Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Mary Beals House - 30 East 18th Street






In response to a devastating yellow fever epidemic, the Manhattan Bank Company purchased a rural plot of land, one acre square, from Edward Williams in 1806 far north of the city.  The bank was preparing for the possibility that it may have to erect a branch for its patrons who were quickly fleeing to remote hamlets like Greenwich Village.    

As it turned out the bank did not have to relocate and the land running north along Broadway from what would become East 17th Street sat vacant for decades.  But by the 1830's the expansion of the city was nearing the area.  In 1847 the Manhattan Bank Company began construction of four speculative brick-faced homes along Broadway and soon afterward another around the corner at No. 30 East 18th Street.

The few years between the projects was reflected in the architectural detailing.  Designed in the emerging Italianate style, No. 30 East 18th Street was a bit showier than its conservative Greek Revival neighbors.   The most striking elements of the design were the lintels and prominent arched molded cornices of the openings.  Each was decorated with a handsome carved rosette.  Above it all was bracketed Italianate cornice.

The interiors spaces were reflected in the size of the windows--growing successively smaller as the ceiling heights inside grew shorter.  The lower, more visible floors, would have been lavished with more expensive woods and mantels, as well.

The recently widowed Mary Mollar Beals moved into the house.  Her husband, Dr. Gorham Beals, had worked in the New York Dispensary.  There he contracted typhus from one of his patients.  The disease was known at the time as "ship's fever" because it spread rapidly in crowded conditions aboard sea vessels.  Beals died on January 9, 1848 at just 30 years only.  Mary's time in the new residence would be very short lived.  She died in the house on March 9, 1855 at the age of 36.   Two days later The New York Herald advised "The relatives and friends are invited to attend the funeral, to-morrow morning, at 11 o'clock, from No. 30 East Eighteenth street."

In the first years following the end of the Civil War the Union Square neighborhood began to change as shops encroached on the residential district.  The trend was obvious in an advertisement in The New York Herald on March 28, 1874:

To Let--No. 30 East Eighteenth Street, one door east of Broadway, a four story House, desirably located for business purposes."

But the residence escaped renovation--as least for now.  The following year "furnished or unfurnished rooms" were offered for rent, "prices moderate."

By 1885 it was again a private dwelling, home to art collector and dealer William Schaus.  The well-known Schaus Galleries, founded by his father, were located at Astor Place and Madison Square.  His name appeared at this address in 1885 on White, Stokes and Allen's List of Prominent People.  

Four years earlier Schaus began pursuing a new interest--entomology.  In 1881 he traveled throughout the Southern Hemisphere collecting more than 200,000 butterflies and moths.  He purchased the Dognin collection of about 26,000 specimens of tropical moths and 5,000 butterflies.


The beautiful brownstone lintels are remarkable.
Despite his family's objections, in 1892 he made a life-changing decision--to liquidate the gallery business and devote his life to his true passion.  On February 29 The New York Times reported that a "little more than half a hundred paintings" would be sold at auction.  "They are the property of Mr. William Schaus, long a dealer in works of art in New York, who is about to retire definitely from business."

The former art dealer made his mark in the field, joining the Bureau of Entomology of the United States Department Agriculture in 1919, and being appointed an honorary curator of insects in the National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in 1921.  He died in 1942 at the age of 84.

In the meantime, it appears that Schaus was the last resident of No. 30.  By 1897 The Analytical Laboratory operated from the building.  On August 29 that year the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported "The Analytical Laboratory at 30 East Eighteenth street, New York, of which A. A. Molin is the director, offers special courses in analytical chemistry with laboratory practice, and secures positions for competent graduates."

It was the beginning of a string of scientific or optical-based tenants.  Richards & Co. was here within the year when the firm was scammed by a female shopper, Mary Williams, who also presented herself as "Countess Zingar" and "Lady Mitchell."  On October 15, 1898 The World reported "Richards & Co., surgical instrument dealers, of No. 30 East Eighteenth street, received a visit from Mrs. Wilkins, who offered to buy a lot of saws and knives.  In the course of the negotiations she hypnotized the cashier, who gave her $65 for a bogus check for that amount."  It would translate to about $2,000 today.

Whether she was capable of hypnotizing cashiers or not, the police called her "a hotel swindler with a brilliant record in London, Paris and other European cities, and with a meteoric career in New York.  

Following the turn of the century the German-based Ernst Lietz operated from No. 30.  Like Richards & Co., he dealt in medical instruments and among his customers in 1907 was the city's Department of Public Charities.  That year the city purchased items including an incubator, 48 thermometers, culture and evaporating dishes, four microscopes, needles and chemicals.

Ernst Leitz was best known for its optical equipment.  Like Richards & Co. had been, it was hoodwinked in 1911.  The Thrice-A-Week World entitled an article on October 13 "Ex-Convicts Cheat Merchants Out Of $500,000 Goods" and reported that among the gang's victims was Ernst Leitz.

"Ernst Leitz, optical goods, of No. 30 East Eighteenth street...sent Koller three binoculars valued at $375; a few days later the same firm shipped two more binoculars to the American Smelting and Development," and many more instruments to various sham buyers.

Ernst Leitz was in the cross hairs of the anti-German sentiment which swept the country after the United States entered World War I.  The Trading With The Enemy Act was enacted in 1917, giving the Government broad rights to confiscate the properties of German-born businessmen.

In 1919 the Alien Property Custodian Report said in part "after taking over enemy-owned corporations the Alien Property Custodian has endeavored, wherever he could consistently do so, to make them a part of America's great fighting machine."  Among the properties listed as having been seized was "E. Leitz, Manufacturers and distributors of hospital laboratory equipment."  It placed the "enemy interest" in the firm at 100 percent.

One way to make the property part of the "great fighting machine" was simply to liquidate it.   The 1922 Report of the Alien Property Custodian listed Ernst Leitz as among the organizations whose assets had been sold by the Government.  Despite losing his American branch, however, Ernst Leitz continued to be a highly successful manufacturer of optical instruments.

The building was sold in 1920.  By now a storefront had replaced the first floor facade for years.  Ernst Leitz was the last of the optical and scientific tenants.  In June of  1921 the Metropolitan Hair Goods Company leased a floor, and the following year the Artline Novelty Company, a dress trimmings firm, and the University Knit Goods moved in.

The second half of the 20th century saw a decided decline in the Union Square neighborhood.  Vaina Ader was working in the building in April 1960 when she was confronted by two hold-up men.  While she looked on, terrified, the crooks wiped out the office equipment.  The Long Island Star-Journal wrote "Police said the pair took a tape recorder, record player, typewriter, mimeograph machine and $8 in cash."

The 19th century storefront was sadly disfigured during the 20th century; but a glance above reveals the facade of a house hardly changed since the funeral of a young widow took place here in 1855.

photographs by the author

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