Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The 1831 De Forest House -- No. 26 Bond Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1831 James Roosevelt sold the property at No. 26 Bond Street to merchant Alfred De Forest.  Whether Roosevelt was responsible for the construction of the handsome red brick mansion on the lot; or if De Forest had it built is unclear.  Whichever the case, the new Federal-style residence was exquisite.

What would become known as the Bond Street District was just developing and within a decade would be among the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in New York.  The city’s most prominent and wealthiest citizens built lavish, if stylishly-restrained, homes here; red brick edifices trimmed in contrasting white marble.  In front of each house along Bond Street two trees were planted, creating a regimented and handsome row of foliage and elegant residences.

Guests crowd around a Bond Street home after a wedding in 1857 --

The De Forest house would set the bar for neighboring homes built shortly after.   The Flemish-bond red brick façade rose three stories to a dormered attic.   The builder spared no expense, executing the refined entranceway white marble.    Stone steps graced with elaborate cast iron railings led to the doorway with an arched Gibbs surround—an enframement interrupted by blocks of stone, in this case vermiculated (carved with wavy, wormlike lines), and named after the architect James Gibbs.
Despite the building's 20th century abuse, the exquisite marble Gibbs surround and the original stoop survive -- photo by Alice Lum
Inside intricate plasterwork adorned the ceilings and rich woodwork, marble mantels and a glass skylight above the graceful winding staircase added to the upscale tone of the home.

Alfred De Forest was the nephew of Benjamin De Forest, a wealthy merchant doing business at No. 185 South Street.  Benjamin had come to New York around 1804 and, although a shoemaker in Connecticut, he opened a shop in the harbor area at No. 31 Peck Slip know as Benjamin De Forest and Company

In 1811 he convinced his nephew to leave Connecticut as well and brought him into the business--which was now De Forest and Smith since Benjamin’s partnership with Gershom Smith in 1805.  The  uncle and nephew each had a sizable fortune.

Alfred had married the only daughter of Augustus Wright; and upon his death she had inherited a considerable fortune which, as well.   Alfred inherited her large estate when she died.

Benjamin was married to Mary Burlock, “the beautiful daughter of Thomas Burlock.”  Upon the death of Mary’s wealthy brother, Henry, she inherited a large portion of his estate.   Benjamin and Mary originally moved into Alfred’s house at No. 20 Beekman Street; but since 1826 they all had been living at No. 27 Bond Street, directly across the street from the new house.   Now, in 1831, the extended family moved into the elegant new home at No. 26 Bond Street.
photo by Alice Lum

Alfred De Forest had no children; and Benjamin and Mary had two daughters, but no sons to continue the business under the family name.   Concerned that there was no one to carry on the business under the family name, they brought distant relative George B. De Forest into the firm around 1842 or 1843. 

George had been in the dry goods business at No. 86 Cedar Street and lived at No. 30 Great Jones Street, close to the De Forest house.   In a confusing tangle of surnames, George B. De Forest married one of Benjamin’s daughters soon after joining the firm and moved into the Bond Street house with the rest of the family.

When Alfred De Forest died in 1847 he left his entire estate to Benjamin who died three years later.  Benjamin’s estate was estimated at approximately $1.5 million—about $31.5 million today.   Although George and his wife stayed on in the Bond Street house for a while, the migration of society would soon prod them northward to No. 66 East 21st Street.

In 1853 the house was sold to John Haggerty.   Two years later the leading merchants of New York set out to compile a list of all citizens worth $100,000 or more.  The New York Times said that the purpose of the resulting pamphlet was “to ascertain the capital employed in trade and the wealth at the command of and ready for use in ‘backing up’ those engaged in it.”

High on the list was John Haggerty whose assets were listed as $1 million.  The Times called him “Of Irish parentage and formerly of the firm of Haggerty & Austin, auctioneers, and the richest man in that business.”

By the end of two decades the Bond Street neighborhood had severely changed.  No longer fashionable, its millionaire residents had forged northward.  Their fine homes with mahogany doors on silver hinges were now used as boarding houses and worse. 

In 1880 No. 26 Bond Street was a boarding house run by French-born Eugene Regard and his wife Mariette.   Along with the Regard family and the eleven Swiss boarders living in the house—most of them watch case makers—was Herman H. Wolff, a Prussian.  Unlike the hard-working watch case makers, Wolff turned out to be a scalawag.

During the first week of March that year Wolff presented himself at the home of Abiel B. Marks at No. 62 West 34th Street.  Wolff was seeking a job on Marks’ household staff as a waiter.   Although Wolff presented a stack of references from the Reverend Dr. A. C. Morehouse and a number of respectable families he claimed to have worked for; Marks somewhat foolishly failed to check them out.

The New York Times later said that “from the man’s manner and personal appearance [Marks] became convinced that he had a jewel of a servant.”  Wolff was hired; much to his employer’s rapid regret.

On the night of March 26 while the household was asleep, Wolff filled a trunk with silverware, jewelry, wearing apparel, and books.  He lugged the trunk to Overin’s livery stable on West 39th Street and, telling the proprietor he needed to hire a hack for Mr. Marks, had himself and the trunk taken to No. 57 Bleecker Street.  With astonishing gall, he told the stableman “to send the bill to his employer.”

Among the rare books Wolff had stolen were three volumes of Shakespeare, a volume of Milton and the Marks family Bible.  It was the last item that most distressed the millionaire, for, as was customary, it contained the Marks family genealogy. 

Wolff shaved off his whiskers to disguise himself and went into hiding.  Detectives found the Bible and the Shakespeare volumes in a Bowery pawnshop where the thief had pawned them for $5.  The Times noted that “Mr. Marks was delighted at this discovery, and, hastening over to the pawnshop, redeemed his books, and carried his much-prized Bible home in triumph.”

The shady Wolff would not remain a free man for long.  The newspaper reported that “A number of other articles were recovered by the detectives, but the dishonest waiter kept out of the way until Saturday, when he was seen in a Bowery beer saloon and arrested.”  Pawn tickets for the rest of the items were found on him.

As commerce crept into the Bond Street neighborhood, the house was converted in 1882 to include a “workshop.”   In addition to what was apparently a retail space in the basement level, rooms were leased upstairs.  On March 18, 1883 the house was the scene of the spring meeting of the National Association of General Passenger Agents of the Railways of the United States.   It was an important meeting, since negotiations were necessary to calm disputes between the various railroad lines.

The New York Times reported that Commissioner Fink “may possibly be able to satisfy the Western grumblers and prevent the rate war which some railroad men think inevitable.”

But the once-lavish rooms were the wealthy De Forest family had lived were now not simply being used as meeting rooms.  On the night of July 25, 1888 the house was raided by detectives headed by Anthony Comstock.  On the second floor a gambling house was operating.   The New York Times reported that “Theodore Brown, the reputed proprietor; William Bascome, the dealer; and James Kelly, the lookout, were captured.  They were locked up at Police Headquarters.  Six other persons found in the room were allowed to depart.  All the gaming articles found were seized.”

The neighborhood was soon the center of the fur trade and in 1888 Herman Coney ran house furrier shop in the building.    Another furrier, Edward Metcalf of No. 18 West 4th Street, convinced an employee, William Woolsey, to rob Coney’s establishment.  Woolsey, an immigrant, had been in the country only a few weeks when he was enticed into the evil deed.   On November 6, 1888 Woolsey broke into Coney’s shop and made off with $1,000 worth of “sealskin sacques.”

Other businesses moved in to the old house within the next two years.  In 1890 another furrier, M. J. Klein & Co. was here, as well as Columbia Neckwear Co. and trimmings firm Max Blau.  Upstairs boarders still took rooms, including the widow Frances Levine.  Yet the boarders still shared the upper floors with illegal gambling houses.

In the 19th century the term “poolroom” referred to illegal gambling parlors where horse betting was held.  Telegraphed race results were received and bets won and lost in the murky rooms.   On March 25, 1890 The Times reported that George & Co.’s poolroom on the second floor here was doubly-dishonest.

When detectives arrested William J. Williams, “a telegraph operator and ‘horse fiend,’” on the technical charge of tampering with Western Union telegraph wires, the police said “The real charge, however, is tapping the wires of George & Co.’s poolroom, 26 Bond-street, so as to manipulate race-track reports, and the Central office detectives and Capt Brogan believe that an extensive conspiracy back by plenty of brains and money has been nipped in the bud.”

A year later the poolroom was still in operation; now run by William Smith, who also found himself in front of a judge on September 10.

Meanwhile, downstairs the legitimate fur dealers continued their trade.  In 1894 C. H. Lehman manufactured and sold furs here; and by 1910 fur merchant Drucker & Holmstock Co. was doing business from the address.

At the turn of the last century, No. 23 Bond Street, across the street, still retained its residential appearance -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
By 1920 there were no longer boarders in the house.  Business now operated from all floors and both the basement and parlor levels had been heavily altered for commercial purposes.  The block, once tree-lined and quiet, now bustled with delivery trucks and workers.  

At some point in the 20th century the elegant parlor windows were obliterated for an industrial-looking store window -- photo by Alice Lum

Demand for small business space was such that on November 17, 1920 the agents for the property, Charles F. Noyes Company, announced that it was raising the lease amount on the building from $10,000 a year to $15,000.  The Times remarked that “This increase indicates the scarcity of space in the Lafayette Street district just south of Astor Place.”

As the garment and millinery districts overtook what had been the furrier district, the house at No. 26 Bond Street attracted small businesses like the hat shop of Paul Hendler.  The 65-year old got himself into hot water in November 1936 when he was caught selling “ash-can hats.”

Later period Greek Revival-style houses across the street were home to hat shops in the 1930s -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
A two-year old law prevented “the sale of second-hand and made-over hats as new.”  A printed linen tag was required to be sewn into the hat telling the consumer that it was a refurbished hat.  Unscrupulous wholesalers, however, paid “scavengers” to search trash cans to find discarded women’s hats.  The scavengers were paid one to five cents for each hat.

Hendler pleaded not guilty, insisting he had no idea that the hats he was selling were second-hand, refurbished goods.  To his possible defense, an investigator said “It developed that many retailers had been selling ‘ashcan’ hats without knowing they had been retrieved from ashheaps and garbage cans.”

By the time Paul Hendler was dealing with accusations of cheating his customers, the once-refined homes of Bond Street that still stood were in a miserable state of abuse.  No. 26, however, retained its glorious entrance, its Federal dormers and, amazingly, much of its interior detailing.

During the second half of the 20th century the house once again saw residential tenants.  Twenty-three-year old James N. Fouratt lived here in 1967.  It was the Age of Aquarius and the idealistic Fouratt joined a group of similar-thinking youths on July 22 headed out to make a positive difference.
photo by Alice Lum

A Special to The New York Times from Newark, New Jersey reported that “About a dozen New York hippies dressed in jump suits, mini-skirts, safari hats, buttons and painted faces carried Negro children on piggy-back rides and gave out flowers and groceries today at a Negro housing project here.”

The Douglas Apartments housing project had been the site of tumult during the six days of rioting that resulted in no fewer than 21 deaths.  Now the flower children intended to spread love.  They staged a “be-in” which Newark police, already stressed, did not welcome.

James Fouratt was charged with “creating a disturbance and failing to obey a policeman while handing out leaflets.”   The New York Times reported that, like that police, not all the residents of the housing project welcomed the unrequested show of support.

“’I don’t know if its going to do us any good to have people like you on our side,’ a Negro woman told one of the hippies,” reported the newspaper.

Mailboxes and wiring insult the amazingly surviving interior details of the entrance hallway --
As the 21st century dawned, the old Bond Street neighborhood experienced a renaissance of a type.  The house at No. 26 was converted to a multiple-family dwelling and sold in 2013 for $10 million.  A rare surviving relic of a refined and elegant residential period; it still retains some of the interior details that hint at its former glory when its owners landed on the list of New York’s wealthiest citizens.

A "coffin niche" where the De Forest family once placed flowers or statuary survives on the gracefully-winding staircase --


  1. I wish you would have taken pictures of the Hallway renovated as it is now. It's truly a beautiful site. CAN you add the new hallway photos. Just ring doobell # 1R, 2R, 2F or 4 to gain access to the hallway. Just tell the tenant you need to take a photo of the hallway for your blog here. Or I can send you some photos

  2. BTW, the construction of 26 Bond street started in 1829 and it was completed in 1831/1832 during James Roosevelt's ownership. Thus, it appears that Roosevelt purchased the property as an investment to only sell it once the building was constructed.

  3. I guess this is a reasonable glimpse of what 31 Bond across the street might have looked like?

  4. Seve -- precisely. 31 Bond would have been very similar, or possibly like the later homes in the vintage photo above.

  5. You may like this 3D animation of 26 Bond Street

  6. I lived in the back portion 2nd floor from 88-90 it was my first NYC apartment. $400 mo - I loved it Skylight large windows etc ... my roommate mother owned the building. He was often gone for weeks in a faraway land called Williamsburg Brooklyn.. (it’s hard to share how far away and foreign Brooklyn was at that time.) He had a dog I would come Hm and there was mountain sized piles of Poo as he had not been walked. So I quickly said I’ll walk him.. he was a German Shepard mutt and gentle as can be. Back then before pocket dogs in the city “Dogs” were mostly for protection So with my 6’ frame MC leather motorcycle jacket and “my dog “ I could walk any ware. A group of guys walking toward me day or night would be the ones to cross to the other side of the street. Haha I would often go to CBGBs as it’s down the blk and as I had no money it was perfect because tickets were often $5 I don’t think that the area had been re-branded into NoHo yet SoHo was still the gallery hub and not the Clothing Mall it is now. My roommate a great guy sadly had a habit that cursed and chased him. We talked a lot when he was there. As I had moved to the city to be a painter he would give me tips and tell me story’s about some of his friends to check out. He told me about this great guy that was always at the place They would get High talk about music “but he OD 2weeks ago you would have liked him” that’s why I am going to Brooklyn to get clean. The guy he was talking about was Basquiat. Sadly he died too OD years later in his basement antique shop where the restaurant is now. I also would talk with Robert Frank and his lovely wife June on bleaker st at the time I didn’t know who we was he said Oh I just take pictures June is the real artist .We just chatted about the day sit in the sun ramble about painting art etc. I think we all have certain fondness for our first New York apartment when we move here to start our story ... But 26 Bond street for some reason now seems to be making me more nostalgic than ever.