Monday, November 12, 2012

The Lost Thomas Paine House -- No. 309 Bleecker Street

In 1914 the Paine House still retained much of its integrity -- photo NYPL Collection
In the years following the Revolutionary War Greenwich Village was still an isolated, rural community surrounded by country estates and meadows.   Herring Street ran roughly east and west, dotted with mostly modest homes and small commercial buildings like groceries and dry goods shops.
While villagers carried on their quiet existence, Thomas Paine was enjoying the rewards of his work and writing.    The State of Pennsylvania gave him $2500 for “expenses,” New Jersey gave him a home in Bordentown and New York presented him with a farm at New Rochelle.  He lived most of the time in Philadelphia, enjoying the life of a refined gentleman.  But Paine’s own outspoken writings would change his life.
In 1787 he sailed for Havre to exhibit his model of an iron bridge to the French Academy of Science.  Paris was on the brink of revolution and Paine made his opinions known—most notably concerning the royal execution.
“My having voted and spoken extensively, more so than any other member, against the execution of the King, had already fixed a mark upon me,” wrote Paine later.   The inventor, rationalist and author realized he was in danger of arrest.  “Pen and ink were then of no use to me.  No good could be done by writing…My heart was in distress at the fate of my friends, and my harp was hung upon the weeping willows.”
While expecting to be taken away to the guillotine, Paine wrote the first part of The Age of Reason, a work that would prompt his anti-Christian reputation.  Six hours after he finished the book he was arrested.   When he was finally released from prison in 1802, he was sick and old.
Paine sailed to New York, moving into a wooden house on Herring Street owned by a couple known only as Mr. and Mrs. Ryder.    The modest two-and-a-half story home was one of only three on the block between Columbia Street (later named Grove Street) and Reason Street which was named in honor of Paine’s The Age of Reason (it would later be bastardized to Raisin Street in 1827 and subsequently renamed Barrow Street).
The Ryders had another boarder, a French woman named Madame Marguerite Bonneville and her two sons.    Paine, now feeble and confused, rarely left the modest frame house.   Samuel J. Willis remembered decades later “I almost daily passed the house on Herring street where Thomas Paine resided, and frequently, in fair weather, saw him sitting at the south window of the first story room of that house—the sash was raised, a small table or stand was placed before him, with an open book placed upon it which he appeared to be reading.   He had his spectacles on, his left elbow rested upon the table or stand, and his chin rested between the thumb and fingers of his hand; his right hand lay upon his book, and a decanter, containing liquor of the color of rum or brandy, was standing next to his book and beyond it.
I never saw Thomas Paine at any other place or in any other position.”
Paine’s residency in the Herring Street house was not serene.  He had become overly-sensitive to criticism and was alienated from most of his former friends.  Bouts of apoplexy had left him an invalid and members of the clergy constantly attempted to gain access to the author in order to persuade him to recant his writings in The Age of Reason.  
Cunningham Janvier later wrote “It was during Paine’s last days in the little house in Greenwich that two worthy divines, the Rev. Mr. Milledollar and the Rev. Mr. Cunningham, sought to bring him to a realising sense of the error of his ways.  Their visitation was not a success.  ‘Don’t let ‘em come here again,’ he said, curtly, to his housekeeper, Mrs. Hedden, when they had departed; and added: ‘They trouble me.’  Mrs. Hedden denied them admission—saying with a good deal of piety, and with even more common-sense: ‘If God does not change his mind, I’m sure no man can!’”
As Paine’s frailty increased, it became necessary to move him from the Ryder house.  In his 1847 biography Thomas Paine, G. Vale noted “That, when Thomas Paine’s sickness increased on him, and boarding house attention was scarcely sufficient, Madame Bonneville took a small house for him, May, 1809, in Columbia street, and here she attended on him till his death.”
Only a few weeks later, on June 8, 1809 at around 9:00 in the morning, Paine died.
Within the next two decades Greenwich Village experienced an explosion in population and development.  In 1829 Herring Street became part of Bleecker Street and the Ryder house was renumbered No. 293 Bleecker.  Around this time it was purchased by the wealthy Delaplaine family.
Around the time of the Civil War, when Isaac C. Delaplaine was elected to the 37th Congress as a U.S. Representative from New York, Bleecker Street was renumbered again.  Now the old Ryder house was No. 309.
By 1844 Bleecker Street was bustling with commerce and the house had become the home of J. Tabor’s Confectionary store.   There would be many commercial incarnations.  In 1855 Lee & Co. did business from the ground floor.  That year the firm received two “diplomas” at the Crystal Palace exhibition—one for an “enameled wire sign” and the second for “gauze-wire stand screens.”
Valentine’s Manual of the Corporation of the City of New-York noted in 1864 that “Isaac C. Delaplaine, Esq. of No. 278 Fifth Avenue… has had its lower rooms altered into a meat and vegetable market.”
Valentine's Manual included a map showing the Ryder house "C" as well as the Grove Street house where Paine died, "E" -- copyright expired
The street-level where Thomas Paine had sat by the window reading nearly 70 years earlier was a “beer and billard saloon” in 1876, according to The New York Times.   But through its various uses, New Yorkers always remembered the clapboard building as the Thomas Paine House.
In 1920 when Anna Alice Chapin wrote her book Greenwich Village the house had become decrepit.  “You may find the house if you care to look for it—the very same house kept by Mrs. Ryder, where Thomas Paine lived more than a century ago.  So humble and shabby it is you might pass it by with no more notice than you would pass a humble and shabby wayfarer.  Its age and picturesqueness do not arrest the eye; for it isn’t the sort of old house which by quaint lines and old-world atmosphere tempt the average artist or lure the casual poet to its praise.  It is just a little old wooden building of another day, where people of modest means were wont to live.”
Five years after Anna Chapin called it "humble and shabby," No. 309 was photographed with its similar next door neighbor -- photo NYPL Collection
Chapin did notice that at least some of 18th century architectural detailing was intact.  “Ugly, dingy rooms they are in that house, but glorified by association.  There is, incidentally, a mantelpiece which anyone might envy, though now buried in barbarian paint.  There are gable windows peering out from the shingled roof.”
The author was amazed that the two houses where Paine last resided still survived in 1920.  “A dozen times 309 Bleecker Street and 59 Grove Street have almost gone in the relentless constructive demolition of metropolitan growth and progress.  But—they have not gone yet!”
Anna Alice Chapin spoke too soon.
In the midst of the Great Depression the Delaphaine family still retained possession of No. 309 Bleecker Street.  After a century of ownership, in February 1930, they sold the property to Alfred Heyman.  The New York Times reported “Mr. Heyman, the new owner, is having plans prepared for improving the site.”
photo NYPL Collection
In 1930 history and architecture still took second stage to “progress.”  The fact that an 18th century wooden structure, once home to one of the country’s most brilliant thinkers, still survived was incidental to the property value.
About a week after the sale, on March 9, The Times reported “The old Greenwich Village home of Thomas Paine, the rationalist, is to be demolished to make way for a modern building.  Nearly a century and a quarter have elapsed since the author of ‘Common Sense’ and ‘The Age of Reason’ took up residence in the wooden house adjacent to Bleecker and Grove Streets that is now about to come down.”
The upper windows are gone and part of the clapboarding has fallen away as the house is prepared for demolition.  The reverse of the photo reads "the house where Thomas Paine lived shortly before his last illness is shown in its last stages of decay." -- photo NYPL Collection
Amazingly, by today’s perspective, there was no outcry, no attempt to save the miraculous survivor.    It was replaced by a one-story store “of tile and brick,” only to be demolished in 1957.  A utilitarian, architecturally bland one-story supermarket took its place.
The Thomas Paine House gave way to an unremarkable one-story supermarket-turned-clothing store.  -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. Terribly distressing. Who knew such a gem lasted so long? I wish I could have seen it - even in distressing shape.

  2. Today on Bleecker Street between Grove and 7th Avenue, the cornice (?) from a building roof collapsed. The news was reporting the address as 309 Bleecker Street. Seemed odd, since REISS doesnt appear to be crumbling! Turns out they misstated the address- it was across the street at 310-312 Bleecker.