Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Josiah W. Wheeler House -- No. 25 West 19th Street

Commercial structures squeeze around the old brownstone with its 1903 storefront.
On April 29, 1856 82-year old Catharine Sice died.  Two days later at 2:00 in the afternoon, friends and relatives of the widow filed into the handsome brownstone home at No. 25 West 19th Street.

The four-story Italianate residence was owned by Catharine’s daughter, Eleanor, and attorney husband Gilbert R. Terrett.  The family’s wealth was reflected not only in the home’s exclusive location, just steps from Fifth Avenue, but in the $1,500 taxes Terrett was assessed in 1843—a substantial $50,000 in today’s dollars.  Living with the couple was son, Charles William Terrett.  Another son, Gilbert R. Terrett, Jr., had died three years earlier.

By the second half of the century the house had become home to the family of prominent attorney Josiah William Wheeler who had married the former Mary Boorman Davenport on October 13, 1835.  The couple had five children, Mary Boorman Wheeler, James Boorman Wheeler, William Rupell Wheeler, Elizabeth Davenport Wheeler and Emily Matilda Wheeler.  

Tragically, the two boys died early—James Boorman Wheeler in infancy in 1842 and William Rupell Wheeler in 1852 at the age of five--and so the Wheeler household was one entirely of women, other than Josiah.

Wheeler was partnered in his law practice with his brother R. C. Wheeler, who had married Mary’s sister Theodosia.  Both families could boast an esteemed New England pedigree.

In 1862 25-year old Mary Boorman Wheeler married Dr. Giovanni Ceccarini, an Italian eye and ear specialist.  When the doctor’s health began to fail in 1878 the couple moved to Rome.  Neither Emily nor Elizabeth would marry, focusing their attention on charitable causes.

In 1879 Emily Matilda Wheeler established the first independent day nursery in the city, the Virginia Day Nursery.  The New York Times would later say of her “Throughout her life Miss Wheeler devoted herself to charities, especially to those designed to protect and help young girls.”  Elizabeth, like her sister, dedicated herself to the plight of impoverished children and was manager of the Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children.

Josiah William Wheeler died of pneumonia in the 19th Street house on March 1882 at the age of 77.  In 1898 Emily donated $5,000 to Williams College to establish a library book fund in his memory.  In Rome, in the meantime, Mary was busy with altruistic causes as well.  Dr. Giovanni Ceccarini died in 1888 and Mary, according to The Sun years later, “turned her attention to improving the condition of the poor in the villages near her summer home at Riccione, among other things building a hospital at an expense of $100,000.”

On the afternoon of Tuesday, May 6, 1890 the parlor of No. 25 West 19th Street was the scene of yet another family funeral.  Elizabeth Davenport Wheeler who had worked so hard for the betterment of the poor, had died three days earlier.  Within the year Emily, Mary and their mother purchased the property at No. 307 East 12th Street and donated it to the Children’s Aid Society.  On the site the Elizabeth Home for Girls was constructed in her memory.  The home opened in 1892 and offered dormitories and single rooms for wayward girls, sitting rooms, sewing rooms and typing rooms, a reading room and dining room and kitchen.

Around the time that the Elizabeth Home for Girls opened, the Wheeler house was updated with new stoop railings and exquisite Esthetic Movement etched glass windows in the entrance--which miraculously survive.

The Children’s Aid Society explained “We are impressed by the mournful experience of young girls suffering from the effects of willfulness and uselessness, who say their mothers never made them obedient.  This is a vital matter for the wise and good to grapple with.  Hundreds of the young of both sexes are growing up completely ungoverned except by the whim of the moment, and dangerous currents of influence are sweeping many to destruction.  The Elizabeth Home does all it can to counteract these evils, taking hold of young girls with steady helping hands, and training them to obedience, self-respect and usefulness; but the kindergarten seems to be the great hope of the future."

For her generous work in Italy King Humbert offered to make Mary a countess in 1894; but she refused “explaining that she was still a patriotic American," according to a newspaper.

By now Emily had moved to No. 25 East 30th Street and the girl’s aging mother lived on alone in the 19th Street house.  On Thursday, April 30, 1896 the 81-year old Mary Boorman Wheeler died there.  Her funeral, held at 2:00 on May 2, would be the last in the staid brownstone home.  Her sizable estate included bequests to the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church, the New-York Female Auxiliary Bible Society, the Society for the Relief of Half Orphan and Destitute Children, the New-York Mission and Tract Society among charitable organizations.  Mary and Elizabeth each received $250,000—about $6.7 million today.

In 1901 Mary Boorman Wheeler Cecccarini donated another $5,000 to the library fund begun by her sister, Emily in 1898.  Continuing her own charitable efforts, Elizabeth augmented her Day Nursery work by loaning her summer estate, Orchard Cottage, to church missionaries and their families “on furlough” in the States.

Mary sold the family house on May 13, 1903 to Andrew J. Larkin.  The sumptuous rooms were stripped of the artwork, fine furniture and carpets.  It was the end of the line for the Wheeler house as a private residence.  By now the block was already filling with commercial structures as business overtook the former residential neighborhood. 

Four months later, on September 2, Mary Boorman Wheeler Ceccarini died in Italy at the age of 60.  The sub-headline in The Sun remembered that “Since Her Husband’s Death She Had Done Much for the Poor of Italy.”  The article noted “Mrs. Ceccarini’s body will be interred in the costly marble tomb which she built in memory of her husband at Bologna, Italy, shortly after his death.”

Within a week of Mary’s death Andrew Larkin sold the 19th Street house to Dr. John H. Woodbury, who sold it in December to Richard Bozine.  Bozine paid $75,000 for the property.  The wall at the parlor level was broken out and an expansive, slightly protruding wooden shop window was installed.  Unexpectedly, the English basement entrance and window were left essentially intact in that level’s conversion to a commercial space.

At the basement level, the original enframements survive with their foliate keystones.
One of the new tenants was James L. Solomon who set up his medical practice here.  In 1905 his  office closed when he was exposed as a fraud.  “James L. Solomon, who gives his residence as Brookline, Mass., but who has been practicing medicine at No. 25 West Nineteenth street for some time, was convicted of posing as a physician, when not registered,” reported The Evening World on March 13, 1905.

Salomon’s arrest was sparked by the suspicions of two women “who were treated for grip and paid fees of $5,” said the newspaper.

In 1952 the top two floors were each converted to a "studio and one apartment" while the lower floors were used for "light manufacturing." Another renovation in 2012 resulted in two apartments per floor above the retail space at basement level.  The quaint 1903 shop window was preserved.

Over a century after its conversion the Wheeler house is remarkably unchanged.  Although squeezed between commercial buildings and despite the fire escape, it takes little imagination to envision the socially-concerned Wheeler women in their plumed hats and parasols coming and going down on the brownstone stoop.
The handsome cornice, the entranceway and the carved window frames resting on tiny brackets survive intact.

photographs taken by the author

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