In the 1850s and ‘60s Union Square was ringed by elegant brick and brownstone mansions. One of these, No 28 West 14th Street, was the home of Dr. Clarence Cameron. But only a decade after the end of the Civil War things had changed. Commerce had arrived on Union Square.
By 1878 Dr. Cameron’s mansion had been converted for business purposes. And only three years later it was demolished by Joseph J. Little, a man with wide-flung interests. A partner in a printing firm that employed about 500 workers at the time, he had served as a first lieutenant in the war. He would go on to become President the Board of Education as well as a Congressman. And for now he was also investing in real estate development.
In January 1881 Little’s architect, W. W. Smith filed plans for a new commercial building on the site. Smith had recently made his mark 14th Street, designing the five-story cast iron structure at Nos. 40 and 42 West 14th in 1878.
The $20,000, five-story building was faced in cast iron front--a material which facilitated expanses of glass. Smith creatively recessed the angled bays within the façade; permitting the building to step all the way up to the property line without the bays protruding into public space. Each story was decorated with ornate pilasters and panels, culminating in a highly attractive fifth floor where two openings were surrounded by wide and narrow pilasters and panels. It all made the simple cast iron cornice a bit of a letdown.
Smith's careful attention to recessing the bays caused Joseph Little to bristle when James McCreery started construction simultaneously on his building next door at Nos 22 through 26 East 14th Street. McCreery's architects, D. & J. Jardine, applied to the Board of Aldermen for permission to include projecting bays. On May 28, 1881 the Mayor wrote to the Board, renouncing its resolution approving the request. He said that the owners of No. 28 and 30 "object strongly to the proposed bay-windows on the ground that they would injure their stores, which have been built with plain fronts." Little pointed out that it was McCreery who opposed their bay windows projecting over the property lines.
Given Joseph J. Little’s activity within the Democratic Party, it is perhaps a bit surprising that the General Committee of the Anti-Machine Republicans met in the completed building on November 3, 1882. The New York Times mentioned “There were not many present when the proceedings began, but later on the attendance was reinforced by gangs of rough-looking young fellows, the great majority of whom were apparently under age.”
Despite that political meeting, the building filled with artists who both lived and worked in their studios. They were drawn by the northern light, unobstructed due to the Square, which flooded in through the wide windows. At ground level was the piano store of Jeremiah M. Pelton.
At the time the 14th Street and Union Square area was becoming the center of the piano district. Steinway & Sons had erected their building at No. 109 East 14th Street years earlier, and other makers and dealers like Sohmer and Decker would join the trend.
For 15 years Pelton had been a partner in the organ manufacturing firm of Peloubet, Pelton & Co. When the company dissolved in 1880 he went into business alone. The New York Times called him in 1885 “one of the oldest men in the business.” But trouble came to Jeremiah M. Pelton that same year.
He had amassed a personal fortune of about $50,000—a considerable $1.27 million today. But, as The Times noted on May 10, “he has invested considerable money in a Western mine.” Pelton over-speculated and was forced into bankruptcy.
In the meantime, artists like William J. Johnston and John W. Blake were in the building. They partnered to form W. J. Johnston & Co., an art dealership which no doubt specialized in their own works. In the summer of August, 1886 they hired Jacob Venter to work in the store. It was most likely the high-priced artwork and the employers’ unfamiliarity with Venter, who recently arrived from Albany, that prompted them to have him deposit $250 as “security.”
Things did not go well and ten days later “he regretted his dealings with the firm,” according to The Times on August 12. The artists handed him their note for $250. His problem now was that no one would honor it. He went to two locations before ending finding W. H. Parsons who offered him a job; but he wanted security. “Venter offered Johnson & Co.’s neot, but Parsons said he would not give 10 centers for it,” reported The Times. Frustrated and in need of employment, Venter handed over $400 worth of jewelry to Parsons; “but he got neither employment nor salary and complained to the police.”
When police arrested Parsons he had already pawned the jewelry for $100. The unlucky Jacob Venter had lost his jewelry and still had no job. What became of W. J. Johnston & Co.’s bank note is unclear.
Another artist in No. 28 East 14th Street at the time was the Irish-American still life painter William Michael Harnett. His meticulously-executed trompe-l’oeil paintings were nearly photographic in their detail. He worked and lived here from 1886 through 1889.
|Harnett created Violin and Music from his studio here -- Metropolitan Museum of Art|
A rather unexpected tenant took the ground floor shop where Jeremiah Pelton had sold pianos. On January 26, 1885 J. J. Little signed a lease with Mark M. Stanfield and his son, George O. Stanfield, partners in George O. Stanfield & Co. According to Little later, “They went in under that lease and conducted the retail rubber business there.” The firm failed in 1888 and was immediately replaced by Para Rubber, another retail “rubber goods” store.
A bit of unpleasant business occurred here on March 7, 1894. Dimitri Kaffas was described by The Evening World as “a Greek, who keeps a flower-stand on the walk in front of 28 East Fourteenth street.” But on that day Policeman Fitzgerald arrested Kaffas for “selling flowers without a license.”
He was held for trial in Special Sessions by Justice McMahon; but just before the judge left the court Telemaque Thomas Timanyenis stormed in. The publisher was no off-the-boat immigrant. The World called him “a prominent Greek and closely connected with the Greek Consulate.” Before bailing out Kaffas, he told the judge that “he could get witnesses to prove that Policeman Fitzgerald asked Kaffas for $5, and if he gave it to him he would let him stay. Kaffas refused and he was arrested.”
Timayenis said this was just an example of “another police outrage” and he told the judge that “all Greek vendors had to pay the police for the privilege of standing on the walks.” He named three specific areas where the vendors were harassed, then added that, in fact, it “was in vogue all over the city.” The Evening World reported “He says that he proposes to show up this matter.” In then added “Justice McMahon accepted his bail for Kaffas.”
The incident was trifling compared to the attempt to destroy the building on June 14, 1895. A headline in The Evening World that morning announced “Fire Set In A Studio Block. Attempt to Burn Out Artists at 28 East Fourteenth Street Miscarried.”
The third floor had been occupied not by artists, but by two small businesses, both now gone. The Barr Cash and Package Company, which had recently moved next door to No. 30, and the Mosely Novelty Company, had moved out two months earlier. The World noted “The top floor is occupied entirely by artists who sleep in the building, and the fourth floor is taken up by studios and the apartments of the janitor, Lee Blair.
Blair arose and began his usual morning rounds at 5:15. He noticed smoke coming over the transom of a room on the third floor. When he entered, he found a stack of clothing—an old pair of trousers, a woman’s skirt and a hat—on fire in a corner. He rushed to the corner and pulled the fire alarm box; and then ran back to dump several pails of water on the fire. By the time the fire department arrived, he had nearly extinguished the blaze.
Investigation revealed that a hole had been chopped into the wall and several burnt matches were strewn about the floor. The laths in the wall were scorched; showing that an attempt had been made to set the wall on fire. When that was unsuccessful, the arsonist had set fire to the old clothes.
By now the street level retail space had become home to the Kumfurt Shoe store. On April 2 that year the store advertised “special sales.” It offered 500 pairs of men’s “Russia Calf Opera Slippers, made to sell for $2.00 only 99c.” And the ad noted “To still further attract attention to our Children’s Department, we again offer 1000 pairs more Children’s fine quality Patna Kid & Russet Button and Lace Shoes, New Spring Styles, only 99c.”
|The shoe store offered a variety of shoes in 1895 The Evening World, Sept. 20, 1895 (copyright expired)|
As the century drew to a close Union Square was a major shopping area. Businesses shared space in the building with the artists. The Parisian Suit and Cloak Company was here by 1896, and by the turn of the century Emile E. Jeantet, Edward E. Jeantet and Eugenie R. Jeantet, ran their importing and manufacturing business, E. Jeantet, here. They offered “Large and select stock of everything needed by the Hair trade. F. Frank was self-employed, manufacturing chairs by himself in an upstairs room by 1903.
Over the years several of the tenants would bring unusual and unwanted publicity to the building. One of these was artist Mrs. Jeanne Ogden who rented a studio in 1908. The Sun noted that she “is said to have been a footlight favorite in London concert halls years ago.” But something happened on November 20 that year.
Jeanne’s husband was also an artist, named Bargona. A year earlier he had returned to his native Italy to recover from ill health. The Sun said that “since then the woman has been supporting herself by painting.”
Other tenants in the building noticed that Jeanne had been acting strangely for several weeks. It culminated on the morning of November 20 when she walked up to Policeman Hand nearby at 14th Street and University Place and asked him if he felt a shock. The bewildered policeman said he did not.
“Gracious, that’s strange,” she said. “Here I’ve been receiving wireless messages through my body all morning. Some of them came from Detroit telling me my sister is dead and others tell me I am to die at 6 o’clock to-night.”
The Sun reported that she “was removed to the psychopathic ward at Bellevue Hospital yesterday to be examined as to her sanity.”
Harris Lipsky, a clothing manufacturer, operated from No. 28 in 1915. On October 3 that year he was in the bathroom of his home in Washington Heights, having told his wife he needed to shave. “A moment later Mrs. Lipsky heard groans issuing from the bathroom and found him lying on the floor with his throat cut,” reported The New York Times the following morning. The newspaper said “he had almost severed his throat with a razor.”
Although members of the family insisted that it was merely an accident, police were not buying it. He was “taken a prisoner to Washington Heights Hospital, charged with having attempted suicide.”
Another tenant, Leo O’Brien, had a run in with the law as well. On October 7, 1923 police staged a city-wide raid of more than a dozen restaurants, cabarets and other businesses suspected of violating the Volstead Act. Leo O’Brien was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That night he was in The Jungle at 11 Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village. The place had been raided just five months earlier and its owners found guilty of “conducting a disorderly resort.” As O’Brien sat drinking, the police rushed in and “seized a quantity of liquor.” He was arrested and “charged with possession.”
For several years during the 1930s and ‘40s Aaron Kudish leased space in the building. He was consistently on the Government’s List of Voters for the Communist Party and the Demos Press operated from the building at the same time. It was the publishing arm “for the Revolutionary Workers League, U.S.”
Following a ground floor renovation in 1948, the upper floors remained vacant for decades as the Union Square neighborhood suffered neglect. But, like most everything in Manhattan, that would eventually change. Not only was the neighborhood revitalized as the 20th century drew to a close; so was No. 28 East 14th Street.
A “mixed-use” property, it was purchased in 2000 by Ultimate Realty and resold in March 2015 for a staggering $30 million—an enviable profit. Although the store front has been obliterated (hints of the cast iron pilasters survive); W. W. Smith’s unusual cast iron structure is essentially intact above street level.
photographs taken by the author