Tuesday, November 6, 2012

An 1826 Survivor in Chelsea -- No. 145 8th Avenue

No. 145 (left) was very similar to its next door neighbor at No. 147
In 1811 in an unbelievable act of forward thinking the City of New York enacted its Commissioners Plan.  The Plan, on paper, dissected the rolling farmlands, meadows and forests north of 14th Street into the disciplined grid of streets and avenues that define Manhattan today.  It was a life-changing move for the farmers and country estate owners north of the established city.

George Rapelje was one such farmer.  The son of an early Dutch settler, Joris Rapelje, George’s small farm stretched roughly from what is now 18th Street south to 16th Street, and from 7th Avenue to 10th Avenue.   As was not uncommon at the time, Rapelje worked his farm with the help of at least two slaves.  But the Commissioners Plan was about to change the pastoral lifestyle along what would become 8th Avenue.

In 1818 Clement Clarke Moore began portioning off sections of his family estate, Chelsea, just to the north of Rapelje’s farm.   That year he donated 66 tracts of land for the establishment of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church.  He would rapidly develop his property with the help of family friend and real estate developer James N. Wells.

There was no hope that the Rapelje farm could survive, and most likely the family was more than happy to receive the financial boon the development offered.  In May of 1825 Rapelje’s grandson, George, and his wife Susanna began selling off building sites.  Already modest brick Federal-style homes were filling the neighborhood around the growing Seminary.  Eighth Avenue had been gouged through the Rapelje farmland in 1816.

Two years after George and Susanna Rapelje began dividing up the farm, dry goods merchant Aaron Dexter purchased the two lots including No. 145 8th Avenue.  Here Dexter constructed a three-and-a-half story Federal structure, a near copy of its neighbor at No. 147.    While elegant Federal residences were being built to the south in fashionable St. James Park and the Bond Street areas, Dexter’s building was intended for the middle class.

It coupled commercial space on the ground floor with living space above.  Flemish bond red brick was trimmed with simple brownstone lintels and window sills.  Perched on the plain wooden cornice were prim, pedimented dormers. 

Aaron Dexter operated a shoe business from No. 145 for nearly two decades.  In 1846 he sold the building to Elizabeth Montgomery.  Six years later it changed hands again when Dr. C. Dixon Varley purchased the structure.  Having graduated from the Medical Department of the University of the City of New York in 1844, Varley quickly established his practice and became what The New York Medical Journal called “a highly respected physician.”  The doctor would become a member of the Committee on Ethics of the Academy of Medicine and a co-founder of the Church of the Holy Apostles.

When Varley acquired the house in 1852 the street level space was already being leased by photographer Fernando Dessaur.   At mid-century portrait photography was coming into its own and No. 145 8th Avenue became a popular destination.   The photographer had established his studio here in 1850 and would stay on until 1870 when he moved further north on 8th Avenue to No. 551.

During the Civil War many young soldiers heading off to battle posed here in their uniforms.  The resulting images were lovingly treasured by their families and sweethearts who waited at home.
Dessaur photographed this hauntingly-beautiful young woman in his studio at No. 145 8th Avenue.
In the meantime, the upstairs quarters filled with the families of local laborers and tradesmen.

Dr. Varley retained possession of the house until his death on December 21, 1887, at which point his family took ownership until 1925.

At the time of Dr. Varley’s death, the building was the meeting place of the Food-Producers’ Section, an organization that oversaw the activities of unions related to food and drink.   On February 9, 1888 The Evening World noted that a committee of the Food Producers’ Section “will call on David Meyer, the Morrisania brewer, and inquire why he discharged a union man without good cause.”  The newspaper noted on the same day that “The Secretary of the Food Producers’ Section will ask the Central Labor Union why the grievance of the Elks Association of cattle butchers against Eastman, the butcher, has not been attended to as ordered by that body.”

The store was being used by a firm named Collins Brothers in 1893 when a small chimney fire started at 4:30 am on July 24.  It was quickly extinguished and The Sun reported “no damages.’

Shortly after the Varley family sold the building in 1925 the ground level returned to its original purpose as a shoe store.  Murray’s Shoes was here from 1929 to 1937, followed by Sundial Shoes from 1938 to 1949.

While Sundial Shoes was here, in 1940, lease-holder Harry ZaZula modernized the storefront with an up-to-date “arcade” shop front.  The deep entranceway allowed for extensive window displays—perfect for a shoe store.

Four years later ZaZula and his wife, Anna, purchased the property.  They renovated again in 1967 when the second floor was converted to an apartment and a “theatrical studio.”  Above were small apartments.  The ZaZulas sold the property in 1975.

In the meantime the Chelsea neighborhood along this stretch of 8th Avenue had become one of tenement houses and small businesses.   Towards the end of the 20th century, gentrification brought art galleries, trendy restaurants and clothing stores to the Avenue.  Yet the amazing survivors at Nos. 145 and 147 Eighth Avenue remained—unlikely remnants of the 1820s nearly unchanged above the ground floors.

non-historic photograph taken by the author

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