Monday, July 4, 2011

The Federal Style No. 210 West 20th Street - A House with a Past

The modest home at 210 West 20th Street most likely had twin dormers above the cornice.

Even the most modest buildings, after a certain age, have a history of their own – and often it is precisely their humble station that makes their stories so intriguing.

In the 1830s while wealthy New Yorkers were erecting fine brick residences in the Bond Street area and filling them with expensive furniture from the workrooms of Duncan Phyfe or Joseph Meeks, working class citizens were struggling to get by.

When the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 created the grid plan of streets and avenues in Manhattan, previously undeveloped north of the established city began being settled. Clement Moore’s family estate, Chelsea, was part of this expansion. As new roads criss-crossed the open landscape small Federal-style homes appeared – like the one built in the 1830s at 210 West 20th Street.

A comfortable 25 feet wide, it rose three stories over a brownstone English basement. From its beginnings the house was not meant to impress, but simply to provide a home to a hard-working family. Its simple, vernacular design boasted no Flemish bond brickword, no paneled lentils, no striking doorway. The six-over-six paned windows sat on plain brownstone sills with matching lentils. Like hundreds of similar buildings going up throughout Manhattan, it was built for someone of very modest means.

No. 210 was separated from its neighbor at 212, built around the same time, by a narrow horse walk. Common during the first half of the century, horse walks provided access to the rear of the structures from the street. In the yard behind the houses, along with a privy and garden, would normally be another small building. This would be either rented out to a boarder or used as a shop, or would stable the horse of the more fortunate home owners who could afford one.

By the time the Civil War ended, the Chelsea area around West 20th Street was highly developed. Here at No. 210 in 1871 Jessie McGregor was living, making a living tutoring physics.

Twelve years later 26-year old Patrick Brady lived here. Although Brady started out as an honest laborer driving a manure cart, his life took a turn to crime. After operating as a petty thief for a time, he turned to burglary and served a two-and-a-half-year term in the Trenton Prison.

A life of crime in the late 19th Century, as today, was often one of violence and dangerous associations.  And so it was for Brady.  Early on the morning of July 22, 1883 he was headed home to No. 210 when he was accosted by Eugene O’Hara who lived at No. 311 West 17th Street.

O’Hara was well-associated with Michael E. McGloin, a 19-year thug who had been convicted for the murder of Louis Hanier, a French saloon-keeper and wine merchant, the year before.  O'Hara was extremely dangerous himself and he had a score to settle with Patrick Brady.

O’Hara attacked Brady with a knife, cutting him in the chest before police rescued him.

Before the end of the year, Brady’s problems would worsen. Police were searching for him in regard to a robbery he committed with Francis McMahon at No. 406 West 40th Street on August 14. On November 21 he was spotted atop a freight car traveling up 8th Avenue by Police Officer Charles J. Ryan.

Realizing he had been seen, the fearless Brady brandished a revolver and threatened the officer.

Ryan and fellow officer Thomas M. Clifford caught up with both Brady and McMahon shortly afterwards on 11th Avenue near 46th Street where the pair was attempting to get to a stolen boat McMahon had hidden.

After a scuffle with the watchman of the Municipal Gas Company, Brady jumped into the river where McMahon, who had already pushed off in the boat, retrieved him. Before the afternoon was over, Brady had been shot in the heart.

Things were a bit quieter at No. 210 West 20th Street for several years afterwards. By now the Twentieth Street Police Station House had been built a little further west on the block and in 1896 the American Tobacco Company took ownership of the seven-story factory building directly across the street from No. 210.

As the turn of the century passed, the neighborhood remained a working-class one filled with mostly Irish immigrants. In 1903 the Eagan family was living in the little house.

Trouble came to the Eagans when, on September 13, 1903 neighbors complained to police that small boys were gathering on 21st Street between 5th and 6th Avenues every Sunday where they “disturbed and disgraced the neighborhood by gambling in open daylight.”

Officers from the 30th Street Station approached the block from both avenues. There they found nine small boys so intent on their game of dice that none of them noticed the officers' approach. Among the group of boys transported away in a patrol wagon were Frank and Charles Eagan.

The brothers were charged with disorderly conduct and, no doubt, received further disciplining upon their return home.

The little house was threatened when two years later in October it was sold to “a builder who will erect a seven-story loft building on the site,” according to The New York Times. Similar houses at the time were being razed all along the block to be replaced with more modern apartment houses or manufacturing buildings.
West 20th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in 1918 was a respectable, yet decidedly blue-collar neighborhood -- photo NYPL Collection

The new buyer changed his mind, however, and No. 210 survived. In 1934 it was altered to become a multi-family residence and by the 1970s had two apartments per floor.

Although the neighborhood in the 1970s and ‘80s had become somewhat edgy, there was a revitalization of the Chelsea area as the 21st Century approached. Eighth Avenue became lined with trendy restaurants and bars and the area where once only blue collar families had lived was now a chic residential hot spot.

In 2004 the house at No. 210 sold for just over $3 million to Robert Molle. A sympathetic restoration of the fa├žade brought it back to its early 19th Century appearance.
The restored entrance follows closely the simple lines of the Federal style

The simple doorway was replicated with its chunky overlight and paneled door. The original brownstone basement and stoop were imitated and modern but appropriate iron railings were installed on the steps and around the basement area.

Other than its survival, there is nothing exceptional about No. 210 West 20th Street. But as with every other vintage building, years of use result in a legacy of rich history.

photos taken by the author

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