11 April 2011

The Past Lives of Century 21

I doubt if many Century 21 shoppers have noticed—gotta keep your focus forward when bargain shopping—but that beloved downtown shopping mecca has set itself up in a collection of really old buildings. One of the south-facing facades (above) cuts off at the waist what looks like an ancient five-story building, while the east-facing facade (below) cannibalizes a lovely cast-iron building whose cornice says it was once the Germania Building.

The upper windows are all blacked out on both buildings, which meet each other at the back corners. I wonder if Century 21 uses those upper floors for storage, or has just left them empty, abandoning them to the rats and pigeons.

The Germania Building is easier to research, since the cornice handily provides the structures past identity, and its date of erection, 1865. 175 Broadway is its formal address. The building's Civil War age makes it quite remarkable, a real oldie for the area. It hasn't survived in very good condition, but it has survived. It was built for the Germania Fire Insurance Company, which was founded in 1859, at a cost of $40,000. Back then, this part of downtown was the city's insurance district. In 1892, the firm moved to a new eight-story, $200,000 building at the southeast corner of William and Cedar Streets.

As for 12 Cortlandt Street—the building above the shoe store (Century 21's main entrance and habitat is 22 Cortlandt)—that's been around since at least the 1880s. Haberdasher Andrew F. Kennedy made alterations to the building in 1897 before he moved in. His business was still there in 1918, when there was a fight over his will. This was also home to the wonderfully named E. & T. N. Spun Publishers, and the United District Messenger Company. In 1936 the mezzanine was a "busheling room." That's cool, whatever it was. There has also be a restaurant and a doctor's office here. I think it's safe to safe the Century 21 has been 12 Cortlandt's most constant tenant.


Ken Mac said...

always wondered. Thanks for the history.

Karen S. said...

I've learned through doing some ancestry research that 30 Church Street used to be the Locomotive Super Heater Company until they moved out in May 1921. They made combustion engines and my great-grandfather worked there as a mechanical engineer and draftsman. (Google them, it's kind of interesting.)