|The 18th century dormers survive, albeit joined by a 20th century renovation.|
In the last years of the 18th century homes and shops began rising along Bowery Lane (renamed the Bowery in 1807). The road originally led from Broadway to the homestead of Peter Stuyvesant and was an Anglicization of the Dutch bouwertij, or farm.
Among the new structures was No. 134, erected about 1798. A commodious 24-feet wide, the brick-faced house rose three stories to a dormered attic. The ample proportions no doubt made it one of the grander homes on the street.
By the 1830s No. 134 had been converted for business purposes. James G. Shaw ran his bookstore here by 1834 and within six years he had added a circulating library. The widow Mary VanVeghten had opened her millinery business upstairs by 1837. The quality of her merchandise is reflected in a surviving invoice from that year. It meticulously lists ten lines of items purchased by Mr. Henry Rankin, totaling $94.50—around $2,750 today.
It appears that in 1840 George B. Powell took over Shaw’s bookstore and library. And within two years he would be replaced by E. & L. H. Embree. Lewis H. Embree lived at No. 390 Bowery and Effingham Embree lived conveniently next door at No. 136.
|Powell advertised in A. E. Wright's Commercial Directory in 1840 -- copyright expired|
Embree’s bookstore doubled as a ticket office for certain events—such as the performance of the Grand Miscellaneous Concert on April 2, 1844. The program was given in aid of the Widows and Orphans of the Fire Department. The $1 tickets admitted “a Lady and Gentleman. Extra ladies’ tickets 50 cents.”
When the Mutual Safety Insurance Company opened its “Bowery Agency” in December 1845, it did so “at the Book Store of Messrs. Embree.” In November 1846 another agency, the Life Assurance Society of London set up its U.S. office here. It posted “medical examiners” here every day after 3:00. Calling itself a “savings bank for the benefit of the orphan and the widow” it offered free medical check-ups for the indigent women and children.
In the meantime, Mary Van Veghten continued her upscale hat business upstairs. She advertised in the New-York Daily Tribune on Wednesday March 25, 1846 that the following day she would “open a handsome assortment of Paris Spring Millinery.”
The uppermost floors were still being leased as residential space in 1852. They were run as a “boarding house” by John Curry, according to city directories. Curry also operated his daguerreotype business in the building in 1853.
One of the boarders, William Crawley, was burglarized in 1852. On June 20, James Winn was arrested by Officer Wallace. He was charged with stealing a “lever watch and valuable clothing from Wm. Crawley, at No. 134 Bowery.” Crawley got all his stolen goods back.
In 1866 the building was owned by attorney John F. Delaplaine. In April that year the commercial space on the first floor was expanded when builder John More was hired to add a one-story extension to the rear. With the alterations complete, the gunsmiths Zettler Brothers moved in.
Charles George Zettler and his brother Benhardt “Barney” Zettler were the sons of Johann (John) Charles Zettler and had worked with their father until now. The gun makers and dealers would stay on in the building at least until 1872.
On May 21, 1871 third-floor boarder Peter Klett had unfortunate luck. When he placed his clothing too near the stove to dry, they eventually burst into flame. The New York Times assured “The damage, $300, is fully covered by insurance.”
By the time the Zettlers began selling firearms and Peter Klett’s clothes “took fire,” the Bowery neighborhood had somewhat degraded. In 1852 The Young Men’s Christian Association was established in New York City to help young men “in destitute circumstances.” Now, on June 4, 1872, it took over much of No. 134 Bowery as The Bowery Branch. The Y.M.C.A. established reading rooms, lodging, and a basement restaurant.
When the great financial Panic of 1873, put many already-needy men out of work, the Bowery Branch established an employment agency of sorts. A notice in The Bankers Magazine in December 1875 noted “The large number of unemployed persons in New York at this time is indicated by the registered lists at the Bowery Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association. They show not only decent men who are willing to work through the winter for very small wages, but also a large number of men who will work for the winter for their living only.”
Hand-in-hand with the Association’s work was its dedication to the men's religious reform. The Carmel Chapel was established here under the supervision of Rev. John Dooly. The Chapel held regular meetings at noon, prayer meetings every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Temperance Meetings on Monday nights at 7:30. Those attending the temperance meetings were strongly encouraged to swear off liquor—the source of many of life’s evil’s and troubles.
|Men were encouraged to sign a temperance pledge in 1878 -- copyright expired|
Of course, ministering to the men of the Bowery was not always a complete success. William Munson sometimes attended meetings. Unfortunately, he was arrested on January 29, 1881 “while attending prayer services at the Carmel Chapel” for “running away with $11.02, intrusted to him to pay a gas bill with” by his employer, Porter Sherman. The Sun reported that “evidence might be produced that he had robbed nine trunks stored in Mr. Sherman’s cellar” and that “a charge will also be made, it is said, that Munson stole property from the proprietor of the Thompson House in Chatham and Pearl streets.”
By 1882 the building was no longer adequate for the work of the Y.M.C.A. and the Carmel Chapel. The Association leased four floors at No. 243 Bowery and in May the Carmel Chapel relocated to No. 174 Grand Street. In reporting on the upcoming split and new quarters, Rev. Dooly recapped the work of Carmel Chapel over the years at the 10th Anniversary celebration on April 30, 1882.
He reported that the average attendance of religious services was 61,000 persons each year. “Over a thousand persons gave evidence of conversion, and 94 couples have been married. From the beginning the place has been a resort for men in need and distress, 54,000 of whom have been aided, 9538 were provided with situation, 75,037 with lodgings, ad to 75,560 meals have been furnished.”
With the Y.M.C.A. and the Carmel Chapel gone, the building became home to new tenants, like J. B. Doblin & Co, tailors. Jacob B. Doblin and Samuel Abrahams made up the small firm which they formed in 1882. Their venture did not succeed and the men filed for bankruptcy in May 1888.
The upper floors continued to house low-income roomers. One of these, “Mrs. H.” applied for work through the New-York Tribune on March 2, 1900. “Respectable woman would like office cleaning, morning and evening or stores.”
In 1904 Samuel Greenberg ran a cigar factory here, employing six; the Krieger Brothers, Philip and Louis, made hats with seven persons on their payroll; and downstairs Michael Ginsburg had opened his billiard and pool table manufactory and store.
Ginsburg listed his operation as “Manufacture of Billiard and Pool Tables” and “Dealer in all kinds of billiard supplies, billiard and pool balls, turned and colored.” He would remain as a Bowery fixture in the building for decades.
By the time Abraham Edson opened a jewelry store on the second floor, the Bowery was crime-ridden. His and his family lived on the third floor and while Edson most likely tried to make a respectable living, the gritty neighborhood took its toll. On September 4, 1910 15-year old Harry Edson was a witness to a horrific crime.
It started when a group of Italian immigrants got into an argument over a card game and one man, Giuseppe Saragossa, shot Vincezo Lampiduce and his mother, Maria, who had tried to protect him. Maria died instantly. Patrolman Hurley captured Saragossa with the revolver still in his hand.
As Hurley started off to the station with his prisoner, the injured Lampiduce got his own gun and tried to follow. In doing so he shot and wounded four men who tried to stop him, killing one with two bullets into the brain. When he finally came upon Hurley and Saragossa a struggle ensued, during which Hurley knocked the revolver from Lampiduce’s and with his night stick. Harry Edson was right there.
The teen picked up the weapon, “holding it for the police,” according to him later. As he watched the melee, “an Italian woman ran up, grabbed it out of his hand, and pointing it at him told him to ‘beat it’ if he did not want to get shot.” The New-York Tribune reported “The woman, he says, put the revolver in the bosom of her dress and disappeared in the crowd.”
Harry’s sister, Bessie would see her name in print two years later. A vengeful underworld murder was described by The New York Times on October 7, 1912 in a confusing tangle of details. “Philip Davidson, or ‘Boston Red Phil’ as he is known, shot and killed ‘Big Jack’ Zelig, the gunman and leader of the gang from which were drawn the slayers of Herman Rosenthal on Saturday night, to avenge a beating which he had received from Zelig when he besought the gunman to return the few dollars which Zelig had stolen from him Friday night.”
Bessie worked in a gun shop and she identified Davidson as a man to whom she refused to sell a revolver. “She said he had been so obviously excited that she would have been afraid to sell him a gun even had the law allowed, as so she made no recommendation as to how he could get one.”
While Harry and Bessie seem to have started out on the right side of the law; their brothers were not as law-abiding. On December 27, 1918 Nathan N. Edson was arrested for stealing fur overcoats. It was one of the first of many arrests of Edson brothers to come.
Abraham Edson was himself a victim of crime when early on the morning of April 3, 1920 thieves broke in. Alerted by a burglar alarm, 11 policemen descended on the building. The crooks had no intention of being apprehended and fired shots at the police. They escaped “by sliding down a drainpipe to an adjoining yard and clambering over a fence to a building n the rear, where the vanished,” reported The New York Times.
A year later it was Hyman Edson who was arrested for third-degree burglary in the theft of $8,000 worth of goods from a loft on West 23rd Street. It would be Hyman’s 72nd trial appearance.
Then, on September 23, 1923, a confrontation during a crap game in a tenement at No. 95 Chrystie Street ended in gun fire and the death of Ciro Loscascidio. The Times reported “Detectives Whalen and Mitchel seized a man who was climbing the yard fence. The prisoner described himself as Dewey Edson, a salesman, 134 Bowery.”
While Abraham Edson’s sons continued to run afoul with police, he tried quietly to run his jewelry shop. But it was a sometimes dangerous prospect in the Bowery location. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1923, a 20-year old man entered the store and asked to see diamond rings. He selected a $250 ring, slipped it into his pocket, and then drew a gun on Edson. He dared Edson “to press demand for payment.”
Joseph Perry ran from the building with his firearm still in his hand—right past Deputy Sheriff William Bowers. The sight of a running gunman, accompanied by Abraham Edson’s shouts, sparked Bowers into action. He overtook the thief nearby at Grand Street.
“Police later said Perry’s explanation was that he became infatuated with a girl at a Brooklyn dance last Sumer and could not let Christmas pass without sending her a gift. He had only $8, and, spending $5 for a revolver, proceeded to try to make up the difference.”
During the hard times of the Great Depression No. 134 Bowery was lost to foreclosure. On May 16, 1930 The Bank of New York and Trust Company sold it to Michael Ginsburg who still ran his billiard table operation here after three decades.
Almost unbelievably, the Edson family still lived at No. 134 in 1950. Perhaps less surprisingly, the Edson boys were still on the wrong side of the law. On October 27 Robert “Feets” Edson, also known as “Red Feet,” was arrested along with 24 others at Jamaica Race Track. The Times described them as hoodlums.
In 1963 the neighborhood still had a national reputation as a center of crime and vice. Yet that year artist Eva Hesse and her sculptor husband Tom Doyle moved into the upper floor. After they separated in January 1966 Hess remained here. She died in 1970.
|The contemporary house next door, at No. 136, is slated for demolition in 2015.|
The end of the line for the more than two-century old building seemed near in December 2014 when a group of investors purchased Nos. 134 to 142 Bowery for $45 million. But demolition permits, filed in May 2015, included only the structures at Nos. 136 through 140; possibly delaying the death sentence of No. 134 temporarily.
photographs by the author