Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The 1847 Andrew S. Norwood House -- 241 West 14th Street

Photo by Beyond my Ken
Almost from its earliest days, the tradition of New York City’s fashionable residential neighborhoods has been one of northward movement. As commerce developed and spread, wealthy citizens migrated to areas that were still quiet and dignified; abandoning their fine homes that would soon be swallowed up by the encroaching tide of business.

So it was with Andrew S. Norwood. In 1829 he moved uptown from 622 Broadway to the elegant Bond Street section. Only 11 years later, however, the “solid and substantial” citizen, as Valentine’s Manual of Old New York described him, moved on, settling temporarily at 325 West 14th Street.

Norwood was highly respected and extremely wealthy. Born in 1770 he started business as a merchant in 1791, joining the firm Norwood & Austen. He was one of the originators and owners of a fleet of merchant ships and a founder in 1807 of the church on Cedar Street which would eventually become the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The 14th Street neighborhood spreading east and west from Union Square became fashionable as rural countryside gave way to parks and homes. In 1845 Norwood purchased three lots on the north side of 14th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Within two years three handsome matching townhouses were completed, the first masonry residences to appear on the block. Their design was a melding of Greek Revival and the new Italianate architectural styles.

The Norwood family moved into No. 241. Four stories tall, it sat above a deep brownstone English basement. A broad flight of steps led to the impressive brownstone-framed entrance. On the parlor floor, two French doors opened onto an Italianate cast-iron balcony. Above, the windows (decreasing in size with each ascending story) were fully-framed in stone.

Inside, sophisticated carved marble mantles and decorative ceiling plasterwork reflected the Norwoods’ wealth. The elegant, curving staircase wound upwards under a stained glass skylight.

An exquisitely-carved Carrera marble mantle graces the parlor -- photo
As was customary, the architectural decoration subsided with each upward floor. The sumptuous carved mantles of the first floor, for instance, gave way to rather plain, Gothic Revival surrounds upstairs.

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Andrew S. Norwood died in the house on November 14, 1856. The Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review noted “Mr. Norwood was a favorable specimen of the New York merchant of the old school” and “an old and highly respected citizen and merchant.”

The house passed to his son, Andrew G. Norwood, a stock broker and partner in the firm Norwood & Robinson (later to be renamed A. G. Norwood & Co. when his son was admitted to the firm). By the time he retired in 1865, he had amassed a sizable fortune on his own.

Before 1871 Andrew G. Norwood had moved his family across the street to No. 236 West 14th, while retaining possession of the family home. No. 241 became a boarding house catering mainly to unmarried school teachers. Annie E. Knight was here in 1871, and Helen L. Todd was listed here in 1874 – both of them public school teachers. In 1875 the Report by The New York Board of Education showed that school teacher Miss Esther Tobias was here.

Fourteenth Street was changing by the 1880s when Mrs. Stevenson leased No. 241 as her boarding house. Problems came when Mrs. Stevenson’s daughter, Mary, was wooed into marrying Edward De Benyons in 1882. De Benyons presented himself as a Spanish count, “wealthy, but under a cloud.”

Shortly after the marriage, Mary discovered her groom was definitely not of noble birth. Later, taking the $2000 that Mary inherited from her grandmother’s estate, De Benyons took over Mrs. Stevenson’s boarding house – preferring to call it a “hotel.”

Their marriage was a violent one. Finally in November of 1888 the man whom The New York Times described as “a very dark young man, whose face wore an ugly scowl,” was arrested for assault on Mary; this happening one month after he was arrested for stabbing his chef.

A year later the Methodist Church converted the house to The New York Deaconesse’s Home. There were four deaconesses upon its opening on May 10, 1889 in what The Times called a “large and well-appointed house which has accommodations for twenty-five.”

The organization was “in the line of practical Christian philanthropy” and the women were charged with “ministering to the poor, visiting the sick, praying with the dying, caring for the orphans, seeking the wandering, comforting the sad, and saving the erring.” Three years later the women were making as many as 1,700 visits a month.

By 1894 there were 25 deaconesses in the house and the facility was becoming over-taxed. Townsend Wandell donated $20,225 a year later to a building fund for a suitable building, adding another $5000 a few months later.

The New York Deaconesse’s Home moved on and in its place the Shelter For Respectable Girls was formed. The organization, founded in 1871 and incorporated in 1880, provided a residence for young women seeking employment.

Although the Shelter remained at No. 241 through the turn of the century, it was in serious financial trouble by 1899 when its president, Rev. Dr. George F. Baker, pleaded for donations. The shelter relied mainly on individual contributions and, while a nominal rent was charged to some girls; others who had little funds were admitted for free.

In 1903 the house was a boarding house again, and once again there were educators living here including Eliza M. Jackman who was principal of Public School No. 36.

The Norwood estate’s real estate holdings were auctioned off on February 13, 1904. By now 14th Street was far from fashionable. Loft buildings and warehouses had sprung up a from the Hudson River eastward and once-elegant townhouses were being converted to businesses.

The New York Times reported on the “lively bidding” at the auction by developers who “realized the possibilities…for improvement with loft buildings for storage and light manufacturing purposes.”

Somehow the Norwood House escaped. “With the exception of the dwelling 241 West Fourteenth Street, the entire offering was taken by the professional element,” the paper noted.

Throughout the early decades of the 20th Century the building remained a boarding house. Dentist John Chechi lived here in 1912 and in 1920 Michael Monahan, a bookkeeper, had a room in the house.

During mid-century, No. 241 was used as a funeral home – a situation that prevented the interior detailing from being lost. When Raf Borello purchased the house in 1976 it was an 1847 time capsule. The thirteen marble mantles were intact, the mahogany interior doors, the elaborate plaster ceiling moldings, even the chic little metal teardrops that swung over the keyholes to prevent prying eyes.

Borello used the house as a private residence until his death in February 2005. Although the exterior had been granted landmark status, its remarkable interiors could not be designated--interiors of private residences are not subject to landmark restrictions in New York City.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation told The New York Times, “When an intact gem of a house comes on the market, you hold your breath. Sometimes it’s lovingly restored on the inside, and other times you see all of the historic fabric just ripped out.”

Before long, preservationists could take a breath. The house was purchased for $8.7 million to be converted into “Norwood Club” – a private members club run by the management of a similar club in London called “Blacks.”

The club targeted as its members those in the creative fields: painters, musicians, writers, fashion designers, and collectors. Owners Alan Linn and Steve Ruggi worked with designer Simon Costin to convert the space without losing its integrity. Dining areas, salons and meeting places filled the four floors with “decadent grandeur.”

On an upper floor, with a less ornate Gothic Revival mantle, is an intimate bar area -- photo

The Andrew S. Norwood house is a remarkably preserved slice of early Victorian architecture and lifestyle – both inside and out. It is listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

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