Thursday, October 25, 2012

The 1849 Noah Woodruff House -- 335 W. 20th Street

The small window to the right of the entrance sits above a "horse walk," or passage to the rear yard.
The Chelsea neighborhood in the 1840s was rapidly developing and already West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues was becoming lined with respectable brick and brownstone residences.   On the south side of the street stood the two impressive buildings of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, making this block of West 20th Street especially charming.

In 1849 Noah Woodruff completed his 25-foot wide home at No. 219.  The brick-faced Greek Revival structure was four stories tall above a deep, rusticated brownstone English basement.    The house stood out slightly from its neighbors.  The basement was just a bit higher, resulting in the brownstone stoop being one step taller and just a bit more impressive.

Woodruff moved from his former home at No. 226 West 19th Street.  A mason and stonecutter, he operated a successful business and used indentured apprentices to help staff his stone yard.  Young boys signed agreements to work without pay--normally for a period of around seven years--to learn their trade. 

Eight years before he built the 20th Street house two of the boys escaped.  His announcement of a one-cent reward on October 11, 1841 smacked of similar advertisements by Southern plantation owners seeking the return of runaway slaves:

Ran away from the subscriber, on the 14th of September last, an indented apprentice to the stone cutting business, by the name of Patrick Divine.  Also, on the 28th, Peter Brady.  All persons are hereby forbid harboring or trusting them, as they will be dealt with as the law directs.

Soon after Woodruff completed his house he died.  His estate leased it for $700 a year (approximately $1,860 per month today) until April 15, 1852 when it was sold at auction.  The announcement described it as a "handsome four-story brick house and lot of ground...The house is finished in excellent style, with iron balcony in front, having all the modern improvements for convenience, such as Croton water, bath-room, &c., &c., all in the very best order."

The new owner operated a boarding house.  Moving in from Greenwich Village in March 1853 was Dr. David P. Holton, renowned for his lectures on physiology.   He announced his move in The New York Times, advising "Trustees and Teachers of Public and Private Schools, desirous to arrange for a Course of Lectures, in Institutions under their charge" to reach him at the new address.

An ad in The New York Herald on October 30, 1855 offered the first floor "consisting of two parlors, three bedrooms, three pantries and kitchen, bath, Croton water, and everything complete."  And six months later, on April 26, an advertisement appeared that read "A lady, having a house, with all the modern improvements, will let two gentlemen and their wives and a few single gentlemen a parlor on the first floor, rooms, bedrooms and pantries on the third floor, with full or partial board."

In January 1856 the house was offered for sale for $12,000 (around $182,000 today).   In 1865 West 20th Street was renumbered, and the former Woodruff home got the new address of No. 335.  Lottie L. Jones, a teacher in Primary School No. 27 on 37th Street near 10th Avenue, rented a room here in 1868, just before Bowen G. Lord purchased the home.  Lord was the Captain of the Sanitary Company of Police.

The Sanitary Police had been formed in 1859 as an arm of the New York City Police Department.   The organization had “summary power to abate all nuisances on ferry-boats, tenement-houses, edifices suspected of being unsafe, manufactories and slaughter-houses,” according to The New York Times in April 1860.  The newspaper predicted that with the new Sanitary Police on duty “our City will present a novel spectacle of cleanliness during the coming warm season.”

Lord organized the Sanitary Squad of Police at its inception and took command of it.  The Times called him “An officer of excellent judgment, fully equal to the delicate and important duties devolving upon him in the enforcement of health laws.”  The newspaper also deemed him “in private life an estimable gentleman enjoying the confidence and respect of  a large circle of friends.”

In 1869 Captain Lord became ill.   The sickness progressed to the point that he was confined to the house on West 20th Street for about six months until on Wednesday August 24, 1870 he died in an upstairs bedroom.

About three years later the Lord home was purchased by the 16th Street Baptist Church as the home for its popular and opinionated pastor Rev. David B. Jutten.     The minister called attention to himself with his views that sometimes bordered on Protestant heresy.  On January 20, 1878, for instance, he preached a sermon that maintained that the physical tortures of hell were symbolic rather than actual. 

“It can hardly be supposed that we are to take the Scriptural descriptions of future punishment in their literal sense,” he said.  “The physical suffering is to be recognized as symbolical of a spiritual agony.  But though the suffering may be only mental, it is none the less terrible, for there is no more acute suffering than agony of the mind.”

It was about this time that the outmoded exterior of the house on West 20th Street was updated.  A pressed metal cornice replaced the original.  The windows were given modern lintels with incised decoration and attractive scrolled brackets, and the entrance was modernized with handsome fluted pilasters with foliate capitals and scrolled bases.  Above it a decorative pediment was added.  

Cast metal window lintels and updated door surround (today a bit rusty) brought to old house up to date.
Being pastor for a wealthy Baptist church with over 650 members had advantages beyond a capacious home.   On June 11, 1880 The New York Times reported that the minister would “with his wife, sail for Europe to-morrow morning at 8 o’clock in the Inman steamer City of Berlin, from the foot of Charlton-street, North River.  The reverend gentleman expects to be absent for three months."  A grand “farewell meeting” took place that night in the lecture room of the church.  Already arrangements for guest ministers for the summer had been made.

With the congregation increasing, at least partly because of Jutten’s efforts and high regard, a female member offered $50,000 towards the construction of a new church, provided the name be changed to the Memorial Baptist Church.  Dr. Jutten liked the idea and focused on fund raising for the new structure and land.  Before long he had raised another $20,000 toward the project.

But not everyone agreed with the proposal.  The congregation was split and bitter debates resulted.  Finally, in a major blow to his authority and leadership, the decision was made to stay in the existing building.

Jutten made his feelings known.  On October 28, 1883, shortly after the decision, he preached his last sermon as pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church.   The Times reported that “His remarks on severing his connection with the church brought tears to the eyes of many of the ladies present, while there were some among the men who were visibly affected.”

In a slightly veiled reference to the decision that he no doubt considered a slap in the face, Jutten spoke of the new pastor, “whoever it might be.”  He warned the congregation “not to smother him with kindness at first and treat him with coldness and abuse after he had served them for a time.”

When the church sold the property on West 20th Street it became home to Lieutenant-Colonel Albert N. Nicholson.  Nicholson, who had led the 47th Regiment during the Civil War, lived here with his wife and three sons for only a year before he died in the house in February 1884.  The parlor was the scene of his funeral on February 11 where, after the religious ceremonies, the Meade Post No. 38 conducted the services of the Grand Army.

The house at No. 335 West 20th Street seemed destined to be home to clerics and as the turn of the century approached it was owned by Trinity Church.  While many of the other homes on the street were now being used as boarding houses, it remained a single family home under the church’s ownership.
The Rev. J. Henry Watson lived here in the late 1890s.  Although Watson had two sons and a daughter, they were fully grown by the time he moved into the 20th Street house with his wife.   

Watson, in his 50s, had been around.  Upon graduating from the Berkeley Divinity School in Middleton, Connecticut, he had immediately become assistant rector at the fashionable Trinity Chapel in Manhattan.  He then moved on to churches in Stamford, Philadelphia, Hartford and New Rochelle.  Returning to New York City, he gave up parish work and devoted himself to the missions in the impoverished areas.

Watson also provided his services as the chaplain of the Army and Navy Aid Association.  The group provided help to veterans, many of whom had served in the recent Spanish-American War.  In the minutes of a meeting opened by Watson on May 18, 1900, it was noted “Many pathetic letters have been received, the most of them containing requests for work.”

The house would continue, for a while, to be a single family residence.  In 1908 the Secretary of the United States Council, No. 639, of the Royal Arcanum lived here—a Mr. McGahan.  The Royal Arcanum was, above all, a life insurance company.  But it functioned as a social and fraternal organization which required membership.  By the time McGahan moved into No. 335 there were nearly 260,000 members.

Members were furnished life insurance at cost.  The group also provided “for sick and distressed members.”  The Royal Arcanum recommended itself as a “favorable consideration of every man whom a sense of uncertainly of all things but death prompts to make sure provision for the support of his dependents after his demise.”

Before the brick facade received an ill-advised coat of white paint, the new metal details would have stood in marked contrast.
But the single family status of the building would not last forever.  In 1973 it was converted to apartments-three each in the basement and parlor level, two each on the upper floors.  And although someone thought that painting the brick white would be a good idea, the fa├žade of No. 335 is beautifully untouched.  

photographs taken by the author.


  1. A friend of mine has a splendid Greek Revival townhouse a block or so away from 335 which he has painstakingly restored to single family use. He told me a story about the neighborhood that is perhaps apocryphal, but which I pass on nevertheless: According to my friend, the West 20's began to be developed as a fashionable residential neighborhood by a single developer who had acquired much of the land in the vicinity. Unfortunately, concurrently, a NY Utilities company built a gasworks on 11th Avenue. Gasworks were apparently the most undesireable of neighbors, whatever process used at the time being dirty, noisy, horribly malodorous and dangerous to boot, with explosions and fires a regular occurance at gasworks throughout the country. According to my friend, this led to a rapid abandonment of the neighborhood by fashionable folks and the equally rapid conversion of many of the Greek Revival houses into tenement and bording houses. He attributes this rapid conversion, done in the cheapest possible manner by owners who despaired of the neighborhood ever reviving, for the fact that so much of the original Greek revival interiors survive behind cheap partitions and slapdash alterations. Again, there may be no truth to this, but i think it's an interesting story. Your blog is the best, by the way.

    1. Your friend is right, the Manhattan Gas Works was built at 9th Avenue and 18th Street as the western edge of Chelsea became industrialized. But that was not the only business that drove high-end homeowners away from the west side of 8th Avenue. By the 1860s there were turpentine and camphor distilleries on the west side of 9th Avenue as well as freight trains. He's also right about the amazing amount of mid-Victorian interiors that survive. Walk the side streets at night and look through the windows at ceiling medallions and gorgeous archways separating parlors and dining rooms.