Monday, April 23, 2012

Walter W. Law, 1: From Rugs to Riches


Many communities in Westchester owe their existence to a quirk of geography--a protected harbor on the Hudson River, a former aboriginal campsite or the junction of two major stagecoach roads.
The village of Briarcliff Manor owes its existence to one wealthy patron: Walter W. Law.
Law, the father of Briarcliff Manor, was born in 1837 in the English town of Kidderminster. In the 19th century, the name Kidderminster and carpets were synonymous. Its carpet weaving began as a cottage industry, but the introduction of steam power paved the way for the huge carpet mills that would make Kidderminster a center of carpet manufacture in Britain.
One of ten children of a dealer in carpets and dry goods, Walter William Law left school and began working at the age of 14. In 1859, he decided to immigrate to the United States.

The New World Beckons
Leaving England with a few letters of introduction from his father to friends in the American carpet trade and with enough money to last him only about two weeks, Walter Law arrived in New York on January 22, 1860. It was a Sunday, and the passengers could not clear customs until the next day.
 Talk of abolition of slavery and secession was in the air. “With another passenger or two,” he later recalled, “we went over to Brooklyn, and heard Henry Ward Beecher preach, and it was the first and only time I heard him.”
Young Walter Law landed a job as a traveling carpet salesman. It lasted until he discovered  his employer was misrepresenting domestic rugs as imported and charging premium prices for them. His next employer folded when the Civil War caused a general business slowdown.
A call on William Sloane, head of the firm of W. & J. Sloane, resulted in his being hired, more out of kindness than need. Sloane, his new employer, had started his working life as an apprentice weaver in Edinburgh. In 1834, after his employer failed to reward him for inventing a new method of weaving tapestry rugs, Sloane had immigrated to New York.
With his brother John, they established a carpet business as W. & J. Sloane. Their little store on Broadway across from City Hall prospered. William Sloane’s sons took over the business from their father on his death in 1879. Seven years earlier, one son, 28-year-old William Douglas Sloane, had married Emily Thorn Vanderbilt, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s 20-year-old granddaughter.
According to newspaper reports, the groom “got $15,000,000 by the performance. Mr. Sloane himself is worth many millions in his own right.” Seventy years later, her granddaughter, Alice Frances Hammond, would marry jazz musician Benny Goodman.
In 1882, the Sloane store moved uptown to an ornate six-story building on the southeast corner of 19th Street and Broadway, where the firm sold carpeting, oriental rugs, lace curtains and upholstery fabric, later expanding to furniture. Fittingly, the Sloane building today again houses a carpet store, ABC Carpet. Across Broadway from W. & J. Sloane was the massive Arnold Constable dry goods establishment.
Opposite Sloane’s on 19th Street was the eight-story retail building housing the Gorham Manufacturing Company, famous for its silverware and metal work. A block north, at the southwest corner of Broadway and 20th Street, was the Lord & Taylor dry goods store.
The neighborhood of fashionable dry goods stores and other landmark buildings lies roughly between 14th and 27th streets and 5th and 7th avenues. Called the “Ladies’ Mile Historic District,” its 440 memorable buildings are now preserved and protected.
Young Walter Law increased the business of Sloane’s wholesale department by securing the account of the Alexander Smith & Sons Carpet Company in Yonkers for the manufacture of moquette carpets.
These tufted, high-pile carpets produced on power looms invented by Halcyon Skinner quickly displaced the popular flat-weave, reversible carpets. They also undercut pricier hand-knotted carpets.
The giant Alexander Smith carpet mills in Yonkers along Nepperhan Avenue were named the Moquette Mills. Their architecturally important workers’ row housing was built in stepped fashion on the hill adjacent to the factory.

A Move to Westchester
Law and his wife, Georgiana Ransom Law, moved to Yonkers, making it easier for him to service the Smith account. Here they raised their two sons and four daughters.
In 1890, health problems forced Walter Law at age 53 to take early retirement from the Sloane firm. Tuberculosis was given as the cause. Unhappy with the prospect of inactivity, he sought a new venue for his talents and ambition, and turned his attention to northern Westchester.
Then as now, the benefits of fresh air and outdoor living were recognized as important weapons in fighting infectious diseases like tuberculosis. The newly-retired executive found the 236-acre farm of James Stallman between Old Briarcliff Road and Pleasantville Road for sale.
He snapped it up in 1890 for $35,000. The Stallman farmhouse, originally used by Walter Law as an office, later became the rectory of St. Theresa’s Roman Catholic Church.
When he bought the Stallman property, it was already named Briarcliff Farm. The term Briarcliff came from “Brier Cliff,” a name applied by the Rev. John David Ogilby, professor of ecclesiastical history at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, to his Westchester summer estate.
Once when traveling in England, Dr. Ogilby had come upon the parish church at Bremerton, near Salisbury. Desiring to improve property he owned near Ossining, he donated the land to the community and retained architect Richard Upjohn to design a church inspired by the church Ogilby had seen in Britain. Upjohn was the architect of many churches in New York City, the best known of which is Trinity Church at the head of Wall Street.
Construction of All Saints Church in Briarcliff Manor began in 1848, but Dr. Ogilby died in 1851, well before its completion in 1854. The original structure, illustrated in the Rev. Robert Bolton’s 1855 History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the County of Westchester, was a simple rectangular building with a steep, gabled roof and a small, open, wood belfry.
Swiftly adding additional acreage, Law made some 40 purchases in the next ten years. By the turn of the century he owned more than 5,000 acres in Westchester.
Walter Law was acutely aware of the connection between milk and the spread of infectious diseases like tuberculosis. His Briarcliff Farms would specialize in the production of certified milk from tuberculin-tested Jersey cows. Other farm animals included chickens, pigs, sheep, pheasants and even a few peacocks.
At its height, Briarcliff Farms boasted some 300 workers. Law’s Briarcliff Dairy processed 3,000 to 4,000 quarts of milk each day, as well as quantities of cream and butter, shipped to New York by an early morning milk train on the Putnam Division.
Briarcliff Farms had its own farm store in the Windsor Arcade at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street in the city. Later, Law opened another store at 2061 Seventh Avenue near 125th Street. This uptown location was intended to tap the burgeoning new fashionable neighborhood of aristocratic apartment houses and popular single-family brownstones springing up in Harlem, linked to downtown by elevated and subway lines.

Walter Law had the Midas touch. Indeed everything he touched turned to gold. With so much land available for cultivation in Briarcliff Manor, it was inevitable he would turn to the raising of flowers. Erecting steam-heated greenhouses that eventually covered 75,000 square feet, he undertook the growing of American Beauty roses and other flowers on raised beds for the florist trade.
A greenhouse foreman discovered and propagated the pink Briarcliff Rose, an improvement over the existing strain. It was registered with the American Rose Society and became extremely popular. Flower sales eventually reached $100,000 a year.
It was an easy next step from certified milk to pure water. Law’s Briarcliff Table Water Company’s wells tapped aquifers 250 feet deep, and it offered bottled water in individual bottles and large jugs complete with office-style dispensers. The water was available in Briarcliff Farms stores in New York City and at food markets throughout Westchester and as far away as Lakewood, N.J.

Incorporating a Village
As Walter Law’s “empire” grew, the need for municipal services became obvious. He proposed incorporation. One problem: The village would lay in two towns, Ossining and Mount Pleasant, a permissible spread under law, and in two school districts—a requirement of state law. He got signatures from 25 freeholders on a petition requesting approval for the proposed incorporation.
On September 2, 1902, the supervisors of the two towns met with the freeholders to discuss the details of the incorporation. An election followed ten days later. Everyone who voted was indebted to Walter Law, either for a house or livelihood or both. The result was resoundingly favorable.
Legend has it Briarcliff Manor owes the “Manor” in its name to a remark made by Law’s friend, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who called him “the Laird (lord) of Briarcliff Manor.”
The incorporated village of Briarcliff Manor officially came into existence on November 21, 1902, with William DeNyse Nichols as president. (This title for the heads of incorporated villages was later changed to mayor.) Successive mayors who were long-serving members of the Law family included Walter Law’s son, Walter W. Law, Jr., who served from 1905 to 1918, and Henry H. Law, who served from 1918 to 1936. The hamlet of Scarborough was annexed to Briarcliff Manor in 1906.
From the beginning, an unusual system was employed for selecting candidates for the village’s public offices. The system, now formalized by law as the “People’s Caucus,” allows any eligible citizen over 18 years of age to seek nomination for office.  Effectively keeping national politics and national party names out of the system, candidates chosen by the caucus are almost guaranteed election.

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