Friday, January 15, 2016

The Teutonia Bank Bldg -- No. 25 Avenue A

By the mid-1850s New York City had more German residents than any city in the world other than Berlin or Vienna.  Most of them settled in the Lower East Side, filling tenements and building social clubs and music halls.  German language churches and newspapers contributed to the area’s nickname of Little German, or Kleindeutchland.

In 1857 a tenement house stood at the southwest corner of Avenue A and 2nd Street.  Among the German-speaking residents was the Rheinman family—38-year old tailor Charles William Rheinman, his wife Elizabeth, and their two children, Mary who was eight and four-year old Paul.  They had lived at No, 25 Avenue A for about a year in February 1857.

Charles was a drinking man and somewhat moody.  The New York Times said “He was a man of very intemperate habits, and subject, in consequence, to frequent fits of despondency.  He paid no attention to the remonstrances of his wife, and answered her only by undefined threats that ‘he would soon put an end to the matter.’”  As a matter of fact, about a year earlier Elizabeth had overheard him threaten to murder the entire family.

On Sunday morning, February 22 Charles rose early and started breakfast, consisting of coffee and bread.  When the coffee was ready, he woke the family members.  Little Mary was sick so he took the coffee to her bed.  When she turned it down, he forced her to drink it.

Charles drank two cups of coffee, and then went back to bed.  Elizabeth later said “I tasted the coffee; it tasted strangely, and I did not drink it.  I soaked some bread in my cup of coffee and gave it to the youngest child.”

Before long Charles was vomiting, as were the children.  He confessed to his wife that he had put “a shilling’s worth of poison” in the coffee.  The poison was arsenic.  After two hours of agony Charles died.  Paul was next, and little Mary hung on until about 5:00 that evening.

Elizabeth told the examining physician “I have not the slightest idea why he poisoned himself and family, except that he was full of liquor all the time.”

Later that year the neighborhood was rocked by riots.  At about 7:45 p.m. on Sunday, August 9, 1857, two men got into a fight at 4th Street near Avenue A.  When two policemen tried to break it up, they were besieged by a gang with stones and brickbats.  When other officers came to their aid, the mob grew larger and they were forced to retreat.  Word was sent to the station house and before long a 35-man force was heading to the scene.

The police advanced five abreast in the center of the street as the mob approached hurling stones.  When the skirmish was at its height Germans shot pistols and tossed bricks from rooftops and windows.  In the end police were injured and civilians were dead.

The rioting continued for days.  On August 14 The Times reported “The outbreak of Sunday night was only quieted for a time.  Instead of getting about their business, the German population, with which this portion of the City is crowded to overflowing, gathered in knobs all day and discussed what they described as outrages of the police.”

The corpse of one of the rioters, named Muller, had been taken to the cellar of the tenement house at No. 25 Avenue A.   Police Captain Hartt and an officer went there, which meant moving through a long, narrow basement hall.  After the officers had entered, Hartt was recognized.

When they attempted to leave, their only way out was blocked by a group of angry men “who jostled [Captain Hartt], and seemed disposed to stop him from getting out," recounted The Times.  Hartt and the officer narrowly escaped disaster.  “He presently forced his way through to the street, where he and his companion were surrounded and pelted with stones and brick-bats.  The Captain received a severe blow on the leg from one of the missiles, but otherwise escaped without injury.”

The crowded tenement building would stand for little over a decade more.  As the German population continued to increase, banks cropped up on the Lower East Side which provided their clients the comfort of transacting business in their native language.  Many of the immigrants were uncomfortable—often rightfully so—dealing with bankers whom they could not understand.

In 1868 the Teutonia Savings Bank was incorporated and its handsome bank building erected on the site of No. 25 Avenue A.   The architect is unclear; however the structure bears striking similarities to the work of Nicholas Whyte who was working in the area.  His Irwin Building, completed the same year, at the corner of Bowery and Bleecker Street includes several similar elements.

The upper floor offices were entered through the arched doorway, originally above a stoop, at No. 145 East 2nd St.
The four-story Italianate structure was faced in sandstone on the Avenue front and with red brick on the side elevation.   The bank's architecture presented potential depositors with a sense of stability.  Rusticated stone piers, handsome Corinthian pilasters between the upper openings on the Avenue side, and carved stone lintels with double keystones along 2nd Street spoke of the cost of the edifice.  To the rear a stoop led to the arched doorway of the upper floors.

The offices on the upper floors were leased and the Teutonia Savings Bank operated from ground level.  Things went smoothly for a decade before the bank collapsed under scandal and fraud.

In March 1878 a stranger who gave his name as H. G. Wagner attempted to open a bank account, using a draft for $2,750 drawn by the banking firm of Gossler & Co., in Boston.  The check was accepted; but bank officials were suspicious and investigated the matter.  It turned out to be a forgery and a detective was put on the case.  He sat for days in the President’s office, where he could watch the bank patrons come and go through the glass door.

Wagner was too clever to personally return to withdraw funds; and he offered John Campbell 50 cents to cash a check for him.  Campbell ended up being arrested and Wagner was never caught.

But that was the least of the problems for Teutonia Savings Bank.  Four months later warrants were issued for the arrest of all 15 trustees of the bank.  On July 15 the New-York Tribune ran the headline “Misuse of Bank Funds” and reported on the nearly $30,000 of assets the men had distributed among themselves.

The damning reactions of the press were quick and unmistakable in their language.  As the men were one-by-one taken into custody, The New York Times spat “Most of the persons arrested or to be arrested in the above suit are men having considerable pecuniary means, but as a class they are below the average in intelligence, and in ability either shrewdly or honestly to manage any financial institution.”

On July 23 The Sun was enraged that the trustees had not simply paid back the stolen money.  “Probably they would rather keep the money if they could.  But, as matters stand, that seems to be out of the question; and the stingiest and stupidest of them would rather invest his money in immunity and in hushing things up than wait to have it wrested from him, with costs, added, at the end of a trial.”

Tragically for the depositors, Henry L. Lamb, the Acting Superintendent of the Bank Department in Albany shut down the Teutonia Savings Bank.  An investigation of the books showed a deficit of $148,404.63—a figure that would translate to about $3.5 million today.

The building at No. 25 Avenue A was purchased by George Winter and William Eckert, of Eckert & Winter.  It was converted to offices throughout.  Tenants included the offices of the Tammany Hall General Committee for the Third Assembly District; and Janacek & Kysela, “bankers and steamship agents.”  In 1887 Janacek & Kysela would be marginally involved in a murder mystery.

In February that year Lugarte Heck was found dead in what appeared to be a staged suicide.  Two notes were found near the body, which were quickly exposed as not to be in Heck’s handwriting:

I transfer the sum of $8,300 to Mrs. Annie Schaefer – Lugarte Heck
I bequeath my trunk and contents to Mrs. Annie Schaefer – Lugarte Heck

Annie Schaefer claimed no knowledge of the notes nor of Lugarte’s death.  “May I never again see my children alive if I know anything about the death of Lugarte Heck or the papers found,” she told police. But there was the problem of her husband’s visit to Janacek & Kysela to have a will drawn up in Lugarte Heck’s name a few days before her death.

Vlastimel Kysela testified that Schaeffer had come in the office the Thursday before Heck’s body was discovered.  He said he “wanted a nice will drawn” and asked about the cost.  Kysela told investigators that he “said the will was for an old lady in East Eleventh-street.  She had $8,000 which she wanted to give to the church.  The man added, in German, that this would not do; the bird must be plucked while it had feathers, and he proposed to get something.”

Since Kysela’s notary was not in the office, he told Schaeffer to come back that evening; but he never returned.  Annie Schaefer had to admit her husband had been there.  “My husband did go out to get a will drawn because Lugarte asked him to,” she explained.

By 1894 the former bank space had been converted to Adolph Hirsch’s café.  Police were certain that patrons here were getting more than sausage and spatzle, however.  On February 18 that year the New-York Tribune reported “The place has been watched by the police of the Fifth-st. station, but up to last night every attempt to capture the frequenters failed.”

Authorities had suspected Hirsch of using the restaurant as a front for his illegal gambling den.  On the night of February 17 police raided the place and broke up a poker game.  Hirsch and 22 other men were arrested.  The Tribune reported “Several poker tables, cards and chips were seized.”

But when the detectives entered the second floor, they found more.  “Above the café, the policemen found one hundred packs of playing cards, six roulette tables, twenty-two chairs, a quantity of poker chips, and $2 in cash.  They also captured eighteen men,” according to The New York Times.

The judge apparently had compassion for the gamblers.  He fined each of them $1—about $30 in 2015 dollars.  He was not so lenient with Hirsch, holding him on $1,000 bail.

The Tribune added “It is charged by the police that the place is run in the interest of a number of German tailors, who, in turn, induce Hebrew tailors to go there and try their luck at games of change.”

In 1913 Dr. Charles Schmer's dental offices was on the second floor here.  Also on that floor were the tailor shop of B. Templeberg, and the architectural office of James Fisher.  Another dentist, J. Cantor had his offices on the third floor.

In April that year Dr. Schmer became one of a string of victims of a “burglar band” headed by a female crook.  It started in March, according to Schmer’s assistant, Dr. Adolph Arnstein, when a “mysterious blond woman of striking appearance” came to the “dental parlors” accompanied by a young man.   Arnstein described her as being “flashily dressed.”  She asked Schmer to repair a tooth; but when he examined her he said they were in perfect condition.

So she settled for a teeth cleaning.

A week later she came back, this time with a different young man, and she was now a brunette.  Dr. Arnstein was “surprised at the decided change in the color of the woman’s hair,” but, he professed, “said nothing.”  The man who came with her walked throughout the office, as if inspecting it.  Arnstein said he paid particular attention to the safe and when the dentist asked him what he was doing, he explained he was a dental student and simply interested in the office.

Around April 3 she reappeared to have more work done with yet another man.

At 9:00 on the morning of April 9 Dr. Arnstein opened the office and at once realized that the ground floor lock had been tampered with.  The New-York Tribune advised “The door to the office on the second floor had also been forced.  The heavy safe, usually standing by the windows in the front, or operating office, had been dragged to the rear of the reception room.”

The safe-crackers had wrapped the safe in a heavy carpet to muffle the noise, and nitro-glycerin was used to blow the door.  The robbers rifled through all the rooms of the dental office.  Police were amazed at the brazen robbery.  The crooks did not bother to pull the shades and went about their business with the electric lights on, fully in sight of anyone passing on the other side of the street.

They made off with $3,000 worth of valuables from Dr. Schmer’s office.   Luckily for the dentist, while they were able to blow the door off the safe, they were unable to open one of the inner compartments.  It held “jewelry, gold leaf and other valuables to the amount of $10,000,” according to Schmer.

Before leaving the building, the burglars rifled through the all the other offices, but took nothing.  On April 10 the New-York Tribune reported “The police are now inclined to believe this woman of the changeable hair may be responsible for the series of robberies recently in the lower East Side.  They believe, also, that when they find her, she will be able to put them on the trail of the gang that has been burglarizing pawnshops and cigar stores.

‘Cherchez la femme!’ is the cry.”

Dr. Charles Schmer would remain at No. 25 Avenue A until January 1921, when he moved to the Saint Denis Offices on Broadway at 11th Street; and architect James Fisher stayed on at least through 1922.

When the building was sold in 1940 it was valued at $20,000.  It became home to magician and nightclub entertainer George Krinog’s G. K. Magic & Novelty House, Inc.   Krinog had a popular nightclub act and amazed audiences across the country.  His operation in the Avenue A building sold tricks and props wholesale to magic dealers.  An ad in The Billboard on September 29, 1945 offered items like the “Hindu bottle and rope,” dribble glasses, exploding matches, and “Squirt coins.”

In 1946 George Krinog was entertaining troops overseas with the U.S.O.  He boarded an airplane when he was needed as a last-minute replacement for Show Unit No. 786, although he belonged to another unit.   The flight went missing on February 5, somewhere in the Philippine Islands.  Krinog was never found.  The G. K. Magic & Novelty House continued in the Avenue A building for about one more year.

The blank scar below the third floor windows testifies to a lost cornice.
In 2004 the building was converted to apartments on the third and fourth floors, with a bar and restaurant on the lower levels.  The 2A Bar was joined in 2015 by rock bar Berlin, which took the basement level.

The lower two floors of the Teutonia Savings Bank building have been gruesomely deformed.  Above the massacre, however, the handsome 1868 façade survives relatively intact.

photographs by the author

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