Did you know that Lower Manhattan is home to the country's first department store?
In 1846, Irish-born entrepreneur Alexander Turney (AT) Stewart established the country's first department store on Broadway's east side between Chambers and Reade Streets called AT Stewart. Offering European retail merchandise, the store's low markups, set prices on a variety of dry goods, and policy of providing "free entrance" to all potential customers made it an instant success.
Stewart soon expanded his store, showcasing his merchandise through the building's oversized French plate glass windows. By 1850, Stewart's department store was the largest in the city and was well-known not only for its wares, but also its distinctive design.
The building's unique marble-clad exterior earned it the nickname the "Marble Palace." It was the first commercial building to use Tuckahoe marble on its outer surface, an adopted Italian style of architecture that soon gained popularity among the commercial structures being built in the area. Evidence of the era's popular design can still be found throughout the downtown neighborhood today.
By the late 1850s, New York City's retail business exploded, and Stewart followed other department stores, such as R.H. Macy, B. Altman and Lord & Taylor, farther uptown. The department stores established themselves in an area on Broadway and 6th Avenue between 9th and 23rd Streets, which would come to be called "Ladies Mile" for its abundance of women's clothing and accessories stores.
Stewart opened his new department store in 1862 in the then burgeoning retail district. The immense structure eventually encompassed all of Broadway between East 9th and 10th Streets, and once again Stewart's store became famous for its innovative design. Believed to be the first building in the city with a cast-iron front, the six-story structure became well-known both in the district, as well as around the city, as the "Iron Palace."
One of the richest men in America, Stewart also went on to develop other projects like the planning and establishment of Long Island's Garden City in 1875. After his death, the Iron Palace reopened as Wanamaker's when the Philadelphia-based retail firm purchased the building in 1896, making it one of the leading department stores in the city.
Stewart's original downtown store at 280 Broadway was converted into a warehouse, and, in 1884, the owners added two additional floors to the original five-story building. In 1917, the New York Sun newspaper purchased the building, setting up shop for its main offices for nearly half a century -- until 1966, when the City of New York acquired the landmark structure.
The city's original intention in purchasing the building was to demolish it and build a new civic center on the site. The building was spared, though, when the civic center plan was later terminated. Beginning in 1995, the structure underwent substantial reconstruction, a multi-year project that lasted through 2002.
Although 280 Broadway is still widely known as the "Sun Building," it now houses the New York City Department of Buildings on its upper levels and several retail areas on its first and second floors. The building is also a designated New York City Landmark.