During the Civil War Joshua F. Hill lived in the modest house at No. 105 Christopher Street. Hill was a cartman (what would be a truck driver today). In the rear yard was a two-story brick house. “Back buildings” were nearly ubiquitous at the time. Some, like Hill’s were houses, rented out for extra income; others were stables or business buildings, like carpenter shops.
By the mid-1870s the property was owned by Ernst Schroeder. A widow, he was described by The New York Times a few years later as “an old resident of the Ninth Ward, and is well off, owning a number of houses in the ward.” Ernst Schroeder started his career as a shoe maker, but had saved frugally and invested in real estate.
Schroeder lived with his son in the main house, while the rear building was leased to Robert Gillespie and his family. On September 11, 1877 Schroeder’s son, William, witnessed a terrifying scene in the back lot.
Gillespie was a carpenter with a wife and two children. When he came home one afternoon in September that year, he found his wife drunk. His response was far too common at the time—he beat her. Mrs. Gillespie’s response was less expected. She took the little boy and girl and left her abusive husband.
Thrown into despair, Gillespie sold the household furniture for money which he spent on liquor. After being drunk for a week, and again finding himself without cash, The Sun reported on September 12, “On Monday he broke up his cook stove and sold it to a junk dealer, and kept on drinking.”
The newspaper wrote “William Schroeder, a little boy, while passing through the [backyard] at 105 Christopher street, saw, in an open second-story window in the rear house, a bloody hand waving up and down.”
The newspaper was rather dramatic in calling William “a little boy.” He was a young adult at the time. At any rate, he rushed to notify authorities who entered the house. Gillespie was found on the floor. “His shirt was soaked with the blood that had flowed from a long cut in the neck. No one else was in the room. It was a wretched place.”
The Sun explained “When found yesterday he seemed to have tried to shave himself, and then in a sudden freak of delirium to have drawn the razor across his throat.” Gillespie was removed to the City Hospital, assumedly not to return to the Schroeder property.
By now the Christopher Street block between Bleecker and Hudson Streets was seeing the demolition of its wooden or brick-fronted two story houses and the erection of tenement buildings. In 1879 Schroeder joined the trend. On July 12 the Real Estate Record reported that his architect, Jobst Hoffman, had filed plans for a four-story brick store and tenement. The $8,000 structure was completed within a year. Hoffman’s design predated the overblown tenement ornamentation to come by the 1890s. The sparse embellishment of the upper floors was reserved to sawtooth brickwork and incised Eastlake style decoration in the brownstone trim. The cast iron base and cast metal cornice were typical of the multi-family buildings sprouting throughout Greenwich Village at the time.
The building filled with blue-collar residents and the ground floor space became the saloon of a man named Ryan, who also lived upstairs with his family.
With his home replaced by the new structure, Ernst Schroeder brought Jobst Hoffman back to renovate the rear house. On January 9, 1880 the architect filed plans to “enlarge the space between front and rear houses,” and to replace the façade. The renovations to his new home cost Schroeder $300; a reasonable $7,000 in today’s terms.
In the meantime, there was substantial drama going on within the Schroeder family. Ernst’s only other child was a daughter. She had married, but was now a widow. William, who had no means of support other than his father, was in constant battle with his sister. The New York Times explained on January 31, 1880 “The son and daughter were not on friendly terms, Schroeder charging his sister with waywardness and improper conduct.”
William’s accusations apparently had some merit, for his father told a reporter that he “had amassed a competence and said he had money enough to make both his son and daughter rich, but his daughter, by her conduct, had broken the family up.”
It all boiled over on January 29, just days after the renovations on the back house began. The Times reported “The brother and sister had a sharp quarrel on Thursday and Schroeder, wearied of the controversy, determined to put an end to his existence.”
Around 6:00 the following morning, Ryan, the saloon keeper, notified Police Officer Webb that William Schroeder had killed himself. When the officer entered the house, he found William unconscious lying “on a sheet carefully spread on the floor.” Next to him was an empty laudanum vial (a popular method of suicide in the 19th century), and a knife, “which he doubtless intended to use if the narcotic had not had the desired effect,” opined The Times.
The scandalous news spread as far away as Pennsylvania, where a few days later the Bradford Reporter wrote “William J. Schroeder, a young man living at 105 Christopher Street, New York, attempted suicide Friday by taking poison, in consequence of the misconduct of a sister.”
Schroeder was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital where his survival was questionable. Ernst was dejected; partly because he did not want his daughter to inherit everything. “The old man seemed heart-broken at the prospect of his son’s death, and lamented the fact that in that event all his property would go to his wayward daughter,” commented The Times.
Ernst Schroeder continued living in the rear house. In December 1883 he leased the main building to Hugh Coman for four and a half years at $480 a year.
The Christopher Street block was the scene of commotion on the spring morning of April 12, 1885. Despite the early hour, a crowd of drunks spilled out of Ryan’s saloon. The Sun reported that “Early on Sunday morning some excited citizens ran into the Charles street station and announced that there was a riot in front of the saloon at 105 Christopher Street.” Captain Copeland responded by sending half a dozen policemen to the scene.
Fifteen men were arrested, “found acting in a disorderly manner,” and Ryan was arrested for selling alcohol on Sunday. Ryan contacted lawyer and former assemblyman James B. McClelland who appeared in the Jefferson Market Court later that day.
“The saloon keeper was at once discharged on McClelland’s eloquent plea that he was prevented from closing his saloon by the fifteen other prisoners who refused to leave the saloon,” wrote The Sun. The lawyer then came to the defense of drunks; telling the judge their only offense was a little too much to drink.
“I appear for these men because I know them all to be honest men, on a ‘bit of a bat.’ I know there are no thieves among them.”
All 16 men were released, each one approaching James B. McClelland and heartily thanking him for his aid. After they left, court Stenographer Seltman asked the lawyer for the time. McClelland was proud of his “handsome hunting case watch” and bragged “The watch keeps fair time.”
But then, according to The Sun, as he dug into his vest pocket, a troubled look came over his face. “His watch and chain had been stolen by one of his honest and hard-working clients.”
Red-faced, he sheepishly admitted to a reporter “A neat job. The next time I defend a gang of that sort and assure the Judge of their honestly, I’ll leave my watch at home, you bet.”
Many of the residents in the upper floors of No. 105 Christopher Street were Irish immigrants with names like McIntire and McElroy. The McElroy family lived in the building for years and son Frank worked to improve his lot by enrolling mechanical classes in New York City College in 1890.
But not all of the tenants were so upstanding. In 1892 46-year old “Mart” Allen lived here. His only occupation was crime. When he was arrested in October that year, Inspector McLaughlin detailed his criminal resume:
“He is one of the four famous Allen brothers, whose names can be found oftener in the criminal records of this city than the names of any other four men. The brothers were ‘The,’ ‘Wes,’ ‘Jes,’ and ‘Mart.’ ‘Wes’ and ‘Jes’ are dead. ‘Wes’ was shot, and ‘Jes’ died in prison. ‘The’ is the famous dive keeper and Republican politician in the Eighth District. ‘Mart’ is a man who has served at least six years in prisons. He too was one of the ‘Captains’ of this gang of repeaters.”
By 1894 the saloon had the impressive name of Senger’s Hall. It was used by the Independent County Organization of the Ninth Assembly District for its first campaign meeting that election year. The men resolved to fight the Tammany organization with vigor.
Despite the bar’s upstanding-sounding name, its proprietor, Albert Buske, followed in Ryan’s footsteps in selling liquor on Sundays. And like Ryan, he was adept at getting out of legal trouble.
Policeman John H. Smith was better known among his fellow officers at the Charles Street Station as “Whiskers” and he had a reputation for busting saloon operators on Sundays. On February 3, 1896, the plain-clothed officer asked two men where he could get a drink. They took him to the Christopher Street saloon where he bought a whiskey, and then promptly arrested Albert Buske.
The following day in court Buske admitted his guilt. But he wished to give the judge insight as to how his arrest came about.
He produced the two men who had accompanied Smith to the bar. They testified that Smith, “completely disguised, with the exception of his whiskers, approached them on the street, groaning, apparently with pain, and asked them to save his life by getting him a drink.”
The Times reported “They believed his story, and took him into Buske’s saloon. Here he filled the glass twice to the brim with whisky, and, after drinking it, displayed his shield and made the arrest.”
The judge found John Smith’s tactics to be what today would be called entrapment. “In this case,” he ruled, “the defendant pleads guilty, but considering the circumstances under which the arrest was made, the Court suspends sentence.”
Six days earlier the Christopher Street building had been the scene of a much more bizarre crime. Mrs. George Beane returned from shopping on the afternoon of January 27. When she walked in the door she was startled to find two strange men in her apartment, trying on her husband’s clothing.
The Sun reported “She screamed. One of the men grabbed her by the throat and threw her to the floor. Both of them then ran out.” The clothes-conscious robbers were pursued by the screaming Mrs. Beane. Policeman Gayne was in the area and took up the chase. Edward Gordon was captured and locked up. The other would-be robber escaped.
By the early years of the 20th century the saloon was gone. In its place in 1911 was the store of the Lucca Olive Importing Company.
As the century progressed, the apartments continued to be occupied by working class tenants; not all of whom stayed on the right side of the law. During the Depression years Joseph Cossu lived here. He was arrested on June 20, 1934 when he rather foolishly walked into the Charles Street Station to report his car stolen.
The problem was that thirty minutes earlier the 26-year old Cossu and two other men had held up the Cathedral Restaurant at No. 398 Hudson Street. The robbers held guns on the counterman, Benjamin Levy and his employer, Angelo Amorato, and made off with $500 in cash. When they ran to their get-away car, it was gone.
Joseph Cossu headed off to the police station, where he told detectives he had stopped at a red light at Charlton and Hudson Streets. Suddenly, he said, a gunman appeared who forced him out of the car and took off.
What he did not know was that Levy and Amorato had beaten him to the police station. They were in a back room giving descriptions of the robbers when Amorato glanced out into the main area. In plain sight was Cossu, one of the very gunmen who had held up his restaurant.
In the second half of the 20th century Christopher Street was the center of the gay community; not only in New York City, but, symbolically, nation-wide. The ground floor space in No. 105 was home to the Four G’s Restaurant, owned by Mrs. Lenore Gardella, in the 1960s. The eatery was raided in February 1965 and Lenore lost her liquor license. Her offenses were nothing like those of Ryan or Buske. She was accused of “allegedly permitting homosexual solicitation on the premises.”
She was allowed to keep her restaurant open—without liquor—but a uniformed policeman was stationed at a table just inside the door to ensure no improper activities went on. And she was forced to display a "Raided Premises" sign in the window.
Neighbors flocked to support Lenore and by March 1966 600 persons had signed a petition to restore her liquor license. On March 18 the policeman was not there when the restaurant opened. “I’m celebrating the fact that he’s gone,” Lenore told The New York Times. “After 10 months, it’s almost unbelievable.”
In 1970 the rear building where Ernst Schroeder and his son had lived became a one-family home again; and the main building was renovated; resulting in three apartments per floor. After nearly 140 years the upper floors of the common tenement building with the uncommon past survive greatly unchanged; a reminder of an often difficult period of Greenwich Village history.
photographs by the author
many thanks to Robert Susser for requesting this post