Construction History: Small Details

The picture above sent me down a rabbit hole of minor research. I could continue looking for a long time, but I suspect diminishing returns will set in soon: the building that interests me just isn’t famous enough to have left much a mark.

The building on the left, the home of the Insurance Monitor and Kings County Fire Insurance, is 139 Broadway. (Presumably this is the Manhattan branch of the insurance company and the main headquarters was in Brooklyn, in Kings County.) In the form shown here, it appears to date from the early 1860s. This photograph was taken around 1895.

In 1855 there were two small buildings at 139 and 141 Broadway, on the very small block of small buildings bounded by Broadway, Temple Street, Cedar Street, and Liberty Street:

Two years later, they might have been replaced by newer matched buildings, although this may have been a couple of alterations and expansions. If you look closely, 139 appears to have changed little, getting a new skylight, while 141 is deeper than it was before. There might have been not much change at all.

Nothing much changed by 1894 except for (see below) the facade of 139. The building to the south, at 135-137 Broadway grew from five to six stories, and 139 and 141 both got wood-framed additions in their rear yards:

The last map represents the same era as the photo, so it’s a good place to think about what was going on here. The floor levels in the two buildings do not align, which is as good a sign as any that they were built at different times by different owners. 139 has a cast-iron facade, while 141 has cast-iron storefronts at the basement and first floor, with masonry above. Both have a readily-accessible basement level with a high stoop to reach the first floor, something that today we associate with rowhouses, but was sometimes used for commercial buildings in the first half of the 1800s. But full cast-iron fronts only became popular in the late 1850s and didn’t really catch on until the 1860s, and the date in the pediment is 1863, so it looks like there was another alteration. (Note also that the photo above shows the additional, sixth floor at 135-137.

The stoops on both buildings are the detail that started this mess. They’re fascinating. You can see through gaps between the individual treads, so these are open iron stairs as the main entrances to the two buildings. That is quite rare in the surviving buildings of that era, but now I’m wondering if it was more common in commercial buildings than in the industrial loft buildings that make up a large percentage of the survivors. The purpose of the iron stairs may have been to let more light into the basement windows, which matters a great deal if the basement is rentable office or retail space.

Things changed shortly afterwards: the north end of the block, including 141, was demolished for the Washington Life Insurance Company Building, an early skyscraper completed in 1898. Washington Life bought 139 and in 1902 demolished it and replaced it with a much more ornate three-story bank building. Then in 1967, the entire block was demolished to create the plaza now called Zuccotti Park, as part of the U.S. Steel Building project.

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