Saturday, July 25, 2020

A Striking Comeback - the 1832 Richard Merrall House - 122 Washington Place

A renovation around 1870 resulted in a full third floor in place of the dormered attic.
Greenwich Village saw a tremendous building boom in the late 1820's and early '30's.  It apparently occurred to mason and builder John Nichols that rather than construct homes for developers, he could do so for himself thereby reaping the entire profits.  In 1832 he purchased seven building plots on West Washington Place, between Sixth Avenue and Barrow Streets; but he quickly found himself in financial trouble.  He resold some of the plots to other blue collar investors--a mason, a carpenter, a builder, and a well-digger.

The well-digger was Derick D. Foster, who doubled as a mason.  He purchased the plot at No. 39 West Washington Place in 1832.  (West Washington Place, which stretched west from Sixth Avenue, would not become part of Washington Place, on the other side of the avenue, until the 1870's.)   He erected a handsome house on the plot that straddled the line between the familiar Federal style and newly-appearing Greek Revival.  Two-and-a-half stories tall, it was faced in warm Flemish bond brick and trimmed in brownstone.  The iron railings of the stoop terminated in ornate basket newels that sat upon stone pedestals.

Foster sold the newly-completed house in 1832 to Hamilton Murray.  He purchased it as an investment, leasing it to middle-class families.  

Renting unused rooms of one's home was common in the 19th century and in June 1854 an advertisement offered "To Let--The upper part of a genteel dwelling house, in a very respectable and quiet location; possession immediately.  Apply on the premises No. 39 West Washington place, near Parade ground."  (It is interesting that the writer still made reference to the Washington Parade Ground, which had been converted to a park, Washington Square, four years earlier.)

It may have been the Merrall family who placed the advertisement.  Richard and Jane Merrall had at least three daughters, Anne, Isabella and Rosetta.  The family was here by 1860 when the somber funeral ceremony of Rosetta, who died on April 22, was held in the parlor.  A year later, on May 15, the room would be the scene of a much happier event when Anne was married to James Smibert there.

Within two years the Merrall family moved to West 27th Street.  The year 1863 was a tragic one, with Isabella dying on August 3 and Richard dying four months later on December 7 at the age of 76. 

The new owner also leased a room in the house.  An advertisement on December 7, 1866 in The New York Herald offered: "A handsomely furnished room to let--To a lady, or gentleman and lady, with or without Board."

Three years later a member of the family fell ill and was apparently instructed to travel to the country or even Europe for his or her health.  A long-term lease which included all the furnishings was offered.

For cause of sickness--A rare chance for cash; furnished House, in the best of order; all new improvement; suitable for boarding house; rent cheap; three years' lease.

When West Washington Place was officially renamed the house received its new address of No. 122 Washington Place.  It was around the same time that the attic was raised to a full third floor with a stylish Italianate cornice.   By the first years of the 1890's it was being operated as a respectable rooming house.  Rooms were advertised at "$2 upward," or about $58 a week.

Among the residents in 1893 were M. Forester, a seamstress; and Madame Delaux and her husband.  Their advertisements seeking work shed light onto the working class status of the roomers.  Ms. Forester's said that she "makes ladies and children's suit and cloaks" and was "willing to assist in other duties."  

Madame Delaux placed an advertisement hoping to find work for both herself and her husband:

Man & wife, young couple.  French, sober & willing, together or separate; hotel or private; woman to wash, iron & cook, &c.; man to help in kitchen or restaurant & make himself useful; good references & moderate pretensions.

Living here in 1896 were Durant I. Biggony, William C. Peck and Joseph L. Oliver.  The names of all three would appear in the newspapers that year, for vastly different reasons.

Durant I. Biggony was a clerk, employed by the high end women's clothiers, Gosta Kraemer Company at No. 24 West 23rd Street.  He found himself the innocent victim of a rift within the upper management that January.  When manager Gustav Kramer learned that the stockholders planned a reorganization, he feared he would be let go.   He locked the stockholders out of the building before they could meet on January 6, 1896 and placed four clerks, including Biggony, standing guard.  Despite the frigid weather, the stockholders' meeting was held on the sidewalk.  The newly-elected president then broke in and took possession of the building.  Because the clerks refused to leave, they were arrested for trespassing.

In the 1890's women were still scarce in offices.  Secretarial jobs were held almost exclusively by men, among them William C. Peck, a stenographer and "typewriter."  (At the time the term "typewriter" referred not only to the machine but to the person who operated it.)

The World, October 4, 1896 (copyright expired)
Peck provided testimonials in the aggressive advertising campaign of Dr. Copeland, who claimed the "Discovery of the Cure for Deafness."  In one ad Peck said "I am a stenographer and in order to earn a living I must hear accurately.  Unless I sat very close to my employer I could not catch his dictation.  My work became a burden to me.  The Copeland Doctors have restored my hearing."

Joseph L. Oliver moved into No. 122 in September that year, having arrived from Charleston, South Carolina to look for a job.  He found a position as a clerk and things were going well for the 25-year old.  He went out with two friends on Saturday night, November 14, who later said he was "in good spirits all night, and when he left them was perfectly sober."  

But the next afternoon he was found dead in his room.  The New York Times reported "Death was caused by gas asphyxiation."  Suicide was not suspected.  "It is supposed that the gas was blown out by a draught or that it was accidentally turned on during the night."

The house almost exclusively attracted office workers like William Peck and Durant I. Biggony.  A position-wanted advertisement on January 9, 1897 described the writer as a "Young Man, good scholar, temperate habits" who sought a position as "assistant bookkeeper, stenographer and typewriter or other general office work.  Ambitious."

The following year 27-year old H. L. Moore placed a similar ad.  "Stenographer, open for position February 1; rapid, accurate; Remington operator; present employers the largest hardware houses in the city; also keep books; any kind office work."

Later that year a less veteran office worker placed an advertisement:  "Young man; docile entry bookkeeper, stenographer, typewriter and general office assistant; A1 city reference, strictly temperate; good scholar."

By the turn of the century the house was owned by attorney James Shea, whose offices were at No. 416 Broadway.  Like those renting rooms in the house, his son Benjamin was an office worker.  Benjamin's ad in 1900 read: "Young man wants position as assistant bookkeeper; understands commission and banking; industrious and willing to work hard; will begin at moderate salary."

Living with the Shea family was James's unmarried sister, Margaret.   In the spring of 1904 she caught pneumonia and died on April 25.

It is unclear whether Sidney Moore was related to H. L. Moore; but starting in 1902 at the age of 21 he, too, was living here and looking for stenographer and typewriter work.  The young man seems to have had a hard time holding a job.  He placed similar ads looking for work the following year, again in 1905, in 1907 and in 1909; all the while still rooming at No. 122 Washington Place.  (His ad in November 1907 noted "can give good reason for leaving last position.")

Other roomers during Sidney's residency included Michael J. Doyle, who applied for a civil service position as a city electrician in 1905; and an unnamed "first-class dressmaker, corset maker," who described herself merely as "French."

By 1912 Shea had sold the house to P. J. Malloy who operated it as a rooming house.  Long term residents were the Curran family which remained for years.  Patrick H. Curran died in the house on January 22, 1916; and William H. Curran, presumably his son, was appointed a Commissioner of Deeds in 1920.  In 1922 the vacant first floor, four rooms and a bath, were offered for $2,000 a year--or about $2,550 per month in today's terms.

Real change came after Margaret L. Malloy gave a 21-year lease on the property to R. Talfair Smith, Inc. in February 1925.  The New York Times reported that the "lessee contemplates making very extensive alterations" which would convert the house into apartments and studios.

Before the end of the year there was one "non-housekeeping apartment" in the basement (meaning no cooking could be done), another on the second floor, and a "housekeeping apartment" on the parlor and third floor.    The stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to the basement level, a few steps below the sidewalk.  An advertisement offered "Attractive apartment of three and four rooms; all improvements; rents $100 to $125."  The higher rent would equal just over $1,800 today.

The 1925 renovation removed the brownstone stoop.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
A notable resident was Frances Marion Brandon who broke ground when she was appointed the City's Assistant Corporate Counsel at a time when female lawyers were scarce.  She made headlines in 1930 when she sued George J. Gillespie, president of the Board of Water supply, for $500,000, "charging he had reneged on a promise to marry her," according to The Daily News.  The case was settled out of court for a reported $25,000--about $383,000 today.

In 1941 Frances contracted double pneumonia.  Although a number of physicians gave up on her case, Dr. John J. McGrath did not and she survived.  She credited him with saving her live "by his great medical skill and disinterested care."  

Frances Marion Brandon - The Daily News, October 1, 1943.
Following her death on September 4, 1943 her family received a shock.  The Daily News reported on October 1 that she "regarded her personal physician so highly that she left him practically her entire fortune--to the great displeasure of her three sisters, two brothers and their children, who are suing."  Frances left Dr. McGrath her stocks and personal property and set up a trust fund, the income of which was to go to him.  "To her brothers, sisters and the children she left $1 apiece 'outright.'"

A renovation completed in 1968 resulted in two duplexes.  One became home to Dr. Milton I. Marcus, former president of the New York County Optometric Society and secretary of the New York State Optometric Society.  He had also helped found the State College of Optometry of the State University of New York.  He was living here in 1976 when he died at the age of 67.

The "fire mark" to the left of the remarkably convincing reproduction doorway, while not original to the house, dates from the period when volunteer fire companies responded to homes who subscribed to their services--identified by the marks.
In 1999 a seven-year renovation was begun.  It resulted in a private home with a basement apartment.  In a careful restoration the stoop was rebuilt and a period-perfect Federal doorway reproduced, closely following the surviving example at No. 126 Washington Place erected in 1834.

photographs by the author


  1. Frances Marion Brandon must have been an interesting person. Breach of promise claims seem so desperate and opportunistic now. I suspect she left her estate to the doctor who saved her life because her three sisters, two brothers and their children also thought she wouldn't make it ... and showed their greed too soon.

    Very nice renovation. Not many rebuild a stoop. I like the addition of the fire mark -- just to hedge your bet.

  2. Nancy Bass Wyden, the owner of Strand Books, owns 122 Washington Place.