Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Skinny 1854 Twins at Nos. 451 and 453 W 22nd

When Clement Clarke Moore first plotted his family estate, Chelsea, into building lots, he wrote restrictive covenants into the residential deeds to ensure a higher class of homes.  Therefore first houses that began appearing in the 1830s were on unusually wide plots; like the 37.5 foot-wide Joseph Tucker house at No. 337 West 22nd Street built in 1836.

But Moore eventually relaxed his restrictions, allowing developers to build more easily-marketable homes.  One such real estate operator was Philo Y. Beebe.  The builder-developer was already highly-established in the first years of the 1850s when he turned his sights to the Chelsea neighborhood.  In 1849 he began construction on a row of 12 handsome homes on West 24th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.  Now, on November 23, 1853, he paid Moore $3,000 for the lots at Nos. 451 and 453 West 22nd Street.  The price for the two plots would amount to about $87,300 today.

If the size of Moore’s original plots were unusually wide; these two were surprisingly narrow.  Beebe set to work erecting two matching houses just 12 feet, 8 inches wide—nearly 8 feet narrower than the standard residential lot.  The twin homes were completed a year later, and what they lacked in width they made up for in eye-catching design.

Each just one bay wide, the two residences were designed to appear as one.

Beebe combined two currently-popular styles, Italianate and Greek Revival, to produce the highly unusual facades.  Four floors of red brick sat on a rusticated stone base.  He disguised the narrowness of each home by designing them as a visual unit; and used just one slightly oversized window per floor.  The architectural piece de resistance, however, came in the form of elaborate cast iron lintels that set the twin homes apart from anything else in the area.

By the 1880s No. 451 was home to William F. Fogg and his family.  A puzzling turn of events occurred in November 1888 when Charles White knocked on the door.  White had been a servant in the Fogg house until the morning of October 29 when he disappeared before the family arose.  Now, standing on the single brownstone step at the entrance, he asked Mrs. Fogg if she had missed any property.  She said she had not and returned to her household routine.

“That evening she received a postal card from Westchester telling that property of hers would be found in a certain pawnshop.  She then discovered that a lot of clothing had been stolen,” reported The Evening World on November 10, 1888.  Mrs. Fogg alerted Detective Carey of the 16th Precinct, who hunted down the servant-turned-thief.  White’s apparent guilty conscience resulted in his arrest on the charge of stealing $100 worth of clothing.

The Foggs were soon gone from No. 451.  Dentist C. L. Dunbar was here in the 1890s.  In the meantime, the house next door saw a succession of homeowners.  In the 1840s No. 453 was home to Lucretia Felter, a teacher in the Girls Department of Public School No. 19 on 14th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues.  The dedicated educator would teach in the New York Public Schools for decades.

But by the time that New York’s young men marched off to war in the South, she had moved on.  In 1864 the the Harmon Eldridge family was living in No. 453.  Eldridge had held the position of Superintendent of the Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island.  Eldrige’s 39-year old son, an employee of Abbott & Rathbun, died in the house on Wednesday morning, June 8 that year.  His funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

Within three years the Galahan family was in the house.  Like Lucretia Felter, Irene M. Gahagan was a teacher.  She worked six blocks away in the Primary Department of Public School No. 33 on West 28th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.

Marked change to the Chelsea neighborhood occurred by the turn of the century.  Many of the private homes were operated as boarding houses as moneyed families moved further north.  A young Cuban immigrant and his wife were living in No. 453 on Thursday, January 9, 1902 when Detective Sergeant Burns appeared at the front door. 

Three weeks earlier Schenectady police asked New York police Captain Titus to search for Emanuel Fontebilla on what The Morning Telegraph deemed “a mysterious charge of grand larceny.”  Schenectady officials traced his mail, discovering that it was being forwarded to Cuba, then on to the New York address.

“Fontebilla refused to talk when arrested,” reported The Morning Telegraph.  “His young wife became hysterical when her pleas failed to secure his release.  She declared him innocent.”

The entrances, most likely, were once crowned by elaborate cast iron lintels like those of the upper stories.  Note the handsome Italianate window guards.

In 1957 both No. 451 and 453 were converted to apartments—one on ground level and two per floor above.  It is probable that the entrances were once adorned by cast iron lintels; removed in a misguided attempt at modernization.  But otherwise, despite new doors and replacement windows, the wonderfully charming and unique twin houses remain mostly intact.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Those A/C unit covers come close to destroying the overall look of the facade.