The stories behind the buildings, statues and other points of interest that make Manhattan fascinating.
Friday, July 9, 2010
The 1831 Jacob Romaine House - 7 Leroy Street
At the time of the American Revolution Richmond Hill was the large country estate of Major Abraham Mortier, paymaster of the British Army. The mansion, which sat a mile and a half from New York City where Varick and Charlton Streets are today, was used by Sir Jeffrey Amherst as his headquarters in the French and Indian War.
Washington used it as his headquarters in 1776 before it was taken and occupied by the British. Ironically the house later became the home of the first British Ambassador to the United States, Sir John Temple, then the official residence of the Vice President, John Adams. Abigail Adams wrote of Richmond Hill, “In natural beauty it might vie with the most delicious spot I ever saw.”
Aaron Burr purchased the estate in 1797 as his country home. In 1820s his creditors sold off much of the land, now part of Greenwich Village, to John Jacob Astor who resold the building lots.
Within the decade, Greenwich Village was growing quickly, partly because residents of Lower Manhattan were fleeing the regular cholera outbreaks and other diseases in the densely crowded city. In 1830 Jacob Romaine began construction of his home at 7 Burton Street, later to be renamed Leroy Street, on what had been part of the Richmond Hill estate.
Completed a year later, his chubby red brick house was two and a half stories tall with stylish wooden dormers in the steep roof. Plain brownstone lintels and sills complimented its clean Federal lines. Below the stoop a deep basement floor held the kitchen and work areas. The Flemish bond brickwork told passers-by that Romaine could afford extra touches.
In the 1820s and 1830s row houses such as Romaine’s were built snugly one against the other fully encircling the block. Within the circle of homes were rear lots that often held stables, workshops or smaller dwellings with no means of access other than “horse walks.”
Jacob Romaine included such a horse walk in his house – a plain wooden door opening to a passageway into the rear yard above which was a small four-paned window. Romaine either did not own a horse or stabled it elsewhere, because the building to the rear of his residence was a small house.
Romaine did not live at 7 Leroy very long. By 1840 four families were living in the house, the men of the households being carters or draymen. Just before the Civil War, in 1860, there were 12 people in the main house and a washerwoman and her sister in the back house.
Henry Kingsley shared the house with Josephine Hutchinson at the turn of the century; Kingsley was a 49 year-old lamplighter and Hutchinson, at 44 years old, was a buttonhole maker. In the back yard Hugh Mack lived. Mack described his occupation as "a junkman."
Throughout the 20th Century the house continued to be shared by multiple residents; in the 1940s Broadway theatre director Brobury Ellis and Randolph Echols, a stage manager, were living here.
Through it all the house was little altered. Today the original white frame dormers are crisp and while the façade is, perhaps, a little less straight than it was in 1831, no major changes have occurred. The fine Federal doorway with its flanking wooden pillars and narrow overlight survives intact. The interiors retain much of the original detailing. There is now one apartment to each floor.
Jacob Romaine’s two and a half story residence is a rare and beautiful survivor of early Greenwich Village. Romaine would no doubt be pleased with the increase of value for his property. It sold in January 2011 for $3.9 million.