Friday, September 11, 2020

The Surviving Relic at 108 West 14th Street

When the three-story Italianate house at No. 108 West 14th Street was erected in the 1860's, the neighborhood was home to moneyed families.   A stoop would have led to the parlor floor above and English basement.  

By 1869 it was being operated as a boarding house.  An advertisement seeking "a waitress" on December 16 that year noted that it was "private" boarding house.  The term waitress referred to the maid who was polished enough to serve meals in the dining room, tea in the parlor, and such.  Her position was higher than that of most other maids.  And a "private" boarding house referred to the small number of occupants and implied a more exclusive operation.

By the mid-1870's the neighborhood was filling with well-to-do Cuban nationals.  Cuban-owned banks, restaurants and groceries opened in the area.   Among the boarders in No. 108 in 1876 was attorney Juan Del Valle, described by The New York Herald as "a medium sized man, of square cut features, topped with an iron-gray head of hair and heavy mustache and mutton chop side whiskers of the same color."

Born in Vigon, Spain in 1831, he relocated to Cuba in 1856.  The following year he married the daughter of a wealthy Cuban.  He held the office of District Attorney in Havana and was counsel for the Spanish Bank there.   His wife died in 1871 and in 1874 he moved to New York with his four children (who had inherited their mother's fortune of approximately $500,000--around $10.8 million today).

Del Valle's problems began in January 1875 when he saw Eugenie Henriques slip on the sidewalk at 29th Street and Broadway.  He helped her to her feet, assisted her in wiping the dirt from her dress, and after walking a few steps, exchanged cards.  

A romance developed, but a year later, on November 16, 1876, the pair faced off in court.  Eugenie sued Del Valle for breach of promise.  The wealth of the parties and the "remarkable story," as worded by The New York Herald, drew what the newspaper described as a "throng outside the doors" of the courtroom.  The remarkable story that unfolded in court included the details of the pair's traveling together and of Eugenie's losing her honor to her uncle, who had married her mother.

Six months before the trial the George C. Flint & Co. furniture store had erected a handsome five-story cast iron store building next door to No. 108.  It would not be long before the firm realized it had underestimated the floor space it required.  By December the firm leased No. 108 and hired architect Richard C. Jones to build an extension to the rear, install a storefront, and alter the pitch of the roof at a cost of $3,000.

The house became a next-door annex to the Flint building (left).

George C. Flint & Co. designed and manufactured the furniture it sold.  It catered to middle-class families and marketed itself as "Manufacturers of Good Furniture at Low Prices."  A typical advertisement appeared on April 4, 1886 in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle read:

Parlor Furniture--A rare display of elegant parlor suits, in choice coverings.  Among these are some twenty patterns designed from the latest and richest styles, so exceedingly tasty, so very novel and elegant, that the prices, $75 to $150, seemingly do not represent on fourth their value.  Also, an interesting show of novel designs in cabinets, tables, over-mantels, easy chairs, &c.

In 1893 George C. Flint & Co. completed construction of its new store structure at No. 43 West 23rd Street.  The following year, on September 11, 1894, The Evening World reported "Cowperthwait & Co., the big Brooklyn furniture house, has taken a long lease of the three buildings, 104, 106 and 108 West fourteenth street, which will be thrown open for business to-morrow morning."

The former house was converted to the store's receiving department and workshops.  At 8:00 on the morning of October 23, 1896 three employees were already at their jobs--Lizzie Welch, a carpet sewer, and two carpet layers, Albert Hanks and George Weidner.  Lizzie heard fire engines outside and ran to the front window.  The Evening Post reported "Looking out she saw that there was fire in the basement of the building she was at work in."  The blaze had started in the cellar of No. 108 West 14th Street and spread.  

Lizzie called out her co-workers and ran to the street, but "instead of leaving, [the men] tried to save some carpets and were nearly overcome by smoke."  The Evening Post reported "They had to get out of a window on the second floor and cross to the next building a long the cornice."

The Evening World, November 24, 1903 (copyright expired)

Following the removal of Cowperthwait & Co. from 14th Street in 1910, No. 108 was updated with a new two-story cast iron storefront.  It was was sold separately from Nos. 104-106 in 1911 to Charles Wissmann.

The building became home to the offices of the Charles Wissman Co. and the Flat Iron Restaurant Co., of which Charles Wisman was president and director.  He had started his career as a specialty meat dealer and was by now known within the trade as the "Sweet Bread King."   His original Flat Iron Restaurant and Cafe was in the Flatiron Building. 

The remodeled ground floor of No. 108 was now a branch of the Flat Iron Restaurant and Cafe where patrons could enjoy dishes like veal goulash with spaetzel, sauerbraten with potato balls, and Philadelphia squab en casserole.  The first two entrees cost 50 cents, the squab casserole 85 cents--about $17 for the pricier fare.

Following World War I the ground floor was home to a confectionery store.  An advertisement on November 11, 1919 offered an opportunity for young women to learn a trade.  It touted positions for "Chocolate Dippers and Packers" for "experienced girls, also learners taken."  The pay, from $12 to $25 a week, was based "according to ability."  (The higher salary would equal about $370 per week today.)  The ad advised this was "your opportunity to learn good trade; in which there are no dull seasons."

The personality of the neighborhood was still heavily Spanish and in 1925 the Casa de Galicia was formed in No. 108 West 14th Street.  The club, which was the scene of social events and cultural meetings, remained until 1927 when it purchased a building a block away at Nos. 109-111 East 15th Street.

Among the tenants in the upper floor apartments in 1928 was Feliz Morales.  When he was caught speeding for a second time in April that year, the judge put his foot down.  Magistrate Peter M. Daly fined him $50 for his second offense, nearly $750 in today's money.

In 1941 a clothing store occupied the first and second floors.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
In 1931 the commercial spaces became home to decorator W. B. Kinnaird, and to Paul Tyantoris's "fur salon."  There was little change to the building until 1963 when the first and second floor stores were renovated and the third floor was converted to two apartments.

Traces of the 1910 cast iron storefront are still visible.  Although a bit beleaguered, the former residence still retains its domestic appearance at the third floor and cornice.


  1. I always wondered why, in the 1960s—when I'd stop along West 14th en route elsewhere—there were so many Spanish-themed restaurants along this stretch of West 14th Street. Now, decades later, I know!

  2. I own an ebonized Eastlake style desk made by George C Flint & Co. They had a warehouse at 304 West St which caught fire on 24 April 1882. The furniture destroyed was described as "light and cheap in the main." Total damages to stock, warehouse, and surrounding buildings and houses was estimated at $48K. Of course, cheap furniture in the 1880s far surpasses the quality of cheap furniture today. My desk is still solid and beautiful. Imagine what an IKEA desk would be like in 150 years!