Friday, July 6, 2012

The "Unexpected Surprise" at No. 326 East 18th Street

A deep front yard behind a cast iron fence and lacy ironwork on the veranda is almost out of place in the city -- photo by Alice Lum
On November 11, 1847 the land which had once been the sprawling farm or “Bouwerie” of Governor Peter Stuyvesant, now portioned off into city lots, was conveyed to the heirs of Peter Gerard Stuyvesant—a great-great grandson--who had died three months earlier on August 10.    The former farmland was already criss-crossed with streets and homes had begun rising.

Stuyvesant’s nephew, the Reverend Peter Stuyvesant Ten Broeck, who lived in North Danvers, Massachusetts, inherited the fifteen lots on the south side of 18th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues.

Five years later the three lots in the center of the block were still undeveloped.  The Reverend’s daughter, Cornelia Stuyvesant Ten Broeck leased the land in March 1852 to five developers:  stonecutters John Edwards and Henry Wilson; and the Youngs brothers, Theodore F., Charles E. and George V.   The Ten Broeck family was specific on the type of construction it wanted on its land.  Building was restricted to “good and substantial dwelling houses…being three or more stories in height and constructed either of Brick or Stone.”

Two of the Youngs brothers—George and Theodore—were carpenters.  Before long George and his brother William would go into partnership in a substantial lumber yard on 7th Avenue.

Before the end of the year two of the houses were completed and No. 326 (numbered 205 at the time) was finished in 1853.  Henry Wilson, who became partners with John Edwards in a large stone yard called “Wilson & Edwards,” moved into the house.

French doors opened onto the veranda, offering cooling ventilation on hot summer evenings -- photo by Alice Lum
The charming row sat far back from the sidewalk, providing a generous front lawn unusual for Manhattan houses.  Like its nearly identical neighbors, it was a simplified version of the Italianate style sweeping the city.    Two stories tall over an English basement, it was accessed by a pair of double doors under a protective canopy.  A veranda stretched along the width of the house, joining with that of the house at 328, supported by lacy ironwork. 

Henry Wilson remained in the little house even as his reputation and fortune grew.  By 1873 he was the President of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York.  He was still living here in 1888 when he took on the additional responsibility as a member of the Board of Education.

The robust Italianate ironwork of the fence and the railings along the porch and steps was more in keeping with the architecture than the lacier iron of the veranda -- photo by Alice Lum
Through Wilson’s success he never forgot that he had once been a hard-working stone cutter.  He treated his men with generosity and humanity.  Decades later, in 1921, a stone worker wrote to The Stone Cutters’ Journal praising Woodrow Wilson by comparing the President to Henry.  “I think he must have been some relation to that grand old boss of ours, Henry Wilson, of New York, that gave many a stonecutter a $10.00 bill in the winter time and when times were hard; he was different to some of our present day bosses.  I know some of them who never gave a dollar for anything, only for flowers to put on some scab’s grave when nobody else would send a wreath.”

What appears to be a brownstone stoop on No. 326 is actually openwork cast iron, as seen in its sister at No. 328.  A stucco-like covering at No. 326 hides the original.  -- photo by Alice Lum
By 1905, after Wilson’s death, Detective John J. Cray was living here.  Cray had joined the police department in 1885 and by 1890 had been promoted to detective sergeant “having already demonstrated his ability in dealing with safe-blowers and pickpockets,” according to The New York Times.  He rose in the ranks at a blurring speed.  While living at No. 326 he was made lieutenant in 1907, captain in 1912, an inspector in 1915 and Deputy Commissioner in 1920.

Cray’s success in law enforcement was partly a result of his ability to remember details.  “For years Cray wandered up and down Broadway and his uncanny memory for faces made him the terror of out-of-town crooks who flocked to the white light district,” said The Times.  He would turn up at the Jefferson Market Police Court with a criminal in tow who had been wanted for a crime miles from New York.

In 1905, for instance, “Biff” Ellison was a ward politician and street tough who ran his affairs from the Brighton CafĂ© on Great Jones Street.  That year he shot and murdered “Big Bill" Harrington and fled the city.  In 1911 he ventured back to New York where John Cray recognized and arrested him.

The Times was fond of Cray, calling him “one of the most picturesque of the old-time detectives.  He was portly and handsome, his trim gray mustache and gray hair making him a figure of some distinction.  He was always well dressed, with just a suggestion of the Broadway atmosphere in which he moved so long, and his unfailing courtesy and good nature made him a favorite not only of his men, but of others outside the department with whom he came in contact.

The group's exceptional ironwork, seen here on No. 330, survives in pristine condition - photo by Alice Lum
The detective was known among the underworld not only for his ethical behavior but for his fair dealing.  He became familiar with men on the street earned their trust; enabling him to construct a system of informants.  “This use of stool pigeons to keep in touch with what was going on in the criminal world was brought to a fine point of perfection by Cray, largely because of his personal qualities.”

Considering Cray’s reputation, it was perhaps amazing that in 1921 May Brown decided to live next door at No. 328.  Although she claimed to be the daughter of a wealthy merchant, Brown had a problem:  she was a drug addict.  Her husband divorced her “because of her downfall.”

On July 29 of that year she purchased a bottle of narcotics from Anthony Collucci of 19 West 18th Street.  She no longer lived next door to the Cray family after that instance of bad judgment.

Four years later the 62-year old Cray was still living at No. 326 with his wife and ten-year old daughter, Catherine, when the newspapers reported that he was seriously ill at his home.    On September 15, 1925 he died in the house.  Three days later his funeral service was held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
When the Deputy Commissioner's body passed through these doors with great ceremony, over 500 mounted policemen lined East 18th Street -- photo by Alice Lum
Cray’s coffin was removed from the house on East 18th Street by an enormous police escort that included 500 mounted men.  The casket, draped with the flag of the city, was carried by the police the entire distance from the house to the Cathedral.

Over 1,200 policemen gathered in the church while the Police Glee Club sang.  The Times reported that “Such a throng gathered at the entrance to the cathedral that thirty policemen were assigned to preserve order.”  The newspaper noted that during his 40-year career, ““his record of arrests listed some of the most notorious criminals in the country.”
John J. Cray's casket was removed from No. 326 (far right) around the time of this photo -- NYPL Collection
The little house at No. 326 and its two near matching sisters survived throughout the 20th century with little change.  In 2004 it was converted to apartments—one per floor.

photo by Alice Lum
In 1973 The Landmarks Preservation Commission noted that the front yards of the three charming houses “provide unexpected surprise and refreshing contrast to the continuous line of brick and brownstone facades along the street.”


  1. Hello Tom!
    Today's blog is very apropos...I am searching for a tie between my John J. Murphy family (carriage builder in Long Island City) and Charles F. Murphy, Tammany Hall Boss....who was also closely affiliated with John J. Cray. Charles' sister Margaret married Patrick J. Cray....John's brother I believe. I would like very much to save this blog and the attached photos to my site. Is that possible?

    I am also intrigued by how thorough your knowledge is about other architecture and their stories in the New York area. I am very interested in knowing if you have or can acquire a photo of 77 7th Street, Long Island City, NY in the 1890's. I believe my John J. Murphy ran a carriage building business from there and lived upstairs. His son, my great grandfather, Thomas J. Murphy and his wife Sarah lived at 72 7th St., 73 7th St., 74 7th Street at various times from 1891 to 1899. There is sooo much more I would like to know about this site and the Murphy family but am at a standstill. Is there anything you can suggest as reference for me? Thank you

  2. My post my previous post assumed this blog was written today...I am speaking of the July 2, 2012 post regarding "The Unexpected Surprise" post.