|photo by Alice Lum|
The Bond Street neighborhood vied with St. John’s Park as the most exclusive neighborhood in Manhattan for several decades. But as the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861, change was underway. No. 31 Great Jones Street was the home of the Decline family (an ironic surname considering the fate of the neighborhood). On May 1, 1861 Mrs. Decline opened her parlor to the ladies of the Surgical and Medical Relief Association “for the purpose of cutting out and preparing flannel and other shirts for the use of the Army.”
The Decline family would not be in their refined Federal-style brick residence many more years. On November 11, 1870 The New York Times reported on the proposed three-story “store-house” on the site of the Decline house; now owned by the Board of Fire Underwriters.
The Association of Fire Insurance Companies had organized Fire Patrols in 1835. Unlike fire departments, which focused on extinguishing the fires; their goal was to protect and salvage valuable property exposed to fire and water damage. Working alongside one another, the roles of fire fighters and fire patrols were often confused by the public.
Now the Board of Fire Underwriters set architect W. E. Waring to design a new station house for Patrol No. 2. The company had been organized in 1855 and already had seen three homes. Waring produced a handsome red brick building with the expected vehicle bay and flanking doors of a firehouse. Gently-arched brownstone lintels with foliate brackets distinguished the upper openings. Then Waring capped it off with an impressive galvanized iron cornice with a central rounded pediment, cast foliate brackets and paneled frieze.
The building was completed in 1871 and Patrol No. 2 moved in with its cumbersome array of equipment. Fire fighters were concerned with putting the fires out. The Patrol was concerned with protecting property and their list of apparatus reflected that goal. Hayden’s Annual Cyclopedia of Insurance in the United States inventoried the company’s equipment. It was “supplied with two wagons and five horses; also portable fire extinguishers, oiled canvas covers, axes, and other necessary implements, with a code of signals, telegraph, etc. In addition it has a steam fire engine and two powerful hand pumps for draining water from cellars.”
Right behind the New York Board of Fire Underwriters in replacing old structures on the block was the Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company who purchased the long-standing Samuel W. Parmly stable at No. 33 next door almost simultaneously. The manufacturer might have felt cheated in paying the commission to architect Charles Wright, who nearly duplicated Waring’s Patrol No. 2 building . The three-story Italianate structure was completed in 1871 and was a near carbon-copy, right down to the ambitious galvanized iron cornice and pediment.
|Close inspection reveals a few, insignificant, differences in the otherwise identical buildings -- photo by Alice Lum|
The sewing machine company had been founded in 1859 and incorporated in 1866. The firm used the new Great Jones location for manufacturing and, judging from the stable-like bay doors, to house its delivery wagons and horses. The administrative offices were nearby at No. 658 Broadway.
For some reason the location and the building did not fit the company’s needs; and only eight years after completion Wilcox and Gibbs offered the building to the New York City Fire Department “for a company location,” as noted in The City Record on January 22, 1879. Fire Department headquarters hesitated on the offer, marking it on city documents as “laid over.”
The building was finally sold in 1889 to Bernard Beinecke and his partner Joseph Hesdorfer. Beinecke’s life story read like a Horatio Alger tale. An immigrant, he began driving a butcher cart, eventually working up within the company. When he bought his employer’s business with Hesdorfer in 1872, the firm became Beinecke & Company. Before his death in 1932 the former butcher cart driver would hold directorships in two banks and have helped to develop the Plaza Hotel.
The sewing machine building was now used by Beinecke’s butcher business for its delivery stables. Bernard Beinecke addressed the blank half-circle in the pediment by adding cast letters announcing “Beinecke & Co’s. Stables.”
|The meat purveyors quickly established who owned the building -- photo by Alice Lum|
The Fire Patrol and the butcher stables coexisted side-by-side through the turn of the century. At some point the fire patrol building had been acquired by the Wagstaff family who owned substantial amounts of real estate. On March 7, 1900 an auction of the Wagstaff estate property was held and family member Mary A. Wagstaff purchased the building for $33,500—about $750,000 today. In reporting the sale the New-York Tribune noted that the building was “occupied by Fire Patrol No. 3.;” an apparent typo.
|Fire Patrol No. 2 shows off its dress uniforms and steam engine in 1904 -- photograph "The Tammany Times" December 24, 1904 (copyright expired)|
In 1907, the Patrol moved on to No. 84 West 3rd Street and the New-York Tribune reported on the lease of “the entire building” by “Colonel Alfred Wagstaff to Micheal W. Spelecy” for ten years. Spelecy and his wife, Kate Buckley, lived in the building and leased space to various commercial tenants.
The ten-year lease was obviously renewed. Michael Spelecy died in the apartment here on October 14, 1923 and his funeral was held in the building on Wednesday morning at 10:00, October 17. Kate remained here until at least 1929.
At that time there was at least one other residential tenant, a Ford repair shop on the ground floor, and Louis Milstein’s millinery-making shop in the building. Milstein would find himself in hot water seven years later when the 61-year old hat maker was embroiled in the “ashcan hat” racket.
In 1936 the Millinery Stabilization Committee began a crackdown on manufacturers who recycled used hats. They would pay scavengers one to five cents for hats and caps found in ashheaps and garbage cans, then rehabilitate them to be sold as new. The New York Times explained that “The law provides that when an old headpiece has been redyed, reblocked or retrimmed and is offered for sale again, a printed linen tag saying it is second-hand must be sewed inside.”
Some milliners sidestepped the label, garnering large profits in doing so. Estimates were that in New York City alone 1,200 dozen “ashcan hats” were being sold daily to unsuspecting customers. On November 10, 1936 Louis Milstein was arrested from his shop at No. 31 Great Jones Street. He pleaded guilty and was charged a fine of $50.
In the meantime No. 33 was used by trucking firms and auto repair companies. In 1945 the two buildings were connected internally. After moving into No. 31 in 1970, the Joseph Scott Trucking Company cleverly added its name to the blind arch of the parapet—matching the old lettering that Barnard Bienecke had applied next door in 1889; including the tongue-in-cheek "stables."
|Few passersby would suspect that the lettering was added in 1970; not 1870 -- photo by Alice Lum|
In 1999 a restaurant, Five Points, opened in the former Fire Patrol No. 2 stables. Where the company’s five horses munched hay and oats, trendy NoHo patrons now munch on what New York Magazine called “boldly passionate” Med-American food.
|Prior to the paint job, the contrast between stone and brick was vivid. Note the delicate rope molding -- photo by Alice Lum|
The near-twin buildings have been slathered in barn red paint, masking the once vivid contrast of red brick and stone trim; yet the outward appearance of these two utilitarian structures is largely—and pleasantly--unchanged.