Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Thomas Morton House - 243 East 17th Street


In 1850 handsome homes were rising in the neighborhood around the newly completed Stuyvesant Square.  That year Thomas Morton acquired the plot of land at 132 East 17th Street (renumbered 243 in 1866) as the site of his family's residence.  Completed in 1852, it rose four stories and was a commodious 28-feet-wide.  The Anglo-Italian design featured round-arched openings, a full-width balcony at the second floor, and charming Juliette balconies at the third.

Morton was a partner with Andrew Augustus Bremner in Morton & Bremner, which made "spring balances and and weighing devices."  The firm had been established in 1841.  But on November 18, 1853, a year after Morton moved into the East 17th Street house, the partnership was dissolved.  A notice in the New York Herald said the business "will be continued by Thomas Morton, for his sole account."

The Merchants' Directory for 1866 and 1867, (copyright expired)

The family was looking to replace two servants in April 1854.  The advertisement was a bit intimidating in its wording:

Wanted--A chambermaid and laundress--One who thoroughly understands both capacities.  Also, a waiter.  To save trouble none need apply who are not fully capable.  Protestants preferred.

On July 15, 1858, Morton leased the house furnished to Roderick W. Cameron and his wife "for the space of nine and a half months" for $166.66 (about $5,410 in today's money).  The Camerons over-stayed their lease, most likely because of Mary Ann Cameron's health.  She died here on May 13, 1859, "after a short but painful illness," according to the New-York Daily Tribune.  She was just 31 years old.  (Morton later charged Cameron $750 for damages to his furniture, which the latter refused to pay.  A law suit was finally settled in 1864 with Morton the victor.)

Morton never returned to his opulent home.  He advertised it  for sale in the New York Herald on September 12, 1859:

One first class brown stone house, with English basement, and known as 132 East Seventeenth street, opposite Stuyvesant square.  This house has been built by day's work; it contains all the modern improvements.  The situation is one of the most desirable in the city.  The furniture, such as gas fixtures, carpets and mirrors, will be sold cheap and other furniture if required.

The opulence of the mansion was reflected in the price.  The $28,000 ($900,000 in 2022 terms) that Henry W. Derby and his wife Helen M., paid was more than twice the amount of any house in the neighborhood in the 1850's.

Derby, who was listed as "paintings" at 548 Broadway in 1859, seems to have changed professions by 1861, when he was listed as "books" at 625 Broadway and 164 Mercer Street.  The family's residency would be very short-lived.  Their youngest daughter, eight-year-old Fannie Belle, died on February 7, 1862, and her funeral was held in the parlor the following day.  Within months the Derbys sold the house to John Nelson Hayward.

Born above his parent's grocery store on August 18, 1821, Hayward was a essentially a self-made man.  His parents (who were "English people," according to the New-York Tribune), had died within 24 hours of one another when Hayward was 19.  They left him their grocery store, which he ran until 1846 when he went into the distillery business.   He was a wealthy "rectifier" with two locations--4 William Street and 20 Delancey Street--by the time he purchased the East 17th Street house.

His profession, however, would change drastically over the next decades.  He became a director in the Butchers and Drovers' Bank, and in the Mechanics and Traders' Bank, and a trustee of the East Savings Institution.  By the end of the Civil War, he was a tax commissioner, as well as a Trustee of the Common Schools.

In 1865 Hayward was a strong proponent for the construction of a new Public Market.  After the Board of Commissioners surveyed the site in May, Hayward proposed "to meet on Friday evening, June 2, 1865, at 8 o'clock," at his home.  The commissioners presented their plans to the Mayor, the Street Commissioner, the City Inspector and the Comptroller that night.

Hayward and his wife, the former Sarah J. Tyson, would have four sons, Harry, John Jr., William T., and Frank Earle.  Sadly, Harry caught pneumonia in the spring of 1868.  He died at just 10 months of age on March 23, and his funeral was held in the house on March 25.

In 1879, Hayward's salary as commissioner was $5,000--or about $134,000 in today's money.  He also maintained a brokerage office at 52 Broadway, and received his income as school trustee.  By the mid-1880's John Jr. was the secretary of the Mutual Brewing Company, and William was a contractor.

It was about this time that the Haywards updated their home with modern balcony ironwork in the Aesthetic style.

Sarah J. Hayward died in the East 17th Street house on September 19, 1889 and, as was expected, her funeral was held there two days later.  Not long afterward, John Hayward's brother, William H., moved into the house.

Now widowed and retired, William Hayward had been a volunteer firefighter in his early years.  On November 23, 1896, the 73-year-old was on Broadway near Exchange Place when he suffered a stroke and fell to the sidewalk.   A policeman summoned an ambulance, which took him to the New-York Hospital.  William Hayward never returned home, dying in the hospital that afternoon.  Members of the Eureka Lodge No. 242 and the Veteran Firemen's Association attended his funeral in the house on November 25.

There would be another funeral in the parlor just over two months later.  John Nelson Hayward died on January 31, 1897 at the age of 76.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted, "The late Mr. Hayward was formerly a tax commissioner of New York, and was very wealthy."  His funeral was held on February 3.

Within months 243 East 17th Street became home to Rudolph E. Schirmer and his wife, the former Martha Y. Barnes.   Born on July 22, 1859, he was educated at Princeton University and the Columbia Law School.  Although he was admitted to the bar in 1884, he joined the music publishing firm founded by his father, Gustav Schirmer in 1861.  By the time he purchased the East 17th Street house he was president and director of G. Schirmer, Inc.

Rudolph Schirmer.  The Musical Quarterly, October 1919 (copyright expired)

The domestic bliss in the Schirmer household began eroding around 1913.  Ann Swinburne, a comic opera star, had caught Schirmer's eye.  He left Martha that year.  In 1916, before Martha traveled to Carson City, Nevada to file for divorce, the couple had a civilized meeting to arrange for her financial welfare.  

On April 1, 1916 the New York Herald reported, "News received here yesterday of the marriage of Miss Ann Rudolph E. Schirmer, head of the music publishing house of G. Schirmer, Inc. came as a great surprise to society and theatrical circles."  The article noted Schirmer had married Ann on March 28, "a week after he had been freed by divorce from his former wife."  The groom was 55 and his bride was 30.

Ann Swinburn Schirmer, The New York Herald, April 1, 1916 (copyright expired)

The marriage would be short-lived and tragic.  The couple had a daughter who died in infancy, and then on August 20, 1919, just three years into their marriage, Schirmer died at the age of 60.

Martha, who was 72 years old at the time of her ex-husband's death, continued to live at 243 East 17th Street.   His will provided her $15,000 per year for life, the same amount she had been receiving in alimony.  The New York Times reported, "He also gave her the life use of their residence at 243 East Seventeenth Street and part of the contents."

Martha's estate sold the house in 1920 to Judge James A. Farley, who had married Mabel Graham Murphy (step-daughter of Tammany Boss Charles Francis Murphy) a year earlier.  Farley had been appointed to the Surrogate Court the year he purchased the house.

The Farleys got unexpected house guests in 1924.  Charles Murphy was was out of town on February 17.  Two female relatives were visiting his wife, Margaret, for a short stay.  Early that morning the household was awakened by the smell of smoke.  The Evening Post reported, "Their screams summoned Patrolman Froelich...who turned in an alarm."  The women got out of the house just in time.  The fire, which started in the basement, "was followed by a gas explosion."  The article said, "Mrs. Charles F. Murphy, wife of the leader of Tammany Hall; two women relatives, and two servants are guests today in the home of Surrogate James A. Farley at 243 East Seventeenth street."

Two months later, on April 25, 1924, Charles Murphy suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 62.  Margaret Murphy was devastated with grief.  On April 29 The Sun reported, "Mrs. Charles F. Murphy...was still under the care of a physician and trained nurse to-day at the home of her son-in-law, Surrogate James A. Farley."  The article noted, "She was at the point of collapse after the funeral yesterday and she had an extremely restless night," adding, "Her intense grief and the nervous strain of the last few days brought about virtual prostration when she arrived home from the funeral."  Margaret slowly recovered and returned to her own home in May "in company of a nurse," according to The Brooklyn Standard Union.

The Farleys remained in the house for over two decades.  James A. Farley died on February 11, 1946 and, once again, a funeral was held in the parlor of 243 East 17th Street.  The James A. Farley Post Office (now the James A. Farley Building) in Manhattan was named in his honor.

Some original details, like this magnificent marble mantle, survive. image via

A renovation to the house completed in 1956 resulted in one apartment each on the first and second floors, and two each on the the upper floors.  Among the residents was abstract expressionist artist Kyle R. Morris.  He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Ford Foundation purchase award in 1963.  His paintings hang in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Albright Knox Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Art.  He and his wife, June Christophersen, maintained a summer home in East Hampton.  They were living here in August 1979 when Morris died from an aneurysm.

The house was renovated to a triplex on the lower three floors and a single apartment on the fourth in 1997 by Eric Petterson and his wife, actress Noelle Beck.  The top floor apartment was home to saxophonist Clifford Jordan and his wife Sandy.  Petterson and Beck, who had paid $1.6 million for the property, listed it for $17 million in 2014.  

They eventually sold it to Australian-born film director Baz Luhrman and his wife, manufacturing designer Catherine Martin, for a lesser amount.   The couple did a major interior renovation in 2019, which, while eliminating some of the original details, happily preserved many others.  The couple listed the house in March 2022 for $20 million.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. I believe the Farley Post Office was named after James Farley, former Postmaster General.

  2. Here is the listing for 243 E 17th Street. Very nice.

  3. I’m very familiar with this beautiful house. I knew Kyle and June Morris. They owned the house with Robert & Dorothea John who lived on the first floor. Even as a child I recognized this house to be very special. It’s much larger and grander than a typical NYC brownstone. Bob John designed and manufactured leather shoes and boots in his factory on Canal Street. He also drove a 1957 Jaguar XK150, and built a mid century modern house & pool in the NJ woods. He lived the life back then.