Monday, April 6, 2015

The Lost Gothic Cottage at No. 16 E. 29th Street

photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1874 the Jeffreys house at No. 16 East 29th Street stood out among its neighbors.   In the years before the outbreak of the Civil War the block had seen rapid development and the erection of high-stooped Greek Revival rowhouses.  But the Jeffreys house predated these.  The charming two-and-a-half story Gothic Revival structure looked as if could been have as easily been constructed of gingerbread as brick.

Now the little house was squeezed in between tall townhouses.  Just before 4:00 on November 10, 1874 Mrs. Jeffreys and “a lady friend” were riding in her carriage on Fifth Avenue.  As they reached 47th Street, the horses were spooked and Arthur Thomas, the driver, was unable to control them.   The carriage began careening down a crowded Fifth Avenue at what The New York Times deemed “a fearful rate,” terrorizing the women inside.

Mrs. Jeffreys and her friend, “becoming alarmed, jumped out of the carriage, and were very severely injured about the head, face and body.”  The Times said “At the time of the accident the avenue was thronged with vehicles, and before the career of the frightened horses could be checked, they had come into collision with three phaetons and a light wagon, which were overturned and the occupants thrown out and injured.”

The Jeffreys carriage was stopped by a courageous Patrolman Gannon who “put spurs to his horse, and started in full pursuit of the runaway team.  He succeeded in heading them off when they reached Forty-third street, and by dexterous manipulations of the bridle soon brought them to a halt.”  The newspaper praised “But for the prompt appearance and action of Patrolman Gannon a serious loss of life would doubtless have been occasioned.”

The little house would later become home to the Irish-born physician James E. Kelly.   Highly esteemed in both the medical and the Irish communities, Kelly was the guest of honor at a dinner given in January 1887.  But tensions among the New York Irish ran high at the time, with factions taking opposite sides on patriotic, political and religious issues.

Father Edward McGlynn, was to speak that night.  He had infuriated conservative Irish Catholics when, among other radical ideas, he proposed that Catholics should send their children to the public schools.  High-stationed citizens, including Major P. M. Haverty, wrote letters announcing their refusal to attend the dinner.  The New-York Tribune reported that the letters prompted “a good deal of animated talk in Irish-Catholic circles.”

Eugene Kelly’s, in part, read “I perceive the name of a gentleman whose articles in The Standard are derogatory to the welfare of our grand old Church and unjust and insulting to our venerated Archbishop.  I therefore beg to withdraw my name from the committee.”

Dr. Kelly’s dinner went on and the controversy was eventually forgotten.   In 1893 he labored over a long paper on physiology.  On Wednesday evening, October 18 Dr. H. R. Heydecker stopped by and Dr. Kelly gave him 40 typewritten pages to proofread and edit.

Heydecker boarded the elevated train nearby at 28th Street and poured over the manuscript until he reached 59th Street.  He then rolled up the papers and put them in his overcoat pocket.  After exiting the train at 72nd Street he realized the manuscript was gone.

He quickly took the next train to the final stop on the line, in Harlem.  No trace of Dr. Kelly’s paper could be found.  “Dr. Heydecker thinks the manuscript is held for a reward,” reported The Sun four days later.  The newspaper added, “One has been offered.”

When James E. Kelly was appointed Coroner’s Physician in December 1894, The Evening World glowed in reporting on his background.  It said he “is one of the few Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland, who is practicing in this country.  He received the highest mark ever given by that college in anatomy.”  In somewhat graphic terms the newspaper added “In the Jervis Street Hospital he was known as a successful operator, one who could cut closer to large vessels with safety than any surgeon in Dublin.”

Kelly’s stint as Coroner’s Physician would be very short-lived.  Three weeks after his appointment, on January 2, 1895, George Cook was found dead on 12th Street near Greenwich Street.  Dr. Kelly conducted the autopsy which confirmed that “death was caused by fatty degeneration of the heart, acute gastritis, and tuberculosis.”

Despite his expert opinion, about a dozen policemen from the Charles Street Station arrested Owen Brady, the bartender of the nearby Reilly’s saloon, and two other men, Samuel Connolly and Bob Smith.  The men were charged with the murder and robbery of Cook.

On January 5 The Sun ran the headline “Doctor’s Certificate Ignored” and reported that Justice Taintor had spent hours questioning the policemen in what was now considered a murder case.  The judge told reporters it “was one of the most important cases that had come before the court.”

Dr. Kelly did not take the insult lying down.  The following day the same newspaper reported that Dr. James E. Kelley had resigned “because there was too much work.”  Newspaper readers knew the real reason, which was only slightly veiled by his polite explanation.

At 9:10 on the night of Sunday January 5, 1896 fire broke out in Kelly’s 29th Street house.  Damages were estimated at $1,500—a significant $37,000 in today’s terms.  

Almost directly behind the house was St. Leo’s Roman Catholic Church.   The rectory was next door to Kelly’s house, at No. 18.  Now No. 16 was repaired and became the church’s parsonage, home to St. Leo’s renowned pastor, Reverend Thomas James Ducey.  Crosses were erected on the points of the central gable and the dormers and it was most likely at this time that the open Gothic-style porch was enclosed as a solarium.

Like Kelly, Ducey was born in Ireland.  He came to New York in 1848 at the age of five.  His mother obtained a position as housekeeper in the mansion of millionaire bachelor James T. Brady.  Just three years after the family arrived, both Ducey’s parents died.  Brady adopted the orphaned boy and the eight-year-old’s life took a remarkable change, of course.  Historian Lately Thomas mentions in his 1967 book Delmonico’s, A Century of Splendor, “This early association had given Ducey a tenuous connection with the world of wealthy, and as a priest he had devoted himself to the spiritual welfare of that class.”

In fact, Brady had hoped that Ducey would follow him in the legal profession; but as the New-York Tribune later explained, “the call to the priesthood persisted.”  But even after he was ordained, Ducey lived in Brady mansion and when the lawyer died in 1869, the priest inherited a fortune.

Now Rev. Ducey moved into the quaint Gothic cottage behind St. Leo’s.  He maintained a 15-acre country estate and rubbed shoulders with the wealthy businessmen, doctors and attorneys at Delmonico’s and other upscale restaurants and clubs. 

photo from King's Notable New Yorkers 1896-1899 (copyright expired)
When he died at his country estate on August 22, 1909, he left his entire estate, valued at about $1.5 million by today’s standards, to St. Leo’s.

A year earlier a group of 14 French nuns had arrived at St. Leo’s Church.  They made up the only branch of the Society of Marie Reparatrice in America.  While 12 of the nuns were teaching parish children, two prayed at the altar rail.  There was never a time of the day when two of the devoted nuns were not at prayer.  “Their prayers are never for definite, concrete things not even for the success of their mission and settlement work or the repose of the souls of the dead,” explained The New York Times a few years later.  “They pray always that mankind may be saved from the burden of its sins; that reparation may be made for the world’s evil; that men and women may become better and gentler and more spiritual, and life a holier thing.”

By 1913 the parsonage had been converted to the Convent of Marie Repartrice.  The order now owned Nos. 12 and 14 as well.  On May 17 that year the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide noted that the Convent had commissioned work on all three structures, including new stairs and repaired masonry at a cost of $150.

In 1932 the Gothic cottage sat among former brownstone mansions and, further down the block, commercial buildings. photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
Two weeks after 48-year old Alfredo Morotti was ordained to the priesthood on June 11, 1938, he celebrated his first mass in St. Leo’s Roman Catholic Church.  In celebration of the middle-aged priest’s first service, the nuns of Marie Reparatrice opened their doors.  The New York Times reported “After the mass the officers and singers will have a breakfast in the parlor of the Convent of Mary Reparatrix, 16 East Twenty-ninth Street, of which St. Leo’s is the public chapel.”

The architecturally-diverse group of buildings, including the little house at No. 16, survived until 1962 when the order demolished them to build a six-story structure that extended through to 28th Street.  That building was replaced in 1999 by a 48-story residential high-rise.


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