Saturday, December 21, 2013

The 1873 Row at Nos. 305-311 West 22nd Street

photo by Alice Lum

By the time that John H. McCunn began construction on four adjoining townhouses at Nos. 305 to 311 West 22nd Street, almost all of the block had been developed for decades.  The block, known by the lofty name Lenox Place, was lined with respectable homes of financially comfortable families.

As McCunn’s four brick-faced houses rose on the site of a former garden, however, he was experiencing disturbing personal problems.  John McCunn’s career was one of glorious triumphs and humiliating defeats.  Born in Ireland in 1825, he sneaked aboard the ship Ironsides at the age of 16 and landed in New York with no money or acquaintances.

Deciding to be a lawyer, the ambitious boy managed to impress Charles O’Conor who gave  him a job as office messenger.  The New York Times later remembered “Having picked up a slight knowledge of law in Mr. O’Conor’s office he was admitted to practice at the New-York Bar at the age of twenty-one.”

McCunn’s success continued as he not only organized his own law firm; but found favor with the Tammany Hall party—a situation that resulted in his being elected City Judge in 1860.  With the outbreak of the Civil War he left the bench to fight and was honored for his bravery at the Battle of Malvern Hills.  But when he made disrespectful remarks about his commanding officer, he was ordered court-martialed.  He avoided trial by resigning; however General McClellan issued an order that John McCunn could never again be admitted into the United States Army.

Returning to New York, he was repeatedly re-elected as Judge; during which time he invested heavily in Chelsea real estate.  He was responsible not only several speculative houses; but for his own residence at No. 208 West 21st Street.

The four houses at Nos. 305 to 311 West 22nd Street were nearly completed when the Judge’s greatest personal humiliation came to pass.  In April 1872 the Judge was forcibly removed from the bench and charged with eight counts of malfeasance and corruption.  On April 21 The Times ran a full-page explanation of the charges under a sub-headline that read “Mal and Corrupt Conduct in Office—Illegal Seizures and Receiverships—Arbitrary Arrests—Startling Array of Alleged Facts.”

The very public disgrace would prove too much for the 59-year old McCunn.  In July he traveled to Albany to face the State Senate and upon his return to New York was described by The New York Times as “exceedingly excited mentally over the action of the Senate in finding him guilty of malconduct and malfeasance in office, and voting for his removal from the Bench.”

On the night of his return he told his family “that he would not live through the trial he was being subjected to, and thought that he had been cruelly treated.”  He spent much of the evening pacing in his bedroom and “talked incessantly about his ‘disgrace,’” according to the newspaper.  Around 4:00 in the morning on July 6, he “dropped into a gentle slumber.  Dr. Gano, who had been in attendance, then left him for half an hour, and on his return found him dead.”

The Times, in a sort of backhanded compliment, said “In person Mr. McCunn was agreeable and popular with the rougher classes of society, being always anxious to keep them favorable to him.  As a politician, he was mistrusted, even by those with whom he labored.”
photo by Alice Lum

The four houses on West 22nd Street were completed in 1873.  Designed as two pairs of mirror-image homes, each pair had a shared stoop over deep English basements.  A stylish Second Empire style mansard roof with slate tiles and segmental-arched dormers added a cosmopolitan air to the four rowhouses.

John H. McCunn’s will was “duly proved” on December 4, 1872 and the leasehold interest on the houses were part of the estate.  But back-and-forth legal arguing and suits among James M. Gano, Thomas McCunn and Jane W. McCunn, the executors of the estate, resulted in the houses remaining vacant for five years.  Finally, on March 19, 1877, according to Supreme Court records, “the sheriff sold the leasehold interest in question.”

James A. Flack bought No. 305 West 22nd Street on June 20, 1878.  Flack leased the house to Virginia Herring who promptly moved in and established a boarding house.  The already-contentious history of the house continued when, on January 12, 1880, Flack decided he wanted his house back.  Virginia Herring was quite happy where she was.  The rights of both parties to the house ended up in one court session after another well into 1881.

Virginia won out and continued running her boarding house.  Among her domestic employees here in 1884 was 20-year old Margaret Leonard.  Early in May that year Margaret started talking to the young policeman who had the night post on the block.  The innocent flirtation would end in the girl’s undoing.

Bachelor George W. Ballou had been on the police force about two years.  He lived on Bleecker Street and earned a comfortable salary of $800 a year—about $17,000 today.  The New York Times described him as “a young man and almost boyish in appearance.”

Before long the handsome cop and the servant girl had moved on to intimacy; a situation which could only end happily for Margaret with marriage.  George did not see it that way.  He later told a reporter “that he had been intimate with the girl, but said that she had encouraged him in the intimacy.”

Margaret’s hopes of marriage were crushed when George Ballou refused.  The stand-off came to a nearly-fatal end on August 10 that year, starting when Patrolman Gensheimer noticed Margaret pacing up and down 10th Avenue around midnight “in a very excited manner.” Gensheimer watched the girl for a few moments, then asked her what was the matter.   

“I’m waiting for Officer Ballou.  Where is he?” she replied.

When Gensheimer told her that George was on his post, she drew a revolver from under her cloak and started off.  The policeman grabbed her by the right hand, in which she held the firearm.  Margaret broke loose, screaming “Let me go.  I’ll kill him and myself too!”

Officer Gensheimer caught up with Margaret across the street and wrested the 38-calibre handgun from her grip.  She was taken to the station house hysterically weeping.  George Ballou returned from duty and entered the back room where she was held, she jumped to her feet.  “There he is, the villain; I’ll kill him yet!” she screamed.

In 19th century New York a woman’s lost virginity equated with her loss of respectability.  There was no chance of Margaret's finding an upright husband now, unless it was Ballou.  According to The Times, “she told Acting Captain Lonsdale that Ballou had betrayed her under promise of marriage.  She made her condition known to her betrayer and he had cast her off.  Then she had procured the revolver, and she had intended to kill her betrayer and end her own life.”

When she spilled her heart to Justice Power later in court, he “considered that the girl was not at the time responsible for her actions, and he therefore discharged her.  She was taken away by her brother-in-law.”

Assumedly, Officer George Ballou kept a close watch over his shoulder on his late night duty around the 22nd Street house after that.

Later that year more violent drama played out along the row of homes.  No. 311, too, was a boarding house and Lena Walker lived in a room in the basement with windows facing 22nd Street.  Joseph Rinall lived upstairs and the morning after a snowstorm in December he began clearing the snow off the sidewalk.
The light snowfall in 2013 did not result in the catastrophic consequences of  the snowstorm of 1884 -- photo by Alice Lum

“The easiest method of disposing of the snow seemed to him to throw it up against the basement window,” explained The Times.  “Lena was highly outraged at having her windows thus blockaded, and she went out on to the sidewalk to remonstrate with Joseph.”

As the woman railed at him, Rinall continued shoveling and throwing the snow against Walker’s windows.  The fact that he not only ignored her, but continued to bury her windows enraged Lena Walker whose tirade became vicious.  Finally Joseph had enough of her insults and decided to quiet her diatribe.

“Joseph at first paid no attention to her remarks, which were not altogether complimentary,” said the newspaper, “but continued to throw the snow against the window, until her arguments became wearisome, and he applied his shovel to her head.”

It was the end of Lena Walker’s outburst.

photo by Alice Lum

In 1888 James Flack sold the house at No. 305 for $8,000—almost $70,000 today.  It continued to be operated as a boarding house.  Oswald G. Day’s mother lived here in 1893 and when he and his wife, Caroline, separated, he brought their 2-year old daughter Glady’s to live here with her grandmother.

Caroline went to court alleging that Day had “forcibly” taken the child from her.  Oswald Day countered saying that the mother “was not a proper person to have the care of the child.”  Caroline Day’s personal activities must have indeed been scandalous, given Victorian tendencies to give mothers custody of their children over fathers; for Judge McAdam ruled in the bitter battle allowing “the child to remain with the father, with permission to the mother to see it.”

It would seem that property values on the block were quickly declining; for eight years after Flack sold No. 305 for $8,000; Peter F. Meyer sold No. 311 for just $2,300.

Meanwhile the John Sullivan family lived at No. 307 West 22nd.  The family had left Staten Island to move into the house in 1891.  In 1898 the children, Anna, Matthew and Mary, were all grown; but still living in the rowhouse.  Twenty-four year old Anna developed a nervous disorder which her sister said made her “subject to wanderings of the mind.”  She had been under the care of Dr. Lewis H. A. Schneider of West 22nd Street for some time.

In September of that year, Anna left the house with $5, telling the family she was going to buy new shoes.  She never returned home.  Matthew filed a missing persons report and the family searched in vain.

Within a few days newspaper reports told of a young woman found dead in Stapleton, Staten Island.  According to The Sun on September 18, 1898 “From the descriptions of the dead girl printed in the newspapers Miss Mary Sullivan came to the conclusion several days ago that it was her sister, but she was too prostrated by the thought to go to Staten Island until yesterday.  Meantime the body had been buried on Thursday at the Richmond county farm.”

Mary and Matthew finally made the trip to Staten Island where they were shown the skirt and jewelry of the dead woman.  “The sister recognized the skirt as one she had made and then she fainted on the spot.”  Anna, who worked in the Manhattan Life Insurance Company office, had apparently taken the $5 for shoes and purchased a revolver.

The disturbed girl, “in one of these flighty fits” had probably taken her own life, said her sister.  The Sun reported that family members had no suspicion of foul play.

As the turn of the century came and went, the residents of the row were mostly a shady lot.  In 1903 Edward Diesen, who was living in No. 305, was arrested for stealing several thousands of dollars in silk with two accomplices.

One exception was artist James H. Gardner Sopher who was living in No. 311 at the time.  In 1904 he exhibited three water colors in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists—his “Japanese Legend of Urashima and the Sea Princess,” a portrait of Miss Katherine Shearar, and “The Music Lovers.”

Most other residents in the four houses were less upstanding, however.  In 1913 plumber John Curtin, living in a room at No. 307, was arrested for cutting his wife’s face with a broken beer bottle, then breaking the right wrist of Patrolman Fisher whom he knocked down while resisting arrest. 

In 1924, in the midst of Prohibition, 52-year old longshoreman Bernard Doherty rented a room in No. 309.  On December 18, 1924 he was found dead here from what The Times called a “rum death.”  On his table was a half-pint flask partly filled with bootleg liquor that was ruled by New York Hospital as responsible for his death.

Small-time criminals continued to populate the once-respectable houses for the next decade or so.  In 1930 38-year old John Thompson, who lived in No. 305, was found dead in the nearby speakeasy in the basement of No. 238 West 22nd Street.  The Times reported “There were bullet wounds in his head and in his chest.”  The same year 32-year old George Evangel of No. 307 was killed by police in a failed armed robbery.

In 1934 tenants of both No. 305 and No. 311 joined forces in an elaborate racket of extortion.  “The ring’s specialty, the police say, was to stage a fake murder, accuse their victim of the crime and compel him to pay money under threats of having him arrested,” reported The New York Times on June 21.

Among those arrested in the ring who lived in No. 305 were  were Elvira Bove, 34-years old; Giuseppe Perrone, 36 years old; and Mr. and Mrs. James Longo.  Elvira Bove was released on a staggering $10,000 bail.  Also involved in the scheme was 41-year old Salvatore Marciere who lived in No. 309.

The row had lost its stoops by the 1930s.  Photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

At some point the handsome stoops were removed, the entrances moved to the basement level, and the four houses combined as one large apartment building.  The original entrance doors at the parlor level were converted to windows. Then, in the final decades of the 20th century the seedy character of West 22nd Street changed.  Apartment buildings and rowhouses received renovations as trendy couples and families rediscovered the Chelsea neighborhood.
Convincing copies of the original brownstone stoops undid the unsympathetic 20th century renovations -- photo by Alice Lum

The four houses at Nos. 305 through 311 were sympathetically and surprisingly restored.  The stoops were recreated as were the entrance doorways.  With only a few exceptions—the plate glass transoms over the entrances, for example—the attractive homes look much as they did in 1873 when they were completed.  And they successfully hide their sometimes less-than-respectable pasts.

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