Friday, May 3, 2013

"Fallowed" Ground: the History of 37-41 Chambers Street

For years, in my dual capacity as an attorney and a historian, I have walked by a parking lot on the corner of Chambers & Elk (formerly, Elm) Streets in Lower Manhattan, and have wondered two things: (a) what used to be there? and (b) why hasn't the site been developed.  The lot is 75' wide and is through-block, from Chambers to Duane.  It sits between two landmarked and historically important buildings, the Surrogates Court (23 Chambers) and the Emigrant Savings Bank (49-51 Chambers).

The answer to the first question, in part, answers the second.  The parking lot occupies what had been, until 1971, the former American News Company building, which was erected in 1877-78 per plans by the prominent 19th century architect Griffith Thomas (former Astor Library, now the Public Theater; former Arnold Constable Building at 881-887 Broadway).  American News Company was a magazine, newspaper, book, (and comic book) distribution company which dominated the distribution market in the 1940s and 1950s.  Tthe company had over 300 branches and employed several thousand employees. During the middle of the last century, it stood as the largest book wholesaler in the world, dominating the industry.  In the mid-1950's, as the result of a legal losses in an antitrust suit and changes in the publishing market, the company - which by then was headquartered in New Jersey - liquidated its assets.  It was out of business by 1957.  The building was acquired by the City of New York in 1965, and was demolished in 1971 as part of an ill-fated urban renewal plan.