Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Engine Company No. 29 -- 160 Chambers Street

photo by Alice Lum
By 1894 the Chambers Street Hospital at 160 Chambers Street was outdated, unclean and crowded.  The building had been built in 1862 as the Third Precinct Police Station; but was converted to the House of Relief in 1875.  At that time the aging structure was adequate; but before long business buildings filled the neighborhood and the increased population made caring for the injured and sick more and more taxing.

The New York Times noted that “Cases by the thousand have been treated there.  Bridge jumpers, attempted suicides, victims of the Russell Sage bomb thrower, victims of would-be murders, accident cases, and thousands of patients whose cases have not called for newspaper attention have passed through its doors.”  But now, said the newspaper, it was “shabby and wholly inadequate.”

On November 7, 1894 the institution moved to its new quarters, The Hudson Street Hospital.

The Chambers Street site had already caught the eye of the New York City Fire Department.   Engineer Eugene E. McLean wrote to Ashbel P. Fitch, the City Comptroller, on March 29, 1894 saying that the premises of the hospital “will be vacated in a few days, a new hospital having been erected at the corner of Jay and Hudson streets.  I do not know of any more useful public purpose to which the premises could be assigned than that contained in the request of the Fire Department.”

McLean stressed that the fire station at Nos. 191 and 193 Fulton Street was being used for two companies and “is cramped for space; in which respect it will be relieved by the removal of one of the companies to the premises in question, and there being no engine station on the west side between Fulton and Franklin streets, which would be a good position for service, being about midway between the two.”

The engineer advised that the “building will require considerable alterations to adapt it to the purposes proposed, it having been erected for a Police station.  The necessary changes will cost in the neighborhood of $10,000.”

Nearly a year later, on January 31, 1895, there was still no response from City Hall.  McLean wrote again.

“Dear Sir—Sorry to bother you again about the Chambers Street Hospital, but I am very anxious to know if you are going to let us have this property for an engine-house, as we want to have the plans made and get it through as soon as possible.”

If Eugene McLean feared he was being a bother to the City Comptroller, at least he got his wish.   The Report of the Fire Department of the City of New York for the Three months and Year ending December 31, 1896 succinctly reported, “Extensive alterations and repairs…commenced at No. 160 Chambers street for quarters of Engine Company No. 29.”

Within the year Engine Company No. 29 was completed.   The renovations resulted in a prim Italianate-inspired brick structure capped with a Second Empire mansard roof with two dormers of paired windows.    The high stone base accommodated the large, centered engine opening that followed the traditional firehouse design.

The striking mansard roof and pedimented windows were remnants of the original design -- photo by Alice Lum
The members of Engine Company No. 29 had barely moved in when they were called to a fatal fire almost directly across Chambers Street.    On the night of May 6, 1897 the five-story cold storage warehouse at Nos. 161 and 163 Chambers Street caught fire.   At around 8:00 pm Policeman Herle noticed smoke escaping from the basement area and notified the firehouse.  Within seconds six of the firefighters were on the scene only to be driven back by suffocating smoke that belched from the windows they broke open.

The basement area was used to store paper, twine and cardboard and the materials burned like kindling.  Quickly a second, then third alarm was sounded, resulting in a dozen engines pumping water into the cellar.

Because the building was a cold storage facility, there were few windows and the solid walls were heavily timbered.   The firemen battled with heavy axes for more than an hour attempting to break in.  When an opening was finally created, six firefighters including Captain Kenny of Engine 7 descended eight feet down into the cellar with a line of hose.   A wall of smoke and deadly gas—possibly ammonia--sent them reeling back.

But one fireman, John G. Reinhardt of Engine Company 7, had fallen unconscious in the thick smoke.  The others tried vainly to rescue him until they too were in need of rescue.  When pulled through the sidewalk opening, they men were unable to breathe or speak.

The firefighters from Engine Company 29 joined in the attempts to rescue Fireman Reinhardt.   Dozens of firefighters had to be pulled back from the toxic, smoke filled cellar, delirious from the effects of the gas.

“The smoke had a curious effect on them,” reported The New York Times.  “Unconscious of their surroundings, the gallant fellows cursed and swore and kicked and struggled until in many cases it took six policemen to carry one of them to the waiting ambulances.”

The newspaper praised the gallantry of the firefighters.  “Even after knowledge of the deadly character of the smoke bore in on them, by the number of men they had seen carried away unconscious from the vicinity of the small entranceway, belching out its deadly fumes, must have convinced them that their companion could not be living, they pressed forward, insisting on their right to do for him what they knew, if living, he would have done for any one of them.”

Engine Company 29 became a triage center.  The Sun reported that “The quarters of Engine Company 29, in Chambers street, bore a close resemblance to a surgeon’s tent in the field…Straw which had been intended for bedding for the horses was dragged out on the floor and pallets were made of it for the men to lie on.”  The newspaper recounted that Fireman Joseph McCormick, of Engine Company 29, was the first brought in.  “He was delirious and struggled furiously with his rescuers.”

Next came Timothy Donovan, Edward O’Connor and Steve Sullivan; all of them members of the station house.  “Fireman Devins was next brought in, and then others followed in such quick succession that for about fifteen minutes the engine house floor was covered with groaning men.”

In the end, of course, the 35-year old firefighter was dead.  He had been married a few weeks earlier on Easter Sunday.    Among the twenty-one firemen taken to the Hudson Street Hospital was Engine Company 29 member Steven Sullivan.

The men of Engine Company 29 pose with a shiny new gas-propelled engine in 1917 -- photo http://www.nyc.gov/html/fdny/html/f_a/e29_1.shtml
The men of Engine Company 29 would serve valiantly for decades; like Thomas McManus who was on the scene of the fire on August 2, 1921 in the “old Moffat Building” at No. 335 Broadway.  When the timbers burned through and the fifth floor gave way, McManus plunged a full floor to the fire below.  The intrepid fireman suffered only “a few cuts and bruises and he went back to quarters,” reported The Evening World a day later.

Two decades later the firefighters of Engine Company 29 left the station house for good when the house was decommissioned.    For years it was used as a lumber and “building materials” yard with the top three stories empty.  Then in 1983 it was converted by Lawrence Omansky into commercial space on the ground floor and residences—one per floor—above.  Omansky kept the top two floors for himself as a duplex apartment.

The apartment was described in The New York Times as being “spacious and decorated with Asian furnishings…Carved masks adorn the walls.  The headboard of the bed in the master bedroom is a carved dragon.”

In 2003 it became the scene of one of New York’s strangest crimes.   Omansky arranged a business meeting with 63-year old Lawrence Schlosser, a real estate investor, at 10:30 am on April 18.   The discussion of real estate turned ugly and the 54-year old Omansky, whom acquaintances described as “quirky” punched the older man and tossed him on the bed.

Putting a knife against the investor’s neck, he bound the man’s hands and feet with duct tape, gagged and blindfolded him.  He held the man hostage for two hours, then under threat of death, ordered Schlosser to sign over his real estate holdings to him.

Then Omansky had an idea. 

When the old building was converted, the back of the mansard roof was raised and a crawl space created for plumbing to a bathroom.   The space was about 3 feet deep, and 20 by 20 feet wide.

Omansky shoved Schlosser into the crawl space, bound and gagged, and locked the door.  Although the man relatively quickly loosened the duct tape, he could not escape.

For hours in the dark the investor banged on the plumbing with a section of pipe hoping someone would hear.    Because the space was so shallow, he could not sit up and spent much of his time in a crawling position.   Twenty-four hours elapsed.   There was no hint of movement or sound of other people.

Finally, at around 5:00 pm the day after he was imprisoned, Schlosser broke open the trapdoor with his pipe.   Scruffy and unkempt, with duct tape still clinging to his clothing, he called police and waited outside the building.

Omansky posted bail, saying the entire incident was “ridiculous.”  His lawyer explained that the case was simply “a business dispute.”   Lawrence Schlosser took it all a little more seriously.

In the meantime, David Lillie and Jamie Wolff opened Chambers Street Wines on street level in June 2001.   The space where scores of firemen overcome by toxic gas in 1897 lay on straw pallets, became home to what wine journalist Michael Steinberger deemed “the greatest wine retailer in America.”

A beauty spa now operates from the space.

A very un-firemanlike beauty parlor is housed in the former engine bay -- photo by Alice Lum
The handsome building, which in its various lives has been a police station, a hospital, a fire house, a lumber yard, a luxury residence, wine store and nail salon, has survived beautifully intact for over a century and a half.   And it has the stories to prove it.

No comments:

Post a Comment