Wednesday, April 26, 2017
The Anton Mohren House - 405 West 51st Street
The neighborhood around Ninth Avenue and 51st Street had earned the unflattering nickname Hell's Kitchen by 1877. Notorious as a center of poverty, crime and violence, its streets were lined with dilapidated wooden structures. Newspapers reported that even some police officers were fearful to walk its streets; and many of those who did "profited to a greater extent by being discreetly deaf, dumb, and blind" to the criminal activities around them.
Mary Ann O'Brien was a widow who owned the two-story wooden building at No. 405 West 51st Street. On the first floor was a store, and while upstairs portion was probably intended for one family, it is likely she shared it with roomers. On October 25, 1877 she sold the property to Anton Mohren for $3,400--just under $82,000 today.
Mohren ran his "horse and wagon" business from the store and rented the upper portion of the building. The conditions of the neighborhood and the structure itself are evident in a report from the Health Department the following year. On October 22 the Disinfecting Corps offered to give Mohren a few months to correct problems. The Health Board resolved that orders against the building "be hereby suspended until May 3 1879."
Anton Mohren was successful enough that he made major renovations to the building in 1884. On April 11 he filed plans to add a third story, and remove and replace the front facade. His $2,000 make-over (nearly $50,000 today), cost him about two-thirds of his original purchase price. But he now had an up-to-date, if modest, brick-faced edifice with a metal cornice and cast iron storefront. It was a marked improvement to the old wooden structure.
It seems that Mohren had borrowed the money from his son-in-law, William Blatt. In turn he transferred title to Blatt. In what appears to have been a warm gesture, Blatt returned the title to Mohren "during life" on September 16, 1886. The deed directed that after Mohren's death, it would pass to his two children, Annie Blatt and Anton, Jr.
At the time George F. Liginger and his partner, M. Siebert, ran the butcher shop around the corner at No. 765 Ninth Avenue. Their business was large enough that they owned a delivery wagon and horse. By the turn of the century Liginger invested in real estate as well by purchasing No. 405 West 51st Street.
Hell's Kitchen was not the best area for real estate investment. The building was "sold" four times from 1915 to 1921, but like the proverbial bad penny, it always ended up back in Liginger's name. Finally in December 1921 it was purchased by John and Patrick Mullen. At the time the property was assessed at between $8,500 and $9,000.
The Mullen brothers had owned properties in the immediate area since the 1880s. Their office was nearby at No. 761 Ninth Avenue. Within weeks they hired architects Ross & McNeil to do $2,000 in upgrading--removing an interior wall and installing new beams and columns.
The Hell's Kitchen neighborhood remained gritty through most of the 20th century; so it is surprising that at mid-century the former store space was home to the Artists Opera Guild. In reporting on "Programs of the Week" on June 4 1950, The New York Times noted that Madama Butterfly would be performed here that night at 8:15.
Gentrification and change eventually did come to the area; perhaps no where more evident that at No. 405 West 51st Street. In 2000 Posh opened in the ground floor space--calling itself today "the first and original gay bar in Hell's Kitchen."
Still stubbornly resisting change, No. 405 is among the last survivors on the block from a dismal period. Despite the colorful awning and alterations to the cast iron storefront, the building's rusting cornice and 1884 facade stand out as a picturesque relic.
photographs by the author