Friday, August 14, 2020

The 1842 Nathaniel Clark House - 767 Washington Street





Although it was completed in 1842, Nathaniel Clark's house on the southeast corner of Washington and Troy Streets exhibited the peaked roof and overall proportions of the Federal homes of a generation earlier.  Three stories tall, it was clad in running bond brick and trimmed in brownstone.  A store occupied the ground floor on Washington Street while the upper floors were accessed around the corner at No. 118 Troy Street.  (Around 1862 Troy Street was renamed and the address became 366 West 12th Street.)

Nathaniel and his wife, Ellen, had a daughter, Mary Elizabeth.  The Clarks lived in the upper portion of the house and most likely it was Clark's business which occupied the store.  But the venture was short-lived.  On October 7, 1845 Clark applied "for the discharge of an insolvent from his debts," the early 19th century equivalent of declaring bankruptcy.

Nathaniel Clark died in 1848.  Ellen was able to retain possession of the Washington Street house by renting the store and taking in a boarder, Susan Wright, who taught in the Girls' Department of P.S. No. 8 on Grand Street.

Susan may have been instrumental in inspiring Mary Elizabeth to take up education.  She is first listed as a teacher in city directories in 1853.  She earned $250 a year teaching in the Girls' Department of School No. 11 on West 17th Street, near Eighth Avenue.  (Her salary would equal about $7,630 today.)

Mary Elizabeth left the house in 1857 following her marriage to Reeves E. Selmes in the Jane Street Methodist Episcopal Church.  She did not go far, however.  The newlyweds moved into a house nearby on Troy Street.

By 1855 Frederick Muller was running his grocery in the store space.  Ellen took in several boarders after Mary Elizabeth left.  Thomas Ward was a "varnisher" and had first had rented a room around 1853.  He was still in the house in 1858 when John Tompkins who was a "sawyer," or board maker; and William Agnew, a clerk, also rented rooms.

In 1861 Ellen Clark moved in with Mary Elizabeth and Reeves Selmes.  Frederick Muller seems to have purchased the Washington Street property from her.  He continued running his grocery store here and moved his family into the upper floors.  He and his wife, Catharine, had three sons, John, William and Edward H.

Tragedy quickly struck the family.  On August 5, 1862 Edward died at the age of 3.  The toddler's funeral was held in the house two days later.

John Muller was old enough to help in his father's store by 1867.  Like most groceries, it stocked wine.  But unlike most, Frederick had not acquired a license to sell it.  And that got his young son in trouble.  On February 11, 1867 the New York Herald reported "John Muller, of 767 Washington street, was arraigned for selling liquor without a license, and also held in bail to answer."




On December 22, 1871 Frederick Muller was headed uptown on the Eighth Avenue streetcar.  Most likely to avoid the crush of passengers, he stood on the front platform.  At the intersection of Morton and Hudson Streets the street car collided with a coal cart.  The Evening Post reported that Muller "was thrown off and seriously injured."

According to  the New York Herald on December 14, 1884 William Muller was driving a turnout--a small, two-wheeled carriage--far north of home when disaster struck.  The article said he was "driving through Seventh avenue yesterday afternoon and had reached 116th when he was run into by another wagon.  Mullen [sic] was thrown from his seat and, falling upon the road, received severe injuries about the head."  

Two days later the newspaper issued a correction.  It reported that William "was the victim of an accident of a somewhat different nature.  While crossing the avenue he was struck by a team driven by two unknown men, and so severely injured that he died at Ninety-ninth Street Hospital on Monday morning."

Around 1890 the Muller family left No. 767 Washington Street.  The grocery store was taken over by Martin Schwerdtmann.  While Frederick Muller had lasted almost four decades, Schwerdtmann was much less successful.  On March 2, 1893 The Press reported "The Sheriff yesterday sold out the effects of...Martin Schwerdtmann, grocer, at No. 767 Washington street."


In 1932 the Clark house was the last remnant of the 19th century in the neighborhood.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Throughout the first half of the 20th century rooms were leased as apartments in the upper floors.  The grocery store had become a restaurant by the World War II years.  It was home to the Buck & Grover restaurant in 1947.  

Partner John D. Buck was born in Germany and had come to America as a youth.  He reportedly had always intended make his living in the restaurant business.  Each day he drove to the restaurant from his home in Forest Hills, Queens.  At 6 a.m. on Saturday April 26, 1947 he was nearly there when he was involved in a horrific accident at the corner of Hudson and Jane Streets.   Buck was thrown from his vehicle and was killed instantly.  The Long Island Star-Journal noted that his son, John Jr., planned to carry on his business.

A renovation completed in 1964 resulted in the second floor being converted to the kitchens for the ground floor restaurant, with one apartment on the third floor.  That configuration lasted only four years and in 1968 the second floor became another apartment.  

In 1982 the Mexican restaurant Tortilla Flats moved into the ground floor and soon became a neighborhood staple.  Known for its splashy decor and frozen margaritas, it was where the character Carrie of the popular television series "Sex in the City" had a double date with Miranda, Steve and Aiden in the episode entitled "Baby, Talk is Cheap."


The ground floor was already a restaurant in this 1941 tax photograph.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
The New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton was frank in her assessment of the restaurant on October 20, 2006, saying that Tortilla Flats "has not really been about the edible but lackluster Tex-Mex food...The real attraction is the nightly New Year's Eve party in the frantic bar-dining room, where Christmas lights and confetti fringe flicker from the ceiling."



Sheets of stainless steel have been tacked over the storefront, but overall the remarkably surviving house retains much of its 1842 appearance.

photographs by the author

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