Friday, January 20, 2012

No. 51 Barrow Street -- Home to a Hero, a Radical, and a Broken Heart

Nearly two centuries of wear are evident in the brownstone threshold.
The sleepy village of Greenwich became a refuge when yellow fever raged throughout New York City to the south in 1822. Panicked citizens with money enough to do so fled to the open rural air, away from the threat of the disease.

The small streets of Greenwich Village quickly developed with Federal-style brick and frame homes. Many of the new residents would stay on after the health threat to the south had long passed. Along Barrow Street, a row of similar residences were constructed, among them No. 51. Built for working-class families, the homes were just two and a half stories high. Four brownstone steps led to entrances above shallow brick English basements.

The builder used Flemish bond brickwork and a few other added details to make the homes slightly more fashionable. In No. 51 these included a delicate leaded overlight above the entrance within an egg-and-dart-frame. Narrow wooden pilasters flanking the paneled door suggested the columns found in nearby, more expensive homes.

Above the simple bead board and cornice sat a single, centered dormer.

By the time George H. Moore lived here in 1864, many of the once-matching houses on the row had been improved with a full third story; more in keeping with the newer Greek Revival and Italianate styles. Moore was a teacher in the boys’ department of Public School No. 35 on 13th Street near 6th Avenue.

The little house became home to Dennis O’Hara and his family in the latter part of the century. O’Hara was a policeman assigned to the 2nd Precinct.  Appointed to the force in April, 1880, his career would be a memorable one.

O'Hara was walking his beat downtown at 2:00 in the morning on December 2, 1885 when he heard the cries of a woman. Bridget Garrity had accidentally fallen off Pier 1 into the Hudson River (then known as the North River).  The woman’s water-soaked woolen Victorian clothing quickly made her struggles difficult.  Although she was able to grasp a rope, she was quickly becoming exhausted. While onlookers watched, O’Hara stripped out of his coat, vest and shoes and dived into the frigid water.

Fighting the strong tide, he was able to pull the woman to a moored boat where he held her until a ladder could be lowered from the pier. Bridget Garrity was taken to the Chambers Street Hospital and O’Hara subsequently was awarded a silver medal for heroism.

The Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service recounted the story some years later with apparent disdain for the onlookers. “The others present showed no disposition to hazard their lives in behalf of the unfortunate woman, and had it not been for the patrolman‘s promptness, she would undoubtedly have perished.”

Later O'Hara received a gold medal from Congress for saving a woman and her child from the river at the foot of Vesey Street, and another silver medal for saving the life of a man at the Battery. Officer O’Hara nearly lost his own life with the last selfless act; both men were pulled from the river unconscious.

In July 1896 Dennis O’Hara became ill. Two weeks later he died in his bed at No. 51 Barrow Street. On August 2 the funeral for the hero policeman was held in the humble parlor.

The quiet house on the quiet street became less so when Luther S. Bedford moved in. Bedford was a printer who became interested in politics in 1898. Before long his interest turned to radicalism and he became well known to the police for his self-printed circulars and his loud disturbances at rallies and speeches.

On April 7, 1908 William M. Ivins, special counsel to the Public Service Commission addressed members of the People’s Institute at Cooper Union regarding the new rapid transit system. Bedford considered the speaker “the tool of traction thieves,” and not only distributed his inflammatory pamphlets outside, but caused chaos in the hall.

“Interruptions were frequent,” reported The New York Times, “and finally Luther S. Bedford, a compositor…who had been distributing pamphlets containing an attack on Mr. Ivins to all present, became so noisy that he was arrested.”

A year later he was at it again. As people filed into the Cooper Union to attend a Socialist meeting, Bedford distributed handbills titled “Minute Men, Arouse!!!” The fliers said that the “McAdoo tunnel people must be prevented from boring under Sixth avenue” and accused the project of being run by a syndicate.

When Police Sergeant O’Grady came along, he informed Bedford that he did not care what the bills said; but he did care that they were littering the pavement. The Sun reported that “The man divided his bills into handfuls and flipped them into the air over the heads of the Socialists.”

Luther S. Bedford was off to jail again.

At night court, Magistrate Kernochan informed Bedford that according to the Penal Code “to distribute circulars and advertisements on the highway” was a misdemeanor.

“But these were neither circulars nor advertisements,” replied Bedford, “They’re literature—just like the newspapers.”

The Magistrate fined him $1 which Bedford paid under protest.

The 6th Avenue subway would become the least of Luther S. Bedford’s worries.  As the United States was drawn into World War I, Bedford joined with a few others firmly against the country’s participation in the war. In February 1917 The Fatherland, a weekly newspaper seeking “fair play for Germany and Austria-Hungary” reported on a gathering at Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000 citizens. It was called “a great meeting for peace” and among the speakers that night was Luther S. Bedford.

Bedford applied his printing capabilities and founded a magazine entitled Bull.  It printed political cartoons and was filled with articles that pressed young men not to enlist in the military, or, if already in the service, to disobey orders and refuse to serve.

The magazine did not survive long before catching the eye of authorities. Luther S. Bedford was arrested and charged with sedition and treason under the Espionage Act.

By August 3, 1918 Assistant United States District Attorney Earle B. Barnes was poised to conduct the prosecution of Bedford and his co-defendants, charged with, according to Editor & Publisher newspaper “conspiring to obstruct the draft and to interfere with the recruiting in the army and navy of the United States.”

Before the trial commenced, in July 1919, Typographical Journal ran the sizable obituary of printer William F. Wetzel.  At the bottom of the article was a single line noting that Luther S. Bedford was dead "as well."

Ironically, on October 5, 1922, The New York Times reported that all indictments against the Bull Publishing Company and Luther S. Bedford were dismissed. The feisty and political printer did not live long enough to learn that his name was cleared.

No. 51 Barrow Street subsequently became home to the elderly couple Raymond Rice Minor and his wife. Minor had retired from his salesman job in 1920 and the two lived quietly in the little house. Born in Virginia in 1848, Minor had served in the Confederate Army before moving north where he met and married the New York City-born Margaret Koehler.

On May 18, 1932 the 84-year old Minor died. His funeral was held in the quaint St. Luke’s Chapel not far away from the Barrow Street house.

Twelve days later, a heart-broken Margaret Minor “died suddenly” in the house the aged couple had shared.

To resolve a lien of $836 back taxes and $906 in other debts, No. 51 Barrow was sold at auction on February 5, 1935 to Gus J. Paul for $2,500--less than a month's rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village today.

Only the front was bricked.  The frame side can be seen to the right.
The charming little house survives intact – the original wrought iron railings, the single dormer, the paneled front door are all there. Most likely because it was never enlarged like some of its neighbors, the house never suffered the humiliation of being broken up into apartments or used as a boarding house. Instead, it remains today a one-family home, albeit a little pricier than it was in the 1830s.

No. 51 Barrow Street exemplifies the charm and quaintness of Greenwich Village; a charismatic reminder of a rural hamlet of nearly two centuries ago.

uncredited photographs taken by the author

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