Some years back, we had a series called ‘What’s In A Name?,’ exploring the reason behind some of the names found on buildings, streets, parks, or other locations in our area that we perhaps don’t give much thought to.
One such example in our neighborhood might be the Stewart House. Built c. 1960 and located at 70 East 10th Street between Fourth Avenue and Broadway, this 21-story, full-block apartment building was designed by Sylvan Bien. If you thought they chose the name ‘Stewart House’ just because it has a nice ring to it, you’re wrong.
To explain how it got that name, one has to dig into the history of the site. The prior occupant was the Wannamaker Department Store, which was destroyed by a fire in the late-1950s. Wanamakers Department Store was founded by John Wanamaker (1839-1922) following the Civil War in Philadelphia. In 1896 the retail giant expanded to New York City, and moved into a large cast-iron building located here on the block bounded by Broadway, Fourth Avenue, East 9th Street, and East 10th Street.
Wanamaker thrived in the Big Apple — so much so that by 1907 the department store constructed a huge annex across East 9th Street to the south of its main original building. Fourteen stories in height, it was designed by D.H. Burnham & Co. (also designers around the same time of the Flatiron Building). As if the huge, elegant neo-Renaissance cube of a building was not landmark enough, a bridge was erected by Wannaker over East 9th Street connecting the two buildings; the elegant connector-in-the-sky came to be known as “The Bridge of Progress.”
In fact, if you look at the old Wannamaker Annex today (also known as 770 Broadway), you can make out a faint discolored outline in the marble facade where the Bridge used to connect to the building.
Unlike the original Wannamaker Store, the massive warehouse annex building survives today, and is the northernmost piece of the NoHo Historic District, though the bridge of course came down when the Wannamaker Store burned to the ground (a similar bridge still survives not far away in the Meatpacking District, connecting what is today Chelsea Market with a building across 15th Street).
But while this all this Wannamaker history may be interesting, it still doesn’t explain why Stewart House bears this name. The real reason is because before the Philadelphia-based retailer moved into the cast-iron building previously located here, it was actually built for and served as the home for decades of another major retailer — the A.T. Stewart Department store.
Alexander Turney Stewart (1803-1876) was born in Ireland and came to New York City in 1823. He opened his first store that year at 283 Broadway, selling linens and fabrics from Ireland. He was quite successful, and in 1846 opened what would be the first section of his new retail space across the street at 280 Broadway. Clad in Tuckahoe marble and designed by Trench and Snook, it was known as the “Marble Palace,” standing out amongst other retailers clad in the earth tones of common brick. Eventually, the store would encompass most of the block.
The interior of No. 280 had a balcony gallery at the center with a 70-foot-wide dome rotunda offering a shopping experience like no other at the time. This design encouraged shoppers to stroll through the interior and peruse the store’s wares. It was estimated by a journalist in 1853 that Stewart’s yearly business was about $7 million. In 1862, Stewart moved his business to a new purpose-built structure at East 9th Street and Broadway, at the base of what come to be known at Ladies Mile.
Stewart passed away in 1876, one of the richest men in New York. His magnificent “Iron Palace” would continue its retail use until the 1950s when it closed, was planned for demolition, and then suffered a devastating fire. But now you know when you are walking by Stewart House on East 10th Street, there are many layers of Greenwich Village and New York history behind that name.