In 1846, Irish-born Alexander Turney Stewart established what would become the first department store in the nation, AT Stewart, fondly called the Marble Palace, at 280 Broadway between Chambers & Reade Streets. The building still stands today, in pristine condition.
Prior to the 19th Century, the closest retailer resembling a department store were small, family-owned general stores, where customers often had to barter for prices. AT Stewart offered European retail merchandise, low markups, set prices on a variety of dry goods and a policy of providing “free entrance” to all customers. It was an instant success.
Stewart soon expanded the store, displaying merch through the five-story building’s oversized French plate glass windows. By 1850, AT Stewart was the largest retailer in the city and renowned not only for its wares, but its distinctive design. The building’s marble-clad exterior utilized Tuckahoe marble on the outer surface, which soon gained popularity among commercial structures throughout the area.In 1858, Rowland Hussey Macy founded dry goods store Macy’s, and soon after, competitors Lord & Taylor B. Altman, McCreary’s & Abraham & Straus in Brooklyn entered the fray. Not to be outdone, in 1862, Stewart opened a second department store on a full city block at Broadway & 9th Street, with eight floors & 19 departments of dress goods & furnishings, carpets, glass & china, toys & sports equipment, all centered around a glass-covered court.
Later, it was the location of New York’s famed Wanamaker’s department store and is now an office building. I actually worked there at Billboard 2000-2009. It’s also the base of AOL today.
Stewart’s original downtown store at 280 Broadway was later converted into a warehouse, and, in 1884, owners added two additional floors. In 1917, the New York Sun purchased the building, setting up shop for nearly half a century until 1966, when the City of New York acquired the landmark structure. The city’s intention was to demolish it and build a civic center on the site. But thankfully it was spared and in 1995, underwent substantial reconstruction, which continues today. It now houses the NYC Department of Buildings on the upper levels and Modell’s Sporting Goods on the first floor.
Ultimately, Stewart became one of America’s richest men, with stores around the world and several mills and factories. He had an estimated annual income of $1 million in 1869, and went on to establish Long Island’s Garden City in 1875. Below is his residence at 34th & Fifth Avenue.