Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Remarkable 1864 Survivor at No. 17 East 128th Street

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
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.


  1. I've just landed here from Two Nerdy History Girls and have really enjoyed my visit! I've only been through NYC once back in 1980. I was scared to stay there having arrived by car at 3 am and seen some incredible things (I'm from Oklahoma, at that that point I'd lived a relatively sheltered - limited - life). I'm determined to visit NYC again one day - Brits who have done the tourist thing rave about it. Bill and I about broke our necks looking up and photographing Chicago (another scary place) a couple of years ago and I'm sure that NYC would be even better. I'll be back! (BTW - I do love your very first post about the 'old ladies'.)

  2. Thanks for taking the time to drop your comment (and by the way I LOVE the Two Nerdy History Girls!). You must come back to NYC. There is so much to see. Thanks for the comment on the 'old ladies,' too. The posts have evolved so much from those early ones that when I re-read them it seems like a different blog! Thanks again!

  3. Wow! A friend mentioned that she was in Harlem today and I thought of this house, where my great-aunt and great-uncle (the Seeleys) lived for so many years. I was amazed to see this article pop up when I searched for information about it. Thanks for documenting its history and sharing these photos.

  4. My grandmother was the most recent seller this year 2011. We've had great family memories.

  5. it must have been difficult to part with such a treasure. You are so lucky to have been part of its history.

  6. Great story, but there was no such sale in 2011. The owner a, close friend of mine has lived in this house for more than 25 yrs.

    1. It was on the market that year (the listing is where the interior shot came from). I tweaked that line. Thanks for the clarification.

    2. The building was sold this past summer.

    3. In October 2000, I spent Canadian Thanksgiving weekend visiting NYC with a friend, and we stayed in a pleasant bed and breakfast on East 128th St. We stayed on an upper floor of the building next door at 15 East 128th St. However, I think we settled the reservation at number 17, though I might be misremembering. In any case, I remember being surprised to see such a lovely old frame house in such good condition in NYC. It was so charming, set back from the street. French empire style, and gingerbread veranda, so familiar in Quebec, Canada (where I live). The manager of the bed and breakfast said it had been in her family for a long time (though I am no longer sure whether she meant number 15 or number 17 or whether my memory is playing tricks on me). Viewing the two buildings in Google street view (there is still an empty lot on the other side of number 15), I am fairly certain I've correctly remembered the location. Is there a relationship between the two buildings?

    4. Just stumbled upon this post trying to track down this building as well -- I too remember staying at 17 E 128th when it was open as a hostel (or maybe bed and breakfast?) in October 2000, and after staying there for a few weeks the owners put also put me up in an apartment on the top floor of the building next door (15 E 128th), which I had the sense they also owned. They were so nice! I've often wondered what happened to them --

    5. The person who did the reservations at 17 was Angie and her daughter Pauline was the owner (I was told) of the house next door (15.) I also stayed there at both houses in 2000 + 2001. They were very kind people.