THEN: Photo by Moses King’s Handbook of New York City, Second Edition,1893.

NOW: Photo by Brian J. Pape, AIA.

By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

THEN: George Borgfeldt & Co. built its headquarters ca. 1892 at 18-24 Washington Place, southwest corner of Greene Street, filling its 100’ x 100’ lot with its “fire-proof construction.” Moses King described it as “one of the most elegant and commodious business edifices of New York City.”

The Borgfeldt company had quickly outgrown its smaller quarters downtown, since its modest establishment in 1881. The “importing commission” firm handled “European, Oriental and domestic novelties” from “almost every civilized country on the globe.” It was reported that over 500,000 samples of international workmanship and novelties were displayed there, including “notions, fancy goods, stationery…dolls, toys, albums…bronzes, art goods…china, glassware…etc.”

The distinguishing features of this “aristocratic” 8-story (plus two stories below grade) industrial loft is the bold verticality of the pilasters on the corner bays, terminating with keystone arches. Then the top two floors repeat this verticality with miniaturized pilasters and arched top windows, beneath a deep heavy cornice, again limited to the corner bays only. Note how the far end on Greene Street at the left repeats the corner theme, without the cornice elaboration, tying the plain utilitarian intermediary bays with the whole composition.

But some of the most outstanding features are at pedestrian level. Here we see the Egyptian style columns, partly engaged, bowed out from the base, tapering, then flaring at the broad capital, supporting an entablature and brackets at the second floor line, all the way from one end of the building to the other end. Judging by the tonality of the black and white photo, from 1893, these columns would have had polychromatic color schemes, copying the discoveries of ancient Egyptian temples. What a grand gesture these columns must have made.

The primary loading docks, shown here with horses and wagons, barrels and crates, are along the Greene Street side, whereas the office and showroom entry appear on the Washington Place side. At the time, this area of Greenwich Village was rapidly being developed for these types of large business and industrial uses, such as the infamous Brown Building directly across Washington Place, site of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire. A church is on the right of this edifice, and a four-story townhouse resides on the left of it. In this same year, 1893, the company became a “joint-stock corporation.” The company had offices and representatives in many major cities of the world.

NOW: The good news is that the body of this building has been preserved in many details and materials by its new owner, NYU. The bad news is that the storefront base has been defiled beyond recognition.

Behind the rectangular plate-glass windows between square boxed-out walls, the lobby is furnished like a lounge, and original cast iron columns within the lobby remain exposed; it seems open and airy and welcoming.

Perhaps to differentiate this part of Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development from the other parts, NYU chose the unimaginative name of East Building for the former Borgfeldt building, and also gave it the address of 239 Greene Street on their maps, although the lobby/lounge is entered on Washington Place.

Other NYU buildings now occupy the abutting lots on the right and left, as well as every surrounding block, but the fine detail of the upper stories of the East Building can still hold its own with some dignity.

One can’t help but wonder if the boxed columns were simply wrapped around the ornate columns, or were the original columns destroyed in the process of modernizing the storefront? Do any of our readers know?

Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, LEED-AP “green” certified, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee (participating solely in a personal, not an official, capacity. He is also co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, a member of AIANY Historic Buildings and Housing Committees, and is a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.

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