Thursday, May 21, 2015

The James Kernochan House - No. 18 East 10th Street

By the 1830s Henry Brevoort’s 86-acre farm stretched between what would be 9th Street north to 18th Street, and from the Bowery to Fifth Avenue.   The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which, on paper, laid the regimented grid of streets and avenues across the estates of Manhattan’s aristocracy, did not sit well with the powerful and wealthy Brevoort. 

Broadway was pin-straight, running northward up the island, right through Brevoort’s orchards at 10th Street.  The commissioners caved in and Broadway made a crook, heading diagonally to the west rather than disrupt the Brevoort estate.  East 11th Street caused a problem, too, and that street would not be opened until after Henry Brevoort’s death in 1841.

Two years later construction began on Grace Church at the bend of Broadway and 10th Street.  Designed by Brevoort’s nephew, James Renwick, Jr., it was a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture.   The style was just emerging and represented the cutting edge in ecclesiastic and residential architecture.  It would not be long before, just two blocks away, the house at No. 18 East 10th Street began rising.

Most of the property along the block between Fifth Avenue and University Place was owned either by the Brevoort or Renwick families.  The street was lined with elegant brick or brownstone-faced Greek Revival residences.  But No. 18 was decidedly different.

Four stories of red brick sat above a brownstone English basement.   Square-headed Gothic drip moldings capped the openings and the doorway was framed in a striking Gothic entranceway.   For the staid merchant class residents of the block, the style may have been just a touch daring.

Nearby was the home of Joseph Kernochan, his wife Margaret, and their six children.  Kernochan was a wealthy dry goods merchant and banker, President of the Fulton Bank.   His son, John Adams Kernochan, was a sophomore at Columbia College in 1852 when he was honored with a “testimonial” for having “most excelled” in his studies.   The following year, on July 27, 1853, he graduated with an A. B. degree.  The scholar was again awarded a testimonial for being the graduate “who has most distinguished himself by his general proficiency in his class, and also by his general good conduct.”

Young John A. Kernochan married Charlotte Walton Ogden and the couple moved into No. 18 East 10th Street.   Kernochan entered the iron importing business and garnered what The New York Times later deemed “a large fortune.”   He was a member of the exclusive Union Club and the family maintained a summer home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

In 1868 Charlotte grew ill.  When the annual Liederkranz Ball at the Academy of Music was held on February 17, 1869, John was forced to attend alone.   No doubt already worried about his wife’s condition, a confrontation with a coach driver was most likely the last thing John Kernochan needed.

When the ball was over, John got into one of the coaches waiting at the curb.  Unlike a carriage, coaches were customarily used by parties of passengers and this driver was looking forward to a large fare.  “After getting inside of the coach,” related The New York Times the following morning, “the driver, finding that he had only one passenger instead of four, he, as alleged, refused to take the complainant home, but drove him to the corner of Nineteenth-street and Broadway, and there refused to go any further.”

Dressed in evening clothes Kernochan had no intention of walking the long distance home in the February cold.  He ordered the man to continue driving.  The driver then “became very abusive toward him.”   So John Kernochan had the man arrested.  He was brought before the Marshal and fined $5—about $90 today and much more than the lost fare he had been concerned about.  How Kernochan got home that night is unclear.

Charlotte’s condition deteriorated.  She was suffering from cancer of the uterus and on Sunday, May 30 that year she died.   Somewhat surprisingly, her funeral was not held in the house, but in St. Mark’s Church.  She was buried in the fashionable New York Marble Cemetery on Second Avenue.  She was just 34 years old and John was 35 at the time.

By 1872 Samuel L. Vought lived in the house and would remain at least through 1874.  He was followed by William H. Walker and his wife, Isabella.  She was a member of the nearby Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.   But things were not going smoothly in the Walker household.   On April 19, 1884 Judge Larremore granted an absolute divorce to Isabella.

Things were a bit less rocky for Jacob Ewing Ward and his wife, the former Mary Kitchell who moved in by 1895.    Called by The Adjuster a descendant of “one of the oldest and most respected of New Jersey families,” Ward’s family had been in New Jersey since Josiah Ward helped settle Newark in 1666.  Following his graduation from Rutgers College in1875, he practiced law, eventually being appointed assistant counsel for The Prudential.  He was also a partner in the Madison Aqueduct Company, incorporated in 1872.

Living in the house with the Wards was Mary’s mother, Mrs. Ambrose E. Kitchell.  The women partnered in their entertainments, announcing their mutual “at homes” in the society pages.    Their stay on East 10th Street would be relatively brief.  In 1897 the Social Register listed them a block away at No. 47 West 11th Street.

At the turn of the century the house was owned by lawyer and journalist Arthur Sedgwick and his wife.  The author of several legal treatises, he was long associated with the Nation and was at one time co-editor with Oliver Wendell Homes of The American Law Review.  Not everyone viewed Sedgwick favorably.  Boston publisher Dana Estes called him an “egotistic marplot.”

In June 1902 Hettie Sherman Evarts Beaman leased the house.   She was the eldest daughter of William Maxwell Evarts, Secretary of State under President Hayes.  Her husband, Charles Cotesworth Beaman, who had died the previous year, had been a partner in the legal firm of Evarts, Choate & Beaman.   His impressive background included his appointment in 1870 as the first Solicitor General of the United States.

Almost two decades earlier, Charles Beaman was taken with the talents of a young artist, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  In 1885 he rented Saint-Gaudens his summer house in Cornish, New Hampshire.  In trade for the first summer’s rent, he commissioned a bronze bas relief of his son.   In 1894 Beaman commissioned another bronze portrait; this one of himself.  With the money from this work Saint-Gaudens was able to purchase from Beaman the estate named Aspet.

The bronze portrait of Beaman afforded Saint-Gaudens the means to purchase his New Hampshire estate -- Smithsonian American Art Museum
With Hettie in the 10th Street house was her unmarried brother-in-law, 53-year old William Stacy Beaman.  He, too, was a lawyer with Evarts, Coate & Beaman at No. 80 Maiden Lane.  A member of the Harvard Club, he was still in the house in 1917 when he reported to his fellow alumni, “Have continued in the practice of law with office address and residence unchanged.  Voted for Woodrow Wilson’s re-election.”

In May that year Hettie Sherman Beaman died at the home of her daughter in Boston at the age of 65.  William Stacy Beaman left the East 10th Street house by November 1920 when L. J. Praeger leased it “for the season.”   Praeger rented the house for at least two more winters.

The house that had seen the comings and goings of wealthy attorneys, bankers and writers became home to the liberally-bent Civic Club by 1927.  On January 29 that year S. Stanwood Menken, head of the National Security League, spoke to a meeting of the Teachers’ Union here.

“Teachers have a right to hold their academic views and express them freely,” he told the assembly, “irrespective of Boards of Education or State authorities of any kind.  No man is good enough to be another man’s thinker.”

When asked what a teacher who believed in evolution should do, considering the ongoing Scopes Trial in Tennessee, Menken said he would “teach what he wanted to or go to jail for it.”

When anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were sentenced to death in 1927, the Civic Club joined other organizations nationwide in dissent.  A protest meeting was held on Friday night, April 15 in the house.   Things had not calmed down by October.   When the Fifth Avenue Restaurant discovered that the “literary gathering” of Le Cercle Victor Hugo scheduled for October 18 was in actuality a symposium titled “Sacco and Vanzetti: What Shall We Do?” it canceled the space.  The organization quickly changed the meeting to the Civic Club, which was happy to oblige.

Although the Civic Club continued to host controversial speakers—like Professor I. Z. Steinberg who lectured on “Trotsky’s Exile and the Future of the Revolution” in 1928—many other topics were on the arts and literature.  But the Club never shied away from protecting basic freedoms.

In 1919 a Queens mother, Mary Ware Dennett, had written a short essay to instruct her two adolescent sons about sex.  When it came to the attention of certain doctors and educators, they wanted copies.  Now a grandmother, Mrs. Dennett published “The Sex Side of Life,” a pamphlet for the instruction of children.

The Y. M. C. A. purchased several hundred copies and it was endorsed and printed by The Medical Review of Reviews.  But on April 29, 1929 Federal Judge Warren B. Burrows fined her $300 and found her guilty “of sending obscene literature through the mails.”

Mary Ware Dennett refused to admit guilt, refused to pay the fine, and was poised to be sent to jail.  “Thousands of intelligent, decent citizens have endorsed my pamphlet during the eleven years it has been distributed,” she told reporters.  “Of the many editorials concerning it that have come to me, not one contains adverse criticism.  Surely the press and these thousands of citizens cannot all be wrong.”

The American Civil Liberties Union held a meeting at the Civic Club the same day that the judge’s opinion came down.  The Mary Ware Dennett Defense Committee was organized, “composed of prominent attorneys, physicians, clergymen and educators,” reported The New York Times.  “The committee, it was announced, will carry the appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States if necessary.”

In 1955 a study and lunch room were installed in the basement level, a library and study on the parlor floor, and two apartments on each upper floor.  The house was converted to one spacious apartment per floor in 1977; and today there is a duplex apartment in the basement and first floor; and a triplex above.  The three-story co-op was listed recently for $9.25 million.

The striking Gothic Revival entrance survives.  The many-paneled door is an Edwardian replacement.

At some point in the 19th century the house was slightly updated with a new cornice and Italianate ironwork.  Sadly, the wonderful moldings over the windows were shaved flat sometime during the 20th century.   But the striking Gothic entrance which sets No. 18 apart from its Greek Revival neighbors still survives—a relatively rare appearance of the style in Manhattan residential architecture.

photographs by the author

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