Retail Rising

488 Broadway - Haughwout's Department Store (LEO Design)

In 1857, New York City merchant E.V. Haughwout (pronounced “How-it”) built a five story building at 488 Broadway (and Broome) to house his emporium of expensive luxury goods including antiques, silver, crystal, china, chandeliers, bronzes and other irresistible treasures. His carriage trade clientele included Mrs. Lincoln who purchased the White House’s hand-painted china at his store.

Two things made the building revolutionary.  First, because it had two “fronts” (one facing Broadway, one facing Broome), two cast iron façades would be required—which, together, would have been heavy enough to pull-down the building.  So, instead of attaching the façades to the building (as was done in the past), the architect anchored the façades to the bedrock (thus supporting their own weight) and attached the interior building to these exteriors. Not only did this make the building durable and safe, but it provided the technological genesis for the skyscrapers which were soon to come.

The building’s second cutting-edge feature was its elevator—the world’s first successful passenger lift—installed on this day in 1857.  Although the building was only five storeys tall (and didn’t require an elevator), Haughwout knew that his $300 investment in Mr. Otis’s invention would bring curiosity-seekers into the shop, traffic that would increase his sales. Operated by a hydraulic system powered by a basement steam engine, Haughwout’s elevator presaged the architectural period to come—when skyscrapers could be built only because of safe, reliable passenger elevators.

One can still see Haughwout’s revolutionary building, though his shop and elevator are both long-gone. It stands less than a mile away from our (more modest) emporium of Handsome Gifts (one floor, no elevator).