New York Times Streetscapes/75 Murray Street
Bought for Its Site, the Rundown Loft Is a Gem
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
Published: October 30, 1994
BEGINNER'S luck? George and Christiane Aprile buy a rundown loft in Manhattan to be near their son's school and discover it is one of the city's most important cast-iron buildings. Things have not gone as scheduled since they started planning to move three years ago: Moving in is months away and their son is now a junior at nearby Stuyvesant High School. But 75 Murray Street is full of surprises.
In 1991, when their son Matthew applied to Stuyvesant, the Apriles got the idea of selling their house in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn and moving near his intended school. They weren't looking for anything special, just something west of City Hall. In the spring of 1992, when their son passed the admissions test, they settled on an old five-story building "with no windows, no water, no electricity -- just a facade," says Mr. Aprile, who owns a courier service in Manhattan and who also went to Stuyvesant.
They discovered the building had been landmarked in 1968 but were eager to restore the facade, which turned out to be cast iron, built in 1858 for Francis and James Hopkins, glass dealers. The Landmarks Preservation Commission's report in 1968 describes it as "conspicuous for its fine design" but is silent on the question
of who actually designed it. The earliest building permits for Manhattan begin in June of 1866.
Margot Gayle, a founder of Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture, began looking at 75 Murray Street in the early 1970's and was sure that it was a rare work of the famed James Bogardus, the pioneer of cast iron. She had proof that Bogardus designed the Hopkins's prior building, at 61 Barclay Street (now demolished)
and the rich Venetian detail on 75 Murray Street is in character with much of Bogardus's work.
One day, around 1980, David Kahn, another historian who had mused on the building's origins, and who is now director of the Brooklyn Historical Society, passed by the building. He was in luck.
"The steps were deeply encrusted with paint, but it had begun to chip away," he said, revealing an embossed foundry mark.
"I said 'Eureka!' " he recalled. The 1- by 18-inch name plate reads "James Bogardus Originator & Patentee of Iron Buildings Pat'
May 7, 1850." Few architectural mysteries have such tidy endings, and Mr. Kahn gave Ms. Gayle the good news.
The Apriles got the full details on Mr. Kahn's discovery from Ms. Gayle after deciding to buy the building but before the April 1993 closing. They bought it for $635,000, as "Bogardus Inc.," in which they are the sole officers and stockholders -- and Mr. Aprile now collects lore about the inventor.
Ms. Gayle, who working on a biography of Bogardus, says he was born in Catskill, N.Y., in 1800 and apprenticed to a watchmaker.
He invented a dry gas meter and an engraving machine and was particularly successful with milling machinery for sugar, which he advertised all over the United States. He began making iron parts for buildings, and then his first cast-iron facade in 1847. He did his first store for the Hopkinses in 1853, and 75 Murray Street in 1857-1858.
MR. APRILE, who filed plans with the Landmarks Commission, began work in November 1993. Almost a year later the interior is still bare, but the delicate facade has been repainted in a soft cream, the color of rich vanilla ice cream; 75 Murray Street is now a Faberge egg of cast iron. Inside the 11,375-square-foot building were several surprises. One is a sweet little Victorian-style column supporting the arched sidewalk vaults. The other is a pair of foundation walls composed of waste stone from buildings being demolished when 75 Murray was going up; they form a ghostly kaleidoscope of marble, brownstone and granite window sills and thresholds. A
third was the merchant's original iron window shutters, rolled up and forgotten until Mr. Aprile's crew let them down. Upstairs it is Mr. Aprile who has created the surprise. By removing the lath and plaster wall originally covering the inside of the cast-iron facade, he exposed the complex series of bolts, nuts, straps and plates that vividly demonstrate how such facades could be so speedily put together. Mr. Aprile had to readjust many plates during construction, and only a few bolts broke off or had rusted shut. He says he intends to leave at least one floor's worth of facade exposed through a plexiglass wall and hopes a tenant sensitive to the building will take the 2,375- square-foot ground-floor space, which has a dramatic bow-string girder at the rear.
Although the building's entire facade rests on top of the iron plate with the Bogardus name, the Landmarks Preservation Commission is not yet convinced: Its official guidebook guardedly says the building is only "attributed" to the iron man. But the Apriles are still enthusiastic about the restoration, which will ultimately cost $600,000, although they don't expect to move in until early 1995, midway through Matthew's third year. That doesn't bother Mr. Aprile: he expects his younger son,
Andrew, to begin Stuyvesant in 1998.