Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The 1831 Hamilton-Holly House - No. 4 St. Mark's Place

A retail doorway replaces a parlor window, the once-elegant Federal entrance now has security doors, and the bowed cast iron balcony is long gone; but the Hamilton Holly House retains much original detailing.
The area north of Bond Street on Manhattan’s east side by 1830 was filling with stately brick Federal-style homes as New York’s wealthy sought refuge from the cholera epidemic and crowding further south. In 1831 real estate developer Thomas E. Davis lined the entire block of St. Mark’s Place between 2nd and 3rd Avenues with residences meant to appeal to these well-to-do clients.

Davis’ houses were exceptional. Wider than most with a comfortable 26-foot frontage, the Flemish bond, red brick facades were embellished with white marble. At the parlor level, floor-to-ceiling length windows opened onto elegant cast iron balconies and high wide stoops led to dramatic entranceways.
The doorways were framed in what is known as Gibbs surrounds – deeply carved stone with interspersed quoins of varied width and vermiculated marble blocks fashioned to appear worm-eaten. Such treatments were named after Scottish-born architect James Gibbs.

Among the row was No. 4 and like the rest, it sat upon a high English basement. Above the third floor an pitch-roofed attic featured two twin dormers.

While the row of homes was being built, the widow of Alexander Hamilton, Eliza, was dealing with the many debts her husband had incurred in building his “sweet project,” The Grange -- his grand country estate in northern Manhattan. Hamilton’s death left her nearly penniless with seven children.

In 1833 Hamilton’s son, Alexander Hamilton Jr., purchased No. 4 and moved in with his wife, Eliza, his mother, his sister Eliza Holly and her husband Sidney.

If the house was not crowded enough, a year later author James Fenimore Cooper moved in. According to biographers Ernest Redekop and Maurice Geracht, in 1834 “he had settled himself and his family comfortably in a large town house at 4 St. Mark’s Place, New York City, and was gradually renovating Otsego Hall, his recently repurchased boyhood home at Cooperstown, in the picturesque British style.”

Mary Elizabeth Phillips, in her 1913 “James Fenimore Cooper,” lists “Then Homeward Bound,” “Home as Found” and “Chronicles of Cooperstown as being written at No. 4.   Within walking distance were the homes of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville.

By 1836 Otsego Hall was completed and the author noted in a letter “family leaves house at St. Mark’s Place in May and moves the remainder of their furniture to Cooperstown.”

In 1843 Isaac C. Van Wyck and his son, Cornelius purchased the house. The two were successful oil and candle merchants and, although they moved out in 1849, the Van Wyck’s retained the property as a boarding house until 1863 when it was sold to butter merchant John W. Miller. By the start of the Civil War the neighborhood had started its slow decline and the noble residences along St. Mark’s place had become rooming houses or semi-commercial spaces.
Miller added a large two-story annex to the rear that he rented as a meeting hall. It was here in 1880 that the Republicans of the 14th Assembly held their district meetings.

John Miller sold No. 4 St. Mark’s Place to the musical instrument firm C. Meisel, Inc. in 1903. The company held the property for half a century, using it as its retail outlet and offices until 1952.

In the late 1930s C. Meisel retailed had its offices here.  The cast iron balcony is gone and a fire escape installed; however little else had changed -- photo NYC Department of Taxes
The last surviving house of Thomas Davis’ grand row, in 1955 it began a new life as a series of live theatres. Until 1957 it was the Tempo Playhouse where several Bernard Shaw productions were staged as well as works by Jean Genet, Gertrude Stein and Eugene Ionesco. Briefly it was the Pyramid Theatre and then, from 1959 to 1961, it was the Key Theatre which opened several Eugene O’Neill plays. Later it was the Bowery Theatre where edgy artists like Yoko Ono and The Fugs took the stage, and finally The Howff.

When an American flag was burned during a performance in 1967 the police closed The Howff for the final time.
Within a few years the store Trash and Vaudeville took over the parlor and basement floors. Catering to punk rock and other counter culture markets, the store has supplied clothing to Debbie Harry of Blondie, and The Ramones.  Professional wrestlers and celebrities come here to find their out-of-the-ordinary attire. Trash and Vaudeville is still here 30 years after opening.

Through it all much of the exterior detailing of No. 4 St. Mark’s Place is intact. The elegant entrance doors have been replaced with industrial steel security doors and the grand wrought iron balcony is gone; yet the marble lintels and door surround remain, as do the original dormers above the cornice.

With little imagination, the passer-by can envision the days when near carbon copies of this house lined St. Mark’s Place and elegant carriages parked outside.

Uncredited photographs taken by the author.  Early print above from the 1913 biography "James Fenimore Cooper" by Mary Elizabeth Phillips -- copyright expired.

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