For the last three years, I’ve worked at 841 Broadway between 13th and 14th Streets. This week my office is moving uptown, so I thought I’d give my old building one last hurrah.
And it’s certainly worth a hurrah. Architect Stephen D. Hatch built this spectacular building in 1894. In Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure, historian David Freeland calls it “a Romanesque confection of twisted columns and terra cotta ornamentation.” It’s also ostensibly fireproof, though apparently that didn’t stop a blaze from tearing through the building in 1903. (Mocked the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide: “Nothing burns so readily as a fireproof building.”)
841 is sometimes known as the Roosevelt Building, since it was built on land once owned by Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt. Here’s a photo of Cornelius’ property as Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession passes by in 1865.
Family members John, Frank, James A., Robert Barnwell, and W. Emlen Roosevelt were all initial shareholders of the building. You can still see an R and a B on the crests flanking the Broadway arch.
It’s also called the Hackett-Carhart Building after the clothiers who occupied the ground floor in the early 1900s. For much of the early 20th century, 841 Broadway was a hub for apparel distributors and manufacturers like the Crown Suspender Company, the Nanotuck Silk Company, Brainard & Armstrong, and the Altman Neckwear Company.
But for all the bowties, braces, blouses, and bloomers produced here, no clothier holds a candle to the historical importance of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. The company was founded by William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, a former protege of Thomas Edison who helped Edison with his kinetoscope, an early experiment in moving pictures. By 1895, Dickson had grown so disillusioned with the Wizard of Menlo Park that he left the company and joined forces with Herman Casler, the inventor of a rival technology called a mutoscope.
Unlike a kinetoscope, which relied on expensive film and a complex system of gears and feeds, the cheaper mutoscopes worked like giant flip books, each frame held in place on a central drum. When activated, the drum would spin and the images rapidly change, giving the illusion of movement. Mutoscope parlors sprouted all around Union Square, New York’s premiere entertainment district at the time, and customers queued in front of consoles to pay a penny per short vignette and five cents for longer films.
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was eager to supply these “nickelodeons” with content, so they set up shop on the 7th floor of 841 Broadway. The earliest films were bare bones, little more than unprofessional actors dancing or mugging at the camera in front of black curtains. To save on electricity, these shorts were filmed on the roof and lit with sunlight. Sets were built on circular tracks that could rotate as the sun rose and set, getting the best light throughout the day.
As audiences grew more discerning, Dickson realized the novelty of movement wasn’t enough. He and his industrious cameramen went to work breaking new ground in the fledgling art of film. They added more complex gags, rudimentary story arcs, and special effects like double-printing and time lapse. Soon, it appeared as if a woman danced over Niagara Falls…
…or the multi-day demolition of the Star Theatre took place in a matter of seconds (look for the Roosevelt Building in the foreground at the left edge of the frame.)
He pulled in acts from the theaters and vaudevilles around the corner on 14th street. Strongmen…
…and whatever Gus Keller the Novelty Bag Puncher is.
Cinematographers like Gottfried “Billy” Blitzer became the first cameramen to capture the Big Apple in all its bustling glory. They plucked cameras from the rooftops and dropped them at the foot of the Flatiron…
…along the Coney Island Boardwalk…
…and even to the front of a moving subway car.
As the shorts grew more advanced, they also grew more risqué. Unlike today’s massive silver screens, the mutoscope was a decidedly solitary affair. Customers looked through a narrow peephole and controlled the speed of the film with a hand crank, letting spectators safely savor their favorite frames. The combination of privacy and personal control meant racy titles like Birth of the Pearl, What the Butler Saw, and How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed got a lot of play. Though they rarely showed more than a woman in full-body tights, mutoscope parlors were constant targets of reformers, providing grist for church sermons and moralizing op-eds.
In the end, mutoscopes were done in not by indecency but distribution – scrapping the single-serving contraptions for big screen projection just made more cents. With the death of mutoscope parlors, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company shortened it’s name to Biograph in 1906 and moved uptown. That’s where a promising young filmmaker named David Wark Griffith got his start.
From humble beginnings as an extra in Professional Jealousy (1908), D.W. Griffith moved behind the camera to direct over 450 films for Biograph. In films like Intolerance (1916) and the horrifically racist Birth of a Nation (1915), he pioneered techniques we take for granted today like cross-cutting, parallel action, irises, color tinting, and insert shots. Praised Orson Welles, “No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.”
As for the Roosevelt Building, it fell into decay and disrepair like much of Union Square. Theaters moved uptown, restaurants shuttered, and by the 1970s, the park and surrounding environs had been given over to derelicts and drug dealers. Over the next few decades, contractors and developers took the hammer to some of Union Square’s most historic buildings, replacing them with chain stores and glass-and-steel condos.
Fortunately, the Roosevelt Building escaped the wrecking ball and even received a top-down refurbishment in 2007 from Israel Berger Architects. “We treated it like a landmark,” director for restoration Stanford Chan said, “even though it isn’t one.” It’s likely the building hasn’t looked this good since the days of Stealing a Dinner and After He Bought Those Monkey Glands.
PS – The Library of Congress has dozens of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s early works, and it’s a rewarding dive for any film or history buff.