Saturday, August 9, 2014

The 1835 Thomas E. Davis House -- No. 68 East 7th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1835 attorney and banker Thomas E. Davis constructed his upscale brick home at No. 68 East 7th Street, just blocks from the ultra-fashionable Bond Street neighborhood.  The three-story home sat above a brownstone English basement.  Its comfortable 25-foot width was a reflection of the wealth of its owner.  The unpretentious Greek Revival elements were the latest in architectural fashion; just beginning to nudge out the Federal style.

Davis and his wife, Anne, would have five daughters and a son.  Six years after erecting the 7th Street house, Davis built a luxurious country home on Staten Island’s fashionable Richmond Terrace.  The New-York Tribune described it on November 17, 1841.  "The elegant country seat, with about four acres of land adjoining, recently finished by Thomas E. Davis, Esq. at a cost exceeding $60,000…is unrivaled for beauty of situation.”  The home cost the attorney a little over $1.5 million by today’s standards.

Despite their six children and Davis’s substantial fortune—about $2 million by 1870—things apparently were not working out between him and Anne.  When daughter Lizzie married the Marquis Angelo Gavotti Verospi of Rome on October 10, 1861, the ceremony took place in the Church of St. Roch in Paris.  It was an indication of things to come.

By time the of Davis’s death on March 16 1878 only he and his son, Thomas E. Davis, Jr., remained in New York.  Anne lived in Paris as did three daughters; while Lizzie and Matilda lived in Italy.  Davis himself seems to have left 7th Street to live on Staten Island.  While Anne received “all his horses, carriages, harness, diamonds, jewelry, bijouterie silver, furniture, ornaments, bedding, paintings, articles of vertu, clothing, wines, liquors, and all goods and chattels stores at his banker’s or elsewhere;” the only real-estate mentioned in the will was the house and land on Richmond Terrace (which was left to his son).

That the millionaire attorney would have abandoned the neighborhood is not surprising.  By the second half of the 19th century the neighborhood was called Kleindeutchland, or little Germany.  Fine Federal and Greek Revival homes were quickly being replaced by tenement houses and German social clubs.  With the German Lutherans and Catholics came the German Jews, as well.

The year prior to Davis’s death there were 250,000 Jewish immigrants in the United States, more than one-third of whom lived in New York.  In 1877 J. J. Reynolds wrote, “A growing interest in missions to the Jews has resulted in the formation at New York of a ‘Church Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews,’ under the presidency of the bishop of the diocese, and with the countenance of eight other bishops and several other eminent men.”

The Episcopal Church, concerned that Jews should be saved through conversion, purchased the house at No. 68 East 7th Street as the Society’s headquarters.  Two years later, on March 8, 1884, The Real Estate Record noted that the society had taken out a $9,000 mortgage on the property.  The money was no doubt necessary for renovating the house into school rooms and a chapel.  It is possible that some of it went to the exterior remodeling as well.  The façade got a stylish makeover with up-to-date Italianate details—including handsome pediments above the windows and a pretty pressed metal frieze below the cornice.
The architecturally out-of-date building got stylish new clothes -- photo by Alice Lum
The Church Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews explained its technique of reaching its audience in the Board of Missions’ 1893 The Spirit of Missions.  It listed “paid Missionaries” (in actuality, there was only one) and the “maintenance of Missionary Schools and Industrial Schools for the Christian education of Jewish children.”  The pamphlet stressed “The work is purely spiritual.  The Society does not give temporal aid.”

The Society House served as school and home to the missionary, Mr. Lerman, who happened to be a converted Jew, a chapel, and school.  The Society published what it called “Messianic and Missionary literature,” which was in the form of an oddly-named periodical The Gospel of the Circumcision.”

The aggressive work of the Church Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews did not go unnoticed by the city’s rabbis.  On April 21, 1893 The New York Times ran a headline reading “Jewish Ministers Aroused” and wrote “They think the eyes of the Jewish people ought to be opened to the serious inroads of the mission in order that this influence may be checked by counteracting agencies.”

Rabbi Silverman dismissed the idea of “conversion” and preferred to think of it as mutiny.  “A Jew cannot become a Christian.  It is against his grain.  If he says he is a Christian, he is really an infidel.”

The Church Society relied on donations to operate; but it would appear that the group had regular financial strains.  In 1891 another mortgage had been taken out, this time for $10,000; and in 1901 the Citizens’ Savings Bank approved a $11,500 mortgage.  Finally on March 26, 1904 The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the Church Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews had sold the East 7th Street house to Samuel Grossman for $17,250. 

In an act of supreme irony, six days later Grossman transferred title to Machizke Talmud Torah School.  The yeshiva had been founded only a few years earlier when a movement towards replacing Yiddish with English as the language of instruction among Jewish youths began.  A focus on traditional Hebrew, rather than Yiddish, and religious doctrine was stressed as well.

The school gave as its object “to instruct poor children gratis in the Hebrew language and literature, and to give them a religious education.  In addition, poor children were given shoes and clothing.  The school opened on January 22, 1905 with a generous $25,000 financial boost from Jacob H. Schiff.

Machizke Talmud Torah School remained in the converted home at least until 1916.  Afterward the building was used as a synagogue.  By the end of World War I the German population had moved northward to the Yorkville area; but the Lower East Side remained the stronghold of the Jewish community well into the second half of the 20th century.

Scars in the brick reveal restoration of former in-wall air conditioner damage -- photo by Alice Lum
Change eventually came, however.  The East Village saw much of the Jewish population displaced by the city’s avante guard artists, writers, musicians, and political and social activists during the 1960s and 1970s.  The Davis house was returned to a single family home in 1960; then in 1989 was converted to one spacious apartment per floor.  Three decades later the remarkably preserved façade is lovingly maintained.

1 comment:

  1. Ref: Anne and Thomas E Davis: I think there were 9 children. The first born child, daughter Eliza Anne, died in 1833 aged 5. The wife of Thomas E Davis, Anne (Power) Davis' was Irish and a devout Catholic. One of her brothers was the Catholic Vicar General of New York. Thomas E Davis was from "England" and probably not Catholic but perhaps non-conformist (name could be of Welsh origin?), but this is conjecture. Most of their children married Catholics. Frederick Gebhard married Catherine (Kate) Davis and their children were raised in the Catholic faith. Frontiersman John F. A. Sanford married Isabel Davis; his first wife was Emilie Chouteau of the St Louis fur trading business and their only child was baptised in the Catholic faith by Ann Davis's brother, Father John Power. The other children of Thomas and Anne Davis married French, Italian and South Americans. Anne and Thomas E Davis moved to Italy where one of their grandchildren was an official in the Vatican. A newspaper report I read said that Thomas E Davis and his family moved to Italy when the Civil War broke out. His son remained behind and helped raise a New York regiment (McClellan Rifles) but he was not in the best of health so took no part in the fighting. He eventually left USA and died in England in 1916.
    The family connections through marriage are amazing, including some of the oldest and influential families in America plus aristocrats and politicians in Europe.