American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 11
Creating New York’s nineteenth-century
retail district

Mona Domosh

The admiration excited by the imposing exterior of this vast block of building—the largest
in this continent, we believe, devoted to the business of a single mercantile firm—is greatly
intensified by an examination of its interior…. The whole building, indeed, is thoroughly
and unmistakably characteristic of Mr. Stewart. Constructed of iron and plenty of glass—
fire-proof, with abundant light and ventilation—perfectly adapted to all its purposes, and
securing the comfort of all within—it betrays the thoughtfulness of a merchant intent
upon business, but not so intent as to be unmindful of the physical necessities of those in
his employ.

(“Stewart’s Store,” Appleton’s Journal of Popular
Literature, Science, and Art
(1870))

The reactions to Stewart’s department store on Broadway between 9th and 10th streets that had opened in 1862 were indeed filled with admiration, not only at its size—an entire block—but at its construction and design (Figure 11.1). Alexander T. Stewart spared no expense in building his new cast-iron palace, using the latest construction materials (glass and iron) and the most fashionable architectural design. That this was thought characteristic of Stewart is not surprising—the building that had previously housed his store was in its time as innovative in design and in location as his new store. In his life as well as his business practices, Stewart characterized the bourgeois spirit of New York until his death in 1876 and the subsequent foundering of his store in the 1880s. He came to epitomize the dry goods “princes” of mid-century New York—men who expanded their stores and decorated them with the latest architectural styles, and who, though probably unconsciously and indirectly, were responsible for reshaping New York’s commercial district.

With the overwhelming primacy of the port of New York as an import-export center by 1830, the dry goods sector of New York’s economy was set for explosive growth. As warehousing activities expanded away from the docks and wharves, the city’s retailers began a spatial movement as well. Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, New York’s retailers continued to locate their stores further up Broadway, not far behind the northward movement of their best customers, the upper and middle classes. In addition, the buildings they had constructed, particularly the department stores, became larger and more ornate and began to incorporate aspects of what has been called the domestic sphere—lounges, art galleries, restaurants, and meeting spots for women. In essence, this new retailing area was a different type of urban environment, one that brought style and

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