Wednesday, May 8, 2013

From the Archives: B. Altman's Palace of Trade Moves Uptown

Today our 34th Street archivist, Anne Kumer, shares some retail history of the district. This post also appears on NYC Circa.

Retailer Benjamin Altman of Altman & Co. opened his first large store in 1886 at Sixth Avenue and 19th Street. Though he previously occupied smaller stores in various parts of the city, this location was quickly dubbed "Palace of Trade" for its vast inventory and size. Business was great, and soon Altman was looking to expand yet again. Noticing the increasing numbers of mansions appearing along Fifth Avenue, he chose the corner of  West 34th Street and Fifth Avenue for the new flagship location of his store. At the time, the area was quiet, residential, and didn't look at all like it would support a large retail outlet.

34th Street looking east from Fifth Avenue, 1870. Image: NYHS

Altman purchased his first lot under an employee's name (Benjamin Jenkins) rather than his own, on the SE corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in 1892. Shortly after, he set up the Wallingford Realty Company to handle all future transactions. Between 1892 and 1904, the company brokered a total of 28 purchases and long-term leases on behalf of Altman, gradually taking control of almost the entire block between 34th and 35th Streets and Madison and Fifth Avenues. By the time construction of the new building began in 1905, there was still one "holdout" building on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, occupied by the Knoedler Gallery. Altman would have to wait another five years to acquire that property and expand the store all the way to Madison Avenue. In the meantime, on October 6, 1906 the new store opened for business.
Corner of 35th Street (left) and Fifth Avenue looking SE, 1906. The shorter building to the far right is the "holdout" property at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. Image: LOC
The gallery held onto their corner until their lease ended in 1910 and they were forced to give up the property. Altman wasted no time on the store expansion he'd envisioned many years prior. He died just before the full-block expansion was completed in 1913, but just after he founded the philanthropic organization, the Altman Foundation.
Corner of Fifth Avenue (left) and 34th Street (right), just after the building's addition along Madison Avenue, about 1915. Image: MCNY
The interior of the Altman store was designed in a Palazzo style reminiscent of the Parisian Bon Marché, one of the world's first department stores. Skylights filtered light into the center of the main arcade, and steps led customers to multiple levels of departments that sold just about everything imaginable. A consummate traveler, Altman was known to go on yearly buying trips around the world in search of new and diverse merchandise.

Interior of the B. Altman arcade, 1908 Image: NYPL
Most, if not all, of the extensive bronze and iron work in the building was done by Brooklyn-based company Hecla Bronze and Iron Works. NYPL has several images in their digital archive of the Hecla Bronze and Iron Works building -- which thankfully is landmarked -- including their showroom with vaulted ceilings.

B. Altman & Co. was primarily known for catering to a well-off female customer. One who could spend hours looking at furs:

Selling floor for furs, 1914. Image: NYPL
And one who pursued the latest fashion trends. I was possibly born in the wrong century. I would wear all of these blouses today, right now.

Page from the B. Altman & Co. 1913 Summer Apparel catalog. Image: Duke University
The prude in me wishes bathing suits would move a little back in time and cover more skin like the ones shown here. The one second from the left is especially fetching. Bonus: all the lady ones are work-appropriate by today's standards! And black -- so much black! (I love it).

Page from the B. Altman & Co. 1913 Summer Apparel catalog. Image: Duke University
Aside from being at the forefront of fashion, Altman's was known for popularizing retail business practices that would eventually become commonplace. The best example is the story of the extremely wealthy and miserly Hetty Green (pictured here and here) purchasing a bolt of fabric from the Altman's at Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th streets sometime in the mid-1800s, and then deciding she didn't like it. Returning merchandise was not accepted practice, but Mrs. Green went back to the store and asked for an exchange or her money back. Altman himself granted the return and she was so grateful that she vowed to act as guarantor to any future business loans. He never took her up on her offer, but they did stay in touch, and she introduced Altman to several of her financier acquaintances, who in turn got him interested in art collecting. Over the years, Altman amassed a massive art collection, now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. You can read the collection handbook here and see some of the pieces here.

After several more successful decades, the Altman company was forced to sell the store to the L.J. Hooker Retail Group in 1985 and close the building in 1989. Today, the building is primarily occupied by City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, and the NYPL Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL), but from the outside it still looks like a palace of trade.

Other Sources:
-Altman Company Department Store Building, 335-371 Fifth Avenue. Landmarks Preservation Commission, March 12, 1985; designation list 176, LP-1274
-Bruce, John S. Jr. 100 The First Century: A History of B. Altman & Co.
-Hendrickson, Robert. The Grand Emporiums: The Illustrated History of America's Great Department Stores.
-Zola, Emile. The Ladies' Paradise.
-Department Store museum website


Anonymous said...

I work at the Graduate Center and sometimes I forget or take for granted how beautiful the building is. Thank you for this post!