Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The 1825 Anthony Arnoux House -- No. 139 Greene Street

photo by Alice Lum
As the fashionable Bond Street area filled with grand Federal period homes for New York’s most elite, similar scaled-down residences were being built to the west. At 139 Greene Street, in 1825, a two story brick house was completed for Anthony Arnoux, a tailor and apparel merchant. Begun a year earlier, it boasted upscale details affordable by financially-comfortable, merchant-class buyers without the silver door hinges and other extravagances found on Bond Street.

The white marble stonework stood out against the red brick – carved, paneled lintels, an elegant arched doorway entrance, and a carved stoop. Above the simple cornice two stylish dormers with arched windows below broken pediments pierced the peaked roof.

Arnoux apparently leased the house for nearly a decade. Then in 1834 he moved in with his family. By the time the family left in 1860, it would appear that Mrs. Arnoux died. In 1850 only Anthony Arnoux, his five adult children and a single servant were listed in the house.

The Arnoux family was most likely prompted to move because of the declining neighborhood. By now the area was filling with commercial establishments and on Greene Street “disorderly houses” – houses of prostitution – were common.

A year after the family left there was a small fire upstairs when a bed “accidentally caught fire,” causing $50 damage to the house which was a documented brothel by 1862. In 1867 the house was owned by Patrick and Amelia Whalen and had been placed on the police department’s “black list” as a disorderly house.

On Monday night, September 11, 1867, Officer Forgarty of the 8th Precinct “made a descent upon the premises,” according to The New York Times.  Forgarty arrested the Whalens, along with Emma Hughes, Annie Williams, Ida Nicholson, Celia Frank, Nettie Brown, Nettie Raymond and Isabella Everman, whom The Times tactfully referred to as “inmates.”

The Whalens were each charged $500 bail to answer at the Court of General Sessions. The newspaper was apparently not satisfied with the $5 fine each of the prostitutes were charged. The reporter said they “departed from the Court-room apparently not much the worse for Forgarty’s raid.”

At the time of the raid there were no fewer than a dozen other houses of ill repute on Greene Street. But that would all change within the next two decades.

In the meantime, the influx of French immigrants settling in the area prompted Schribner’s Monthly to label it “The French Quarter” in November 1879.

“This is the Quartier Francois of New York. The commonplace, heterogeneous style of the buildings, and the unswerving rectangular course of the streets are American, but the people are nearly all French. French, too, is the language of the signs over the doors and in the windows; and the population is of the lowest and poorest class….There are swarthy faces which have gladdened in mad grimace over the flames of the Hotel de Ville and become the hue of copper bronze under the sun of New Caledonia.”

A similar Federal house on Greene Street had been converted to a French bakery in 1879 -- Schribner's Monthly November 1879 (copyright expired)
The writer said "Turning down Grand street into Greene one day, with half a dozen steps my friend and I were transported in imagination to France.  At No. 95 we descended into a basement, the specialties of which were indicated by the sign over the door: ‘Sabots et Galoches—Chaussons de Strasbourg.’”

Even this change to Greene Street would be short-lived. By the 1880s the French immigrants were sharing the area with the millinery trade which was becoming centered here. Anthony Arnoux’s fine brick home was the headquarters of Dutton & Diabrow, “hats,” in 1884.  By 1893 Hirsch & Co. was here, a dealer in “fur cuttings, furs, skins, hatters’ raw stock and fur cuttings.”

Another fur dealer, Belt, Butler Co., was in the house in 1909. The firm’s advertisement in the December issue of Farm Journal announced “Cash paid for Raw Furs. As New York is the best fur market in America, we can and do pay highest cash prices for hides of Skunks, Minks, ‘Coons, Muskrats, Opossums, Foxes, Badgers, Wolves, Beavers, Otter and all fur-bearing animals. We also pay best prices for GINSENG.”

By now No. 139 Greene Street was an anachronism. Overshadowed by the tall, Victorian cast iron loft buildings that made up what today is termed the Cast Iron District, it was starkly out of place. Yet while Soho became industrial, the little house remained.

More or less.

A procession of gritty businesses used the building through the 20th century. In September 1920 Charles F. Noyes Company leased the building for six years to the Central Fire Office, Inc.  It became home to businesses as diverse as rags and wastepaper to trucking.

An industrial entrance was knocked through the parlor wall -- photo by Alice Lum
What interior Federal details survived after the Whalens’ disorderly house was closed were now long gone. Mantles, newel posts and ceiling medallions were gutted for industrial purposes. The fine doorway and sidelights that survived through the 1930s were obliterated for freight dock – a loading platform erected over the marble stoop. A wide entrance was broken through a parlor window.

The abuse of No. 139 Greene Street led to the Department of Buildings labeling it as an “unsafe building” in 1939.

The rusticated basement wall suffered commercial abuse -- photo by Alice Lum
Then in the last half of the century, change came again. Soho and the Cast Iron District were rediscovered. One-by-one the vintage buildings were restored and recycled into artist lofts, galleries and trendy shops.

The elegant carved marble entrance framing survives while the doorway with its wooden columns and sidelights are gone -- photo by Alice Lum
In the late 1968s No. 139 was purchased by Richard L. Feigen, an art dealer. He sold the house in 1973 to Peter W. Ballantine who intended to restore it as his private home.

Ballantine was faced with an imposing task. While the house, amazingly, retained much of its Federal architectural detailing; it was grossly defaced. The once-fine doorway had been bricked up. The parlor level contained an industrial entrance and the interior was non-existent.

The same year the New York Landmarks Conservancy listed the house on its “Endangered Buildings” list, mentioning the “ghastly hole to the left of the doorway” and the “disfiguring brick patch beneath the hole.”

Yet the Conservancy allowed that “Despite this degradation, much of the Federal character and detailing remains, from the dormers, which are often the first to go on these buildings, to the simple lintels on the second story windows, and the elegant arch of the front door.”

The Federal-style dormers with their arched windows, remarkably, survive -- photo by Alice Lum
Ballantine began the David-and-Goliath project in 1974, beginning with the first floor windows. But the cost of restoration and the restrictions of landmark buildings – the proper size and color of custom-made bricks, for instance—have made slow going for the rescue of No. 139 Greene Street.

Decades of industrial use have left the white marble steps broken -- photo by Alice Lum
Over three decades later not much progress seems to have been made. But the fact that the dignified reminder of Greene Street’s residential past exists at all is utterly amazing.


  1. Fascinating details about a building of which I've long wondered. Thanks.

  2. Thanks AGAIN for impeccable research and fun details of one of the mystery buildings of New York!

  3. Amazing History, love it !

  4. I just checked the current google maps street view and demolition scaffolding is in place - so it appears that this building will soon be in the "lost" category (along with an adjacent 3-storey building). Here's a shortened link to the current google maps street view if interested.

    1. I work on Greene & there is no scaffolding. I actually saw someone go into the building just the other day. I almost stopped & casually asked him what the plans were but didn’t. I should have

    2. This building must have an angel looking over it because it has survived since 1825. May it continue to mystify us in all the best way! Love this house!!!