In 1838 Greenwich Village had undergone more than a decade of rapid development and expansion. Washington Square, once a potter’s field and then a parade ground, was now girded by handsome mansions. That year James Strong erected a Greek Revival style house at No. 124 Waverley Place, steps away from the exclusive park.
It appears Strong never intended to live in the house, completed in 1839. But he included the upscale details that would attract renters—simple, but elegant ironwork; an exquisite entryway with sidelights, anthemion-decorated transom bar and door; and deeply paneled brownstone stepped wing walls flanking the stoop.
|The fencing with Greek key motif at the bottom and palmettes at the top survives, as do the paneled, stepped wing walls.|
Strong’s first tenant, M. Antoinette Varick, may have shocked the aristocratic Washington Square neighbors. Her father, James Varick, originally a shoemaker, was born on January 10, 1750. He was the son of Richard Varick (or Van Varick—records disagree) and a black slave, and was baptized in the Dutch Church. In 1790 he married Aurelia Jones and the couple had four sons and three daughters.
Varick, as did many of New York’s black and mixed-race citizens, worshiped at the John Street Methodist Church; but by the end of the Revolution were disillusioned by the bold racism they endured. A small group including James Varick and Peter Williams walked away in 1796, forming the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
James Varick died on July 22, 1827, just 18 days after the church’s thanksgiving service for the abolition of slavery in New York. Now his daughter, M. Antoinette Varick, became among the earliest tenants in the house on Waverley Place, which seems to have been operated as a high-end boarding house.
Also listed here in Longworth’s American Almanac in 1838 was George H. Crook, a shoemaker like James Varick. But M. Antoinette Varick would appear here at least through 1847. Antoinette was highly involved in the plight of New York’s black community; serving as a manager of the School of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Children and for the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans for years.
In 1841 an advertisement appeared in the New York Tribune as the Strongs looked for household help. “Girls Wanted: Wanted, a girl as cook—Also one as chambermaid—they must be honest, industrious, and sober.”
As the Civil War broke out, the Strong family still owned the Waverley Place property. The boarding house was now run by a Mrs. Potter. But war of a different kind was brewing much closer to home for Peter Strong, “a well-known lawyer of this city,” according to The New York Times.
Peter’s wife, Mary, sued him for divorce. What followed was a lurid court case with a score of witnesses and shocking testimonies that riveted the public for weeks. On November 24, 1865 The New York Times admitted “No case before our courts for many years has attracted greater attention that than of Strong against Strong.” The newspaper attributed the fascination to “The social relations and positions of the parties, and the singular charges and countercharges published in the newspapers.” The fact was that claims of illegitimate pregnancy, scandalous sexual relations, and the suggestion that No. 124 Waverley Place was a house of ill repute made the case delicious for Victorian readers.
The house on Waverley played an important part in the case, going back to 1863. When Police Officer William Jones was questioned on December 20, 1865 he immediately painted a shocking picture of the house. “No. 124 Waverley-place was in my patrol in the Spring of 1863, at night; my attention was attracted by the sign; I saw women go in and out; from their appearance I should judge them to be loose women.”
Another witness that day, H. C. Allen said “I live at No. 171 Macdouglas-street, and have about twenty-eight years; it is near Waverley-place; I know the general reputation of No. 124 Waverly-place and what was said about it; it was bad so far as I heard.”
Peter Strong’s brother, Edward, lived in the Waverley Place house; as did Mary Hillaker and her husband. Mary’s sister, "Mrs. Hecksher," gave starling testimony against Edward Strong. She said that her sister, Mary, had “criminal relations” with him. According to Mrs. Hecksher, “She said that Edward Strong had violated her, and that afterward he had taken advantage of his position and threatened her with discovery in order to secure the gratification of his passions; she told me also that she had begged and implored him to leave Waverley; that he could and she could not.”
Mrs. Hecksher also related incidences of abuse and violence. The boarders took meals together in the dining room and “one morning, at breakfast, Edward said to her, ‘Mary, I want to speak to you in my room;’ that when she went there, he locked the door, pointed a loaded pistol at her, and said ‘Mary, if you scream you are a dead woman.’…”she then told me that he had repeatedly threatened her with violence; that on one occasion, at Newport, she went out to drive, rather at the instance of her husband, who thought she was disagreeable not to go; and that in the conversation in the carriage, Edward Strong became very much excited and angry, and offered to throw her off the cliff, and that she herself thought she was lost.” Mrs. Hecksher told the court that her sister and had been “repeatedly threatened with a pistol.”
Even more shocking was evidence concerning Mrs. Potter herself. Her niece testified that she had moved into the house on the day after Christmas, 1862. She occupied a “large room on the top floor—an attic room; there was a fire there when I built it; I generally sat in Mrs. Potter’s room—the back room on the first floor; the business of the house was transacted in her room.”
The niece said that in January 1863 Mrs. Potter became ill. Her limbs became swollen and she became sensitive to noise and drafts. Mrs. Potter’s niece nursed her ailing aunt, and testified that she never saw men coming or going from the bedroom or the backroom.
The truth was, however, that Mrs. Potter did not have severe rheumatism as suggested. She was pregnant. Another boarder, Mary Eliza Marvin, related to the court “Mr. Potter went away in the morning about half-past six or seven, and returned in the evening at from six to eight o’clock.” Apparently he, too, was unaware that Mrs. Potter was with child.
Then, one day Mary Marvin checked in on her landlady. There was a fetus on the mattress next to Mrs. Potter. “I was not present just at the time when Mrs. Potter had the miscarriage; I saw her about a quarter of an hour afterward; she had then a very violent flow; I saw the child; I cannot tell how old it was; it was the first one I had ever seen—of the kind; I had not noticed before that Mrs. Potter was pregnant.”
What had started out as a divorce proceeding between Peter and Mary Strong had turned into a sordid pulp novel. Newspapers reported every word of testimony, verbatim, throughout the entire trial. No. 124 Waverley Place became the central point of a Civil War era Peyton Place.
The house seemed to be cursed with scandal and bad press. In 1887 the ugly matter of the Strong trial was mostly forgotten. Mary Howell, described by The New York Times as “a spinster, 35 years old,” had earlier partnered with her widowed sister, Sarah Jones, to purchase the boarding house. Born in Wales, the sisters were having a hard time making ends meet. The Times said “Business had been bad and the women were threatened with pecuniary difficulties.”
Mary’s troubles were enhanced by her health. She suffered from dyspepsia. Early on the morning of February 25, 1887 Mary did not make her normal appearance. Concerned, Sarah instigated a search of the house. The following day The Times reported “She was found hanging to a grating in the rear of the cellar. She had twisted a large handkerchief into a rope.” Mary Howell’s last minutes were apparently horrific. “The space between the grating and the floor was so small that the woman was compelled to draw up her feet to bring her weight to bear on the rope.”
|Until only a few years ago, the magnificent 1839 paneled entrance door with carved anthemion designs had survived.|
Despite the awful happenings in the house, it continued to be operated as a boarding house. The following year an advertisement in The Sun offered “Single and double rooms with board; terms moderate; fire, gas and bath.” In 1889 another caveat was added, “strictly respectable;” and in 1892 the terms had changed to “gentlemen only.” The once-upscale tone of the residence, by now, had noticeably degraded.
The decision to convert the boarding house to a male-only establishment may have had its drawbacks. On April 3, 1905 Acting Inspector Hogan of the Second Inspection District and three “of his sleuths” arrested three men, charged with “running a hand-book at 124 Waverley place,” according to The Sun. John Roberts, William Bishop, and Joseph Larbee operated an illegal horse betting operation here.
A witness before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Interstate Commerce later explained how it worked. “If I am running a handbook, I accept no money from anybody except somebody I know. There is no chance for the officers of the law to get into a pool room that runs under cover unless they are introduced by some of the fraternity.”
Despite being on the fringe of the still-fashionable Washington Square, the boarding house continued to draw blue collar residents. In 1909 James J. Crawford, a fire fighter, was earning $647.50 a year—about $17,000 today.
But change was taking place in Greenwich Village. Now the center of Manhattan’s bohemian culture, subterranean coffee and tea shops sprung up, populated by artists, musicians, poets and writers. And a real estate developer, Vincent Pepe, was making his mark in the neighborhood by renovating vintage structures into modern homes and studios. In 1915 he purchased No. 124 Waverly Place (by now the street name had lost its second “e”) for $20,000 in cash and set to work making it over.
On December 4, 1915 The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide outlined the far-reaching changes Pepe & Brother had done. “At 124 Waverly place was a four-story, American-basement house…It had old-fashioned mahogany doors, trim and mantles, a plumbing system of bygone years and, in fact, was generally decrepit. For the last twelve years it had been used as a rooming house.”
The article explained that Pepe’s architect, Frank M. Vitolo, had removed the central pier of the openings to the right of the entrance to make broad studio windows. He added stucco to “the front wall and erected iron balconies for window boxes on each floor; rearranged the basement so as to provide an apartment for the janitor in the rear and a single room studio with bath in front.”
|Real Estate Record & Builder's Guide, February 3, 1917 (copyright expired)|
The plans called for “On the parlor floor to erect a partition to provide a kitchenette, the other rooms to remain as they were. The second floor was altered by removing partitions to make a large front room, and the third and fourth floors were treated in almost the same manner. On the top floor, however, the roof beams were raised in front about eight feet and in the rear three feet, to provide for a studio window opening.”
|The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide published before and after examples -- December 4, 1915 (copyright expired)|
Pepe upgraded the plumbing, water, and heating and “the house was wired for electricity.” The Edison Monthly said “Electricity is evident in ceiling bowls in the hallways and in lamp brackets of Colonial design in the apartments.” The cost of the renovations was $10,000—exactly double what Pepe had estimated, and half as much as the building had cost him.
The Edison Monthly noted that while Pepe had modernized the structure “in the European fashion,” he sympathetically preserved some vintage details. “Place was given the one treasure the house possessed, a fine doorway of Colonial antecedents.”
The Guide noted that the entire house was rented even before construction was completed, “without dickering as to terms.” Upon opening, the annual rent for Pepe’s apartments were: “basement, large room and bath, $360; first floor, $840; second floor, $900; third floor, $840; fourth floor, $1,000; rear studio, top $720. By today’s standards, the most expensive of these would cost the tenant just under $2,000 a month. But, as The Edison Monthly pointed out, “While the present occupant pays high rental, there are dozens of prosperous artists who watch and wait.”
|The newly-completed alteration included wrought iron window boxes. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
When the alterations were completed the new tenants moved in: Robert Bruere had taken the parlor floor for two years, Benjamin Allen leased the second floor for a year; Lawrence K. Frank, who worked in the accounting department of the New York Telephone Co., was on the third floor; and sculptor Rudolph Evans rented the spacious fourth floor. Evans would go on to create notable sculptural portraits like that of Thomas Jefferson in Washington D.C.’s Jefferson Memorial; two statues in the United States Capitol; and the statue of Robert E. Lee in the Virginia State Capitol.
Evans was impressed with what the Pepe brothers had done. In 1916 The New York Times noted “At 71 Washington Place, an alteration for occupancy by artists will soon be commenced by Rudolph Evans, a sculptor, who is a tenant in the remodeled house at 124 Waverley Place.”
Millionaire Robert Hoe’s name was well known not only in Manhattan, but nationwide, as the head of the massive printing press manufacturing business. His grandfather and father were esteemed members of society and the printing profession.
|photo Edison Monthly, June 1916 (copyright expired)|
His wife, the former Ethel Louise Dodd, was wooed by the exciting new ideas and lifestyles of avant-garde Greenwich Village. As 1916 drew to a close, she told her husband “she no longer had any affection for him and did not desire the responsibilities of married life; [Hoe] asserted she was given up to the pursuit of ‘new thought’ and ‘modern philosophy,” reported The Evening World on January 9, 1917.
She left the couple’s commodious home on East 49th Street in November 1916 and moved to No. 124 Waverly Place. Robert Hoe filed for divorce in Reno, Nevada.
In 1918 Pepe & Bro. rented a studio to John Wallace Gillies. He would go on to be considered the foremost photographer of architecture in America. At seeming conflict with his artistic side, he was as well known in the sports rifle community. He organized the Roosevelt Rifle Club of New York and the winner of many small-bore rifle shooting contests.
Over the years tenants like Mrs. Marjory Morten came and went. She lived here in 1921 when she helped in the fund raising for the Girls School at Haifa. And in 1929, when Vincent Carney Pepe’s daughter, Alice Elizabeth, was married to William Edgar Craig; newspapers announced “After a wedding trip to Havana, Mr. and Mrs. Craig will live at 124 Waverly Place.”
|A handsome Greek Revival mantel survives. photo http://www.elliman.com/new-york-city/124-waverly-place-2-manhattan-zfshocz|
On the whole Vincent Pepe’s design survives intact. A cleaning establishment takes the place of the former basement studio; but upstairs the single sun-drenched studios per floor remain undivided.
non-credited photographs by the author