Wednesday, July 18, 2018

From Vinegar Bitters to Domestic Charm - 32-34 Commerce Street

The exquisite charm of the building belies its industrial beginnings.
When the owners of the three-story house at No. 34 Commerce Street rented the parlor and basement levels in March 1854, their advertisement mentioned the "marble mantels and folding doors on the first floor."  The following year they suggested that "gas can be put in, if desired"--evidence of their comfortable financial situation.  By the first years of the 1860's it was home to the William Kingsland family.   The funeral of Kingsland's wife, Eliza G. Kingsland was held in the house on August 7, 1867.

At the time of Mrs. Kingsland's death, R. H. McDonald was embarking on a new business venture.  Around 1862 Joseph Walker, who styled himself as "Dr. J. Walker," began producing a patent medicine which he called Dr. J. Walker's California Vinegar Bitters.  He purchased some of the ingredients from a New York City dealer, R. H. McDonald & Co.

Then, in 1868, McDonald and his partner, J. C. Spencer, proposed a deal whereby they would manufacture the tonic and act as its the sole agents.  Walker moved his production and distribution to New York City in 1869.  He later explained to a reporter from The American Journal of Digestive Diseases, "we first commenced business in Platt Street, and continued there for a month or two; from there we went to Commerce Street."

On November 13, 1869 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that R. H. McDonald & Co. would erect a "one story open front wagon shed" at Nos. 32 and 34 Commerce Street, on the site of the former Kingsland house.  Whether McDonald purposely misrepresented the building--perhaps to avoid property taxes--is unknown.  But the resultant structure was by no means a one-story open-front wagon shed.

Instead, a two-story brick factory was completed within months.  On February 8, 1870 an advertisement in The New York Herald read "Wanted--At the California Vinegar Bitters office, a smart boy, from 14 to 16 years of age, who writes a good hand and resides with his parents."  The stipulation that the boy live with his parents eliminated what were commonly referred to as "street arabs;" the homeless boys who would be likely to pilfer goods or money.

Someone trusted with cash--possibly McDonald himself--was careless a few months later.  On May 18 an announcement in The New York Herald read "Lost--On Monday afternoon, shortly after six o'clock, in going from the California Vinegar Bitters Manufactory, 32 and 34 Commerce street to corner of Morton and Hudson streets, an envelope containing $178 in currency and greenbacks.  The person finding it will be very liberally rewarded by returning it to the above number."

The lost cash would equal about $3,450 today and one wonders what reward could inspire the finder to return it.

McDonald had by now changed the name of his firm to the R. H. McDonald Drug Co.  He marketed the California Vinegar Bitters through an aggressive advertising program.  The tonic was called "The great blood purifier and life-giving principle" and was guaranteed to cure scores of disorders, including "heart and chest, liver and kidney complaints, stomach ache, jaundice, gout and fits, dizziness...biliousness, dysentary, piles, etc."

The box promised that "pin, tape and other worms lurking in the system of so many thousands are effectually destroyed and removed;" and that for "female complaints, in young or old, married or single, at the dawn of womanhood or the turn of life, this tonic betters has no equal."

from the collection of the Smithsonian Institutions' National Museum of American History.
The wily McDonald marketed the product not only as a tonic, but as a temperance drink.  An 1871 ad mentioned in part "The liquor traffic annually sends to prison 100,000 persons, reduces 200,000 children to a state worse than orphanage, sends 60,000 annually to drunkard's graves, and makes 600,000 drunkards."

McDonald's sanctimonious claims, however, were shot down by Professor William R. Nichols of the Boston Board of Health.  Suspicious, he analyzed the contents and announced to the East Saginaw Sanitary Convention in December 1884 that Dr. J. Walker's California Vinegar Bitters contained six percent alcohol.

Years before that, however, things had become strained between McDonald and Joseph Walker.  Walker was in the factory only one or two months in the fall and again in the spring.  "The balance of the year I consumed in selling," he explained in The American Journal of Digestive Diseases.  When he was in town, he had heated discussions with McDonald about the advertising campaign.  "I don't remember particularly what I said; only that he was spending money that I wanted." 

Indeed, McDonald had stopped paying his partner his share of the income.  Things grew uglier when McDonald refused to show the books to Walker or his son, Josiah; and eventually locked them out of the factory.  In 1872 McDonald moved the operation to Washington Street.  After years of receiving no money from the sale of his tonic, Joseph Walker finally sued in 1877 for $5,000--a little over $120,000 today.

In the meantime, the Commerce Street factory had been converted to a storage facility by Jas. Michaeles & Son.  A July 1872 advertisement promised "Furniture &c. taken on storage at the lowest rates, packed and shipped to all parts of the city and country; ample room for storage of all kinds of merchandise."  The firm's successful business led it to expand into the building steps away at No. 38 Commerce Street the following year.

Second-hand furniture dealer and carpenter James Hodge moved his operation into Nos. 32-34.  A typical ad, on May 2, 1874, offered "Large lot [of] fine counters, showcases, drug drawers, office railings; will be sold cheap.  Carpenter and cabinet work at short notice."

Around 1884 J. Soria & Co.'s dye shop leased the building.   Founded before 1859 and now run by Andrew Soria, it described itself as a "French dyeing establishment."   When son David Soria renewed the lease in 1891, the yearly rent was $500, or about $14,000 today.

The dyeing operation remained in the building at least until 1898 when it was sold to Michael H. Cardozo.  In 1896 A. F. Soria employed six men and eight women who worked 54 hours per week.  One can only imagine the miserable conditions inside the brick building with large vats of boiling water creating a constant hot and humid work environment.

Schoolboys, still in their knickers and ties, roller skate near the corner of Commerce and Bedford Street in 1922.  In the background Nos. 32-34 Commerce Street is boarded up and neglected.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
In the first decades of the 20th century the old factory building was in serious disrepair.  In 1912 a demolition permit was issued for the property.  For whatever reason, the owners never went ahead with the project.

By now Greenwich Village was the epicenter of New York City's artistic community.  In October 1923 a group of artists, writers and performers--including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay--purchased a cluster of the old houses around the Commerce and Bedford Street intersection in an effort to save them from apartment building developers.  The houses were renovated and restored as private homes.

No. 32-34 was converted to apartments shortly afterward.  But its renovation was not so glamorous as the private homes.  Painted beige, there was nothing especially pleasing about the building; and by the last half of the century it was a sort of eyesore along the picturesque block.

Then, on October 17, 1993 New York Times journalist Tracie Razhon wrote "change is coming for one of Greenwich Village's most tranquil and historic enclaves...four buildings, which border a private garden mews, have offers from young architects and other professionals that have been accepted by a family that has owned them for decades."

Included in the group was the nearly vacant converted factory.  Razhon said "There is one rent-controlled tenant, who lives in half of the downstairs.  The prospective buyer is a young architect."

Scott Newman created an entry stoop and period-appropriate iron railings, removed the paint and redesigned the interiors.  The renovations resulted in a two-family residence.

Long the ugly duckling of the block, it is now an appealing piece of what Razhon called "one of Greenwich Village's most tranquil and historic enclaves."

photographs by the author

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Evelyn - 101 West 78th Street

James O'Friel had not been in New York very long before he announced his intentions of building an upscale flat house on the Upper West Side.  On April 22, 1882 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported "In our issue of April 8th, we gave a description of a very elegant apartment house that was soon to be erected on the West Side.  We can now supplement that by stating that the site selected for this improvement is the northwest corner of Ninth avenue and Seventy-eighth street...which has been purchased by Mr. O'Friel, formerly of St. Louis, and that the plans have been drawn by Mr. Emil Gruwe."

The article noted "It is expected that a Russian bath and a safe-deposit company will be established in connection with the apartment house."  Both amenities suggested the high-end nature of the building.  Russian baths were just becoming popular additions to upscale apartment buildings; and a safe deposit firm would be convenient for storing cash and valuables.

The developer's timing seemed perfect.  Apartment living was becoming generally accepted by the upper classes--especially on the Upper West Side.  In the same issue The Record & Guide wrote "That there have been more apartment houses erected in New York during the past twelve months is a fact that is conceded by every one."

O'Friel had paid John D. Crimmins $32,000 for the 100- by 102-foot plot.  The projected cost of the building was placed at $250,000, making the overall investment just under $7 million today.  O'Friel seems to have stretched himself financially thin in the project.  His mechanics' lien was foreclosed more than once, resulting in work stoppage.  In May 1883, for instance, The Manufacturer and Builder announced "Work is to be resumed upon the nine-story apartment house on the northwest corner of Ninth avenue and Seventy-eighth street, which was commenced about a year ago."

Why O'Friel named his building The Evelyn is unclear.  Urban legend holds that it was named in honor of actress and model Evelyn Nesbit.  That, of course, is impossible since she was born the same year The Evelyn was completed.

Emil Gruwe had produced a symmetrical red brick Renaissance Revival structure with corner pavilions capped with stone balustrades.  But the architect's overall design was overshadowed by his details--the magnificent terra cotta embellishments in the form of angels, satyrs, putti and floral forms.

A frieze of muscular griffins and flaming urns runs above a bare-breasted angel, flanked by male and female figures in outstanding detail.
Newspapers followed the movements of the wealthy residents like Mr. and Mrs. Walter Henry Judson.  The couple was among the first tenants and Mrs. Judson entertained often.  On May 2, 1894, for instance, The New York Times reported "A pleasant social incident of Monday afternoon was the pink breakfast given by Mrs. Walter Henry Judson of 101 West Seventy-eighth Street, at 1 o'clock."

On March 4, 1896 the newspaper announced that the Judsons "will start on Saturday for a southern tour."  The pair hardly had time to unpack a month later when, on April 7, The Times wrote "Mrs. Walter Henry Judson...gave an informal Easter breakfast yesterday."

As was the case with most upscale apartment buildings, the ground floor included a restaurant.  It was not only a convenience for the residents, but a necessity for some.  An advertisement on January 21, 1900 offered "One 7-room Housekeeping and a few Non-housekeeping Apartments left.  Restaurant under management of John B. Schmitt, Late of Delmonico's."  The term "non-housekeeping" referred to the fact that those apartments did not have kitchens.

At the time of that advertisement The Evelyn was jointly owned by millionaire Henry B. Auchincloss and his wife, the former Mary Cabell.  The couple lived in the building and it was there that Mary suffered a bad accident around 1900.   The injury developed into paralysis and, eventually, her death on November 13, 1903.  The New York Times mentioned "She had suffered of late years from a knee injury due to a fall on a hardwood floor in the family home at the Evelyn apartment house."

Henry Auchincloss hired architect William Allen Balch in May 1905 to do $10,000 in "extensive improvements."  Included was a complete overhaul of the plumbing system and the installation of a new entrance in the northern pavilion on Columbus Avenue and a ground floor doctor's office.

Canvas awnings helped protect apartments from heat and damaging sunlight.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
An advertisement in The Sun on October 28, 1906 warned "Only Two Apartments Left."  Available were a three-room and bath apartment for $720; and a two-room and bath suite for $600.  The more expensive rent of the two would be equal to more than $1,680 per month today.  The ad noted "Open plumbing, tiled bath, steam heat, electric light, hot and cold water, chambermaid service."

The physician's office, which included two rooms and a bath, rented at $750 per year and was taken by Dr. Daniel E. Coleman, who would remain here for years.  

The Gunton family had lived in The Evelyn at least since 1900.  The Biographical Director of the State of New York that year listed both George and his son William B. as "publishers" with offices at No. 41 Union Square.  They published Gunton's Magazine, a journal that focused "on practical economics and political science."  George Gunton was also a professor of economics and the author of scholarly books like Wealth and Progress and Principals of Social Economics.

Gunton's wife, Amelia, was visible on women's society.  But domestic storm clouds developed when Amelia discovered George's philandering with Rebecca Douglas Lowe, an Atlanta socialite and the president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs.  The New-York Tribune said of her "Since her girlhood she has occupied a prominent position in Georgia social life.  She is said to be very wealthy."

Amelia left him and obtained a divorce in January 1904.  George married Rebecca in Atlanta within the year, moving her into The Evelyn apartments.  But there was another problem.  Amelia was informed that her South Dakota divorce "was not a legal one."  Therefore, said the New-York Tribune on January 12, 1906, "she is still the legal wife of Professor Gunton."

Amelia filed suit for separation, but her legal team had problems serving the summons.  The New-York Tribune noted that George and Rebecca had left The Evelyn and "are now at Aiken, S. C."   A frustrated process server caught up with the couple in their automobile and flung the paperwork into the moving car.  It was a surprising move that ended up in court "to decide whether throwing a summons at his client, while riding in an automobile, was an effectual and legal way of serving it."

The Albert E. Merrill family had problems of a much different nature at about the same time.  On May 21, 1906 The Times reported "Warm weather and open windows have been responsible for the loss" of Mrs. Merrill's pet bird.  "Mrs. Merrill's bird is a parroquet.  While her son was holding it on his hand last Thursday it flew out the window."  The family offered a reward "to any small boy who can capture [it.]"

In 1907 the social register The Alcolm Blue Book, listed the residents of The Evelyn's 40 apartments.  Included in the roll of socially-recognizable surnames like Tillinghast, Seligman, and Tobin was "Madame Pappenheim."   The 55-year old diva had long been retired from the opera, but was well remembered.  In 1893 A Woman of the Century had said of her "the United States is especially indebted to her for advancing the ideas of Wagner."

On January 23, 1907 The Musical Courier announced "Eugenie Pappenheim will give her first musical afternoon of this season on Sunday, January 27, at The Evelyn...A very interesting musical program will be offered."

Other hostesses that year included Mrs. Anna B. Wood, who gave a "Japanese euchre" in March.  The Times reported "The prizes were won by Miss Bradley, Mrs. John A. Manson, William Douglas Sloane, and Charles Tallman."  The article added "The favors and decorations were all Oriental in effect" and said "Mrs. Wood is at home on the first Monday of each month in the Evelyn."

The family of banker Edward V. Gambier drew unwanted press attention through the years.  In 1910 he married Edith Russell of Atlanta but trouble unsued.  In 1911 he filed a suit for annulment; and Edith responded with a suit for separation, claiming "he had kissed her only a few times since their marriage."  The public admission earned her the sobriquet of "the unkissed bride."  Both parties eventually withdrew their suits.

Now, on January 6, 1914 Gambier arrived home to The Evelyn to a scene of chaos.  The Sun reported "members of his family told him that the valet was butting his head into walls."  Gambier sent for a patrolman who "found a young man acting strangely" and had 21-year old Frederick Wendt removed to Bellevue Hospital where he was deemed insane.

In a vain attempt to avoid more embarrassing publicity, the Gambiers asked the police to "record the incident as happening in the house of 'Mr. Patton,'" according to The Sun.  That did not happen and the following morning a humiliating headline read "Gambier's Valet Insane / Husband of 'Unkissed Bride' Calls Police to Take Away Madman."

Author Gertrude Hall lived in The Evelyn at the time.  Born in Boston in 1863 and educationed in Florence, Italy, her long list of works included the novels The Unknown Quantity and April's Sowing.  Her volumes of poetry included Age of Fairygold, Far from To-Day and Foam of the Sea.

Like the Guntons and the Gambiers, the marital relationship of Henry N. Dunning Henry N. Myrtle G. Dunning was not good.  Dunning's job required long stays in Shanghai.  Tensions resulted in his moving to the Hotel Marie Antoinette in 1922 and Myrtle's filing for separation and financial support on the grounds of cruelty.  The New York Times said she alleged "that her husband used abusive language and beat her."

But when the couple, both of whom were 24 years old, appeared before Supreme Court Justice March on June 13, Henry destroyed not only her claim, but her reputation.  He replied that she "was too friendly with Walter Woodlin on a train to San Francisco in 1919 and with 'one Thomas' on a steamer bound for China."  He produced a letter from Myrtle to Woodlin that said in part:

Henry has been lovely to me.  He has been just as fair and square with me as any one could be...I do not love him, but he had done everything in the world to make me happy...Please come as soon as you can.  When I am free I will tell you about my true love, and I have made up my mind you will be the only one.

The Evening World reported that Judge Marsh said the evidence "threw a light on the conduct of Mrs. Dunning which made it doubtful in the minds of the court that she would succeed in her action."

A horrific tragedy occurred at The Evelyn in the summer of 1923.  Sixty-year old Anna Stern and her 35-year old daughter, Florence, shared an apartment on the 6th floor.   Years earlier Florence had been engaged to an airman, who was killed in World War I.

Anna's behavior had been growing increasingly strange and the building's superintendent Arthur Chase said "for a long time [she] entertained fancied grievances against other tenants and was extremely nervous."  Her eccentricities apparently wore on Florence and Louis Fuhr who ran the newsstand on Columbus Avenue, reported that she said "her mother's nervousness was driving her crazy."

Then, on the morning of August 17 the two women flung themselves from their window, smashing onto the roof of the single-story cigar store next door.  Around 7:00 Oscar Lendian opened the store and, according to The Times, "discovered that boxes of cigars and other articles had been jarred from the shelves and plaster knocked from the ceiling by the impact of the falling bodies.  The clock on the wall had stopped at 6:40 A. M."

Lendian led police to the roof where the bodies were found.  In Anna's hand was a scrap of paper that read:  "Please take our bodies to apartment 62.  The key is on me.  Notify Harry M. Hirsch, 30 Landscape Avenue, Yonkers."  (Hirsch was a nephew who identified and claimed the bodies.)

Margaret E. McCann was notable for being the first woman to enter the brokerage business on Wall Street.  Unfortunately that distinction took a backseat to scandal when she was arrested for running what today would be known as a pyramid scheme.  The $450,000 she owed clients when she appeared before a jury in March 1930 would equal more than $6.6 million today.

During her two-day trial the 49-year old showed no emotion.  Not, at least, until the prosecutor summed up his case to the jury, saying "on her own testimony, Miss McCann is a thief."  Margaret jumped to her feet and demanded "How dare you?"

Margaret was found guilty and sentenced to between five and ten years in prison.  On her way out of the courtroom she said "I think the jury misunderstood the whole thing...What I did was to take money from some to pay others."  She insisted she was "a victim of circumstances."

In 1937 35-year old German immigrant Franz Hanawald was employed in The Evelyn.  He had a varied career since arriving in New York--he had worked in Julius Redlich's Dutchess County resort hotel in 1932 and later on a Honesdale, Pennsylvania farm.

A terrifying incident occurred at Redlich's hotel, far from The Evelyn, in September 1937.  Redlich was awakened at 2 a.m. to find a masked gunman in his room.  He was kidnapped and taken to a "tomb" in the woods 22 miles away.  The underground concrete bunker, about 7 feet long and 4 feet wide was only 22 inches high.  Redlich later said "It was like being buried alive.  It felt like a grave."

The "thug," as described by newspapers, demanded a $20,000 ransom.  He covered the entrance and left.  But his scheme was poorly thought out and he came back four hours later and released his captive.  A team of bloodhounds later found the bunker and the handcuffs the kidnapper left behind.  They provided the clue that solved the case.

On September 17 state police arrived at The Evelyn and arrested Franz Hanawald.  After seven hours of questioning he admitted having planned the kidnapping for over a year, making several trips upstate to study the scene.

Certainly less controversial were residents Boris Saslawsky, the Russian-born baritone and voice teacher who lived here until his death in 1955; and the Rosen family, who were here by the mid-1930's.

Living with Irwin and Anita Rosen were their sons Donald, known as Donn, and Charles.  The boys were 11 and 13, respectively, in 1940.  The location of The Evelyn most likely had a great deal to do with the direction of young Donn's life and career.  From the age of 8 he volunteered at the American Museum of Natural History, directly across Columbus Avenue.  He would become one of America's leading authorities on zoology and ichthyology.  Charles went on to be a noted "pianist, polymath and author."

On November 11, 1959 two painters were working in an apartment on the top floor of The Evelyn when a "flash fire" erupted.  The two men were trapped by the flames, with no escape other than the high windows.  When firefighters arrived Jose Rijes was hanging from a window sill by just one hand "and dangling over the sidewalk ninety feet below," as described by The Times.  His partner, 35-year old John Diaz, clung to the windowsill next to it.

Hook & Ladder Company 25 raised its aerial ladder and Fireman William Russo reached Rijes first.  After he was lowered to safety, the ladder was then swung to the other window where Russo repeated the dangerous climb.  Deputy Fire Chief Eugene Dukes called it "one of the best rescues I ever saw."

A rescue of a far different sort came about in 1987.  The new owners' plans to convert a ground floor space into a store included replacing one of the arched windows with a doorway.  A group of Upper West Siders lobbied against the alterations because of the threat to the terra cotta decorations.

Architectural journalist David W. Dunlap, writing in The New York Times on October 26, expressed "In palmy days and scary ones, a small host of exuberant angels gazed down on the creation, devastation and rebirth of Columbus Avenue from the Evelyn, one of the oldest apartment houses in New York City."  It was possibly Dunlap's article that earned the ornaments the nickname "Evelyn's Angels."

All of the terra cotta decorations survived the fray.  In 2015 a two-year renovation was begun which resulted in 23 "boutique condominiums."  The penthouse apartment engulfs the entire top floor.

The exterior of The Evelyn emerged handsomely restored.  And "Evelyn's Angels" continue to draw the attention of passersby after more than 135 years.

photographs by the author

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Lost Diocesan House - 416 Lafayette Street

Rampant griffins holding shields perch along the stone stoop railing, and stained glass fill the upper portions of the first floor windows.  The openings along the side retain their Greek Revival appearance.  from the collection of the New-York Historic Society
In the early 1840s Lafayette Place remained one of Manhattan's most exclusive residential areas.  The elegant, marble-faced LaGrange Terrace, completed in 1833, set the tone and was soon followed by wide, Greek Revival mansions.

Benjamin Lincoln Swan's 45-foot wide home at No. 29 Lafayette Place edged up against the southern edge of LaGrange Terrace.  Faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone, it was four stories tall above the basement level and featured a cast iron balcony along the parlor level and a columned portico.

An early stereopticon slide of LaGrange Terrace caught a sliver of the Swan mansion.
Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1787, Swan had come to New York City in 1810, forming the firm of Benjamin L. Swan & Co. in 1811.  He married Mary C. Saidler in 1816, and had six children: Benjamin, Jr., Edward, Mary, Robert, Otis and Frederick. 

Eminently successful and wealthy, he retired from active business in 1822 to devote his time "to the service of his fellow-citizens," according to historian William Van Rensselaer Miller in his 1896 Select Organizations in the United States.  While technically retired, he remained an active member of the Chamber of Commerce and a director in the Bank of America and the New York Life & Trust Co.  He was a force within the American Bible Society for decades.

In 1842 sons Robert, Benjamin and Otis were still living in the house.  Benjamin was a respected shipchandler at 30 South Street, and Otis was a lawyer with offices on Wall Street.  Mary had married Charles N. Fearing, of Fearing & Hall dry goods, in 1839 and the couple,too, lived in the Lafayette Place house.

In 1855 four of the Swan sons formed the dry goods firm of Frederick G. Swan.  Benjamin and Edward married sisters, Caroline and Julia Post. (Benjamin and his wife moved to their own home at No. 5 West 20th Street around 1861.)  Almost all the Swan children maintained summer estates in Oyster Bay, Long island.

Disaster came on February 7, 1855 when an overheated flue sparked a fire on the third floor around 3:20 in the afternoon.  The New York Herald reported "The inmates of the house soon found it was beyond their control, and an alarm was given."  The fire fighters found "that the fire had spread between the lathe and plaster and run from floor to floor."

The intense smoke make it nearly impossible for the men to grope their way through the house.  "Great exertions were made to save the furniture, and most of it was taken out from the parlors; but on the upper stories very little was removed, in consequence of the dense smoke."  The article noted that police moved in to protect the neighboring houses "from depredations of thieves, of which there were a large number very ready to enter the houses, under the pretense of assisting to save property."

The frigid February temperatures hampered the fight, The New York Times noting that the water froze in the hose.  When the fire was finally extinguished at 7:30 that evening, the top floors were gutted and the lower floors flooded with freezing water.  Damages to the house were estimated at $15,000 and to the furnishings $10,000 (a total of about $731,000 today).

Following Mary Swan's death in 1857 her daughter, Mary Fearing, most likely took over the task of running the household.  She seems to have had her hands full in keeping the positions necessary to run a house of adults and, now children, filled.

Her regular advertisements, always in The New York Herald, were similarly worded.  On April 22, 1858 she looked for "A steady woman, as cook in a private family; one who understands her business thoroughly" and six months later she sought "Wanted--In a private family, a respectable woman as laundress; one that understands her business and is willing to make herself generally useful."  (Being "generally useful" was necessary on non-laundry days.)

On a single day in October 1860 two advertisement ran, one for "An experienced woman, as waitress, in a private family" and another for a "steady, quiet woman, as laundress."  As always they should "understand her business thoroughly."  A "waitress" was a maid whose duties were to serve in the dining room, bring tea or other refreshments to the family, and handle similar responsibilities above those of a chamber maid.

Following Benjamin Swan's death in 1866, Mary and Charles Fearing remained in No. 29 Lafayette Street.   By now Charles was retired from his position as senior partner in the Auburn Wool Works.  Their two sons, Edward and Charles, soon left.  Charles married Mary Putnam on July 9, 1866 and in 1868 opened his stock-brokerage office.  The couple summered in Newport.  Edward initially entered his father's firm, before marrying and later going into the commission business.

Mary and Charles received devastating news in the early morning hours of June 20, 1881.  Edward took his life in his summer home in the Finger Lakes district.  A dispatch received at The New York Times from Auburn, New York read "Edward Fearing, the son of a wealthy resident of New-York, committed suicide here by taking poison last night."  The Times added "Mr. Charles N. Fearing, on receiving a dispatch announcing his son's death, yesterday morning, immediately started for Auburn, leaving his wife prostrated by grief."

Around New Years Eve 1885 Charles N. Fearing fell ill with pneumonia.  He died on January 6, 1886 in the Lafayette Place house at the age of 75.  The Swan children soon put the family mansion on the market.  It was purchased by Catharine Lorillard Wolfe on June 28 for $70,000--about $1.9 million today.

Catharine, who lived in her own lavish home on Union Square, had no intentions of moving into the mansion.  One of New York's most munificent philanthropists, she laid plans to renovate it and present it to the Episcopal Church as the residence for Bishop Henry Codman Potter.  Catharine commissioned the renowned firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell to transformed the outdated house to a modern residence.

On September 10 The New York Times reported "Catharine L. Wolfe is going to spend $40,000 in alterations and improvements on No. 29 Lafayette-place.  The front will be taken down and replaced by one of marble, terra-cotta and brick, and a two-story extension, 40 by 70 feet, will be built."

The architects produced a striking Venetian Gothic structure with a white marble base, ornate carved balcony, and terra cotta decorations by the New York Architectural Terra-Cotta Company.

Formally named the See House, The Architectural Record deemed it "a kind of business 'Bishop's Palace.'"  New York historian Martha Lamb later remarked "The old dwelling converted to its present uses now wears an appearance befitting its dignified function."

Before its striking renovation, the Swan house looked much like the mansion to the right.  from the collection of the New-York Historic Society
Catharine L. Wolfe died in 1887 and would not suffer the disappointment that Potter never moved into the house.  Instead, he and his wife, Eliza, remained in their mansion at No. 10 Washington Square.  The See House, while officially the bishop's residence, was mainly used instead for high-level church meetings.  And none could be more important than those surrounding Potter's pet project, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

Among the first meetings was on November 8, 1887 during which the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Committee ratified the purchase of the land and discussed raising $10 million "or more" for a building fund.  Among those present with Potter were William W. Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and J. Pierpont Morgan.

The opulence of the interiors was evidenced that year when the See House loaned artworks to The Architectural League's third annual exhibition.  Among the 14 paintings were works by Fra Fillippo Lippi, Chirlandago, Grotto, Raphael, among masters.

Around 1892 the building's name was changed to the Diocesan House.  It was not only the scene of meetings, but of church hearings.  One of the most publicized was the infamous Jenks Divorce Case in 1891.  Maud E Littlejohn and Almet F. Jenks were married on December 5, 1878.  The New York Times said "It was a social event and gifts valued at $50,000 were received."

But things soured and Maud obtained a divorce in Newport in March 1891 "on the ground of abandonment and non-support."  The problem was that the divorce was not valid in New York State, since abandonment and non-support were not grounds for divorce.  And the Episcopal Church did not recognize abandonment as sufficient reason to void a marriage contract.

Maud was not only wealthy and socially prominent, she was the daughter of Bishop Abram Newkirk Littlejohn of Long Island.  He called a meeting of bishops in the Diocesan House on April 13, 1891 to settle the problem.  When the meeting adjoined, Maud had never been married in the eyes of the church.  The annulment decree said in part "in our opinion the said marriage was null and void ab initio" and according to the law and discipline of the Church it "was the same as though such marriage had not taken place."  Not surprisingly, "the annulment provoked wide discussion," as reported by The New York Times.

The Architectural Record, July 1909 (copyright expired)
The Diocesan House contained offices for the Bishop, the Arch Deacon of New York, the Presiding Bishop of the Church, the Standing Committee of the Diocese and the Secretary of the House of Bishop, a reading room, a private chapel for Potter, and sleeping quarters for visiting clergy.  In 1897, when Lafayette Place was extended southward, the building received the new address of 416 Lafayette Street.

In her will Catharine Wolfe had left a generous endowment fund to maintain the property.  In 1907 church's annual report noted that the fund still had $50,000, "the income of which is to be expended for its support and maintenance."

As the years passed, the Diocesan House continued to host the meetings of the Cathedral Committee, hold trials on issues of wayward clergy and church law, and confront social problems like temperance.  But in 1915 a completely different activity took place here.  A majority of the toys children received as Christmas presents had always been produced in Europe, notably in Germany.  Now with war raging across the continent, there was no way of importing them.

On December 12 The New York Times reported "Things were really looking serious, people said.  That was about the fifteenth of last May, and at that very moment the New York Santa Claus business came into being."  Christine S. Foster, described by the newspaper as "a young society woman," recognized the deficiency of Christmas toys and the need of unemployed older men for work.  With her own funds she developed The Old Men's Toy Shop in rooms provided by the diocese.

Workers, the oldest of whom was 84, received fifty cents a day and 10 cents for lunch.  By the time of the article there were 100 of them, making wooden canal boats, horses, cars and other toys.

As the years passed, the Diocesan House served changing purposes.  While it continued to be the center of the fundraising efforts for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the Church Association for Advancing Interest of Labor Library was here by 1915, and within the decade the Church Army of the United States established its offices in the building.

Seen here in 1929, the stoop and parlor bay had been lost in the widening of Lafayette Street.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
By mid-century the Lafayette Street block was one of factories and commerce.  The Diocese sold the property in July 1958,  In reporting the sale The New York Times got the history of the building slightly wrong, naming Catharine Lorillard Wolfe's family as the original owners.  "It was the private mansion of the Lorillard family generations ago when Lafayette and Bond Street formed the hub of an area that contained some of the city's most fashionable residences."

The new owners were realty investors operating as the 416 Properties, Inc.  They announced plans "to alter the structure into forty-one, air-conditioned apartments."  The Times said "The proposed improvements include an automatic elevator, an incinerator and modern bathrooms and kitchens."

The "improvements" did not include overwhelming architectural beauty.   And while technically the Diocesan House was remodeled, not demolished, most would agree that it has been lost.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler House - 132 East 65th Street

On May 25, 1921 The New York Times reported "Word has been received from Paris telling of the marriage of Mrs. Julia L. Benkard of this city and former Lieut. Gov. Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler, which took place privately in Paris on Monday.  Much secrecy surrounded the marriage."  Despite that cloak of secrecy, the newspaper added "The marriage does not come as a surprise to society."

Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler as a young man.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Julia, better known as Julie, had married broker J. Philip Benkard in December 1902 and had two daughters, Phyllis and Elsie.  She had divorced him in Paris five months earlier.  Born in Newport the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, Chanler had served as Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1907 and '08.  He divorced his first wife, the former Alice Chamberlain, in Paris around the time of the Benkard divorce.

Julia Lynch Olin before her marriages.  The International Studio 1908 (copyright expired)
In September 1921 the Cuidado Investing Co. purchased the three-story brownstone dwelling at No. 132 East 65th Street from the Carter family.  Mrs. Bernard S. Carter was highly active in the Big Sisters of America.  One of her last events in the house was a rummage sale for the group on November 17, 1920.  In reporting the sale of the house, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted the buyers "will remodel the structure and resell it."

And remodel it they did.  One of a row of 20-foot wide brownstones designed by Frederick S. Barus in 1870, it was decidedly out of date.  The firm commissioned Robert B. Bowler to transform the dated Victorian into a modern, American basement dwelling.   The renovations, completed within five months, left no trace of the 1870 house.

The architect removed the stoop, moved the entrance to just below the sidewalk level, and covered the remodel facade with parging--decorative stucco with molded designs.  On February 4, 1922 The Record & Guide said the firm had altered the house "in to an unusually attractive Italian design from plans by Robert B. Bowler, architect."

Among the molded designs were dangling garlands of fruit and flowers, a bull's head, stylized peacocks.  Vines climbed up the charming bargeboard of the gable to a central rose.

By the time of the article, Lewis S. Chanler had purchased the house "as his city home."  On February 1 the New-York Tribune said "It is Italian in design and is extremely attractive.  The dining room is in the rear, opening into a yard, which will be changed by the owner to an Italian garden."

Julie's daughters, Phyllis and Elsie, moved into the 65th Street house with their mother and step-father.  Julie's name appeared in print as often as her husband's; less for teas and luncheons than for social causes and stances.

She was selected in November 1926 to sit on the "play jury," a group of six men and six women carefully chosen by the Chief Assistant District Attorney's office.  The New York Times explained it was a "test of whether stage [plays] may treat 'adult subjects' decently."

The jury was taken to see The Captive on November 15.  They then discussed it and cast secret votes.  Six declared it "objectionable from a standpoint of public morals."  Five voted that it was not.  One submitted a blank vote.  The Captive was allowed to open, since a majority of "objectionable" votes was not achieved.  One suspects that Julie voted against censoring it.

Tragedy occurred in May 1928 after Julie and her daughters sailed to Paris.  They arrived on Friday, May 11.  The next day Phyllis fell ill.  She was taken to the American Hospital where she was diagnosed with an ear infection.  It rapidly progressed to meningitis and the 24-year old died the following Wednesday.

It may have been that horrific incident that caused Julie to seek solace in a new religion.  But for whatever reason, she soon fervently embraced the Middle Eastern Baha'i Faith.

Elsie's engagement to Charles H. Clarke was announced on December 11, 1929.  The wedding took place in the Chanler house on February 26, 1930.  The New York Times called the event "out of the ordinary, for they were married with a Bahai ceremony.  It was the first time that such a ceremony, described by Mrs. Chanler as very simple, has been used at a society wedding in New York."

The ceremony was officiated by Persian-American author and interpreter Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, a leader of the Reform Baha'i Movement.  He would become a very familiar presence in the East 65th Street home.

The article mentioned "Mrs. Chanler and her daughter have recently embraced the Bahai sect, an offspring of the Persian religion, which is said to have many converts among English-speaking peoples."

A few hours before their 65th Street wedding, Elsie and Charles had been married in a civil ceremony in the Municipal Building.  The Times explained a few days later it was necessary "to comply with the requirements of the law."  The State of New York had informed the couple that Mirza Ahmad Sohrab "is not a licensed clergyman, as the Bahai faith does without clergy or salaried disciples."

In 1929 Julie and Sohrab founded the New History Society as a way of spreading the Baha'i Faith.  In doing so they unwittingly ignited a fuse that would end with Sohrab's excommunication from Baha'i.  But in the meantime, the pair worked tirelessly promoting the faith.   Within the year the Caravan of East and West, an educational movement was established.   All of the groups' meetings and activities took place in the Chanler house.

On October 25, 1930, for instance, The Times reported on a two-day Oriental bazaar held in the house by the Caravan, "a section of the New History Society, the purpose of which is to unite the creative idealists of the Eastern and Western cultures."

Mizra Ahmad Sohrab explained that the funds raised would go to "the artists' caravanserai...Here will be presented the pageants, plays and lectures of the society."   The article noted "Artists who performed during the afternoon and evening included the Princess Walhletka, American Indian; William E. Benton, character analyst; Alexander Maloof, pianist, and a group of psychics, numerologists and astrologers."

The New History Society hosted lectures which drew large audiences.  One event drew a reported 200 members and guests who crowded into the first and second floors.  It drew the attention of the Department of Buildings, whose inspector put the load limit of the second floor at 140.  Thereafter the Chanler butler would hang a sign on the entrance announcing that the limit had been read and no more could be admitted.

In 1932 Julie was appointed the had of the Women's Peace Society, and in 1934 she and Sohrab organized the Junior Caravan in the house.  They announced "The group will have as members children from 6 to 15 years old."  Its goals included fostering "the spirit of fellowship and harmony," and the "elimination of child labor and exploitation."

The projects continued to eat away at the amount of floor space available for the Chanler's private quarters.  On June 23, 1938 Julie formed the Friends of the Duke of Windsor in America.  She told reporters its members intended to defend him against "ill-natured attacks upon his character and motives."   The New Yorker noted in May the following year that the society "is located on the third floor of the home of Mrs. Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler."

By now Mirza Ahmad Sohrab was embroiled in serious friction with the New York Spiritual Assembly of the Bina'i Faith.  He refused to allow it to interfere with the operations of the New History Society.  It came to a climax with a confrontation between the Assembly's head, Horace Holley, and Sohrab.  Holley expelled Sohrab from the Baha'i community around 1939.  The rift was even more personally devastating for Sohrab when his wife and daughter chose the faith over him and changed their names.

During all the upheaval to his domestic tranquility, Lewis Chanler remained strikingly out of sight.  He remained a member of the Episcopal church, worshiping at St. Mark's in the Bowery.  It was there that his funeral was held on March 3, 1942.  the 72-year old had died in the 65th Street house following a long illness.

But even in the Episcopalian Church Baha'i wriggled its way into the service.  The Times reported "At the conclusion of the scriptural reading Mirza Ahmen Schrab [sic], director of the New History Society, read from 'the service for the departed' of the Bahai cult."

Shortly afterward Julie transferred title to the house to Baha'i Faith and it was rechristened "Caravan House."   She continued to live in what was now termed an "apartment" in building documents upstairs.  In 1953 a one-story library that projected into the garden, designed by architect John H. McNamara, was completed.

Julie continued to work feverishly.  In 1956 she published From Gaslight to Dawn, describing her devotion to the cause of world brotherhood.  She wrote articles for The Caravan, the movement's publication, and translated Baha'i literature.

On March 11, 1961 Julie died in the Hospital for Special Surgery at the age of 78.  The New York Times said of her "Although Mrs. Chanler was listed in the New York Social Register, her mode of life contrasted sharply with the activities she had followed in society.  She was said to have devoted her fortune to Bahai and had expressed the hope that its activities would be carried on."

The house was used for a variety of events--Baha'i weddings; meetings for poets, artists, and lecturers; art exhibitions.   Julie Chanler may not have approved of all of them.  On June 17, 1968 New York Magazine announced a free jazz concert here; and on September 13, 1971 it announced the six-week course "Scuola Italiana di Cucina" to be held in the former Chanler kitchen." A cooking class sponsored by the America-Italy Society, it was taught by Ferruccio Andrea Dodi, the private chef of the Uzielli family.

By 1978 the name Caravan House had nothing to do with Baha'i.   The Parliamo Italiano took over the space.  It was originally operated by the Caravan Institute and is now part of Hunter College.   While there is a duplex apartment in the top floors, the remainder of the house contains classrooms and lecture rooms where students learn Italian from native-born instructors.

photographs by the author

Friday, July 13, 2018

Charles Oakley's 1833 No. 262 Bleecker Street

When Charles Oakley married Margaret Roome in 1810, he was listed as a "merchant."  He was also an attorney.  But it was for neither profession that he would become well-known.  By the 1830's Oakley had become perhaps the most prolific real estate developer in Greenwich Village.  

He responded to a population explosion, caused in part by masses fleeing a yellow fever epidemic in the city, by erecting scores of homes; many intended for working or middle class families.  That the new residents would need clothing, food, hardware and other essentials was not lost on Oakley.  Around 1833 he completed a row of five brick-faced houses on the west side of Bleecker Street, between Morton and Leroy Streets, each with a shop on the ground floor.  (Oakley had petitioned the Common Council of the City of New York on March 9, 1829 to change the name of Herring Street to Bleecker Street.)

The first in the row was No. 248 which, like its identical neighbors was three-and-a-half stories tall, including the store.  Faced in Flemish bond red brick and trimmed in brownstone, a single dormer perched above the roof line.  Originally a plain wooden fascia board would have run below the cornice.

James Sinclair, a carpet weaver, leased the shop from the Oakley family by 1835.  He lived not far away at No. 102 Barrow Street.  The upper floors were leased at the same time to James Germond and Samuel Helmes, both carpenters.  Tenants upstairs continued to be working class.  In 1841 the occupants were James Moore, "newsman," and James J. Tompkins, a "carter."

By 1848 Robert Chapman had opened his "fancy goods" store at street level and lived above the store.  Also living here was William Warner, who operated his hosiery store in the rear, at No. 248-1/2. 

For some reason the stores came and went rather quickly.  The following year William Partridge opened his tea store here, and like his predecessors, he lived upstairs.   Partridge remained through 1851, sharing the upper portion of the building that year with James Berry, a clerk.  The tea shop was replaced by George Creamer's crockery shop in 1852.  He, too, lived in the building.

By 1858 Matilda McLaughlin ran her "fancy goods and embroidery" shop at street level.  The following year Bleecker Street was renumbered and the house and store received the new address of 262.  

The turnover in businesses continued and in 1860 the shop was home to Scott, Foster & Brother's drygoods store and George Freitag's shoe shop.  Scott, Foster & Brother left in 1865 when partner David N. Foster joined William Welsh to form Foster & Welsh at No. 227 Eighth Avenue.

The store became home to Wilson & Mills tea store by 1880, run by Thomas Mills and William Wilson.  Neither men lived in the building; Mills living far to the north at No. 111 East 70th Street and Wilson much closer at No. 37 Charles Street.  The upper floors seem to have been crowded.  Renting rooms in 1880 were Justus Shaw, who ran a frame shop on Pearl Street; Edward H. Clark, John C. Bray, and Alfred W. Gee.  Alexander Speers, who was the building's superintendent, most likely lived in the cellar.

By now Minetta Lane, about three blocks away, had become the center of New York City's black population.  Many were former slaves who had fled insufferable conditions in the South after the war.  Helping to organize them and fight for social and political rights were literate leaders like William Freeman.

By 1879 he was Chairman of the Colored Republican General Committee.  He organized fund raising that year for relief of black refugees who had swarmed to Kansas hoping for a better life, only to find misery.  The Governor of Kansas, John P. St. John, sent Freeman a thank-you letter for the $250 in July, saying in part 

Of the numbers coming here, at least 75 per cent are in a destitute condition, being very scantily clothed, and without bread or the means to obtain it, consequently are dependent wholly upon the charities of the people of the North.  I am very glad to know that the colored people of your City are taking an interest in relieving the unfortunate of their race.

He ended his letter with saying "This is the second emancipation, and under it we want to make the blacks absolutely and forever free."

On December 8, 1884 Freeman held a meeting of "colored citizens," as described by The New York Times, at No. 262 Bleecker Street, most likely in a cellar room.  A resolution was read that stated that "as the relation of the colored men to the politics of the country had become doubtful, it was their duty to meet and to discuss this question and to determine the real position and status of the colored race as a factor of the great body politic."

The meeting was in preparation for a "colored mass meeting" to be held at Chickering Hall on December 29.  Freeman had invited Frederick Douglass to address that meeting.  Douglass responded with unexpected pessimism.  The New York Times reported "Mr. Douglass wrote that he did not see how the meeting could add anything to the knowledge already possessed upon the subject and afford a basis for issuing an an address."  He did say he "might" attend.  "Until then he would restrain his curiosity, hope for the best and prepare for the worst."

The string of businesses in the shop space continued.  In 1890 it was home to Jacob Stein's fancy goods store.  In 1894 the upper floors were internally joined to No. 264 with no change at street level.

The turn of the century saw the personality of the Bleecker Street neighborhood changing again as it filled with immigrants.  George Foscolo and his family--his wife Persefoni, their 5-year old daughter Marie, and Persefoni's brothers, Edward and Louis--arrived in New York from Greece in 1902.  George's hopes for happiness in the new land were soon crushed.

By 1907 the entire family was living at No. 262.  Trouble first came in December that year when Persofoni left; lured away to a life on the stage by  actors George Karlis and Heraclea A. Aggelidu.

George hired a woman to help care for Marie.  On May 24, 1908 she dressed Marie for a stroll.  But when she went downstairs where Marie was supposed to be waiting, the girl was gone.  There was little doubt that Marie's uncles were responsible.  Edward and Louis disappeared at the same time.  George told police he thought the girl was taken to her mother.

In a rather odd side note, The New York Times ran the headline "TWELVE-TOED GIRL MISSING" and reported "Marie Foscolo, who, according to her father, has twelve fingers and twelve toes, is supposed to have been kidnapped from her home."

Six months later George will had not found his daughter.  The Sun reported on November 25 that he had obtained a writ of habeas corpus "commanding his wife, Persefoni Foscolo, to produce in court their five-year-old daughter."  In the court papers he declared "his wife had left him to go to the stage" and "that she was unfit to have the custody of a young child."

As the face of the Village changed, so did the retail shop in No. 262.  During World War I it was Klapper's Baby Store, Inc.  Run by Max and Rae Klapper, it sold infants' wear.   The Depression years saw The Italian Store Co. here, a food shop specializing, not surprisingly, in Italian items.

The Italian Store Co.'s presence reflected the neighborhood's location on what was now the hem of New York City's Little Italy.  Subsequent businesses carried on the theme.  In the 1980's Zampognaro was here.  On July 23, 1986 The New York Times food writer Florence Fabricant remarked that Italians traditionally stored their oil oil in "terra-cotta crocks" and pointed out that Zampognaro's was "the first New York retailer to stock it this way.."

The following year journalist Marian Burros reported that Zampognaro's was one of the few locations in the city where authentic focaccia--an Italian "snack" that is often compared to pizza--could be purchased.

By 1995 Zampognaro's had given way to Trattoria Pesce Pasta, a restaurant that offered what New York Magazine described that year as "Good old Italian comfort food."   More than two decades later it is still here.

No. 262 Bleecker Street, along with Nos. 264 and 266, amazingly retain much of their 1833 appearance when Charles Oakley was changing the face of a once-sleepy hamlet.

photographs by the author

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Horsehair Furniture to Butterflies - 44 Walker Street

In 1854 the architectural office of T. Thomas & Son had earned esteem for designing some of Manhattan's most notable buildings, like the Astor Library, the Chemical Bank Building and the Broadway Bank Building.  The firm was hired by George Johnson that year for another, less prominent project.

Born in England, Johnson arrived in New York in 1823 and opened a rope factory.  Before too long his focus turned to furniture, instead.  George Johnson & Co. was located on William Street when the cornerstone of No. 44 Walker Street was laid.  The firm tackled almost every conceivable facet of furniture making--manufacturing the springs, weaving horse hair into upholstery fabric, and carving the frames.

George Johnson & Co.'s new factory was completed in 1855.  T. Thomas & Son gave the five-story, brownstone-clad structure a toned-down version of the high-popular Italianate style.  The segmentally-arched openings with their sills sitting on little brackets could as easily have been designed for an upscale residence.  The attractive bracketed metal cornice was typical of the period.

As expected, the storefront was cast iron.  Manufactured by the Architectural Iron Works, its piers were originally graced by Corinthian capitals, and a handsome entablature which included scrolled foliate brackets upheld the brownstone cornice.

Pretty Victorian cartouches announce the address.

George Johnson & Co.'s want ads testify to the broad array of tasks its staff performed.  Just before moving in to the new headquarters, a "Flax Dresser' was needed.  On March 15, 1856 an advertisement read "Wanted--An engineer to take charge of a small engine," and three days later "Wanted--Furniture Carvers to go to Cincinnati, Ohio."

The need for the men to travel to the Midwest was evidence of George Johnson & Co.'s jobbing business.  The firm not only manufactured and sold furniture in the Walker Street facility; but did work on site.  Another advertisement in March 1864 read "Wanted--Six Upholsterers to go a short distance from the city, to whom good wages will be paid."

Even the Civil War did not substantially interfere with George Johnson & Co.'s success.  The New York Times reported on June 28, 1865 that the firm had done $379,000 in sales the previous year--nearly $5.9 million today.

In 1867 the company was renamed Johnson & Faulkner.  George Johnson had grown wealthy and enjoyed the privileges that came with success.  His nine-acre summer estate, described as having a beautiful view, was on Castleton Avenue on Staten Island and included outbuildings like a stable and wagon house.

In stark contrast were the living conditions of his tenants.  In addition to making furniture Johnson & Faulkner owned tenement houses.  On September 14, 1872 The New York Herald ran the headline "TENEMENT HOUSE HORRORS" and described a "raid" by police on "miserable structures" on Elm Street (now Lafayette) and Oak Street behind it.  The police had were ordered by the Sanitary Commission to evacuate the buildings, deemed "unfit for human habitation."

"The houses in Elm street were first emptied, and the scene was pitiable as the wretched inmates removed their furniture to the sidewalk," said the article.  "The old women, so feeble that they were scarcely able to walk, wept bitterly, and the younger women and children, though not so demonstrative in their grief, were almost rendered desperate by the predicament in which they were placed."

With their scant belongings piled on the sidewalk, the families were now homeless.  Although they were ousted for their own good; there were no contingencies for sheltering them.  They were on their own.  The New York Times remarked they "probably slept last night upon the sidewalks, an alternative which would doubtless be preferred by thousands rather than spend a night in the dilapidated old rookeries in which these poor people have dragged out a miserable existence."

The Herald noted "The houses, which are unfit for beasts of the forest to huddle together in, far less human beings, were occupied by about six poor families, and are owned by Messrs. Faulkner and Johnson, 44 Walker street."   It was by no means welcomed press coverage for the firm.

Johnson & Faulkner moved to larger quarters on Greene Street around 1874.  That year the newly-formed Shackman & Katski, dealers in "cloths," moved into No. 44, sharing the building with R. Lalke & Co., shirtmakers.  R. Lalke placed an advertisement in The New York Herald in November that year that included an interesting condition.  "Wanted--A smart boy in a wholesale shirt business, about 13 years old, who resides with his parents."   (Manhattan had a large population of homeless boys, called "street arabs," notorious for pilfering.)

The following November the firm placed a far different ad.  "Lost--On the evening of the twentieth...on a Second avenue car, a Package containing check book, ledger, cash book and two invoice books, also $175 in cash.  Whoever has found and will return the same to R. Lalke & Co., 44 Walker street, will receive $50 reward."

Whoever placed the ad was optimistic that the finder would be eager to trade $175 in cash for $50.

For years the ground floor had housed a respectable saloon and restaurant, run by C. Bary.   In the summer of 1875 both Shackman & Katski and R. Lalke were gone.  The second and fifth floors were leased by Elias & Co., manufacturers of skirts; and the third and fourth floors were occupied by Goldstein & Brothers, dealers in "gentlemen's garments."

At around 6:15 on the evening of June 1 flames were seen coming from the Elias & Co.'s second story windows.  An alarm was sounded and fire fighters from nearby companies responded.  The blaze had additional time to spread when the truck of Engine No. 31 flipped over on Church Street.

While the building sustained some damage, all of which was covered by insurance, tenants were not so lucky.  Bary's saloon suffered about $11,500 in damages by today's standards, and Elias & Co.'s losses in water and fire damage were ten times that amount.

Bary apparently decided it was time to retire or relocate.  The high-end nature of the establishment was evidenced in the auction sale in August 1875.  Offered to the highest bidder were "a fine Bar and back Bar, Cigar Stand and Showcases; also about 200 Chairs, 40 Tables, Glassware, Crockery, Oil Paintings, Mirrors, Sideboard" along with office furniture and the stoves and ranges of the kitchen.

Although Goldstein & Brothers's stock was only "slightly injured," according to The New York Herald, they too would shortly close their business.  On December 29, 1876 the same newspaper would report shocking news.

"Isidore Goldstein and A. Goldstein, formerly doing business at No. 44 Walker street as clothiers, were arrested on Wednesday night last, by United States Deputy Marshal Bernhard, on a criminal charge of fraudulent bankruptcy."  Their bail was fixed at a staggering $235,000 in today's dollars.

In 1880 Hewlett Scudder purchased No. 44 from George Johnson's estate.  A well-respected businessman and vice-president of the Union Square Savings Bank, he too would soon be repairing fire damage--but he seems to have come out better off.

On October 21, 1881 architect D. H. King, Jr. filed plans to "repair damage by fire; cost, $2,000," as recorded in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide.  Insurance documents later revealed Scudder received $24,967 in compensation.

Scudder's tenants continued to be related to the garment industry.  In 1882 S. B. Nichols & Co. was in the building, dealers in bargain-priced sewing threat.  An advertisement in The Sun in June that year read "Try the 'Home' Spool Cotton--Works on all sewing machines.  It takes the place of six-cord and all high price threads."

M. Homberger, maker of cloaks and R. Wolff & Co., dealer in leather goods, were here in 1891 when yet another fire broke out at 4:14 a.m. on the fifth floor.   The blaze was quickly extinguished, but Rudolph Wolff learned his lesson--he took out $25,000 in fire insurance a few weeks later.

At the turn of the century Lewis Meyer's small clothing factory employed just four men who worked 54 hours each week.  I. Beaver made suspenders and that firm, too, had only four employees.  M. Fine & Sons, makers of overalls, was apparently a more substantial operation.  That company, which was here for several years, ran afoul of the City's Department of Labor in 1902.

Factory inspector M. J. Flanagan cited all three partners--Henry, Isidor and Morris Fine--for having unsanitary conditions.  The restroom was not "properly ventilated and clean."  Henry and Isidor were fined $25 each in a hearing on November 24, 1902.  Their father's fine was suspended.

Throughout the first decades of the century apparel firms called No. 44 home.  In 1905 the tenant list included pants manufactures L. Gordan & Sons and A. J. Abrams & Son, and "men's clothing" makers Kaplan & Safferstein.  In 1917 Majestic Neckwear Co. moved in in December.

By the 1920's the Victorian factory buildings were outdated and, in many cases, dilapidated.  The uncomfortable conditions of No. 44 Walker Street were evidenced in a leasing ad in February 1920.  For whatever reason the entire building was vacant.  The lofts were offered for immediate possession and noted "Hoist.  No heat.  Rent reasonable."  ("Hoist" meant there was no true freight elevator.)

The last quarter of the century saw change come to Tribeca.  Lofts and stores became galleries, apartments and restaurants.  A 1986 renovation resulted in two apartments per floor at No. 44 Walker Street.  The ground floor became was converted to The Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art.  Among its first productions was Sleeping Beayoody: Or, To Sleep Perchance to Dream by the Appleseed Players that April.  New York Magazine called it "A farcical play that deals with self-esteem."

Scraps of the Corinthian capitals still cling to sections of the cast iron piers, and a single bracket survives to hint at the lost elegance of the entablature.
In 2004 one apartment was home Mark Seth Lender and his wife, Valerie Pettis.  Lender, a conservation columnist for the Connecticut newspaper the Shoreline Times envisioned an environment-friendly use for the roof.  On December 5 that year New York Times journalist John Freeman Gill reported that "they have planted their rooftop with 2,100 square feet of forest intended to provide habitat for birds and butterflies."

Lender explained "If I plant this right you could sit here and be very quiet and you'll see birds that'll knock your brains out."

In the meantime, the brains of pedestrians at ground level remain intact, as is nearly all of the handsome facade of T. Thomas & Son's 1855 brownstone factory.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Faded Elegance - 240 West 14th Street

By the 1850's residential development was well underway along West 14th Street.   The blocks both east and west of Union Square saw the rise of high-end Greek Revival and Italianate style rowhouses.

Among them was No. 240, a 25-foot wide mansion four stories tall above a high English basement.   Its complex entrance included elaborate foliate brackets that upheld a now-lost pediment.  They were echoed in miniature within the arched opening where a set of double doors let to the paneled foyer and a second set of entrance doors.

The elaborate decoration of the entrance hints at the former grandeur of the interior spaces.

The architrave surrounds of the second and third floor windows included paneled entablatures supporting molded cornices.   The openings of the fourth floor--used most likely for servant rooms and storage--were significantly smaller and less decorated.  Above it all a was handsome bracketed metal cornice.

The wealth of the early residents was evidenced in an advertisement in The New York Herald on April 30, 1866.   The owners were leaving for Europe and had arranged an auction of the contents of their private stables.  To be sold were "a pair of magnificent brown carriage horses," a set of "superb gold plated harness," a "fine dog phaeton" (a buggy for casual drives) and other items.  Most impressive was the "elegant laudau" made by Brewster & Co., one of America's premier carriage makers.  Touted as "nearly new," it had cost $2,500--around $40,000 today.

By the 1880's moneyed families had moved northward and their 14th Street mansions were converted to boarding houses, rooming houses, or businesses.  William F. Kitsell operated No. 240 as a boarding house.  On June 13, 1884 he filed plans to enlarge it to the rear with a one-story brick extension that cost him $700, or about $18,000 today.

Many boarding house made the strict pronouncement that no unmarried women were accepted.  The policy headed off scandal and the possibility that a single female might be "disreputable."  But it was not a boarder who caused Kitsell problems in 1888; but his servants.

On June 14 The New York Times reported that Kitsell had had Ellen Maxwell, Nellie Devine, and Delia Ryan arrested.  They were charged "with stealing clothing from Mrs. Louise Ludington, one of his boarders."  Louise had been a member of the National Opera Company and her trunks contained "much valuable property," according to the complaint.

The Times reported that after Louise discovered many items missing police "found some of the stolen things in the rooms of the girls."  The article explained "It was also discovered that the locks of the trunks had not been tempered with, but that the bottoms had been loosened and the articles abstracted in that manner."  The girls all confessed and were held in a stunning $2,000 bail each--more than $53,000 today.

The following year the parlor and the basement levels were leased to The Arlington League as its clubhouse.   Founded in 1883, the club was starkly different from the stuffy social and political clubs that peppered the city.  In announcing the club's new quarters on December 29, 1889 The New York Times remarked "The Arlington is the jolliest social organization in the Ninth Ward.  It is non-partisan in politics and liberal in religious opinion. There the Tammanyite lays aside the arrogance which victory begets, the County Democrat ceases to mourn, and the Republican wishes his brothers well."

The parlor floor was elegantly furnished, but it was the renovations in the basement that drew the most attention.  The newspaper reported that the members "surveyed the handsome parlors with much satisfaction, and after they had looked at themselves in the big mirrors and tried all the inviting easy chairs and divans, they went down stairs and surveyed the bowling alley.  Bowling is a new feature of the club."

The alleys become a great success.  On April 3, 1890 The New York Times announced "There will be a friendly bowling contest between teams from the Waverlys of Jersey City and the Arlington League of this city at the latter's clubhouse, 240 West Fourteenth-street, this evening."

By the following year the New York Bicycle Club was sharing the bowling alleys.  A mention in The Sun on November 3, 1891 was unkind.  "The New York Bicycle Club rolled the Brooklyn Club team on the former's alleys, at 240 West Fourteenth street last evening.  Both teams showed the want of practice."

The Arlington League was gone from the building by 1893 when the Trustees Ninth Ward Pioneer Corps N.Y. operated the lanes.  An advertisement on August 4 that year read "ATTENTION! -- First-class private bowling alleys to rent for season of 1893-94; also for ladies' clubs, afternoons only."

On March 4, 1899 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the building had been leased to the Tammany Hall Association "for a term of years."   District headquarters in the 19th century were as much social clubs as meeting rooms.  The lower floors of No. 204 became headquarters of Tammany's Seventh Assembly District.

Two months later Congressman Amos J. Cummings spoke to the group on "The Army and the Navy" and the Spanish-American War which had ended just months earlier.  According to the New-York Tribune on May 19, "He took the stand that the Navy deserved all the credit for the easy victory over Spain in the late war.  He said the work actually done by the Army was too insignificant to mention."

The Tammany organization remained in the lower floors for several years to come, while the upper floors were rented as furnished rooms.  On May 30, 1904, for instance, an advertisement in the New-York Tribune offered "Parlor suit, three nicely furnished connecting rooms, suitable for light business; also single rooms."

Among the tenants in 1905 was Mrs. A. Combes.  She was involved in a disturbing incident on the day after Christmas that year when she went shopping at the Cowperthwait & Co. store a block away at No. 104 West 14th Street.   The New-York Tribune reported she "wished to use the elevator after making purchases" and after "getting no response to repeated rings, she walked downstairs and complained of the poor service."

A salesman went to investigate and, looking up into the elevator shaft, saw the legs of 16-year old elevator boy James Ryan "dangling below the car."  Somehow the boy's body had gotten wedged between the third floor and the elevator car's floor.  He had been crushed to death.

The Tammany group was gone before 1915, replaced by the Leader Importation Company, which tore out the bowling alleys for offices installed a storefront.  After the firm declared bankruptcy in 1916, the building was leased to the Terhune Catering Co. for five years.   The firm did not live out its lease, however.   In 1919 Alexis Rozanoff took over the lease.  He leased the basement to the Froidevaux Co.   The maker of dyes and perfumes moved its laboratories and offices into the space.

In the meantime, Rozanoff continued to rent the upper floors as rented rooms.  Among his first tenants were Mrs. Marie Verges and her daughter, 18-year old Antoinette Morales. 

While Marie was married to her first husband, General Luis Morales, the family lived what The Evening World described as "a life of ease and position" in Mexico City.  But during the overthrow of President Porfirio Diaz, rebels murdered Morales.  Marie filed a claim against the Mexican Government and was awarded an income of $300 a month as long as she remained single.

The Evening World explained "The widow, a handsome woman, attracted the attention of [Edward] Verges, who, according to friends...posed as a Spanish nobleman.  Automobile rides and frequent dinner parties, and Verges's show of affection, won the heart of Mrs. Morales, and she consented to wed again despite the remonstrances of her daughter."   The couple was married in Mexico City in December 1918.

Almost immediately Marie discovered the Verges was a fraud.  He was, in fact, a penniless widower with four children of his own.  Too proud to face her friends, she sold her belongs and brought Antoinette to New York.  They arrived in June 1919 and took rooms in No. 240 West 14th Street; both of them finding work in a clothing factory on West 36th Street.

Despite the long distance, Verges followed and badgered Marie for money.  On July 7 when Marie and Antoinette left work, he was there.  The New-York Tribune reported "They tried to avoid him, but he would not be shaken off and followed to the boarding house, urging his wife to return.  She flung a final negative answer as she darted up the steps of the house."

Marie never made it inside.  Verges fired all six rounds of his pistol.  Two bullets entered Marie's back and another slightly wounded Antoinette in the shoulder.   As Marie lay dying on the stoop, Verges ran west on 14th Street pursued by "a yelling crowd that filled the sidewalk from curb to houseline," according to the New-York Tribune.  At Eighth Avenue Patrolman Joseph Sheldrick nabbed him.

Verges attempted suicide in the station house.  He asked for a glass of water, then dropped a packet of poison in; but the sharp-eyed Sheldrick knocked the glass from his hand.

The tragedy was not over at No. 240.  The following day Antoinette attempted suicide by turning on the gas jets.  When that attempt was thwarted, she flung herself from a window later that evening, fracturing her skull.  She left a note to the boarding house proprietress that read:

Without my dear mother I cannot live.  Pray to god for us.  Our wearing apparel you may keep as a remembrance for your courtesies to us.  Notify George Horgas of Mexico City of what has occurred and send all our possession to him excepting such things as you might want to keep.

The teen died in the hospital on July 15.

When No. 240 was sold in 1920 it was described as a "four story and basement brownstone remodeled dwelling with store."  Remarkable stories continued to play out in the upstairs rooms.

Among the tenants at the time was Daniel J. Berger, who had a Government job as an Internal Revenue Inspector.  But Berger and his partner, D. J. Murphy, let greed get the best of them.

After leather goods merchant Max Silver filed his income tax return, he was paid a visit by the investigators early in January 1920.  Afterward he complained to the IRS, telling Collector Gardner that "the two men had told him that he would get into trouble on a charge of making out a fraudulent income tax return unless he paid them $135."

The Department of Justice got involved and had Silver set up a follow-up meeting.  On January 24 he meet the inspectors in a restaurant.  He handed over $100 in marked bills supplied.  Daniel J. Berger did not come home to No. 240 that evening.

A bizarre case of love gone awry occurred in 1921.  Jack Lippman moved in after he and his wife, Irene, separated in 1919.  While Irene attempted to move on with her life; Jack remained obsessed and for two years attempted to see her at her furnished room on East 80th Street.

The New-York Tribune said "he knew not only that her door was locked against him but that usually she was protected by Mrs. Steinart, who shares her room."  But in June 1921 Lippman's surveillance had revealed that Mrs. Steinart was gone every Monday night.  The Tribune reported on June 25 "he immediately began planning and mustering up his courage."

Lippman purchased a clothesline for $1.92, armed himself with a revolver and a butcher knife, and headed uptown.  At 4:30 on the morning of June 24 he tied the clothesline to a chimney and began lowering himself from the roof to Irene's window.  "On the way he lost count of the floors and stopped on the ledge of the room above his wife's, thinking he had reached his goal," said the article.  He discovered his mistake before he woke the occupants, and pushed off again.

Unfortunately for Lippman, his thrift in buying a clothesline rather than a more expensive rope, led to tragedy.  The New York Herald continued the story, saying that when he realized he was on the wrong floor, he "shoved off from the sill, intending to make the third floor ledge, when the rope, frayed by his pendulum swinging over the edge, parted."

The New-York Tribune reported "Lippman was found groaning where he had fallen, the rope still around his waist and the weapons still in his pockets.  His wife refused to go out and look at him."

The end of the abusive marriage was summed up by the newspaper: "Last night he lay dying in Bellevue Hospital, while his wife slept in her furnished room, freed at last from the threat which, she says, has long hung over her."

In May 1921 the American Engraving Company leased the building for two years.  At the end of its lease, renovations were made which remodeled the basement and parlor levels.  The basement became home to a plumbing shop and a show window was installed on first floor, now a shop.

Prohibition and the Great Depression were unkind to several of the tenants here.  John Hampton lived here in September 1932 when he was arrested at The Green Lantern restaurant on East 10th Street where he worked.  Prohibition agents who raided it on September 19 declared it "had separate bars for men and women and was frequented by Greenwich Villagers."    While the patrons were allowed to pay their checks and leave, Hampton and his co-workers were not so lucky.

At the time Russian-born Social Realist artist Raphael Soyer lived and had his studio in the building.  He had married Rebecca Letz in 1931.   While living here Soyer routinely exhibited at prestigious institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Carnegie Institute, the National Academy of Design and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Less fortunate was artist Paul R. Meltsner whose career had shown immense promise.  He had attended the School of the National Academy of Design and won several prizes with a Tiffany Foundation fellowship.  Like Soyer, his "modernistic" works were exhibited throughout the country.

Meltsner's "Man and Machine" reflects the type of works he produced in No. 240.

But on May 17, 1933 The Times reported that he "is to be evicted from his studio at 240 West fourteenth Street for non-payment of rent because admirers of his works have failed to translate their admiration into cash."  The 28-year old had moved into a room on the top floor in 1931.  "Up to three and a half months ago," said the newspaper, "he always managed to pay his rent.  his landlord, he said, has been patient, but when the indebtedness approached $200 the owner called a halt and yesterday dispossess notice was served on the artist."

If the article was published in hopes of arousing sympathy and financial help for the artist, it did not work.  Four weeks later, on June 14, the newspaper announced that Meltsner was awakened "by the insistent knocking of misfortune in the guise of a city marshall.  In a short time he, his canvases and furniture were resting on the curb two flights below."

The article continued "The artist had no money with which to hire a moving van, but friends passing by saw his plight and lent him enough by afternoon to pay transportation for his furniture to shelter at 1,284 Sixth Avenue."  The owner of the Manor Electric Company there allowed him to use an empty room for his possessions.

For years, starting in 1934, the first floor was headquarters to the Merchant Truckmen's Bureau of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, A. F. of L.  It was the scene of intense labor negotiations over the years.   The powerful union was able to wrest concessions from employers for decades, some of which no doubt seemed outrageous to managers of the corporations.

But it was not only business heads whose eyebrows were raised by union demands in October 1943.  With the country embroiled in World War and patriotism fervent, Arthur G. McKeever, president of the Local Cartage Truck Operators of the United States, pressed the Government to exempt truckers from the draft.

Journalists interviewed him in his office at No. 240 on October 10.  The Times reported "Mr. McKeever explained that because of the need for physical handling it is impracticable to employ women or physically unfit men."

Following the war the union offices moved out.   For years Dr. James B. Rosen's medical offices were in the lower level.

The changing neighborhood was evidenced in 1984 when a French restaurant, Quatorze opened in the former bowling alley-turned plumbing shop-turned doctor's office.  On September 18 Times food editor Marian Burros remarked "Tucked in among the slightly seedy facades of 14th Street near Eighth Avenue, the shiny red enameled entrance to Quatorze casts a welcoming glow.  This delightful two-month-old restaurant, whose name means 14 in French, has all the accouterments of a proper bistro."  She gave Quatorze, which would survive here more than a decade, a glowing review.

In September 2002 a "new Italian trattoria" opened in the space, Crispo, opened by chef Frank Crispo.  Journalist Sam Sifton was more impressed with the cuisine than the service.  "Thankfully, Mr. Crispo's fresh and unassuming menu comes as a welcome antidote to the greenhorn staff."

Despite the somewhat bristling review, Crispo still operates from the basement space.  The upstairs shop is home to a vintage clothing store and there are nine apartments in the upper floors where, externally, the 1850's domestic appearance survives under a coat of stucco.

photographs by the author