Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The 1819 Captain Wood House -- No. 310 Spring Street

photo by Alice Lum

On the south side of Spring Street near Greenwich Street an abused red brick building of little apparent interest sits among its industrial neighbors.    Just shy of two centuries old this former home of a sea captain has plenty of stories to tell.

The seafaring Dennison Wood married 17-year old Lydia McKildo in 1804 while he was still a ship’s mate working on vessels bringing sugar to New York.  By 1807 he had invested with at least one partner in his own sloop, the Cornelia, which sailed between New York City and St. Thomas.

Before long Trinity Church began development of what had been known as Trinity Farm—an expansive tract of land stretching north towards Greenwich Village.    Wood and his wife were living on Greenwich Street when, in October 1819, he purchased the nearby lot at No. 282 Spring Street from Trinity Church for $1,400—about $25,000 today.

The site was a logical choice for Wood.  It sat just a few blocks from the riverfront in a burgeoning area of new homes and businesses.  Their wide Federal-style home was completed within the year.

Like most others in the area, the two-story house was wood-framed and clad in Flemish-bond brick.  Paneled brownstone lintels capped the windows and prim dormers sat above a modest cornice.

Dennison Wood spent much of his time at sea.   He was captain of the brig Levant in 1819, owned by Hall & Hoyt.  The ship carried goods to and from Savannah.  By 1824 he captained a larger ship, the Louisa Matilda, after Hall & Hoyt partnered with James & Cornelius Seguine to form the Established Line.

He sailed from New York to Savannah for about two decades.  In the 1830's Wood commanded the Tybee which not only transported goods, but passengers.  An advertisement in the New-York Evening Post listed the Tybee among “vessels of the first class—their accommodations for passengers are extensive and well furnished; they sail very fast and their commanders are men of capability and experience.”

In 1837 he was captain of the Trenton, a 427-ton ship that also sailed between New York and Savannah.   His extensive time away from home did not deter Dennison from fathering no fewer than nine children who were raised in the house on Spring Street.

Esteemed artist Rembrandt Peale painted this portrait of Dennison Wood.  The catalogue of a 1920 exhibition at Madison Square Garden in which it was shown noted "Captain Wood was reputed the largest shipowner of his time...His descendants have continued to live in New York, his native city, and the portrait had never been out of New York." -- pamphlet of "The Widely Known Collection of the Connoisseur, the Late Frank Bulkeley Smith of Worcester, Mass." copyright expired

Upon his death, apparently in 1846, Wood had fallen on hard times.  That year creditors auctioned off the house but the family, unwilling to have Lydia removed from her home, pooled their money to save it.   Son-in-law Samuel C. Brown, a merchant, purchased the house and the following year transferred it to a trust of family members all of whom had contributed funds.

Lydia, now 60-years old, was given residential life rights while the family group rented out a portion of the structure to offset the expenses.  The trust's contract stipulated that upon Lydia’s death the house would be sold and the proceeds distributed among the partners:  George Bucknam, William A. Wood, Dennison B. Wood and Samuel C. Brown.

To accommodate the rental portion, a third floor was added in 1847, along with a storefront.  While the brickwork of the third story addition was not in Flemish bond; care was taken to sympathetically match the paneled lintels and other architectural elements so that the renovation was nearly seamless.   Along with Lydia and her son Dennison, boarders would occupy the upper floors.

The following year the address was renumbered to No. 310 Spring Street.

James Haydock opened his small dry goods store here and would remain for over two decades.    Among the boarders were Mary E. Wainwright and her husband William.  Mary earned $275 as a primary teacher at Public School No. 3 at Hudson and Grove Street.  The couple’s daughters Mary and Emma, also teachers, lived here as well.  Tragedy struck on May 1, 1865 when William committed suicide by “shooting himself through the head…in a room at his dwelling No. 310 Spring-street,” as reported in The New York Times the following day.

Fifty-four-year old Dennison B. Wood was appointed an election poll inspector in October of that year.  Ironically he died a few weeks later on Friday, November 3.   With no space in the converted Spring Street house for a funeral, it was held at the residence of a friend, W. S. Fogg at No. 431 West 22nd Street.

In 1869 Thomas Courtney’s dry goods store replaced James Haydock's.  Within the year Courtney, an Irish immigrant, moved his family in upstairs.  With him lived his wife Mary and their three children.

That same year John Coughlin was rooming here.  The unscrupulous boarder also went by the name of John Taylor.  Police arrested him after finding suitcases and trunks hidden in his room which he had stolen from city hotels. 

Lydia Wood died in 1873 at the age of 86 years old, bringing to a close 54 years of Wood family residency at No. 310 Spring Street.

The once mostly-residential neighborhood had greatly changed by now.  The streets were filled with shops catering to the shipping trade and near the waterfront disreputable saloons flourished.  In 1875 Courtney’s dry goods store caught fire, damaging the building and wiping out most of the merchant’s inventory.  Insurance covered the full $200 worth of damage to the structure and, most likely, the storefront that remains today was installed during the reparations.

As the repairs were being made, Samuel Brown, acting as trustee, sold the building to John H. Heaselden for $11,500.  Although Heaselden was a liquor dealer, he continued to lease the store to Courtney and rent out the rooms upstairs.

As was the case with John Taylor years earlier, not all of the boarders were upstanding.   On the cold winter morning of January 11, 1873 “at an early hour” according to The New York Times, roomer William Stanley was up to no good.

The 23-year old was a locomotive engineer who was lured by the goods in the shop below.  Courtney’s store was protected by an iron gate; but it would not be enough to stop Stanley.   He broke off the padlock, smashed a pane of glass and crawled in.

Perhaps a bit too greedy, the young thief gathered up “a large quantity of goods, consisting of 6 pairs of blankets, 36 shirts, 23 pairs of drawers, 1 cardigan jacket, 1 coat, 18 neck shawls, 10 skirts, and 23 pairs of woolen socks, altogether worth $93, and decamped with them,” reported the newspaper.

The unwieldy amount of goods caught the eye of Officer Kiernan of the 8th Precinct who promptly arrested the man.

In an attempt to prevent further burglaries in the now-edgy neighborhood, Courtney hired Charles Fistere to sleep in the store.    On a Sunday night in early November 1879 the watchman awoke to find he was not alone.  Two men were standing near his cot.  William Nickels, a machinist from Boston, and William Johnson, a New York boatman, had squeezed through the aperture for the fanlight over the front door.

Police heard Fistere’s calls before the men had a chance to make off with anything.

Despite the repeated attempts at theft, Courtney’s business thrived.  In 1884 he expanded the store space to the rear.  Architect L. Sibley designed a single-story addition that nearly doubled the commercial space.    Within four years Courtney brought his son, Thomas, Jr. into the business, proudly renaming the store Thomas Courtney & Son.

Courtney raised the wrath of eminent thread manufacturer George A. Clark & Brother when he began undercutting other retailers.   Courtney was selling Clark’s “O.N.T.” spool cotton at four cents per spool, or 48 cents per dozen; significantly lower than the market price.  Clark’s sent a letter to its distributors that read in part, “In the interest of trade prices, we urgently request that you decline to fill orders, either directly or indirectly, for Clark’s ‘O.N.T.’ spool cotton” from Thomas Courtney.

In 1897 The Times noted that “Mrs. Hannah Heaselden” had sold “a three-story brick tenement with store.”  The buyer was Thomas Courtney.   After nearly three decades of living and doing business from No. 310, the building was now his.  The merchant added a cast iron pediment above the cornice that announced “COURTNEY’S.”  The pediment would survive for nearly a century.

Although the Courtney family moved to West 11th Street within a few years, the business remained on Spring Street.  At the turn of the century, reflecting the change in the neighborhood, the former dry goods store was now listed as “working men’s clothes.”   Expanding the business, the Courtneys adapted a portion of the building as an apparel sewing room, listing “shirtmakers” in the telephone directory in 1904.

Part of the ground floor space was leased to John Gallagher who ran a small blacksmith shop here.  In the meantime, boarders continued to live in the upper floors.   Among them, in 1909, were 25-year old Mary H. E. Driscoll, who worked in the shirt making shop and was clerk “for a drygoods store,” most probably Courtney’s; and the McCarthy sisters Nora, the foreperson of a laundry; and Julia, who worked as clerk in a publishing firm.

On September 29, 1909 a small article in The New York Times probably raised more than a few eyebrows.  The blacksmith, John Gallagher, had died.  He left his entire estate, valued at $10,000, to Mary Driscoll, “a young woman employed by a firm of shirtmakers having a factory above his shop.”  The article made special note that “He makes no mention in his will of a sister, niece and other relatives.”

In 1928, while Driscoll and the McCarthy sisters lived on here, another shady tenant moved in.  Julian Alarciz was arrested on May 26 for attempting to pick the pockets of sleeping persons in the Interborough subway and elevated stations.

Courtney's was still here in 1939, advertising "Headlight Overalls."  The cast parapet is still in place -- photo NYC Dept. of Taxes

Decades later Charles McCarthy joined his female relatives here around 1947.  When Thomas Courtney, Jr. died the business was closed.  In 1950 No. 310 Spring Street was sold to Mary Driscoll and the McCarthys for $6,000.

The new owners found a tenant for the former retail space.  Bell Maintenance Company, designers and manufacturers of neon signs, moved in.  

Mary Driscoll, the same young woman who had made shirts for Thomas Courtney in 1909, was still living in the house a half century later in 1957.   That year on December 21 the 75-year old woman ventured out during a ferocious wind storm.  “Shortly before 8 P.M.—at the height of the storm,” reported The New York Times, she “was struck and killed by an automobile as she was crossing from the north to the south side of Canal Street at Greenwich Street.”

Handsome paneled lintels surmount the upper story windows. -- photo by Alice Lum

Nora McCarthy lived on here until her death in the 1960's.  Her executors sold the house to Bronx residents Theodore and Norma Mass for $25,000 in 1967.  Bell Maintenance Company moved out that year.  The commercial space on the ground floor remained vacant for nine years, while renters continued to live upstairs.

Unity Environmental Corp. purchased the building in 1998.   The first floor became a small restaurant for a period, the Bell Caffe, while the upper floors continued to be leased as residences.

Today Captain Dennison Wood’s 1819 home is more than a bit careworn.  The 19th century storefront of Thomas Courtney remains, slightly altered, and astoundingly the six-paneled entrance door survives.  

A industrial light has been plopped onto the brownstone lintel over the surviving six-panel door -- photo by Alice Lum

But with a little imagination one can easily imagine a time in the 1820s when a ship’s captain returned home to his family after weeks at sea.


  1. Wonderful and well researched history behind one little remnant of NYC.

  2. Very interesting. I've likely walked past that building a hundred times and never paid it any attention. Now I will. Thanks.

  3. The story of this architectural building is really amazing...

  4. Bell Caffè was there for ten years from 19i9-1999
    Kurt Williams

  5. Thank you for the write up of this residence. I am a direct descendent of Dennison and Lydia so this is so cool to see. It really hits home. Awesome!