Monday, February 29, 2016

From Immigrant Shopgirl to Multi-Millionaire

When someone builds a multi-million dollar fortune from scratch, that's impressive. When it's a former immigrant shopgirl who amassed the million-dollar fortune by 1911, well, that's a story to be told.

The immigrant part of the story starts in 1853 when Clementine Cahn arrived from Germany with her parents and siblings. A few years later, at age 14, Clementine was a shopgirl in Manhattan. Maybe it's through her sales job that she met her husband, Morris Silverman - he was a fancy-goods merchant, specializing in lace, trimmings, and hats.

However they met, Morris and Clementine married in 1867 and the first of their six children arrived the next year. The growing family lived above their fancy-goods shop downtown, but Clementine and her children would one day build big apartment houses uptown - and not just any apartments, but buildings with modern amenities like elevators, electronic call buttons, cedar closets, and bathtubs.

Clementine Silverman and family living at 570 Third Avenue, 1870 U.S. Census


Before we get to the buildings and bathtubs, we need to talk about fire and family finances. In 1871, a fire broke out in Morris' fancy-goods shop on Third Avenue, and it seemed suspicious. When alerted to the fire during the night, Morris' calm demeanor was noted by the nightwatchman. As the fire got going, Morris and his wife were spotted leaving their apartment above the shop with their children, fully dressed, and carrying a packed trunk. It was also discovered that the $2000 worth of goods in the shop were insured for $20,000. Morris was arrested at the scene.

I don't know what became of the suspected arson case, but Clementine and Morris had more children in quick succession, so I'm assuming life continued as usual. Business continued as usual as well, and, unfortunately, that meant the family was in debt. Morris wasn't able to run his business successfully, and Clementine stepped in.

Clementine handled the business of caps and lace manufacturing well enough that she was able to support the family and save money to buy a house in Harlem. She didn't hold the uptown property for long, and when she sold it, she made a nice little profit. That profit provided inspiration to purchase more property, and at 50 years old with no experience in the field, Clementine started her career in real estate and construction.


It was during this era, in the 1890s, when photojournalist Jacob Riis published pictures of tenements on the lower east side of the city, exposing the conditions of that crowded neighborhood. At that time, tenants in tenements shared toilets and cold-water taps on the ground floor. People heated water to fill portable tubs in their kitchen to bathe. In 1895, the state mandated public baths in large cities, and in 1901, apartment buildings were required by law to have a toilet for every two families. Bathtubs remained a status symbol and were not found in most apartments.

Clementine raised six children in New York City, and I suspect she knew a thing or two about the convenience of a private bathtub. When her children were young, there was at least one documented case of communicable disease - typhoid fever - in the building where they lived on Wooster Street. People desire to live comfortably, and that includes preventing diseases as well as avoiding neighbors at the toilet and sink. Clementine would have been acutely aware of how people lived in the city and she knew what they could use in their homes. When she became a builder, one of her first decisions was to install private bathtubs in her constructions, even before the city required them.

Never mind that the tenants used the new bathtubs to store coal.


The men in real estate might have laughed at her extravagance of installing tubs, and they certainly laughed at her idea to purchase property on the desolate upper east side next to a power plant. The purchase on 98th Street at 1st Avenue was her first venture into speculation. She figured workers would want to live next to their jobs at the power plant and nearby factories, and she was right. Within a month of completion, the building was rented to capacity. She quickly sold the place at a good profit, which she used to buy, build, and sell again. And again and again and again.

Her specialty was buying lots where she predicted people would want to live, and mostly that meant in uptown neighborhoods where the subway was proposed to be built. Thinking ahead was key to her success.

Another key to her success was keeping business personal. One after another, she set up all three of her sons-in-law and all three of her sons in the real estate and construction business. She oversaw every aspect of the buying, constructing, and selling herself. When workers went on strike at one of her sites, she settled the matter with them quickly, face-to-face. She cut out the middlemen and purchased her construction materials directly from suppliers, and she personally made the rounds to her buildings in her motorcar, dressed fashionably and allowing time to attend the opera in the evening.

We can see evidence of her love for routine and working directly with suppliers in her family's buildings. Take a look at some of the apartments that are still around:, June 2011 street view map.
The building above is the "DeLeon" on West 112th Street, built by Clementine's son Robert when he was twenty-two years old, under the direction of his mother.

Robert also built the "Claire" and the "Rosedale" a few blocks away on West 118th Street: Sept 2014 street view map

And here are the "Robert" and the "Millard" apartment buildings on West 107th: April 2009 street view map
The "Beatrice" is a little further uptown in West 131st Street" Sept 2014 street view map

Are you noticing the patterns? The different buildings have a similar look with red-and-white bricks. It's not a stretch to imagine that Clementine got a good deal on the bricks and followed a formula when designing each building. Sticking to a system is perhaps why she reached the rate of constructing a building a month.

In the early 1900s, Clementine was one of the biggest players in New York City real estate, and she played it her way. She was a pioneer in choosing property uptown and she was a pioneer in providing up-to-date small luxuries that attracted tenants. Her pioneering ways and progressive ideas meant she could buy low, sell high, and build her fortune quickly once she got started. The men in the field might have scoffed at the middle-aged mom without assets new to the scene, but while they scoffed, Clementine's businesses built hundreds of apartment houses during her 15 years in real estate.

Not all the buildings are still standing today and not all the buildings look alike, but the red-and-white exterior is a clue that a building might have been built by Clementine, self-made middle-aged millionaire, over a century ago.

In 1910, Clementine left the real estate business, and within a year, she passed away in her apartment on Madison Avenue. A year after her death, her descendants unveiled a monument at the gravesite in Brooklyn. Her husband outlived her, but not for long. Days before the second anniversary of her death, Morris was struck by a passing street car on Madison Avenue and he soon died from his injuries. At the ten-year anniversary of Clementine's death, her children placed an announcement in the New York Times in loving memory of their parents: "Gone but not forgotten."

Sources are found here.