In 1658 Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Director-General of the colony of New Netherland, visited the countryside at the northern end of Manhattan island and named it after the Dutch city of Haarlem.
More than a day’s travel from the city, Harlem area developed into a mixture of Dutch farms with humble homesteads and the country estates of New York’s wealthy –the Beekmans, Hamiltons, Gracies and Rikers among them. The rural nature of Harlem continued until the first years of the Civil War.
In 1837 the Harlem Railroad extended as far north as 129th Street and in 1856 steamboat service was available in the summer. Real estate developers recognized the significant potential of Harlem as a New York City suburb and gradually began residential development in the 1860s. East 128th Street was among the first to see row houses crop up and in 1864 the block between Fifth and Madison Avenues was lined with attractive, frame houses in the latest French Second Empire style.
The architectural style became all the rage during the Paris Exhibition of 1852. It spread first to England, then to America and the houses on East 128th Street were at the cutting edge of architectural fashion. Among them was No. 17, a two-story home with the obligatory mansard roof. The parlor floor was perched above a high, red brick English basement and fronted by a wide commodious front porch.
The decorative double doors were framed by a sculptured arched entrance way and topped by a half-round overlight. Floor-to-ceiling windows allowed sunlight to flood the parlor. The roof of the porch, supported by wooden ornamental scrollwork brackets, had a fringe of lacy gingerbread carpentry.
Above it all, three handsome pronounced dormers pierced the multicolored slate tiles of the mansard roof. The house was set back from the sidewalk to provide a small garden behind the wooden fence that matched the porch railing.
In 1865 Samuel M. Brown sold No. 17 to James Beach who was living in Throgs Neck in Westchester County. Beach paid $5,900 for the property – nearly $150,000 today.
The sleepy community was shaken awake by the arrival of the elevated railroads at the end of the 1870s. With the neighborhood being more accessible, an explosion of development occurred. In 1874 Beach sold the house to Hannah Van Reed and her husband, Jacob, for $11,000. The Van Reeds lived here for a dozen years before moving to 312 Manhattan Avenue.
East 128th Street was home to professionals, for the most part, and in 1886 attorney Hubert A. Banning purchased No. 17, putting the deed in his wife’s name as was common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Banning paid $12,000 for the house. It was in the parlor thirty years later, on Thursday, January 6, 1916, that his funeral was held.
Viola Banning continued to reside in the house, along with her son Hubert, also a lawyer, and his wife Anna Olga. Hubert Banning was an active member of the America Oriental Society. As World War I drew to a close the block along East 128th Street remained home to white-collar residents. Next door at No. 15 was the elderly, retired pharmacist George W. Busteed who invented “The Sun Cholera Cure” during the cholera epidemic of 1849. Down the block was Dr. James F. Campbell at No. 43, while school teacher Mary A. Martin was living at No. 56.
But by now No. 17 was one of the last of the 1860s houses left. Most had been demolished to be replaced by late 19th century brownstone row houses or apartment buildings.
By the mid 1920s, Hubert and Anna Banning were living in Germany. His mother, who was at this time the President of the Gillette Clipping Machine Company (later to become the Gillette Company most known for its razor blades and shavers) remained on in the house. In his absence, Hubert named Palmer A. Brooks as trustee; giving him authority to sell the property should anything happen to Viola.
|By 1930, No. 17 was vised in between two larger structures. The wooden fence, while missing a post or two, still remained -- NYPL Collection|
Shortly thereafter, on June 15, 1926, Viola Suydam Banning died. Brooks sold the charming Victorian house to Margaret Lane for $12,000, the exact amount Banning’s father had paid forty years earlier. Margaret Lane stayed on in the house only seven years before transferring the property to Louis and May Seeley for the astounding amount of $1.00. The mystery of the one dollar sale was explained in 1979 when the 90-year old Seeley sold the property. Margaret Lane was his nanny.
|Down the street in 1930, Nos. 58 to 52 from the same period, still remained. No. 58, at the left, is almost identical to No. 17. School teacher Mary Martin lived next door at No. 56 -- NYPL Collection|
In the nearly half-century that Louis Seeley lived in the house at No. 17 both Harlem and East 128th Street had changed. A large school now stood across the street and the wood frame house was squeezed between two much larger late Victorian structures. Yet, amazingly, the little house was intact. The original fence was gone, but the beautiful Victorian doors, the slate roof, the ornamental wooden detailing of the front porch were all intact.
The house was purchased by the Director of the Harlem Dance Studio, Carolyn Adams, who fortunately was interested in historic preservation and the fostering of community pride within the Harlem neighborhood. The dollhouse-like home at No. 17 East 128th Street was put on the market again in 2011 for just under $1.8 million.
|Original detailing, like the exquisite marble mantles, still grace the interiors. -- photo streeteasy.com|
The incredible survivor is one of the few remaining frame houses in Harlem dating to the Civil War period. That it remained a single-family home for over a century and a half, in nearly pristine condition, is a truly miraculous.