Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Pierre Ouvrier House - 247 West 13th Street

The solid, paneled doors are original.  At some point metal cornices were added to the windows; a subtle upgrade.  
Not all the real estate developers in the first half of the 19th century were men.  In 1854 Mary Ann C. Rogers commissioned the construction of six rowhouses on West 13th Street just east of Greenwich Avenue.  Three stories of red-orange brick sat upon rusticated brownstone English basements.  Tall stoops led to the double-doored entrances within molded, elliptical arched frames under a simple cornice.  Ample transoms provided light into the foyer.  The architect chose not to run the identical bracketed cornices together, giving each residence its independence.

No. 247 became home to the Elias Wasson family.  Wasson and his wife, Maria, had at least one daughter.  Another, Isabella Anne, had died at just one year and two months old on December 15, 1841.  

Wasson was a partner in Inglis & Wasson, dealers in "blue stone and flags [i.e., flag stones]."  No. 247 was convenient to his business, its office and stone yard being at the corner of 13th Street and Tenth Avenue.  On May 1, 1855 the partnership was dissolved and Elias Wasson continued running it alone.

Maria Wasson died at the age of 44 on February 7, 1860.  Her funeral was held in the house and she was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

By 1872 Pierre Ouvrier and his wife, Marguerite, had purchased the house.  As was often the case, the title was put in her name.  The couple had six children, at least three of them, Jules, Louis and Charles, lived in the house.

Ouvrier was born in a Pyrenees village in Southern France in 1808.  While still a boy he went to Paris where he learned cabinet making.  In 1841 he came to New York and established a business on Harrison Street.  Five years later he partnered with Martin Martins to form the piano making firm of Martins & Ouvrier.  Then, in 1867 the partnership was dissolved and Ouvrier reorganized with his sons, creating Ouvrier & Sons.  The firm earned a superb reputation making high-end square grand and upright instruments.

In December 1874 Louis Ouvrier had to temporarily put piano making on hold when he was appointed to the jury in a high-profile murder case.  Tammany Hall bigwig Richard "Boss" Croker was accused of murdering John McKenna on election day that year.  McKenna was a lieutenant of James O'Brien, who was running for Congress against Tammany candidate Abram S. Hewitt.   The New York Times called McKenna's death the result of "an affray" at the polls.

Visibly opposing the corrupt and powerful Tammany regime was a risky proposition.  And that may have had much to do with Ouvrier and his peers failing to come to a verdict in the case.  Croker walked free.

The year 1881 was a traumatic one at No. 247 West 13th Street.  On January 15 Marguerite died.  Following her funeral in the house, a requiem mass was held in the French-language Church of St. Vincent de Paul on West 23rd Street. 

Shortly afterward Pierre Ouvrier fell, breaking his thigh.  It was just beginning to heal when, on April 4 he "was stricken with apoplexy," as reported by The New York Times.  (Today the condition would be most often be diagnosed as a stroke.)  Ouvrier was partially conscious for three days before slipping into a coma.  He died on April 9 at the age of 73.  The New York Times called him "one of the oldest piano manufacturers in this country."  The article noted "His sons were associated with him in the business, and will continue it."

Eight months later there was another death in the house.  Charles Louis, the six-month old son of Louis and his wife, Julia, died on December 6.  Unlike those of his grandparents, the baby's funeral was strictly private.

Of Pierre and Marguerite's six children, only three were still living--Louis, Charles and Emma.  They inherited equal shares in house.  Louis and Charles reorganized the business as Ouvrier Brothers.  They would continue manufacturing high class pianos through the turn of the century.

Around 1901 Emma married and in April the following year she and Louis sold their portions of the 13th Street house to Charles.  On April 12 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Charles had paid "Emma A. Ouvrier, now Duprez" $3,806 and paid Louis $4,000 (no explanation of the $200 difference was offered).   The combined payments would equal about $115,000 today.

By 1907 Charles had moved out and leased No. 247 to Victor Rettich, the president of the Knickerbocker Light and Heat Company.   His newly-widowed father, Albert Rettich, moved in with the family in April 1908.

The Sun described Albert as "a well to do broker of Berlin."  Three weeks earlier his wife had died and immediately following the funeral he came to New York.  The Sun explained that after being married nearly fifty years, the 72-year-old "found himself unable to endure the loneliness and grief after Mrs. Rettich's death."  The newspaper noted "To members of the family the old man had said several times that he didn't see any use in living longer."

On the morning of April 24 Albert went downtown to Victor's office on the fifth floor of No. 25 West Broadway.  Along with his son, Thomas Harris and H. P. Brayton were in the office and Albert took a seat near a window.  The Sun reported "They did not observe Mr. Rettich's actions until one of them happened to glance up and see that he was climbing out of the window.  They were too late to catch him."

West Broadway was crowded with hundreds of pedestrians who witnessed Rettich smash onto the pavement.  His body was taken to the West 13th Street house where his funeral was held later that week.

Charles was the last surviving Ouvrier brother by now.  He continued to run Ouvrier Brothers on his own.  The Rettich family would have to find a new home soon after his niece, Marie, Louis's daughter, became engaged to William Henry McKiever in March 1910.  The New-York Tribune noted "The wedding will probably take place early in June."

Marie K. Ouvrier at the time of her engagement.  New-York Tribune, May 15, 1910 (copyright expired)
William H. McKiever was a consulting and contracting engineer and the head of Wm. H. McKiever, Inc.  Shortly after the engagement was announced, on March the New York Daily Tribune reported "William H. McKiever, one of the officers of the Catholic Club and a leading mechanical engineer, gave a dinner last night at the Manhattan Hotel.  The dinner was in honor of Miss Marie K. Ouvrier, who is to become Mrs. McKiever next June."  The guest list included notable names, like Joseph James Ryan, the son of millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan; former Police Commissioner Frank C. York and his wife; and Assemblyman James A. Foley.

Following the June 11 wedding in the Church of St. Saviour, the couple moved into No. 247 West 13th Street.  McKiever's active involvement in the Catholic Church was no doubt a factor in his winning the attentions of Marie.  She had been educated in the St. Joseph's Convent in Flushing, and according to the New-York Tribune "since the organization of the St Mary's Junior Auxiliary has been one of its most popular members."

The couple would continue their involvement with Catholic organizations.  Marie was vice-president of the St. Joseph's Alumnae and active in its charitable programs, and a member of the Ladies' Auxiliary of St. Joseph's Day Nursery.  By 1920 William was a trustee of the latter group.

McKiever's name appeared in newspapers for a less commendable reason in January 1922.  The Lockwood Committee had been formed in 1919 to probe renting and building conditions in the City of New York.  Its broad investigation included the suppliers of heating and ventilating appliances.  On January 31, 1922 The New York Herald announced that the committee had indicted 20 corporations and 28 individuals "all of them alleged to have been identified with the system of price fixing."  Included in the list was William McKiever.

McKiever seems to have cleared his name, for two months later the New York Building Congress named him to a committee "to revive the apprenticeship system in the building trades."

The McKievers were concerned when they lost two valued items were lost on their way home from church on April 13, 1924.  The following day an advertisement appeared in The New York Telegram and Evening Mail:  "Pocket Pray Books, two, lost Sunday afternoon, West 8th street or Greenwich avenue.  Please return.  247 West 13th."  (Interesting, no reward was offered.)

By 1933 the McKievers had moved on.  Their former home was operated as a rooming house at the time.

In 1933 a Room for Rent sign hangs from the doorway.  To the far left is the Jackson Square Libraryphoto from the collection of the New York Public Library.
In 1942 a renovation was completed which resulted in an apartment in the basement and one of the parlor floor, three furnished rooms on the second, and one apartment and a furnished room on the third.   

One of the tenants in 1946 was author and playwright Herbert Oswald Nicholas Kubly.  While living here he was the music critic for Time magazine and his play Men to the Sea was running on Broadway.  In his 1994 Knowing When to Stop: A Memoir, Ned Rorem recalled meeting him that year, adding he "lived on a floor-through at 247 West Thirteenth, got up late and worked all afternoon with the kind of zeal he felt necessary to The Artist."

By the mid-1950's esteemed photographer Lisette Model lived had an apartment here.  In 1952 the New School for Social Research staged an exhibition of her and Bernice Abbot's photographs.  On September 23, 1956 Jacob Deschin, writing in The New York Times, reported "Lisette Model offers a course in 'The Function of the Small Camera' to be given in twelve weekly sessions at 8 o'clock at 247 West Thirteenth Street.  The course fee is $60."  

In 2016 the Ouvrier house was reconverted to a single family home.  A careful restoration of the facade closely returned it to its 1854 appearance.

photographs by the author

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