Because underneath what looks like another modern commercial building is the skeleton of Tiffany & Co.’s 1870 headquarters, a spectacular cast-iron building designed for New York’s legendary “palace of jewels” (below).
This is where the famed jeweler relocated after starting out on Broadway across from City Hall in 1837 before moving to Broadway and Prince Street in the mid-19th century.
“To call John Kellum’s design for the 5-story building ornate would be an understatement; its decorative columns, cornices, and other projections attempted to render in cast iron a symbol of the ‘palace of jewels’ inside,” wrote John Hill in Guide to Contemporary New York Architecture.
After the Civil War, Ladies Mile, New York’s premium shopping district, moved to the fashionable stretch between 9th Street and 23rd Street along Broadway.
Tiffany’s wanted to be part of the action. On Union Square East, the store occupied prime real estate betwen the best dry goods emporiums of the day, like Lord & Taylor, which also relocated “uptown” in 1870, to 20th Street.
Throughout the Gilded Age, Tiffany’s dazzled New Yorkers with its jewelry collection and what the New York Times in 1873 called its “spacious galleries” of home furnishings and objects of art.
Imagine the store during holiday time in the late 19th century, with well-heeled wives perusing the display counters for gifts of gold and diamonds (above) . . . and thieves looking for a way to break in and rob the place, which happened all too often, according to newspaper accounts.
Tiffany’s stuck around Union Square until the 1900s before following other retailers to a new midtown spot at Fifth Avenue and 37th Street in 1905. In 1940, it moved to its present address up the avenue at 57th Street.
So how did the Union Square store end up swathed in black, as if it’s in mourning?
Amalgamated Bank took over the building in the early 1900s, then stripped it of its ornamental loveliness (a safety precaution, as a chunk fell off and killed a pedestrian) in the 1950s.
The architects for the new residence removed the white brick. “With the brick and [much of the] cast iron gone, the new zinc-framed glass walls sit two feet in front of the remaining 1870 cast iron structure,” wrote Hill.
Apparently at night, if you look closely, you can see the original arched windows—a ghostly remnant of one of the city’s most famous emporiums.
[Second photo: MCNY, 1885, x2010.11.3352; third photo: NYPL, 1870; third image: NYPL, undated; fourth photo: NYPL, 1899; fifth photo: MCNY, 1953, 54.37.18]