Thursday, January 30, 2014

The 1846 House at No. 44 Ninth Avenue

No. 44, on the corner, anchored the row of houses and stores -- photo Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

In the 1840s elegant brick or brownstone-faced townhouses would begin lining 14th Street as the city inched ever northward.  But the homes erected on the blocks closer to the North River (later renamed the Hudson) would be less refined; built instead for working-class or merchant families.

In 1845 Henry Josephus Sanford began construction on a string of six Greek Revival homes.  Stretching northward from the northeast corner of 14th Street and Ninth Avenue, they would rise three stories with dormered attics.  Completed a year later, they featured handsome pedimented brownstone lintels and interesting box cornices.  Most likely each of the homes had a storefront at street level.

The tall windows were slightly recessed below pedimented brownstone lintels - photo Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

The corner house, No. 44 Ninth Avenue, was occupied by Dr. Richard S. Seaman in the 1850s.  With him in the house were his wife and son; along with three boarders.  Two of these were attorneys, William H. Wiland and William I. Jones, and the other was a druggist, Ephraim Folsom.  It is possible the Folsom ran his pharmacy from the ground floor.

The commercial entrance was around the corner at No. 357 14th Street.  It would be the beginning of a long medical and pharmaceutical tradition for the building.   In 1865 Dr. Levi Jewett was living down the block at No. 233 West 14th Street.  He returned to New York following service as assistant surgeon with the Union Army’s 14th Regiment.  In 1866 he would move into No. 44 Ninth Avenue.

Jewett established his medical practice and drugstore in the building.  Sharing the upstairs with the Jewetts was the family of William H. Stiles, a Deputy Sheriff.  The well-respected doctor was a favorite when he campaigned for the position of Coroner in 1879.  The New-York Tribune noted “Dr. Levi Jewett, one of the Republic candidates for Coroner, is earnestly supported for that office by his political associates.”

A group of eminent physicians signed a petition of support that read in part “His medical education, his services as Surgeon in the Union Army and in the Government hospitals, and his experience as a practitioner in this city, qualify him for the position.”

Jewett’s brother, Charles, was also a physician and drugstore owner, operating his business a block away at No. 91 Eighth Avenue. 

It appears that Levi Jewett lost the election and perhaps that was what prompted him to leave the medical field.  He moved in 1882 to Middle Haddam, Connecticut where he became “engaged in agricultural pursuits.”

Marcus F. Bender had arrived in New York City while still a boy and became a junior clerk for Charles H. Bell, whose drugstore was at the corner of Charles and Bleecker Streets.  While working under Bell he learned the pharmacy business and eventually was licensed by the New York State Board of Pharmacy.  When Levi Jewett’s drugstore became available, Bender purchased it.  Before long he also purchased Charles Levi’s drugstore; but, as recorded in the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record “Five years later Mr. Bender sold this store to its present owner, George N. Syms, and devoted all his time to the Fourteenth street store.”  

Bender’s drugstore would be a familiar landmark on the corner for a quarter of a century.  Well-like and respected, he was a member of several clubs and societies and was one of the founders of the Interstate Retail Druggists’ League.

Marcus Bender owned the business, but still leased the property from the Henry Josephus Sanford Estate.  In 1887 the estate remodeled the drugstore storefront, replacing the granite corner post with a cast iron column.  Updated show windows were installed at the same time.
Bender became marginally involved in a questionable suicide in the summer of 1893.  Mrs. George Davis lived on West 17th Street and took a stateroom on the steamer Saratoga that left New York City for Troy, New York on June 20.  That night her cape and hat were found on the aft deck and the woman was nowhere to be found.

The New York Times reported that she “is supposed to have committed suicide by jumping overboard” however questions were raised by a bottle found in her stateroom.  “Investigation of the stateroom showed a bottle partly full of chloroform, but labeled alcohol and bearing the stamp of M. F. Benders, 357 West Fourteenth Street, New-York.”  Why a gentlewoman would be traveling with chloroform—mislabeled—was puzzling.

In 1894 The Pharmaceutical Era praised Bender’s above-board reputation, saying “he is a bad man for smugglers to run up against.  He believes in buying goods legitimately.”  One such crook found that out on September 6, 1894 when the well-dressed young man walked into the store and offered to sell Bender a pound of phenacetine and suphonal for $10 each.

Because the prices were substantially below market value Bender immediately suspected the chemicals were smuggled.  Thinking quickly, he told the man that he was interested in both articles, but he did not have the ready cash.  If he would just return at 2:00 he would have the funds to buy the goods.

As soon as the man left the store, Bender telephoned W. H. Schieffelin & Co., the American agents for the manufacturers of the chemicals.  The firm sent a representative along with two detectives.  Promptly at 2:00 the man reentered the store and was arrested.

Around this time Marcus Bender inherited “a modest fortune” from relatives in Syracuse prompting the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record deemed him “comparatively wealthy.” 

Bender’s unblemished reputation was put to the test in 1896 through the actions of his clerk, William Chamberlain.  The man became bitter when a routine customer, 75-year old James Anderson, complained to Bender that Chamberlain was “inattentive to business.” 

The clerk attempted to exact revenge on the elderly man when he came to the drugstore in October 1896.  Anderson asked for 10 cents worth of quinine powder.  Chamberlain filled his order and took his dime.  The aged Anderson returned to his home at No. 690 Hudson Street and on the night of October 24 took the full dose.  What he did not realize was that Chamberlain had given him more than ten times the amount he had asked for.

The Druggists Circular and Chemical Gazette reported that Anderson “took 120 grains of quinine in one dose and came near dying.”  Having recovered, the old man sued Marcus Bender for $250 for “the pain he suffered and the time he lost by what he says was Mr. Bender’s clerk’s fault,” said the Gazette.

The entrance to the Ninth Avenue Elevated Train was on the corner.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

On Monday January 28, 1907 Marcus F. Bender died suddenly at his home at No. 123 West 95th Street at the age of 58.  Bender’s son, Leach H. Bender, was a doctor; but the drugstore was left to his widow and daughter.  The American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record noted that it would “be conducted by his executors in the interest of his widow and daughter, for whom he has otherwise provided comfortably.”

On May 5, 1941 none of the original dormers had been altered yet.  Interestingly, there is only one on the 14th Street side.  photographer unknown.  From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Throughout the 20th century the corner building would be home to a variety of businesses as the neighborhood became known as the Meat Packing District.  For three decades from 1945 to 1975 it was the Blue Star Food Shop and Luncheonette; the Old Country Kitchen Restaurant from 1980 to 1993; then Nick’s City Kitchen Restaurant until 2003.

Today the ground floor where Marcus Bender dispensed quinine and elixirs is home to The Diner, another restaurant in what is now a trendy upscale district of designer clothing stores, Google headquarters and a sleek Apple store.  But the picturesque row of 1846 houses survives as a reminder of a much different era along West 14th Street.

Two of the original dormers along Ninth Avenue survive unaltered -- photo Nicolas Lemery Nantel /


  1. Do you have a sense of what the origional floorplans of the upper floors were? It is interesting to read contemporary census records and see how many people unrelated occupied what appear to be relatively small dwellings in so many of these middle/working class residences. I have often wondered how it was all done.

    1. I do not know what the original layout of those houses would have been; however I, too, have often wondered how they crammed so many people into what seems to be such small spaces.