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Beyond the Village and Back: The ‘Marble Palace’ A.T. Stewart Store at 280 Broadway

In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.

The A.T. Stewart Store, now better known as the Sun Building, was first built in 1845-46 by New York architects Joseph Trench and John B. Snook for the prosperous and pioneering merchant Alexander Turney Stewart (October 12, 1803 — April 10, 1876). This magnificent Italian Renaissance “Marble Palace” at 280 Broadway, designated an NYC individual landmark on October 7, 1986, is one of Manhattan’s most significant 19th century structures. As documented in the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report, it housed the country’s first department store, and introduced a new architectural mode for mercantile buildings, which endured into the 20th century. It also bears a strong connection to our neighborhoods, particularly two great landmarks — one demolished, one still with us.

The Sun Building, c. 1917. Photo courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

The store’s original namesake, Alexander Turney Stewart, was an Irish immigrant and a business legend, collecting one of the greatest private fortunes in the United States during the 1800s. First operating a storefront at 283 Broadway, 262 Broadway, and then 257 Broadway, Stewart began learning how to astutely develop and maintain a dry-goods business. As commercial enterprises around the city failed during the Panic of 1837, Stewart managed to accumulate a profit and purchase the inventories of merchants whose financial downturn forced them to sell their stock. By the end of the Panic, he had become a millionaire.

Stewart acquired the land on the southeast corner of Broadway and Reade Streets in October 1844, and by early April 1845 began preparing the lots for construction. Amazingly, this storied site had previously been the home of Washington Hall, the Federalist Party headquarters. When the majestic marble A.T. Stewart building appeared, opening on September 21, 1846, it was like nothing people had seen or experienced elsewhere in the city. Previously, the neighborhood streetscape was defined by predominantly low-scale and simply constructed architecture. Although business owners might convert former residential buildings into commercial ones, the conglomeration of additions would often leave these mercantile spaces inefficient, poorly organized, dark, and inadequately ventilated. By contrast, Stewart’s Italian Renaissance palace, which introduced a new architectural mode to the United States, opened up a new realm of possibility for commercial architecture. 280 Broadway, initially four stories tall, was furthermore the first building in city to be clad in tuckahoe marble, which, like the Italianate style, became the standard for high end retail thereafter. By 1848, Stewart had left an indelible mark on the city and become one of the wealthiest men in America.  

Sun Building, 280 Broadway, 2019. Photo courtesy of Google Streetview.

The A.T. Stewart Building was designed to embody quality and novelty. Stewart worked closely with architects Snook and Trench to design the marble-faced building, evoking wealth, power, luxury, and extravagance. The first part of the store was erected on the southeast corner of Broadway and Reade, then was extended with an additional fifth floor in May 1850, and again in 1852-53 and 1872. In 1884, Edward D. Harris designed an addition to the building, adding two floors to the previous five. While the exterior drew much attention, the interior usage broke new ground as well. As the country’s first department store, 280 Broadway became one of the most desirable and alluring destinations for New Yorkers and tourists alike. Stewart was among the first to set fixed prices for his goods, and drew female customers through special sales and fashion shows. Meanwhile, structures up and down Broadway and its side streets emerged in A.T. Stewart’s image, completely remaking the character of the neighborhood. (Much later, between 1919 and 1952, the newspaper The Sun was located here, giving the building its present name.)

By 1853, however, the A.T. Stewart Department Store had achieved such a high level of success it had outgrown even this most glorious, purpose-built structure. On November 21, 1855, Stewart leased 29 lots between Broadway, East 9th Street, East 10th Street, and Astor Place. Four years later, in 1859, Stewart began constructing his next palazzo on this block, which would be focused on retail. At this time, 280 Broadway was exclusively used as a warehouse for wholesale trade. Opening on November 1862, the next A.T. Stewart store had arrived, this time in the neighborhood South of Union Square.

A.T. Stewart Department Store building at 70 East 10th Street, 1918. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

This new architectural feat, designed by John Kellum, was no less astonishing than its predecessor. When completed in 1862, the A. T. Stewart Department Store was the largest building in New York, and one of the first, if not the very first, to use structural steel to hold it up. The new store was described by a journalist from The Independent in 1863 as “…the first and only one of its kind in the world constructed wholly of iron, standing alone, unsupported by any surrounding walls. It is an enduring monument to the mind that conceived it, and the architect who executed it.” Designed in the Italian palazzo style, the white-painted, five-story structure featured street-level sheets of plate glass between tall Corinthian columns, and four higher tiers adorned with 84 identically arched windows.

Inside, the upper floors had a central open space topped by a great central rotunda and a huge skylight. The entire exterior was made of cast iron, and unlike Stewart’s first department store, which was known as “The Marble Palace” for its grand and sumptuous marble exterior, this store was known as “The Iron Palace.” Its construction marked the northward growth of the high-end commercial emporia known in its time as “Ladies’ Mile.”

Stewart died in 1876, but the A. T. Stewart & Co. store on Broadway and 10th Street continued on for six years. Hilton, Hughes & Co. then took over the operation in 1882, but failed four years later. After that, Wanamaker’s Department Store, founded by John Wanamaker (1839-1922) in Philadelphia, moved to this New York location in 1896. Eleven years later, the department store had constructed a huge annex across East 9th Street to the south of its main original building at 770 Broadway.

770 Broadway, 2020. Photo courtesy of Vornado Realty Trust.

The full block building at 770 Broadway was designed by Daniel H. Burnham & Co. (also designers around the same time of the Flatiron Building) in two stages: one in 1903-07, and another in 1924-25. Clad mostly in terra cotta, this grand neo-Renaissance shopping palace contained thirty-two acres of retail space; a central court; an auditorium with 1,300 seats and an important pipe organ and where ambitious musicales were held with top musicians and orchestras; and a large restaurant to round out the shopping experience. In 1945, 770 Broadway continued to make history when its auditorium was converted into one of the city’s first television studios.

The “Bridge of Progress” over 9th Street between the original Wanamakers (l.) and the Warehouse Annex (r.), 1924, from Broadway, looking east. Photo courtesy of the MCNY Digital Collections.

The two Wanamaker buildings share a deeply intertwined history. A bridge was erected by Wanamaker over East 9th Street, connecting the two buildings, and the elegant connector-in-the-sky came to be known as “The Bridge of Progress.” A tunnel also ran under 9th Street, linking the structures. On April 24, 1928 the section of 9th Street between Broadway and Fourth Avenue that separated the old and new Wanamaker buildings was renamed by the Board of Aldermen to Wanamaker Place. The gesture was officially in honor of the public services of the late Rodman Wanamaker; however, it also paid tribute to the gargantuan retail establishment that straddled the street.

Wanamaker’s departure from our neighborhood was sparked by a broader migration of retail uptown, once again, to Herald Square and Midtown. While the former A.T. Stewart store was in the process of being demolished, an enormous fire broke out. The New York Times reported that the blaze took 25 hours to control, and 187 firefighters were injured. The Broadway BMT subway (today’s N/R) and the Lexington IRT (today’s 4/5/6) were closed, as were the surrounding streets, including Broadway and Fourth Avenue. With an estimated 50,000,000 gallons of water used on the fire, the Astor Place station was completely flooded. The track foundation for the IRT line was washed away, and the Transit Authority feared that Fourth Avenue might itself collapse. The BMT and IRT lines were completely shut down for two days and normal service was not restored for five days. A week later, Fourth Avenue remained closed from 8th Street to 11th Street as repairs continued. Luckily, the Wanamaker annex at 770 Broadway survived the event, and was designated an NYC landmark as part of the NoHo Historic District on June 29, 1999.

770 Broadway, showing where the “Bridge of Progress” used to connect to the building, 2020. Photo courtesy of Google Streetview.

Back downtown, in 1966, New York City acquired 280 Broadway to be demolished in a plan to redevelop the Civic Center, which fortunately did not come to fruition. Since then, the NYC Department of Buildings has occupied the structure for decades as its headquarters. A no-longer-working clock from the era when The Sun newspaper was located here remains on the Broadway corner of the building reading “The Sun… It Shines for All.”

The Sun clock at 280 Broadway.

Today, a 21-story, full-block apartment building stands on the site of the old A.T. Stewart Department Store on Broadway and 10th Street, built c. 1960 and designed by Sylvan Bien. Named for its predecessor, the Stewart House beckons not only to the history of this lot, but to the lot farther to the south, at 280 Broadway. The legacy of Stewart’s two groundbreaking structures is tremendous, visible throughout the urban landscape between and beyond these sites, which recalls the neighborhood’s history of architectural and commercial innovation.

Stewart House, 70 East 10th Street.

Protect the Area South of Union Square

Today, there are many remarkable extant buildings in the neighborhood South of Union Square that recall the area’s expansive history. Given the increased pressure on the neighborhood exacerbated by the construction of the 14th Street Tech Hub, the time is now for the city to act to protect these buildings and their surroundings.

Urge the city to protect this vital history and neighborhood NOW – click here.

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