Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Peter J. Hamill House - 34 Dominick Street


A slight variation in brick color testifies to the addition of the third floor.  The house originally matched the one to the left.

Most of the sprawling Anthony Rogers Farm was inherited by his son-in-law, Leonard Lispenard in 1746.  It became known as the Lispenard Meadows, and while the Lispenard mansion stood at what today is the area of Hudson and Desbrosses Streets, much of the land was marshy and unusable.   In 1811 the Lispenard heirs petitioned the Common Council to drain the land and the same year building plots were first laid out.

By the early 1820's Dominick Street (named for Trinity Church vestryman George Dominick) was laid out, and shortly afterward three builders purchased twelve lots from Robert M. and Sarah B. Livingston (she was the granddaughter of Anthony Lispenard).  Working independently, they erected a long row of twelve Federal-style homes, completed around 1826, on the south side of Dominick Street between what today are Hudson and Varick Streets.

Smith Bloomfield, a mason-builder, was responsible for five of them--Nos. 28 through 36.  Two-and-a-half stories tall and faced in Flemish bond red brick, the 20-foot wide Federal style dwellings were intended for middle-class families.  Two dormers punched through their peaked roofs.  The homes were intended as income properties and Bloomfield chose to lease them rather than sell.

By the late 1830's No. 34 was home to the Frederick D. Priest family.   A veteran of the War of 1812, he and Eliza M. Brooks had been married in Christ Church in Poughkeepsie, the bride's hometown, on July 7, 1817.   Living with them in the Dominick Street house was Eliza's widowed mother, Maria Mallam Brooks.

At the time the city engaged in a practice which today is chilling.  Poverty was a crime punishable by incarceration in the Alms House on Blackwell's Island.  Children were offered for "indenturing," to work in shops, factories or homes.  Simply put it was a form of forced labor with the children receiving only food and shelter in return.

On November 3, 1842 the Priests took advantage of the opportunity by taking in Anna Johnson (or Jansen--the Alms House documents were unsure).  The girl would have been expected to help Eliza with housework and sundry chores.  But after one-and-a-half years, the family sent her back.  Their reason was that she "was not a good child."

On the evening of June 16, 1845, Maria Brooks died here at the age of 75.  Her funeral was held in the house two days later.

Within only a few years Benjamin Ellis and his family were renting the house from Bloomfield.  Ellis was active in public and reform causes.  When the City Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was formed in 1842 he had been elected its president, and while living here was an official with the Public Schools.

Like all middle class families, the Ellises employed at least one servant girl who lived in the attic level.  It seems that the roof was leaky in the summer of 1850 and someone set out to patch it from inside.  It nearly ended with the house being burned to the ground.

On August 28 the New York Morning Courier reported "fire was discovered about half past 5 o'cock Monday evening in the dwelling house of Benjamin Ellis No. 34 Dominick street, caused by carelessness in leaving a pail of boiling pitch over a furnace in one of the attic rooms.  The firemen were promptly on the spot, but before they could subdue the flames, the roof of the building was consumed.  One of the female members was slightly burned while attempting to make her escape."  The Evening Post added that in addition to losing its roof, "the building was considerably damaged by water." 

An advertisement appeared in The New York Herald on May 8, 1856 seeking "A Protestant Girl to do the housework of a small family; must be a first rate washer and ironer, and understand plain cooking.  To one competent and willing, good wages will be paid."  There was nothing extraordinary about the ad other than the last condition:  "One without cousins preferred."

In 1866 Smith Bloomfield's estate sold No. 34 to James M. Horton and his wife, Mary.  Earlier that year he had sold his share in a provisions firm to his partners George Dorn and John C. Guffin.  It was an amiable split and in an announcement in newspapers in March he called them "men of integrity."

It appears Horton used the money from the sale to open a new milk business.  On November 22, 1866 The New York Herald reported "James M. Horton is spending $5,300 on the erection of a milk store at 29 Vestry street."  It was not the only construction project he was engaged in at the time.

He raised the attic floor of No. 34 to full height and updated it with an impressive Italianate cornice and brownstone lintel over the doorway in the same style.  The paneled Federal style doors and transom were replaced with up-to-date double doors.


The panels of the doors precisely lined up with the new panels of the side walls.

If the Horton family lived in the remodeled house, it was not for long.  The following year they sold it to John and Jane Taylor who were living here with their adult son, James D. Taylor.  

James had fought in the Civil War in I Company of the New York National Guard.  He may have been living with his parents because of a long-standing medical condition. He died at the age of 24 on January 19, 1872 "after a long and lingering illness."   His funeral was held in the house two days later, well attended by members of his military company.

By 1879 John Dreyer, Jr. and his family had purchased the house.  Dreyer was in the provisions business in Washington Market.  

The house was the scene of a horrific tragedy in the fall of 1881.  The John Loescher family lived a few houses away at No. 40 Dominick Street.  Their son, John, Jr., was 14-years old at the time.  He and Julius Haefner, who was a year younger, had been best friends for years.  The New York Times said that they "were almost inseparable companions."

On the evening of September 21 the boys "quarreled for the first time in their lives" while eating pears.  The argument ended in their pelting one another with the fruit.  Three nights later John Loescher was on Dominick Street near his house when Julius appeared.  According to him, "Haefner suddenly struck him in the mouth."  The Times reported "Loescher had a common jack-knife with a blade two inches long in his hand, and as soon as he felt the blow he plunged the blade into Haefner's body up to the hilt."

John turned and fled while the injured boy staggered to the door of No. 34 in an attempt to get help, but "with a gasp fell dead."  The body was taken to a drugstore at Varick and Broome Street where, in a bizarre coincidence, Julius's mother was just walking out.  "She swooned as she saw the bloody corpse of her son, and was taken home by some of her neighbors."

It did not go well for the teen-aged culprit.  In his cell he explained to a New York Times reporter "I was mad when I did it and I didn't mean to to it."  While the journalist was still there the "crying and moaning" of a man could be heard.  John recognized that it was his father.  When John Sr. entered the cell, he told his son, "I would give $10,000 if it was you instead of that boy."  The Times concluded "Then the heart-broken man left the place, and the cell-door was closed again on the young murderer."

Veronica Dreyer was the victim of a thief who snatched her purse in December 1885.  It contained only a small amount of money; but her screams for help were enough to result in James Maloney's arrest.  In court on December 23 he wanted to explain his story to the judge, "but objected to being sworn," according to the New York Herald.  

Surprisingly, he was allowed to speak without being sworn in.  He said he had not intended to steal the purse, but only "to take it and hand it to her, to show how carelessly she was carrying it."   The judge was not convinced and Maloney was sentenced to two and a half years in Sing Sing Prison.

The family remained in the house until the estate of Catherine Dreyer sold it in 1909.  In 1915 it was home to Charles A. Peacock, a partner with his brother William in the fruit business, W. H. Peacock & Co., at No. 97 Water Street.

The house was sold again in 1923 to politician Peter J. Hamill and his wife the former Matilda Van Axen.  The couple had two children.

A Tammany Democrat, Hamill had been a member of the New York State Assembly since 1916.   Two years after moving into the Dominick Street house he was elected the Tammany Hall leader of the First Assembly District.  It was a sign that he was a rising star within the party.

It seems that the Hamills rented a room in the house to Edward Schramm in 1929.   By now the once quiet residential street was seeing the demolition of the old Federal houses and the rise of massive factory buildings in their place.  One such building was being erected at the corner of Dominick and Hudson Street that year.

The 52-year old Schramm was walking under the sidewalk scaffolding at the site on May 3, 1929 when it collapsed.  He was taken "severely injured" to St. Vincent's Hospital.  Two other pedestrians were slightly injured.

Later that year, on December 5, the State Democratic minority leader Maurice Bloch died from an embolism.  Two weeks later the Buffalo Courier Express called Hamill the "leading contender for the toga left by Bloch."  And, indeed, before the year was out Hamill was chosen the Democratic leader in the State Assembly.

Hamill's stellar rise came to an abrupt and unexpected end.  In the first week of January he suffered a severe appendicitis attack in the house and was rushed into surgery.  He never recovered from the operation and died in the hospital on January 13, 1930 at the age of 44.  His children, Mary and Peter, Jr., were just four- and two-years-old respectively.

The esteem with which Hamill was held within the political community was exemplified by Mayor James J. Walker's personally choosing the pall bearers for his funeral.  Among the 2,000 mourners in St. Alphonsus' Church on January 17 was Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Members of the St. Patrick's Cathedral choir sang the mass.  The chaplain of the United States Military Academy at West Point officiated, helped by the chancellor of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Monsignor Thomas G. Carroll and, according to the Buffalo Courier-Express, "more than twenty priests."

The following week the Buffalo-Courier Express reported that Matilda Hamill had been "appointed supervisor of investigators for the new crime prevention bureau of the police department."  Her annual salary, $4,500, would be equal to about $67,700 today.


Every window shade in Matilda Hamill's house was pulled to precisely the same level.  photo via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services. 

Matilda Hamill remained in the Dominick Street house until 1963.  Quite remarkably, as the neighborhood had filled with mammoth industrial structures, the south side of the block around No. 34 survived.

In 2012 No. 34 was nominated for landmark designation.  It was not a prospect well received by its owner, Robert Neborak.  He complained before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on March 27 that designation would force him to "bear the entire financial brunt" of preserving a building that did not warrant landmark status to begin with.   He said No. 34 "is not a notable architectural example of anything other than a well-maintained old building."

Neborak's arguments were unsuccessful and the 186-year old house was deemed an individual landmark.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. I used to work around the corner (in the building with the collapsing scaffolding, I believe) and this house, along with the one next door with the red door in the top picture, were going through some extensive renovations in 2015/2016. I would sort of peek in if I saw the door open, and one day I encountered some workers who let me go in and look around a little. At that point, it was down to the bare bones and I was hopeful it would retain it's historical character, but instead it became one of those ultra-modern, everything white sort of places. Totally soulless, and very disappointing.

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