Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The 1817 House at No. 57 Sullivan Street

In 1817 builder Frederick Youmans erected a small house at No. 57 Sullivan Street near Richmond Hill, until recently the country estate of Aaron Burr.  Youmans gave the two-story frame house a brick fa├žade with paneled brownstone lintels.  Dormers would have sat above the simple cornice.

The attic was raised to a full third floor, possibly around the time that an advertisement appeared in The New York Daily Tribune.  A servant was being let go, for some reason, and the homeowners allowed her to receive potential employers at the house.  The girl looked for work “As Chambermaid and Waitress or to go to travel with a lady as Nurse and plain Sewer, by a respectable Girl; can give good city reference." The ad, which was published on April 14, 1852, was clear that the servant's household responsibilities still came first.  "Can be seen for two days, if not engaged."

By the 1880s things had changed around No. 57 Sullivan Street.  To the south, where the elegant St. John’s Park had been ringed with Federal style mansions, was a freight rail terminal.  A few blocks north, around Minetta Lane, was a squalid slum called by reformer Jacob Riis “the bottom” of the West Side.

The neighborhood experienced an influx of immigrants, not all of whom were upstanding new citizens.  Michaelo Minafera lived at No. 57 Sullivan Street in 1880.  Seemingly a hard working and honest man, he was on his way home on the evening of September 3.  On Broome Street, only steps from his house, he was attacked.

Ex-convicts John King and Stephen Harrington knocked him to the pavement and stole his watch and chain.  As he struggled to his feet to pursue the fleeing thieves, another ex-con, Thomas Smith, “tripped him up and beat and kicked him,” as reported in The Sun on October 21.  Although he was just 20 years old, Smith had just been released from a two-year sentence for robbing a woman in 1878.

King and Harrington were quickly apprehended, but Smith escaped until October 4.  Michaelo Minafera was in court when Smith was tried on October 20.  The New York Times reported “He was convicted of an attempt a highway robbery, and remanded for sentence.”  Thomas Smith was not happy with the verdict, nor with Michael Minafera.

When two court officers walked the Smith out of the courtroom, no one could expect what would happen.  Although he was handcuffed to another prisoner, the hot-headed thug was in no mood to be confronted by either his accuser or the cop who put him behind bars.

The Sun recounted “Minafera and Policeman Kenny, who arrested Smith, met the court officers and the prisoners near the door.  Springing toward Minafera, and dragging the man handcuffed to him, Smith kicked Minafera to the left side.  He would have struck Minafera with his unfettered hand, but the court officers seized him and dragged him from the court room.  Minafera was bent double by the kick, and for a moment he appeared about to faint.”  The Times added that Minafera (whom it called “an Italian”) “had to be assisted to his home.”

The following day The New York Times reported on the sentence delivered by Recorder Smyth.  Before revealing the sentence, the newspaper reminded readers of the incident in the courtroom.  “On being taken from the court-room after his conviction, Smith, who is a villainous-looking specimen of a street rough, made a brutal attack on the complainant, Minafera, kicking him severely in the abdomen.”

The newspaper felt that Smith deserved no mercy.  “No sooner had he been turned loose on the community than he resumed his evil practices,” it said.  Reporter Smyth agreed.  He called the September 3 attack “a most atrocious one, committed in a crowded street while it was yet almost daylight.”  And the brutal attack in the courtroom sealed Smith’s fate. 

“Were it not for that, the court might feel inclined to exercise leniency, but under the circumstances he (the Recorder) felt that mercy in this case would be misplaced.  His honor then sentenced Smith to the full penalty under the verdict—10 years in State Prison at hard labor.”

By now the house was, most likely, operated as a rooming house with several families living here.  For a few years—at least from 1886 through 1888—John Murphy lived at No. 57.  Murphy was a “parkkeeper” for the City, earning a salary of $2.75 a day.  His civil service wages would be equal to about $17,000 a year today.

Times were difficult for the hard-working immigrant families and on June 18, 1898 one-year old J. C. Hanify died in the house.  Only a year later, on May 2, 1899, the boy’s 37-year old father was dead.

By 1906 the house fell under the Tenement House Department of the city.  On September 7 that year it was handed a violation for “unsanitary conditions.”

While the names of the tenants changed, they continued to be blue-collar workers.  In 1919 Nicholas T. Belletier was living here.  He was employed by the city as an “asphalt worker” and, like John Murphy before him, his pay was calculated per day.  Belletier earned $3.25 a day for his sweat-producing labor; equal to about $20,000 a year today.

In 1928 No. 57 (second from right at top) sat within a gritty tenement lined block.  When photographer P. L. Sperr returned four years later the corner building had been demolished.  He pointed out this exposed "the frame south side of No. 57"  photographs from the collection of the New York Public Library
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Italian mafia gangs ruled New York and Chicago; their power only increased by the enactment of Prohibition.  In 1931 Charles Maturo, living at No. 57 at the time, would fall victim to the violence.

In mid-summer that year a Brooklyn speakeasy known as The Wonder Club moved from 15th Street and 3rd Avenue to No. 91 14th Street.  The Times called the place “a one-story clapboard shanty,” and said that since the club opened here “the resort has been the scene of noisy revelry every night.”

Police surmised that Charles Maturo was one of the owners of the speakeasy.  He was there on August 13, 1931 when, according to police theorists, there was “a raid…by members of the gang of Angelo (Little Augie) Pisano, reputed successor of Frankie Yale, the Brooklyn gang leader who was killed in July, 1928.”

The clash of rival Italian gangsters did not end well for Maturo.  When police entered the deserted club about 1:00 in the morning “overturned chairs and tables, broken beer bottles and wrecked furnishings gave evidence of a terrific struggle,” said The Times.

Three men, including Maturo, were found dead.  “They found one of the dead men lying in the front of the cellar and one in the rear of the cellar.  These two, like the man on the main floor, had been battered about the faces, heads and necks.  In the cellar the police also found a heavy blackjack, covered with blood and hair.  It was believed also that the men had been attacked with an axe.”

As has always been the case in Manhattan, neighborhoods change.  The Sullivan Street neighborhood that had been almost exclusively Italian through most of the 20th century became gentrified.  Around the turn of the 21st century No. 57 received what the AIA Guide to New York City called an “overzealous restoration.” 

The well-intentioned effort, however, preserved a charming relic of the early days of Sullivan Street and brought it full-circle to its 1817 days of a private home.

photographs by the author


  1. Aside from the awful 'shutters,' what else was "overzealous."

    1. Purist would prefer that the patina of the old brick and stone were not blasted away; resulting in a brand new, too-perfect restoration.