Thursday, October 29, 2020

The James A. Cowie House - 140 Ninth Avenue


By 1853 Henry Jarvis ran his fancy goods store at No. 120 Ninth Avenue (renumbered 140 in 1868).  He and his family lived in the three story building, as well, with two boarders, Abraham Coady, a carpenter, and Sophia Heney.  Jarvis's operation apparently went beyond simply selling ribbons and cloth, he advertised in The New York Herald on May 2, 1855: "Wanted--Two apprentices to the dressmaking and millinery [trade].  Apply in the store 120 9th avenue.  None but good sewers need apply."

Jarvis moved his store out in 1856 when the entire building was offered for rent.  An ad on April 14 noted it "would be let for $450."  (It was an affordable amount, equal to about $14,000 today.)

The fancy goods store became a confectionery shop, run by a quick succession of proprietors.  It was operated by Charles Clausen in 1857 and '58, George Lamb in 1859, William Toden in 1861 and '62, and in 1864 and '65 by Henry F. Balk.  

By the time Balk ran the candy store the house was owned by George W. Hyer and his wife, the former Catharine L. Gaffit,  who took in one boarder at a time.  Their tenant in the winter of 1865 was Charles F. Church who worked in the shoe factory of Henry McClellan downtown.  He went to work on Saturday, January 21, but would not return that night.

In the era before elevators freight was hoisted up through commercial buildings through hatchways--open shafts outfitted with a system of pulleys.  It was a dangerous system which resulted in repeated accidents and tragedies.  On January 23, 1865 The New York Times reported that Church "was killed on Saturday evening by falling through a hatchway on the fourth floor of No. 9 Ferry-street."  He died instantly.

George and Catharine Hyer had married in 1837.  The groom was 19-years old and the bride 17.  They had six children.   An active Mason, George earned his living as a "tooldresser."  He died on January 22, 1866 (coincidentally exactly one year and one day after his tenant had died).  He was just 49-years old.  The funeral was held in the house two days later.

Catherine lived on in the house, continuing to take in a boarder.  In 1867 it was Joseph R. Quick, a carpenter.  Around that time Cornelius B. Crist, who lived nearby on West 16th Street, was operating his butcher shop in the store.

James A. Cowie purchased the property from Catherine in 1870.  Cowie ran a fish and butcher shop on Eighth Avenue.  Born in 1844 he had "served in the Rebellion," as noted by the New York Herald, and had been a member of the Volunteer Fire Department.  As the Hyers had done, he and his wife, Margaret (known as Maggie), took in boarders.  In 1872 fireman John Vannorten lived with the couple and would remain for several years.

Cornelius Crist's butcher shop had become Margaret Lindsey's fancygoods store by 1872.  Margaret was a widow and unfortunately her enterprise did not succeed.  On September 25, 1873 an advertisement offered: "For Sale--Stock and Fixtures of a fancy store; three rooms; cheap rent; No. 140 Ninth avenue; will be sold cheap."

The Cowies welcomed a son, James, Jr., in the summer of 1875.  Tragically, eight months later, on December 12, his funeral was held in the house.  The following year the couple had another baby boy, this one, too, named James A. Cowie, Jr.  It may have been the presence of an infant in the house that prompted the Cowies to suddenly take in widows as their boarders.  Catharine Fyfe was here in 1876 and Margaret Corsa in 1878 and '79.  They possibly provided extra hands for the young mother.

Around 1878 Cowie moved his fish store to the shop next door, at No. 142 Ninth Avenue, while, oddly enough, leasing the store in his own building to Frank Schrader's grocery.  The ambitious Cowie had branched out by now.  He ran for political office and was elected to the assembly in 1884.

The family had a serious scare in 1891.  On July 30 The Evening World reported "The friends of ex-Alderman James A Cowie, of the Thirteenth Assembly District, were shocked this morning to learn that his life is despaired of.  They knew that Mr. Cowie was a sufferer from rheumatism, but they did not know until to-day that his malady had attacked the region of the heart, and that his attending physician holds out little hope of his recovery."  (The newspaper did not hide its partisan support of Cowie, saying he "has been the leader of the Republican opposition to wicked Fred Gibbs.")

Cowie recovered, but worse troubles for the family were on the near horizon.  In 1892 James, Jr., who was now 18, developed consumption, a condition recognized most often today as tuberculosis.  The New York Herald had an unexpected explanation for the disease, saying he was "taller than his father, who measures six feet, and the son's rapid growth had undermined his constitution."

The teen was sent to the Catskills for his health during the summer of 1893.  In the meantime Maggie fell "critically ill" as reported in the New York Herald.  James was brought home in September and confined to his bed.  His father ran again for assemblyman, but his campaign was conducted almost entirely without him as he cared for his wife and son.

The election was held on November 7.  "On election day, however, Mr. Cowie did not leave the bedside of his dying son, his brother-in-law Mr. Hyer, attending to the last details of the canvass," said a newspaper.  James A. Cowie, Jr. died that afternoon.  

The well-respected James A. Cowie, Sr. lived on in the house until his death on May 2, 1897.  The New York Herald called him "one of the most conspicuous figures in the old Ninth ward and said "his bitter struggles with [Frederick S.] Gibbs are still fresh in the memories of politicians."

The quaint little house and store continued its tradition of several residents upstairs and a small business at street level.  In the 1920's it held a grocery store and in the 1940's a delicatessen.  

A sign hawks the salads and sandwiches available in the deli around 1941.  Overhead a section of the 9th Avenue Elevated can be seen.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

The little building was lost to foreclosure during the Great Depression, and bought from the bank in June 1939 by Fred Cordes who paid $8,500--or about $156,000 today.

A renovation completed in 1972 resulted in a duplex apartment above the storefront.  

photographs by the author

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Renwick & Sands' 1868 29 Howard Street

In 1859 the block of Howard Street between Broadway and Lafayette Street was lined with brothels, saloons and low-end rooming houses.  The two-story building at No. 29 was home to John Hanselman's "lager beer saloon and dwelling."   But change was on the horizon.

The following decades saw the old brick and frame buildings converted or demolished as the neighborhood transformed from residential to commercial.  In 1868 Edward Mathews purchased No. 29 and commissioned the architectural firm of Renwick & Sands to design a modern loft building on the site.

Completed within the year, a two-story cast iron base upheld three floor faced in gleaming white marble.  James Renwick, Jr. and Joseph Sands had created a striking structure which, while holding on to mid-Victorian decorative details like dripping garlands of fruits, was highly influenced by the new neo-Grec style.  Incised rosettes and geometric designs adorned the pilasters.   The extraordinary stylized capitals of the fifth floor were nearly whimsical, and the paired brackets joined by a single capital which upheld the cornice were equally unique.

Among the earliest tenants was Finlay, Gourlay & Finch, shirt makers.   Working conditions within the lofts were gruesome, especially in the summer months.  The finished shirts were sometimes soiled by the sweat of the workers and by the dust and grime that entered through the open windows.  Before they could be shipped to the retail stores, they were sent to the compahy's laundry in Jamesburg, New Jersey.  On August 12, 1872 the firm advertised for "Ironers on White Shirts--Laundry a short distance in the country."

Work in the steamy, hot atmosphere of a laundry was no less harsh than the in loft.  It appears that ironers quickly came and went, for nine months later in May 1873 the company advertised "Wanted At Once--six first class ironers, for Jamesburg Shirt Factory.  Apply to Finlay, Gourlay & Finch, 29 Howard st."

The two-story cast iron base is unique even in Soho.

Within the year the firm was reorganized and renamed Downs, Gourlay & Finch.  The new partner, Daniel H. Downs, wrote a check to himself in August 1873 for $1,000 (about $22,000 today).  But when he arrived at the Bowery National Bank he realized he had dropped it somewhere along the way.  He offered a $5 reward for its return in the newspapers; although the chances of that happening were most likely slim.

It happened again in February 1876.   The bookkeeper had earlier drawn a note payable to the firm, due six months later.  But when the date came no one could find it.  The firm placed an announcement in newspapers warning "All persons are hereby cautioned against negotiating a note drawn by Downs, Gourlay & Finch, payable to their own order six months after date; amount $1,200.22; dated August 23, 1875; mislaid, lost or stolen from their office."

The monetary hit could not have come at a worse time.  The Financial Panic of 1873 ruining banks and businesses and wiping out the personal fortunes of millionaires.  The firm reorganized again, now becoming simply George Gourlay.  But none of the efforts were enough.  On April 21 1878 the New York Herald reported that Gourlay was on the brink of bankruptcy.  "The family and friends of Mr. Gourlay have given him financial aid in order that he may make a settlement of fifty cents on the dollars in secured notes."

Trailing fruits and vegetables--even including ears of corn--adorn the cast iron columns.

The 1880's saw Gilbert Isaacs, clothing manufacturer; Stewart, Warren & Co., "manufacturing stationers;" and Wilken & Black, dealers in tailors' trimmings in the building.  

In 1888 Stewart, Warren & Co. became "unpleasantly familiar," as worded by The Evening Telegram, with a gang of forgers.  The article explained that the firm "does a very large check manufacturing business and have to be constantly on guard against these rogues."  A nicely dressed member of the gang would appear at an office and present a letter written on Stewart, Warren & Co. letterhead.  It "requested the loan of one of their blank checks as an order had come from another customer for just such checks on the same kind of paper, and the firm were entirely out of samples."  

Suspicions were raised in September when the bookkeeper of Heissenbottle, Nearing & Co. noticed that the firm's name was misspelled and refused to supply the check other than by mail.  "The fraud came out at once when inquiry was made," said The Telegram.  Stewart, Warren & Co. notified police headquarters that "check raisers were apparently planning a raid on some of their customers."  The article warned businessmen "Indications point to the existence of a gang of check forgers and raisers in this city who are laying in a stock of blanks as the first step toward getting ready for business."  The newspaper also warned the crooks.  "The police are prepared to deal with them."

Ely C. Carter, maker of lace curtains, was in the building in the mid-1890's.  It employed an all female staff.  Of its 29 workers, 10 were under 21-years old and one under 16.  They worked a 54-hour week.

The last of the apparel companies in No. 29 was forced to find new accommodations when the entire building was leased by the S. Orchman Trunk Co. in September 1915.   The Great Depression years saw John Reiner & Co., dealers in industrial and construction equipment, here from 1933 through 1937.

Other tenants included the envelope maker Anca Printing Co., here by 1950; and the Empire Belt & Novelty Co. in 1955.

The upper floors were converted to "joint living/working quarters for artists" in 2003, one per floor.  The storefront became home to the Ralo Tibet Carpet store, which remained until around 2014.  In 2018 the art gallery BDDW opened here.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Eleazar Parmly House - 137 East 27th Street


In the early 1850's attractive brick-faced residences rose along East 27th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues.  The owner of No. 83 East 27th Street (renumbered 137 in 1868) was taking in boarders by 1853 when Peter Mead and Frederick Somers, both printers located in the Bible House, and policeman Daniel Vandewater listed their addresses here.

On August 22, 1855 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Daily Times offering:

Small Cottage House for Sale--In 27th-st, near Lexington av.  The house is three stories, basement and sub cellar, and built in the best masonry; has all the modern improvements, and is in every respect desirable for a small family.  Price $5,700, which includes gas fixtures and furnace.

At the time Dr. Eleazar Parmly and his family lived at No. 1 Bond Street.  His dental office was also in the house, which sat within what was known the Bond Street District.  It had been among the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in New York in the 1830's.  Now, however, it was the center of Manhattan's dental district.  While Parmly kept his office in the Bond Street house, he moved his family to East 27th Street.

In 1895 America's Successful Men of Affairs would remember Parmly as "the father of American dentistry."  Born on a farm in Braintree, Vermont on March 13, 1797, he had shown remarkable intelligence and capability early in his life.  At the age of 16 he passed the examination for the position of district school teacher so successfully that the School Board voted him extra pay.  After just one year of teaching he went to Montreal where he worked in a newspaper office.

Shortly afterward, he moved to Boston where his brother, Levi S. Parmly, was a dentist and through him "acquired a thorough knowledge of the professional."  The brothers went into partnership as itinerate dentists, traveling from city to city in the South.  

America's Successful Men of Affairs recounted a story from that period to illustrate Parmly's "character and determination."  He was escorting a lady to her home after attending a ball and was jostled by a young man "prominent in local society."  The article said "Dr. Parmly did not submit tamely to this insult.  He was tall, athletic, and finely proportioned, and the aggressor received a severe blow in punishment."

He was handed a written challenge the next day by a friend of the young man.  Parmly said "You are as well aware as I am that your friend's conduct was unwarranted and unjustifiable.  By bringing me this note, you have made yourself a participator in his insolence.  I propose to thrash you with your own cane, and if your friend will call I'll thrash him also, after which I am entirely willing to fight a duel with him."

Parmly then grabbed the man's cane, "administered a sound drubbing, and put him out of the house."  Justice and chivalry were far different in the 1810's and he after his arrest on charges of assault, the judge "looked admiringly at him, patted him on the shoulder and said, 'Young man, you did right.  You are perfectly safe in this city from this time.'"

In 1821 Parmly and his brother went to Europe where they studied under the most famous dental surgeons of Paris and London.  Parmly arrived in New York in 1823 and "for a half a century stood at the head of his profession in the metropolis," according to America's Successful Men of Affairs.

He married Ann Maria V. Smith on August 22, 1827, and they had five children who survived to adulthood--Anna, Alexander Ehrick (who went by his middle name), Mary, Julia and Louisa.  Ehrick followed in his father's footsteps, graduating with high honors from the New York College of Dental Surgery in Syracuse in March 1851.  And like his father, he then spent about a year in Paris "industriously pursuing a course of medical and surgical studies," according to the American Journal of Dental Science in 1853.

Dr. Eleazar Parmly around 1850.  via

Around the time his father purchased the 27th Street house, Ehrick married Lucy Dubois, of Montbeliard, France.  Both he and his father were artistically as well as medically inclined.  A talented poet, Eleazar wrote his autobiography in verse.  Ehrick was a musician who offered his services to the Oceanic Presbyterian Church, of which he was the treasurer and a trustee.

Despite what America's Successful Men of Affairs called Eleazar's "large income," he and Ann Maria took in boarders.  Martin Wilbur, a streetcar conductor, remained through 1859.  Their other boarder in 1856 was Joseph Wordsdell, a cabinetmaker.

Although he retained possession of the house, Parmly was no longer listed at the address in 1861.  Surprisingly, Frederick Somers, who had lived here as early as 1853, was back with his family.  His son, Frederick D. Somers, was earning a living as a clerk.  Also renting rooms were artist Theodore L. Angerstein and William Foster, a mason.

In 1864 Parmly leased the house to Aaron Rutherford and his wife, Margaret.  Rutherford ran a provisions business on East 27th Street.  The couple apparently considered moving out in the spring of 1869, when an advertisement in the New York Herald offered "To Let--Completely furnished, the three story high stoop brick House, 137 East Twenty-seventh street, with all modern improvements."  The asking rent was $1,800 a year, or about $3,000 per month today.

But instead a deal was worked out and in March 1870 Eleazar Parmly transferred title to the house to Margaret Rutherford.  (Deeds were commonly placed in the wife's name in the 19th century, assuring her of financial stability in the case of her husband's death.)

The Rutherfords housed boarders, as well.  In the spring of 1880 they took in a young father, 27-year old R. S. Checkley, and his three year old daughter, Lilly.  Checkley's story was striking.

Four years earlier, just as he was about to graduate from medical school, he took on the case of 41 year old Adelaide E. Swett.  He explained later that she "was a lady of some means, but a confirmed invalid, having been given up by several physicians."  He was convinced he could help her, or at least prolong her life for several years.

The Sun reported on June 15, "To begin with, he married her."  But four years later he was informed that she was already married, and so he left her and came to New York.  He explained, according to The Sun, "The reason why he took the child with him was that its mother persisted in feeding it on medicated food when the child stood in no need of it.  Besides, he was very much attached to it, and could not bear to part with it."

Adelaide had no intention of parting with the child, either.  She arrived in New York in May with a warrant for her husband's arrest on a charge of abandonment.  She searched for three weeks before spotting him on the street.  She grabbed a policeman, saying "I want you to arrest that man.  He is my husband, and he has run away from me for another woman."

R. B. Checkley was taken in.  At the stationhouse he was forced to reveal Lilly's location.  Adelaide rushed to No. 137 East 27th Street and came back with her daughter.  The following day in court she said she would not press charges.  "She had secured the child, and that, it seems, was all she wanted."

On the evening of June 11 Adelaide and the toddler boarded the steamboat Narragansett headed back to Boston.  The vessel was on the Long Island Sound when it collided with the steamer Stonington.  The following day the Memphis Daily Appeal reported "the present report is that the Narragansett took fire and sunk."   At least 83 fatalities had been confirmed at the time.

On June 20 The Sun reported "Among the victims of the disaster was Mrs. R. S. Checkley, of Boston."  As the Narragansett burned, "a lifeboat manned by men who in the excitement had forgotten to take any oars aboard, floated under the stern of the sinking vessel.  There, by the light of the fire, a woman was discovered on her back upon the surface of the water, with a little child riding upon her breast."

The two were Adelaide and Lilly.  They were both alive and pulled into the lifeboat.  The article said "Mrs. Checkley was exhausted and almost unconscious.  When she found herself aboard the boat she thought she had been rescued without her child, and after moaning some tender words about her 'lost baby' she died."  Checkley received a telegram at the 27th Street house on Sunday, informing him of the tragedy.  "He took the next train for Boston, and by this time he is on his way back in the undisputed possession of his child," said the article.

The following year the Rutherfords moved to Irvington, Iowa and sold the house to De L'Orme Knowlton for $5,000--just under $130,000 today.  He resold it in 1886 to Cacielle Stein for twice the amount he had paid.   She hired architect H. Simberlund to enlarge the house to the rear in May 1887 with a two-story addition.  

Cacielle Stein retained possession of the house into the 20th century, renting rooms to blue collar tenants like Joseph Pierro who endured the embarrassment in 1902 of having his name published for owing "noncollectable" property taxes dating back to 1899.

In 1920 the owners called themselves a "Christian business couple" in their advertisement to rent three rooms at $25 rent (about $320 per month today).

The house was converted to one apartment per floor above a store in the former basement in 1941.  The stoop was removed and all traces of Victorian detailing were removed.  The building was used by a variety of businesses throughout the 20th century—in the 1950's the Helen Goodman Gallery was here, as well as the Davenport Theatre.  In 1956 the first and second story apartments were combined into one duplex.

Seth Ryan lived in the building in 1960.   On January 26 the 21-year old and two friends, Hugh Bruce and Gilbert Demillo went to a rally of 8,000 persons in Union Square who were protesting Nazism and anti-Semitism.  But they were not there to lend support.  At around 7:30, as Rabbi Harold Maraleck was speaking to survivors of Nazi concentration camps, the young men shouted "Heil Hitler" and gave the Nazi salute.  They were arrested and held in $15,000 bail each, charged with disorderly conduct.

Today the masonry of the venerable Parmly house is painted and the former English basement could best be described as an eyesore.  But the stories that have played out within its walls are fascinating.

photographs by the author

Monday, October 26, 2020

The 1887 Robert E. Walsh House - 142 West 95th Street


As he often did, developer William J. Merritt acted as his own architect when he planned the row of houses on the south side of West 95th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues in 1886.  And as he was also known for doing, his 18-foot wide homes, completed in 1887, were designed for upper-middle-class families.

Merritt's somewhat quirky row was designed in the up-to-date Queen Anne style.  Clad in brick with stone trim, the three-story houses did not happily co-exist, but fought one another for attention.  When The Architectural Record critic Montgomery Schuyler reviewed the row, he likened it to the "reign of terror."

Merritt gave No. 142 a cottage-like feel.  A dog-legged stoop faced in rough cut brownstone led to the narrow double doored entrance.  Between it and the parlor window a terra cotta held an elaborate Celtic knot of leaves and bands.   Above a thin course of stone, the second and third floors rose to a faux gable decorated in checkerboard tiles.

An advertisement in the New York Herald on March 13, 1887 described the house as a "lovely Queen Anne" dwelling "decorated, papered, &c."  The advertised price was $15,000, or about $416,000 in today's money.  

Merritt apparently did not find his buyer, but leased the house.  And his price dropped just a bit five years later when the owners offered it at $14,500.  On March 31, 1892 it sold (although under asking price, at $14,250) to Robert E. Walsh and his wife, Annie.

The outline of the original window is evident.  It is hard to imagine that two entrance doors originally filled the doorway.

Upper-middle class families spent, if not the entire summer season, a few weeks each year at resorts.  Robert and Annie were on Fire Island at the fashionable Surf Hotel in 1894.  He was on the committee in charge of the "grand final ball" of the season that year.  On August 26 The New York Times promised "The famous old hostelry, cottages, and grounds, as well as the yachts and launches at anchor, are to be gayly decorated; Greek fire is to blaze here and there; the hotel orchestra is to be increased by several musicians from New-York, and altogether, the season is to be closed in the gayest possible fashion."

The Walshes escaped the city heat and humidity at the Surf Hotel.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Annie's widowed mother, Amelia Morton, moved into the 95th Street house at some point.  She died there on June 5, 1899.

Robert and Annie Walsh remained in the 95th Street house for more than a decade.   On March 6, 1907 The New York Press reported that Walsh had sold it and "the buyer will occupy the house."  A month later, on April 15, an on-site auction was held of the Walsh household furnishings.  The listing hints at the couple's comfortable home environment.  Among the items to be sold were "fine mahogany and gold Parlor Furniture and Cabinets, Marbles, Bronzes and Bric-a-Brac, Oil Paintings, Etchings and Engravings, Fine Draperies and Curtains throughout the house."

Although he had announced he would occupy No. 142 as a private home, it appears the new owner operated it as a boarding house.  Living here in 1916 was Dennis Manning.  He was among the five passengers riding in Irving Farian's automobile on the New Rochelle Road near the Pelham Bay Bridge in the early hours of September 23 that year.  

Given the timing, it is probably that the men had been drinking.  Farian drove the car into a telegraph pole and then into a tree.  It was a horrific accident, resulting in two men dead.  Manning was somewhat fortunate in that he was thrown from the vehicle, receiving only cuts and bruises.  Farian was held on a charge of homicide.

In the early 1940's the parlor window, stoop and gable tilework were all intact.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Colorful residents in the mid-1920's were the Rush family.  They advertised the address as the Riverside Spiritualist Church and touted young Harold Rush as "The Noted Boy Medium."  An advertisement in the Long Island Daily Press on December 14, 1927 announced "Message Services daily" at 2:30 and 8:00 p.m. and private readings every day from 2:00 through 10:00.

By 1931 No. 142 was run as a rooming house, the tenants of which were not always upstanding.  On April 21, 1931 the Standard Union reported that a taxi driver, Harry Kirschner, had picked up Vicco Anderson and Kai Wolffeld on 57th Street.  Both were tenants at No. 142 West 95th Street.

The men's behavior raised his suspicions by the time they reached Jackson Heights and he pulled over, saying he would not take them any further.  "One of the men, according to the taxi driver, pointed a gun at him and made him leave his cab after they had taken $7," said the article.  They hailed another cab and headed to the elevated train station.

Kirschner's shouts for help alerted Police Officer Patrick J. Shea  "who leaped on a private car and caught the two men after a few blocks' chase," said the Union Standard.  As Shea opened the cab door, Wolffeld's gun "was accidentally discharged" and burned his face.  Anderson was charged with having a length of rubber hose in his pocket and Wolffeld for gun possession.

As it turned out both men were sailors who, said the Daily News two weeks later "abandoned the bounding billows for paved streets and attempted to smooth their path via the gun."  Their $7 heist (about $118 today) landed both of them in prison, sentenced to two to four years each.

By mid-century the former Walsh house was neglected.  It sat vacant until being sold to Joseph Fish in June 1951.  But a new owner did not mean better days were ahead.  In the 1960's the house was appropriated by the city and in November 1967 was one of sixteen structures "designated for rehabilitation" and offered for sale.

Two renovations followed, one completed in 1975 and another in 2007.  The beleaguered and missing terra cotta tiles of the top floor were replaced with a panel simulating brownstone with a daisy relief appropriate to the Queen Anne architecture.  The damaged or lost stoop was also replaced.  Today there is a total of three apartments in the building, one in the basement, and two duplexes.

photographs by the author

Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Lost Wm. Valleau Building - 506 Broome Street


Once a handsome home, 506 Broome Street (left) was sorely abused by the Depression years. from the collection of the New York Public Library  

An advertisement in the New York Morning Courier in 1831 offered a two-story brick house for sale at No. 506 Broome Street.  It and its identical neighbor at No. 504 were, in fact, two-and-a-half stories tall.  The Federal style residences would have been marketed to merchant class families.

In the early 1850's (until 1856) William Filmer and his family lived in No. 506.  He ran an electrotyping business on Fulton Street.  In 1856 it became home to two widows, Mary J. Pennoyer and Elizabeth Robinson and a boarder, Augustus Steinmetz.  Steinmetz made his living as a pianist.  For the next three years residents would come and go nearly yearly.

The house was offered for sale early in 1859.  An advertisement in the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer on February 25 described the "two story, attic and basement house and lot."  Another widow, Caroline Barlett, moved in and it was almost assuredly at this time that the house received a significant make-over.

The changes followed the recently popular Second Empire style which was sweeping Europe.  The parlor windows were extended to the floor and the peaked roof was remodeled to a slate-shingled mansard with elaborate, lacy iron cresting.

The first years following the end of the Civil War, however, saw a transformation taking shape in the Soho neighborhood.  Private residences like Caroline Barlett's were being demolished or converted for business purposes.  By 1871 William W. Valleau, Jr. had purchased the house and installed his gold foil business in it.  

Valleau had established his business in 1849.  His gold foils were marketed for the most part to the dental industry for use in fillings.  An ad some years later promised "We claim for our foil that it is made of absolutely pure gold, and beaten with the greatest care to produce uniformity and toughness, never losing sight of quality for the sake of cheapness."

He shared the former house with George J. Pack & Co., which was also in the gold foil business.  That Valleau chose a competitor as his tenant is surprising, although the two apparently had a very amicable relationship.  They shared a full page advertisement in the March 1873 issue of the American Journal of Dental Science.  
The American Journal of Dental Science, March 1873 (copyright expired)

Valleau's business had apparently grown enough by 1877 that he now used the entire building.  The previous year he had been honored at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia (the first official World's Fair in the United States).  The Reports And Awards noted that William Valleau, Jr.'s Dental Gold-Foil was "Commended for purity brilliancy of color, and variety and convenience of forms, for the use of the operator."

In fact, his increasing business required him to hire carpenter N. J. Rigney to erect a one-story rear extension to the building in March, 1880.  The plans described No. 506 as a "workshop and dwelling," suggesting that Valleau's family lived in the upper floors.  He and his wife, the former Sarah Agnes Aitkew, had three children, Clinton Monteith, who was nine-years old in 1880; William Smith Valleau, who was 13; and Charlotte Amelia, who was 17-years old.

Valleau touted his World's Fair award in this 1880 advertisement.  The Odontographic Journal (copyright expired)

Valleau's extremely valuable stock prompted him to subscribe to the Holmes Electric Protective Company on February 1, 1883.  It was an early embrace of modern technology, a forerunner of today's burglar alarm.

William Valleau, Jr. died around 1887, but the firm continued under Sarah and the children.  In January 1889 it was reorganized as The Valleau Manufacturing Co.  Sarah, who had remarried and whose surname was now Griffin, took the position of president, with William Smith Valleau as secretary.  A price list that year explains his father's eagerness to upgrade security.  "Soft and Cohesive Foils," for instance, were priced at $30 per ounce, or about $870 per ounce in today's money.

The firm was nevertheless deceived by a clever scam artist in March 1897.  Edward Merrinan first stopped into the store of Van Houten & Sheldon, respected dealers in paints and painters' supplies, and said "I want to get some gold leaf and as I know that your work is of a high grade, I want to buy my stock from the same people you do."  The Evening Telegram explained that as the representative listed his gold leaf suppliers, Merrinan took one of Van Houten & Sheldon's business cards.

On March 14 he walked into the Valleau Manufacturing Co. and placed an order for four packages of gold for Van Houten & Sheldon, offering the business card as identification.  The firm was a long-time customer and the clerk was not suspicious.  "There was only one package in stock and this he was given," reported The Evening Telegram.  It was not until the balance of the order was delivered to Van Houten & Sheldon that the ruse was discovered.

If the Valleau family had, indeed, originally lived on the upper floors of No. 506, they by no means did by now.  Clinton lived in a handsome home at No. 106 West 71st Street and was a member of the exclusive Manhattan Club.  (William had relinquished his interest in the firm by now.)  The rooms on the upper floor were now home to some of the firm's workers.

A union delegate testified before a hearing of the American Federation of Labor on December 15, 1897.  His words exposed the stark differences between the lifestyles of the Valleau family and their workers.

After four years of suffering and fighting starvation wages, we finally succeeded through organization in raising our wages to the living point.  All employers in the United States acceded to our demands with the exception of three firms [including] The Valleau Co...In the case of the Valleau Co. the majority of the men actually live in the workshop, working day and night for the past two years, and yet their wages do not average $10 per week.

(The $10 salary would equal just under $320 per week today.)

In 1902 the Valleau Manufacturing Co. listed its principals as Sarah, Clinton and Charlotte, whose surname was now Jenks.  
The firm was reaching out to a new market at the time.  An advertisement in The International Book-Binder in January 1903 marketed its gold leaf for use in the gold edging for books, as well as providing the labor in applying it.  The advertisement suggests the firm had improved the working conditions, saying in part "We employ none but Union Hands (no boys or girls), and every one a skilled mechanic."

The pressures of business seem to have overwhelmed Clinton in 1905.  He was committed to Dr. McFarland's Sanatorium in Greens Farms, Connecticut for "treatment for a nervous ailment."  Six months later, on May 22, 1906, the New-York Tribune entitled an article "Escapes From Sanatorium" and reported that Clinton was on a trolley car when his conduct attracted attention.  He was arrested by a plain clothes officer.

The article said "He had 25 cents in money and wore expensive clothing.  He seemed anxious to get to New Rochelle and said his trouble would be over if he could only get there."  Clinton's freedom was short-lived.  The article ended "The police turned him over to the sanatorium people."

Sarah Valleau Griffin died on February 22, 1908.  In 1911 only Clinton and his sister Charlotte were listed as owners of the property.  They were leasing the second floor and attic that year to to the Lion Knitting Works, while continuing to operate their firm from the lower section.

A fire broke out in the Lion Knitting Work's stockroom at around 9:00 p.m. on September 23, 1911.  Firefighters were blinded by the dense smoke, so 42 year old Battalion Chief William Devlin led a team to the roof to chop a hole.  The Sun reported "The roof, which tops an old fashioned  building, is peaked at the front but flattens out half way back toward the rear end of the structure.  Firemen were walking on this flat portion."

Firefighters "heard a yell and some of them turned in time to see the chief fall over the edge," said the article.   He first hit the extension that William Valleau had added in 1880, then rolled off, landing on the flagstone-paved rear yard.  Chief Devlin was unconscious when he was taken away.  The Sun said "He suffered serious internal injuries and physicians fear also that his spine was fractured."  He died four days later.  Tragically, Devlin was a widower and left behind five orphaned children.

The blaze was confined only to the Lion Knitting Works, so damage to the Valleau Manufacturing Company's space was limited to water damage.

A printing firm occupies the ground floor in this July 23, 1939 photograph.  One of the Victorian dormers has been replaced.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Following World War I the Broome Street neighborhood declined.   By the early 1930's the former house that had been headquarters of the Valleau family's gold foil business for decades was a printing shop.

When this photo was taken around 1941 the end of the line for the aged building was on the horizon.  NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The venerable, if sorely treated, building survived until 1947 when it was replaced by a gasoline station.  In 1996 the current three-story building was completed on the site of 504 and 506 Broome.

The 1855 Upsdell, Peirson, Lake & Co. Store - 471 Broadway

On February 19, 1823 Miles R. Burke purchased the handsome Federal style brick house at No. 471 Broadway and the stables directly behind at No. 44 Mercer Street from William H. Harrison and Abraham Ogden, Jr.  A wealthy merchant, Burke owned the two-masted brig Resort which brought goods into New York.  

In 1832 he married Jane Antoinette Duffie.  She traced her American roots to John and Catherine Duffie who left Scotland in 1741 (only Catherine arrived, her husband having fallen overboard).  Jane Antoinette's mother, Maria, was the daughter of Cornelius Roosevelt.

Miles R. Burke apparently knew his death was imminent on July 22, 1836 when he signed his last will and testament.  He died shortly afterward, leaving the Broadway property to his wife.  She married Isaac Gibson on August 29, 1842, within a year of his first wife's death, and the couple remained at No. 471.  Gibson was listed as a "merchant and broker" and was a member of the New York Society Library.

In the 1850's the Broadway neighborhood was seeing the incursion of commerce and the wealthy homeowners left their elegant homes to move further north.  In 1854 the Gibsons demolished No. 471 to replace it with a modern store and loft building.  Confusingly, the paperwork listed Jane Antoinette's unmarried sister, Margaret, as the owner of record (although she was not), and Daniel Badger's Architectural Iron Works, which supplied the cast iron storefront, listed the property's owner as "W. [sic] Gibson."  Although it was her property, Jane Antoinette received no mention.

Completed early in 1855, the Italianate style building could easily have been mistaken for an uptown mansion above the storefront.  The windows within its brownstone front sat within architrave frames upon molded sills.  Carved decoration filled the spaces below gently arched lintels.  An interesting carved frieze of a chain-link design ran below the modillioned cornice.

The new building became home to Ubsdell, Peirson, Lake & Co. which had been founded in 1840 on Canal Street as Ubsdell & Peirson.  When George G. Lake entered the firm, it moved into No. 471.  Here fashionable women would shop for a wide variety of clothing and accessories.  A single advertisement on April 3, 1855 listed "a large lot of English and German cotton hosiery for ladies' wear...a lot of China silk hose very cheap...theatrical hosiery, consisting of French hose, tights &c....a large stock of Bajou's kid gloves, embracing all the fashionable Spring colors...a beautiful assortment of rich Cashmere Stella shawls...ten cases more of those yard wide calicoes...and "the last lot of those cheap Irish linens."

The firm had barely opened in its new home when it was the victim of burglars.  In April the Troy Daily Times reported "During Friday night the dry goods' store of Ubsdell, Pierson & Lake, situated at 471 Broadway, New York, was entered by burglars, and Canton Crape Shawls, to the value of near $2000, was carried away by the rogues."  The heist would be worth more than $60,000 in today's money.

The New York Herald, October 30, 1859 (copyright expired)

Another, much smaller, theft six years later would result in embarrassing press for the store.  On May 8, 1861 the wife of wealthy boot and shoe wholesaler Robert B. Currier and her niece "called at the store of Ubsdell, Pierson & Lake, No. 471 do a little shopping," as reported by The New York Times.  "After looking at some goods, they went leisurely out of the store into the adjoining one of Beekman & Co."

Shortly afterward the clerk who had waited on them noticed a piece of silk he had shown them was missing.  He informed Charles Pierson that they had stolen the merchandise and was told to bring them back.  The well-to-do women were affronted at the accusation and demanded Pierson to search them.  "This he declined to do, as not being proper for him, but determined to and did send for two police detectives," said The Times.  

The women were searched and nothing was found.  Pierson asked the officers to release them; but it was too late.  The clerk had "positively" made the charge and the policemen were obligated to take the women in as "they might have had an accomplice" who made off with the goods.

At police headquarters the clerk was directed by his employer to withdraw the charges and after Pierson gave "ample apologies" the messy affair seemed to have been over.  That is, until Robert Currier stormed into the store a few weeks later 
and asked what reparations Pierson and his partner intended to make.  He was given another "ample apology."

That was not enough to repair his wife's damaged feelings and restore her tainted reputation so Currier sued the store for $10,000 for slander and false imprisonment--a staggering $300,000 today.  After a two-day trial and deliberation of five hours, the jury "disagreed" on a verdict.

It may have contributed to the disbanding of Ubsdell, Peirson, Lake & Co.  The original partners withdrew from the firm and George G. Lake now joined with James McCreery to form Lake & McCreery.  The new partnership continued at the location, offering similar merchandise as before.  An advertisement on December 26, 1864, for instance, read:

Great Reduction In Cloaks--
Lake & McCreery, No. 471 Broadway, are now offering their large and desirable assortment of cloaks, consisting of English, Whitney, Frosted, Chinchilla, Castor, Moscow and other Beaver Cloths, at Greatly Reduced Prices.
Ladies desirous of purchasing cloaks for Holiday Presents will do well to call and examine our stock.

In the meantime, Isaac Gibson had died on June 26, 1860 at the age of 58.  Jane Antoinette retained possession of the Broadway building, living on in the couple's home at 251 Lexington Avenue.   She would continue to own the property until her death in 1889.

Emporiums had to not only watch vigilantly for shoplifters, but for theft from within.  A clerk, Francis Wildey, was arrested on September 26, 1867 "to answer a change of stealing silks and other articles," said The Daily Whig.  "He had sold the goods to various persons, some of them customers of the firm, at cost price, and the purchasers supposed he had the consent of his employers."  The value of the stolen goods would be $26,700 in today's dollars.

The store offered a wide variety of dry goods items.  The New York Herald, June 7, 1868 (copyright expired)
The store was the victim of theft yet again in June 1868 when the well-known shoplifter, Eliza Wallace, walked out with 70 yards of silk.  She was arrested, but released on bail.  And she then immediately disappeared.

Six months later, on January 24, 1869 The New York Times entitled an article "Arrest of a Notorious Female Criminal"  and reported that "Eliza Wallace, alias Eliza Gilford, alias Mary Anderson, alias Mary Rogers, alias Big Mary, alias Boston Mary, was arrested."  She had been tracked down in Philadelphia where police had "six or eight complaints against her for operations in that city."

By the time of her arrest McCreery had bought out George Lake and renamed the store James McCreery & Co. and its new, lavish emporium was rising at the northwest corner of Broadway and 11th Street.   On April 18, 1869 a six-day "Removal" sale was advertised in The New York Herald.

No. 471 Broadway next became home to bookseller and publisher B. Westermann & Co.  It dealt in scholarly works, publishing in 1870, for instance, Die Chemisch-Technischen Millheilungen des Jahres, which it marketed as "a very valuable contribution to technical literature," and Bibliotheca Mechanico-Technologica et Economica, "a classified catalogue of all books on technical chemistry, etc."

B. Westermann & Co. remained at least through 1874, followed by William J. Blake's "millinery trims" operation, which signaled the end of the building as a single-tenant store.  

In 1887 the ground floor was occupied by the lace and embroidery store of Lewis, Cable & Lesser.  Jacob Adler, glove merchant, was on the second floor, and Moritz Fischer, who dealt in dress and cloak trimmings, had the top three floors.  Somewhat suspiciously, on Saturday night, March 26, that year two fires broke out almost simultaneously on the block.  The first started in Lewis, Cable & Lesser's store.

Although the building suffered only about $1,000 damage ($28,000 in today's terms), the tenants were less lucky.  Lewis, Cable & Lesser lost "not less than $20,000, and possibly half as much more," according to The New York Times (as much as $832,000 today); Jacob Adler's losses ranged from $8,000 to $12,000; and Moritz Fischer around $1,000.

Lewis, Cable & Lesser did not return.  The ground floor space was taken by S. Oppenheimer & Co.   Adler and Fischer both renewed their leases.  Adler's firm would be renamed Alfred Adler by 1892.  That year, according to Patricia Ellerton Duffie in her 1983 The Duffie Family of Edinburgh and New York, Oppenheimer and Adler were paying rents "up to $9,500 a year."  (That would translate to an significant $22,250 per month today.)

A. Fisher, manufacturer of dress, cloak and fur trimmings, was in the building in 1914 when its proprietor became the victim of fraud and then the butt of a mean practical joke.  It started when angry store owners began storming into Fisher's office demanding payment on bad checks he had signed to buy items like a new overcoat, an umbrella, and two suits.  An unknown cad was outfitting himself with fine new clothing while posing as Fisher.

And then on March 29 The New York Times reported "Mr. Fisher was nearly distracted by this time, but the worst was yet to come.  Girls began to arrive, blonds, brunettes, and others.  They were all ready to take hold of the jobs at high wages for which they had been engaged."  The girls initially refused to believe that Fisher was, indeed, Fisher.  They were expecting the "nice young man they had met at dances."  They further said he had been very generous and had bought each of them "several glasses of beer or something stronger."  The article said "They were disappointed in the real Fisher and were persuaded to leave with difficulty."

In the post World War I years A. Fisher (who had branched out to include "undertakers' trimmings" to his line) was joined in the building by Van Blankensteyn & Hennings, "embroidery and woolen" dealers.

In the 1940's the 1855 decorative elements were still intact.  The surviving house next door would have been very similar to the Burke-Gibson house.  photo via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services.

A renovation completed in 1965 was most likely responsible for the loss of the Victorian architectural elements--the window framings, carvings and lintels.   Thankfully the cornice and decorative frieze were preserved. 

Another change came in 1976 when the top two floors were converted to artist work-living quarters--one on each floor.  Thirteen years later the second and third floors became artists lofts as well.  The accommodations were perhaps less than first class, however, as reflected in the Department of Building's notation "heat supplied by approved type gas heaters."

photographs by the author