Why Isn’t This Landmarked?: 815 Broadway
Part of our blog series Why Isn’t This Landmarked?, where we look at buildings in our area we’re fighting to protect that are worthy of landmark designation, but somehow aren’t landmarked.
The area south of Union Square is rich in architectural and social history which needs and deserves historic district (landmark) protections, which we have been fighting for but the City has resisted granting. One easily overlooked but important piece of that puzzle is 815 Broadway, a 2-story neo-Renaissance style galvanized iron-faced commercial building constructed in 1897 by architect John C. Westervelt. Within this tiny building was located one of the city’s most prominent photographic studios (at a time when photography was still a relatively new and novel invention) and later one of the country’s most innovative food service establishments. Intriguingly, it was also here that a legendary American criminal who has gained mythic status made a fateful mistake which led to his demise.
The building’s architect, John Westervelt, graduated from Cornell University with the degree of Bachelor of Science in Architecture in the class of 1894. In 1897, after serving as a draftsman for several architectural firms, he began an architectural practice of his own.
One of his first independent commissions was for 815 Broadway, which he built for the Roosevelt family. Of course we know the famous Roosevelt family as the progenitors of U.S. Presidents, but the Roosevelts were, in the late 1800s, prosperous Dutch merchants who built widely, mainly for investment purposes.
The building initially housed De Young’s Photo Studio, advertised as “the largest photographic gallery in the city.” The area south of Union Square at this time was a center of photographers and photographic innovation , as it was a place where commerce, art, and popular culture converged.
One of the thousands who utilized the services of De Young’s photo studio was Henry Longabaugh, who in 1901 had his picture taken with his companion Ethel Place just before departing for a long trip they were planning.
Sounds innocent enough, right? But Henry Longabaugh is better known as ‘The Sundance Kid,’ who along with his partner in crime Butch Cassidy pulled off the longest successful string of bank and train robberies in American history. In fact, they had just completed this string and were fleeing authorities and Pinkerton detectives when Longabaugh and Place arrived in New York headed to South America, where they hoped to give their pursuers the slip. It was actually Longabaugh’s fateful decision to have his picture taken at De Young’s and the photographic evidence that it left behind which helped lead authorities to him and Cassidy in Bolivia, where they were killed. Of course Butch and Sundance’s flight was immortalized on film in 1969 by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, with Katherine Ross playing Ethel Place. Redford memorialized that career-making role by naming the film festival he founded after it, The Sundance Festival, which takes place each year in Park City, Utah and has become a cornerstone of the international film industry, especially independent film.
By 1910, 815 Broadway housed a branch of Child’s Restaurant, one of the first restaurant chains in America. Child’s has a very interesting history in our city. The first Childs Restaurant was launched in 1889 by brothers Samuel S. Childs and William Childs, on the ground level of the Merchants Hotel (current site of One Liberty Plaza, also previously the Singer Building), at 41 Cortlandt Street, in the Financial District. The brothers’ concept for the establishment was to provide economical meals to the working class, quickly, with an unusually high emphasis – for the period – on cleanliness and hygiene. Their novel design format included white tiles, white uniforms, and waitresses instead of then-common waiters. Within five years, Childs had grown to five profitable locations throughout New York City. They also are credited as inventors of the “tray line” self-service cafeteria format, which they introduced in 1898 at their 130 Broadway location
Just to add a little “Beyond the Village and Back” vibe to this blog, a later Child’s Restaurant building in Coney Island is a New York City Landmark! The historic building, at West 21st Street along the Riegelmann Boardwalk, was constructed in 1923 and designed by Dennison & Hirons “in a fanciful resort style combining elements of the Spanish Colonial Revival with numerous maritime allusions that refer to its seaside location,” per its landmark designation report. The restaurant shuttered in the 1950s. A candy manufacturer set up shop in the location, and remained there until the 1980s. Until the city decided to rehabilitate the property, it sat in various states of decay.
815 Broadway’s impressive architectural style and historical connection to the Roosevelt Family and De Young’s Photo Studio warrants recognition and preservation. Currently lacking in landmark protections, this and many surrounding buildings in the area South of Union Square could be torn down at any time.