The land that John Cowman had purchased in 1825 was original part of the 17th century farm belonging to Simon Congo, a free Black man. By the time Cowman's will was executed in 1842, the property was still undeveloped and rural; although Fifth and Sixth Avenues had been newly extended through the area and the nearby Union Square was seeing the rise of upscale homes. Cowman’s widowed son-in-law, Edward Sebring Mesier received half of the property.
Mesier, a partner in the firm Mesier & Rich, book publishers and stationery merchants, came from a long line of New York retailers extending back to the 18th century. Edward Mesier’s inherited land was divided into lots on the north side of West 16th Street – Nos. 1 through 21.
In 1845 Mesier began talks with several prospective property owners and a restrictive agreement was recorded. Accordingly, buildings erected on the lots were to be “at least six feet back from the street” and no “stable, meat shop, slaughter house…or any base commercial establishment” would be permitted. The block was to be one of “first-class” homes. Although he sold the 25-foot wide plots vacant, it is almost certain that the nine houses at Nos. 1 through 17 had already been designed, since they were identical.
Completed in 1846 each was three stories high above a brownstone English basement. Brownstone trims including the door surround, window sills and lintels, and the broad entrance steps, contrasted handsomely with the red brick. An elegant cast iron balcony hugged the parlor level. Their two-bay curved front was a popular and common architectural touch in cities like Boston, but much rarer in New York.
|Gone today, the Anderson's parlor floor balcony was identical to this one at No. 11 West 16th Street.|
No. 35 (later renumbered 7) was home to Elbert Anderson, a provision merchant. Anderson had had a government contract to supply the United States Army before and during the War of 1812 with food and whiskey. (In the six-month period between July 1813 and January 1814 he shipped the Army 89,193 gallons of whiskey.) That contract alone was enough to make Anderson a wealthy man. In 1811 he was paid $13,972.30, or $281,000 in today's money.
Anderson remained in the house until 1852 when he sold it to merchant James H. Brainer for $21,500--about $734,000 today. It was leased to an unnamed woman in 1871, who took in a few boarders. Her ad in The New York Herald on September 27 read "A lady, who keeps a seashore house, having taken 7 West Sixteenth street, has nicely furnished front and back Rooms at moderate prices, with good Board." She apparently felt that by pointing out that she could afford a summer home testified to the upscale tenor of the house.
By 1876 the Episcopal priest Rev. H. C. Riley lived in the house with his widowed mother, Elizabeth. They rented a room to another priest, Rev. John Cotton Smith. The parlor was the scene of Elizabeth's funeral on December 21, 1877.
Rev. Riley soon moved out. On March 28, 1878 an auction was held of the furnishings, including "black walnut parlor, bedroom and dining room furniture, fine carpets," and other items.
It next became home to the W. B. Rice family. They were terrorized on November 23, 1878. The New York Herald reported "Quite a commotion was created at three o'clock yesterday morning in the household of Mr. W. B. Rice, No. 7 West Sixteenth street, by a mysterious sound of a falling body, apparently from the roof to an extension."
The article said, "Mr. Rice's mansion is...spacious and private. The resounding noise, followed by groans, as if of a person in great pain, aroused the family from their slumbers." The female contingent "expressed their consternation in sundry screams." Rice rushed to the street to a District Telegraph box to summon the police. When they arrived, they found that family's cook had fallen from her top floor window about 12 feet to the extension. The seriously injured woman was taken to the New York Hospital while police investigated her room.
"As the room was found to be in a state of unusual disorder, and certain articles of clothing were reported to be missing, the police...thought that possibly burglars had entered the cook's room, and that a struggle ensued, when she was thrown from the window," explained the article.
By the late 1880's No. 7 was home to Presbyterian minister Rev. Robert Russell Booth and his family. He was installed as the pastor of the Rutgers Riverside Church in 1886. He and his wife, the former Emma L. Lathrop, were married in 1853 and had two children, Minnie and William.
Their home was the scene of the wedding reception of Jessie Blossom (Mrs. Booth's niece) and Professor Sargent Hoffman on June 23, 1887. The following winter, on January 6, 1888, Emma gave a musicale in the house, The Evening World noting that she entertained 125 guests.
Within the year the Booths had moved to West End Avenue and No. 7 was purchased by Dr. Gerardus Hilles Wynkoop for $54,000 (about $1.55 million today). The well-respected doctor was a vice-president of the Northern Dispensary in Greenwich Village and private physician to elite families like the Roosevelts. Born on June 4, 1843, he was married to the former Ann Eliza Woodbury on May 30, 1866. She was the daughter of General Daniel Phineas Woodbury. They had four children, Gerardus, Jr., Daniel Woodbury, Kate, and Elizabeth Hilles.
The Baltimore Sun later described Wynkoop as "widely known, not only as a distinguished member of his profession, but for his deep interest in education, and...a patron of the fine arts." He had pioneered surgery of the abdominal cavity and drawn international attention when he performed an appendicitis operation on a Japanese Prince Ito, a nephew of the Mikado, saving his life.
The family had barely settled in before Kate was married to Harold Stanley Forwood in Grace Church on November 25, 1889. The reception was held in the 16th Street house. (Her sister would marry well, also. In 1900 Elizabeth was married to Stuyvesant Fish Morris, Jr.)
At the time of Kate's wedding her father's fortune was estimated, according to The Press, at between $700,000 and $800,000--or about $22.2 million in today's money. But he made a serious mistake by investing heavily in the National Heating Company and the Boston Heating Company. Both firms collapsed in 1889, leaving Wynkoop heavily in debt. On November 20, 1893 The New York Times began an article saying "Dr. Gerardus Wynkoop...is in financial difficulties." And indeed he was.
To hide his losses, according to a receiver's testimony, "Dr. Wynkoop borrowed money almost daily from Peter to pay Paul. In that way it is estimated that he borrowed at least $500,000, and perhaps twice that amount."
In order to help pay off one of his creditors, he transferred title to No. 7 West 16th Street to Winston, Spies & Woodbury. The value of the property was set at $61,000 (nearly $1.8 million today). The Press reported "He also sold his furniture, books, horses and carriages and all personal effects for $18,000 to his brother, Rev. Theodore Wynkoop, now in India, who had loaned him $50,000."
On 1894 attorney James Cornelius Bergen purchased the house at auction, getting a noticeable deal. The Evening Post remarked that the sale "attracted attention" and "realized only $41,000."
Born in 1852 in Brooklyn, Bergen had studied in Germany after attending public schools, graduating from Heidelberg University. He finished his law studies at Harvard Law School. He married Jessie McCue, daughter of Judge Alexander McCue, in 1878. Bergen's substantial wealth and social position were reflected in his club memberships--the Union Club, the Lawyers' and the Brooklyn Clubs, as well as five yacht clubs: the New York Yacht Club, the Atlantic, the Seawanhaka, the Corinthian and the Larchmont.
Jessie hosted glittering entertainments. On February 9, 1898 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced "On Thursday evening Mrs. J. C. Bergen's cotillion will occur at her home, 7 West Sixteenth street...Many of the [Brooklyn] Heights younger set will go over for this dance." The newspaper followed up afterward, saying "The Bergen house is decidedly attractive and well fitted for a dance of size. This was, without a question, one of the prettiest private cotillions given this season in the metropolitan district."
Like other socialites, Jessie threw herself behind troop support during the Spanish-American War, becoming president of the Defenders Auxiliary Corps. On July 20, 1898 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the group's goal was to send "emergency bags" to the troops in Santiago containing "bandages, towels, ration bags, pajamas, sponges, malted milk, ginger ale, broth and other sundries."
On April 4, 1901 the funeral of Jessie's bachelor brother, John Benson McCue was held in the house. A member of the Produce Exchange, he had retired in 1896 and moved to Baltimore.
Five years later James Bergen contracted typhoid fever. Two weeks after being diagnosed he died in the 16th Street house on the afternoon of December 22, 1906. The New York Press commented "Although it was expected that his rugged constitution would enable him to fight off the disease, peritonitis setting in a few days ago caused his wife to give up hope of his recovery." He was 54 years old. His funeral was held in the parlor at 2:30 on Christmas Eve. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
Although Jennie retained ownership of No. 7, she had left by 1911. She was now leasing the property, which was being operated as a boarding house. Among the boarders that year was Mrs. Lillian M. Kinsman who was determined to get her husband back.
Lillian and Charles F. Kinsman had lived in California but, according to her, he "came to this city from San Francisco to get away from her." In 1911 she took a room in No. 7 West 16th Street and not long afterward another single woman, Mrs. Ola M. Currie, moved in. The two women quickly became good friends.
The Evening Telegram wrote "After a time Mrs. Currie invited Mrs. Kinsman to go to a matinee. After the show they went to a Turkish bath and later Mrs. Currie led the way to a telephone booth, saying that she wished to call a friend." Soon a man joined the women. Mrs. Currie introduced him to Lillian as Danny. One thing led to another and Ola Currie suggested the three should go to a bungalow she had rented on Coney Island.
Apparently at some point "Danny" or Ola drugged Lillian. "Mrs. Kinsman said she became ill while there," reported The Telegram, "and at Mrs. Currier's suggestion Mr. Ellis brought an iced towel and insisted upon applying it to her head." Just as the man and Lillian were in a suggestive position on the bed, Lillian's husband and three other men barged into the room. As it turned out, Ola Currie was an undercover private investigator, hired by Charles Kinsman to get incriminating evidence against his wife, as was Daniel J. McGinnis, or "Danny."
Charles sued his wife for divorce based on the evidence of infidelity. Lillian explained her husband's treachery to the court, saying "Mr. Ellis never said or did anything in my presence which could be called even in the slightest degree ungentlemanly."
The Bergen family continued to own the house as the block changed from an upscale residential enclave to one of businesses. The Bergens followed the trend in 1920 by leasing rooms as offices.
On December 6 that year The Literary Review announced "Robert M. McBride & Co. have a new office at 7 West Sixteenth Street; we hear it is very quaint with a winding staircase." The publishing firm scored a coup in 1923 when one of its novels, Ashes of Vengeance, was made into a motion picture. Robert McBride took advantage of the publicity situation by launching a contest "for the five best reviews of the book," as reported by The Evening Telegram on August 25. The five winners would share $1,000 in prizes.
|An advertisement in 1923 listed some of McBride's current offerings. The New York Times Book Review, December 16, 1923 (copyright expired)|
In June 1928 Robert M. McBride & Co. enlarged with the acquisition of the Dodge Publishing Company. At the time McBride was publishing the periodicals Travel and Old Furniture, as well as books on travel, fiction and biography.
On May 4, 1931 The New York Sun reported "The firm of Robert M. McBride...has just moved, observing the traditional moving day, May 1. It journeyed only as far as across the street from 'The Brick House,' 7 West Sixteenth street, where it has been for ten years to its new ten-story building at 4 West Sixteenth street."
Shortly after McBride's defection, in 1933, the Bergen family converted No. 7 to apartments, with a restaurant in the ground floor. The restaurant was relatively short-lived, becoming a doctor's office in 1936.
Over the years perhaps the most notable residence was Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, an attorney best known for defending left-wing and Communist cases. Perhaps his most recognized clients were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Following their executions on June 19, 1953, Bloch and his wife, Pauline, were given custody of the Rosenberg children, Michael and Robert, until their adoption.
|Emanuel Hirsch Bloch in 1953. from the collection of the Library of Congress|
The accusation resulted in disciplinary actions being filed against him in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Soon after that, on January 30, 1954, Bloch died of a fatal heart attack in his apartment in No. 7 West 16th Street. He was 52 years old. Among the several speakers at his funeral was actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson.
|Amazingly, the paneled, interior shutters survive. The exterior shutters to the windows above the entrance would have folded neatly into their recessed niches.|
photographs by the author