The ladies who watch over The Cable Building

These sturdy, colossal women flank an entrance to this McKim, Mead, & White beauty, on Broadway and Houston Street. 

Opened in 1893, The Cable Building served as a power plant for the city’s growing cable car system—but its technology was obsolete just a decade later. 

Now, it houses offices, the Angelika Film Center, and Crate & Barrel.

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13 Responses to “The ladies who watch over The Cable Building”

  1. Amy Says:

    I am always walking around New York as if I were a tourist. I can’t take my eyes off of the decorative stonework that graces some many buildings. Even the lowliest factory loft building of a certain era has something astonishing gracing its facade. I wonder what the builder was thinking because the designs can be wildly grandiose. And you have to look up to see them. Were people building monuments to themselves or were they honoring New York? Maybe both.

  2. Heather Says:

    This is great! Which side of the building is it on/what street does this face? I’ve walked past this building so many times but somehow haven’t noticed it.

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    It faces Broadway, right above Houston. I walked by it for years too and suddenly saw it and couldn’t believe I’d missed it all this time.

  4. Sharon Florin Says:

    One of my favorites, I have painted the ladies of the Cable Building and they will be on view in my upcoming exhibit “Florin at Warburg”, opening September 30th. For more info check out sjfnewyork.blogspot.com

  5. Henry Broder Says:

    I worked on the 7th Floor of the Cable Building from around 1968 to 1976. I believe that the information about the building being the “power plant” for the cable car system is incoreect. Actual steel cable was fed from the building through underground passages and these cable literall pulled the cable cars along their tracks. P.S. an interesting not, Robert DeNiro’s mother had a typing service in the building on the 2nd floor.

    • RD Wolff Says:

      Actually it would still be considered the “power plant” for the cable cars regardless of what the actual driving mechanism was- electric generation, or cable pulling. The cable system was only in use for about 5 years before the whole thing was decomissioned, it proved to be a major daily headache with constant breaks down due to the ridiculously long loop of cables and the design.
      When cables were not caught up and jammed due to fraying they were slipping off sheaves and every time that happened they had to stop the whole line to fix it.

  6. Henry Broder Says:

    Sorry, typed too fast…litteraly and note

  7. The draped ladies of 542 Broadway « Ephemeral New York Says:

    [...] share of elaborately carved ladies. Two more women are part of the facade of the Cable Building, building just up the street on Broadway and Houston. Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  8. RD Wolff Says:

    Looks like I missed this one, I have some back story on the ladies few know about. One thing is the lady on the right was restored incorrectly, she was holding a sword not a staff with a torch, the original sword handle was broken off and I found it around 1979 in the sub-sub basement in the mud broken into two pieces.
    At first I didn’t know what it was from but since it was white limestone I knew it had to have come from the facade, it was never painted but the limestone on the ground floor had been painted multiple times before 1979.
    Around mid 1980s I guess when they renovated the building, they put up a replacement piece above the figure’s hand, but incorrectly put a torch there.
    The oval window apparantly was not a window originally, there was an ornate clock with Roman numerals on the dial there.

    Here are some photos:

    The broken sword top laying flat on the floor in my Brooklyn loft in 1982:

    In 1894 view from a high quality stereoview card, the Vogel Brothers sign by the way was on a building along with it’s neighbor that were demolished to make Houston St wider:

    The original portico’s limestone Ionic columns and capitals can be seen by the yellow arrow in this view, both had been removed:

    Two views of the 8th floor balcony on Broadway for the corporate office which had been removed, leaving virtually no trace it ever existed;

    1933;

    1894:

    And lastly, a view of the portico in 1924 which clearly shows both the sword handle,the columns, the wood front doors, as well as the clock:

  9. RD Wolff Says:

    There was one more item that was removed which can be barely made out and are very difficult to see in the 1894 stereocard view- there was a sign mounted on the 7th floor cornice which was where my loft was- made up of individual letters about a foot tall or so each which spelled out the name “Houston street “

  10. RD Wolff Says:

    I had another view, from 1895, I had forgotten about the flagpoles on the roof, one small loft I rented was on the 9th floor and it had remants of that wood flagpole which had been cut off at the roof and capped over, the bottom dozen feet remained.
    The photo shows the flagpoles, the balcony on the 8th floor, and awnings on the 8th floor offices:

    I have a couple of other photos showing some of the actual construction of the building, but I need to scan them.

  11. RD Wolff Says:

    More scans here.

    1) Cable building engine room under construction, May 1893, showing the iron columns at their footing level and general construction:

    2) Second view, taken from above street level with the construction progressed on the building only to street level, May 1893:

    3) Large line drawing cutaway view of the street showing
    approximately what the sheaves and cables were supposed to look like, the view makes it appear as though there was a huge cavern under the street with wide open space and it simply was not quite like that but the view gives a reasonable idea of approximately what some of the sheaves were like;

    4) Image of the main 32 foot, 106 ton driving wheel:

    5) View of a typical hallway in the building circa 1979:

  12. RD Wolff Says:

    This story dates exactly when the mechanical cable drive system was completely converted to electric, so the cable drive was in use for only about 7 years:

    Last Cable Cars on Broadway
    From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle / Sunday, May 19, 1901. Page 4.

    Cable operation on Broadway lasted into the Twentieth Century.
    THE TROLLEY ON BROADWAY
    To Be Operated in Manhattan in a Week

    The last cable car will be run on the Broadway line, Manhattan, on Saturday nght next, and the whole Metropolitan system will be then operated by electricity. It was thought that the cable would be cut last night, but, owing to a delay in the perfection of the plans, the work had to be postponed for a week. The Lexington avenue road changed from cable to electricity two weeks ago and the Columbus avenue one week ago.

    The work on the Broadway line has been going on for some time and the officials of the Metropolitan fear no serious suspension of traffic after the cutting of the cables. They say that all the cars will be operated by electricity on the following Monday morning. At the offices of the Metropolitan Traction Company it was said that possibly horse cars would be run over the Broadway line to Fifty-ninth street while the work of adjusting the electric wire was going on. This, however, has not been definitely decided upon.

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