Friday, August 23, 2019

Faded Elegance - The William Sinclair House - 159 West 23rd Street

Beneath the slathering of stucco is a marble facade.

The West 23rd Street block between Sixth and Seventh Avenues saw the rise of elegant rowhouses in the 1850's.  The 25-foot wide residence at No. 159 stood out for two reasons:  Unlike its mostly Greek Revival and Italianate neighbors, it was designed in the Gothic Revival style.  And it was faced in marble.

The house was owned by William Sinclair and his wife.  Born in Massachusetts, Sinclair had entered the United States Navy in 1809 as a midshipman.  He had been appointed a Purser of the Navy by President James Madison on March 25, 1814, a post he technically still held.  In July 1849 he was appointed Chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing, a highly responsible and powerful job.  The title was so esteemed he was known almost exclusively as Purser Sinclair, and when his wife was mentioned in social columns, she was referred to as "Mrs. Purser Sinclair."

This 1820 portrait of Purser Wm. Sinclair was made by artist Samuel F. Morse, better known for his telegraph system - Army and Navy Register October 31, 1908 (copyright expired)

The Sinclairs moved into the new house not long after he retired.  On September 27, 1854 the Richmond, Virginia newspaper The Daily Dispatch reported "It is stated that Purser Sinclair, the present Chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing, is to be relieved on the 1st of October, by Purser Horatio Bridge."

His retirement would be relatively short-lived.  On May 25, 1858 The Washington Union reported "Purser William Sinclair, of the navy, died in New York city on the 22d...The pursers in New York city held a meeting on Saturday, adopted a resolution of sympathy for the bereaved family, and resolved to attend the funeral ceremonies in a body as chief mourners."

The house was leased in the spring of 1860.  It was described in an advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune as "A Marble Front three-story [sic] House, No. 159 West 23d-st., with the modern improvements; gas fixtures in."

But as early as 1862 it had been purchased by Abraham R. Van Nest (sometimes spelled Van Ness).  His family was listed in the house in June that year.

Despite the directory listings, it is doubtful that that Van Nest actually lived in the 23rd Street house; but rather leased it.  Since 1819 he had owned the former Peter Warren mansion in Greenwich Village.  Although that residence was originally used as a summer estate, by now he and his wife used it nearly year round.

Abraham Van Nest died on September 14, 1864.  The family continued leasing the house.  Even well-to-do families sometimes rented spare rooms and such was the case with the tenants of No. 159 in 1867.  The rent they charged reflects the high-end status of the block.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on February 7, 1867 read:

A private family will let, with board, two large handsomely furnished rooms, on second story, to an unexceptionable party only, for $50 per week." 

The rent for the two rooms would equal $875 a week today.  (The term "unexceptionable," almost entirely erased from the modern lexicon, meant loosely "unobjectionable.")

After Esther S. Blake leased the house in August 1875 from Abraham R. Van Nest, Jr., she may have operated it as a boarding house.  That was definitely the case a decade later when Mrs. M. L. Brainard ran the house.  The upscale character of her place was evidenced by E. J. Levoson-Lytton's taking a room on October 11, 1885.  He was a cousin of Lord Robert Bulwer-Lytton of Britain.

Lytton had arrived on the White Star steamer Celtic that day.  The Sun reported "The voyage to New York was a stormy one, and Mr. Lytton did much to enliven its tedium by his lively and agreeable conversation and by his nack [sic] of getting up entertainments...Shortly after his arrival he engaged a room at Mrs. Brainard's, 159 West Twenty-third street."

Lytton, whom the New-York Tribune described as "a tall, handsome man, age thirty-two, soldierly in bearing and a pleasant talker," had had a rather romantic life.  He had been educated in the prestigious Harrow School in London before becoming an officer in the British Army.  The New-York Tribune noted "While serving in India he gained some notoriety as a huntman and a dashing rider."  It was there, while riding a steeplechase, that he was thrown from his horse.  His serious injuries forced him to resign from the army. (The most peculiar condition resultant from the accident, according to the Tribune, was that his heart "now beat on the right side of his chest.") 

The aristocratic new boarder most often did not partake of Mrs. Brainard's board, but dined instead across the street at Thodore's restaurant.  He had never recovered from his injuries and Mrs. Brainard noticed that he was "constantly troubled with a hacking cough and at times complained of a severe pain in his side."  

On Wednesday December 2, Lytton ran into his landlady as he was entering the house and told her he was in great pain.  She later offered to make him a mustard plaster, but he declined and went to his room.

At around 5:00 in the morning a servant woke Mrs. Brainard, saying she heard a "knocking" in Lytton's room.  She dressed and went to his room, where she found him on the floor, bleeding from the mouth.  As he lost consciousness, a doctor was called for; but by the time he arrived Lytton was dead.  A note which he apparently kept in his pocket at all times read:

Should anything happen to me, illness or accident, please communicate at once with Mr. Washington Briggs, 69 West Nineteenth street, who will care for me and cable home to Mrs. Lytton, 23 Edith Grove, Fulham road, London.

Lytton was a bachelor and the Mrs. Lytton in the note was his aunt.  Later Dr. Justin G. Herold, the coroner's deputy arrived.  Without making an autopsy, he declared the death the result of a pulmonary hemorrhage.  Herold gave Washington Briggs permission to have the body removed to a mortician.  

Unaware of any of this, Coroner Messemer arrived late in the afternoon and interviewed Mrs. Brainard  He then asked to see the body.  Messemer was surprised and angered to hear that it had been removed.  He intended to go to the undertaker's establishment on West 35th Street to conduct an autopsy; but a suicide occurred which demanded his attention.

Washington Briggs, in the meantime, hurried the undertaker along.  He moved the burial up from Sunday to Saturday, and then told the three friends who attended the burial that Lytton had committed suicide.  

And when Messemer arrived at the 35th Street establishment only to find that Lytton's body had already been embalmed and buried, he launched an investigation.  Among other details that raised eyebrows was that Mrs. Brainard recalled that when she entered the room Lytton was wearing his gold watch and chain, a diamond ring, a scarf pin and gold studs.  The jewelry was gone.   The watch was valued at $100 and the ring at $75--more than $4,700 today.

Lord Bulwer-Lytton was an internationally-known politician and statesman and the death of his cousin naturally drew the attention of the press.  It was compounded by the apparent mishandling of the case.  Telegrams from Lytton's aunt arrived, saying "Send full particulars of E. J. Lytton's death.  Pay expenses," and from his mother, "Do what is necessary for my poor son."  The British Consul sent three representatives to the Coroner's office on a fact-finding mission.

The New-York Tribune, on December 8, reported "A flurried group consisting of Coroner Messemer, his deputy, Dr. Justin G. Herold, four young Englishmen dressed in the latest style and a hysterical woman filled the little office of the corner...last night."  (The hysterical woman was Mrs. Brainard.)  Also in the room was Washington Briggs.

The Englishmen heard "the conflicting stories three at a time."  Each participant in the bungled case attempted to clear himself of any wrongdoing.  The newspaper reported "Messrs. Clark, Flavell and Bennett shook their heads at Mr. Brigg's story."  But the sad bottom line to the affair was that because the body had been embalmed no autopsy could be performed now, anyway.  The New-York Tribune concluded "It was nearly midnight when the Coroner told his visitors that he should not disinter the body.  The three young Englishmen went away disgusted."

By the last decade of the 19th century the once-refined block saw the encroachment of commerce.  Sixth Avenue was the city's major shopping thoroughfare and it spilled over onto West 23rd Street.  On January 24, 1891 the Record & Guide reported that G. Willett Van Nest "intends to alter the four-story and basement house, No. 159 West 23d street, the first-story and basement for business purposes and the three floors above for bachelor's apartments."

The architectural firm Constable Bros. did not file plans until July 17.  A one-story addition was erected in the rear, the stoop was removed and a two-story storefront installed.  The plans also called for "interior alterations and walls altered."  The considerable renovations cost Van Nest more than a quarter of a million in today's dollars.

The store was leased by the home furnishings store of Willard & Company.  Selling everything from lamps to baby carriages to bird cages, it would be among the first of the stores that would make West 23rd Street the center of the retail furniture district by the turn of the century.

The Jewish Messenger August 5, 1892 (copyright expired)

Among those leasing bachelor apartments upstairs was illustrator Will Phillip Hooper.  This rooms double as his residence and studio.

Hooper produced this illustration of "The Seven Valentines" that appeared in Demorest's Monthly while living here in 1893.  
The artist was looking for new accommodations in September 1894.  His advertisement in the New York Press was precise regarding what he wanted.  "A deep top floor wanted for studio and living rooms; alterations to be made by owner; rent $600 per year; long lease."

Hooper's need to move quite likely had to so with a major renovation of the building for the School of Industrial Art and Technical Design for Women which moved in that year.   West 23rd Street had become the center of art instruction by now.  Across the street was the Artist-Artisan Institute building; the Associated Artists was at No. 115 East 23rd Street; and an art school connected with the Academy of Design was at 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue.   

The Sun, September 27, 1896 (copyright expired)
Run by Florence E. Cory, the school gained national attention.  On July 20, 1899 the Warsaw, New York Wyoming County Times explained that the school trained students, most significantly females, "to become professional designers, i.e., practical workers in designs for wall paper, carpets of all grades, printed drapery silks, brocades, raw silk furniture coverings, book covers, lace challies, lawns, dress goods and textiles, both printed and woven, and thus be self-supporting in this special branch of industry."

The exceptional Gothic Revival cornice has partially, and miraculously, survived.
There were other tenants in the building.  In 1896 The Eastern Brom-Lithia Water Co. was here, making R. B. L. Water.  Its ads stressed that "R. B. L. Water is a medicine and not a beverage; and that it possesses valuable curative properties, such, in fact, as cannot be found in any other water on the market to-day."  

Another "medical" tenant was Professor Judd, here by the spring of 1899.  His ads promised "Prof. Judd makes the slim fat; fat slim; weak strong; sick well."  He did not say how.

By the turn of the century the School of Industrial Art was gone.  In 1902 Rose Decorations Co. was in the building.  The firm offered classes in "artistic wood burning."  It shared the address with the Zettler Rifle Club.

On March 18 that year The New York Times reported on the club's tournament, "which has been held during the past ten days on the ranges of the Rifle Club at 159 West Twenty-third Street."  The group would remain for years.  On April 16, 1908 the Windham Journal reported on the "12th annual gallery championship match and rize shoot, held under the auspices of the Zettler Rifle the club headquarters, 159 West 23 street."

After the rifle club left, the building filled with small business, many of them apparel-related.  In 1911 A. S. Miller & Co., furs, was here and in 1912 Henry Feurstein, sellers of "surgical instruments, trusses, etc." leased space.  In the late teens and early 1920's skirt and dress manufacturers H. Hott, Schowitz & Tucker and Cohen & Messier occupied space.

On May 1, 1920 The Sun reported that the G. Willett Van Nest estate had leased the store to Sigismund Markendorff.  Once a prosperous artist, the aging Markendorff was now well-known among the theatrical community for producing frames for theater posters.

The Vaudeville News, April 22, 1921 (copyright expired)

In the spring of 1922 Markendorff fell ill.  Doctors informed him that he would need to take a complete rest in order to regain his health.  He was put on a waiting list to enter a sanitarium.  The sanitarium would be costly, and Markenroff was paranoid this his life's savings would be stolen while he and his wife were out of the house.  Therefore the 77-year-old carried the cash with him.  It turned out to be a tragic decision.

On September 27, 1922 The New York Call reported "Mr. and Mrs. Sigmund Markendorff...are waiting with tremulous hope the result of [a] police search for a young man who robbed them of $3,000 and jewelry last Sunday on an elevated train."  The newspaper said "The money was saved penuriously from lean days for a leaner day."

The elderly couple were returning from a visit to Markendorff's sister.  On the crowded train Markendorff felt someone jostle him "and shrieked that he had been robbed."  Almost simultaneously his wife "found that her wrist watch was gone and that a $300 diamond brooch saved from more prosperous days had been torn from her dress." 

No follow-up articles appeared regarding the robbery, suggesting the the couple never regained their property.

By the mid-1940's until around 1950 Markendorff's store space was home to the Jeanette Electric Co.  The firm routinely advertised in magazines like Popular Mechanics, typically offering "Radios, toasters, irons, clocks, heaters, stoves, supplies, etc."  In December 1948 it highlighted "Christmas Tree light sets and bulbs."

In 1959 a renovation resulted and apartment and art studio on the top two floors; and in 1965 the third floor was similarly altered.  It was possibly at this time that the marble-faced upper floors were given a coat of stucco.

At the time the ground floor was home to the Messina piano store.  In 1979 it became Francisco's Centro Vasca, a Basque seafood restaurant famous for its over-sized lobsters.  Owned by the Quintan family, it would be a Chelsea destination for decades.  The old storefront was made over with stucco and Spanish tiles to reflect the theme.

photo by Maya Rajamani, via

Changing times were reflected when the VidKids Computer Training Center moved in around 1987.  Workshops and seminars were provided to "professionals, students and minors (ages 7 through 17)" in the computers.

Another renovation was completed in 2000, which resulted in two apartments per floor above the restaurant.  Then, after nearly four decades in the space, the Quintan family closed Francisco's Centro Vasco restaurant.  The stage set storefront was quickly pulled down.  In doing so the owners re-exposed the cast iron piers from W. Willett Van Nest's 1891 renovation.

photographs by the author

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