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The Marble Palace in Lower Manhattan

a group of people sitting on a benchHow can one man’s investment in lace and fringe for women’s clothing revolutionize an entire industry? Where did New York City’s reputation as an epicenter for shopping and commerce begin? What is the unlikely building in Downtown Manhattan that tells us this story?

Alexander Turney Stewart was a young immigrant in New York City when he received anĀ inheritance, which he invested wisely in $3000 of Irish laces. When he opened a little shop at 283 Broadway in 1823, he probably didn’t know he was seeing in motion the model for the American Department Store.

In 1823, his nondescript shop on Broadway between Duane and Chambers Street would not have stood out. He established some common business practices that were edgy for the time–he prohibited haggling by fixing price points, he fined employees for heir mistakes, and he prioritized the attraction and retention of women-dominated client base.

His business did unusually well and in 1845 he was ready to expand the A.T. Stewart Dry Goods Store into a larger wholesale and retail business. He commissioned architect John P. Snook to build a 5-story store/warehouse structure for him across the street. 176 years later, “The Marble Palace” is still landing in Lower Manhattan.

In a time when New York was characterized by congested side-streets and stores built from brick and wood, this imposing, boxy marble building on he wides section of Broadway offered an entirely different New York shopping experience. Carriages pulled up right out front for maximum appeal o the store’s most important clients: 19th century women.

The social expectation was that women would shop, but avoid the “dangers” of commerce and finance. A.T. Stewart Dry Goods was a store, but it looked more like a fancy building that sold goods and offered exclusive merchandise. It’s lack of traditional commercial aesthetic likely made it more appealing to women shoppers.

A.T. Stewart remained strategic, keeping his eyes on further expansion. During the Civil War, Stewart got several contracts to make Army and Navy uniforms, which would’ve brought in a lot of money. He made thoughtful investments in New York real estate as his fortune grew, and continued to invest/try to control the mills that manufactured his raw materials.

Over the next 20 years, A.T. Stewart Dry Goods would expand to five additional locations, shifting their headquarters to a plot of land on 9th street off the Bowery, which left the Marble Palace to function as a warehouse and office by the 1860s.

A.T. Stewart died in 1876, having amassed an enormous fortune and a legacy in New York City. Two years after he was buried in a family vault at a St. Marks Cemetery, thieves broke the stone slab and dug up the body, holding it for ransom. Turney’s widow ultimately paid the thieves $20,000 to get the decomposed corpse back. She reburied her husband away from New York City.

From 1917-1950, the Marble Palace building served as a headquarters for the New York Sun and from there became New York City department offices. The first two floors are now retail space. A.T. Stewart’s Dry Goods is long gone, but its legacy lives on in New York in both architecture and commerce.

The building was first designated a National Historic Landmark (1965) and was recognized by NYC as a local landmark in 1986, so it’s safe to stay the building will remain part of New York’s landscape for generations to come. What other uses can you imagine for this building? Is it important to know the original intention for a structure in order to fully appreciate it?