Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The David Irwin House - 204 West 21st Street





By the mid-1850's the 21st Street block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Chelsea was lined with handsome brick and brownstone-faced homes.  Among them was that of David Irwin at No. 204.  The 23-foot wide Greek Revival residence was similar to the others along the block, all home to merchant class families.

Born in 1802, Irwin was an officer of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.  He and his wife, the former Jane Warnock, had three daughters, Elizabeth J., Adeline M. and Sarah Anne.   

The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor was founded in 1843 with the best intentions.  But the organization was flawed in its precepts.  Its directors firmly believed that poverty, unsanitary living conditions, and overcrowding were not the result of socioeconomic circumstances, but of immorality.  Charity, like soup kitchens, was vocally opposed and only efforts related to moral reform were approved.  The best cure for the problem, they believed, was to encourage the poor to move to the country.

Elizabeth married Hugh R. Jackson on May 21, 1857.  Only Sarah remained in the house with her parents following Adeline's wedding to Stephen E. Garretson some years later.

It seems that Jane's brother, Joseph Warnock, lived with the Irwin family by the mid-1860's.  He was the head of Warnock & Co. at No. 519 Broadway, makers of gentlemen's hats.  He died in the house after a short illness on February 12, 1866 and his funeral was held there two days later.

Nearly two decades later, on Friday November 30, 1883, David Irwin died at the age of 81.  His funeral was held in the parlor on December 3 at 10 a.m.

Within only a few weeks of her husband's death, on January 14, 1884, Jane transferred title of the house to Sarah.  The rapid change-over in ownership may have been in anticipation of Sarah's upcoming marriage to William Boggs.  And despite the family's being in mourning the wedding took place later that year.

There were no doubt some who felt that the 50-year old groom was rushing into marriage.  His first wife, Sarah E. Tucker Boggs, had died the same week as David Irwin.  

Boggs's daughter, Hattie, moved into No. 204 with the newlyweds.  The marriage would be very short lived.  On August 20, 1884 Sarah died.  Once again a funeral was held in the 21st Street house.  William Boggs obtained the title to the property.

The financial and social status of Boggs was evidenced in Hattie's wedding in the fashionable Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on May 18, 1887.  The Evening Telegram noted "The bride wore a rich gown of white satin, trimmed with flounces of point lace...Her ornaments were of diamonds, and a tulle veil was worn."  Following the ceremony a reception was held at No. 204 West 21st Street.  "The parlors were elaborately decorated with flowers and palms," said the article, adding "Clark served a wedding supper."  (Clark was one of the premier society caterers, along with Pinard and Delmonico.)

It seems Boggs initially stayed on at No. 204 following Hattie's marriage.  In March 1889 an advertisement offered "Elegant furnished rooms in private house with all conveniences."  The term "private house" meant it was not being operated as a boarding house.  Yet.

But within four years that was not the case.   Although he retained possession of No. 204, Boggs moved to Peekskill and leased it as a "room-house."  The term was significant, differentiating it from a boarding house where tenants would receive meals and the amenities of a home.

In December 1892 William B. Curry and his wife (whom the Evening Telegram called "a handsome young Southern woman) lived in rooms here.  Curry was a "shoe blacking" (i.e. shoe polish) salesman for Bixby's Blacking Company.  The couple had been married for six years.

On Christmas night that year they attended the Tammany Hall ball, where Curry was introduced to 23-year old Frederica Prinzing.  The Evening Telegram said she was "quite comely [and] Curry was remarkably attentive to her."   Curry found Frederica so enchanting that he failed to mention that he was already married.

He continued to see her on the sly and on January 13, 1893 they were married.  Curry told the minister that his name was John P. Roberts.  He explained to his bride that they would see each other only now and then, as he routinely had to travel on business "in another part of the country."

After a month of seeing her husband only occasionally, Frederica complained to her brother-in-law, Alexander G. Murray, who launched his own investigation.  It did not take long for Curry's subterfuge to be uncovered.  

Murray went to No. 204 West 21st Street and laid out the story to Curry's wife.  The Sun reported on February 14, 1893, "Mrs. Curry proved to be a smart, attractive woman, who would not believe that her husband had married another."  So Murray devised a scheme.  "Mr. Murray invited Mrs. Curry to call at his house on Sunday night and bring her husband along."

When the couple arrived, Frederica was there.  So was a policeman.  Curry was taken to jail by Policeman Brady where he was held at $2,500 bail.

Everyone faced the judge on February 13.  The Evening Telegram reported "In court to-day wife number one pleaded with wife number two to be lenient for the reason, as she said, that their husband was intoxicated when he married a month ago.  The mournful bride, however, was not in a forgiving mood, and pressed a charge of bigamy."  Curry was found guilty and sent to prison for three years.  

Frederica had been traumatized by the events and what to a Victorian woman was the ruination of her life.  "As Curry turned from the bar Miss Prinzing threw up her arms and screamed.  She sobbed loudly as she was carried out by court officers," reported The Sun.

Another tenant who brought unwanted publicity to the address was Richard Fleming, who lived here in 1896.  On Saturday night February 22 he and two friends got drunk on the Lower East Side.  They wandered into a candy store on Delancy Street and told Jennie Suchers, "We want to buy out the whole place."  The Press reported on the ugly turn the situation took.  "They were not waited on as quickly as they thought they should be, and one of them struck Mrs. Suchers in the face.  After that the other two started to demolish the shop."

When Mr. Suchers, along with a store boy, rushed to his wife's defense both were knocked to the ground.  The trio then robbed the cash drawer.  Fleming and one of his cohorts were arrested.  The other escaped.

In the meantime, William Boggs was investing in Peekskill real estate upstate.  On September 12, 1897 the New-York Tribune reported that he had purchased the Mount Vernon Opera House.  He was also now had a third wife, named Elizabeth.  

Boggs had remortgaged the 21st Street property several times since he took title and it appears he had fallen behind on payments in the summer of 1900.  On August 3 a petition was filed by attorney W. S. Bronk against William and Elizabeth L. Boggs "to declare deeds void."  They managed to retain possession, but sold the house three years later to Kate B. Happel and Frederick Bruner.  Their exact relationship is unclear; but in December 1905 Kate transferred her one-half share to Bruner.

The house continued to be operated as a rooming house.  Among the tenants in 1904 was Vina Goff who bred large dogs.  In January that year her Newfoundland dog gave birth to a litter of 14 puppies.  The Sun reported "This brood was too much for the mother to care for, and Mrs. Goff decided she would have to supply a foster mother."  And so she rented the services a nursing collie named Bonnie.

Then, around the first of March, Bonnie disappeared.  Vina had to pay her owner $20--about $580 today.  Two weeks later Vina and her married daughter were walking along Broadway when they spotted a messenger boy with Bonnie on a leash.  Vina called the dog which "made a frantic effort to get to her."  Harry Carr insisted he had purchased the dog for $25 two weeks earlier--about the time of her disappearance--from a man he met on Broadway.  Vina and the boy agreed to walk together to the Tenderloin police station.  

The police captain suggested that Vina take the dog overnight and everyone come back the following day, along with the dog's owner, to settle the matter.  It all ended happily in the end with Bonnie going back to her rightful home.

Vina was apparently not discouraged by the incident.  Six months later an advertisement appeared in the Evening Telegram:

St. Bernard dog, 15 months old, beautifully marked, fine disposition, prize winner; also litter of puppies; perfect markings.  204 West 21st.

Middle class renters continued to take rooms here.  In 1907 Edgar Selden was appointed a commissioner of deeds, a position similar to a notary public today.  In September 1921 a tenant named Smith sought work as a plumber's helper.  He asked for $3.50 per day; about $50 in today's terms.

In January 1931 scandal caused the resignation of Magistrate Goodman, appointed by Mayor James Walker in July 1929.  The resignation did not preclude hearings concerning his graft and corruption.  Among the witnesses called was Angelina Colloneas, who lived at No. 204 West 21st Street.


Angelina Colloneas testified about police corruption in 1931.  The New York Sun, January 6, 1931 
Angelina was a waitress who had fallen victim to a vice squad scam in which Goodman was involved.  She testified that she met a man who said he was the son of a wealthy cigar manufacturer.  He was, in fact, "Harry the Greek, a vice squad stool pigeon," reported The New York Sun.  He was "attentive" to Angelina and after a time she hoped he would marry her.

"One evening, she said, they went to her home and sat in the parlor a few minutes, talking and smoking cigarettes, when the police burst in and arrested her on a vice charge.  Harry the Greek vanished" reported The Sun.  At the Jefferson Market Court she said she had $1,200 in the bank.  She "gave up $800 of it and the case against her was dropped."  But that was not the end of it.

Angelina said the police and Goodman were aware that she still had $400 in her bank account.  Two months later a policeman arrived at No. 204 West 21st Street, "pretended to be searching for something, and finally extracted from a shoe under her bed a small paper of what he claimed was a narcotic."  The Sun said "She was arrested on that charge and it cost her the remaining $400 to get free."

A renovation completed in 1956 resulted in two apartments on each floor.  The stoop was removed and the entrance moved to the former basement level.  That and the former parlor level were faced in an unattractive material imitating stone blocks.


The mid-century renovation was gruesome.  photo via cityrealty.com
In May 2013 real estate broker Herve Senequier paid $2.7 million for the property.  He announced that he would convert the bottom two floors to a duplex unit for himself.  But real change came soon thereafter.  A massive restoration, completed in 2019, brought the Irwin house back to a single-family residence.  The startling make-over included a rebuilt stoop, the refacing of the parlor floor in brick, and refabricated sills and entrance.  The seamless, period-perfect restoration could fool the most erudite preservationist.



photographs by the author

3 comments:

  1. Beautiful restoration except for the 8 over 8 windows.

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  2. I suspect the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor's flawed precepts were related to the Protestant work ethic. If you work hard and save, God will reward you and your success will be a sign of God's blessing. So if you're poor then your poverty must be a sign of God's displeasure, making it your fault. See how convenient that is?

    I also like the push for the poor to move to the country -- that way the members of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor don't have to see them. Problem solved.

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  3. Thank you so much for this in-depth story of our home

    ReplyDelete