadway) and the Judge Building (110-112 Fifth Avenue). Robert Goelet was the director of Chemical Bank, which would later become Chase Manhattan.
The Sixth Avenue portion of Ladies’ Mile served middle- and working-class commuters; the Fifth Avenue shopping section was less noisy and cleaner, the precursor to what is now still the most expensive retail space per square foot on earth. This area spilled over onto Broadway and catered to the wealthier clientele of the “carriage trade,” according to New York University historian Mosette Broderick. Lord & Taylor, still a high-end retail concern, is the only remaining brand from Associated Dry Goods Inc. and later May Department stores, once major retail conglomerates.
The building constructed for it has endured as well.
Lord & Taylor’s cachet helped Broadway north of Union Square to develop into a retail destination. Within its first three days, more than 10,000 people rode the store’s steam-powered elevators, then a novelty. Selling men’s and women’s clothing, carpeting and cloth, Lord & Taylor also pioneered new concepts, such as merchandising (the store had the first Christmas display windows). The company took over neighboring 893 Broadway in 1907, when Morrison & Son, another dry goods company, moved uptown, altering the ground-floor storefront on Broadway to match its adjoining building at 895-901 Broadway.
But the retailer had built a small kingdom destined to decay. In 1915, Lord & Taylor departed to its current location, at 38th and Fifth Avenue, following the inevitable flow of retail further uptown. After their departure, both 893 and 901 Broadway were used for manufacturing and fell into obscurity for the better part of the century.
With its mansard roof and intricately ornamental exterior, 901 Broadway was an obvious candidate for landmark status, which it received in 1977. But by 1987, it was the focus of a Times piece highlighting the lack of financial incentives for owners of landmarked buildings to continue their sometimes very expensive upkeep. “Almost by definition, a landmark incorporates craftsmanship and features that are exceedingly difficult to replicate. Consequently, the cost of historically accurate repair work can be staggering.” The owner at the time, Saul Gordon, was letting the building decline rather than hire highly skilled labor. The millions it would cost to restore “would be out of sync with the building’s limited economic potential as a 118-year-old loft building.”
But the tide turned for that area, unquestionably. By 1995, new owner Darius Sakhai was replacing the storefronts and restoring the building’s upper facade. At the time, the building was occupied only by a nightclub on the ground floor.
The developer of Coney Island fame, Joseph Sitt, acquired 901 Broadway in 2006 for $17.375 million through his Thor Equities. In a quiet and surprising transaction in the late summer of 2009, Mr. Sitt sold it to a Spanish businessman, a mysterious self-described “industrialist,” for nearly $25 million, according to The Real Deal. That put the sale at $1,715 per square foot, a staggeringly high price for investment sales in post-Lehman Manhattan. The new owner has not been named, but he paid all cash in a deal that may very well encapsulate a Great Recession trend: first-time foreign buyers picking up New York City buildings with no mortgage.
And 901 Broadway is enjoying renewed retail cachet, despite its dark period in the middle of the 20th century. The ground floor is now occupied by trendy women’s clothing retailer Miss Sixty, with the next three floors rented by a gallery. The fifth floor penthouse remains available. Retail asking rents in the Flatiron area, according to CB Richard Ellis’ latest report, average $276 per square foot annually.