Thursday, November 29, 2012

The 1807 Jasper Ward House -- No. 45 Peck Slip

photo by Alice Lum
In the first years of the 19th century, the Ward brothers, Jasper and Bartholomew, grasped the opportunities of real estate development in the burgeoning city of New York.  In 1806 Jasper purchased the Captain William Lowndes estate consisting of half of the island that sat in the Hell’s Gate section of the East River.  The second half was later purchased by Bartholomew, and the land became known as Ward’s Island.

Jasper had already been busy along the Manhattan shoreline, buying potentially valuable lots along the ship slips with hopes of extending the buildable property with landfill.  His “water-grant” gave him the lots that extended 200 feet into the East River from the “low-water mark.”  

While Ward was eager to have the shoreline extended, other property owners were less enthusiastic.   On February 28, 1803 the minutes of the Common Council noted “The Street Commissioner to whom was referred the petition of jasper Ward for filling in the Lots between Pecks Slip and Waltons Wharf to the permanent line reported that the proprietors of the other Lots are averse to the measure, and that it is not expedient at present to grant the prayer of the said Petition Ordered that the said Report be confirmed.”

The landfill was finally granted and Ward judiciously waited about five years before building on the site—allowing the ground to settle and become stable.   Between 1807 and 1808 he erected three brick commercial structures at Nos. 41, 43 and 45 Peck Slip on land which a decade earlier had been under water.   Each had a heavy stone base with expansive, multi-paned windows for retail or office space.  Above, three floors of red brick with brownstone trim provided office space or rented rooms for seafaring sailors.

The mortar had barely set when Jasper Ward advertised No. 45 Peck Slip in the New York Evening Post on February 21, 1807.   Ward described the property as “a large and convenient counting-room on the second story, and one or two floors to let in the four-story brick store, corner of South Street and Peck Slip.”   He used all his marketing skills to tout the dock-front location as “a very excellent situation for a shipping and commission merchant, the store being directly in front of the broad and commodious pier, the east side of the Slip, at which vessels may discharge and take in their cargoes with more convenience than at any other Pier in the city.”

Henry B. Lambert answered the ad, opening his counting-room here on May 1, 1807.  He stayed on for three years.   Around the same time Benjamin Deforest moved in.  Deforest ran an import-export grocery business, Deforest & Smith, here, bringing hard-to-find items to New York consumers from distant lands.    When his partner started his own business and Deforest took in his nephew, the firm became N. Deforest & Co.  The wealthy grocery importer would continued to run his business from No. 45 Peck Slip for 17 years.

Ward’s renters apparently were more interested in profit than in maintaining the properties and on April 18, 1810 the Common Council deemed them a “nuisance.”   They were ordered “forthwith to cause the necessary repairs at their own expence [sic].”

Barnabas Osborn and Philander Hanford, also wholesale grocers, purchased the building in 1824 and twelve years later Osborn bought out his partner.  At the same time N. Hubbard & Co., another wholesale grocer, was doing business in the building.  The extent of Hubbard’s business can be judged by the amount of cargo it received a decade later in March and April alone.  In March the Barge C. Durant arrived in New York with a shipment of 420 boxes of candles for Hubbard.  Within a few weeks the Barge Henry delivered 440 barrels of “provisions” and the Barge Brutus docked with 296 barrels of provisions the same month.

The building continued to change hands throughout the 19th century.  In 1837 Charles H. Pratt purchased it, running his shipchandler business, Pratt & Burr Chandlery, from the location until 1844.  Importer Elijah Roberts sublet part of the street level store.

Peter Hoeft ran his liquor business from No. 45 Peck Slip (last building on the row) when this engraving was made in 1850.--NYPL Collection
The widow of G. B. Miller, a Water Street tobacconist, purchased the building in 1844 and leased it to Peter Hoeft, a liquor dealer, who established his store on the ground floor and lived upstairs.   In 1880 Peter W. Hoeft improved the aging building by spending $300 to replace the corner granite post with a 7-inch diameter cast iron column.   The old windows were replaced and pressed metal lintels installed.

The retail space continued as a liquor store when Frank Glover bought 45 Peck Slip at public auction in 1894.   Succession of owners would slow when, in 1918, Mary and Frank Glover purchased the building with Marie and Anna Conlon.  The property would remain in Glover and Conlon hands until 1962.

By the early 20th century the South Street seaport area was the center of New York’s wholesale fish industry.  Fishing boats docked along the waterfront each morning filled with freshly catches which were quickly bought up by the scores of fish dealers.  Among them was Acme Fish Company at No. 45 Peck Slip doing business on the ground floor while the upper stories served as a rooming house.

The 1920s gained a reputation as a time of rampant organized crime—bootlegging, extortion and strong-armed techniques of gangsters.    The seaport’s profitable fishing industry became rife with mob activity.

In July 1925 a grand jury heard testimonies of more than forty witnesses who told of attempts to force them out of business because they would not join “the combination” of eighteen wholesale fish dealers.  The group, which included Acme Fish Co., controlled over $20 million in fish sales a year; fixing prices paid to the fishermen and paid by the consumer.  Fishermen who did not agree to the prices were left with no one to buy their catch.  Any retail fish market who bought from a non-cooperative wholesaler was boycotted by the group. 

One woman, Laura E. Donsdall, who lived on a small plot of land on Pepin Lake, Wisconsin, thought it would be a good idea to sell lake fish.  She began buying the catch of local fishermen and selling it on the South Street market.   The tiny business was perceived as a threat to the organized dealers who began buying up land surrounding Donsdall “to drive her off her land” and harassing her.

David Finkelstein, owner of Acme Fish Co., was indicted on conspiracy to violate the Sherman Law.   The company survived and remained at No. 45 Peck Slip for at least another decade.

photo by Alice Lum
In the meantime, in 1928 architect Charles M. Straub and contractor Joseph Dembeck initiated a one-year alteration that converted the rooming house portion to offices and replaced the old stairs with new and assumedly safer ones.

As downtown Manhattan sprouted modern skyscrapers the South Street seaport area remained relatively unchanged.  Early 19th century dock front buildings survived essentially overlooked and generally abused.    In 1962 the Inamly Corporation purchased No. 45 Peck Slip and that year the other two buildings erected by Jasper Ward were demolished.

In the early 1960s No. 45 Peck Slip (also known as 151 South Street) was derelict and vacant -- photo Library of Congress
In 1973 Con Edison announced the construction of a large electrical substation which would wipe out the last of Ward’s 1807 buildings.   Instead, however, the power company agreed to building around the lonely and derelict building.

A side view shows the Con Edison substation that was built around the 1807 building.  The restoration team had its work cut out for them -- photo Library of Congress
Con Edison donated it to South Street Seaport Museum which had been founded only a few years earlier.    In 1983 architect Robert E. Meadows headed an ambitious restoration of the devastated structure.

photo by Alice Lum
Today called the Jasper Ward House, the stranded structure is embraced by a utilitarian power substation that tries its best to fit in to the historic district.  The Jasper Ward House is, perhaps, a bit too restored with cutesy pseudo-Victorian painting on the fa├žade more expected in Disney World than on an historic restoration.  But it is a small price to pay for the building's rescue at the 11th hour and its subsequent recycling as a viable structure.


  1. This is a wonderful account! I'm a descendent of Frank Glover, who sold whiskey from Peck Slip under the label "Windsor Club." I've got a label (date uncertain), but I don't know much else about my great-great grandfather's business. Anything you know would be helpful. Thanks for your work, here.

  2. From 1980 to 1985 the building was leased by the Seaport to the Center for Building Conservation, a not-for-profit set up by graduates of the historic preservation program in the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture and Planning. Meadows and Robert Silman (the engineer) provided professional guidance, but CBC, whose Executive Director was Mark Ten Eyck, aided by Raymond Pepi and Harry Hansen, used the building as a training tool for students in the preservation program, where they finally had a chance to learn first-hand how to cut stone, lay brick, install a slate roof, hew a gutter out of solid wood, scarf timber framing and other restoration trades. Archeology was also carried out by CBC below the ground floor revealing the wood cribbing foundation that was still under water. It was CBC that cleaned and repointed the facade, restored the granite and roof using money donated by the Astor Foundation and the Kaplan Foundation among other philanthropies. CBC disbanded in 1985 and is not responsible for the current tarting up of the facade.