Friday, February 5, 2021

The Charles S. Watrous House - 118 West 16th Street


photo by Beyond My Ken

By 1842 city Councilman Charles S. Watrous and his wife, the former Marcy C. Tutill, lived in the 25-foot wide house at No. 118 West 16th Street.  Three stories tall, the rather non-descript brick residence was quite likely designed by the builder, who combined elements of the Greek Revival and Italianate styles.  A shallow stoop led to the parlor floor.  The windows wore brownstone sills and lintels and a simple dentiled ran along the roof line.  

The couple were married on August 24, 1833.  In addition to his councilman position Watrous was a partner in Van Brunt & Watrous, provisions merchants.  Its offices were on Chambers Street and its slaughtering and pork packing plant was on West 18th Street near Tenth Avenue.

Around 1847 the the couple took in renters, Joshua and Christiana Underwood.  It is likely that they lived in a smaller building in the rear yard.  Joshua listed his profession as "washing," which suggests that it was actually Christiana who did the bulk of the labor.  George J. Underwood, presumably their son, was also listed at the address.  The family would remain at least through 1856.

His political position did not provide Charles Watrous leniency when the rancid odors from his slaughterhouse drew the ire of neighbors in 1854.  On October 24 the New-York Daily Tribune reported "Charles S. Watrous and Tunis Van Brunt, extensive pork packers...were yesterday arrested by Capt. Stevenson of the Sixteenth Ward Police, on complaint of the City Inspector, who charges them with maintaining a nuisance at their slaughterhouse."  The accusation that the conditions were a "detriment of the public health" suggests that the odors were accompanied by rats and other egregious problems.  Both were held in $500 bail--a staggering $15,700 in today's money.

A married couple was renting rooms from Charles and Marcy in the main house by at the time.  They advertised their services in the New York Herald on January 11, 1855:

F. Meyer (Late Principal Baritone of the English Opera) and lady, professors of piano, singing and guitar, 118 West Sixteenth street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues.

The Meyers left within a few months and on March 14 an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald offering "four rooms on the second and third a small family without children.  Privilege of bathroom.  Gas throughout.  Rent $200."  That annual rent would equal about $500 per month today.

Charles and Marcy were not running a boardinghouse and they made that clear in their advertisement in 1857, which offered "To let--After 1st of May, two furnished rooms, without board, on second floor, in house 118 West Sixteenth street, occupied by a private family."

While they retained possession of the house, Charles and Marcy Watrous moved a few blocks away to West 18th Street in 1860.  They offered No. 118 for rent in February that year, describing it as "the desirable three story and basement high stoop House," and saying it "contains modern improvements."  They were asking an annual rent equal to $20,500 in today's money.  The description would have to be amended later that year when Watrous converted the ground floor to a store.

The Zimmerman family was leasing the upper portion of the house and a grocery occupied the ground floor by the fall of 1860.  The store quickly became the target of a juvenile thief.  On November 21 the New-York Daily Tribune reported "Wm. O'Donnell, aged 15 years, was yesterday arrested, charged with having broken into [the] store, No. 118 West Sixteenth street, and stolen therefrom $25 worth of cigars, crackers, etc."  The haul would have been worth nearly $800 in today's money.  Facing the judge, the teen admitted his crime, "but said he was driven to it by hunger."  Despite his heart-rending explanation, O'Donnell was sent to jail.

A horrific incident occurred upstairs two months later.  On January 14, 1861 Mrs. Zimmerman walked out of the room where her five year old daughter, Mary Jane, was playing.  Fire was omnipresent in Victorian households in the kitchen stove, in fireplaces, and in kerosene lamps and gas fixtures.  During what the New-York Daily Tribune called "the brief absence of her mother from the room," the little girl "commenced playing with fire, when her clothes caught and she was fatally burned."

The proprietor of the store was looking to sell out in 1862, while simultaneously searching for a shop boy.  His advertisement offered "the stock and fixtures, with fives year's lease, of a grocery and liquor store, to a good business man a fair chance will be given...Also a boy wanted, who thoroughly understands the grocery business."

In the meantime the upper floors were now being operated as a boardinghouse.  Among the working class tenants in 1864 were Helen M. Burniston, a dressmaker; Timothy Clark, coachman; cabinetmaker Charles Gifert; Edward Shields, a wheelwright; and the widow of Daniel McMahon, Mary, and her son John, a mason.  (Mary McMahon would live here for many years, at least through 1880.)

In 1867 John Hildebrandt took over the grocery store and moved his family into rooms upstairs.  He remained until 1876 when another grocer, Ferdinand H. Folser and his wife, the former Sophia C. Aachemoor, purchased the house and took over the store.  The couple had two children, Augusta and Ferdinand, Jr.

The Folsers now took in just two boarders in the main house.  Mary MacMahon continued to live in her room, and another widow, Ellen McKegney moved in in 1876.  As Charles S. Watrous had done, Folser leased the rear house as well.  John Bower was an extractor--a rather nebulous term which covered several professions, including that of tooth removal.

In March 1878 Ferdinand Folser drew the wrath of a neighbor who fired off an anonymous letter to the editor of the New York Herald:

Please call the attention of the Bureau of Encumbrances to the three large covered wagons that block up the street in front of No. 118 West Sixteenth street; also to the cumbrous and unsightly awning covering the sidewalk, which, as the premises are on the south side of the street, seems of no use except as a shed under which to transact a large share of business.  -- Publico

In the fall of 1883 the Folsers leased the house to a Catholic organization which ran the St. Mary's Lodging-house.  There "respectable girls" were housed while they looked for work.  The Fosler's house would operate in a similar manner, but only overnight and arguably for less respectable girls.  Open from 5:00 in the afternoon to 8:00 in the morning, there was no charge for a night's stay.  On March 1, 1884 The New York Times reported "The managers have recently opened St. Joseph's Night Refuge, at No. 118 West Sixteenth-street, where poor, destitute women are provided with a night's lodging and a light breakfast prior to starting out to seek employment."

The New York Herald was a bit less diplomatic in its description five days later.  "About six months ago the manager of [St. Mary's] lodging house established a 'shelter' at No. 118 West Sixteenth street, where girls who cannot furnish evidences of respectability are given a night's lodging and a breakfast in the morning."  In the half-year that the shelter had operated here it had accommodated 575 for a night's stay.

Around 1890 St. Joseph's Night Refuge moved to No. 143 West 14th Street.  The Folsers returned to No. 118 West 16th Street and converted the upper floors to a two-family home.  In 1916 Augusta was a teacher and Ferdinand, Jr. was a clerk with the Bradstreet Company downtown.  Their father was no longer living.

Sophia Folser died in the house in which she had lived for 46 years on January 22, 1922.  Her funeral was held there two days later.  Two months later the Folser estate sold the property to John Wulf.  It was described by the New York Herald as "a two family dwelling with store."

via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

At mid-century the store space was home to a drugstore.  The second and third floors continued to house one family each throughout the subsequent decades.  The changing face of Chelsea was reflected in the tenant of the commercial space in the 1980's, Transaction Technology, Inc. 

A renovation completed in 1994 resulted in a brick veneer applied to the ground floor facade and an office installed in the former shop space.

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