In the second half of the 19th century three families held the reins of Manhattan real estate—the Astor brothers, John Jacob and William; the Goelet brothers, Peter and Robert; and the Rhinelanders.
In 1878 the Rhinelander family had been in New York nearly 200 years; having arrived in 1686. By the time of the American Revolution William Rhinelander had amassed a fortune in the sugar business. The family’s wealth would increase enormously as it moved from sugar into real estate in the early decades of the 19th century. Recognizing the potential of the rural land north of the city, William Rhinelander purchased vast tracts of real estate for development. He died on September 9, 1825 leaving, according to The New York Supplement, “a very large amount of real estate, including a large farm in the upper part of this city.”
As the city inched northward, his son, William C. Rhinelander developed, in some cases, full blocks of structures. In 1842, for instance, he erected 11 houses known as Cottage Row on Seventh Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets. When he died on June 20, 1878 he left an estate of “50 millions” according to The New York Times five days later. The newspaper added that he “inherited a strong bias toward the English method of keeping family estates together and regarding them as almost sacredly indivisible; and it is hence more than probable that he has expressed his wishes most decidedly upon the point, and that the integrity of the property will be practically preserved.”
Regarding the vast Rhinelander holdings, The Times said that there was no practical way of measuring its monetary worth. “Of the value of the down-town property it is not possible to form any estimate. It has increased tremendously in value since the erection of the immense warehouse and dry goods establishments on West Broadway, and is increasing even during the present depression.”
As The Times anticipated, the William Rhinelander's estate would operate as a real estate development business for decades. Among the first items of business was the erection of a new office building and the family considered West 14th Street as its site.
Around 1840 West 14th Street, much of it owned by Rhinelander, saw the rise of elegant brick-faced mansions. At No. 155 stood the home of Alexander J. Norwood. On the morning of Monday, July 19, 1852 Jacob Aufelter sneaked into the home of the wealthy merchant and helped himself to two gold watches and other property, valued at $400—about $12,400 by today’s standards. “The rogue entered the premises with a skeleton key,” explained The New York Times, “and while he was coming down stairs, he was met by some of the family, whom he told he was looking for Dr. Smith. The ruse did not answer, and he was locked up for trial.”
The Norwood family would stay on at No. 155 West 14th Street until at least 1857. By 1860 it was home to the Meader family. In September that year Mrs. Maeder was walking on Sixth Avenue when “a German lad, named Jacob Calston, snatched her reticule, which contained $25, from her arm and ran away,” according to The New York Times on September 7. People on the street yelled “stop thief!” and Officer Christopher captured the crook and Mrs. Maeder’s money.
As the 1870s approached, the northward movement of Manhattan’s well-do-to families left West 14th Street behind. Elegant homes were operated as boarding houses or taken over by charitable institutions for purposes such as homes for wayward girls. On March 12, 1866 an advertisement in the New York Herald offered “Elegantly furnished room on second floor, to let, with board, at 155 West Fourteenth street.” The boarding house required references from potential tenants.
Among the respectable boarders here was Miss C. A. Butler who acted as representative for St. John’s Church at the House of Mercy at the “foot of West 86th Street, North River.”
But at the time of William C. Rhinelander’s death commerce was overtaking the last of the residential structures on West 14th. Now the family demolished the old mansion at No. 155 and replaced it with a handsome brick office building two stories tall. Gone were the florid, scrolling lines of a generation earlier. The Rhinelander office building was all about the sharp geometry popularized by the Victorian Gothic style. Brick laid both diagonally and on end provided textured panels and bands. The construction date was proudly announced in a central panel. Projecting wavelike bands followed the shapes of the elliptically arched openings; the only curves in the design. Above it all wonderfully intricate cast iron cresting completed it all.
From here the Rhinelander Estate continued to shape Upper Manhattan. In 1880 an apartment building called The Manhattan was erected at the corner of 86th Street and Second Avenue; and two years later eight four-story brick rowhouses were constructed on East 86th Street from No. 309 to 323. The land had been known, decades before, as the Rhinelander “farm.”
The quaint little building would be the scene of Rhinelander Estate operations until 1903 when Charles Duross moved in. In reporting that he “has moved his real estate office to the office lately occupied by the Rhinelander Estate,” the New-York Tribune noted “he occupies the whole building.”
The highly successful Duross Company would stay on here for years. As the United States entered World War I Duross was one of the real estate men who rallied for the sale of Liberty Bonds. He endorsed an advertisement in The Sun on Sunday, April 23, 1918 that said in part “The Huns, the Hindenburgs and the Hohenzollerns Never shall exact tribute from the Metropolis of the World.” The ad prompted real estate operators to buy the bonds “and buy them until your last dollar buys the last bullet to insure Freedom for all forever.”
|A young girl passes the Duross offices around 1920. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The Duross Company sold property from No. 155 West 14th Street into the 1920s. On February 1, 1920 it prompted potential homeowners to consider, instead, an income-producing building. “Purchase a homelike apartment house, 5 story, 6 rooms each. Total income $6,000. Price, $45,000. Nicest lower west side block.” New Yorkers today would probably jump at the price, even at its equivalent value of $523,000.
By 1926 the upper floor had been converted to living space. Paul E. Hilton was living there that year, making a living as a low-end crook. On the night of March 25 his petty-thievery would take a violent turn. According to his confession on May 5, he entered a house in Queens “and started to look for valuables.” When he heard noises outside, he unsuccessfully tried to get out a basement window then left through the kitchen door.
“I saw some one come around the corner with a flashlight and a gun and I started to go back to the kitchen and some one said: ‘Who’s that?’ and I started to run down the stoop with my gun in hand.”
A foot chase and gun battle followed, with Hilton jumping fences and running down alleys. At one point a policeman closed in and, according to Hilton, “started to raise his gun when I fired one shot and heard his groan. Then I hurdled two fences to the street and walked to the elevated station and took the elevated to Park Row and then to the Bowery.”
Hilton left the body of Patrolman Arthur Kenney lying in the dark alley. He was charged with murder in the first degree.
The delightful little building , once the seat of the vast Rhineland real estate empire, housed mom-and-pop stores downstairs and residential renters upstairs until 1961. That year developers Hyman and Irving Shapiro filed plans for a 21-story, $4.6 million apartment building to be called The Vermeer.
The gargantuan 352-unit white brick structure (the brick color was changed in the early 1990s) wiped out the mish mash of 19th and early 20th century structures on the block, including the Rhinelander Estate office building. What No. 155 West 14th Street had in charm, the new building made up for in bland. It was a circumstance perhaps explained by Hyman Shapiro himself when he told the New York Times in 1974 “Architectural amenities are sheer nonsense.”