Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Much-Altered Horace Greeley House -- No. 35 East 19th St.

photo by Alice Lum
In 1831 Samuel B. Ruggles purchased swampy land, part of James Duane’s Gramercy Farm.  He proceeded to drain the tract and lay out what would be the elegant Gramercy Square (later renamed Gramercy Park), surrounded by 60 building plots.  That same year20-year old Horace Greeley arrived in New York City.

Born to humble farmers in Amherst, New Hampshire, Greeley had left school at the age of 14 to serve as a printer’s apprentice in the newspaper offices of the Northern Spectator in Vermont.  After working as a printer for the Erie Gazette in Erie, Pennsylvania, the ambitious young man set off to make his fortune as an New York City editor.

In 1836 he was working as a printer when he married Mary Young Cheney.   The opportunity to finally become an editor came in 1838 when he took the reins of the Jeffersonian, a Whig campaign newspaper read by 15,000 nationwide.  Two years later he was editing the Log Cabin as well, another campaign newspaper, this one with a subscription list of 90,000.  In 1841 he merged the two papers into what became the New-York Tribune.

Greeley’s newspaper quickly grew, becoming the leading Whig publication in the city and gaining nationwide readership.  He used it to promote his personal political and social ideals—anti-slavery, political reform, temperance, and vegetarianism among them.  The Tribune was widely known as the “Great Moral Organ.”

By the early 1850s Samuel Ruggles’ grand plan of Gramercy Square had firmly taken root and the blocks surrounding the exclusive enclave filled with comfortable homes.   Nearby, the block of East 19th Street, between Fifth and Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South), was lined with identical red brick houses built on speculation.  The three-story homes sat above high stoops over English basements.  They were designed with financially secure merchant classes families in mind—like that of Horace Greeley.

Greeley purchased No. 35 East 19th Street and, despite his growing fortune, would remain here and in his upstate estate farm, Chappaqua, until his death.    Greeley's neighborhood boasted several other literary residents like his next-door neighbor, the poet William Allen Butler.  Greeley convinced the poet sisters Phoebe and Alice Cary to move to Manhattan from Cincinnati about this time and they settled in around the corner on East 20th Street.

The Illustrated American later described the home as “an ordinary brick building back of the Peter Goelet mansion on Broadway.”   The rear yard of the Goelet house was home to an exotic menagerie—a cow, peacocks, storks, and pheasants.  So it is unsurprising that William Allen Butler claimed that he was unperturbed by the goats Greeley kept in his own back yard.

Butler’s patience with the over-wrought Greeley continued.  As the houses in the row were all alike, Butler reported that the editor, “his mind intent on great affairs,” would sometimes mistake Butler’s home for his own.

The Greeley House in 1890, prior to renovation -- The Illustrated American, October 4, 1890 (copyright expired)
Greeley was not always found at the 19th Street house, however.  Mary Cheney Greeley developed what The New York Times in 1926 described as “almost insane melancholia” following the deaths of five of their seven children (Arthur died at the age of 5, two infants died at childbirth, Mary Inez at 6 months and Raphael at 6 years).  After Arthur’s death (she was convinced he had been a spirit medium), she hired 11-year old Margaret Fox to live in the house to contact him.

Her demeanor became “shrewish” and she was reportedly a poor housekeeper.  Despite the fact that the pair was devoted to one another, Greeley spent much of his time at hotels.  A man from Washington DC once stopped by the house hoping to interest Greeley for a lecture.  He wrote of his encounter with Mary Greeley:

I rang loud and repeatedly, and at last a lady came down with sleeves tucked briskly up her arms and her hair twisted into a knot on top of her head.
“Is Mr. Greeley in?”
“He is not.”
“Do you know where is he?”
“I do not.  He is not stopping here now.”
“Can I see Mrs. Greeley?”
“You can.  I am Mrs. Greeley.’
“Do—was---is—does Mr. Greeley come home sometimes?”
“Occasionally.  He has not come home this week.”
“Do you know where he is stopping?”
“I do not.  He stopped at the Everett House last week.”

The gentleman checked the hotel, to be directed to the New York Hotel where he found the editor in his rooms there.

Nevertheless, Horace Greeley entertained in the house at No. 35 East 19th Street, hosting fellow Grahamites (the Reverent Sylvester Graham not only pushed for temperance, but dietary reform including vegetarianism...hence the Graham cracker), literary and political figures here.   In his office on an upper floor he wrote his "History of the American Conflict," and other works.

The year 1872 would be both momentous and tragic.  Greeley was at the height of his power and fame and was nominated to run against Grant in the presidential elections.  Five days before election day Mary Greeley died in her husband’s arms, the victim of what The New York Times said was a “severe attack of lung disease.”

On November 6 the New-York Tribune reported on its editor’s defeat for the Presidency and two days later Greeley’s last column in his beloved newspaper appeared.   Behind his back an in-office conspiracy resulted in the sale of stock to anti-Greeley interests.  In the period of one week he had lost his wife, the Presidency, and the newspaper he had founded and loved.

The New York Times later said “The triple blow snapped the harness of a brain already disordered.”  Greeley wrote “My sorrows do not come single file, but in battalions.”  He was committed to an asylum in Pleasantville, New York and within three weeks, on November 29, he was dead.

Greeley’s two surviving daughters lived on briefly in the 19th Street house, but before long it fell victim to commerce as did the rest of the houses along the block.   In 1890 The Illustrated American noted that it “is now let out to several tenants, who carry on various kinds of business in it from basement to roof.  In the basement where the philosopher used to be the host at temperance dinners, and where he entertained fellow-Grahamites, a stone mason has his office.  In the parlors where he often was found in shirt-sleeves playing with his children, a typewriting business is conducted.  There are no dwelling-houses across the way nowadays, for Sloan’s [sic] mammoth carpet establishment has taken possession of the territory.”

The brick-faced residence-turned-business building was shortly-thereafter converted beyond recognition.    The front was stripped off, to be replaced by a cast iron façade with expansive window openings.  What had been essentially four stories became three, with a retail space at street level.   An arcade shop window was flanked by two entrances—one for the store and another for the businesses upstairs.

Multi-paned opaque windows survive above the shop window -- photo by Alice Lum
Conradi Manufacturing was one of the upstairs businesses in 1901, makers of “jewelry cases.”  But by World War I the entire building was used by the Manhattan Paper Company.   By 1920 the company was ready to move on and Paper magazine noted that “the structure will be used for other industrial service.”

The sale of the building in January 1921 to Rae Dreyer would trigger the first of several rapid fire turnovers.   In July Dreyer sold it to David L. Cohen.  A month later, Cohen sold the building to Edwin E. Besser.

Besser leased both of the upper floors in 1922—one to Louis Cohn & Son, tailors; the other to Alfred Munzer, dealers in dolls and novelties.  But within the decade social and economic upheaval would make itself felt at No. 35 East 19th Street.

In 1935 the building was home to a number of labor organizations intent on staging demonstrations and protests.   It was headquarters to a “sheet metal workers’ union, said to have Communist leanings,” according to The Times, which was responsible for a protest on January 10, 1935 that resulted in the arrest of 102 members.

Also in the building at that time was the ungainly-named Conference of White Collar, Professional and Cultural Organizations.  On April 27 the group paraded about 200 businessmen in front of the office of the Emergency Relief Bureau on Broadway to protest a proposed investigation of 11,000 white collar employees “on the relief rolls to weed out those not entitled to assistance.”

Depression Era workers were being employed by the Works Progress Administration which created jobs for the unemployed.  The City Projects Council, with offices here, joined other labor organizations in promoting strikes against the WPA for higher wages.   On August 12 it called for an across-the-board strike of more than 10,000 skilled workmen rather than accept the $93.50 per month offered them.

President Roosevelt was not intimidated and issued his famous “work-or-starve” order.  Of the 10,000 strikers predicted by the City Projects Council, only 656 men failed to show up for work.

By mid century M. Singer Sons was here, designers of modern furniture; a tradition continued today by techlineStudio.  The company designs and installs custom-fit modular furniture systems.

A red enameled plaque is affixed to the wall informing the passerby who cares to pause that once, a century and a half ago, one of the nation’s most influential publishers lived here.
photo by Alice Lum


  1. Wow, talk about a remuddling! I never would have recognized the place without the plaque. Very interesting story, though. Poor Mrs. Greeley. We should never forget how lucky we are to have modern medicine.

    1. You are so right. So often when I read old newspaper accounts, I recognize what appears to be dementia, postmortem depression, etc. In Mrs. Greeley's case, her disorder could probably have been easily treated today.

    2. 35 East 19th was the residence of the great modern dancer, Helen McGehee, and her husband, the renowned artist and sculptor, Alfonso UmanÌ , for many years.