Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A True New York Story

A good few years ago, VB sent us a nice scan of a fold-up map that was given away as a freebe by MTA in honor of an anniversary they were celebrating, probably the 2004 centennial. This giveaway was a re-print of an old map. When it was originally published, it was sponsored by a shopping center who's building was prominently displayed in the center. I can't find the scan now, but the place of business was an impressive looking building near Astor Place, and was identified as "Stewart's"... most likely "Stewart's Cast Iron Palace" or something similar.

I remember trying to find information on this place via a few different searches. Finding nothing definitive, I decided to hoof it down there to see what (if anything) stood there now. In what appeared to be the location indicated on the map now stands an incredibly impressive building which WAS an important shopping center... though it was markedly different from Stewart's as it appeared sketched on that map.

Well I sort of filed that whole story in the back of my mind, and slowly over time the information presented itself. And to my delight, the story keeps getting better and better.

NOTE: I had written the above (and what follows) a day or so ago, and have since discovered more information. A.T. Stewart's Cast Iron Palace was NOT the business establishment featured on that map. It was in fact Mark Arnheim Tayloring... another five story building erected next to the Cast Iron Palace, touted as The World's Largest Tayloring Establishment. Will follow up about Arnheim later, as he too has a story to tell.

As it turns out, if I had just known the actual name of this Stewart, this was mostly all spelled out in a single Wikipedia entry. But I took the long route, including a book I just purchased at The Strand to get the details.

In a little cul-de-sac in Greenwich Village next to the Cherry Lane theater is a nifty looking 19th Century three story brick home with a plaque that explains that this was once the home of A.T. Stewart, the Merchant Prince. At the time when this building was erected, this neighborhood was home to the wealthy New Yorkers who fled the overcrowding and disease ridden lower Manhattan. Massive amounts of resources were spent during this period developing the land, including changing the course of the streams, draining the swamps, and laying out streets among the farms, fields, and orchards. Stewart was among these men of great means.

Immigrating from Ireland as a youth, he arrived with a decent amount of money in his pocket... saved from working as a stock boy in a retail store. Later he inherited another decent amount from his family's estate. Not enough to make a man wealthy, but enough to get him started in a retail business in New York City. He also married into a well established family over here.

Through hard work and ingenuity, he re-defined the nature of the retail store. He included a show room above the store with full length mirrors, so ladies could try on their wares before making the purchase. This seemed to attract an affluent clientele, and soon his dry goods shop became a lucrative outlet for the fashionably dressed.

In an effort to expand his clientele, he dreamed up a risky scheme which payed off in spades. He put together a catalog of items and used the US Mail to send these westward across the country. With the use of a system known as Wells Fargo, he would deliver items to consumers across the ever expanding nation.

He took these successes and leveraged a MAJOR real estate venture. He erected what will always be known as the first true shopping center... The Marble Palace. This was in Lower Manhattan, just immediately north of City Hall. This "palace" is still there. It is still an impressive building, even by today's standards. It was so impressive, taking up the entire city block, that eventually "The New York Sun" newspaper took over the space. (You may remember "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus")

Since this shopping center proved to be a success, and while New York City itself was expanding northward, he next erected The Cast Iron Palace. At the time, the Astor Library (now NYC's premier Shakespeare repertory theater, The Public Theater) as well as the Astor Opera House were among his neighbors. This was during the architectural revolution taking place where the use of cast iron as a structural material was allowing buildings to go higher than had ever been dreamed. This all taking place around the Civil War era, 1860's or there about. The garment industry had flourished in NYC sparked by the need for uniforms for the Union soldiers. This infrastructure quickly turned to fashion for the masses.

Later he took this fortune and entered the Rail Road business, owning a lucrative stretch of rails that eventually became part of The Long Island Rail Road.

By now he had moved up to what may have been the first of many true mansions along 5th Avenue, his being way out of town on 34th Street. It no longer exists.

Eventually, after his time on Earth, an even larger shopping center was constructed on the adjacent block to the Cast Iron Palace. This was the old Wannamaker's department store, one of two, the original being in Philadelphia. This is the building that still stands today. Wannamaker purchased The Cast Iron Palace and built the even larger building across the street, connecting the two via several cross walks high above the street bellow. Unfortunately, The Cast Iron Palace burned to the ground in a terrible fire... terrible enough to burn a cast iron building. Today a 1950s era condominium stands in this location, and while architecturally not to everybody's taste, it is quite impressive in size.

OK, so I found where he came from, where he lived, where he made his fortune, and the fate of the Cast Iron Palace. But were was he laid to rest??? Well that's where it gets REALLY interesting... and I can't make this up.

So after his death in 1876, he was buried in an exclusive location that few people could afford, in the main yard of The Church of St. Marks on the Bowery, next to former governors and mayors (some dating back to the British Colonial days). Heck, even the DUTCH Director General of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, has his bones and peg leg interred in the wall of that church.

At the time of his death, it is estimated that his estate which passed on to his widow was $40 Million... that's $40 Million in 1876 dollars, not adjusted for inflation.

Now here's where it gets weird... "poor" AT Stewart apparently was not destined to Rest In Peace. Not long after his death, grave robbers busted up the flat stone laid horizontally on the church ground, cut through the copper vault, broke through the wooden casket, and stole Stewart's remains. Anonymously, the thieves hired a lawyer to negotiate with his estate for a ransom of the remains, which apparently WAS paid and the body was returned to be buried in a different location.