Friday, May 17, 2013

The 1818 House at No. 83 Perry Street

No. 83 (right) was once a mirror-image of its neighbor at No. 85 -- photo by Alice Lum

Retired clothing merchant Aaron Henry dived headfirst into real estate speculation in 1817.  That year he began construction on nine brick houses in Greenwich Village, among them the quaint pair of mirror image homes at Nos. 83 and 85 Perry Street.

The little two-and-a-half story houses were clad in Flemish bond brickwork and completed in 1818. Their recessed doorways were accessed by brownstone slab porches that spanned the entrance to the low English basement below.  The modest residences featured few extra details—like the carved rope molding around the entrance.   But the builder sensitively placed the doors on the opposite ends of the houses, creating a pleasing balance.

Henry’s ambitious plan was perhaps a little too aggressive; in 1821 he lost the two houses.  They were sold to satisfy his creditors at public auction at the Tontine Coffee House, far to the south at Wall and Water Streets.  Ironically, a year later the devastating yellow fever epidemic that swept New York City forced throngs of New Yorkers north to Greenwich Village.  Had Aaron Henry been able to hold onto his property for one more year, the calamity would probably have been his financial salvation.

Prior to 1865 the homes and businesses of New York’s residents were protected by a loosely-organized group of volunteer fire companies.  Henry Springstein, who listed his vocation as “carpenter,” was living in No. 83 in 1855 and volunteering with the Guardian Engine Company No. 29.   Carpentry was, perhaps, not Springstein’s forte.  Four years later he listed his occupation as “fruit dealer.”

Sometime between Henry Springstein’s residency and that of James Kerrigan in 1898 the top floor (and that of No. 85) was raised to a full third story.    The 28-year old Kerrigan had been a candy maker in Brooklyn where he lived with his wife and three children for 10 years.  Trouble came in 1893 when the Kerrigans hired Jessie Shaw was hired as a domestic.

The young woman caught the eye of her employer and the following year the pair ran away.  The resolute Mrs. Kerrigan was as much bloodhound as wife and traced them through Montreal to Detroit “and then lost the trail and returned to Brooklyn and involuntary widowhood,” reported The New York Times.

Single motherhood in 1890s New York was not an easy role.  The wronged woman obtained a job and placed her two oldest children, 12-year old Joyce and 10-year old Jerome, in the St. John’s Home on Willoughby Avenue in Brooklyn.  She kept her 5-year old son Aubrey with her.

Suddenly, in late October or early November 1898 Kerrigan and Jessie Shaw began living at No. 83 Perry Street.   Kerrigan went to the St. John’s Home, posed as Jerome’s uncle and was allowed to take him away.

The boy’s mother was not about to have her son stolen away by her cheating husband.  “Mrs. Kerrigan, who has a sort of amateur detective genius,” reported The Times, “traced the youngster to the Perry Street house, and haunted the neighborhood for some days with determination and a cab.

“Finally her vigilance was rewarded by seeing the boy on the street.  She promptly bundled him into the cab and drove triumphantly home with him.”

Afraid of losing her children to her kidnapping husband again, she quit her job and brought all three of them to No. 191 West 9th Street in Brooklyn.  Her brother George Dennison helped support her.

But then she let her guard down.  On the evening of November 20, 1898 she allowed a friend, Nellie Crossen, to take the children to St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church.  When they emerged from the church after services, Kerrigan and Jessie Shaw were waiting in ambush on the other side of the street.

Kerrigan grabbed his daughter, but she struggled free and ran.  “Jerome, however, who had fallen into the woman’s clutches, was not so lucky,” said the newspaper.  “His father, aided by the woman, lifted the boy into a Court Street car and started toward Manhattan.  The youngster struggled and cried, but the passengers set him down for a refractory child and forbore to interfere.”

Kerrigan and his concubine disappeared into the night with the young boy.

The house soon became home to a much more respectable family—that of Richard A. Olmstead.  Olmstead was a retired corset manufacturer whose business had been at No. 781 Broadway from 1860 to 1880, opposite the A. T. Stewart emporium.

On June 17, 1890 his wife and daughter had helped form the Little Mothers’ Aid Association.   The object of the organization was “to provide summer day outings and winter industrial classes for those children of the tenements who are too young to be wage-earners, and upon whom household labor and care of the younger children fall, while parents are at work.”   After the death of her mother, Miss J. Olmstead was both the Secretary and Superintendent of the Little Mothers’ Aid Association for years.

On May 30, 1900 Richard Olmstead died in the little brick house on Perry Street.

In 1914 Edith Dupont was living here.   That summer she became acquainted with Frank Rowan who lived nearby at No. 369 West 11th Street.  According to The Evening World the young man “paid her much attention.”

A friend of Rowan’s father, Joseph Fitzhenry, had taken an interest in him and had given him money to get on his feet.  It was a nice gesture, but Rowan felt he needed more cash.  On August 20, 1914 while his benefactor’s family was out, he was seen entering the Fitzhenry house by a fire escape.

Joseph Fitzhenry reported to police that when he returned home, jewelry and clothing worth $300 were missing.  Detectives put a tail on Edith Dupont.

On August 27 they “saw Rowan join her at Glen Island.  She was overcome with humiliation when the young man was arrested, and convinced the police she did not know he was not a proper person to have as a friend,” said The Evening World.

The house at No. 83 Perry Street seemed destined to receive bad press and it happened again on December 2, 1928.  James E. Sullivan was living here and acting as steward of the Beacon Elks Club in Beacon, New York.   Prohibition agents raided the lodge and found alcohol being served.  Sullivan’s name was plastered in The New York Times and the Elks Club was padlocked for a year.

The alterations to the windows of the two upper floor windows created an odd mish-mash of openings -- photo by Alice Lum

In 1931 the house underwent strange alterations.  The three second story windows were replaced by two oddly-chunky ones and the third floor windows were elongated.

After Allyn Richer Marsh, who had been with the Willcox Construction Company, died in February 1950 in the French Hospital in Chelsea, Ruth May took up residency.  Ruth was a literary agent whose most illustrious client was, perhaps, Irish writer Walter Macken. 

Because Macken was traveling from Ireland to Manhattan in November 1950, Lovat Dickson addressed a letter to the writer in care of Ruth May on Perry Street.  In it he broke the news that the Literary Guild had chosen “Rain on the Wind” for following publication the May.  “This means a fantastically large circulation, and a considerable sum of money for you, so that the cottage in Connemara should now be within reach,” said Dickson.
photo by Alice Lum

The house, today, is divided into two duplex condominium apartments, one of which was listed in 2012 for $2.5 million.  Little trace of the original interiors is to be found; yet the brick house with its quirky jumble of windows has a particular charm after nearly two centuries of fascinating stories.

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