This is part of the Looking Up series of posts, which explore the unique architectural and historical stories that can be discovered when we raise our gaze above the sidewalk, the storefront, and the second floor.
Above the display windows of Crate & Barrel, and the crowded Broadway and Houston Street sidewalks, is a facade of uniquely decorative flourishes that hint at a time of transition for New York’s infrastructure.
Two sculptures of classically-garbed women stand astride a massive circular window, sitting atop a pediment that reads ‘The Cable Building.’ This building at 611-621 Broadway is a massive structure, and was included within the boundaries of the NoHo Historic District. The ‘cable’ in the building’s name refers not the kind of cable that transmits telegraph, telephone, or television, but the kind that pulls cable cars. Built from 1892 to 1894 by the Broadway & Seventh Avenue Railroad Company (later the Metropolitan Traction Company), the building was a unique example of a multi-use structure. It housed in its lower floors the machinery needed to propel much of the Broadway cable car system, with a large office building above. Four 32-foot wheels kept the network of cables in motion for as many as sixty cable cars traveling up and down Broadway from the Battery to Midtown (the cars moved by clamping on to the moving cable embedded in the street).
The building was built with a steel and iron frame, with terra cotta and stone facing by the noted firm of McKim, Mead, and White. The New York Times noted “Although the large windows clearly denote a commercial space, the delicate terra cotta, light orange brick and elaborate copper cornice are characteristic of more monumental design. The sculptor J. Massey Rhind designed two colossal female figures flanking the doorway — commissioned sculpture is also unusual on commercial buildings. The Real Estate Record and Guide called the new Cable Building ”the highest achievement of the art” and remarked that, with its example, ‘no excuse remains for building cheaply or meanly on any New York City property.’”
As the prediction of the demise of ‘cheaply’ or ‘meanly’ made buildings didn’t quite pan out, neither did the Metropolitan Traction Company’s hopes for business success. Less than a decade after the building and its massive steam-powered cable moving machinery were constructed, electric technology made it obsolete. In May of 1901 the final cable car trundled down Broadway and the line was electrified. A few years later in 1904 the subway system would begin opening and connecting the city.
The building would stand to see the significant widening of Houston Street in the 1930s and housed many small-scale manufacturers and offices, including businesses like National Pants, Hercules Shoe Lace and the Doll Parts Manufacturing Association.
By the mid-1980s after changes in ownership, the building was largely converted back to office use, and in 1989, the Angelika Film Center opened on the southwest side of the building, occupying much of the space that previously housed the cable car machinery.