Even before her marriage to Divie Bethune, Joanna Graham had devoted her life to charitable works. With financial help from her husband, she founded institutions like the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, the Infant School Society and the Society for the Promotion of Industry Among the Poor. When she ceded land in Greenwich Village for a street, it was named in her honor, Bethune Street.
In 1846 a three-story, brick faced house was erected at No. 39 Bethune Street. Three bays wide, the Greek Revival style residence sat above a shallow porch. A horsewalk--or narrow passage to the side--led to the rear yard where a second structure was located.
It was the picture frame factory of John Sigler (also spelled Siegler in some documents) before long. On September 29, 1853 The New York Herald reported that "a fire broke out in the shop of Mr. John Sigler, at the rear of No. 39 Bethune street." The New York Times added "The flames were discovered by the workmen just as they were quitting work and, with the assistance of two or three fire companies, the fire was extinguished before doing much damage to the building. The loss on the stock of Mr. Siegler is estimated at $360." The loss would equal more than $12,000 today.
Carpenter's American roots stretched back to colonial times. The New York Times later remarked "An ancestor, William Carpenter, was with Roger Williams in the founding of the Providence colony, and he, with Alice Carpenter Bradford, wife of Gov. Bradford of Massachusetts, and others, purchased land from the Indians at what is now Oyster Bay, L. I. in 1677."
Daniel Carpenter and his partner I. H. Wilson, now operated their lumber business and steam mill, D. H. Carpenter & Co., in the rear factory building. Lumber from Carpenter's establishment would be used in major structures like the Fifth Avenue Hotel and the Brick Presbyterian Church.
Daniel Carpenter was active in community affairs. And he, as well, seems to have had little patience for saloons which operated in the neighborhood on Sundays. He made a complaint against Isaac B. Smith in the summer of 1854 resulting on a raid. Smith, his bartender, and his customers were arrested--nine persons in all--and each fined $2.50, around $77.50 today.
On September 26, 1860 Carpenter and I. H. Wilson announced the dissolution of their partnership. The New York Evening Express noted "D. H. Carpenter will continue the business at 39 Bethune Street."
The rear building was large enough for Carpenter to rent space. On April 17, 1863 an advertisement in The New York Herald offered "A light, high ceiling room, fifty by twenty feet, to let cheap, with steam power. A wood worker preferred. Inquire of D. H.Carpenter, 39 Bethune street, New York." That same year, on July 24, he advertised "Cabinet Maker Wanted--This morning apply to D. H. Carpenter, 39 Bethune st., N.Y."
In 1867 Carpenter purchased a home in Maplewood, New Jersey, initially, it seems, as a summer house. The family was still living on Bethune Street in 1869 when 15-year old Marion entered the June Introductory Class of the City University of New York. But by 1875, although he still ran his mill from the rear factory, Carpenter had moved his family permanently to Maplewood.
The main house was altered for a packing box factory run by James Fagan and A. W. Loomis. On June 1 John McLellan and his wife, Euphemia, purchased the property for $9,500, just over $250,000 today. Within the year they hired architect James E. Ware to renovate the house. His plans, filed on January 29, 1886 read "factory building, altered for tenement."
When Gustavus Isaacs purchased the property at auction in March 1899 the Real Estate Record & Guide described it as a "3-story brick tenement." At the same auction he purchased the two-story tenement at No. 747 Washington Street. Exactly ten years later he sold the properties to the newly-organized Zurich Silk Finishing Company, which simultaneously purchased Nos. 33 through 37 Bethune Street.
|The old horsewalk still separated the new factory from No. 39.|
|A 1911 advertisement discretely removed the 1846 house from its depiction (where the empty lot appears at the corner); however the old D. H. Carpenter & Co. factory is included. Silk magazine, November 1911 (copyright expired)|
For decades to come workers would receive an envelope of cash on paydays. That practice necessitated at least one employee to make a weekly trip to the bank to withdrawal the payroll, making him a tempting target for robbers.
On December 21, 1912 paymaster Charles Weber and assistant paymaster Edmund Wyder made their regular Saturday morning trip to the Security Bank of New York on Ninth Avenue at 14th Street. Because they had given the workmen an unusual mid-week advance so they would have money for Christmas gifts, the payroll was only $1,194, about half of normal. It was nevertheless a significant $32,000 in today's money.
As they headed back to Bethune Street, two black touring cars were positioned on either end of the block. Two men loitered on the sidewalk where the paymasters would have to pass. And as they did so they were ambushed and bludgeoned with blackjacks. The drivers of the automobiles reacted quickly, picking up the robbers and making off with the payroll.
Just over a week later police were close on the trail of the criminals. The Sun said on December 30 "The detectives have traced the affair to a former employee of the silk mills who was discharged three weeks previous to the holdup." It added "the arrest of a band of Harlem Italians...is hourly expected."
|Dry Goods Guide, August 1920 (copyright expired)|
It December 1920 $125,000 worth of silk in today's dollars was stolen from the factory next door. A reporter from the New-York Tribune visited No. 39 three months later and was told "that the four employees who told of the robbery have good records and have the company's confidence." It was apparently well-founded confidence because on March 25 four young men were arrested in connection with the robbery.
The Silk Finishing Company of America left Bethune Street in 1923. An advertisement on August 9 offered simply "factory for rent." Finally, three years later, Domestic Engineering and the Journal of Mechanical Contracting announced "C. F. Biele & Sons Co. has recently moved its office and factory to new and larger quarters at 33-39 Bethune street, in New York City, whither they removed from 379 West Twelfth street."
The firm had been organized in 1867 and produced show cases for department stores, museums and private collections among other clients. In 1938 The New York Sun wrote "The Charles F. Biele & Sons Co., calling itself simply 'artisans in metal, glass and wood,' and usually referred to casually as makers of show cases and vitrines, is far from being as humdrum as it sounds." The article clarified, "Important private collectors, such as Benjamin Altman...have called upon Biele for special cases; President Roosevelt for his ship model collection; Theodore Roosevelt for his japanese art objects and the present John D. Rockefeller."
|A 1940's tax photograph reveals a painted facade. The wooden shutters overlap one another in their opened position. via the NYC Department of Records and Information Services.|
Charles Biele was not only a designer, but a licensed architect. He personally oversaw the custom orders. The Sun noted "Biel has made cases for the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] for more than thirty-five years and for the Morgan Library going back to the elder J. P. Morgan."
Amazingly, as its predecessors had done, Charles F. Biele & Sons used the little brick house for its offices. The firm was here until its dissolution in 1943.
In 1987 a renovation returned No. 39 to a single family residence. It was placed on the market that year for $1 million; its realtor boasting four bedrooms, three baths, four fireplaces and "atrium and garden."
The renovation leaves no trace of the home's varied uses or of its miraculous survival.
photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Ken Biele (and relative of Charles Biel) for prompting this post