Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Church of St. Monica - 413 East 79th Street

In the decade after the end of the Civil War the Upper East Side saw rapid development.  The opening of the Third Avenue subway line in 1878 and the Second Avenue line the following year made the district more desirable and convenient.  And as the population increased so did the need for schools, fire and police stations, and churches. 

In June 1879 (one month after he dedicated the new St. Patrick's Cathedral) Archbishop John McCloskey approved the organization of a new parish, St. Monica, at the lower hem of the Yorkville neighborhood.  Land was acquired on West 79th Street, between First and York Avenues.

On September 24, 1881 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Catholic Church "are going to build a church, to be known as St. Monica's Church."  Architects Babcock & McAvoy were preparing plans, the article noted, for a 100-foot wide structure with a seating capacity of 1,800.

"The front and basement will be constructed of bluestone, trimmed with granite, and the sides and rear of brick, with stone trimmings."  The construction costs were projected at more than $3 million in today's dollars.

The Rev. James J. Doughtery was appointed pastor of the fledgling parish.  As work began on the church, services were held initially above a 78th Street feed store, then in the chapel of the unfinished structure.   As with all new parishes, aggressive fund raising went on to attack the debt of building.  On December 5, 1883 The New York Times noted "The envelope collection in the chapel of the Church of St. Monica, in East Seventy-ninth-street, last Sunday, amounted to $1,500, which, with $7,000 as the proceeds of the late fair, makes $8,500 as the amount contributed by the people of the parish within the last six weeks for the reduction of the church debt."

("Fairs" were the most common method of raising money by churches.  Women sold home-made and donated goods, like table linens, as well as pies and cakes.)

Like most Victorian pastors, Rev. Doughtery had decided opinions about social ills.  On Sunday March 14, 1886 he initiated his series of sermons on the "Evils of Modern Societies."  The subjects of his seven discourses were Irreverence, Indifference, Irreligion, Education, Home Life, Public Life, and Triumph Over Evil.

Churches routinely hosted summer excursions to picnic grounds.  The day-long outings gave city-bound children and their parents a break from the stifling heat and daily drudgery.  On  the morning of May 29, 1900 parishioners of the Church of St. Monica gathered at the 90th Street pier in anticipation of an outing at Idlewild Park, on Long Island.  They were most likely more than a bit troubled when they saw furious activity--and a sunken vessel.

The evening before the barges Charles Spear and the Susquehanna were being towed to the pier when the Charles Spear hit a rock that gashed an large hole in her hull.  Tug boats managed to get the large craft to the pier, where it abruptly sank.  The Myers Excursion Barge Company, which owned the crafts, assured the church "The excursion need not be interfered with, as other barges are available."

Among the parishioners of St. Monica's Church in 1902 was the family of Policeman Edward Burns.  Burns, coincidentally, was the beat cop in the immediate neighborhood.  The Evening World called him "big and scrupulously conscientious over the custody of streets in the vicinity of St. Monica's Church."  He was also scrupulously conscientious about the sanctity of church property, a fact that became evident on November 13.

A few days earlier James Ross had lost his job as an ashcart driver with the City's Street Cleaning Department.  The despondent man drank until he was thrown out of a nearby saloon, and then out of a drugstore where he had just purchased rat poison.  Ross stumbled to the steps of St. Monica where he swallowed the poison.

The Evening World reported that Officer Burns "was dumfounded [sic] early to-day when he discovered the form of a poorly dressed man lying on the steps over which he and his family went to worship last Sunday."  Ross told Burns, "I have just committed suicide."

Burns was less concerned about saving Ross's life than preserving the sanctity of the church steps.  "Rather than have a suicide disgrace the stone steps leading into St. Monica's Catholic church, in Seventy-ninth street," related the newspaper, "Policeman Edward Burns today carried the writhing body of James Ross for half a block before calling an ambulance."

Calling Burns "very indignant," The Evening World quoted him as saying:

The idea of his taking the dope on the church steps.  He ought to get six months for that alone.  I am going to see that he gets his due, for I think he did it on purpose.  Just to think of trying to die in front of a church after being thrown out of a saloon and a drug store!  He must have thought the church was easy, but I nabbed him in time.

Rather astonishingly, those stone steps led to a still-uncompleted building, 20 years after construction had begun.  A temporary wooden structure had made do to date.  But on March 27, 1904 the New-York Tribune reported that "Plans have been Schickel & Ditmars, architects, for the completion of the church building of St. Monica's Roman Catholic Church, in East Seventy-ninth-st...The basement only of the building is at present finished."

The Record & Guide announced that the plans included "stone and brick, slate roofing, nickel-plated plumbing, electric wiring, organ and steam" at a cost of $70,000.  Because the structure would be placed atop the Babcock & McAvoy chapel and basement, the plans were filed under "Alterations" rather than "Projected Buildings."  The New-York Tribune reported that the building would be "of decorative Gothic design."

And indeed it would be.

The architects had designed an English Gothic structure of beige brick and stone.  Schickel & Ditmars forewent a towering steeple in favor of four stone spires sprouting Gothic crockets.  A massive central stained glass window dominated the design, overwhelming even the handsome, projecting stone entrance directly below.

A year later, on May 8, 1905, the New-York Tribune reported "With all the pomp and ceremony of the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church the cornerstone of the new Church of St. Monica, 79th-st., near 1st-ave., was laid yesterday afternoon in the presence of an immense throng.  The new church is being built around and above the edifice in which the people have been worshipping."

By now, according to the article, construction costs had double, now estimated at $150,000 (about $4.3 million today).  The Tribune predicted "It is expected to have the church completed this fall."

A hansom cab waits in front of the steps in this sketch, possible issued by the architects' office.  New-York Tribune, November 29, 1907 (copyright expired)
On November 29, 1908 the newspaper reported on the dedication of the structure.  While it called the ceremonies "elaborate," the article was more focused on the size and beauty of the building.

It said "The new church is among the largest Catholic churches in the city" and its "spacious and adorned interior make the church one of the most complete and ornate to be found in the country.  It is familiarly spoken of as the East Side Cathedral."

photograph by Wurts Brothers, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The article placed the seating capacity at 1,300 on the main floor and noted "the main alter is forty feet high and made of Carara marble, as are also the side alters and the statues."

Wurts Brothers captured the newly-completed interiors around the time of the dedication.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On the afternoon of February 14, 1911 two thieves picked the wrong church to rob.  At around 5:30 Sexton Hugh P. Connolly entered to discover Raffale Fantano and Cheli Guilio tampering with the poor box.  The New York Times reported "He rushed at them, shouting for help, and grappled with Guilio."  Father William Jordan rushed in to handle Fantano.

Father Jordan told police later "I got within five yards of my man before he saw me and when he did so I lost no time, as I did not know what weapons he carried.  I smashed him in the left eye and got him by the throat.  He is a strong fellow and he threw me, but we rolled over and he swore loudly in Italian as I pummeled him."

Pummeled him, he did.  The Times recounted "Father Jordan used up his man so completely that he needed the attention of an ambulance surgeon before he could be taken from the East Eighty-eighth Street Station to Police Headquarters."

Father Jordan and Sexton Connolly dragged the men to the police station themselves, no doubt astonishing the cops on duty there.  The crooks had managed to pull $3.35 from the poor box, and it was not their first visit.  "The church, according to Father Jordan, has suffered for a long time from poor-box thefts, but not until last night was the problem of the money's disappearance solve," reported the newspaper.

Two months later the incident was largely forgotten as the church prepared for a yearly fund-raising event that would surely raise eyebrows today.  On April 26 The Evening World reported that "Preparations for the annual minstrel show of St. Monica's Roman Catholic Church...are complete.  Yorkville is on edge, for this is the banner entertainment of the year in that part of the city."

The article said that a "chorus of ninety girls and half as many young men" would perform.  It added "The proceeds will be devoted to lifting the debt incurred when the Rev. Father Lennon in 1907 raised St. Monica's from n old type wooden structure to a big modern church."

Ticket buyers could look forward to Miss Edna Schaufele singing "How Can They Tell I'm Irish?" accompanied by eight dancing girls.  In addition, said The Evening World, "'Implicitus' Joe Farley, the veteran interlocutor, and 'Dinklepop' Peter Buckley will be on the job."

The onslaught of the Great Depression seriously affected Yorkville residents and, subsequently, the Church of St. Monica.  Its pastor since 1913, Father Arthur J. Kenny had been elevated to Monsignor in 1926.  He watched his congregation decline to 3,900 by 1942, about 30% fewer than in the 1920's.  Monsignor Kenny turned the focus of the church's outreach to serving the unemployed and needy.

Three decades after taking the pulpit here, Monsignor Kenny died in April 1943.  The Times called him "A quiet and retiring man who sunned publicity."  Dwindling membership did not prevent the church from being crowded with 1,200 mourners on April 24, the day of his funeral.  The services were led by Auxiliary Bishop Stephen J. Donahue and attended by another Auxiliary Bishop, J. Francis A. McIntyre, two monsignors and 50 priests and seminarians.

With the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the parish just months away, fire broke out in the church in August 1953.  The four-alarm blaze resulted in significant damage "necessitating considerable renovation," as noted by The Times.

Donations poured in to restore the structure and seven months later, on March 8, 1954, The New York Times reported that the goal of $125,000 had been surpassed by $66,000 with money still coming in.  On October 25, the same newspaper reported that Cardinal Francis Spellman had celebrated the jubilee mass in the renovated church.  "There was a capacity congregation of 1,800."

Change in the demographics of Yorkville and times in general were reflected in the parishioners and the activities of the Church of St. Monica over the subsequent decades.  On October 16, 1980, for instance, it was the scene of an event hosted by the Irish Arts Center.  It featured "traditional music and dance--jigs, flings, reels, and mazurkas."  The Times added "Special instruction in Irish ceili dancing will be offered."

As Catholic Church attendance in general lessened and income subsequently suffered, the Archdiocese looked at closing parishes throughout the city.  In November 2014 Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced the closing of the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the church for the city's deaf Catholics, on East 83rd Street.  Its congregation, as well as that of St. Stephen of Hungary, were merged with St. Monica.  The action resulted in the somewhat cumbersome name of The church of St. Monica-St. Elizabeth of Hungary-St. Stephen of Hungary.

Sadly, Schickel & Ditmars's striking English Gothic structure, once referred to as the Cathedral of the East Side, is often overlooked today.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Manhasset Apartments - 2801-2825 Broadway

While development continued with a fury throughout most of the Upper West Wide in the 1890's, the district around what was known as Schuyler Square (later Strauss Park) was ignored.  The fact was, there was no convenient way to get there.

But that was all about to change.  In 1894 plans were announced for the city's first subway line, which included stops at West 96th Street and West 110th Street.  Developers descended upon the vacant plots.  In 1897 construction began on the first apartment building in the Schuyler Square neighborhood, and by the end of the following year the number had risen to six.

On May 29, 1899 John W. Noble, Jr. purchased the property on the western side of Broadway between 108th and 109th Street from Jacob D. Butler.  The Record & Guide noted that the site included two, two-story wooden buildings and vacant plots.  Of the staggering $255,000 price (nearly $7.8 million today), Noble mortgaged about half from Butler.

Noble partnered with his brother, William, to construct two matching apartment buildings on the site.  William was already well-known in real estate circles as a building contractor and developer, responsible for several large hotels and apartment houses throughout the city.   The pair, under the name William Noble & Co., hired Joseph Wolf to design the upscale structure that would be known as The Manhasset.

Wolf filed plans for an eight-story "brick and stone" apartment house.  The two sections successfully pretended to be a single building.  Their two-story rusticated stone base upheld a five-story central section of pink-beige brick decorated with contrasting stone in the form of pseudo balconies, broken pediments, and cartouches. 

Intended for well-to-do occupants, the apartments were expansive.  There would be just three per floor in the northern building, and four per floor in the half facing 108th Street.

But construction had barely begun when trouble came.  The Record & Guide later commented that William Noble "occupied a prominent position as a builder, but was unfortunate in his ventures.  With both the Grenoble and Empire Hotel, which were his most important undertakings in this city, he met with lose, nor was he luckier with some other building ventures."

It came to a disastrous end in 1899, with construction of The Manhasset still underway.  Noble filed for voluntary bankruptcy "for $1,000,000" as reported in The Record & Guide.  The amount would be more than 30 times that much today.

William Noble & Co., however, limped along long enough to see the buildings finished in 1901, the same year that Jacob D. Butler foreclosed.  But Butler had grander plans.  On February 15, 1902 the Record & Guide announced he would "add three stories and a roof garden" to the buildings.  "He also arranged for an electric cab service from the building to the L station for the convenience of tenants."

(William Noble, incidentally, suffered a fatal stroke three months later, dying on May 21.)

Rather than bring Joseph Wolf back to make made the enlargements, Butler hired Janes & Leo.  The firm designed the top two of the additional three floors as a nearly vertical slate-covered mansard.  Additionally, they placed majestic stone entrances within the light courts.

The World's New York Apartment House Album, 1910 (copyright expired)

The original interior layout was changed, as well, nearly doubling the original number of apartments.  An advertisement explained "With its 200 feet frontage on Broadway the Manhasset has six apartments on each floor in suites of six, seven and nine rooms, and one, two and three baths."  In noted that along with "every modern improvement," there were "four elevators, two for the exclusive use of tenants and two for servants and freight."

The layout included two seemingly awkward apartments in the center.  The World's New York Apartment House Album, 1910 (copyright expired)
Butler had put the title of the property in the name of his wife, Carrie.  The couple sold The Manhasset for $3 million in January 1910 to the newly-formed Realty Assets Company.   The firm immediately set out to convert the Broadway street level to shops--a project that turned out to be a massive undertaking.  Architect Clarence Shunway's 14 storefronts under a metal cornice required serious underpinning of the heavy structure.

On December 17 that year The Record & Guide pointed out that "altering the first story into a number of stores was a very complicated structural feat, as well as an expensive one."  While the plans, filed in July, estimated that cost at $1.6 million in current dollars, the article felt it "probably does not fully cover the cost to the owners."  (And, indeed, that same week The Engineering Record adjusted the price tag to $75,000--more than $2 million today.)

Replacing the Broadway facade was the simple part.  The foundations had to be extended four feet deeper.  The Guide noted that amazingly, "While the work was going on the upper part of the building was undisturbed."

The Engineering Record, December 10, 1910 (copyright expired)

The Engineering Record reported "The shoring and steel work have now been successfully accomplished without accident and without interfering with any tenants or with any portion of the building."

One of the tenants apparently not disturbed, at least by the ongoing construction, was H. S. Morse.  Instead, it was bees that bothered him.   Morse owned the nearby tennis court behind the building.  When he went there to play on Monday, May 30 that year he found it, according to The New York Times, "occupied by thousands of bees which had apparently cruised across the Hudson from the Jersey shore."

His court keeper assured Morse there was no danger, "as bees never stung people in May."  Morse was unconvinced.   He began throwing stones at a post which had become covered in bees "fully six inches deep."   The swarm was only momentarily annoyed, and they quickly returned.

Before long locals gathered, offering any number of solutions to Morse's bee problem.  "One man brought a barrel with molasses in it and a box to cover over the end when the insects went in after the syrup," reported The Times, "but the bees just droned away on the post and appeared to be having a convention to decide on the price of honey this Summer."

Eventually the tennis players decided that the bees, indeed, did not sting in May and played on all afternoon.  Nevertheless, the bees' unwilling landlord was intent on evicting them.  "Mr. Morse said it was a case of either moving the court or the bees.  He added that to any person who could make use of them the bees were worth money and he didn't care how soon some one came along and took them away."

In its advertisements, The Realty Assets Co. called its renovated building "one of the largest, most attractive and up to date apartment houses in New York" with "apartments of 6, 7, 8 and 9 rooms."  Rents in 1912 ranged from $1,200 to $2,400 a year--or about $5,200 a month for the most expensive today.

Frank N. Hoffstot, president of the Pressed Steel Car Company, purchased The Manhasset in May 1919.  He was delving into real estate investment at the time, having recently purchased Euclid Hall on Broadway between 85th and 86th Streets.  In reporting on the sale, the New-York Tribune noted "He has no present intention of altering the Manhasset."  The building would change hands at least once before being lost in foreclosure in 1932.

One of the Broadway shops was occupied as a Western Union Telegraph Company branch in 1941.  On the morning of September 14 that year the office was staffed by three young employees, including 25 year old Mary Mitchell,, when three well-dressed men entered at around 11:40.

One of them mumbled something to Mary, which she did not understand.  The New York Times said that Western Union employees were "under instructions to be polite at all times," so Mary replied "Pardon me. sir, I didn't hear you."  This time he made himself clear.

"This is a stick-up."

The three employees were ordered into a rear room and the supposed gunmen (they merely held heir hands in their pockets to suggest being armed) grabbed $60 from the cash register and ran.  The headline of The Times article read "Never Omit Courtesy / Western Union Girls Do Not Except Stick-Up Men."

By 1963 the building was home, rather unexpectedly, to the Eastern Trading Company.  Far from New York's Chinatown, it was the source of hard-to-find authentic ingredients for chef Florence Lin, who taught Chinese cuisine at the China Institute.

Three years later The New York Times culinary columnist Craig Claiborne interviewed Grace Chu, author of The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking.  Like Florence Lin, she advised that the ingredients (including the chopsticks) could be found at the Eastern Trading Company in The Manhasset.

The Asian tradition continued when East Wind Trading Company opened by 1973.  On October 8 that year The Times journalist Richard P. Shepard called it "a commodious, neatly laid out store dealing in food, literature and various articles from China."

The newspaper was equally taken with the Middle Eastern restaurant, Rainbow Chicken, here in by 1985.  Marian Burros said "the most highly seasoned and best grilled chicken some from a tiny store called Rainbow Chicken.  Golden brown, juicy and suffused with Middle Eastern spices."

The Health Department was not so enthusiastic, slapping Rainbow Chicken with violations in August the following year.  But the little restaurant persevered and nearly a decade later The Times was still a fan, saying on July 2, 1995, it "makes a good grilled chicken, crisp around the edges and juicy."

On March 11, 1999 The Manhasset was two weeks away from the completion of a $2.5 million renovation.  That afternoon a devastating eight-alarm fire started in a ground floor restaurant and swept through the building.  The tenants were, as The Times worded it, "abruptly homeless."  Among them was 104-year old Louise Stern who had moved into her apartment in the 1940's.  She told reporters "The firemen carried me down.  We had to get out in a hurry."

Louise had been unaware where was a fire and when she heard a banging on the door, she shuffled over with her walker to answer it.  Although she did not remember much about the incident, neighbors later recalled she opened the door to the firemen and said "Please come in gentlemen.  I'm sorry I cannot offer you any tea."

Robert C. Cornell narrowly escaped his 10-floor apartment by climbing out a window and "inching along a ledge in bare feet," as he later described.   Denise Pelligrini, her husband Laddie de Paur, were at work.  Mr. de Paur's 72-year old mother was babysitting their three children (the youngest only 16 months old) in their 11th floor apartment.  The elderly woman opened the door with the infant in her arms, to see fire.

With the renovation still underway, there was a workman on the scaffolding outside the window.  Mrs. de Paur handed the baby to him.  A fire fighter then helped the rest of the family climb out the window to a safer lower floor where they waited to be evacuated.

Of the 134 apartments, half were rent-regulated and the other half were co-ops.  Three months after the fire The Times described the residents as being "as diverse as the Upper West Side itself.  There were single people sharing the rents on modest apartments and freelancers who worked at home.  There were elderly people who were able to remain in the neighborhood because of regulated rents and Social Security, but who are now struggling to rent a temporary shelter on their limited fixed incomes."

While the north end of the building was devastated, tenants in the 108th Street section were able to return to their apartments within a few months.  Today no hint of the fire remains and the majestic Manhasset still commands the same attention it did more than 110 years ago.

photographs by the author

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Lost Herman O. Armour House - 856 Fifth Avenue

The brilliant stained glass transoms of almost every window in the house can be clearly seen in this photo..  Photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Herman Ossian Armour was born on March 2, 1837 in Stockbridge, New York; one of six sons of farmer Danforth Armour.  At the age of 18 he left home "having been attracted by the opportunities offered in the West to young and progressive men," as explained in the New-York Tribune decades later.   While most adventurous teens heading West in 1855 would have been seeking California gold, Armour went only as far as Milwaukee where he went opened a butcher shop.  It eventually became Armour, Plakington & Co.

Ambitious and seemingly tireless, he left the business in charge of his partner, John Plankington, in 1862 and headed to Chicago, where he established a grain commission business.  Three years later he moved again, opening a branch office of Armour, Plankington & Co. (now a major pork packing business) in New York City.  In 1868 founded the commission house, H. O. Armour & Company, in New York City.

By now Herman's brother Philip, oversaw the Midwestern packing business, renamed Armour & Co. in 1870.  In 1875 that operation was moved to Chicago.

Herman and his wife, the former Mary A. Jacks, had two daughters, Mary and Juliana.   The family lived in a fashionable section of Brooklyn, where Armour's wife died in 1870, leaving Herman to raise the little girls alone.  (Albeit with a significant domestic staff.)

The American Monthly Review of Reviews, January 1901  (copyright expired)
In January 1881 Heber R. Bishop sold the four building plots at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 67th Street for a total of $300,000.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on January 22 "On the ground thus secured, three houses will be built on the avenue and one 30 foot house on the street."  Bishop had sold three of the plots to Hugh Lamb, a partner in the architectural firm of Lamb & Rich.   The corner plot went to Herman Armour.  The transaction included another $200,000 for the mansion that would be built on the site, also designed by Lamb & Rich.

The firm designed four similar, but distinct, homes in the Queen Anne style which were completed before the year's end.  The Record & Guide called them "the highest grade houses offered for sale on 5th av."  The Armour house was four stories of red brick above a rough-cut stone basement.  The relatively sedate design relied on scalloped gables and dormers, and projecting bays at different levels to provide interest.  The three balconies, two at the fourth floor and one at the third, were protected by ornate iron railings.

Collins' Both Sides of Fifth Avenue, 1910 (copyright expired)

It may have been his daughters' domestic futures that prompted Armour to move to Manhattan.  But it was his own clandestine romance that shocked New York in the winter of 1887.  The New York Times remarked on February 5 that his marriage at Syracuse, New York a few days earlier to Jane P. Livingston "came as a complete surprise."  The article went on, "Surprise was not lessened by the fact that both of the contracting parties belong here...Naturally Mr. Armour's acquaintances wondered why he and a New-York lady should go to Syracuse to be married."  The newspaper finally surmised, "A 'homestead' honeymoon was the most likely conjecture, as Mr. Armour came from that part of the State."  The groom was 50 years old and his bride was 43.

The family summered most often in Long Branch, New Jersey.  There they rubbed shoulders with millionaires like Pierre Lorillard, Jr., John Sloane, Moses Taylor and Julia Grant, widow of the former President.

Back in Manhattan, the Armours rarely entertained on a large scale.  While their names appeared in society columns as guests at balls and receptions; Jennie, as she was familiarly known, was seldom listed as a hostess.

It is possible that Herman, like Joseph Pulitzer for instance, simply did not like the domestic disruption entertainments caused.  He seems to have been more interested in politics; the Armour name most often appearing in print connected with political meetings and dinners.

Nevertheless, the house was not without music and entertainment.  On February 13, 1888, for instance, the New York Amusement Gazette reported "Mrs. H. O. Ormond [sic] 856 Fifth Avenue, will give a pink dinner and dance for her daughters, on Tuesday evening."

When this photo was taken, No. 2 East 67th Street (behind) had been demolished and replaced.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
Juliana was married to Dr. Farquhar Ferguson in 1890.  The wealthy couple would become well known as patrons of the arts and establish a sprawling country estate, the Monastery, on Huntington Harbor, Long Island.

On April 2, 1893 The New York Times printed a one-line article entitled "An Interesting Engagement."   It read "Last week brought forth the announcement of the engagement of Miss Mary Armour, youngest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. W. [sic] Armour of 856 Fifth Avenue, to W. A. Nichols."  (The fact that newspapers seemed unable to get the family's names correct must have been a constant irritation.)

By the time of Mary's engagement the family's summer residence was outside of Tarrytown, New York.  Her wedding took place on the lawn of the estate, Waldheim, on June 20.  The New York Times reported "As the Russian Court Orchestra played the wedding march the bride, leaning on the arm of her father, came out of the mansion and walked down a carpeted lane and was received by the guests under the tall oak trees."

Following the ceremony, "a wedding breakfast was served by Berger on the lawn in a large marquee, in which there were eight tables," said the article.

With both his daughters now married, Herman was annoyed when envelopes began arriving at the Fifth Avenue house addressed to "Miss Armour."  Inside each was the same printed circular from a matrimonial agent promising to find her a husband.

Having reached the end of his patience, Herman marched into the Jefferson Market Court on June 27, 1894, complaining that the agent was "annoying his daughter by sending her letters."  He told Justice Ryan "The impertinence of the agent is rendered doubly odious by the circumstance that my daughter is married and has children."

When the judge suggested that he swear out a warrant for the man's arrest, Armour declined.  "Mr. Armour did not think this punishment would fit the crime," said The Evening World.  He told a reporter he did not think the letters were sent with malicious intent; but he did feel that "As a citizen I deemed it my duty to show the circular to the police...That's the whole matter in a nutshell."

The avenue in front of the Armour house (behind the awning) was lined with sleek carriages arriving for the wedding of Anna Gould at No. 857 on March 2, 1895 Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
In June 1901 Herman and Jennie leased the General Wilson B. French cottage in Saratoga, New York for the summer.   Mary there was with her parents in September.  On September 7 Herman drove to New York City to handle business, but was back the same day.   The following morning, according to the Minnesota newspaper The Bemidji Pioneer, "he enjoyed his usual drive and appeared much refreshed by his outing."

The newspaper reported "He was conversing with friends on the piazza of his cottage when suddenly his head dropped to one side and he expired almost immediately."  Jennie and Mary were both on the porch at the time.  In reporting on his shocking death, the New-York Tribune added, "His wife was Miss Jennie P. Livingston, a woman of strong character, who, he was accustomed to say, was invaluable to him as a counselor in his business."

The funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue home three days later, on September 11.  The Times reported that the service "was of the simplest character, and was attended by only the immediate relatives of Mr. Armour, close friends, and a few business associates."  Among them were former Mayor Franklin Edson, Senator Thomas C. Platt, and high ranking business and banking figures.

Following her period of mourning, Jennie spent less and less time in New York.   In August 1902 she was in France; and when the steamship Kaiser Wilhelm II arrived in New York from Cherbourg on August 30, 1904, The Times noted that among the passengers disembarking were W. D. Rockefeller, Baroness de Reinelt, Baroness Alice de Rose, Baron P. de Morogues, and Jennie Armour.

On June 6, 1908 the San Francisco Call reported that Jennie had arrived on the Nippon Maru.  "Mrs. Armour, in company with Miss A. L. Barrett, has been touring the world and is now on the way home," it said.  "The ladies were accompanied by E. T. Atkinson, who travels with them in the double capacity of guide and courier.  They will remain here for a few days as guests of the St. Francis [Hotel]."

In February 1910 Jennie sold the now-outdated mansion to Elbert H. Gary, chairman of the board of the United States Steel Corporation.  The Record & Guide pointed out the changes in the immediate neighborhood.  "No. 854, the former residence of Mr. Andrews, has been torn down and rebuilt by Mr. Beekman...No. 855, residence of the late Simon Berg, was rebuilt by him; No. 2 East 67th st (one of the four [of the original Lamb & Rich row]), owned by Henri P. Wertheim, was torn down and rebuilt by him."

The article advised "No. 856 will be demolished by the new owner, who will construct on this site one of the handsomest dwellings on the av."  In June 1910 mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert filed plans for a new $300,000 mansion for Garry.

Less than two decades after it was constructed, the Gary mansion was being demolished in 1927.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

It was, indeed, "one of the handsomest dwellings" on the avenue; but it did not last.  In 1927 it was razed to be replaced by the apartment building designed by Shreve & Lamb, which survives.

In 1929 Wurts Bros. photographed the newly-completed building from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Delightfully Eccentric - 18 West 23rd Street

The eclecic mix and match of alterations leaves no hint of the original 1857 house.
R. C. Voorhees began construction on two houses at Nos. 16 and 18 West 23rd Street in 1856.  The upscale, brownstone-fronted residences would take two years to complete.  The block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues would be home to some of Manhattan's wealthiest and most respected families.

Voorhees sold No. 18 Dr. Egbert Guernsey and his wife, the former Sarah Lefferts Schneck.   Guernsey was born on July 8, 1823 in Litchfield, Connecticut.  The Egbert family traced its roots in New England to the 17th century.  He was educated at Phillip's Andover, Yale University, and received his medical degree from University of the City of New York in 1846.  By now Guernsey was a trustee in the newly-established New York Homoeopathic Medical College and a professor of obstetrics and diseases of women.

When the Guernseys moved into No. 18 they had an 8-year old son, William.  Two years later, in 1859, daughter Florence was born in the house.  William eventually went into medicine and in 1874 both he and his father listed their practices here.

Wealthy families like the Guernseys housed their several vehicles and horses in private carriage houses.   By 1871 the old Miner family mansion on Fifth Avenue between 21st and 22nd Street was occupied by the exclusive Dobson & Co. glassware store.  (A dozen claret glasses that year were advertised for $600--nearly $12,500 in today's dollars.)   Egbert Guernsey leased the conveniently-located stable behind the mansion for his use.

The staff consisted of grooms, stable boys, coachmen and others.  In 1875 John H. Jones headed the stable operation and occasionally used 18-year old William A. Jones to do odd jobs.  The younger Jones took a nap on the afternoon of December 19 that year; one he would soon regret.

Jones woke up to discover the stable on fire.  Instead of calling for help or attempting to douse the flames, he panicked and ran.  It was not a good choice for a black teen in 1875.

The New York Herald reported "A fire broke out yesterday afternoon in the two-story brick stable in the rear of No. 166 Fifth avenue, which is occupied by Dr. Guernsey, of No. 18 West Twenty-third street.  It was ten minutes past two o'clock when a negro named William A. Jones, aged eighteen years, was seen by some citizens, who were passing at the time, to rush through the stable door into the street without giving any notice of a fire."

Jones had no sooner run by when flames shot out of the windows and doors of the carriage house.  It appeared obvious to the witnesses that the teen had set the fire.  "Two or three of the citizens at once seized Jones, guessing from his apparent want of desire to extinguish the flames that he had been the cause of the fire."

The newspaper did not hide its disdain for beat cops in reporting that "As usual in cases of emergency, no policeman was at hand and two blocks had to be gone over before one could be found."  Private citizens helped rescue "all the horses, four or five carriages and part of the harness;" but Guernsey suffered $2,000 worth of damage to other carriages and harnesses.  Damage to the building was $500.

In the meantime, "Jones, the suspected incendiary, was taken to the Twenty-ninth precinct station house."  There he told his story and insisted he "barely escaped to the street in time to save his life."  Police were not totally convinced and he was held pending an investigation to find the origin of the fire.

Dr. Guernsey was well-known for his attempts to improve the condition of the poor and public sanitation in general.  He personally visited tenement houses as delivered reports to the New York Sanitation Association.  In reporting on Nos. 88-90 Sheriff Street in 1865 he flatly said "This nuisance should be destroyed."  He said in part "The carbonic-acid gas, in conjunction with the other emanations from bones, rags and human filth, defies description...The inhabitants lead a miserable existence and their children wilt and die in their infancy."

Sarah was no less involved in her own charitable causes.  She was highly involved in events benefiting the West Side Homoeopathic Dispensary, like the Children's Carnival on February 26, 1878.  Newspapers reported that tickets to the events could be purchased from Sarah at the West 23rd Street house.

In 1881 Sarah was among five women appointed by Governor Alonzo B. Cornell to select a site for the proposed House of Refuge for Women.  A New-York Tribune reporter visited her on August 3 for an update.  She was frank about her feelings of greed versus compassion.  "The trouble is the people ask too much for their land...Now if some charitable person would give twenty-five or fifty acres of land in a healthy situation, near a good stream of water, it would amply repay him in a few yeas by the good it would do."  The Tribune titled the article "Reforming Bad Women."

By the time Sarah Guernsey was doing her part to reform bad women, her 23rd Street neighborhood was becoming intolerably commercial.   The breaking point for the family finally came early in March 1883 when the New-York Tribune remarked "Another of the few private houses left in Twenty-third-st. between Fifth and Sixth aves. will be given up for business on May 1, when Dr. Egbert Guernsey will remove his family up-town."

The house was in Sarah's name.  So when plans were filed by architects D. & J. Jardine to install "two artist's skylights in roof" in September 1884, the owner was listed as "Mrs. Egbert Guernsey."  The minor alterations cost the equivalent of about $9,000 today.

New York's entertainment district had moved onto West 23rd Street by now.   Among the theaters along the thoroughfare was Koster & Bial's Music Hall, on the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue; Booth's Theatre on the opposite corner; and the Grand Opera House on the northeast corner of 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue.   So it is not surprising that early tenants of the converted Guernsey mansion were involved in the theater.  Among them were producer and manager Daniel Frohman, managers Gale & Spader, and the Lyceum School.  When the new Lyceum School Building was erected in 1885, many of the theatrical tenants moved there from No. 18.

In 1891 the building was shared by the Aeolian Company and George H. Polley & Co.   Aeolian sold its parlor organs and pianos while upstairs the Boston-based Polley & Co. was a publishing house.

Thomas W. Polley, a partner with his brother George, represented the firm in New York.   For several years the bachelor had boarded with the the family of the windowed Mrs. Homer Baldwin at No. 71 East 85th Street.  He was treated essentially as one of the family, so when the Baldwins celebrated Christmas at Niagara Falls they urged the 34-year old Polley to come along.

On Christmas Day The Evening World reported "Last evening the Baldwin household held their Christmas celebration, exchanging gifts and having a jolly time."  For some reason that night they changed their plans.  They were supposed to return to New York City on Christmas night; instead they boarded the New York Central Railroad train after opening their presents.

Along with Polley and his 60-year old landlady were her children, 30-year old Homer, who worked at the Hazard Manufacturing Company, and 23-year old Lillian.  She had graduated from Normal College in 1888 and was engaged to "an estimable young business man," according to The Evening World.  Homer's wife, Lilian, was also along.

As the train sped to New York, another high-speed passenger train was heading north.  Through some horrifying human error both trains were on the same track.  Just outside of Hastings-on-the-Hudson the two trains met, telescoping into one another with a deadly impact.

Nine people died immediately.  Others were scalded, burned, and crushed.  The Evening World wrote "Saddest of all is the tragedy which has befallen the family of Mrs. Homer Baldwin...The mother is dead, the sons and his wife and the beautiful young sister are mangled and burned, the latter not being expected to live the day out, and the father of the young lady's betrothed lies in the Morgue at Tarrytown."  Also in the morgue was Thomas W. Polley.

The following day the New-York Tribune updated the condition of the passengers.  Of the Baldwin party, only Homer had survived.  His wife, sister, and her fiance had all succumbed overnight.

The Aeolian Company proudly touted its automatic organ and pianos.  On April 3, 1892 The Sun noted "The advantages offered by the Aeolian are evident at a glance to any one who takes the trouble to listen to it in the warerooms at 18 West twenty-third street, where it may be heard at any time."  Not only could customers purchase a self-playing instrument, there were approximately 5,000 pieces of music to choose from.

"And yet the Aeolian is not the soulless work of a music box," explained the article, "the player can really guide the music of the Aeolian as a leader conducts an orchestra, and can give infinite expression by changing the time, the power, and the use of different combinations of steps."

In March 1895 Sarah Guernsey made additional updates to her former house, hiring architect R. H. Anderson to install an elevator shaft, change the stairs and make other alterations.  The $3,000 in changes did not apparently extend to the facade.

Aeolian Company continued to lease space and by 1899 was additionally publishing The Aeolian Quarterly here.

The instruments were not cheap.  The price of the illustrated parlor organ would be in the neighborhood of $15,000 today.  The Cosmopolitan, October 1895 (copyright expired)
On September 10, 1902 The New York Times announced that the building "now occupied by the Aeolian Company" had been leased.  The new tenant was the Butterick Publishing Company, and before moving in it commissioned architects Horgan & Slattery to make significant changes.

The firm filed plans on November 8.  They called for new walls, new vents and a new skylight; but most significantly a "new store front."  The cast iron front featured Renaissance Revival-style panels within the piers and pretty filigree arches.

Snippets of the Horgan & Slattery storefront survive on the first and second floors.
Surprisingly after investing $10,000 in the remodeling, Butterick Publishing subleased the building in the summer of 1907 to high-end milliner and furrier Simon Lindau.  The Real Estate Record & Guide announced he "will open a store as a branch of his present establishment at 933 Broadway."

Lindau, too, would not stay on especially long, leaving in the summer of 1911.  The first floor became home to Maxwell's jewelry store and Odell's fur and millinery shop (which extended onto the second floor).  The top three floors were vacant.

The following year, on December 26, an explosion in the basement occured around 9:50 at night.  By the time fire fighters arrived the fire had spread up the elevator shaft "and the blaze began to leap twenty feet above the roof," as reported by The Times.  A crowd of several thousand crammed West 23rd Street to watch the firemen fight the blaze.  It was extinguished without major damage to the building.  The newspaper reported "The major part of the damage was the ruin of furs by water."

Both Sarah Guernsey and William N. Guernsey had died in 1901, followed by Dr. Egbert Guernsey in 1903.  The title to No. 18 had passed to Florence Guernsey.  Among her tenants was the pottery store of M. Warren, the sole agent for Zanesville Pottery; and furniture dealer Charles S. Nathan who leased the store in January 1917.

Florence Guernsey never married.  She was highly active in women clubs and, according to the New-York Tribune, "early in life she showed a keen interest in all movements looking to the advancement of women."  She died on January 17, 1919.

No. 18 was sold at auction in March 1920, then quickly resold a month later to Charles H. Hall "who will use it for his New York warerooms," according to The Real Estate Record & Guide on April 17.

Charles Hall Inc, was founded in 1873 in Springfield, Massachusetts as a retail store selling china, glassware and general household goods.  Now No. 18 became "Hall House" where the firm's wholesale operations were based.  The building quickly proved to be too small and in 1924 the firm moved to No. 3 East 40th Street.

No. 18 was sold to Joseph M. Crucet and once again the building received a make-over.  Crucet commissiond Edward L. Middleton to do a startling update which resulted in a Mediterranean flavored splattering of Arts & Crafts-style tiles, two Spanish-tiled overhanging roofs at the second and fifth floors, and a stucco-faced parapet.  Rather surprisingly, almost nothing was done to the two-story 1902 Renaissance-Revival storefront.

Crucet's firm, the Crucet Manufacturing Company, was well-known for its handsome table and floor lamps.  In March, even while the renovations were taking place, Crucet leased the second floor to the Roseville Pottery Company for its showroom.

A 1920's advertisement suggested the wide range of lamps the firm offered.  Good Furniture Magazine, (copyright expired)

In June 1950 Bengor Products Company moved into the store and mezzanine.  Formed by Ben and Lou Gordon in 1925, the firm was emblematic of the change in businesses along the block.  In reporting on the move, Billboard magazine said the new store was "in the heart of the novelty import-export business."

Among the novelties Bengor hawked was the book Passions of Paris which gave the unsuspecting "reader" an electric shock. Billboard magazine, March 1, 1952

Bengor Products remained in the building for years, selling products the good taste of which were sometimes questionable.  In 1966 the firm marketed "Mr. John," described in the American Import & Export Bulletin as a "novelty gag-joke item shaped to resemble a urinal with a flush valve."

As the 20th century drew to a close Bengor Products and its gag items were gone.  In 1997 New York Magazine commented on "beauty pearls filled with moisturizer, cleanser or face scrub" that could be purchased at MCM Salon here.

In 2010 the top floors were converted to apartments.  A Mexican restaurant operates from the ground floor today and a spa from the second floor.  The eccentric mish-mash of upgrades to the old structure makes for a delightfully unique presence on the block--with no hint of the 1858 house hidden somewhere within.

photographs by the author

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Sullivan, Randolph & Budd Bldg - 80-82 White Street

Carpet dealer Elias S. Higgins plunged full force into the flurry of new construction that swept New York City after the Civil War.   In 1867 he began work on the Grand Hotel on Broadway at 31st Street, designed by Henry Engelbert.   The architect would design the even larger, more impressive Broadway Central Hotel for Higgins in 1871.

It was not a hotel that the two men worked together on in 1867 at Nos. 80-82 White Street, but an elegant loft and store building.   Faced in white marble above a cast iron storefront, the six-story building was completed in 1868.   The Italianate-style facade would have been typical of the scores of buildings going up in the district were it not for Englebert's neo-Grec detailing.  The architectural style had only just begun appearing in America and the elements--like the stylized capitals of the pilasters--took the design to the cutting edge.

By March 1868 the new building had became home to Sullivan, Randolph & Budd, importers of "woolens and goods for men's wear."  At the time it claimed to be the oldest textile house in the United States.  Founded around 1834 as Wilson G. Hunt & Co., the name was changed in 1864 when long-time employees Naham Sullivan, Peter F. Randolph and William A. Budd took over.

The firm had barely moved in when the 1868 guide History of New York City; From the Discovery to the Present Day described the "handsome marble structure."  "The six stories high, with a splendid lofty basement, fitted up in the most complete and admirable manner.  A powerful steam-dummy performs the work of hoisting and lowering from basement to roof."

The firm's offices were on the first floor ("very tastefully arranged") as well as the sales room.  "The other principal floors are devoted to a complete stock of foreign and domestic fabrics, together with a full assortment of trimmings, etc., while in the top floor is stowed a large surplus."

Not mentioned in the article was Meinhard Bros. & Co., wholesale clothing merchants.  Based in Georgia, the company sub-leased an office in the White Street building.

from the Historical Record of the City of Savannah, 1869 (copyright expired)
Sullivan, Randolph & Budd was well-known for its durable uniform fabrics.  The firm supplied goods to West Point and other military schools, as well as the city's Municipal Police Department and other police organizations throughout the country.

But behind the scenes, there seems to have been discord among the management.  Shortly after taking over No. 80-82 White Street, the firm was changed to Sullivan, Budd & Co., then in 1871 to N. Sullivan & Co.  One by one Naham Sullivan's partners had dropped out.

After Sullivan & Co. moved to No. 329 Broadway around 1873 the White Street building became home to several smaller firms.  One of them, possibly Meinhard Bros., did not identify itself in an advertisement that appeared in The New York Herald on October 26 that year.  The wholesaler was offering excess stock to individual, private customers off the street:

Clothing at Your Own Use at wholesale prices, at 80 and 82 White street, up stairs, first building east of Broadway.  You can buy for the next 60 days, from our large and beautiful stock of Clothing, single Garments for your own use, and save you from 25 to 50 per cent.  Fashionable styles, equal to custom work.

An interesting tenant by 1875 was the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The White Street office was in charge of filling the annual supply list necessary for the Indian missions and reservations throughout the West.  On April 28, 1875 The New York Herald reported "Commissioner Edward P. Smith, of the Indian Department, held his annual reception yesterday, at No. 82 White street.  It was largely attended, and the visitors walked up and down and stood in groups discussing the prospects of the coming season, while the Commissioner read out the bids on which they proposed to supply the wants of 'Poor Lo.'" (Poor Lo! was the term commonly used for the group of missions.)

There were approximately 300 bidders whom the article identified as mostly from the West and "were nearly entirely composed of Indian contractors."  The men placed bids for contracts on everything from shoes and blankets to beef.

Also in the building at the time was dry goods merchant Charles M. Aikman & Co.  The firm was the target of inveterate thieves George Callahan, alias "the Countryman," and Charles Murphy, alias "Cheek," on the night of April 24, 1876.  The men were members of a gang of burglars wanted for a string break ins.  This time, however, they were spotted when they rushed down Courtlandt Alley with $500 worth of lace curtains and piano covers from Charles M. Aikman & Co.

The eyewitness account helped lead to the arrest of the pair along with their cohorts, John David, John Roche, alias "Casino," and James Stapleton, alias "Buck."  For the White Street burglary, Callahan and Murphy were held on $2,000 bail each--more than $47,000 today.

On February 19, 1880 a massive fire consumed the building at Nos. 384 and 386 Broadway, at the corner of White Street.  As the inferno spread to No. 388 firemen broke into No. 80-82 White Street and directed hoses "from the roof and windows," according to The New York Times.  Two fire fighters died fighting the blaze and the Broadway buildings were destroyed.

Even the gap provided by Courtlandt Alley could not prevent damage to the White Street structure.  The following month The Record & Guide reported that Higgins had hired architect William H. Holmes to repair the fire damage.

In the mid-1880's Wm. Topping & Co. operated its auction house from the address.  The firm sold off over-stocked goods or the residue from bankrupt firms, as well as real estate parcels.

A notable tenant in the 1890's was the carpet retailer Morris & McKay.   Its extensive line included not only carpeting, but "oil cloths, rags, mats, etc."  Mostly forgotten today, decorative oil cloth mats mimicked rugs and were placed beneath tables for easy clean-up and to protect expensive carpeting.

The Evening World, October 13, 1894 (copyright expired)

In July 1900 Eugene Higgins hired architect William H. Birkmire to update the aging structure.  New plumbing was installed, and "general alterations" done.  The upgrades cost the equivalent of more than $450,000 today.

They were enough to lure an important tenant by 1903, the Rhode Island-based Clark O. N. Thread company.  The quality maker constantly battled counterfeiters, as was reported on April 30, 1904 in The Sun.  The article noted "Last winter persons in the trade brought to the Clark offices at 82 White street reports that the Clark thread was being sold in the West in large quantities at prices very much below the market quotations.  An investigation showed that the Clark trade mark stamp had been counterfeited."

The following year Spool Cotton moved in, taking over the New York City operation for Clark O. N. T. Thread.  The company would remain here for several years representing Clark.

In 1911 it participated in a educational project in high schools nationwide.  The Annual Report of the Minnesota State High School Board that year explained "Not a few schools are acquiring illustrative material for their industrial department" and provided a list "of educational exhibits, which may be obtained free of charge by making courteous application to the addresses given below."  Included was Spool Cotton, which offered examples of "spool cotton and needles."

A major change came in 1913 when Jenkins Bros. leased the entire building.   Makers of plumbing valves, the firm was nationally recognized.  Their main plant was located in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The House Beautiful, October 1920 (copyright expired)

The dependability and quality of the Jenkins projects was best evidenced when the firm was contracted to produce the valves for United States naval ships during World War II.  Following a worker walk-out in 1944, an Executive Order from the White House directed "that all employees were instructed to report for work immediately."

Wartime ads differed greatly from the domestic setting of 20 years earlier.  This one may have had a message to the plant's employees as well.
The Government went a step further.   On April 13 that year an order from the War Department read "Sec. of the Navy authorized to take possession of and operate the plants and facilities of Jenkins Bros, Inc."

Following the war Jenkins Bros. returned to business as usual.  In the spring of 1949, after more than three decades at No. 80-82 White Street, it signed a lease in the new building at No. 100 Park Avenue.  On May 18 The New York Times announced that the White Street building "was sold by the heirs of Eugene Higgins."  The buyer, it said, "plans to occupy the building when it is vacated by Jenkins Bros."

For decades the General Hardware Manufacturing Company occupied the building.  By 1992 the Tribeca renaissance had reached White Street and Art In General, a non-profit exhibition space, leased space in the building.

A substantial renovation and restoration began in 2016 to transform No. 80-82 White Street to retail space, offices, and an apartment.   Still owned by General Hardware, now General Tools, the firm announced it was vacating the premises.  It had commissioned the firm FSI Architecture to do the work.

In May 2017 Artists Space, a non-profit gallery, announced it would be moving to the renovated building.

photographs by the author

Thursday, May 17, 2018

From Squalor to Charm--Grove Court in Greenwich Village

Routinely the rowhouses erected in Greenwich Village in the first decades of the 19th century included auxiliary structures in the rear yards--either small houses, shops (like carpenter or blacksmith shops), or in some cases stables.  A notable exception would take place behind the houses built by James N. Wells at Nos. 6 through 10 Grove Street between 1825 and 1834.

At the corner of Grove and Bedford Streets in 1848 was the grocery store of Cocks & Bowron.  Samuel Cocks possessed the strip of land, known as a horsewalk, next to No. 10 Grove Street which lead to the rear yards.  That year he purchased the leaseholds of those yards from Samuel Stryker (Trinity Church had owned the land since 1714 when it was granted by Queen Anne).

Cocks's grocery store was steps away from what would become Grove Court, at Bedford and Grove Streets.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Cocks had six brick houses erected on the site.  Completed in 1854 they were intended for working-class families.  Considered a single lot for tax purposes, all six shared the same address of 10½ Grove Street.

Visible from the street only through the narrow passageway, the enclave quickly gained a lowly reputation.  Decades later historian W. P. Dudley wrote in the New-York Tribune that behind the houses that fronted Grove Street, "another row appeared, minus the decorative entablatures and lead-lighted doorways, and fronted by a little alley of its own in the narrow strip in the rear of the garden walls."

Dudley explained that pigs "like the cats of the present, used to roam at large...The sight of these animals careering up and down the narrow way or looking out at the gate brought the place its first name, Pig's Alley."

As the riverfront developed, according to Dudley, "the little alley [became] a settlement of oldtime longshoremen.  These were a rough and boisterous lot, and again conditions gave the place a name, this time Mixed Ale Alley."  One explanation for the term is that the tenants, without money enough to buy a mug of beer, would pour the dregs of several glasses left on the bar or on tables into one container.  It is a colorful, if questionable, story.

One of those "rough and boisterous" longshoremen living here in 1880 was John O'Hare.   He worked on the Cunard dock at Pier 40.  According to The Sun on September 19 that year, he and his coworkers had "formed a clique among themselves to control the business of the pier and keep away outsiders."  And so they were not pleased when two weeks earlier longshoreman Patrick Barrett left the White Star pier and managed to get hired on the Cunard dock.

The Sun reported "The Cunard men were very angry, and tried to frighten Barrett away by threats of violence.  They subjected him to all kinds of annoyances, and sought to pick a quarrel with him."  Things worsened on Thursday, September 16 when John O'Hare attacked him.  It initially appeared that O'Hare had picked the wrong man as Barrett was "getting the best of O'Hare," according to the newspaper.  Then one of O'Hare's cohorts, Patrick Dalton, came to his aid.  After severely beating Barrett, the pair were later arrested and fined.  

The incident only inflamed sentiments against Barrett.  Fearful for his safety he went to the Charles Street police station and asked for protection.   He was told that no warrants were issued on Saturday, so he reluctantly returned to work on the pier.  On his way home that evening he was ambushed by Dalton and three other men (O'Hare was not among them this time).  Beaten badly and suffering a deep gash on his forehead, Barrett got to his feet and ran back toward the pier.

Just as the men were about to overtake him, he pulled out his revolver and fired three times, fatally hitting Dalton just over the heart and wounding two of the other men in the groin.  Barrett was arrested.  The "great crowd" of angry longshoremen who marched to the police station "was disposed to be ugly," according to The Sun.

One boy living in the row in 1909 narrowly escaped a horrifying accident on August 22.  Perhaps to escape the heat of the night, James Leddy and three other neighborhood boys, Daniel Carver, Harold Dorie and Eugene O'Keefe took a rowboat from the foot of Barrow Street out into the Hudson River.  They were all 14 years old except for Harold, who was 15.

In the darkness the little boat was struck and smashed by a ferryboat.  Hearing the commotion, Francis Carey and Thomas Cavanaugh, who were also out in a small boat, paddled to the scene.  They were able to find James and Eugene in the dark water and pull them on board .  Tragically, the other two boys were drowned.

"Charming" is not the term that comes to mind in this photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.

After owning the property for more than two centuries, Trinity Church sold the Grove Street houses and those in the courtyard behind them in June 1920 to the Alentaur Realty Company.  The New York Times reported "The sale was closed through Pepe & Brother."  The developers were well known in the Greenwich Village area for remodeling run-down, antiquated houses--like those on Minetta Lane--into modern structures, often incorporating artists studios.  The first step in rehabilitation was rechristening the enclave Grove Court.

On December 5, 1920 the New-York Tribune admitted "Grove Court is on first inspection of doubtful adaptability as a beauty spot."  The article called the houses "ramshackle."   It explained "the first step in the plan, after eliminating back-yard fences and out-houses, was to cut off the cement-paved entrance court by a lattice fence, to piece out the side of the main court.  The old brick and stone pavement in front of the rear houses was readjusted to form a broad and shaded promenade running the length of the row.  

A month before the article all six of the Grove Court houses had been sold.  Each sold, according to The New York Times, for about $4,500--about $61,600 today.  The newspaper called them "quaint" on December 12 and said "work will soon start in beautifying the little court into a pleasant garden with trees and flowers."  

Pig's Alley in 1913, and Grove Court in 1922.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Among the first occupants was the Sidney Robbins family, who bought No. 5.  At the time of the purchase an old pump still sat in the center of the courtyard, its water presumably drawn from the old Minetta spring.   Years later the Robbins proudly displayed a relic exhumed in the basement when workmen were digging space for a heater.  A shovel clanged onto a metal object which turned out to be a pewter tankard, clearly dated 1784.

Grove Court was still squalid when O. Henry wrote his short story "The Last Leaf" in 1907.  Nevertheless literary lore placed its setting here shortly after Grove Court was rehabilitated.  On June 2, 1935 L. B. Robbins, writing in The New York Times, said:

At least one O. Henry spot remains just about as he knew it: Grove Court, off little Grove Street, deep down in Greenwich Village, where his tale, "The Last Leaf," had its origin.  Front a bend of the street you look through an iron gate into a quaint nook of old-time houses in the rear of the block, with green growing things making a Springtime landscape at their doorsteps.  You can enter the gate and see the ivy vine where seemed to hang the left which the old artist painted on the brick wall by lanternlight to give a dying girl the courage to get well."

Mrs. Robbins and her two sons, Alan and Robert (both sculptors), were still living in No. 5 when the City Planning Commission proposed to eradicate Grove Court.  Meyer Berger wrote in The New York Times on December 8, 1954 that the Commission "is toying with the notion of wiping Grove Court off the map, and some twenty other buildings with it.  The report is that the city wants the space for a playground."

Using his trademark prose style, Berger painted a romantic picture of the hidden mews. "When you're past the gate, at the very spot where Grove Street bends, between Hudson and Bedford Streets, it's as if you had just stepped in from London's Berkeley Square--winter-stripped trees, lovely doorways, sleeping gardens, bits of statuary.  The illusion is perfect at twilight and after dark."

"Lying in their beds under the ancient rooftops and chimney pots, the tenants get only the heartbreak wail of groping river traffic on foggy nights--that and, now the almost audible tread of Progress and the playground," he wrote.

Berger's eloquent intercession may have been partly responsible for the City Planning Commission to scrap its plan the following day.

The iron gate is no longer unlocked, and a small sign warns "No Trespassing."  Within the courtyard the tranquility is as overwhelming as the charm.  And the casual passerby who peers between the iron bars could hardly imagine its squalid beginnings.

photographs by the author