This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
At dusk, bearded men dressed in suits take hurried strides towards 30 Cliff Street, a nondescript building on a relatively quiet strip between busy Fulton and John Streets. Through metal and glass doors reminiscent of a hospital, men file into the prayer room and prostrate in unison on a floor covered in cheap knock-offs of Persian rugs, the mosque’s only pretension to traditional Islamic grandeur. Very little about Masjid Manhattan says mosque the way the word is understood in Istanbul, Tehran or Lahore: no grand domes and minarets, no call to prayer over a loudspeaker; it’s almost as if the place doesn’t want to call too much attention to itself, and it isn’t hard to understand why.
At the edge of the street, the Freedom Tower’s shadow looms large, bringing with it memories of the ill-fated “Ground Zero mosque,” a planned six-story Islamic Cultural Center that conservative protesters shut down even before it could be constructed. In such an environment, discretion is the route Masjid Manhattan has chosen to take for its survival, quietly co-existing between metal-punk bar Iron Horse, and Irish watering hole Ryan Maguire’s.
A man sits outside the main prayer hall, papers in hand, trying to explain his predicament to three men who surround him; they quickly rattle off names of organizations that could be of potential help. The mosque has a fund to assist those who can’t make their rent but the Imam says it isn’t enough to guarantee help to everyone who walks in. “Why don’t you work harder?” he admonishes him. Spiritual and practical guidance delivered hand in hand.
Women are admonished too, but that task is left to a flyer plastered at the entrance warning them against crossing the doors of the mosque without a hijab. Another sign points to the reserved women’s section on the fourth floor, an oasis of calm and spirituality in a neighborhood abuzz with the commercial frenzy of the world’s financial markets. A woman prays there while her baby has the run of the whole floor.
At the Iron Horse, next door, the corner jukebox blasts music ranging from ‘80s kitsch to modern-day R&B. Behind the bar waitresses juggle big tumblers of beer and sing along. “Get your ass on the bar,” screams the writing on the wall. The bar’s Yelp photos show scantily-clad bartenders pouring shots down customers’ throats, as well as a streetside 4th of July pig roast complete with game of Twister. “It’s a strange place for them to have a mosque, but sometimes people from next door come here after their prayers and ask for bacon burger and a drink,” says Kylie, a waitress at Iron Horse. “I don’t mind, just as long as they pay for it.”
This present-day connection between 28 and 30 Cliff Streets dates back to when these buildings were first erected in the 1830s, joined internally with a rear extension that served as a fire exit, and externally by a granite post-and-lintel arch that extended across 28, 30 and 32 Cliff Street. The four-storey building that now houses the Iron Horse has retained many of the original elements but the re-facading of 30 Cliff Street left it with a front that retains no remnants of the post-and-lintel arch, ironically an architectural look associated with Islamic architecture in Persia and India. Today Masjid Manhattan’s architecture is similar to most mosques around New York City: a storefront facade that serves as a utilitarian space for a quick call to prayer.
The mosque occupies all six floors of this building now but when first constructed it was a three-storey housing structure. In 1832 it was advertised for sale, then subsequently rented to sailors who arrived in New York for trade and some riotous evenings of fun at the neighborhood’s famed dens of debauchery. From 1838 to 1842, local newspapers carried advertisements intermittently, announcing space for “two or three gentlemen” at 30 Cliff Street. On September 17, 1838, an ad in New York Morning Courier and the New York Enquirer read: “A few gentlemen can be accommodated at 30 Cliff Street”
Sometimes this led to trouble, as when a certain “John Smith”, who represented himself as a cutter for a local company, went to the boarding house for lodging but soon afterwards made away with a suit of expensive clothes owned by another boarder. When the police came and checked Smith’s trunk, they found it full of nothing but old boards, perhaps a cruel pun by the former boarder. This 19th century Airbnb flourished up till around 1850, when the industrialized economy turned the building into a space for drug company offices and warehouses, one of which, The Hostetter Company, came to be well known for its alcoholic brew, Hostetter Bitters. So many charlatans around the city attempted to benefit off the company’s name that it often landed Hostetter in court. In 1897 it won a case against Isaac Sommers and Louis Joseph for infringement of its trademark, while in 1907 it sued a certain David Pariser for making counterfeit versions of Hostetter Bitters that were remarkably similar to the original in taste if not color, and sold by the bulk at a much cheaper rate. Hostetter was also well-known for its annual almanac, copies of which can still be found on Amazon.
At the end of the 19th century, 30 Cliff created a connection with the other side of the country by becoming a local branch of Redington and Co., one of the largest drug concerns on the West Coast. This was thanks to the enterprising spirit of Andrew G. Coffin, a Nantucket-born New Yorker whose spirit of adventure and enterprise led him to become the pioneer of the wholesale drug business on the East Coast, as well as a respected local Republican leader.
Coffin, born in 1816, was the son of a shipowner from Nantucket, Massachusetts. Having inherited the sea gene from his father, he set sail on The Mariner – one of his father’s vessels – at the age of 16, and like many dreamers before and after him landed in New York City. Here he lived an adventurous life, amassing a fortune as one of the pioneers of the drug industry. After trying his hand at insurance and commission, he finally found his calling in the drug trade, forming the company Sherwood and Coffin with his brother-in-law Henry Sherwood. When despite its successes over the years the firm dissolved in 1852, Coffin, never one to admit defeat, put together a vessel with enough goods to stock a complete drug store, and set sail for the Pacific Coast. Arriving safely, he proceeded up the Sacramento River and made his way inland to Maryville where he finally set up shop. The business prospered, and in 1859 he consolidated it with the San Francisco drug conglomerate Reddington and Co., returning to New York soon afterwards to establish the house of Coffin, Reddington and Co. at 30 Cliff Street.
Coffin, a seemingly incurable romantic, lived up to the millionaire stereotype by marrying thrice, each time to women increasingly younger in age. After his first wife Elisabeth’s death in 1856 he married Sarah Pearson, a woman 15 years his junior with whom he enjoyed 24 years of companionship. Three years after she died he married 27-year-old Candace Shepherd. Coffin himself was 67 at the time.
At the end of his days he started roaming the streets of Brooklyn and New York aimlessly and became terrified of his own reflection. He would often stand for hours, gesticulating wildly in front of a mirror. His wife claimed he had also attacked his nurse with umbrellas and canes. Yet he was rich and respected enough to get a diagnosis from an insanity expert that qualified him as “generally harmless” if “occasionally violent.” His first-born Isaac Sherwood Coffin agreed that his father had lost his mental faculties but also declared that he was subjected to cruel treatment at home and had complained about it several times, begging him to care for him. And so, raging against the dying of the light, this illustrious man’s life ended on July 21, 1897 at 81 years of age. By this time Isaac had taken over the reins of his business. He continued to run it it for another 24 years until the firm was finally dissolved in 1921.
There was another, more tame reason 30 Cliff was ubiquitous at the start of the 20th century: a soap by The Electro-Silicon Company that magically erased all stains from silverware, free samples of which were mailed from the building to all who requested them. This product was advertised in newspapers ranging from the New York Times to The Chicago Tribune in various endearingly corny, turn-of-the-century phrases. “If you wish perfection, this must be your selection”, or “Wherever Uncle Sam’s mailbag goes a liberal trial quantity of Electro-Silicon goes.” The producers also wanted to assure potential patrons who might still have their doubts about the soap that it was “sold in nearly every civilized country.”
Sometimes these ads aspired to the clever. In the October 13, 1899 one in the American Hebrew, there is a drawing of a woman going up the stairs to finally rest for the night; it reads, “Upstairs at night your silverware is reasonably secure from midnight dangers. The only absolute security against the daylight danger of scratching or wearing is by using Silver Electro-Silicon Polish.” Not all was quirky word play and success for the company, however. An employee, Wallace T. Nickerson of Yonkers, was working on the fourth floor of 30 Cliff Street on May 15, 1913 when he slipped and fell down an unguarded elevator shaft. His leg was cut two-and-a-half inches during the subsequent operation. The court ordered Electro-Silicon to pay Nickerson $20,000 as compensation, a verdict the company contested, but the second judgment upheld the first and the company had to pay up.
As to the building’s ownership, Frederick William Meyer owned it during the 1840s. A native-born New Yorker and importer of oil, gas and coal, Meyer’s life revolved around dealing with men who braved perilous seas and multiple accidents to bring his goods to safety in New York Harbor. This afforded him an insight into all sorts of characters, and he took to the newspapers to warn against those who were untrustworthy. As trade grew so did the list of those Meyer cautioned against: sailors on Norwegian barks landing from Newcastle, British ships from Bristol, a ship called Hinda (after a prominent woman in Islamic history) from Cadiz. Meyer died of an apoplexy on December 19, 1900 “in the 82nd year of his age,” as a New York Times obituary put it. That left 30 Cliff Street to his grandnephew, Henry Von L. Meyer.
Henry Von L. Meyer was the founder and vice president of White Laboratories in Newark NJ. His office was at 30 Cliff Street while he kept his home at Cobblestone Farm, 200 acres in Suffern, New York, bought and lovingly tended to by him and his wife. A supporter of more than 25 charities and on the board of directors of the Rockland County Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Henry was, ironically, also an expert angler and deer hunter. Interesting factoid: White Laboratories donated significantly to medical research funds at NYU.
In July 1929, Henry sold the place. The New York Times reported it as the first sale of the building since 1848. However, he did hold on to 32 Cliff next door, giving permission to later restaurant owners at 30 to let their customers enter through its rear extension, continuing the connection between these twin buildings.
From the 1930s onwards 30 Cliff radically changed its nature from a zone for warehouses and offices to a space for people to wind down and relax in the different restaurants and bars it housed up until the 1980s. Department of Buildings records show a restaurant that started here in 1938 welcomed 118 guests and 15 employees. The grandeur of these establishments is hinted at through newspaper ads attempting to sell equipment and furniture once the restaurant– in the age-old tradition of New York restaurants– shut down. Oak-top tables with elaborate cast iron bases and hand-carved napkin holders evoke an era of romance that has not been the building’s fate before or since. A 1981 ad speaks of selling the wooden front and back bar along with mirror-topped tables and 40 velvet settees, hinting at a decadent past. All traces of that were removed once the building and New York itself was taken by the health and fitness wave, and 30 Cliff was converted into a gym. Most notable among them was Seaport Health and Fitness where, bankers came to work off their sedentary lifestyles.
In 1990 these boutique gyms gave way to a takeover by a conglomerate, New York Sports Club, charging patrons $38 to $66 a month for their facilities. The armchair economic historian may be interested to know that NYSC charges $44 to $70 today, a barely noticeable price rise in 25 years. Some things in New York stay steady after all.
But NYSC chose to pull out of its 30 Cliff location by the end of the ’90s, leaving it open once again to private gyms that never quite reached the popularity of the NYSC franchise. In 2005 the gym was called Town Sports International but subsequently the bottom five floors of the building lay empty. This provided room for evacuees of a small mosque on Warren Street to come looking for a home between two bars on Cliff Street. Masjid Manhattan bought five floors of the building in 2010 with only the 6th floor still an office of Liuna Local 78, an agency that represents immigrant laborers. In November 2015, the mosque also purchased the 6th floor.
For some worshippers, the mosque’s location causes consternation– but not necessarily because it’s near Ground Zero. On a recent visit, a woman said, “I feel so ashamed when I enter the building next door after I leave from here. People must think I am going to the bar, but I go back to my office above it.”