The Federal-style house that Peter Hegeman constructed in 1833 at No. 8 Morton Street was an ample 25-feet wide; about five feet wider than most. Judging from its Flemish bond brickwork, the wooden structure most likely always had a brick front. Two-and-a-half stories tall, its peaked roof would have originally been pierced by one or two dormers.
Hegeman owned several properties, so it is likely that his family never lived here. The house was being leased by the Wilson family in 1857 when disaster was averted after sparks from a nearby chimney set the roof on fire. On May 2 the New-York Daily Tribune reported "Yesterday afternoon at 2-1/2 o'clock the roof of the dwelling-house of Mr. Wilson, No. 8 Morton street, took fire in consequence of sparks from the burning out of a sooty chimney falling upon it. The damage was not very great."
By 1860 the tenant was operating a small private industrial school in the house to prepare girls for factory work. An advertisement that year read: "Wanted--A number of girls to learn vest making. Girls taken to learn to operate on Singer's Machine. Terms moderate and instruction thorough. Apply at No. 8 Morton street."
By the end of the Civil War the district around Minetta Lane, a few blocks to the east, would become known as "Little Africa" as many of the city's growing Black population settled there. The change in demographics was evidenced in the Morton Street neighborhood even while the war raged. In 1863 a newspaper reported on a "fire in the house of Aaron Williams (colored) at No. 8 Morton street. The building is owned by Peter Hegeman."
Anthony Lispenard Robertson purchased the house in 1869.
A life-long bachelor, the wealthy attorney had become Assistant Vice-Chancellor of the State of New York in 1846 and a Chief Justice of the Superior Court in 1860.
Robertson renovated the property in 1871. On July 28 architect George Forrester filed plans for "one story to be added." The peaked roof and dormer were removed and the attic raised to a full level. It was most likely at this time that pressed metal cornices were applied to the openings. The building now housed four families.
No. 8 was sold at auction on March 14, 1891, described in the announcement as a "three-story frame building, brick front." It was purchased by Russell Benedict who paid $15,050--or about $433,000 in today's terms. It is a surprising amount, given the low income tenants living in the house.
Among them was Sarah Smalls, a widow with a child, who lived in the basement with her sister and her children. The women made their living as menial domestics.
Sarah and her sister were struggling in 1894. The Panic of 1893 was a serious economic depression and it caused middle class families who had been able to afford extra help to cut back. The Evening World opened its Free Food Commission at No. 90 Murray Street to provide food to indigent families. A note from a clergyman identifying that applicant and noting the number in the family was required. It also had to guarantee that "they are deserving."
A World reporter interviewed Sarah on February 8, 1894 after she received food there. His racially-tainted description of her plight is cringe-inducing today.
Sarah Smalls, as black as Chloe, told, with tearful eyes, how she, a widow with one child, and her sister, whose husband deserted her and their six little children two years ago, and how the two mothers had struggled to keep their broods with them, living in a basement at 8 Morton street. Washing and scrubbing is hard to get to do now a days, and they were destitute till Sarah took a big bagful of stuff on her strong back and set out for 'The Evenink World' Free Food Commission.
William J. Madden rented rooms in the house in 1899. On a March evening that year he boarded a ferry for Staten Island. The New York Press, on March 21, said "The length of the voyage led him into a rash endeavor to read a newspaper for amusement." But the sun had set and the ferry boat was not lit, making this impossible. The article said with tongue in cheek, "The officers of the ferry company believe that the varied scenery along the route should furnish sufficient amusement for passengers, and consequently are economical in the matter of the lighting of their boats."
Infuriated, Madden plotted revenge. On Sunday evening, March 19, he stationed himself at the ferry entrance with a box of wax candles, which he offered to the passengers for a penny each.
"Here you are!," he was quoted by a reporter. "Get your fine reading lights before you go aboard. No light furnished on board. Last chance to fix things so you can read your paper; only one cent each. Get them now."
The ferry company did not find the demonstration amusing and Madden was arrested. He appeared in court the following morning where he received a "lecturing" from Magistrate Deuel about "violating the Sunday law," and was freed.
Surprisingly, at some point Russell Benedict sold the property back to the Hegeman family. They retained ownership until June 1924 when the P. A. Hegeman Realty Co., Inc. sold it to Carmine Albense and Anna Bianchine. By now this section of Greenwich Village had filled with Italian immigrants, on the fringe of Manhattan's Little Italy.
A renovation completed in 1925 resulted in a "one family dwelling," as worded by the Department of Buildings, on the first floor, and furnished rooms about. It appears that the family of Carmine Albanese occupied that first floor space.
Then, in 1935, the ground floor became a store. A Colonial Revival style storefront was installed. One of its two arched entrances led to the upper floors, the other into the store.
|A tax photo shows the 1935 storefront and entrances. via the NYC Department of Records and Information Services.|
It would be a relatively short-lived change. In 1940 George Ferro purchased No. 8 and initiated another renovation, completed in 1942. The storefront was gone and there was now one apartment on each floor. That configuration lasted until 1975 when the building was reconverted to a single family residence. In 1999 an alteration of the ground floor approximated the historic 1833 appearance.
photographs by the author