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

2 comments:

  1. NINE apartments. That means one window each. Must be small apartments.

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    Replies
    1. I think we can assume they are not all clustered against the front wall, but extend through the building; so probably three per floor.

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