Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Stephen Weeks House -- No. 147 8th Avenue

No. 147 (right) is a near match to its next door neighbor.

The extraordinary building boom of the 1820s and 1830s in Greenwich Village was pushing northward towards 14th Street by 1830.  Clement Moore’s family estate, Chelsea, had already been diced into building plots and soon rowhouses and small commercial structures would begin appearing.

In 1790 George Rapelje, the son of an early Dutch settler, had purchased land south of Chelsea from James Rivington.  The farm stretched roughly from what is today 18th Street to the north to 16th Street, and from Tenth Avenue to Seventh Avenue.  Like several other farm and estate owners north of the city, Rapelje had at least two slaves on the property.

Like Clement Moore, the Rapelje family clearly saw the coming end of rural life above 14th Street.  In 1812 the Commissioners’ Plan had laid out on paper the streets and avenues above Greenwich Village.  In 1816 paper became reality when Eighth Avenue was cut through the farm.  Nine years later, in May 1825, George Rapelje’s grandson and his wife Susanna began the process of selling off the land as building plots.

In 1827 merchant Stephen Weeks began construction on a modest store-and-residential building at No. 147 Eighth Avenue.  It shared a party wall and central chimney with its near twin next door at No. 145, simultaneously constructed for dry goods merchant Aaron Dexter.  The handsome Federal-style structure featured Flemish bond brickwork, a steeply pitched roof with two pedimented dormers, and unassuming flat stone lintels and sills.

Although Weeks sold the property to Vermont Congressman Daniel Church in 1830; he continued to operate his business from the store into the 1840s.  In 1844 he was forced to step away from the store when he was selected to serve on the jury of the sensational murder case of William Leitga.  Leitga was charged with suffocating his wife, Ann, then attempting to burn her body.  The grisly case had the attention of New Yorkers for weeks.

In 1862, a year after the Southern states seceded from the Union, a recruiting office was established at No. 147 Eighth Avenue for the Eighth Infantry.  Commanded by Captain Thomas G. Pitcher, the Eighth had enlisted about 90 men by February 10.

The little building continued its intended purpose throughout the century and in 1902 Gerald Kilp and his family lived on the second floor while he operated his furniture store at ground level.  On the third floor was the Bowers family.  By now an extension of the retail space had been constructed to the rear.

On the evening of March 28, 1902, Mrs. Bowers heard the sound of someone walking on the roof of the addition; but thought little of it.  Around 9:00 Policeman Dierkes was making his rounds and noticed a fire in the rear of the furniture store.  He aroused Gerald Kilp who opened the store.  The pair managed to put out the fire using some old carpets.

Dierkes noticed that the floor and some of the items in the store were covered in gasoline.  A cursory investigation showed that someone had poured about gallon of the fuel through a skylight in the extension, then dropped matches into the store.  The arsonist, whom The New York Times termed an “incendiary,” managed to do about $10 worth of damage.

In the first turbulent decades of the 20th century radical anarchist and socialist groups terrorized America with bombings and murders.  In 1914 The Black Hand, the organization that had assassinated Franz Ferdinand of Austria that year, was responsible for repeated bombings, murders and threats in New York City.

In the meantime the family of William J. Madden was living upstairs at No. 147 Eighth Avenue.  With him and his wife were daughters Lucy and Elizabeth.  Lucy was just 19 years old when she went to Mrs. Pulignano’s dressmaking shop on the lower West Side.  As it turns out, Mrs Pulignano’s son, Amedo, was also 19 and happened to be there.

Amedo Pulignano was a nice-looking Italian boy who aspired to become a policeman, like his cousin Ralph Micelli.  Micelli’s partner, Detective Joseph Petrosino had been murdered by The Black Hand earlier in Sicily while the pair worked undercover there.  The dressmaker introduced Lucy to her son.

Pulignano later said “I thought she was a nice looking girl.  And we kept on seeing a good deal of each other.”  “Seeing a good deal of each other” turned into marriage.  They were married on the same day that Pulignano was made a policeman, February 25, 1912.  The newlyweds moved into the apartment Pulignano shared with his brother Tony at No. 110 Christopher Street.

But before long the bride would return home to No. 147 Eighth Avenue.  Amedo told Lucy that he had to go away for a while.  “Girl though she still was,” said the New-York Tribune, “she kept on trusting him even when he told her that he must leave her on a mission which might be dangerous, might have something to do with the I.W.W.’s”  Amedo packed his bags and left and Lucy went home to her mother.

In fact the new policeman was not going on a mission involving the socialist Industrial Workers of the World.  He was going undercover to infiltrate the anarchists.  He later explained to Eleanor Booth Simmons of the New-York Tribune that he did not mention anarchists to her because he did not want to scare her; anarchists being “much worse than I.W.W.’s.”

Using the name of Frank Buldo he infiltrated the Gaetano Bresci gang in 1914.  He continued his association with the group through 1915 and lived in a furnished room with other anarchists at No. 1341 Third Avenue.  Here he joined in a plot to destroy St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  All the while he fed information to the Bomb Squad at Police Headquarters.

On March 2, 1915, Pulignano and two cohorts arrived at the Cathedral with a bomb.  Detectives were waiting, disguised as ushers.  The anarchists were arrested, convicted and sentenced to serve from six to twelve years at Sing Sing.  Finally Pulignano could go home to his faithful young wife.

The night following the successful bust, the extended family was crammed into Mrs. Madden’s little apartment above No. 147 Eighth Avenue in celebration.  “From the parlor came the sound of a one-step,” said the New-York Tribune on March 4.  “Pulignano was pounding on the piano, and two of the cousins and two of the young men were dancing.”  The reporter asked if there was any fear that the anarchists would retaliate against Amedo.

Amedo Pulignano poses on the sofa at No. 147 8th Avenue with his wife (left) his mother-in-law, and sister-in-law Elizabeth Madden on March 3, 1915 -- The New-York Tribune (copyright expired)

Mrs.Madden scoffed at the idea.  “A jolly, well-set up woman, who looks the world in the face with a courageous smile, she laughed at the notion that her son-in-law might be I danger from vengeful anarchists.”

She told the reporter, “Does that look as if we feared Black Handers or anybody like that?” nodding towards the dancers.  “As for me, I’m a suffragette, and suffragettes are not afraid of anything.  I wasn’t afraid to march in the suffrage parade, and I’m not afraid to say we’re going to get the vote next November.  Would I be afraid of a few ‘reds,’ as they call them?”

Amedeo Pulignano went on, incidentally, to build his career fighting anarchists.  By 1928 when he was promoted from detective to sergeant, he and Lucy were living fashionably at No. 3 St. Luke’s Place and he was a friend of his neighbor, Mayor James Walker.

Throughout the 20th century the tradition of living quarters on the upper floors and a shop at ground level continued.  In November 1921 two Turkish immigrant brothers, Oscar and Louis Hanpashian purchased the building and would retain ownership until 1971.  In 1974 John Santini renovated the retail space into a clever antique shop/restaurant/jazz club called Chelsea Place.  With a nod to 1920s speakeasies, Santino placed a double-door armoire in the rear of the nondescript antiques shop.  Guests passed through the wardrobe into a brassy sleek club where musicians like Harry Connick, Jr. and Greg Allman entertained diners.

In 2002 the upper floors were renovated to a single apartment on the second floor and a duplex above.  The street level remains commercial after nearly two centuries.  Along with its neighbor at No. 145 the building survives remarkably intact; a quaint reminder of when the Chelsea neighborhood was little more than a suburb of New York City.

photograph taken by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment