On the corner of Fifth Avenue and east 56th Street in Manhattan, is the flagship store for Abercrombie & Fitch, the colossal corporate clothing company that outfits millions of teens with their distinctive A&F logo. “A casual, classic, All-American lifestyle brand, synonymous with quality,” runs their own PR, for a company that has often courted controversy with their advertising, and hiring of models as store greeters.
But there is a secret history to Abercrombie & Fitch that the droves of youths clothed in their branded apparel are probably unaware of. For Abercrombie & Fitch were once two actual people, who a century ago sold high end equipment, clothing and rifles to explorers and outdoorsmen. When Theodore Roosevelt embarked on safaris to the African interior, when William Byrd forged his way into the Antarctic, or when Ernest Hemingway went big game hunting, it was often with apparel bought from Abercrombie & Fitch. But the two partners quarrelled, the company would eventually go bankrupt, and the true story of Abercrombie and Fitch remains little known today.
In the Hudson Valley, hidden in the forests an hour or so north of Manhattan, is a forgotten relic of this once, luxurious, but very different company: a tumbled down medieval looking castle, that wouldn’t look out of place in the Scottish Highlands. Once this forlorn place was the extravagant family home of David T. Abercrombie. We went to explore the abandoned remnants of the Abercrombie estate with our friend Rob Yasniac, over at the always excellent Hudson Valley Ruins.
Built in the 1920s, Abercrombie called the castle Elda, after the initials of his four children, Elizabeth, Lucy, David and Abbott. Whilst looking like a castle on the outside, with turrets, ramparts and commanding views over the Hudson Valley, the inside was designed as a luxurious hunting lodge, as befitted one of the most successful store owners of his day.
David Abercrombie was the son of a Scottish industrialist, who’s steel formed the backbone of the USS Monitor, and helped prop up the dome of the US Capitol building. The young Abercrombie forged his own path, becoming an avid outdoorsman, hunter and sportsman. He worked as a skilled topographer, and explorer for the Norfolk and Western Railroad. But Abercrombie soon became exasperated with the lack of high quality, outdoor equipment.
In 1892, he opened a small shop at 36, South Street in Lower Manhattan, close by the canvas sail makers of the old waterfront. Abercrombie started to sell canvas tents, leather boots, rifles, and everything else needed to mount an expedition into the wilderness.
From the outset, Abercrombie put an emphasis on stocking his shop with luxury, high end, stylish equipment, attracting customers like Clark Gable and Ernest Hemingway, as well as outfitting perilous expeditions to the Polar regions, South America and Africa. Being situated downtown, Abercrombie also attracted the wealthy huntsmen and sporting gentlemen of Wall Street. One regular customer was Ezra Fitch.
Born into privilege in a Greek Revival mansion in Coxsackie, New York in 1865, Ezra Fitch spent his youth horseback riding, hunting and fishing. As a successful businessman in Lower Manhattan, Fitch spent so much time frequenting Abercrombie’s shop, he eventually bought into it.
Together Abercrombie and Fitch became even more upscale; as well as the finest hunting rifles, fishing rods and tents, they began selling luxury cocktail shakers, gaming equipment — its said that Fitch introduced Mahjong to America – you could even buy a deluxe, onyx chessboard for $18,000. Their pioneering catalogue could be found in the smoking rooms and libraries of every well to do gentlemen explorer and sportsman in America, and their physical store would move uptown.
But the two partners would eventually fall out; Abercrombie preferred to cater only to the wealthy, whilst Fitch wanted to vastly expand their business to sell to anyone. Abercrombie eventually sold his share, and retired to the Hudson Highlands to build his castle.
Elda was surrounded by nearly fifty acres of woodland; from its ramparts, you had wide reaching views of the river and valley. The castle itself had twenty-five rooms, spiral staircases, turrets, libraries, resembling a comfortable Scottish hunting lodge, with hunted animals mounted on the walls, and easy chairs arranged around the vast fireplace. Outside were stables, woods and streams for horseback riding, hunting and fishing.
But the idyllic castle would soon become shrouded in sadness; the youngest Abercrombie daughter died in a fire aged just three, whilst the son was killed by a horse on an expedition out west. After David Abercrombie died in 1931, just three years after moving into Elda, his widow moved to New Jersey, and the castle lay empty through the 1940s, when it began to fall apart. Several owners tried to save the once grand home, but it has been abandoned for many years.
The forest has gradually grown up around Elda castle, almost reaching its turret. But the building itself remains strong and intact, built from local hewn stone, and Abercrombie’s father’s steel.
But the rooms are badly damaged and empty, You can walk through what were once lovely, wood panelled, cosy living rooms, past the shattered conservatory where Lucy Abercrombie kept her plants. Elda is still currently for sale, the asking price just over three million, but it remains forgotten in the forest like a latter-day Manderley.
Abercrombie and Fitch continued selling their outdoor goods until the 1970s, when they eventually filed for bankruptcy. Fitch himself was long dead, passing away in 1930, aboard his sixty foot luxury yacht, the Content. The company name lay dormant until it was discovered and bought in 1998, re-branding itself as the clothing company we know today, a company with no resemblance to grand days when once Hemingway, Earhart and Roosevelt stepped inside their doors, excitedly hunting down that last piece of equipment for their next perilous adventure.