Thursday, March 3, 2011

Two Federal Survivors -- Nos. 190 and 192 Grand Street

photo by Alice Lum
When the wealthy Stephen Van Rensselaer constructed the row of handsome brick Federal-style residences on Grand Street between Mulberry and Mott street between 1832 and 1834, the area was populated by affluent merchant-class citizens. Built as investment properties, the row included Nos. 190 and 192 Grand Street.

Three bays wide they featured Flemish bond brickwork, molded brownstone lintels and elegant dormers with segmental-arched windows. The parlor floors would have been accessed by brownstone stoops, about four or five steps high, with wrought iron railings.

Merchant seamen Philip and Williams Engs, father and son, leased No. 190 while running their business on Front Street. Originally from Newport, Rhode Island, they remained here until around 1850 when they followed the uptown migration of the well-to-do residents; the Engs moving to 14th Street.

In accordance with the changes in the neighborhood, a millinery shop soon occupied the first floor and by the time of the Civil War the upper floors were divided into a rooming house. In 1869 it housed a crockery store.

The house was a “lodging house for men” when Lila Kelsey took over the upper portion in 1876 with hopes of continuing the successful business. She became distressed and worried when several of the roomers left within a few days of her taking over. Her financial worries, coupled with the recent suicide of her father six months earlier were too much. On May 7, when she did not answer the housekeeper’s raps at her door, a policeman was called who found Kelsey had taken a razor to her throat.

It was here in 1890 that Edward Strodel ran his musical instrument shop. By now the brownstone stoop had been removed and the commercial floor lowered to street level.

At this time the nearby Bowery area was known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany” and upstairs the rooming house was filled with renters with German names and German chatter filled the halls.

Eventually Italian immigrants filled the Grand Street area.  Francesco Rosario Stabile purchased the house in February 1901 from Max Ottinger and Max Korn, who had purchased it from the Van Rennselaer estate only a year earlier. Of the four families living upstairs at this time, three were Italian and only one, now, was German; reflecting the heavy influx of Italian immigrants. Within the decade only Italian-named renters would live here.

Not until the 1970’s would a resident with a non-Italian name rent here.

Throughout the 20th Century, from the 1930’s to now, the Piemonte Ravioli Company has occupied the commercial space on the street level.

The history of the twin home next door at No. 192 was remarkably similar. The same renovations and changes occurred, although with some minor changes like the removal of the lintels and eaveboard.  Florio’s Restaurant has occupied the commercial space here since the 1960’s.

As the neighborhood has drastically changed—from an elegant residential area to a commercial neighborhood of German immigrants, to part of Little Italy and now ethnically diverse including a large Chinese population—the two Federal houses at Nos. 190 and 192 Grand Street have survived remarkably intact above the street level.
photo by Alice Lum
“Both of these houses are rare examples of the Federal period that have survived the past 180 years with very few changes, even as their surroundings changed dramatically,” said Robert B. Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Mostly overlooked, they are amazing survivors.

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