Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Michael Magrath House - 74 Irving Place

As early as 1846 Benjamin L. Blonk lived in the 26-foot wide house at No. 74 Irving Place between 18th and 19th Street.  City directories annually placed his business and residential address here, listing his occupation as "painter."  Blonk operated a substantial house painting business, advertising on May 3, 1854, "Wanted, at 74 Irving Place, six or eight good house painters; also a boy to learn the trade."

Around 1859 builder Michael McGrath purchased the Blonk home.  The wealthy contractor routinely worked with esteemed architects and it was almost doubtlessly he who updated No. 74 with an up-to-date French Second Empire style remodeling in keeping with the elegant tone being set by Gramercy Park a block to the north.

A high stone stoop led to the parlor floor where a cast iron balcony fronted the floor-to-ceiling windows.  The high mansard roof, punctured by full-height dormers with broken pediments, was clad in bands of rectangular and hexagonal slate shingles.

The shortest building on the block in this 1909 photograph, No. 74 still retained its 1860's appearance. At the near corner is Tom and John Healy's saloon, later named Pete's Tavern. from the collection of the New York Public Library
Magrath and his wife, the former Catherine Wall, had three sons, John A., Thomas and Cornelius.  The family's wealth was reflected in Magrath's purchase of a pair of mares and a "four-seat wagon" shortly after moving in.  He mentioned the price in 1862 as $1,175, about $30,800 in today's money.  

The Magraths parted ways with their laundress that year, but it seems to have been an amicable decision.  Her advertisement on September 30 read "Wanted--By a respectable girl, a situation as laundress; lived two years in her last place.  Call at 74 Irving place."

Griffith Thomas was among the most sought-after architects of the period.  In 1908 the American Institute of Architects would call him "the most fashionable architect of his generation."  And so one can only imagine the panic Michael Magrath experienced when he realized he had lost a set of Thomas's plans.  His announcement in The New York Herald on February 17, 1872 read:

$25 Reward--Lost, at corner of William and Cedar streets, a set of Plans and Specifications, drawn by Mssrs. Griffith Thomas & Son, architects, Broadway; return to M. Magrath, 74 Irving place.  No questions asked.

The following year Magrath weighed in on the most talked-about court case of the period, known popularly as The Car-Hook Tragedy.  Living about two blocks away from the Magrath home at the time was John Foster family.  His son, William, killed a man on a street car in May 1871 using an iron bar called a car hook.  Foster lamented from his jail cell "Drink had crazed my brain, and to the cursed demon, which steals into society of all kinds, and works its damning deeds, may I render thanks for the position I now occupy.”

William Foster receives word that the Governor had upheld his death sentence. The Car-Hook Tragedy, 1873 (copyright expired)
Foster was sentenced to death, but appeals dragged the case on for two years.  John Magrath joined with 27 other businessmen, most of them involved in the construction industry, in a written plea to Governor John A. Dix seeking clemency.  They said, in part, "Foster is naturally of an amiable and inoffensive temper; has never been in the habit of intoxication, has never been the associate of idle, disorderly or disreputable persons...We solemnly declare our belief that he never intended or contemplated the death of the stranger."  Next to their name each of the men wrote his suggested sentence.  Magrath wrote "12 years."  Their efforts were for naught.  Foster was hanged on March 21, 1873.

In an ironic side note, the State was nearly unable to carry out the sentence.  When the matron brought Foster a cup of coffee at 3:00 that morning, she found that he had swallowed poison.  She forced him to vomit and he was walked up and down the corridors until 10:00, the hour of his execution.  He was carried to the gallows and as the preacher performed his religious service, the prison physician warned the Sheriff that if Dr. Tyng did not speed things up, Foster would die from the poison before he could be executed.

That fall the Magrath family leased a full floor of their home.  Their advertisement on September 30 described "To Let--For One Year, in a private house, a third story Flat; parlor, dining room, three bedrooms, kitchen, water closet and hot and cold water; rent $800."  (The monthly rent would equal just under $1,500 today.)

The Hecksher family moved in.  Six months later a maid walked out never to return, taking with her a trove of valuables.  On April 30, 1874 the New-York Daily Tribune reported "Louisa Winters, a servant, employed in the family of R. Hecksher at No. 74 Irving-place, recently disappeared, taking with her six diamond rings, two gold watches, a seal-skin jacket, a black cashmere polonaise, and other articles, in all valued at $4,000."  Louisa's haul would be in the neighborhood of $92,600 today.

Michael Magrath received a handsome commission from the Department of Public Parts in November 1884.  The Record & Guide announced he "has been awarded the contract for the erection of a skate building in the Central Park."

Following Michael Magrath's death around 1891 Catherine leased a few rooms in the house.   Her three sons still lived in the house with her in 1893 when the City Directory also listed Thomas O'Brien, a carpenter; Agnes Savage, the widow of John A. Savage; and bartender Eugene Spear.

In 1898 the wife of Martin Mahon, rented rooms here.  Her husband, Martin Mahon, was the proprietor of the New-Amsterdam Hotel.  The couple had been married for 19 years and had three children.   But Mahon was embroiled in a scandalous court case that prompted their living apart.

In court on December 15, 1898 he "denied that he had separated from his wife, but admitted that he had not conversed with her since the incidents in connection with the present case became public property.  He said that prior to the last two weeks had had been home to see his wife, at No. 74 Irving Place, two or three times each day."

The "incidents" that had become public property were the details of his dalliance with Fayne Moore, wife of William A. E. Moore.  The Moores had set a trap for the wealthy hotelier and when Fayne lured him to a room in the Grenoble Hotel on November 4, 1893, William stole a diamond pin.  No doubt much to Mrs. Mahon's mortification, the much publicized case dragged on for months.

The last Magrath listed at the address was John, a member of the Real Estate Exchange, who was still here in 1899.  The family, however, would retain ownership for decades.  That same year the house received a major alteration when a commercial space was carved into the former basement level.  C. & J. Bloomingdale, cabinet makers, moved in.

Dr. Daniel Di Bol was a tenant in the Irving Place house in 1905 when he ran up against a powerful adversary, Anthony Comstock, the founder and head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.  Comstock, who once deemed himself "the weeder of God's garden," considered himself the arbiter of what was and was not moral.  And he considered Dr. Di Boi's Museum of Anatomy on 14th Street immoral.

On February 8 The Sun described the 35-year old Dr. Di Boi as "the scholarly gentleman with the cane and vocabulary, who stands outside and invites a wondering world to enter."  He hawked the exhibitions inside as "scientific, instructive and interesting, teaching you the wonders of life and the terrors of disease."  But his life-like wax figures of unclothed humans were so anatomically accurate as to raise Puritanical eyebrows.

Months earlier Police Captain Steve McDermott had investigated and warned Di Boi that it could be seen as offensive.  Di Boi dismissed him, saying the exhibition was "strictly scientific."  "So the Captain left after warning the managers not to admit boys under 18," said The Sun.  That was not sufficient for Anthony Comstock.  At 4:00 on February 7, 1905 he "took a running glance" at the figures "and ordered the whole lot to the station house."  Not only were Di Boi and his staff arrested, but the figures were carted off.   The warmth of the station house disfigured the models.  "Tears were running down the leper's nose.  Then it occurred to [Sergeant Carson] that waxen things would melt, and they were carted down cellar to harden in strange poses."

In spite of the assault to the lower floors, the mansard level, minus its iron cresting, is remarkably intact.
At the same time architect D. W. Davis lived in the house and would remain into the 1920's.  By 1908 china painter Anna B. Leonard lived and operated her studio here.  An ad in Pallette and Bench that year offered classes in "Porcelain Decoration and Design for all Handicrafts.  Gold in Power Form excelled for the decoration of Tableware."

On September 29, 1912 The Sun commented "That the manners and customs generally of the ateliers of the Quartier Latin should have taken such a hold in New York, where the Beaux Arts men are most numerous, is not surprising."  Among the "more important of the New York ateliers," it said, was Atelier Wynkoop at No. 74 Irving Place.

Under the directorship of artist J. Wynkoop, the studio produced artists like A. C. Webb, F. A. Elsasser, and J. Regan.  Wynkoop remained at the address until around 1918.

In September 1920 the Magrath family hired the architectural firm Philip Bardes Co. to convert the old house to bachelor apartments.  Included in the project were new walls and staircase, a bathroom, and the removal of the show window.  The renovations to what was now officially described as an apartment house cost the equivalent of $115,000 today.

The renovation lowered the columned entrance to street level.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
There were now fifteen "sleeping rooms" in the house.  Bachelor apartments did not have kitchens and the Department of Buildings warned that "cooking in more than two apartments" would render the building "liable to immediate vacation."

The New York Herald, February 4, 1921 (copyright expired)
Catherine Wall Magrath died on May 17, 1922 at the age of 89.  After having been in the family for more than 60 years, the house was sold to George Glandening.  Glendening was the principal in the real estate firm Geo. Glendening & Co.

The building continued to house middle-class renters, like Hollis Mitchell, a copy editor and proofreader who lived here in the 1950's.  Then in 1973 a renovation resulted in two apartments per floor.  Among the first of the new tenants was artist and photographer A. Burton Carnes.  He had started his career with Esquire Publishing as a sales promotional director where he also created advertisements for Gentleman's Quarterly.  He left Esquire in 1952 to work on his own, focusing much of his time on the development of animated films.

Sadly denuded of its early Victorian decoration, the Magrath house nevertheless manages to hint at its former beauty--mostly because of the incredibly intact mansard level.

photographs by the author 

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