Below the skinny window at the right is a basement-level doorway which accessed the horsewalk to the rear yard.
Around 1850 the handsome brick-faced house at 231 West 20th Street (renumbered 331 in 1860) was completed. Most likely designed by the builder, it was influenced by the Greek Revival style, most notably in the paneled pilasters, sidelights and transom of the doorway. Four stories tall and 25-feet side, its entrance was slightly off-skew to accommodate a horsewalk, or passage to the rear yard, next to the stoop.
In 1853-54 two families listed their addresses here--possibly one of them living in the smaller house in the rear. Townsend Carpenter listed his occupation (appropriately) as "carpenter," although he was most likely a builder; and Bowen G. Lord was a carman (either a delivery man or the driver of a horse-drawn streetcar).
Carpenter and Lord were most likely renters. The owner listed the property on October 18, 1855 "for sale or rent," describing it as having "all the modern improvements, built in the very best manner, positively situated at No. 231 West Twentieth street." The $800 rent was affordable, at least by a 21st century viewpoint, equal to just over $2,000 a month today.
Thomas C. Doyle, who ran a fish market on Eighth Avenue, signed a one-year lease. Finally, in 1857, when Moses Parker and his wife Susan purchased it, the house had long-term residents. Parker was a well-to-do builder and real estate operator. The couple had three children, Richard, Robert and Sarah.
Starting around 1867 the Parkers took in boarders, the Robert C. Thompson family. Given the size of the family (Robert and Susan Matilda had five children--DeWitt Smith, Elizabeth R., Robert Haig, William H., and George Haig), they most likely rented the rear house.
The Thompsons had at least one domestic servant. Nineteen-year-old Kate Chrisman was described by The Evening Telegram as "a servant long in his employ." That long relationship had come to an abrupt end when Thompson and Chrisman appeared in court on October 19, 1868. The Evening Telegram reported she was charged "with stealing and taking away from his home wearing apparel, bed clothes, linen, &c, of the value of $40." (The theft would be closer to $750 today.) The article added, "An officer whom Mr. Thompson called upon, found the property in the accused's possession." The teen confessed to the crime and was held for sentencing.
Sarah E. Parker died on April 30, 1873. As was expected at the time, one family member at a time sat with her body in the parlor night and day until her funeral was held there three days later.
The Parker family remained in the house through 1877. The following year Catherine Howie and her son, James W. moved in. Catherine's husband, engineer William Howie, had died just months earlier. James made his living as a clerk, and the two stayed on until John Joseph Curran purchased 331 West 20th Street in 1880.
Both Curran and his brother, Frank J, who were born in Newport, Rhode Island, were dentists. Frank moved into the house, as well, and the brothers opened their dental practice in the basement level.
Frank was operating on an abscessed tooth in the spring of 1894 when his patient bit his finger. Curran developed blood poisoning which was so severe that by the middle of March his life was in jeopardy. At one point, according to The Hebrew American on March 16, "the attending physicians thought his right arm would have to be amputated."
While Frank teetered between life and death upstairs, John Joseph suffered a fatal heart attack in September. Because of Frank's precarious condition, he was not told of his brother's death and no notice of it appeared in the newspapers to assure the news would not be leaked to him. John's funeral could not be held in the house, and mass was quietly celebrated in St. Francis Xavier's Church. He was buried on his 37th birthday. Frank and the public at large were informed about a week later.
The affluence of the Curran family was evidenced when Ellen J. Curran lost a bracelet on her way home from church. Her notice in The New York Times on December 9, 1908 described it as "containing 11 diamonds and 2 rubies." She offered a reward of more than $5,700 in today's money.
Ellen J. Curran sold the West 20th Street house in October 1914. The Real Estate Record & Guide noted, "This is the first transfer of the property in 35 years." The buyers were Edward H. Proudman, described by the Record & Guide as "a large holder of West Side investment property," and his wife Anna M. Proudman.
The Proudmans retained possession until April 1922 when they sold it to real estate operators Joseph and Michael Sheridan. The brothers operated it as a rooming house, the residents of which were not always upstanding.
Among the Sheridans' initial tenants was 37-year-old John Kearns. He and Thomas Cooley were arrested on December 2, 1922 "suspected of having committed a score of burglaries on the Upper East Side," according to policemen. Etta Warren identified them as the pair who "stole $2,000 worth of jewels from her home" the previous week, according to The New York Herald. Each was held on a staggering $25,000 bail--more than a third of a million dollars today.
Dorothy Miles lived in what was described as a "two-room kitchenette apartment" here during the Depression years. On the morning of December 12, 1934 Mrs. Bessy Schwartz, the building's housekeeper who lived next door, was awakened by the smell of gas. She traced it to Dorothy's door and used her passkey to enter. The New York Sun reported, she found the body of the 40-year-old "seated on a chair by a one-burner gas stove, fed by a rubber tube from a wall jet. Gas was flowing from the tube, which had been disconnected from the stove."
A renovation completed in 1969 resulted in a single family home with an apartment in the basement. In the mid-1970's the lower section was used as the Dharmadhatu, or Buddist Meditation Center. The house proper was home to Dr. Joachim Weyl and his wife Martha Bowdith Weyl. The couple had two daughters, Annemarie Carr and Christina Weyl.
Born in Zurich, Weyl's father, Professor Herman Weyl, was a colleague of Albert Einstein. Joachim Weyl went on to achieve an impressive career of his own.
He earned his Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1939, and taught at the University of Maryland and Indiana Universities before working for the research group of the United States Navy's Bureau of Ordnance. The New York Times noted, "When the atomic-bomb tests were staged on the island of Bikini, he was a participant, working in the bureau's mathematics branch." He became director of the branch in 1949, was appointed director of the mathematics sciences division in 1955, became director of the Naval Analysis Group in 1958 and was named deputy chief and chief scientist in 1961.
In 1968 Dr. Weyl assumed the position of acting president and Dean of Sciences and Mathematics at Hunter College. Around 1976 he resigned from Hunter for health reasons. He died in the West 20th Street house on July 20, 1977 at the age of 62.
In 1999 the house was divided into two duplex apartments with a "recreation room" in the basement level. The former horsewalk has been converted to a doorway and at some point in the late 19th century pressed metal cornices were applied over the lintels of the windows and doors.
photographs by the author
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