Thursday, July 25, 2013

The 1861 Pie-Shaped No. 128 East 10th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Peter Stuyvesant, the Director General of the West India Company in New Netherlands, purchased land for his farm, or bouwerij, far to the north of the settlement on March 12, 1651.   The deal included, actually, two properties—Bowery (as the Dutch word became anglicized) #1 on which Stuyvesant constructed his home, and a portion of Bowery #2.  A small lane ran between the two farms that would eventually be known as Stuyvesant Street.

By the time of the American Revolution the land had been handed down to Peter’s great grandson, Petrus.  On November 30, 1787 he commissioned Evert Bancker, Jr. to survey and plot out the still verdant farmland into building plots and streets.  Little Stuyvesant Street ran due east and west and Bancker’s plan continued the alignment, squaring all the plots with the points of the compass.

As the century drew to a close, Stuyvesant Street, still closed and private, became somewhat of a family enclave.  On January 31, 1795 Nicholas William Stuyvesant married Catherine Livingston Reade.  A house was built for them that year at No. 44 Stuyvesant Street.  At the same time, Petrus gave a plot of land facing Stuyvesant Street just to the east along with 800 pounds towards the construction of the elegant St. Mark’s Church. 

A few years later his daughter Elizabeth was engaged to Revolutionary War office Nicholas Fish.  Petrus Stuyvesant constructed a brick-faced Federal-style home for the couple as a wedding present, completed in 1803, at No. 21 Stuyvesant Street.

The large plot abutting Elizabeth’s house to the east—a rectangle measuring 150 by 200 feet—was described in 1808 tax records as “Peter Gerard Stuyvesant’s garden.”  There is little doubt that the entire Stuyvesant family along the street used it.  Stuyvesant Fish would later recall that the garden grew flowers, berry bushes and two horse chestnut trees.  The family maintained a greenhouse on the lot, a stable and Emily, the cow.

Petrus Stuyvesant died in 1805 and for decades the plot would be known as “Elizabeth Fish’s Garden.”  
But change was coming to Stuyvesant Street.

On April 3, 1807 the New York State legislature appointed three Commissioners to lay out a grid plan for the city.  The far-sighted concept would result in the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan that dissected rolling farmland and country estates into streets and avenues—the foundation of the New York City we know today.

Unlike Evert Bancker, the Commissioners’ aligned the streets to the diagonal-position of the island rather than true compass points.  The conflict became evident when the grid was laid over the existing streets on the Stuyvesant land.

Unlike most of the existing streets that failed to comply with the new plan, Stuyvesant Street was allowed to remain.  The powerful sway held by the Stuyvesant family in the decision is evident in the minutes of the Common Council on January 25, 1830.  The Council recorded that the street would remain “both for Public convenience and for the accommodation of a large and respectable Congregation attending St. Mark’s Church as well as the owners and occupants of several large and commodious dwelling houses…all of which would be destroyed, or rendered of little value, if that street were closed.”

The cutting through of the new streets, however, went on as planned and in 1826 East Tenth Street was gouged through behind Elizabeth Fish’s home, obliterating her rear lot.    It created a triangle of land and cut the large garden down to a pointy plot. 

Perhaps out of respect for the aging Elizabeth, the Stuyvesant Family left untouched the odd triangle of land where the Fish House and the garden sat.   Half a century after moving into her home, Elizabeth Stuyvesant died on September 16, 1854.  Four years later the triangular property was sold to Matthias Banta for development.

In 1861 the block was finished.  A uniform row of elegant five-story Italianate homes reflected the up-scale tone of the neighborhood.   The parlor floors, accessed by wide brownstone stoops over English basements, were of rusticated stone.  Four stories of red brick above were trimmed with carved stone.
The row of brick-and-stone homes tapered to a blunted point -- photo by Alice Lum
The architect had to deal with the difficult shape of the plot.  As the houses approached the tip of the triangle, the configuration of the houses—especially No. 128 East 10th Street at the eastern point—necessarily had to conform.  The problem was resolved by creating a wedge-shaped home, the point of which was abruptly sliced off.   Faced in stone, the narrow eastern elevation was dressed with protruding stone quoins and a wonderful  Italianate two-story bay overlooking the tiny remnant of garden.  The peculiar shape resulted ultimately in No. 128 being the most visually appealing of the row.

The charming eastern end of No. 128 faced the tiny remnant of Elizabeth's garden -- photo by Alice Lum

Visually-appealing or not, the shape perhaps made living in the house unappealing.   In 1873 the house was purchased by the Deborah Sinclair.  And while the neighborhood continued to be upscale, by 1878 No. 128 had become a boarding house run by William A. Boylston. 

Henry C. Denning was boarding here on July 8 of that year.   The heat of the summer night necessitated leaving windows open and around 3:00 in the morning a burglar slipped into the house.  The daring thief entered Denning’s room and stealthily began bundling up the man’s clothing.  The burglar was more daring than quiet, however, and Denning woke up.
He sprang from the bed and attempted to seize the intruder.  “The burglar drew a revolver and threatened to kill Denning if he raised an alarm or made an outcry,” reported The New York Times the following morning.  The gun made Denning rethink his actions.

“The appearance of the revolver quieted Denning and the burglar thereupon ordered him to return to his bed quietly.  Denning complied with the request of the burglar, and the latter then left the house without any plunder.”
The offset entrance was placed on East 10th Street -- photo by Alice Lum

Wealthy Victorian women gave time and money to charitable causes, often involving social reform and outreach.  The New York City Mission and Tract Society offered aid to various Christian charities, including the missions that sought to fight alcohol, depravity among women and other social sins.  In 1885 Mrs. W. H. Osborn leased No. 128 to house the students of the Society’s Training School for Christian Workers.

The Training School sought to elevate impoverished young women by providing them with skills to earn a living.  They were provided board here and given classroom instruction.  While contemporary institutions were teaching the sewing and domestic skills needed to go out into the world, the Training School seems, by a 21st century perspective, to have been a bit less practical.  In 1898 the curriculum included Mission Study Class, Personal Worker’s Class, Blackboard Drawing and Physical Training, Lectures on the Reformation, and Synthetical Study of the Bible.

“The Better New York” described the object of the School.  “Not only is there thoroughly training in Bible study, but practical contact with the ignorant and superstitious people from foreign countries is afforded the students of the school.  Some of the best missionaries have been prepared through this study for work in the far South and West.”

Vermiculated quoins run up the corners --photo by Alice Lum

The “Baby Fold” was also housed here.  The object of the out-of-home nursery “to care for well babies under two years of age, in cases of emergency among sick or poor families where mothers are sick or dead.”

In 1900 a donation of $125 would provide tuition and board for one student for a full year.   The hefty contribution would amount to about $3,000 today.

By now Deborah Sinclair had died and her estate continued to lease the house to the Training School for Christian Workers for several years.  Then, on December 7, 1916, The Sun reported that “for the first time in more than forty years,” the “small, irregular shaped building at the junction of East Tenth and Stuyvesant streets, known as 128 East Tenth Street, has been sold.”

The buyer was St. Mark’s Church.  The church was aggressively buying neighborhood properties and along with No. 128 now owned No. 127, 129 and the Stuyvesant Apartments at the north east corner of Second Avenue and Tenth Street.   The church renovated the old house “in keeping with the plan of the Gramercy Neighborhood Association for the betterment of the section, “ reported the New-York Tribune on February 5, 1919.

photo by Alice Lum

By1922 it was home to John S. Block and his wife, the former Anita G. Cain.  Block was an esteemed attorney who had several times been candidate for Justice of the New York Supreme Court.   An active socialist, he was a member of the League for Industrial Democracy, the American Association for Labor Legislation, the Civic Club of New York, and  the New York County Lawyers Association.

Block was also the president of the Workman’s Co-operative Publishing Company that owned and published the New York Call.  The daily newspaper was the second of three that were affiliated with the Socialist Party of America.

The pie-shaped house was home to Ann Hemenway through in the 1970s.  A graduate of Barnard College, she was Superintendent of the Manuscript Department of Doubleday and Company.  The company called her in 1974 “one of the best chief readers in publishing.”  She died in 1976.

The structure's fifteen minutes of fame came in 2005 when it was used as the apartment of character Sylvia Broome (played by Nicole Kidman) in the political thriller movie "The Interpreter."

The remarkable wedge-shaped Victorian house sitting on what was the Stuyvesant garden where Emily the Cow grazed still attracts well-deserved attention.  The prow of the elegant group of Italianate homes, it is a central element in an architecturally superb neighborhood.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. So much History. Thanks!

  2. Baltimore is full of wedge houses. Everytime a street takes an unusual swerve or abrupt angle, a house was built to conform to it. Makes for really unusual and engaging streetscapes