418-420 Fulton Street, a Handsome and Elegant Showroom for Gas Lighting

Photo: S. Spellen

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: The W. C. Vosburgh Building. Formerly the showroom for the W.C. Vosburgh Mfg. Co., now part of Macy’s
Address: 418-420 Fulton Street
Cross Streets: Hoyt Street and Gallatin Place
Neighborhood: Downtown Brooklyn
Year Built: 1888
Architectural Style: Queen Anne
Architect: Parfitt Brothers
Other Buildings by Architect: All kinds of buildings, all over Brooklyn, including Berkeley, Grosvenor and Montague Apartments, Brooklyn Heights; St. Augustine RC Church, Grace Methodist Church, Park Slope; Truslow House, Crown Heights North; plus hundreds of row houses, as well as apartment buildings, office buildings, fire houses, churches and more.
Landmarked: No, unfortunately

The story: After the Civil War ended, the building boom that swept Brooklyn made fortunes for companies producing the fixtures and products that went into the modern home. There were fixtures for the bathroom and kitchen, the hardware on every door and window, not to mention the decorative woodwork, marble, tiles, and the like. And of, course, there was lighting.

Gas fixtures were the modern lighting of the day in 1865 when William C. Vosburgh started his company, the W. C. Vosburgh Manufacturing Company. The company made all kinds of gas lighting fixtures for home, business and industry. Their manufacturing facility was a plant at 269 State Street, near Smith Street.

With all of the residential building going on, the company decided to open a large, upscale showroom to showcase their extensive inventory of chandeliers, sconces, table lamps, and more. Vosburgh hired the Parfitt Brothers architectural firm to design a handsome and elegant showroom for Fulton Street, rapidly becoming the shopping and entertainment hub of Brooklyn.

This particular part of Fulton Street was changing daily. When Vosburgh had been starting out, the street had been populated by four story brownstone row houses, like the Gage & Tollner building just up the street, as well as a few churches. By the late 1880s, most of the earlier buildings were long gone, replaced by large retail store buildings, theaters and restaurants.

In 1873, the Wheeler Building, a large Second Empire cast iron fronted building, was built between Hoyt and Gallatin. It was built on the site of a Dutch Reformed Church cemetery that had been moved years before. It stood quite along there for a number of years, as Andrew Wheeler had been a man ahead of his time. It was purchased by Abraham & Weschler in 1881, and they had a grand opening of their opulent store in 1885.

Vosburgh bought the plot next door to the Wheeler, and had his showroom built in 1888. The Parfitts gave him an elegant brownstone building that complemented the Wheeler, with the same height, proportion, window lines and echoing the Wheeler’s mansard roof.

Photo: S. Spellen

Photo: S. Spellen

They added their own, more modern approach to the mansard, by adding ornamental terra cotta everywhere. Almost every surface is covered with flowing Byzantine Leaf ornament, square ornamental tiles, carved window surrounds, and a large bust of a woman that rather looks like Queen Victoria. That could be purposely ironic, as the Parfitts were born and educated in England.

Photo: S. Spellen

Photo: S. Spellen

The Vosburgh Company set up their showrooms here, although it’s unclear if they used the entire building as a showroom. Lighting fixtures were everywhere in grand display. The company sold brass, bronze and crystal fixtures. By this time, electricity was the new thing, and they jumped right in with the newest combination gas/electric fixtures, and later, all electric fixtures.

1886 ad in Brooklyn Magazine

1886 ad in Brooklyn Magazine

But after only three years, Vosburgh decided they wanted to move. It was much more convenient for them to set up showrooms on Smith, and they were also building a new and larger plant on Atlantic Avenue. There they could expand on their line of residential fixtures, and feature their growing business supplying lighting to theaters, churches, civic buildings and factories.

In 1891, the Brooklyn Eagle announced that the building had been sold for $140,000 to P.G. Baum, a popular milliner. His business on nearby Myrtle Avenue had been destroyed by fire only months before. He owned the building for about two years.

In 1893, Abraham & Weschler became Abraham & Straus, as the Straus brothers bought out Jospeh Weschler’s share of the business. One of their first moves was to buy the Vosburgh Building, thus giving them the entire block of Fulton, between Hoyt and Gallatin. They would then proceed to create one of the greatest stores in Brooklyn. The 1888 map shows the amount of space they had.

1888 map, New York Public Library

1888 map, New York Public Library

Today, of course, Abraham & Straus is now Macy’s. They leased the ground floor space to McDonalds, assuring that no one ever looks up. But you should. Go across the street and look at the Vosburgh building. It’s great.

Unfortunately, Macy’s could do better in keeping the building up. The white paint job, which is not good for the building anyway, is peeling, and the details are marred by the lack of care. But underneath that is pure Parfitt Brothers gold.

Above photo: Suzanne Spellen

Photo: S. Spellen

Photo: S. Spellen

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