Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Checkered Past of No. 6 West 28th Street

Even in its present state of abuse, the dignified beginnings of the old brownstone residence seep through.

As the high-end homes of Manhattan’s wealthy first spread northward up Fifth Avenue, William Thompson, who used the title “Corporal,” converted the farmhouse at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street into a roadhouse, naming it Madison Cottage.  The inn was the northern-most stop for travelers leaving the city, or the first for those coming south.

The hostelry gave its name to Madison Square Park which opened to the public on May 10, 1847.  Within the decade fashionable homes of New York’s wealthy would be constructed along with the elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel, opened in 1859.  John E. Kinnier joined the trend in 1855 when he erected two Italianate rowhouse at Nos. 6 and 8 West 28th Street, just steps from Broadway and Fifth Avenue.

Kinnier, whose office was at No. 60 Bowery, produced two up-to-date brownstone rowhouses appropriate for upscale families.  Wide brownstone stoops would have accessed the parlor floors, and the windows were framed in elegantly-carved brownstone, including intricate foliate scrolled brackets.  A complex cornice crowned the façade.
The exquisite cornice, in pristine shape, along with the beautiful foliate lintel brackets survive above the exotic Edwardian store front.

By the early years of the 1880s, the residential nature of the neighborhood was giving way to commerce.  In December 1884, four years before No. 8 would be totally renovated for commercial purposes; Albert Kirby signed a lease on No. 6 West 28th Street.   Kirby, known familiarly as “Budd,” found himself in a courtroom on June 26, 1885, defending himself against allegations of running a gambling house.

Kirby admitted that only the upper two floors were being used as “living apartments.”  But, according to The New York Times the following day, “No. 6 West Twenty-eighth-street, he insisted, however, was not a gambling house, but simply his own virtuous and humble home.”

The newspaper said “Upon being pressed for information concerning the uses to which the two lower floors were put, Kirby finally refused to answer upon the same grounds as before [i.e., self incrimination].”

Kirby had already been connected with gambling operations in Philadelphia, Chicago, and at No. 1 Ann Street.  When he was asked how he supported himself, he told the attorney “I haven’t had any business for 23 years.”

“Haven’t you been a gambler during all that period?”

“Gambling isn’t a legal business,” he frankly responded.

As the questions became more intense Kirby’s memory failed.  “Then the witness developed a remarkable amount of ignorance upon matters immediately concerning himself for the past few years and declined to answer a great many of Mr. Steinhardt’s questions on the ground that he was not obliged to criminate himself,” reported The Times.

Albert “Budd” Kirby skirted conviction, but within a year he was gone from No. 6 West 28th Street.  In place of the gambling house Polifonte Morelli’s Restaurant moved in, opening in 1886.   The more respectable operation immediately became a favorite meeting place for local groups. 

On December 28, 1886 Company E. Seventh Regiment held its annual “Kneip Festival” at the restaurant.  It was an opportunity for the normally staid military men, many of them Civil War veterans, to have fun.  The highlight of the light-hearted event was the distribution of presents, which each member handed to “the Great Chief.”  The Times noted that year “The fun lies in the absurdity of the gifts, which are dolls, popguns, whistles, and other infants’ toys."

That same year the Thirteen Club chose Morelli’s as the venue for its annual dinners.  There were twenty-six members at the dinner in 1886—exactly “two companies of 13 each.”  The purpose of the club was to dispel superstitions regarding the number thirteen.   Its tongue-in-cheek efforts were reflected in the arrangements for its dinner here the following year.

“The occasion was entitled the Feast of Roses.  John W. Jacobus was Chairman of the Reception Committee,” reported The Times, “which consisted of 13 members.  The guests of the evening were 13 undertakers who occupied car number 13 in the accident at Spuyten Duyvil last week.”

Regarding the club’s dinner here two years later, the newspaper said “In spite of the club’s open and flagrant violation of every superstition in any way connected with the number 13 it seems to lead a prosperous existence judging from the reports of its officers.  At seven tables, 13 at each, the club regaled itself on funeral baked meats, assisted by 13 kinds of wine, the list of which was printed on a coffin lid with 13 nails.  The dinner began precisely at 8:13, and nobody thought of going home until 13 o’clock in the morning.”

Polifonte Morelli’s Restaurant was also a favorite meeting place of the Architectural League.   In 1887 the association dined here several times within a few months in anticipation of the upcoming annual exhibition.  The event was scheduled to open on December 17 with a reception for Richard M. Hunt.

Unfortunately, the respectable days of Morelli’s restaurant passed and by 1898 the former house was once again a gambling establishment.    On December 2 of that year police raided the gambling house which The New York Times said was run by “Eole” Pearsall.  Pearsall was not present when the raid took place, and fortunately for him the police did not find any money on the tables at which the men were playing.  Without that evidence, there could be no warrant convictions and everyone who had been arrested was let go.

Despite the disappointing turn of events, Police Commissioner York vowed “The department proposes to stop all gambling, and before it gets through there won’t be any of these places left.  The board is determined that all kinds of gambling shall be eradicated, and that the social evil shall be controlled as far as possible.”

Nevertheless, gambling went on at No. 6 West 28th Street.  By the turn of the century the gambling house was run by an infamous criminal, Thomas “Shang” Draper.  The Times would later call him “a leading light of New York’s under world for a generation.”  He was already famous for robberies, most notably the famous Northampton and Manhattan Bank jobs.

Draper’s establishment was the site of one of five “sledge hammer raids” executed late at night on October 14, 1902.  Sergeant Cohen and seven officers armed headed to No. 6 West 28th Street well-prepared for any resistance.  The Times reported “None of the raiders was in uniform, but each party was armed with heavy sledges, and the slightest hesitation in yielding entrance resulted in every door being shattered immediately.”

Although no business was being done in any of the gambling houses, including Draper’s, police were pleased with the results.  “Few prisoners were taken…but an enormous quantity of gambling paraphernalia, much of it of the most costly type, was seized and long after midnight was still being taken to the police station,” reported The Times.

Six months later, on March 23, 1903, an attempted raid by Inspector McClusky with approximately four officers resulted in humiliation for the respected law enforcer.   The door was opened by a lookout only as far as a heavy steel burglar chain would allow.

“When McClusky demanded admittance the doorkeeper asked if they had warrants.  On a negative reply, he told the inspector that he could go to certain sulfurous regions, and closed the door by means of a heavy steel arm concealed in the woodwork of the vestibule.  A moment later the electric bell upstairs was ringing furiously,” said the New-York Tribune.

Expecting the patrons to rush out the back door, the officers moved to the rear of the house.  “While they were vainly endeavoring to force an entrance there men poured out of the front door.  There were probably over one hundred and fifty men in the house, for 118 men were seen leaving it, with no apparent excitement in twenty minutes,” said the newspaper.

The Tribune noted “’Shang’ Draper was one of those who left the house, and as he strolled toward Broadway he replied to a question: ‘I have nothing to say.  No detectives got into the house, and I don’t see why they should want to get in.’”

Within the year the building was sold and Draper moved on.   On June 22, 1907 The New York Times reported that he was dying in a health resort near Hot Springs, Arkansas “where he has been treated for enough diseases to have killed three ordinary men.”  The newspaper recalled “He had a gambling place in West Twenty-eight Street, New York, where he made a fortune, which he afterward dissipated, largely in helping broken gamblers and crooks in trouble.  Now it is doubtful whether Draper has enough money to pay for a decent funeral.”

In the meantime the new owner of No. 6 was Theodore E. Brown.  Brown intended to erase the reputation of his building by renovating it for use as small offices and artists’ studios.  The stoop was removed, as was the façade of the lower two floors.  A storefront was installed at street level and a show window at the second story.  At the same time a rear extension was added.

Among the first tenants was Renwick C. Harry who established his newly-organized firm, Renwick C. Harry & Co. here in September 1904, soon after the renovations were completed.  On December 6 of that year Ira M. Remsen took a studio in the building.  The up-and-coming artist was the son of John Hopkins University President Ira Remsen.  The Critic said of him “Mr. Remsen is at the beginning of his career, and a most promising beginning it is.”

Theatrical booking agent William Morris opened what Variety called “a spacious suite of offices” in the building.   His meeting with a potential client in 1905 sparked an often-repeated story that, while based in fact, apparently got embroidered in the retelling.

According to the tale, Will Rogers had been doing rope tricks with a Wild West Show in Brooklyn.  When the show failed, Rogers was out of work with no way to get home nor to make money.  He supposedly rode his horse into Morris’s office and lassoed the agent to his chair.   While horses on the streets of Manhattan were still common in 1905; riding one into the building at No. 6 West 28th Street would have been nearly—if not totally—impossible.

Nonetheless, Morris got Will Rogers work doing his rope tricks and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

By 1906 William Morris’s business was already crowding him out of the 28th Street offices.  He told Variety “I have watched [vaudeville] come up, and the increase and power of vaudeville in the theatrical business is attested by my present offices, which, although recently moved into, are already inadequate, and I am thinking of seeking larger quarters.”

While Morris was contemplating a move out of No. 6, Belgian portrait and landscape painter Jef Leempoels was moving back in.  After spending a summer in Brussels, he reopened his studio where he painted society portraits in the fall on 1906.  The New York Times noted on November 25 “In his New York studio Mr. Leempoels has recently given the finishing touches to three portraits, sketches of which were made during his stay here last Spring.  One of these is a full-length standing portrait of Master Mortimer Lane, son of James Warren Lane of this city.  Master Lane is in an Eton suit.  His right hand is resting on an armchair, while in his left he holds a pair of white kid gloves.  The figure is painted against a gray white background.”

The newspaper also described the portrait of Mrs. A. W. Bliss “who is attired in a black velvet gown, with sleeves of white lace, seated in an armchair of the Louis XV period” and a self portrait.

By 1909 the National Highways Protective Association took rooms in the building.   With the increased number of motorcars sharing the thoroughfares with pedestrians, carriages and other vehicles, the organization sought policies and regulations to ensure safety.   Presided over by Henry Clews, in 1909 it pushed for, among other things, driving tests before licenses were issued, revocation of license for driving under the influence of liquor, suspending the license of a driver arrested for reckless driving or convicted more than once, imprisonment for a year for leaving the scene of an accident, and outlawing of the racing of vehicles on public streets.

That year, on October 18, young George Washington Callaghan was awarded a gold medal for valor during a “prize party” in the offices here.  The boy, whom The Times called “a nice-looking, well-dressed boy” arrived at the Association rooms with his mother.  He was being honored for having been instrumental in capturing cab driver John O’Hanlon whose car had run over and killed 21-year old Elizabeth Botts.

Upon seeing the taxicab fleeing the scene, the boy jumped onto the wheel guard of the car, refusing to get off until the police were able to pull the driver over.   “Lieut. Quinn of the Sixty-eighth Street Police Station told George he had the making of a detective in him, and a policeman on his own block, when he returned, took him to a nearby drug store to have his wounds dressed, all of which was something of a compensation and pretty exciting, anyway,” said The Times.

Callaghan was presented with a gold medal in a handsome box and Henry Clews told him “You have mettle in you as pure as the gold metal of which it is made, and we are proud of you.”

The Association continued pushing for more stringent laws, including those for speeding.  W. B. Carrigan, President of the New York Taxicab Company protested at a meeting here on January 13, 1910, that it was not the cabbies who sped, but the chauffeurs. 

“Our millionaires, or some of them,” he said, “want their automobiles driven fast, and they are the ones who are largely to blame for the breaking of the speed laws.”

Two months later the Association displayed photographs of the air pollution caused by the unrestricted cars.  Association Secretary Colonel Edward S. Cornell told reporters “The smoke nuisance caused by automobiles in New York has grown to such an extent that the ordinary pedestrian or person who takes a drive in a horsed carriage feels as if he was continually circumnavigating a kerosene factory.”

The photographs taken on Fifth Avenue, Broadway and Madison Square showed “various automobiles smoking up like immature volcanoes,” according to The Times.  The newspaper said “In some of the pictures the smoke in the streets was so dense that it was almost impossible to discern the cars.”

Cornell was back in the news later that year, in September, when he reported on the number of deaths by automobiles.  Among the comments he gave reporters was that “I am inclined to attribute the increase in accidents and fatalities to the fact that owners of cars are not subject to the laws, but are permitted to act as chauffeurs without experience, license or examination.”

Most likely by order of the Department of Buildings, in 1913 the projecting second story show windows were removed and architect William C. Lauritzen was hired to create new windows flush with the building line.   The architect’s solution was an mesmerizing mixture of styles that included a line of small Moorish windows under a Greek-inspired cornice.
Lauritzen's highly-unusual second-story show window combined the exotic with the classical.

Shortly thereafter the retail space became home to E. J. La Place, dealers in antiques and art.  The 35-year old firm advertised “10,000 pieces to select from” on December 13, 1914.   Customers would shop for “high-class objects of art and period furniture” here for only two years, however.   On February 13, 1916 The Sun ran an advertisement that all items “Must be sold at a great reduction preparatory to removal.”

Artists continued to lease the studios and in 1922 Robert Philipp was here.  In March that year he won the $200 second prize at the Academy of Design for his painting “Portrait of Himself.”  He would not stay long, however; he soon left for Paris where he lived the artist's life selling his paintings.

Following the Great Depression the building drew less glamorous tenants.  In the late 1930s the District Republic Club was here as was the Local Union 1657 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.  In 1942 the lower floors were renovated to accommodate Albert Yohay’s new restaurant while the upper floors remained “offices and studios," as noted by the Department of Buildings.

Today at street level where “high-class objects of art” were displayed in 1914, a discount store sells body oils and knock-off perfumes.  Under its peeling paint, William C. Lauritzen’s eccentric store window at the second floor is largely intact.  And most amazing of all, other than over a century and a half of wear, the upper floors remain much as they appeared in 1855 when West 28th Street was lined with the homes of New York’s most fashionable families.

photographs taken by the author

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