Thursday, February 16, 2017

From "Vile Women" & Gambling to Pioneering Black Modern Dance - 17 W. 24th Street

Despite repeated alterations to the ground floor and parlor levels; the upper stories retain their 1852 residential appearance.

As the mansions of Manhattan's wealthy pushed north past 23rd Street, builder James Wellock erected two upscale homes on West 24th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue.  He advertised Nos. 17 and 41 "For sale or to let" on April 14, 1852.

No. 17 was the more upscale of the two, Wellock describing it as "a very superior four story brown stone front house, 28 feet wide and 65 feet deep, finished complete with all the modern improvements, and ready for immediate occupation."  The builder overstated the width by two feet; yet at 26 feet it was on par with the mansions of Fifth Avenue.

The Italianate-style house sat above an English basement.  There was, almost assuredly, a cast iron balcony at the parlor level, and a handsome entrance with foliate brackets upholding the pediment.  An Italianate cast metal cornice featured paired brackets.

Who the first resident of the house was is unclear; however it may have been Wellock, himself.  He was involved in the speculative real estate business, and on April 19, 1855 he advertised "Four new and beautiful three-story, high basement, Philadelphia brick houses" on East 40th Street.  For potential homeowners who could not make it to his office at No. 27 Wall Street during business hours, he offered to see them "mornings and evenings" at the 24th Street residence.

The family of William P. Jones was here in the early 1860s.  In 1861 Jones was elected to the Chamber of Commerce.   The house was filled with expensive rosewood furniture, imported carpets and even a billiard table constructed by Phelan & Collander.  The firm, located on Broadway, was recognized as the premier manufacturers of billiard tables.

On November 30, 1864 12-year old Harry W. Jones died.  His funeral was held in the house that week.  The Jones family was quick to leave.  It would appear that they relocated to another city or abroad; for the auction held in the house on June 20, 1865 included everything, from "crockery, kitchen ware, [and] oil clothes," to "rich Brocatel Curtains, with elaborate Cornices, Rosewood Etagere, Clock and Mantel Ornaments," mahogany and black walnut bedroom suites, and even the "handsome Gas Chandeliers."

The Jones house would never again be a private home.  By now the exclusive Fifth Avenue Hotel and the upscale Hoffman House at the end of the block, on Broadway, were drawing royalty, politicians and millionaires.  The new owner of No. 17 took advantage of the location and in 1866 offered "Elegantly furnished rooms without board, to gentlemen only."

It was not until 1871 that the proprietor started offering meals.  On March 5 that year an advertisement touted "A magnificent suit of elegantly furnished Rooms, with or without Board; a single front Room for a gentleman."

Within a few years the neighborhood that had been home to wealthy professionals was undergoing drastic change.  The district which would be known as The Tenderloin--perhaps the most crime-ridden in the world--would seep onto the 24th Street block before the end of the century.  The first signs of change for No. 17 were benign, and came when the proprietor suggested that the parlor floor could be let "for party of gentlemen or doctor's office."

Drs. Keck, Hoyt and Stoddard took the space on in December 1874 announced "There is an association of regular physicians at 17 West Twenty-fourth street, who treat Catarrh and Deafness exclusively.  They cure every case."  Another ad in the same newspaper promised "Dr. Keck's new and wonderful method with Chronic Catarrh and Deafness cures.  No other method does.  Physicians and all suffering invited to test it free."

W. H. Catlin owned the house on August 20, 1881 when The American Architect and Building News announced that architect George A. Freeman, Jr. had filed plans to add an extension to the rear and make interior alterations.  

By the time August C. Hassey purchased the house on November 1, 1886 it was described by the Record & Guide as a "four-story stone front club house."   Hassey paid $36,000 for the property, in the neighborhood of $936,000 today.  It is unclear what organization was using it as its clubhouse; but when William Higbee bought it the following year (providing Hassey a $500 profit), he returned it to a boarding house.

In 1891 Fanny Ford Walsh arrived in New York from Cincinnati.  Recently widowed, she brought with her $10,000, part of which she used to lease No. 17 from Higbee.  Also with her were three children and a governess.

Among her first boarders was Victor Cadieux, a Canadian about 20 years old who "attended to the stereoscopes in the Eden Musee."  Later the famous journalist Nellie Bly--perhaps the first investigative reporter--noted "No one knows whether it was the widow Walsh who made the first advances, or the boy Cadieux, but be that as it may, they say that in less then eight months after her husband's death, and with courageous, if not admirable disregard of the almost double difference in age, the two were wed, and Victor gave up the Eden Musee, with its motionless inmates, for the boarding-house and its spry mistress."

Apparently the pair opened a saloon in the former club rooms; for when Cadieux was later called to the stand to testify in the divorce proceedings of Wellington E. Newcomb and his wife, Caroline (who accused him of frequenting a "disorderly house") he gave his profession as "a bartender at 17 West Twenty-fourth street," according to The Evening World on April 10, 1894.

West 23rd Street had become the theater district by now and half a block away, on Sixth Avenue, was Koster & Bial's music hall where Jennie Joyce appeared as the Fairy Queen in "The Doll's Fairy" in June 1890.  Now she was living in the Cadieux boarding house.

Jennie Joyce was a music hall favorite.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

On December 26, 1891 the New York Clipper reported "A birthday supper was given to Jennie Joyce [on] Dec. 15, at her residence No. 17 West Twenty-fourth Street.  Among those present were Mr. Bial of Koster & Bial; Paulus and Mile. Valarez.  Miss Joyce received many valuable and handsome presents, among them a 'loving cup,' which was filled with champagne and passed among the guests."

The actress would have done well to secure the handsome and valuable presents; for she was living among a sordid class.  Nellie Bly exposed the Cadieuxes, not for the illegal saloon, but for fraudulently selling furniture as a sideline, for as the reporter pointed out "The boarding-house proved a failure."

The World, for whom Bly worked, explained the scam after she had written a scathing article.  "Their method is to advertise in the papers that a lot of magnificent furniture and paintings must be sold immediately and at a great reduction.  The alleged magnificent furniture and tapestries consists of the cheapest kind of plush and cotton and imitations."

The article, published on April 14, 1894, added "After 'The World's' exposure, Mr. and Mrs. Cadieux moved their business to 127 West Forty-seventh street."

But even after the Cadeiuxes left, the boarding house continued to be shady.  One boarder, Henry W. Dietz, was arrested on August 25, 1894.  The 33-year old claimed to be a salesman for a Kentucky distillery.  He received $100 payment for four barrels of whisky from saloon keeper James Kelly; but never provided the goods.

In the meantime Daniel J. Mahoney ran the basement saloon.  When he attempted to legitimize the place by applying for an excise, or liquor, license, reformer Mrs. Mary Sallade got wind of it.  She appeared at the Excise License Board with two policemen.

The Evening World reported on September 18, 1894 "She swore that the place was the resort of vile women and men and was of a very disreputable character."  The article ended "The Board rejected Mahoney's application, and Mrs. Sallade went away triumphant."

In the place of Mahoney's saloon the Regular Republican Organization of the Twenty-fifth Assembly District moved in.  On June 7, 1896 The Sun reported that the new club had held "an informal opening of its newly furnished club room" the night before.  Political social clubs were ubiquitous and, as a matter of fact, directly next door was the James G. Blaine Club, a political rival.

When delegates to the Republican County Committee of 1897 were elected on the night of December 15, 1896, a hullabaloo broke out here.  The Sun reported "The hall was filled with a howling mob of partisans of both sides.  Police Capt. Chapman and seventy-five patrolmen were there, and were needed there."  Although delegates were finally chosen, it was not before fighting broke out.

By the turn of the century the club was gone and the house became an illegal gambling den.  Police were tipped off by Joseph Hymonson in June 1902 after he lost $30 (a week's salary) at the roulette wheel, after initially winning.  "Then he thought he had been robbed, and that the best way to get even was to inform the police," reported the New-York Tribune on June 22.

Hymonson accompanied police to the place.  Undercover detectives went in with him, while patrolmen surrounded the house.  The detectives played roulette and lost; but then someone became suspicious and announced the place was closing.  Detective Flynn gave a signal to the men outside and they rushed in.

The New York Times reported "Two roulette wheels, a faro layout, and a quantity of poker chips and cards were seized.  The suspected owner had escaped; but four waiters were arrested; one charged with keeping a roulette wheel, one with running a faro bank, one with being a lookout and the last for being "a suspicious character."

Joseph Hymonson beamed with pride because he had caused the raid.  When a reporter asked what he would have done if he had won rather than lost, he replied "Why I would have gone home and let them alone."

William Higbee's estate sold the house in March 1903.  The Record & Guide pointed out "It sold in 1887 for $36,500, and now sells for $48,000."  It was sold one more time before Paul Shotland purchased it in 1906.  He hired architect C. Dunne to make "extensive alterations" costing $4,200.  Among the changes was the replacement of the stone stoop with one of iron, and re-configuring the floor plans to accommodate bachelor apartments in the upper floors.

Delia Muligan signed a five-year lease on the upper floors in April 1907; and Peter Maucher leased the ground floor for a "restaurant."  But problems quickly developed.  Shotland took Mulligan to court to dispossess her when their racial viewpoints collided.

On April 17, 1908 they appeared before a judge.  The New York Times explained that Shotland's suit was his "answer to the action of Miss Mulligan, who had thrown open the house, which is just a few doors west of Broadway and Madison Square, to negro tenants."

Mulligan countered that Shotland had agreed to install a hot water heater, then refused to do so.

In 1912 Shotland did renovations again after leasing the ground floor to Jonathan J. Kelly.  The plans filed by architect J. C. Crocker included bar fixtures, new stairs and beams.  While the upper floors were converted to business spaces, the first floor remained what was politely termed a "cafe" for years.

In February 1912 Shotland once more did renovations.  These, by Otto Reissmann, included "new steps, doors, columns, beams" to what was called a "dwelling and lodging."  Shotland, again, did not get along with his newest tenant.  On May 31 that year he filed for eviction of the Institute for the Instruction of the Deaf & Dumb.

Paul Shotland sold the building in September 1919 to William Weinberger, who almost immediately did yet more renovations.  The extensive changes made by Gloss & Kleinberger--removing the stoop and moving the entrance to ground level, replacing the plumbing fixtures, installing new exits and walls, installing a dumbwaiter and an interior balcony--cost $10,000--nearly $120,000 today.  The result was a social hall where wedding receptions, dances, anniversary dinners and testimonials would take place through the 1930s.

In August 1939 the school of the New Dance Group (or NDC, formed in 1932) moved into the building.  A stage was constructed and promising young artists learned not only modern dance, but Hawaiian, Caribbean, Indian and African dance.  When the first scholarships were handed out, African American dancer Pearl Primus received one.

The group continued to break new ground.  On December 29, 1940, for instance, The Times announced "The New Dance Group is presenting a program showing 'The Contribution of the Negro to Music, Theatre and Dance" at its headquarters, 17 West Twenty-fourth Street, tonight."

The New Dance Group remained in its studio until 1944, when it moved elsewhere.  But Pearl Primus remained.  Her father helped her establish her own studio in the building.  Always espousing her dreams of "a future free from racism," she focused on bringing the black experience into art.

On March 11, 1951 The Times reported "Pearl Primus and her group will give two lecture-recitals in her studio, 17 West Twenty-fourth Street, March 20 and 21.  They will be devoted to the discussion and the dance interpretation of folk poems of African tribes and the works of Negro poets of the western world."

Two years earlier the building also became home to the newly-organized Weekend School of Theatre, sponsored by People's Drama, Inc. (splinter group of the Socialist SFA organization).

Before 160 choreographer Drid Williams had opened his DW Studio in the building, where, along with other innovative dance, she originated Jazz Ballet.   Regular events here were routinely touted as "New Concepts in Contemporary Jazz, showcasing new works and new talent."

By 1976 the No Smoking Playhouse was here.  And as the 20th century drew to a close the Great Modern Pictures, a gallery of photography, was in the building.

A vised-in boutique hotel is slated to replace the 1852 building.  Commercial Observer

In 2014 developer Hag Gyun Lee of Eben Ascel Corp., announced that the often-renovated house where performing arts history had been born was to be replaced with a 18-story hotel designed by architect Gene Kaufman with interiors by Philip Johnson Alan Ritchie Architects.

photographs by the author

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