Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Educators, Plotters and a Poet - 156 Waverly Place


photo via streeteasy.com
Alfred S. Pell owned substantial amounts of land around Greenwich Village in the first decades of the 19th century.  Civic minded, he was partly responsible for the development of Washington Square from a potters' field to an exclusive residential enclave by selling 2.5 acres of his land at a nominal price (reportedly giving up a potential $5.3 million in profits in today's money by doing so).  Pell died on an ocean voyage in 1831.

In 1838 his estate began selling off portions of his real estate, including eight building plots along Waverley Place (the second "e" in Waverley was dropped around the turn of the 20th century).  Lambert Suydam, former president of the Manhattan Gas Light Company, purchased the property and began construction of eight 22-foot wide homes (one of which, No. 158, would was for himself).

Completed the following year the Greek Revival houses were three and a half stories tall, faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Identical to its neighbors, the stone stoop of No. 156 rose to a muscular entrance that upheld a simple entablature.  The graceful doorway featured paneled pilasters with palmetto capitals, narrow sidelights and an ample transom to allow sunlight into the foyer.

Although the entablature has been removed; the elegant entrance is intact.

Pedimented window lintels took the design a small step above the norm; but it was the attic floor which demanded the attention of the passerby.  It was faced with a stepped wooden architrave under a frieze of bull's-eye windows encircled by carved wreaths.  An intricate leave and tongue molding run along the underside of the cornice.

George B. Powell seems to have been Lambert's first tenant at No. 156.  A well-to-do merchant, his office was at No. 123 Broad Street.  The Powells moved on early in 1852 and Suydam began looking for a new tenant and neighbor.  His advertisement on April 29, 1852 read:

TO LET--The three-story and attic built House No. 156 Waverley-place, near the 6th-av., and adjoining the residence of the owner, having bath room, gas pipes, range, &c., with other modern improvements...Apply to L. SUYDAM, No. 158 Waverley-place.

A succession of residents came and went over the next decade.  Albert N. Hayes was here in 1856 when the city published his name in the local papers for owing $6.34 in personal taxes for 1854.  And by the early 1860's it appears that there were several boarders in the house.


Charles Farley lived here in 1864.  A clerk in the Custom House, he was called to testify in the forgery case against an acquaintance that year.   He was in the uncomfortable position of explaining that while John Wilson, Jr.'s reputation was "bad," he remained friends with him for three years.

Both R. G. Hoyt and Michael Cotter lived at No. 156 in 1865.  Hoyt was drafted into the Union Army on March 17 that year.  A month later Cotter encountered problems of his own.   The Greene Street neighborhood was, perhaps, the most notorious in the city for its brothels and "vile dens."  Early in the morning of April 22 Cotter left a place familiarly known as the Smithsonian.   Three men, John H. Eddington, Charles H. Daniels and Charles S. Cowing, followed him.

Just as Cotter reached Houston Street the trio attacked.  The New York Times reported "they robbed him of a gold watch and $150 but as they were making their escape Cotter laid hands on the fellow that had the watch, and thereupon the confederates returned to aid their companion."  Not only was Cotter knocked to the pavement, kicked and beaten, but the thieves took the renewed opportunity to steal a diamond pin from his vest.  The thugs were later apprehended.

No. 156 was sold at auction in February 1866 for $10,900--about $175,000 today.  It continued life as a boarding house.  Among the new owners' tenants was John Kirby, here by 1868.  He was sincerely interested in the plight of the Irish farmers, and wrote to The Cultivator & Country Gentleman that year asking in part:

Will you...either give or say which books, &c, shall give me all information necessary to enable a part of some twelve to fifteen Irish farming immigrants, who have a little money--capital, as well as labor--to decide as to which State they had better go to...I think Iowa or Southern Missouri is a good place for them to settle in.

In the 1870's the house was home to several respectable, unmarried school teachers like Annie Dunn, who taught in the Primary Department of School No. 17; Elizabeth M. Barnes, a teacher in the Girls' Department of Grammar School No. 56 on West 18th Street; and S. Elizabeth Wandell, who taught in P.S. No. 24 on Horatio Street.

The boarding house was being operated by Mary S. Jordan when 75-year old Professor William Darling took the front parlor in January 1880.  Born in Scotland, Darling was professor of anatomy in the medical department of the University of the City of New York, and in the 1850's had been the chief assistant to Dr. John M. Carnochan, in charge of the Emigrant Hospital on Staten Island.  Darling stayed on in the house only three months; but that short period would involve Mrs. Jordan in an ugly contest over his estate in court five years later in .

Following his death in December 1884, a will was presented to the courts by Amelia Delacroiex which gave his entire estate to his "esteemed friend, Mrs. Amelia Delacroiex, of Yonkers" and appointed her as executrix.   Not everyone was convinced the will was legitimate and it was contested.

To make matters more complicated, Mrs Delacroiex had vowed that Darling had no living relatives.  On January 16, 1885 The New York Times said that Darling's heirs were "springing up to contest the will."  Among them was Catharine Lefferts, who claimed to be a long-lost daughter.

Mary Jordan's involvement had only to do with the claims of Amelia Delacroiex.  She testified to a heated exchange behind closed doors between her and Darling which she could not help overhearing.  Delacroiex, she said, had called the educator "a stingy old miser" and threatened that if he did not will her his money she would sue him for breach of promise."

Darling cautioned the woman to "keep still or the people in the house will turn us out," to which she replied "What the hell do I care for the people in the house?"  It was shocking language for a proper gentlewoman.  On the stand Mary Jordan said "It is not best to repeat what else she said I do not think."

Amelia prevailed while Catharine Lefferts's claims were struck down.  The Victorian all-male jury was no doubt swayed by the defense's description of the doctor and Catharine's true father.  "The decedent was a man of very large education and culture, occupying positions of trust; while the contestant's father was shown to be illiterate and a laboring man, and had served a sentence for incest."

No. 156 was still listed as a "private dwelling" in 1910 when it was sold to Gerhard Miller.

A tenant in 1918 brought more shocking press coverage.  The Nationalist Movement in India encouraged natives to rebel against British control.  Sailendra Nath Ghose was suspected of backing insurgent activities in his homeland.  On March 17 his rooms were raided and he was arrested.  Three days later the New-York Tribune reported "More arrests are looked for by the Federal officials in the Hindu plot to free India, which was revealed by the arrest on Monday of Sailendra Nath Ghose, a Hindu, and Agnes Smedley, his American girl companion, who were leading spirits in the proposed uprising."  The article added that papers found in Ghose's room "gave detailed information as to the plans of the plotters.

Ghose and Agnes Smedley (described later by the Tribune as "a California girl") were charged with distributing seditious books and pamphlets.  They were held in the Tombs on $10,000 bail--around $163,000 today.  On April 1 they were indicted "for alleged complicity in a conspiracy to violate the espionage act, and also for acting as agents for a faction of a foreign government not recognized by the United States."  Sailendra Nath Ghose's travails were not without reward.  He would later rise to the position of president of the Indian National Congress of America.

Two of the charming bull's-eye openings were replaced by double-hung windows in the 20th century.
Greenwich Village was the home to many of the political and social fringe; so Ghose's choice of the Waverly Street location was not surprising.  Neither was the fact that Helen Todd was leasing a room in the house by 1920.  Her outspoken--and not always appreciated--political views made the newspapers in 1921.

Called by the New-York Tribune a "champion of Russia," she attended a meeting of the National Civic Federal at the Hotel Astor on January 13.  Among the speakers were the former Secretary of Commerce, William C. Redfield, and James P. Holland, president of the New York Federation of Labor.  While Holland spoke, Helen began shouting over him, or as the newspaper worded it, she "waved a verbal red flag."

"She got action right away.  As soon as the audience heard enough of her impassioned oratory to realize that Miss Todd was rebuking Holland for his assertion that labor opposed recognition of Soviet Russia, or trade with the nation, a storm of hissing and booing broke out."

Holland quieted the audience.  "Don't hiss any woman.  Let her talk.  I'll answer her."  But he did not get that chance.  Helen stormed out of the room, yelling the entire way.  Her last recognizable words were "You have no right to refer to people as long-haired and short-haired.  You____"

At the time of Helen's outburst, Greenwich Village was well-known for its subterranean tearooms.  The basement of No. 156 had been converted to one such spot, known only by the address.  The Greenwich Village Quill published a long list of the district's hideaways, including "156 Waverly Place--Tea and refreshment, also gilded ceiling."

The most celebrated of the residents of No. 156 came briefly in 1923.  According to biographer Daniel Mark Epstein in his What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, Edna St Vincent Millay lived here that year; and at least two letters from the poet survive with the address.

In 1969 No. 156 was officially renovated to apartments--one each in the basement, first and fourth floors, and two on the second and third.  

When famed photographer Berenice Abbott shot the doorway of No. 156 in 1947, the entablature was still intact.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The third quarter of the 20th century saw Greenwich Village emerge as the center of Manhattan's gay culture.  Across the street from No. 156 was Waverly And Waverly, a gay nightclub.  The establishment's music and entertainment did not sit well with tenant Cheryl Fein, who lived on the second floor.

She complained in court that Waverly And Waverly was staging shows without a cabaret license.  She could see people applauding through her vertical blinds, she told the court, proving there was a show going on.  The staff and patrons of the nightclub were apparently accustomed to Cheryl's spying.  She said the bartender would wave to her from the bar.

Despite the removal of the brownstone entablature over the doorway and the addition of two double-hung windows in the attic floor, destroying two of the marvelous bull's-eye windows, No. 156 is perhaps the best preserved of Suydam's 1839 row, recalling a time when Waverly Place was home to well-to-do residents.

photographs by the author

2 comments:

  1. A lot of the information you serve as fact about 156 Waverly Place is incorrect. I have been here for nearly 70 years, and my loved ones were here for many years before I was born, so I know about 156 Waverly Place. For example, I was here in 1969, and I can tell you NONE of what you say about supposed "renovation" to apartments, or the "removal" of the lintel above the front stoop, or the "removal" of any ships windows on the top floor EVER OCCURRED at that time. Your "facts" about 1969 are pure fiction, and I would strongly suggest you delete or correct that paragraph. I was here, and you were not, and I do not appreciate your fictional claims about my family home being "officially made into apartments" in 1969, and "renovated" that year, or the ships windows being "removed." The lintel above the front stoop was still there in 1969, and if you did your RESEARCH, you would know that. Thank you.

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    1. I would suggest that pointing out perceived discrepancies can be done without insults. The two lines you take exception with are hardly "a lot of information," as well. Nevertheless, I edited the line about the mangled doorway. The Department of Buildings Certificate of Occupancy No. 67254 dated March 21, 1969 shows that the building was officially made into apartments. As you can see, I did my research. Thank you

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