Saturday, March 6, 2021

The 1858 Cast Iron 120 Chambers Street (aka 50 Warren Street)


The ultra-wealthy Jones families were a significant presence on the Chambers Street block between West Broadway and Church Street in the first decades of the 19th century.  In 1818, the year they were married, Isaac Jones, Jr. and his wife, the former Mary Mason, erected fine home at No. 122 Chambers Street, and in 1828 Isaac's brother, William Henry Jones, built a 23-foot wide residence next door at No. 120.  

By the 1850's their exclusive neighborhood was being increasingly invaded by commerce.  In 1857 the Jones families demolished their houses and replaced them with modern loft buildings, while retaining ownership of the properties.  The names of the architects have been lost, but they were almost assuredly not the same person.

No. 122 was faced in sandstone, while No. 120 received a cast iron facade--the latest in construction technology--from the foundries of Daniel D. Badger's The Architectural Iron Works.   That new building, completed in 1858, ran through the block to No. 50 Warren Street where an identical façade was installed.

The graceful Italianate-style design was divided into three parts by intermediate cornices.  Two identical two-story sections flanked by double-height Corinthian pilasters sat atop a cast iron storefront.  The spandrel panels of the arched openings were filled with frothy decorations.  An especially handsome bracketed cornice with rosettes completed the design.

A slightly wider version of the facade was pictured in the Architectural Iron Works catalog of 1865.  (copyright expired)

Interestingly, on May 6, 1856--even before demolition of the old Jones house had begun--space in the proposed building was being offered for lease.  The advertisement promised that the site "is to be immediately improved by the erection thereon of a five story first class store in all respects, with two basements and with all the modern improvements, either of marble or iron."  A lease was available to "an undoubted tenant" for ten or fifteen years "and the building will be arranged to suit his convenience."

Among the initial tenants was A. R. Van Nest & Co., which took the three lower floors.  Established in 1835 by Abram R. Van Nest, it was the foremost saddlery hardware firm in the city.  The first floor sales room offered, according to the 1859 The New-York Sketch Book and Merchants' Guide, "every variety of Heavy and Japanned Saddlery Ware, and Patent Leathers and Cloths of their own manufacture; also, all qualities and descriptions of Spurs, Stirrups, and Bitts, for riding and driving."  There were also harness mountings, carriage cloths and fringes, carriage lamps and whips.

The second floor salesroom was devoted to the sale of textiles and accessories--carriage blankets, curry combs, reins, shafts, springs and axles, "in fact, Buggy and Carriage Trimmings of every kind," according to The New-York Sketch Book.

The upper floors housed the "hats and caps" factory of  Geo. W. and Jehial Read.  Its brisk business was reflected in a continuous string of help wanted ads.  On February 21, 1859, for instance, an advertisement sought "two first class straw and silk bonnet trimmers.  None but experienced and capital hands need apply."  The same month the firm was seeking "a porter; one accustomed to the hat, cap and straw goods business."

Geo. W. and Jehial Read seems to have left the building by 1861, replaced by two apparel firms, George W. Nelson and T. S. Young & Co.  

In 1860 T. S. Young & Co. had hired a 17-year old boy, Edwards Tomlins.  The New York Times noted "he came highly recommended to his employers, and he soon exhibited such a marked talent for business, and was withal so apparently conscientious and honest, that his employers were induced to repose the most implicit confidence in him."  By the time the firm moved into No. 120 Chambers Street, Tomlins had been promoted to cashier--a highly responsible position--and was in charge of handling the company's books.

Tomlins earned only $300 a year--less than $8,000 in today's money.  And yet, according to The New York Times on December 24, 1862, "During the last four months, his employers and others noticed, with some surprise, that the young man was very extravagant in dress, and also in some other respects, but, strange as it may appear, they did not for a moment suspect that he was robbing their money-drawer."  The article said that, instead, they believed their "fast clerk" was living beyond his means, or that he had perhaps come into an inheritance.

Rather than arriving at work on a streetcar, Tomlins took a carriage to and from his boarding house every day.  "And yet such was the confidence with which this firm trusted young Tomlins that it never occurred to them to examine the cash-book or drawer, to see whether or not their confidence was misplaced."  As the year drew to a close, however, Tomlins knew that an audit of the books would be performed in January.  And the result would thrust him into "hopeless ruin."

On Morning morning, December 22, 1862 Tomlins--now 19-years-old--did not appear at breakfast at his boarding house.  When he had still not come down at 10:00, his landlady, Mrs. Archer, went up to check on him.  The New York Times reported, "The sight which then presented itself to her view caused her to start back and scream with fright.  On the floor of the room lay the apparently lifeless form of Tomlins, and beside him was a revolver."

When word of his death reached T. S. Young & Co. a cursory examination of the books was performed.  It was immediately apparent that more than $26,000 in today's money was missing "and it is believed that a more thorough investigation will reveal larger defalcations," said The New York Times.  Tomlins had taken care to use some of the stolen money to pay off his debts before ending his life.  His $462 tailor bill and $251 carriage bills had been paid--a total of $17,800 by today's standards.

A. R. Van Nest & Co. had been renamed J. Newton Van Ness & Co. when this photo was taken in 1885.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Like many other apparel firms, George W. Nelson sometimes gave work to contractors to be made off-site.  Unfinished garments would be passed off to a tailor to do the finish work.  It was an arrangement that profited Polish-born tailor John Harris and a garment retailer, Louis Johnson--at least for a while.  During the summer of 1865 Harris took work from various firms then sold them to Johnson, "telling that person, at the time of the sale, that they had been stolen," according to The New York Times on August 12.  Their scheme was doomed to failure, obviously, when the finished garments never showed up at the original factory.  When the pair was arrested George W. Nelson was out more than $3,000 in garments by today's standards.

While other firms came and went over the decades, A. R. Van Nest & Co., remained.  The Van Nest family was among the early settlers of New York City and the Van Nest mansion in Greenwich Village where Alexander had been born, was a landmark.  Interestingly the family name had been interchangeably spelled Van Nest and Van Ness for decades.

By the early 1880's the firm was renamed J. Newton Van Ness Co.  Despite the name, the principal of the firm was still Alexander T. Van Nest, who had taken over the firm from his father. 

Brooklyn Life, December 3, 1892 (copyright expired)

Ill health forced Alexander T. Van Nest to retired relatively young in the early 1890's.  This condition was complicated in the spring of 1896 by an attack of appendicitis.   On July 14, 1896 he and his wife sailed for Europe for a several-month stay.  The 52-year-old died in the small Prussian town of Langenschwalbach on August 10.

At the time the New-York Bottlers' Supply Company was on the third floor of No. 120, the Regal Lamp Shade Company occupied the fourth, and the top floor was shared by the Herbert Brush Co. and the Brenack Paper Company.  

Both small operations, the Herbert Brush Co. and the Brenack Paper Company employed just a handful of workers.  The brush firm's staff of four men worked 59 hours per week plus nine hours on Saturdays.  The Brenack Paper Company consisted of foreman Francis O'Brien and four young girls.

On the afternoon of March 3, 1896 O'Brien "turned around and saw tongues of fire licking the ceiling," as reported by The New York Times.  "He at once shouted 'Fire!' and to add to the general confusion, Bertha Reed of 37 Gwinnett Street, Brooklyn, fainted."  The three other girls carried her down the the stairs to the street.  "Further than this, there was no excitement," said the article.

A second alarm was called in and, according to The New York Times, "to this can be attributed the fact that the fire was so quickly put out."  Nevertheless, the building was flooded "from top to bottom."  

J. Newton Van Ness & Co. suffered $10,000 in water damage, nearly $315,000 today.  The other tenants' losses were less significant, the largest of which was about $2,000.

In 1906 J. Newton Van Ness received a satisfying contract to supply "horse equipments, harness and stable supplies" for the New York City Police Department.  The total amount would equal more than $100,000 today. 

That same year a recent rival firm, Bartley Bros. & Hall Co. moved into the building.  The National Harness Review explained that "owing to enormously increased business" the young firm was "compelled to seek larger quarters."  The journal described the company's offerings as "one of the most attractive stocks of imported saddlery to be found in this country."

The two competing firms co-existed for 12 years.  Then, in its April 1918 issue, Harness magazine reported "The old established harness business of the J. Newton Van Ness Co., at 120 Chambers Street, New York City, has gone out of business, the stock, good will, etc., having been purchased by Bartley Bros. & Hall."

By 1920 Topping Brothers, manufacturers and dealers in "heavy and marine hardware, shipbuilders', railroad and contractors' supplies," operated from the building.  In the meantime, Bartley Bros. & Hall
continued to gobble up well-established firms.  On January 22, 1923 Greater New York noted that the firm were the successors to "Veil Brothers, C. C. Bartley, C. M. Moseman and Brother and J. Newton Van Ness Company."  The firm had opened a London branch by now.

After having been a saddlery showroom since 1858, the ground floor was converted to the Chamberlain Restaurant around 1924.  It was the scene of a moving testimonial dinner on April 1, 1925.  John Paul Kottcamp was retiring as course supervisor of the Pratt Institute School of Mechanical Engineering.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "Two hundred of his former and present pupils attended."  He was presented with a silver gavel and a black leather traveling bag in appreciation for his years of service.

In 1927 architect Murray Klein was hired to design a replacement storefront.  The building continued to house small manufacturers until 1990 when it was converted to offices.

The Corinthian capitals of the pilasters have been sadly lost.  

That all changed in 1996 when a renovation resulted in sprawling apartments on the upper floors.  Murray Klein's 1927 storefront was markedly redesigned, however the Badger pilasters somehow survived along the sides.  

photographs by the author

Friday, March 5, 2021

The Ransom Parker House - 228 West 11th Street


Richard McCarty was a well-respected member of the community in 1838 when construction was completed on his fine brick-faced home at No. 24 Hammond Street.  He held the highly responsible position of Inspector of Flour for New York City and Kings County.  Highly involved in politics, in 1838 he was chairman of the Nominating Committee of the Democratic Republican General Meeting.

His new house was designed in the Greek Revival style.  The entrance was framed by the heavy pilasters and entablature expected in the popular style.  Unusual, however, was the treatment of the stoop.  Rather that using cast iron railings, the architect created stone wing walls that tumbled down in a series of volutes to create a sort of breaking wave effect.

As was common, a smaller house for income purposes sat in the rear yard.

Around 1853 the house became home to Ransom Parker who had founded the Washington Ice Company in 1851.  Born in Brookfield, New York in 1816, he came to New York City in 1833.  He was involved in the spring water business before turning to ice.

Parker dabbled in real estate as well, as evidenced in his advertisement in the New York Herald on November 18, 1856:

To Let--A part of a rear house, very pleasantly situated, 24 Hammond street, near Waverley place.  Also, the third floor of 189 West Fifteenth street, near Eighth avenue, for shop purposes.  For further particulars inquire of R. Parker, on the premises.

Parker's first wife, Mary Dix, had died in 1849.  The couple had had six children, Maria Louisa, Ransom, Jr., Mary Elizabeth, Joseph Edward, Sarah Jane and Priscilla.  When they moved into the Hammond Street house Maria Louisa was in her teens and Priscilla was around 7-years old.  By then Parker had married the former Jane Elizabeth Pennington.  

The tenants in the rear house were working class.  In 1857 they included Henry E. Beers, a driver; Benjamin F. Cloud who worked as a painter and volunteered at the Howard Engine Company No. 34 on Christopher Street; and Dewitt C. Clark who listed his profession as inspector.

The drawing room of the Parker house was the scene of Mary Elizabeth's wedding on June 4, 1862.  The 20-year-old was married to Walter A. Place, who was 21.

By 1863 Ransom, Jr. had joined his father's business.  The following year Hammond Street was renamed and the house received the new address of No. 228 West 11th Street.  

In 1867 Sarah Bramson, a widow, listed her address here.  It is unclear whether she rented part of the rear house, or was a boarder with the family.  Three years later her son, Gustave, joined her.  He was in the insurance business at No. 325 Broadway.  They would remain through 1873.

As the population of No. 228 West 11th Street diminished through marriages, it is clear that Ransom and Jane did take in at least one boarder in the main house.  On April 13, 1872 an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald that read:

To Let--A nicely furnished large sized front Room, to a single gentleman, in private house 228 West Eleventh street, at moderate terms.

Frank H. Rollins, a banker at No. 21 Wall Street boarded with the Parkers in 1876 and '77.  He was followed by Mary Vanorden in 1878.  Mary's husband, John H. Vanorder, had operated a coal business on Seventh Avenue.  Now the self-reliant Mary took over the operation.  She remained in the house through 1880.

Ransom Parker's ice business was about five blocks away, on West 11th Street and West Street.  He seems to have done something to offend a member of the Board of Aldermen in 1882.  On June 5 the Board passed a resolution allowing him to "erect a platform scale for weighing ice" there.  But only a week later that resolution was "hereby annulled, rescinded and repealed."

Dr. George H. Elliott and his wife appear to have occupied the rear house by 1892.  Its location adjacent to the rear yard of No. 29 Perry Street made Joseph William's boisterous singing quite audible.  Now a carpenter, Williams was an Englishman who had formerly been a sailor.  At sea, according to The Evening World, he "developed a fog-horn voice, that when occasion requires will pierce the porous tissue of a 2-inch plank."

The article said, "For nearly a year Williams had made it his unfailing practice to arise at about 1 o'clock in the morning, and from that time until 4 desecrate the ordinary silence of the night with such melodies as 'Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep,' 'The Bell Buoy' and Longfellow's 'Arrow and the Song.'"

On July 14, 1893 Dr. Williams had had enough.  The Evening World reported "Williams's vocal pyrotechnics were particularly annoying to Dr. Elliott, of 228 West Eleventh street, directly in the rear of Williams's house."  The doctor gathered a group of neighbors who went to Jefferson Market Court.  That night Detective Foley and Farrell "arrested both man and voice."  In court Williams seemed surprised that he had annoyed his neighbors.  The judge told him he could sing during the daytime, but since Williams enjoyed his 1:00 a.m. performances, he said "he would take a rowboat and go down the bay."

Dr. Elliott was called to the house of Jacob Roberson later that year.  Around the time of the singing incident Roberson had lost his job as a truck driver.  The New York Times reported that after that, "the support of the family devolved upon a younger son, who earned $3 a week."  Another son, four-year old Arthur, had survived spinal meningitis which left him disabled.  With barely any income, the family took Arthur to the asylum on Randall's Island for temporary care.  The New York Times said "the little boy was placed in Ward D of the pavilion for idiotic children."

His mother was shocked when she visited on August 23.  The boy was tied to a chair and "had wasted away terribly."  She later told the courts "I found that Arthur was bruised all over his body.  His hands, arms, and back were black and blue and ab out his ankles were the ropes with which he had been tied, that had cut deep in the flesh."  She brought the boy home and called Dr. Elliott.

He testified, "I have seldom seen such a case of inhuman treatment...I should say he had received heavy blows.  Then, too, he had evidently been kept out in the burning sun for hours during that hottest spell in August, for his skin was browned more than an Indian's."

A relative, real estate and insurance agent Isaac A. Cochran, lived with the Parkers by 1895.  The 30-year old had recently broken off his relationship with Bessie Fairbanks, with whom he had been living for three years.  The Sun described her as "20 years old and a rather good-looking blonde."

Bessie, understandably, expected that the two would be married.  But instead Cochran "abandoned her" and moved in with the Parkers.  She was convinced he had gone to live with another woman.  On the evening of March 6 they met at Henry Zimmer's saloon at Third Avenue and 67th Street, presumably to talk things out.  They took a small table in the wine room at the back of the saloon.  The bartender, Hiram Ellenhauser, had just served them and was heading out when the unthinkable happened.

"He had got half way through the archway which separates the wine room from the barroom when he heard three shots fired in quick succession," reported The Sun.  Without turning to see what had happened, Ellenhauser ran out the front door and found two policemen.  They returned to find Cochran "leaning on a table with his right hand.  The left hand he held to his forehead, from which blood was spurting."  Bessie had emptied all five chambers of her revolver, two of the bullets entering his head.

Bessie was arrested.  "She was hysterical and had to be almost carried to the Station," reported The New York Times.  It added that Cochran "was removed to the Presbyterian Hospital in a dying condition."

When Bessie calmed down, she identified herself as Cochran's common-law wife, said he "refused to provide for her, and had treated her brutally."  In the wine room she had again asked for financial help.  When he refused it was too much for her to handle.  The New York Times noted "It was subsequently learned that he lived at 228 West Eleventh Street with his relatives, supposedly, and a telegram was sent there to notify them of the shooting."

Three days after the incident The Evening World reported that Bessie "seemed much depressed to-day.  She told Justice Deuel that Cochran had ruined her life.  She said that she shot him because it was the only way she could get revenge."

Dr. George Elliott was still living in the rear house on December 19, 1900 when he died at his father's home in Manchester, New Hampshire.  The New-York Tribune pointed out that he had practiced medicine in the Greenwich Village neighborhood for two decades.

Having lived in the West 11th Street house for half a century, Ransom Parker died there on November 17, 1903.  He was 87-years old.  By the time of his death his entire immediate family, other than Mary Elizabeth and Priscilla, had died.

By the Depression years No. 228 was being operated as a rooming house.  Warren Hilleary, who lived here in 1930, was  secretary of the United State Department of Labor's Committee on Safety Code for Woodworking Machinery and was a member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.  Earl Silverston rented a room from at least 1936 through 1940 and was closely watched by the Senate's Special Committee on Un-American Activities as he routinely voted for the Communist Party candidate.

The Government watched another tenant, William Allen Van Der Roest at mid-century.  He was a veteran of the International Brigades, a group of military units which had been set up by the Communist International to assist the Popular Front during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 through 1938.

A renovation to No. 228 West 11th Street completed in 1985 resulted in a two-family dwelling, a basement apartment and a triplex.  Outwardly the nearly 185-year old residence is remarkably unchanged since Richard McCarty and his family moved in in 1838.

photographs by the author

Thursday, March 4, 2021

The 1892 Banner Building - 648 Broadway


Peter Banner was a clothing merchant in San Francisco before relocating to New York City around 1885.  He started out in the same business here before going into the "hides and wool" business as a commission merchant.  As his fortune grew, he branched out into real estate, forming the Vailima Realty Company.

When Banner first arrived in the city the St. Charles Hotel had stood at No. 648 Broadway, just north of Bond Street, for years.  It was owned by the Jones family, whose former mansion at No. 2 Bond Street, just around the corner, was erected in 1829 when the neighborhood was filling with the opulent homes of the city's wealthy.

But this stretch of Broadway had become commercial by now.  On October 11, 1890 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the "Honorable S. Jones" had sold "the seven-story brick hotel" for $200,000--or about $5.8 million in today's money.  

Banner hired the architectural firm of Cleverdon & Putzel to design a modern replacement structure on the site.  Demolition of the old hotel began on February 16, 1891.  The Record & Guide reported the site would be "improved" by an "eight-story brick and iron store and loft building" to cost $185,000.  (That increased Banner's overall outlay to $11.2 million today.)

The 30-foot wide structure was to be fully fireproof, with stone and iron staircases.  It would have all the latest technology, as well.  "Two elevators, one each for passengers and freight, steam heat, pneumatic bells, electric light and every modern convenience, have been considered and provided for to make this building complete in all respects," said the Guide.

Banner named his new building, completed in 1892, after himself--The Banner Building.  The architects had produced a striking cast iron and brick structure designed in a commercial take on the Renaissance Revival style.  The stately entrance to the upper floors, to the side of the storefront, was recessed behind fluted engaged columns and was accentuated by a large and elegant leaded fan light.  The segmental arched transoms above the grouped windows of the second floor distinguished them from less remarkable openings above.  Each of the sections was defined by an intermediate, cast iron cornice.

Peter Banner moved his offices into the new building, which filled with apparel manufacturers.  Among the early tenants were Charles M. Levy & Co., makers of boys' clothing; Schiff & Co., importers of millinery; the "overcoatings and suitings" merchant Harris Samilson; Gross & Wise, which dealt in "dress and tailors' silk and sleeve linings;" children's apparel makers Japhe Bros.; and Lipman & Hackes, clothiers.

Lipman & Hackes was operated by M. B. Lipman and Henry Hackes.  The latter's financial success was reflected in his comfortable home on East 64th Street, not far from Central Park.  He became ill in 1896 and his conditioned worsened to the point in August that he could no longer to go work.  Yet after three months of being confined at home, Hackes told his wife, Nellie, he was going to the "shop" on November 26.  

Instead, he walked to the summer house in Central Park near 79th Street.   As he entered, he spoke passingly to the custodian, Patrick Burns, about the weather.  Burns had no sooner walked out than he heard a gunshot.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported "Burns pushed open the door and saw what had occurred and called in [a] policeman."

Hackes had pulled out his small handgun--the type gentlemen often carried for personal protection--and shot himself in the temple.  The article said "The revolver used by the suicide was a 32 caliber vest pocket affair, the barrel of which was only half an inch long."  When Officer William Sweeney got to the scene, Hackes was still alive and he was taken to Presbyterian Hospital.  But before his wife could get there, he died.  In his pocket were a letter addressed to his partner, and a check made out to his wife.

His building was successful enough that in 1898 Peter Banner hired architect Robert T. Lyons to add two more stories.  While he laudably attempted to carry on Cleverdon & Putzel's original design, the new proportions could not disguise the fact that the upper portion is an afterthought.  

Lyons attempted, somewhat successfully, to meld the addition with the original design.  The cornice was initially crowned by ornate cresting.

Banner targeted the apparel industry in his advertisements.  And it worked.  In 1899 his tenants included Goldberg, Solomon & Co. (deemed by themselves "The Overcoat Kings"); Cohen & Levy, clothing makers; The National Neckwear Company; and Harris Samilson.

The Clothiers' and Haberdashers' Weekly, December 15, 1899 (copyright expired)

It looked for a time in 1906 that Peter Banner might lose not only the Banner Building, where he still maintained his offices, but other properties like the opulent St. Urban apartment building at No. 285 Central Park West.   At the end of February that year he became ill and was bed-ridden.   Despite the fact that, according to The New York Times on March 18, "In December last he was reputed to be worth $1,000,0000 clear" (nearly 30 times that much today), his creditors panicked.

The newspaper explained, "Mr. Banner has been ill for three weeks, and some of the material men among the creditors heard that he had a stroke of apoplexy three weeks ago.  Payments on the work had been made up to the time he was stricken."  Creditors filed claims totaling $450,000 against his estate.  Banner recovered, resumed payment of his contracts, and things returned to normal.

At the time, the ground floor store was home to the Knickerbocker Drugstore.  It installed a novel addition around 1905, the Cranitonic Hair Clinic.  Here customers could buy a bottle of Cranitonic Hair Food, touted as "The only real microbicide among hair preparations, and therefore, the only preventer of baldness and destroyer of dandruff."  The could also undergo a "microscopic examination of your hair" in the clinic for free.  One presumes that the examinations most often resulted in the recommendation of Cranitonic Hair Food.

The Evening World, January 18, 1905 (copyright expired)

Among the tenants in 1909 were Henry B. Loewenstein and Sol Solomon, both men's accessories merchants.  Their insurance companies became understandably suspicious when, as reported by The Indicator on August 5, "twelve burglaries had been reported recently from the building at 648 Broadway."  One of the latest had occurred on July 2 when Henry B. Loewenstein told police that his showroom had been broken into and "that $7,000 worth of kid and silk gloves had been stolen."  When detectives searched the premises, they found a checkbook with a stub made out to M. Trotsky, "a person well known to them, and in the Rogues' Gallery as a professional burglar."

Rather than question Loewenstein about the payment and tip their hand, they tracked his movements.  The Indicator reported "They soon found that he was very chummy with a man named Sol Solomon, who had a business on the same floor at 648 Broadway."  And so undercover detectives began shadowing him, as well.  During the last week of September Solomon sent an expressman with a load of silk and kid gloves to a Lafayette Street saloon.  Before he could file a police report on the "burglary," he was arrested, along with the wagon driver.  Both Solomon and Loewenstein were charged with "burglary insurance swindle."

In 1910 the former Knickerbocker Drugstore became one of the city's first cafeterias, the Capitol Lunch.  It was an innovative idea aimed at office workers. There were no waiters (reducing the cost of a lunch).  Customers purchased their meals at a counter.  They then took their trays to "one arm" chairs lined up along the wall.  There were no tables; instead customers ate at what was similar to turn-of-the-century school desks.

The interior of the Capitol Lunch would have looked much like this one.  original source unknown.

Peter Banner retained ownership of No. 648 Broadway until 1916.  On April 16 that year The New York Times reported on an "interesting mid-Broadway deal."  It was the "purchased by Duke de Moro of Essex, England, of the ten-story commercial building at 648 Broadway."

The building was the scene of a terrifying and fatal incident on May 6, 1921 when an elevator plummeted five stories, killing two passengers.  The 26-year old operator, Harold Jackson, was arrested on homicide charges.  Fortunately for him, he was freed on May 27.

No. 648 Broadway continued to house apparel and millinery firms throughout the first half of the 20th century.  In 1928 the millinery firms of Teitler Bros. and the Biltmore Hat Company operated here, for instance.  A more surprising tenant came in 1929 when the office of the American Association of Plumbers Helpers moved in.

Mid-century saw a new type of tenant in the building as the garment district moved northward.  The end of World War II sparked the emergence of Army-Navy stores across the nation which sold off military surplus.  In 1950 Drucker Surplus Co., Inc. was in the building, offering Army mackinaws for $4.99 and regulation "50% wool shirt and drawers" for $.98 each.   A pair of chino work pants could be had for $1.99--about $20 today.

Drucker Surplus was replaced in the early 1960's by Jay-Man, which described itself as "New York's first and only office equipment Supermarket."  By then a renaissance of sorts was overtaking the Broadway neighborhood.  By 1977 the off-off-Broadway theater Relativity Media Lab was here; and in 1980 the nightclub Isaiah's opened.  On July 3 that year The Villager noted that the $5 cover charge on Fridays "includes Reggae dancing all night."

In the meantime, several of the former lofts and offices upstairs were being used by artists and others as residential spaces--under the radar of city buildings officials.  

In 1981 the Jazz Forum opened.  The featured acts were routinely covered by The New York Times, which reported on April 4, 1982, "The tap choreographer Gail Conrad will present 'tap-dance shorts' for herself and her six dancers and five musicians at the Jazz Forum."

Upstairs was The Gay and Lesbian Switchboard, an all-volunteer "counseling, referral and information service for gay people and those interested in gay people."  Founded in 1972 and supported solely by donations, it was staffed from noon to midnight.  The telephone operators answered 30,000 questions a year from people want to to "talk about everything from the suicide of a gay friend to where to find a gay dentist," according to Douglas Martin's article in The New York Times on May 2, 1990.

The Village Independent Democrats moved its offices into the building in November 1992 after having been just off Sheridan Square for three decades.  

In June 1995 the president and treasure of The Gay and Lesbian Switchboard stepped down after six years service.  An acting treasurer briefly took his spot.  When the permanent treasurer, who was selected within a few months, contacted the bank he was shocked to find a balance of $69.  It seemed that the acting treasurer had absconded with the group's $14,000 operating funds and surplus reserves.

With the threat of shutting down looming, the rent three months in arrears and the telephone company unpaid, president Raymond Wadkins wrote to donors on September 23, "After 23 scandal-free years of serving our community, the switchboard is in real danger of closing."  Within a week $11,000 was received, allowing the service to continue.

From the mid-1990's to around 2007 the ground floor was home to F.A.T. Jeans & Shoes, affiliated with the Yellow Rat Bastard, the flagship store of which was further south on Broadway in Soho.  

A renovation to the building completed in 2015 resulted in offices throughout and a carefully restored façade.  Unfortunately the iron cresting above the cornice was removed sometime before 1938. But other than that and the expected replacement windows, the Banner Building appears nearly unchanged since 1899 Robert T. Lyons added the two upper floors.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Rich Gombar for suggesting this post

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

A Contemporary Speakeasy in the Village - 22 Seventh Avenue South


In 1889 William J. Rauch paid $26,500, or about $760,000 in today's money, for the five-story brick apartment house at No. 58 Leroy Street.  There was a store on the ground floor for additional income.  At the time the building sat in the middle of the long block between Bedford and Hudson Streets (Leroy Street changed names at the bend, just west of Rauch's building, to St. Luke's Place.)

But major change would arrive in the neighborhood prior to World War I.  Around 1904 real estate agent Charles C. Hickok began lobbying to have Seventh Avenue, which began at 11th Street, extended south to Varick Street.  Years of pressure paid off an in 1913 the extension began in concert with the construction of the Seventh Avenue subway.  Scores of buildings, including the historic 1840 Bedford Street Methodist Church, were demolished.  

When the project was completed in 1917 a series of triangular plots were left at the intersections of the new avenue and the old, diagonally-running Greenwich Village streets.  A solution was found with the rapidly growing trend to replace horses with automobiles.  A number of gasoline stations were erected on the otherwise nearly unusable sites.

On what was left of the site of Rauch's brick apartment building a tiny gasoline station was erected.  Below the modest building was a large masonry vault to accommodate the gas tanks.

The construction project focused more on the heavy vaults below ground than the shanty-like gas station itself. via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

In 1964 the service station was removed to be replaced by a nondescript white brick building three stories tall.  There was one apartment each on the second and third floors.  The plans called for an "eating and drinking establishment" in the cellar and first floor. The architects did not aspire to greatness in the design and saved their client's money by foregoing custom bricks to create clean corners for the angled footprint.  The result was a zipper-like appearance.  The problem of the sharp corner was resolved by a one-story extension that provides outdoor space to the second floor apartment.  Numbered 22 Seventh Avenue South, it also provided entrance to the downstairs club.

It is unclear how much of the old masonry vault was preserved and what was rebuilt; but the subterranean atmosphere was perfect for an intimate, arcane club.  

In 1974 Roswell Rudd opened a "jazz room," with the unexpected name of the St. James Infirmary.  The New York Times columnist John S. Wilson described it on December 4 that year as a "small, low-ceiling, informal basement room" and a "permanent, nightly home for the fascinating mixture of growls, shouts, mutterings and explosions that make up [Rudd's] highly expressive style."

Despite its favorable reviews, the club was gone within a year.  On November 26, 1975 Michael Gross, writing in The New York Times, mentioned the Milk Bar, "the town's most-whispered-about new watering hole."  In his 2016 book New York Rock, Steven Blush recalled that in the 1980's Milk Bar "hosted great late-night depravity."

It survived until 1993, replaced by Le Vingt-Deux, the club that would give the below-ground space its mystery.   In its June 28, 1993 issue, New York magazine wrote, "A beefy bouncer, eyebrows arched, peers through a porthole and selects the clientele.  The worthy proceed down dimly lighted stairs, then onto the main floor.  A brass bar dominates it, and the whole place shimmers with candlelight."  The speak-easy atmosphere was embraced by patrons.  There was no sign on the door, only brass street numbers.

The bouncer sized up prospective patrons through the peephole.  photo by Andy Levin, New York magazine June 28, 1993

Like St. James Infirmary, Le Vigne-Deux would be short-lived.  It was replaced within the year by the Tribal Lounge, which was replaced as quickly by the Nowbar, opened by former child actor Mason Reese.  His doorman named Keith told New York magazine in September 1995, "It's like, you gotta be ready to drink, ready to take stuff off, and able to look good doing it."  The magazine described the space as "a subterranean heaven for budding playboys and super-vixens."

Reese, who lived nearby, got into a bit of trouble in 1996.  On April 10 The New York Times journalist Alex Witchel explained, "Inviting Joey Buttafuoco to Nowbar has resulted in Mr. Reese's being summoned to appear before the State Liquor Authority because Mr. Buttafuoco, an ex-convict, was photographed mixing drinks.  (Ex-convicts are not legally allowed to serve liquor.)"  It was merely a publicity stunt and Buttafuoco never served any drinks, but that would have to be straightened out with authorities.

Sasha Petreaske opened Little Branch in the space in 2005.  He continued the Prohibition Era style allure of the below ground space.  Seth Kugel of The New York Times called it on April 13, 2008 "a faux speakeasy that in this case is identified with nothing more than a subtle plaque affixed to the door."

Once partially filled with gas tanks, the space is a below ground refuge today.  photo by Erinn Springer, New York magazine 

New York magazine more recently wrote, "The bartenders wear suspenders and many of the old speakeasy rules still apply (no talking loudly or misbehaving) at this kind gentle permutation of a speakeasy from the late hallowed drinkslinger Sasha Petraske."

Little Branch preserves the Prohibition Era speakeasy tradition created by Le Vingt-Deux.  There is no signage, a doorman still evaluates the potential patrons, a heavy curtain obscures the staircase leading downward, and the garter-sleeved bartenders are straight from the 1920's.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Lynn Ireland for suggesting this post

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The 1893 George H. Studwell House - 129 West 80th Street


Real estate developers Giblin & Taylor embarked on an ambitious project in 1892--the construction of eleven 21-foot wide rowhouses on the south side of West 80th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.  Designed by the firm of Neville & Bagge, the residences were completed the following year.  Each was four stories tall above an English basement.

Like its neighbors, No. 129 was a blend of the Renaissance Revival and Romanesque Revival styles.  A dog-legged stoop led to the parlor level where double entrance doors sat below a generous fanlight.  Faced in undressed stone, the beefy Romanesque elements of this level briefly relented to Renaissance Revival with a delicately carved panel below the window.

The wistful face of a girl, quite possibly the anonymous relative of the carver, appears hauntingly within the parlor floor panel.

The two-story central section was faced in beige Roman brick and trimmed in brownstone.  A three-sided oriel dominated the second floor.  Projecting piers clung to the third floor.  The fourth floor took the form of a slate-shingled mansard, its stately dormer mimicked a Grecian temple, complete with akroteria on the corners of the pediment.

Giblin & Taylor sold the house to George Hanford Studwell in 1893 for $37,000--just over $1 million in today's money.  He and his wife, the former Susan Wyckoff, had a grown daughter, Ella (another daughter, Harriet, had died as a toddler).  Studwell was a partner in the leather firm of Studwell & Sanger with Ella's husband, Eugene B. Sanger.  George and Susan shared No. 129 with the Sangers--Ella, Eugene, and their daughter, Emma.

The underside of the oriel is lavishly carved with a stylized plant snaking from a flower pot.

The Sangers maintained two country estates, one in Bridgehampton, Long Island, and the other, Broad Lawns, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  But their enviable lifestyle was about to crumble.

For years Studwell had administered the estate of Joseph Studwell, Jr., who had died on January 30, 1864.  The will stipulated that he paid interest on the income of a large trust each year to Joseph's widow, Matilda, and daughter, Jennie--each to receive half.  Upon the death of Matilda, Jennie was to inherit the entire estate.

In 1894, the year after Studwell purchased the West 80th Street house, Studwell & Sanger declared bankruptcy.  While Eugene Sanger changed course and became a real estate broker, Studwell retired.  Apparently to keep up appearances, he began skimming money from the estate.  Then, upon Matilda's death, he could no longer hide his embezzlement and fled to Florida to escape arrest.

But when Susan died on October 10, 1898, George was forced to return for her funeral.  On November 26 The New York Press reported on his arrest for having "converted for his own use" equivalent of nearly $2 million in today's money.  "Studwell denied that he had misused the money entrusted to him, and said that he had given the $60,000 to an attorney to invest and had never been able to get an accounting from the lawyer."  Strangely, however, he could not provide that lawyer's name nor explain why he had left the state.

The title to No. 129 had been transferred to Ella, thus saving it from seizure.  Eugene Sanger's real estate business was successful enough for the couple to maintain the West 80th Street house as well as a country place in Larchmont, New York.  The family was in Larchmont during the summer of 1900 when, early on the morning of August 29, according to The New York Press, Ella heard the sound of a pistol shot.  She "awakened the other members of the household" who found George Studwell "lying on his bed with a bullet wound in his temple."  The 79-year old "had been despondent" since his wife's death, said the article.  Saying that he was "at one time a wealthy leather dealer," it diplomatically did not mention the embezzlement.

The following year Ella sold No. 129.  It became home to Caroline Littlefield Duncan, the widow of John Meston Duncan, and her daughter, Mabel Harrison Duncan.  The women's names appeared often in the society columns.  On October 25, 1903, for instance, the New York Herald reported that they had "returned from their summer outing in the White Mountains" and that "Mrs. Duncan contemplates resuming her series of winter whist meetings at the Waldorf-Astoria this season."

Caroline Littlefield Duncan (original source unknown)

The women spent the following summer season in Europe, extending their stay into November.  They returned in time for Caroline's annual series of whist parties in the Waldorf-Astoria.  On February 19, 1905 the New York Herald announced the date of the fourth in that season's series, noting "At three previous meetings the attendance has each time exceeded one hundred women, and the success of former years is being equalled [sic] this season."

Mabel Harrison Duncan was an accomplished artist and would go on to hold positions as instructor and lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

Mabel Harrison Duncan's Still Life With Flowers in a Bowl.  image via

By 1909 the Duncans had left West 80th Street and the house was being operated as a high-end boarding house.  Among the residents that year were Geraldine Beardsley whose Boston terrier, Beardsley Boy, was registered with the American Kennel Club; and Thomas E. Adams who was affluent enough to afford an automobile.  It got him in trouble in Staten Island in August 1910 when he was fined $20 for speeding (a significant $555 in today's money).

John DiCasse Edmond, his wife the former Dollie Schultz, and their two daughters Laverne and Juliet took rooms in February 1911.  The family had spent ten years in Europe where Edmond was a foreign representative of a hardware company.   Soon after moving in, on February 23, Edmond resigned.  The Norwich Bulletin explained, "He was thought to be tired out from overwork."  Tragically, the following morning the 48-year old shot himself in the head.

No. 129 was offered for sale in February 1916.  It was returned to a private house when it was purchased by Dr. Gustavus Aldridge Humphreys and his wife, the former Blanche Bibb.  The couple had a son, G. Aldridge Humphreys, Jr., and a daughter, Barlow.

The focus of entertainments in the Humphreys house turned to Barlow during the winter season of 1927-28.  In an article entitled "Parties Continue To Be Arranged for Debutantes" on October 18, The New York Sun reported "Mrs. Gustavus A. Humphreys of 129 West Eightieth street will give a luncheon on December 27 for her daughter, Miss Barlow Humphreys."

Barlow appeared prominently in the society pages in November 1929.  The New York Times ran the headline "Miss Barlow Humphrey's Ceremony Is to Be Held on Tuesday in St. Thomas's" and began the article with "One of the notable weddings of this week will be that of Miss Barlow Humphreys, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Gustavus Humpreys, to William Sticking Gould Jr."   

The noted the bride's impressive pedigree, saying, "Miss Humphreys belongs to families that have been prominent in the history of the South.  She is related to the Humphreys of Virginia and the Aldridges of South Carolina.   Through her mother she is descended from the Bibb family that gave two Governors to Alabama...Miss Humphreys is also related to George M. Bibb of Kentucky who succeeded Henry Clay in the Senate and later was Secretary of the Treasury in the administration of President Tyler."

Clumps of Romanesque style carvings decorate the stoop walls.

Three months after the wedding, on February 10, 1930, Dr. Humphreys died in the West 80th Street house at the age of 63.  The Shreveport Journal noted, "He has been in poor health for the past year."

Blanche remained in the house with her son.  She continued to busy herself with social activities, including being president of the Society of Kentucky Women.  Gustavus, who was known as G. Aldrich, had graduated from Princeton University in 1927 and followed his father's profession.  He graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1932.   He was a resident in urological surgery with the New York Hospital when his engagement to Frances Osborne Bryan was announced on October 30, 1936.

The end of the line for No. 129 as a private home came in 1943 when a renovation resulted in a mixture of apartments and furnished rooms.  Following a subsequent remodeling completed in 1981 there was just one cooperative apartment per floor.

The top floor co-op became home to actress and comedian Amy Schumer in 2014.   She listed it the following year for just over $2 million.

photographs by the author

Monday, March 1, 2021

The Lost Charles Osborn Mansion - 585 Fifth Avenue


The Osborn house is in the middle of the photograph.  from Collin's Both Sides of Fifth Avenue, 1910 (copyright expired)

Born on December 18, 1839, Charles J. Osborn had started his career in the leather industry before entering Wall Street during the Civil War.  He attracted the attention of millionaires Jay Gould and James Fisk, Jr. and eventually handled almost all of Gould's transactions.  By the time he and his wife, the former Miriam Adelaide Trowbridge, began looking for the site of their new home in 1875 he had accumulated a significant fortune as the senior member of the brokerage firm C. J. Osborn & Co.

They chose a mid-block parcel on the east side of Fifth Avenue between 47th and 48th Street.  The increasingly fashionable neighborhood was reflected in the sale price--about $1.7 million today.  Construction on the residence was completed in 1878. 

Four stories tall above an English basement, it was a mixture of the Renaissance Revival and emerging neo-Grec styles.  Triangular pediments graced the openings of the parlor level, and the upper floor windows wore prominent molded lintels.  And angled bay above the entrance provided a picturesque balcony at the third floor.

Charles and Miriam had one son, Howell, who was 19-years old when the family moved in.  He was already employed, working as a clerk (presumably in his father's firm), in 1879.

Families of significant wealth required a country seat, as well.  On July 28, 1883 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported "Charles J. Osborn, of Stock Exchange renown, is about to have erected a splendid summer residence at Mamaroneck, N. Y."   The journal noted, "A country house implies a more deliberate intent and more definite plans for enjoyment than a town house, which is, in a way, a thing of necessity.  For one thing, it is associated more closely with the season of a man's leisure.  Leisure to men like Mr. Osborn--and, in fact, to most Americans--has a modified meaning, and wealth enables them to adjust it to suitable conditions."

Osborn had hired McKim, Mead & White to design the sumptuous residence who announced it "will be three stories in height, and contain three stone towers, as well as a piazza on the ocean side overlooking a fine stretch of scenery."

The site on the Long Island Sound would be convenient for Osborn's favorite pastime, yachting.  The New York Times pointed out "He is a devoted yachtsman and is the owner of the Dreadnaught, which was built by Capt. Samuels for Mr. a. B. Stockwell."  

Osborn never got to enjoy his magnificent summer estate.  A Monograph of the Work of McKim, Mead & White, 1879-1915, (copyright expired)

The "season of a man's leisure" was about to become permanent for Osborn.  Despite his relative youth, his health was not good.  On April 2, 1884 The New York Times reported "Mr. Osborn resigned his position as a member of the Governing Committee of the Stock Exchange about two weeks ago, and his withdrawal from the firm of C. J. Osborn & Co., of which he is a special partner, will take effect May 1."

The article explained that Osborn "has been one of the busiest men in Wall-street...His retirement from active business is said to be chiefly due to his desire for rest and relaxation.  The state of his health, some of his friends assert, necessitates his taking this step."

Sadly, he would not live to see his magnificent summer estate completed.  He died in the Fifth Avenue mansion on November 11, 1885.  In a rather accusatory obituary, the South Dakota newspaper, The Warner Sun, wrote:

Charles J. Osborn, a noted New York broker--46 years old and worth $5,000,000 died recently from disease caused by continuous mental excitement, accompanied by a luxurious method of life, with wine and stimulating food to maintain the system under the exhausting drafts on its resources and vitality.  All his mature years were spent in the midst of the riot and excitement of Wall street speculation.  He was wonderfully lucky, but gnawing and lacerating anxieties must have preyed upon his mind; the alternate periods of depression and exaltation in his hopes, his fears and his fortunes, his constant torture on the rack of expectation, wore out his life and dragged him to a premature grave.

The Record & Guide commented on November 18, "The [country] house of Mr. Charles J. Osborn was scarcely ready for his acceptance when his death occurred.  Mr. Osborn was a man young enough to have been exempt from the fact that is said to attend men who build for themselves new homes and prepare to enjoy them."  His body was interred in the magnificent McKim, Mean & White designed Osborn mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery.

No. 585 Fifth Avenue quickly became home to U. S. Army Captain Warren C. Beach and his wife, the former Julia Norrie.  The couple had been married just two years earlier, in 1883.  

Beach had graduated from West Point in June 1865--just weeks after the end of the Civil War.  In 1886, months after moving into their new home, Beach resigned from military duty.

Warren and Julia gave glittering entertainments, their names appearing in society columns for dinners and theater parties.  Unlike many other millionaires, the Beaches preferred fashionable resort hotels to a private summer estate.  On June 20, 1896, for instance, the Troy, New York newspaper the Daily Times reported on their arrival in Saratoga.  "Captain Warren C. Beach and wife...arrived at the United States [hotel] last evening."  The article noted that Beach "is one of the old Saratoga visitors."

While they were away that summer the Beaches had interior renovations done to the Fifth Avenue house.  

Warren and Julia maintained another home in Washington D.C. where they spent time during the winter season.  On January 24, 1904, for instance, The Sun noted "Capt. and Mrs. Warren C. Beach will close their house at 585 Fifth avenue early in February and occupy for a time their establishment at 1811 H street, Washington, D.C."  And on February 25, 1906 the same newspaper reported, "Captain and Mrs. Warren C. Beach, who as usual have given a succession of elaborate dinners this winter, will go to their house in Washington on Thursday."

Beach suffered a serious scare on June 4, 1918.  The 65-year old was riding in his carriage in Central Park when one of the horses stumbled and, according to the New York Herald, "the subsequent jolt threw him out."  The coachman lost control of the frightened horses and the carriage dashed out of control up the West Drive, leaving Beach on the pavement with lacerations to the scalp and a concussion.

Julia died on August 19, 1921 at the age of 82.  Warren lived on in the house, continuing his social regimen alone.  The New York Herald remarked "For years Capt. Beach had a box at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday nights, and at other performance he was rarely absent from his place in the club box.  It was his custom to provide himself with a cluster of red carnations which he always threw to the prima donna of the performance."

Beach attended the opera on January 13, 1922.  The following morning his body was found in the vestibule of the Fifth Avenue mansion.  The New York Herald reported "Capt. Beach had attended the performance of 'Ernani' at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night and evidently, according to his custom, had walked home.  It was known to members of his family that he had a weak heart and he often had been cautioned not to exert himself."

Less than three months later his estate sold the mansion.  On April 8, 1922 The Record & Guide reported on the transaction, adding, "It is one of the few private houses remaining on the avenue south of 48th st."   It did not take long to demolish the old residence and on June 11, 1923 The Sun reported that a six-story building for Thomas Cook & Son was in the course of construction on the site.

The Peck Building (center), which replaced the Osborn-Beach house, survives.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York