My previous post about B.T. Babbitt and his soap company provides a brief sketch of his life and soap company. As I looked closer at his company it turned out that the location of his factory is also an interesting story (to me anyway).
Babbitt’s New York City soap and saleratus (baking soda) factory was near the southern tip of Manhattan, occupying about 20,000 sq. ft. (1,848 sq. m) of land on 1/2 of the block bordered by West St, Rector St, Washington St, and Morris St (41-44 & 46-51 West St, and 64-82A Washington St). The first map below shows that it was just a few blocks from Battery Park (“The Bronx is up, and the Battery’s down”, as the “New York, New York” song in “On The Town” goes). The second and third maps show other views of the area.
Its riverfront location was probably not by accident, as the facility produced more than 100,000 pounds (~45,000 kg) of soap, and a large amount of baking soda each day. This required a lot of raw materials from outside of New York City, and therefore, having the docks close by was an advantage.
Today the Babbitt factory site is covered by residential buildings and a large parking garage.
Lower Manhattan’s Changing Shoreline
Some readers might notice something weird about the first (1913) and second (1897) maps above: West Street isn’t on the river at the lower tip of Manhattan!
West Street was a riverfront street near Battery Park until the 1970s, when New York City extended a portion of Manhattan into the Hudson River to create Battery Park City and more1, as seen in the next map. The soap works location is now a few blocks from the river.
Several shifts in the economic landscape (or, perhaps the seascape) made the replacement of docks with residences and offices a logical choice: the container revolution in international shipping replaced New Yorks many small docks with mega-ports (i.e., the Port of New York & New Jersey); new train lines replaced ferries; the growth of the financial industry in lower Manhattan pushed out manufacturing.
Update, 9/26/21: Via Twitter, a 1975 photograph of the area around the Babbitt factory showing the Battery Park City site ready for construction (after the new land was created).
August 1975— LookNoFurther (@LookNoFurther4) September 17, 2021
[Andy Blair photo] pic.twitter.com/iOG3P0yIOB
The Sale of the Babbitt Factory Site
Naturally, I wondered when the Babbitt Soap Factory was demolished. A bit of searching at the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America site led me to an article about the purchase of the building in 1911 that notes it “will probably be demolished soon.” The 20,000 sq. ft. (1,848 sq. m) parcel (and decrepit building) was sold for about $38 million in today’s dollars, or about $2,000 per square foot. What would a 20,000 sq. ft. lot in lower Manhattan go for these days?
Babbitt’s Old Soap Factory Sold
The old Babbitt soap factory, in lower Washington street, the tall square chimney of which has served as a landmark for river men for some years, will probably be demolished soon and an office structure erected on the site as the result of a transaction yesterday disposing of the property , which involves about $1,500,000 (ed. note: this would be about $38 million in 2017 dollars2).
The property…is at No. 76 to 80 Washington street, extending through the block to West street, where it takes in Nos. 46, 47, 48, 49, and 50.
…a parcel with an area of 20,023 square feetNew York Tribune, Feb 4, 1911
Unfortunately, I was unable to find an article about the actual demolition of the site. Perhaps it was not newsworthy — Manhattan is always changing, and demolitions happened regularly.
- Illustration of the B.T. Babbitt company’s soap and saleratus factory complex in Lower Manhattan from Industrial America; or, manufacturers and inventors of the United States: The productive and material independence of the country through the achievements of its artisans and designers. A biographical and descriptive exposition of national progress. Atlantic Publishing and Engraving Company (New York), 1876. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public domain in the United States of America.
- Map of Manhattan bounded by Rector St., Broadway, Battery Pl., West St. (V. 1, Plate No. 3) from the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. Part of Insurance maps of the City of New York, Borough of Manhattan. Volume One. Published by the Sanborn Map Company, 1905. Public domain in the United States of America.
- Map of New York City south of Bleecker St., showing the dry goods district from the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library, 1913. Public domain in the United States of America.
- Plate 1: Bounded by Liberty Street, Maiden Lane, South Street [East River, Piers 1-18], White Hall Street, State Street (Battery Park), Battery Place, and (Hudson River, Piers A, 1-14) West Street.], in Atlas of the city of New York, Manhattan Island. From actual surveys and official plans (1897), Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library.
- Map of Lower Manhattan by PerryPlanet, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain (granted by the creator).
- Part of the fill used to create new land was from the construction of the World Trade Center complex.
- Inflation calculations performed in this post use Robert Sahr’s inflation data (Oregon State University). To adjust dollars from 1911 to 2017 values, divide the 1911 amount by by 0.039.