builtmanhattan | Architect: Field & Correja | Location: 359 Broadway | 1859 |
The history of commerce in America has to pass through A.T. Stewart’s primordial department store a few blocks down from here, with its fixed prices, patient clerks, and overwhelming variety of luxury goods available under one roof. 90 feet by 123 feet by four stories (it later grew north, east, and up by accretion), and faced with white marble when only the buildings of New York’s rich and powerful were, it announced itself as something exceptional—something in the city yet quite apart from it. (Henry James would later remember it as “the ladies’ great shop, vast, marmorean, plate-glassy and notoriously fatal to the female nerve.”) Its model was so irresistible that for decades afterward, ambitious retail would deploy its Italianate style, with its echoes of the giant shoebox palazzos of Renaissance Venice and Rome, to signify SHOPPING and LUXURY.
359 Broadway wasn’t quite that ambitious, certainly not a palazzo in scale, and looks like hell now. But like many other buildings in the shopping district that sprang up in its wake, it borrows from the A.T. Stewart store’s sense style: it too has marble out on the front, though it’s somewhat less minimalist in detailing, with every story recieving a different window treatment. 359 wasn’t a retail emporium, either (not at first) but offered adjacent and dependent pleasures. The first floor featured, for a time, Thompson’s saloon, serving the city’s best ice cream in the days before refrigeration. (Henry James would later remember it as “grave and immemorial.”) The top three floors are where Matthew B. Brady set up shop through most of the 1850s, taking daguerrotypes and ambrotypes of the rich (such as a young Henry James) and famous, but the merely well-off too. Both businesses fed off the foot traffic from A.T. Stewart’s and other stores: young women would buy things (or maybe just look), have lunch, maybe get their portrait taken, often on the same trip. 359’s history, then, shows a codification of shopping in New York City as a pleasurable, strolling activity, not unlike we understand it today.