For almost 25 years, the southeast corner of Broadway and East 4th Street was an often cacophonous mecca for music lovers from around New York City and visitors around the world. Tower Records, which opened at 692 Broadway in 1983, was the place to go to find new and old music on vinyl and later CDs in a massive store that stretched all the way east to Lafayette Street. But the 12-story building that housed Tower started off servicing a completely different industry that has called our city home since the mid-19th century: the textile trade.
The structure was built in 1909 as the Silk Building, the name still inscribed in a decorated frieze over granite columns at the 14 East 4th Street entrance (the block-long building also goes by its 388 Lafayette Street address). The landmark opened at the tail end of a long and busy period of construction in the area dating back to the 1890s, with larger buildings replacing older five- and six-story loft buildings. “High rents for commercial and industrial space along Broadway produced the right economic climate for the construction of larger buildings and also spurred the development of new loft buildings on the side streets,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Commission in its 1999 designation report for the NoHo Historic District, which includes the Silk Building. “The textile trades — silk, wool, cotton, hosiery, underwear, knitted goods, and commission houses — were centered in the area.”
Around the time the Silk Building was completed, the area began to experience declining rents and property values. Lured by the desire to be closer to major department stores around Herald Square, the lace, silk, ribbon, wool, and embroidery industries began to move away in large numbers, leaving many of the district’s buildings empty. Clothing manufacture continued in the building and its neighbors for decades, but loft floors were divided for sweatshops or small-scale manufacturers, used for storage, or left empty.
In 1982, developer David C. Walentas converted most of the building’s 12 stories into luxury condominiums, luring celebrity clientele that has included Russel Simmons, Keith Richards, and Britney Spears. The following year, Tower Records, billed as the world’s largest record store at the time, opened and signaled a new era of retailing (for better or worse) in this part of the neighborhood. Today, the Silk Building is still home to many high-end residents and on the third floor NYU Shanghai’s Office of Human Resources in New York. Since Tower closed in 2006, the large ground-floor retail space has been home to a Blink fitness studio, the MLB Fan Cave, and most recently Build Studio, which closed during the pandemic.
Beyond the structure’s name, nothing remains on the outside that reflects its history, but inside the building’s lobby are two friezes — one of female workers spinning silk on looms into clothes, the other of ancient Chinese silk production — that remind the Silk Building’s occupants of its origins in the textile trade.