Saturday, January 21, 2012

Two Federal Gems -- Nos. 37 and 39 Charlton Street

The third floor additions are evident in the change of brick color -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1820 just south of the tiny village of Greenwich and about a miles and a half north of the established city of New York lay the vast estate and mansion called Richmond Hill. Built in 1760 by British Major Abraham Mortimer on land granted to Trinity Church, the property had already played important roles in American history.

Headquarters of General George Washington in April, 1776, it was where early tactics of the Revolutionary War were laid out. Later the British would occupy the mansion again, only to become home to the new Vice President John Adams after the war.

Around 1797 Colonel Aaron Burr leased the home, entertaining in lavish fashion until public disfavor after his duel with Alexander Hamilton forced him to abandon the property. Fur trader John Jacob Astor seized the opportunity, taking over the long-term lease (Astor would be 103 years old when it expired) on the estate from Trinity Church for a nominal sum and laying out streets and housing plots.

It was a brilliant move by Astor. Not only was Greenwich Village expanding rapidly but the city itself was spreading northward. While the grand porticoed mansion would remain for nearly three decades more, the grounds and gardens around it quickly filled with handsome Federal-style residences.

Among the charming enclaves was Charlton Street, named after Dr. John Charlton the president of the New York Medical Society. Here two matching houses were built at Nos. 37 and 39 in 1827 by builder-carpenters; No. 37 assuredly constructed by John Gridley.  And as the brickwork continues without a break between the two facades, he was most likely responsible for No. 39 as well.

Before long the block between Varick Street and Sixth Avenue would be lined with both Federal and early Greek Revival homes, creating a harmonious and dignified neighborhood. But the two structures at Nos. 37 and 39 would stand out from the beginning. One hundred and forty years after they were built, the Landmarks Preservation Commission would single them out, calling them “Perhaps the two most important houses [in the district] in age, richness of style, scale and perfection of preservation.”

The two-and-a-half story brick homes, three bays wide, boasted rooms with marble mantles of the latest fashion, exquisitely carved woodwork and elegant plaster detailing. Outside, Flemish bond brickwork, elegant wrought-iron basket newel posts and delicate leaded overlights above crisply-fluted Ionic doorway columns let passersby know that no corners had been cut.

Only two years after their completion, a fire raged through both homes. In 1829 they were rebuilt. Because the damage happened while the Federal style was still in vogue; there were no noticeable changes between the original and the renovated buildings.

The homes saw a variety of residents. In 1847 John Tappan, a successful grocer, was living in No. 37 surrounded by similar merchant-class neighbors.

Later in the century, however, the respectable neighborhood was threatened. In the 1870s trolley tracks were installed, bringing the clatter and dust of the cars and horses. Further west on Charlton, towards the docks, was home to Irish immigrants. An article in The New York Times in 1874 remarked that the Charlton Street gutters were filled with wastewater, “sending forth an offensive odor on a warm day.”

The foot of the street at the river became home to a highly-feared and well-known gang. Herbert Asbury in his “The Gangs of New York,” described them. “This was a choice collection of ruffians known as the Charlton Street Gang. They made their headquarters in a low gin-mill at the foot of Charlton street, and sallied forth each evening to steal whatever was loose upon the docks, and to rob and murder anyone who ventured into their territory.”

The respectable families around Nos. 37 and 39 Charlton Street moved on and for a number of years, the block was decidedly no longer middle class. When, in 1871, a third story was added to No. 39 Charlton, the Real Estate Record & Builder’s Guide referred to it as a “second-class dwelling.”

By the end of the 19th century No. 37 was the headquarters of the Third Assembly District Tammany Club. Here on November 3, 1897 a peculiar wedding occurred.

According to The Sun, “Maria Barberi, the Italian girl who murdered her lover, Domenico Cataldo, by cutting his throat with a razor and upon a second trial was acquitted on the ground that she was an epileptic, celebrated the election last night by getting married at a Tammany clubhouse…

“The marriage took place during the supper hour between 6 and 7 o’clock, when the members of the Third Assembly District Tammany Club stopped celebrating at the clubhouse at 37 Charlton Street long enough to go home for something to eat. When they returned to the clubhouse and learned that the marriage had occurred in their club rooms, they were very indignant.”

The Tammany group would remain here into the early 20th century, when it appears that both No. 37 and 39 had become boarding houses. At No. 37 Louis A. Valente, a lawyer, was living in 1910 as well as Dr. A. Maroni. At the same time next door were tenants like Joseph McArdle, secretary of the Amalgamated Glassworkers’ International Association of America; and Mary S. Snow, Ph.M, Lecturer on Women’s Work, who would remain for over a decade.

At the time a nation-wide interest in Early American architecture and history was taking hold – a fact that would prove fortunate for the two houses. Women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping ran articles on colonial houses with quaint photographs, prompting architectural awareness. In 1917 architects Henry W. Wilkinson and Max G. Heidelberg were commissioned by renovate No. 37 Charlton, adding a third story like its neighbor. The American Contractor referred to the building as a “Colonial Residence.”

The two houses were photographed by American Magazine of Art in 1919 (copyright expired)
In August 1919 Trinity Church sold both houses, along with No. 41, to William S. Coffin (along with 12 other “old dwellings”), as reported in the New York Tribune. That same year the American Magazine of Art wrote an extensive article about the vintage homes that still survived in the neighborhood. Speaking specifically of Charlton Street it said “Here can be found beautiful old doorways…and highly picturesque dormer windows. The roof-lines indeed of many of these venerable houses happily break the monotony of modern office buildings and ‘skyscrapers,’ and could ill be dispensed with.”

Elegantly-carved woodwork in the drawing room of No. 37 was photographed in 1937 -- photo Library of Congress
The article pleaded for the preservation of the houses, but with little hope. “All these, however, and other similar old houses, though at present standing under more or less favorable conditions, must ultimately cease to exist, as New York continues its development. It is to be hoped through that Time will long spare such historic landmarks.”

The magazine need not have been worried. Although a large swath of homes along the south side of Charlton Street were demolished for new development, the north side, including Nos. 37 and 39, remained almost entirely intact. In 1921, the year after writer Marianne Moore and her mother lived briefly in No. 39, architects Francis Y. Joannes and Maxwell Hyde carefully renovated the house for multifamily use. The Architectural Record applauded the sensitive handling, publishing a photograph of the exquisite and preserved Federal doorway.

The Federal entrance of No. 39 with its basket newels and deeply-paneled door in 1921 -- Architectural Record (copyright expired)
“All our cities,” said the magazine, “possess old sections crowded with houses of this type, in many cases dwellings of once proud dignity and beauty—and such structures can, by the exercise of some ingenuity and taste, be made over into most interesting dwellings or apartments, as has long been recognized and proved by our artists in Greenwich Village, around Washington Square, on Beacon Hill, or in the quaint little side streets…in Philadelphia and St. Louis.”

Ninety years later the doorway is unchanged.
In 1933 the National Park Service and the Library of Congress instituted the Historic American Buildings Survey to capture “America’s built environment.” Among the first structures to catch the eye of the Survey was No. 37 Charlton which was carefully preserved on film by photographer Arnold Moses in 1937.

No. 37 was photographed extensively by Arnold Moses in 1937 (No. 39 can be see at left) -- Library of Congress
By the second half of the 20th century the quaint Charlton Street block had also caught the attention of moneyed New Yorkers who began restoration. While No. 39 remained divided, with one apartment per floor, Wall Street mogul Richard Hampton Jenrette purchased No. 37 in 1978 for $250,000.  Although it, too, had been used as a boarding house, unlike its next-door neighbor, it had never been divided.

Jenrette, in his “Adventures with Old Houses,” said “All the original black marble mantels, moldings, doors and windows were intact. Almost miraculously, the house had never been chopped up and subdivided into apartments, a common fate of early New York City town houses.”

Jenrette would also restore significantly historic properties such as the Charleston, South Carolina Robert William Roper House and Milford Plantation, also in South Carolina.  Here he worked with Edward Jones in the restoration and decoration of No. 37. Original Duncan Phyfe furniture, made in New York at the time the house was constructed, filled the rooms along with Federal-style window treatments.

Nine years later Jenrette sold the house for $2 million.

No. 37 is now a rectory of Trinity Church. In November 2004 Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper and his wife, Tay, moved into the house which, ironically, was originally owned by Trinity. According to John Ambrosini, manager of Church and Program Properties, “This house was chosen for its elegance and charm, its historic significance.” He then added “and for its value as a real-estate investment.”

Nos. 37 and 39 in January 2012.  The elegant basket newels and marble stoops remain. -- photo by Alice Lum
Today the two houses sit proudly among a long row of early 19th century residences, what the AIA Guide to New York City called “New York’s greatest display of Federal-style row houses.” The Guide points out that “The two best (and best preserved) examples are Nos. 37 and 39 Charlton whose exquisitely detailed entrances with original doors and leaded glass sidelights convey many of the style’s most distinctive qualities.”

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