Friday, December 16, 2011

Two Abused Federal Survivors at Nos. 298-300 Grand Street

photo by Robert K. Chin,

Not all of the Federal style homes built in Manhattan during the 1820s and 1830s were wide, elegant residences.  Along Grand Street two matching brick house were erected at Nos. 298 and 300, intended for working class families.

Each was two-and-a-half stories high with a prim dormer punching through the pitched roof.  The street would have been lined with similar houses and the children of craftsmen, bakers, carpenters and deliverymen would have played together here.

At the time the houses were constructed, Manhattan was rapidly growing.  In 1830 the population had grown to 202, 589.  A decade later it had risen fifty-percent to 312,710.   The downtown area necessarily spread northward, engulfing the residential neighborhoods.

Before long, the ground floors of the houses along Grand Street were converted to commercial spaces.  The neighborhood became filled with hatters and other merchants who lived in the second stories above their shops.  In 1848 Eber T. Peacock ran his bookbinding shop from No. 280 Broad Street.  Two years later, however, he had moved into No. 298 Grand Street, living upstairs.  Peacock would remain here until the years just prior to the Civil War.

After the war, the area continued to change.  In 1882 James D. McCabe , Jr. wrote “Grand street east of the Bowery is one of the busiest and liveliest in New York.  It is devoted to the cheap dry goods and millinery trades, and does a thriving business.  Some of the establishments are large and elegant, but the customers belong chiefly to the humbler walks of life.  Occasionally a west side lady in search of a bargain comes into the street, but such visitors are rare.  On Saturday night, the street is in its glory.  The stores are open until a late hour, and the colored lamps of the stores and blazing torches of the sidewalk hucksters’ stands give to it the effect of a partial illumination.  Shops and sidewalks are all thronged and the air is alive with the sound of voices.”

Waves of German immigrants flooded New York Harbor in the 1870s, settling on the Lower East Side.  Theodor and Frederick Lohr were among them.  Although they apparently never worked together, the Lohrs were accomplished makers of musical instruments.

Theodor moved his shop three times before settling at No. 298 Grand Street, listed here in the American Musical Directory of the United States and Provinces in 1885.  The Directory called him a “musical instrument importer,” however Lohr personally made most of his violins, banjos, harmonicas and guitars.

While Lohr employed only one “workman” and “two boys” he was able to maintain an inventory of “150 dozen banjos,” according to “Musical Instrument Makers of New York.”

The Grand Street neighborhood around Allen Street continued to attract Jewish German immigrants.  At the turn of the century Theodor Lohr was publishing Yiddish music in addition to his instrument manufacturing.  In 1901 his advertisement in the New York Tribune marketed “zithers, mandolins, and guitars; also music for the same.”  Apparently the market for banjos had fallen off. 

By now Grand Street was one of the major cross-town thoroughfares in Manhattan, connecting the East River ferries to Long Island with the Hudson Street ferries to New Jersey.   Double horsecar tracks ran down the street and businesses selling everything from soldering fluid to school supplies operated here.

In the meantime, before Theodor Lohr moved his business into No. 298, William H. Merrick was established next door at No. 300 Grand Street.  Problems occurred on Friday night, June 28, 1872.  Merrick let his guard down with Ellen Josephs, whom The New York Times called “a woman of abandoned character.”  Ellen ran off with Merrick’s gold watch and chain, valued at $185.

Merrick faced the difficult choice of reporting the theft to police or keeping quiet; thereby avoiding the embarrassing need to explain why the degraded woman was in his rooms.

In October 1894 25-year old Frederick Kall was living upstairs at No. 300.  The young German man was engaged to Hetty Sonberg, called “a pretty brunette” by The Evening World.  In 1892 Kall presented his sweetheart with a diamond engagement ring.  It would become the center of a police court case.

A year later, in September 1893, Kall was stricken with typhoid fever.  His finance nursed him through the illness.  When the man recovered, he asked for the ring back, telling Hetty he wanted to have it repaired.  On October 22, 1894 she asked for her ring back.  Kall refused. 

“It’s all over, Hetty.  Our engagement is broken off,” he told her according to the newspaper.  He gave back all her letters and presents she had given him.

When Judge Taintor asked Kall why he ended the relationship, he explained that while he was sick, Hetty had left him alone for two days “and went to a picnic.”

The distressed girl protested to the judge.  “That’s not so, Your Honor,” she cried.  “I love him still and shall never love another.  I should like to have the ring as a souvenir.”

The judge allowed Hetty to keep her souvenir.
Asphalt shingles slather the dormers, yet some Federal detailing still survives -- photo Ellen Brenna Dougherty
Before long Mrs. Louis Goldstein opened her millinery shop downstairs.  Her husband was an ice cream dealer and the pair was not getting along very well by the time Independence Day rolled around in 1900.  That afternoon Goldstein walked into his wife’s shop and began destroying her merchandise—by eating it.

The New York Times reported that he “lunched at her expense off a brace of stuffed birds, topping off with a liberal portion of a Spring bonnet.”  While he ate the millinery, he “found time to violently threaten his wife,” said The Times.

The ice cream dealer was arrested, charged with threatening to kill his wife.  The destructive vandalism charges resulting from eating headwear were apparently ignored.

In 1929 a similar house at No. 294 down the block still survives -- photo NYPL Collection
By the early part of the 20th century the two little houses at Nos. 298 and 300 Grand Street had been heavily altered.  Broad, glass store fronts had been installed long ago and the paired windows at the second floor of No. 298 had been replaced with a wide plate glass window to allow extra light into the loft space.
Three years later, in 1932, the cars look the same, but the Victorian building next to No. 298 has been replaced by a short Art Deco-inspired structure. -- photo Museum of the City of New York
Before long the expanding Chinatown neighborhood would overtake Grand Street.   Today the two houses look much as they did in 1939; however the German Jewish names on the businesses have been replaced with Chinese.   The two sad little houses are amazing—if derelict—survivors of nearly 200 years of Grand Street history.

Many thanks to reader Courtney Shapiro for requesting this post

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