By 1842 the neighborhood of Chelsea which had been just a few decades earlier the country estate of Clement Clarke Moore’s family, was rapidly developing. The block of West 22nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, had already seen the construction of several high-end residences. Now the plot of land at No. 353 was about to become the site of a new church.
Johathan Greenleaf, in his 1846 "A History of the Churches, of all Denominations, in the City of New York,” explained “As the population had increased, and was fast increasing in the upper section of the city, on the North [i.e. Hudson] River side, it was judged important to provide the means of grace there in greater abundance, and several members of the Presbyterian churches living at Chelsea, as it is called, established a prayer-meeting in the spring of 1842. During that summer, arrangements were made, principally through the liberality of an individual, to erect a house of worship, and in the summer of 1843, a substantial brick building was finished on Twenty-second street, near the Ninth avenue, on what is termed ‘Lennox Place’…In November following, the Rev. Edward D. Smith who had been the last pastor of the Eighth [Presbyterian] Church, was installed pastor of the ‘Chelsea Church.’”
At the time of Greenleaf’s writing, the congregation of Chelsea Church numbered about 100.
Three years prior to the construction of the church, 18-year old Scottish immigrant James Condie arrived in New York. The young man arrived with what the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record called “a good knowledge of the drug business, having served his apprenticeship in Glasgow.”
Condie opened a pharmacy at No. 165 Eighth Avenue in Chelsea; then moved to the corner of Ninth Avenue and 22nd Street, just down the block from the church. Condie’s business flourished—perhaps in part because of the remedies he purveyed, like “The Pure Juice of the Grape 14 Years Old” that he advertised in The Sun on September 7, 1879. Modern pharmacists may wonder if “Dr. Underhill’s Union Port from the Croton Point Vineyards” was less medicinal than it was simply alcoholic.
James Condie was not content with the comfortable income from his pharmacy business. He branched into real estate development and would form a syndicate that ran a lumber mill at 19th Street and Eleventh Avenue. When the Chelsea Church and school were demolished around 1872, Condie went into action.
Where the church had stood Condie erected two mirror-image townhouses, completed in 1874. Although the name of the architect is in question, it is tempting to think that, perhaps, Condie’s son-in-law, architect Charles R. Lamb, was responsible.
The speculative homes stood out among their earlier Greek Revival neighbors. Four stories high over a high, rusticated brownstone English basement, they showed off with a handsome neo-Grec design. Somewhat odd, however, is that the style had essentially fallen out of fashion nearly a decade earlier; and the heavy Italianate cast iron railings and fences were incongruous with the overall style of the homes.
The windows sat within deep, carved stone frames that sat on small brackets. Stealing the show were the wonderful carved and paneled wooden entrance doors. The paired, arched doors were surrounded by elaborate carved stone openings. The pairing of the entrances created a dramatic brownstone stoop that spilled down to the sidewalk.
|The inset glass panels in the lovely carved entrance doors allowed sunlight into the foyers beyond.|
On March 14, 1890 The Evening World reported on an upcoming play. “Great preparations are being made for the production of the spectacular melodrama, ‘The Knights of Tyburn,’ at Niblo’s, April 7. It is to be a very elaborate and costly affair.” It was not especially uncommon for Victorian actresses to take on a male role and the newspaper noted that Clara had already been engaged for the starring role. “Miss Thompson is to play the part of Jack Sheppard.”
Also in rehearsals was English-born actor Henry Aveling who was cast as Jonathan Wild. Aveling was described by The Evening World as “a fine young actor, with robust physique and powerful voice.” He had married actress Mittens Willett in the fall of 1884; however by now the couple was separated “probably on account of Aveling’s intemperate habits,” suggested the newspaper.
The pairing of Clara Thompson and Henry Aveling would end in tragedy.
But before that came to pass, The Knights of Tyburn successfully concluded at Niblo’s, played in New Jersey, then opened at the Windsor Theatre on the Bowery. Clara Thompson had already earned a reputation as a difficult, self-important diva and on May 23, 1890 The Evening World reported that “There has been a flare-up at the Windsor Theatre. Last night the star of ‘The Knights of Tyburn,’ Miss Clara Louise Thompson, did not appear, her part being played by Miss Louise Sylvester. Fred McCloy, the manager,…appears to have suffered a good deal from Miss Thompson’s caprices.”
When things did not go as Clara wanted, she walked out on the play. “I asked her if this pretty chorus-girl trick was designed to close the theatre,” McCloy told reporters. He fired the actress and said “I have been treated very badly.”
Clara’s ability to draw audiences outweighed her difficult temperament and that same month The Evening World reported “There is some talk of Miss Clara Louise Thompson, the Jack Sheppard of ‘The Knights of Tyburn,’ appearing as Josephine to the Napoleon of Percy Hunting at a matinee shortly.”
On March 10, 1891 Henry Aveling checked into Room 305 at the Sturtevant House hotel on Broadway at 28th Street. A week later, on Wednesday the 18th, a chambermaid knocked on his door shortly after he returned to his room. When he did not answer she summoned a clerk who had the door broken in.
“On the bed lay the actor, cold in death, while beside him was a small vial of cyanide of potassium of which he had evidently partaken,” reported The Evening World the following day. Nearby was a letter addressed to “Miss Clara Thompson” which read:
Clara Dear: We could not live as we wished for, and so I go—into the great futurity. Find me there, darling, if you can. Henry
At the time Aveling was earning a salary of about $100 a week—a comfortable $2,500 today. The Evening World noted that “He was very popular among his associates” and “Those who watched his work carefully predicted a bright future for him in the line of his profession.”
Suspicion regarding the cause of his suicide, therefore, was directed at Clara Thompson. Reporters descended on the West 22nd Street house. Clara denied being overly-familiar with her former co-star and said she had not seen him for about a week.
“The first time I met Mr. Aveling was last Spring at Niblo’s Garden in the play ‘Knights of Tyburn,” she said. Typically, she took the opportunity to take the spotlight. “I was the star, taking the part of Jack Sheppard, and he took the role of Jonathan Wild.
“Mr. Aveling was of a cheerful disposition, and I never heard him say anything which might lead to a suspicion that he intended suicide.” Clara apparently thought it best to try to quiet wagging tongues.
“I was not on intimate terms with him, however,” she concluded.
While thespians and other mourners filed into the funeral parlor where Aveling’s body reposed, Clara avoided that spotlight. On March 19 The Evening World noted “Miss Thompson has not called at the undertaker’s where the body lies, and at her house it was said this morning that she would not be one of the mourners at the obsequies.” The newspaper said “Miss Thompson was greatly affected over the publication of Aveling’s letter to her.”
Aveling’s funeral was held the following day at “the cosy flat of the suicide’s widow, Mittens Willet, in the Stanhope, at 229 East Fourteenth Street.” The Evening World reported on the service and could not refrain from dredging up the deceased actor’s letter to Clara.
“The flat was crowded with members of the theatrical profession who knew Aveling well, and had only kindly words and expressions of regret for him. With the exception of Miss Clara Thompson, to whom Aveling addressed an endearing communication before killing himself, every member of the ‘Paul Kauvar’ company, to which the dead actor last belonged, was present.”
The bad press coupled with her firing from The Knights of Tyburn prompted The Evening World to publish a catty remark a few months later. On June 24 it wrote “Miss Clara Louise Thompson, with bonbons in her arms and smiles upon her lips, was one of Broadway’s pedestrians yesterday. Miss Thompson’s experiences last season were not happy ones, yet she smiles and smiles and is an actress still.”
|The many-paned windows were the result of late-Victorian interest in things Colonial.|
It was probably during the last decade of the century that the windows of both homes were replaced with small panes—an attempt at “Colonialization” as a wave of interest in early American history swept the country.
By the turn of the century Clara Thompson had left 22nd Street, as had her former neighbor. In 1900 Charles B. O’Neill lived at No. 353. He, along with his brother Thomas P. McNeill, had been clerks in the County Clerk’s office until the year before. Both men “had to walk the plank,” according to The Sun on September 17, 1899, “because of their affiliation with John C. Sheehan, who is fighting to maintain the Tammany leadership of the Ninth Assembly district.” The powerful political boss Sheehan held sway over the Tammany Pequod Club nearby at No. 267 West 25th Street.
Next door Lucius A. Waldo had moved in by 1904. A lawyer and stenographer, he had offices at No. 38 Park Row. His services to the Lexow Investigation which brought an end to corrupt police bosses in 1895 had earned him a windfall of $17,439.
Waldo would not be in the house for long and in 1908 No. 351 was home to John W. Yates. That year he partnered with Frank F. Smith and Edward A. Zink to form the Frank F. Smith & Yales Mfg, Co. to manufacture locks.
In the 1920s and ‘30s both homes were being operated as rooming houses. The once refined neighborhood had suffered, as reflected in its residents. On October 2, 1925 Louis Bernardo was shot dead in his pool parlor at No. 108 Thompson Street. His business was then robbed. Detectives searched for suspects Peter Cinnamo and John Stoppelli for months before Cinnamo was recognized on March 21, 1926. “They were arrested in a furnished room at 351 West Twenty-second Street,” reported The New York Times.
The men insisted that the shooting was in self-defense. “Cinnamo admitted having shot Bernardo, according to detectives. He said the shooting occurred during a fight. Cinnamo said Bernardo drew a pistol, but he knocked it from his hand. When Bernardo ran toward the rear to loose a pair of savage police dogs he said he fired.”
The thugs denied that they had robbed the pool room—at least not this one. “Detectives said they admitted living on the profits of hold-ups, but denied the one of which they were accused,” reported The Times.
Ten years later the family of 16-year old Joseph Hallam lived in the building. On August 19, 1936 the boy was in the wrong place when Detective Edward F. Hoolahan was escorting a prisoner to the station house. At 8th Avenue near 22nd Street, just a block from No. 351, Paul Fournier pushed the detective to the curb and fled. Hoolahan fired two shots in the air as a warning, then twice more at the fleeing figure. Although one bullet hit Fournier in the shoulder; the other hit young Hallam in the thigh.
In 1933 28-year old David Kennedy lived in No. 353. That summer was extraordinarily hot and humid and on July 9 Manhattan residents abandoned the city for the beach in hopes of relief. Newspapers reported that 800,000 crammed public transportation heading to Coney Island, 400,000 to the Rockaways, and similar crowds to the other beach areas.
Unfortunately, others tried to find relief in the nearby rivers. Five persons died, including David Kennedy who drowned in the Hudson River off 26th Street.
While many other 19th century homes along the block were heavily altered throughout the 20th century, the twin houses at Nos. 131 and 131 West 22nd Street were little changed. In 1968 both were converted to three large apartments each—a duplex in the basement and parlor level, one apartment on the second, and a duplex on the third and fourth floor.
Although the brownstone facades have been painted, the charming twin houses are lovingly maintained. Residents are most likely unaware that within their walls a egotistic actress and a pair of murderous crooks once lived.
photographs taken by the author
photographs taken by the author