Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The 1836 Grainger House -- No. 30 East 3rd Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1835 hardware merchants Hubbard & Casey diversified.  The owners ran their business at No. 48-1/2 Exchange Place, selling items like “grass sithes, corn sithes and augurs” at a time when New Yorkers had a use for such things.  But now they turned their attention, as well, to real estate development.

The men began construction on five speculative houses on East 3rd Street—Nos. 30 to 38—between Second Avenue and the Bowery.   Three stories high over English basements, the matching brick residences were completed a year later.   The homes featured Flemish bond brickwork, handsome iron fences and railings, and brownstone trim.  Three bays wide, the dignified Greek Revival style residences would have been marketed to merchant-class families.

The other four houses in the row, like No. 30, have been altered.  photo by Alice Lum

While financially-comfortable families lived quiet lives in the houses on East 3rd Street Charles M. Grainger was seeing action in the Crimean War.  The son of Major William Grainger of the famous King’s Own Regiment, Charles had enlisted in his father’s regiment at an early age.  When the war broke out, he was sent to Crimea and served throughout the war, from 1853 through 1856.

Grainger then immigrated to New York—just in time for the outbreak of the Civil War.  He enlisted in the 88th Regiment, New York Volunteers.  His military record during the war was a remarkable one—he served as a scout under General McClellan, was wounded in the battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, and was later captured and held prisoner in the infamous Libby Prison at Richmond.  Immediately upon returning to New York he joined the New York Police Department.

Grainger and his wife moved into No. 30 East 3rd Street.   The New York Times later described him as “a man of fine military appearance and he is fully as attractive as Capt. Williams.”  In November 1884 Grainger, now a police sergeant, was assigned to the Tombs Police Court.   He quickly discovered that political corruption and favors were rampant in the jail and he was expected to play along.

Grainger made a highly-favorable impression on the Police Justices for his efficiency and professionalism.   “They say that he is a competent man and one of the few who have filled the office satisfactorily,” reported The Times.  But the sergeant made enemies in high places.

Politicians haunted the hallways and courtrooms of the prison, using their influence to affect the outcome of cases.  “He has failed to aid them in their work, and for this reason he gained their enmity,” said The New York Times on February 15, 1885.

“One politician came to him a month ago and asked him to send a letter to the Commissioners asking to be transferred.  Grainger, of course, refused,” said the newspaper.  “’All right, me fine buck,’ said the heeler, ‘I’ll have you fixed.’”

Sure enough, just four months after being assigned to The Tombs, Grainer was transferred to the 8th Precinct.  The Police Justices were outraged and stormed into the Police Headquarters on Mulberry Street “with a view to the prevention of the transfer.”

For days the newspapers followed the battle between Police Headquarters and the judges of the Tombs, while Sergeant Grainger quietly reported to the 8th Precinct.  “The Police Justices feel much put out by the transfer of this officer,” said The Times two days later.  “They say it is unjust and that they will leave nothing undone to have him back in his old position.”

In 1885, however, corruption and graft were stronger than the opinions of prison judges.  Grainger remained in the 8th Precinct and a political favorite was given his former position.  Four years later the 25-year veteran of the force retired.  He and his wife moved to Coney Island where he became Captain of the Coney Island police department and proprietor of the Atlantic Hotel.

A late-Victorian update of No. 30 (right) resulted in a new cornice and cast lintels and sills on the upper windows.  The house originally matched its next-door neighbor. -- photo by Alice Lum

The house changed hands twice before 1901.  At some point it received a late-Victorian facelift that included an up-to-date bracketed cast cornice and ornamental lintels and sills on the upper story windows.   After Ella H. Browne sold the house in 1901 it, like most of the houses on the block, became a boarding house.   One of the first tenants was Dr. George W. Kirschoffer, who moved in soon after the death of his wife.

The elderly Kirschoffer, who had been both a physician and a druggist, ran a small pharmacy near the East 3rd Street house.    After Mrs. Kirschoffer’s death his children moved to Wisconsin and he sold the drugstore and rented a furnished room in the 3rd Street house.  The Sun said “One of his pleasures was the collection of statuary, and his room was filled with it.”  For company he kept a pet canary named Dick in “an elaborate cage” in the room.

The old man—he turned 70 in 1903—also enjoyed wood carving and presented little figures to the neighborhood children.  “Most of the youngsters in the neighborhood who did not believe in the Santa Claus that comes down narrow chimneys were quite certain that the old man was a better saint, because he gave them presents all the year round.  He would carve them the most ingenious little men and women, horses, and cattle from pine wood and find his reward in their delight.”

The old druggist loved the children and on sunny Sunday afternoons they flocked around him.   On rainy Sundays he reportedly visited any children who might be ill, bringing them a small carving he had done.  “Every door in the neighborhood was open to him,” said The Times.  “His coming was an occasion of gladness and his going was followed with the hope that he would come again.”

But Dr. Kirschoffer was now 70 years old.  He firmly believed that no man should lived beyond that age.   As December 21, 1904 loomed—his 71st birthday—he told his friends that a man ought not “to live over the Biblical period of threescore years and ten.”

The first time he mentioned it was in June of that year when he was ill and assumed he would die.  When he recovered, he decided to take the matter into his own hands.   “He repeated his assertion that it was time to do away with himself three months later, and was revived that evening after he had swallowed laudanum,” said The Times.

Despite the failed suicide attempt, boarders did not take him seriously on December 18 with his birthday just days away.  “He again expressed his notion of life’s limit Sunday afternoon, but in the jolliest sort of way,” reported The New York Times.

That same day a local saloon keeper had offered to buy the old man’s canary.  Kirschoffer refused the impressive offer of $100, saying that he and the bird would die together.

The following day the postman rang the bell at No. 30 East 3rd Street.  In his bag was a number of Christmas cards from the old man’s grandchildren in Wisconsin.  Dr. Kirschoffer would never see them. 

Just moments before a maid had noticed the odor of gas coming from the doctor’s room.  The urgently summoned the help of other boarders who broke open the door and summoned an ambulance.  The Sun reported that the landlady, Mrs. Green, “discovered the old man fully dressed lying dead on his bed.  Gas was pouring from three jets.”

As Kirschoffer had intended, his canary Dick was dead in his ornate cage.  They died together.

The old man, who believe no one should live past 70 years old, had a back-up plan as well. “Poisons enough to kill a regiment of men were neatly piled on the mantelpiece, each one property labeled,” said The New York Times.

When the old house was sold on December 14, 1938, it was unceremoniously deemed a “tenement.”  At the time of the sale it was assessed at $9,500—about $118,000 today.

An elephantine entranceway replaced the dignified Greek Revival doorway.  photo by Alice Lum
In 1971 the house received a make-over.  A professional office was installed in the basement, the parlor floor became a single apartment, and a duplex apartment filling the upper floors.  It was perhaps at this time that the handsome Greek Revival doorway was replaced by a severe Soviet-looking enframement.

A mystery to passersby, however, is the little metal sign affixed to the brickwork.   Dating the house fully half a century too late, it pronounces it the “Show Me” State House.    The little sign is responsible for the scratching of the heads of more than a few perplexed pedestrians.
The plaque with the wildly-incorrect date is a mystery.  photo by Alice Lum

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