Thursday, March 19, 2015

The One-Mile House -- No. 213 Bowery

There is little visual evidence that the building started life an early 19th century residence.


In the mid-19th century hordes of immigrant Jews from Central Europe entered New York Harbor fleeing economic hardship and social upheaval.  But the ancestors of Napthali Phillips had already been in America for generations.  His great-grandfather had escaped the Portuguese Inquisition to become one of Savannah’s first Jewish settlers.  Naphtali’s father was a well-to-do merchant, educated in London.

Born on October 19, 1773, Naphtali was one of 21 children born to Jonas and Rebecca Phillips.  When he was three years old, the family fled to Philadelphia following the Battle of Washington Heights in 1776.  Jonas Phillips was a staunch patriot and served in the Revolutionary army and was an aide de camp to General George Washington.  When Washington was inaugurated in New York City in 1789, young Naphtali Phillips, at just 16 years old, was chosen to accompany the procession that escorted him from Philadelphia to New York for the ceremony.

On July 5, 1797 Naphtali married Rachel Seixas, daughter of Moses Mendez Seixas, a prominent banker and merchant in Newport.  The couple moved permanently to New York in 1801 and not long afterward Naphtali became owner of the National Advocate, one of the city’s leading newspapers. 

The couple, who would have 11 children, took a two-and-a half story house at the corner of Rivington Street and the Bowery.  Faced in brick, its Rivington Street side was wooden.  The neighborhood, north of the busy commercial district, was just seeing development.  As the name "Bowery" suggested, since the 17th century the road had connected the old Dutch bouwerij’s, or farms.  Directly across the Bowery stood a weathered stone mile marker, which indicated to the traveler that he was just one mile from City Hall.

Moses Seixas was staying with the family in 1809 when he died in the house.  In writing to George Washington years earlier he included the phrase "to bigotry no sanction; to persecution no assistance."  Washington repeated the words in his reply and is normally given credit for the quotation.  His letter to Seixas, according to Adam Woodward, is "a seminal document in American history and is considered by many to be his most important written piece." 

The family was still at No. 213 Bowery in 1812 when son Isaac was born; but before long they would move to No. 98 Greenwich Street.  Their relocation to the more crowded district would end in tragedy.  On July 30, 1822 they moved once more, to the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street.  

Yellow fever had broken out in downtown Manhattan a few days before.  It quickly spread, becoming an epidemic.  Two days after moving into their new home, Rebecca fell ill.  The 1822 book An Account of the Yellow Fever in the City of New York documented “At a meeting of the Board, on the 5th of August, the Resident Physician reported that Mrs. Naphthali Philips…had been sick of Yellow Fever…Mrs. P. sickened on the evening of the 1st inst. And died on the 5th.”

The Phillips house on the Bowery became home to Dr. Thomas Pitts by 1834; and to Dr. Peter B. Guernsey by 1837.  At this point the house was still a private home.  Directories noted that Dr. Guernsey’s office was at No. 53 Houston Street.

But by 1840s the house was heavily altered.  What had earlier been described as a two-story frame dwelling now had commercial space at street level with living space above.   At some point attic was raised to a full third floor.  Richard Fisher advertised his grocery here and his residence upstairs in 1840.

Fisher advertised in A. E. Wright's Commercial Directory in 1840  (copyright expired)

In 1843 Fisher seems to have expanded and added John W. Salters “butcher” at the Bowery address.  Salters lived nearby at No. 85 Second Avenue.  Fischer’s corner grocery would remain here throughout the 1840s.

By the time the Civil War broke out in the South, A. Gavron made and sold sausages here; but in 1865 Pincus Leon listed himself in city directories as a “segar dealer.”  That year C. Smith, living upstairs, was inducted into the Union Army.

Things were changing in the Bowery neighborhood.  As the Civil War drew to a close immigrants poured into the area.   Saloons and music halls opened and the once-respectable residential street began earning a less-than-respectable reputation.

John Steiger opened a “liquor-saloon” in the ground floor space where Richard Fisher had once sold groceries.   At 2 a.m. on November 16, 1867 a fight broke out in the basement of the saloon.  Steiger was shot in the right side of the chest and taken to New-York Hospital.  “The victim of the affray was able to give a full description of the person who shot him,” reported The New York Times, “but as yet no arrests have been made.”  The bar owner lingered until December 1, when he died of his injuries.

William B. Hanson took over Steiger's saloon.  Across the Bowery was another, owned by Tom O’Hara.  The tavern was named the One-Mile House, after the granite mile marker standing outside.  In 1872 the Germania Bank purchased and demolished O’Hara’s property.  Hanson pounced, taking the name for his saloon at No. 213.

Hanson was a shrewd businessman.  Perhaps to get around the excise laws, his liquor license listed the One-Mile House as a “hotel.”   Liquor laws prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays, excepting restaurants and hotels where it could be offered with meals.  And, indeed, Hanson installed a hotel counter and hired a counter boy to rent rooms.

Hanson paid a hefty fee for his liquor license here, amounting to just under $2,000 today.  But he grew wealthy from his enterprise.  He was also politically active and in 1884 when Senator James G. Blaine battled Grover Cleveland for the Presidency, Hanson was there to support his favorite.

On September 18 that year The New York Times reported on Hanson’s gala politicking at No. 213 Bowery.  “A few weeks ago the William B. Hanson Association organized a Blaine and Logan club.  The club unfurled a handsome banner at its headquarters, No. 213 Bowery, last evening.  Many fireworks were discharged as the banner was stretched across the Bowery, and the band played ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’  From a stand which was illuminated by Japanese lanterns, addresses were delivered.”

In 1882 James D. McCabe wrote a scathing description of the Bowery.  “Wretched transparencies mark the entrances to the low dives, in and out of which a steady throng pours.  The pavements are full of abandoned women, boldly plying their trade, regardless of the police, who are out in force along the thoroughfare.”  It was the sort of environment William Hanson dealt with both in the saloon and with his roomers upstairs.

On May 29, 1889 The Evening World reported that “Joseph Goldschmidt, of 213 Bowery was held for trial at the Tombs Police Court this morning, charged with stealing a package from the letter-box on the corner of Broadway and Chamber street.”  And four years later John Lanz attempted a foolish scam.

In July 1893 he sold grocer Morris Lahr, of No. 91 Cannon Street, two barrels of sugar for $12.  “But when the grocer opened the barrels he found that they were filled with ashes instead of sugar,” reported The Evening World on July 28.  Lanz was arrested and held on $500 bail on the charge “of swindling.”

Earlier that year the 47-year old William B. Hanson had traveled to Washington DC to participate in the second inauguration ceremonies of Grover Cleveland.  On March 9 the New-York Tribune reported “With several other members of the association he left the Masonic Hall in Washington on Saturday morning, and walked for two hours in the rain and snow before he reached the point where his association was to fall in.  It was another two hours before the line started, and when the parade was finally ended, Mr. Hanson was suffering from a heavy cold.”

Hanson returned to New York on March 4 and was diagnosed with pneumonia.  He died four days later.  Called by the newspaper a “wealthy liquor merchant in the Bowery,” his worth was estimated at about $100,000 (over $2.6 million today).  Running a Bowery saloon had been profitable for Hanson.  He “was known in the racing world as the owner of several horses,” said the article.

The One-Mile House continued to operate under John D. Hanson.   But he quickly realized that his father’s political ties had fringe benefits that he lacked.  On August 14, 1894 The Evening World reported on raids on establishments that sold alcohol on Sunday.  “Saloon-keeper Hanson, of Rivington street and the Bowery, promptly went on his bail bond.”

That same month Hanson filed for $500 in “alterations” to the building.  Unfortunately records do not reveal what changes he had in mind.

George Dougherty was living upstairs that year.  On the morning of July 6 Eddie Meyer was murdered in his home at No. 1503 Avenue A.  George Dougherty was arrested for the crime.   John Wakefield, a clerk in the One-Mile House, was a star witness in the trial on March 21, 1895.  He swore “that Dougherty went to bed in his house at 1 o’clock in the morning, less than an hour after the murder was committed.  The hotel register was produced to prove this fact,” reported The Evening World.  The newspaper added “his testimony was clear in every respect, and Mr. Weeks failed to break it down.”

While customers of questionable repute came and went through the doors of No. 213 Bowery at the turn of the century, two men tried their best to make an honest, if scant, living.  Alfred Disbecker ran his “newspaper stand,” out front and Felice D. Angelo operated his bootblack stand here.

In the meantime, others were less upstanding.  Roomer George Walters was arrested on August 6, 1903 with his cohort, Henry J. Bennett, charged “with obtaining money by false pretenses.”  The men sold tickets for a fictitious excursion of the Seneca Association.  Unfortunately for the gullible purchasers of the tickets, there was no such club.

“As they were well dressed and drove about with a stylish horse and buggy, they made a good impression and sold a good many tickets,” said The New York Times on August 7.   Their audacity apparently had no bounds, for among their victims was Father Smythe, Rector of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, who bought ten tickets for $10.  Police found out later that the “stylish horse and buggy” had been stolen from Manders Brothers on East 11th Street.

The One-Mile House would be entangled in another murder case when Fritz Nitschke was found dead in the Puritan Hotel at No. 183 Bowery on August 11, 1907.  “The coroner believes the man was murdered for $2,000 in cash and $13,000 worth of deeds which he was said to have had in his possession.”  The investigation turned up a puzzling clue when Louis Holland, a bartender at No. 213 Bowery, said Nitschke “had left deeds on the bar” two days prior to his murder.  On August 29 the New-York Tribune said “other papers of the dead man were found in the One Mile House, at the corner of Bowery and Rivingston [sic] street.  These were turned over to the coroner, but the deeds for the property were not among them.”

A year later Louis Holland was talking to police again; but this time for selling alcohol on Sunday.  On November 23, 1908 The Sun reported “Detective Vrawley of the Eldridge street station bought a glass of beer in John Hanson’s place at 213 Bowery, and arrested the bartender, Louis Holland.  There was an arrest in Hanson’s last Sunday, too.”

But Holland’s run-in with the law was less substantial than that of another bartender that year.  John McManus not only tended bar here, but lived upstairs.  He also went by the name of John Sweeney.  A convicted felon, he had been in the State Prison three times, always for housebreaking.

“One morning not long ago Detective Reilly found him coming out of the hallway of the apartment-house at No. 8 West One hundred and Second Street with a jimmy and a bunch of skeleton keys in his pockets,” reported The Evening World on Friday, September 18, 1908.  Judge Malone had lost patience with the repeat offender and sentenced him to seven years in Sing Sing.

Wealthy brewer George Ehret had held a $6,000 mortgage on No. 213 Bowery since about 1895.  In 1921 John D. Hanson sold the building to the 86-year old millionaire.  In reporting on the sale on April 2, the New-York Tribune called it a “landmark of the lower East Side.”   It added “Mr. Ehret immediately leased the property for ten years to Jacob Margolies for a restaurant.”

Margolies agreed to pay Ehret $7,200 a year on the building and announced his intentions to “extensively alter the property into a modern store and office building and will occupy the ground floor for his business.”

In 1932 Jack's Busy Lunch operated behind a new storefront.  The old One-Mile House sign still survived.  photo by Charles Von Urban, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/%5B211-213-Bowery%5D-2F3XC5CD9OX5.html

The old saloon became home to Jack’s Busy Lunch where neighborhood tradesmen sat at the counters or small tables for coffee and sandwiches.  The old painted sign ONE MILE HOUSE slowly faded on the Rivington Street side.

By the 1960s No. 213 Bowery was once again a bar.  And the history of graft and crime had not totally been erased.  In 1963 Simon Golly’s tavern was here and on July 26 that year Jack M. Golly was indicted for perjury by the grand jury investigating a New York State liquor license scandal.  The indictment charged that the 52-year old bar operator “lied to the grand jury about his participation in a conspiracy to bribe an S.L.A. official to obtain ‘favorable disposition’ of a violation charge against the tavern,” reported The New York Times.

Simon Golly’s was gone by the mid 1960s.  There would be no more drinking at the old One-Mile House after 1985.  That year the all three floors of building were converted to commercial space.

Textured building paper covers the clapboard siding of the Rivington Street facade.

Today a restaurant equipment store operates from the modernized ground floor and a ghastly brick-textured building paper, installed around mid-century, hides the brick front on the Bowery and the wooden siding on Rivington Street.  In June 2011 street artist Shepard Fairey, who became well-known for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster, added an intricate Obey stencil to the Rivington elevation.


Behind the artwork and unnoticed by passersby is a venerable structure with a long and astonishing history.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Adam Woodward for suggesting this post 

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