|photo by Alice Lum|
In 1819 construction began on a two-and-a-half story brick house at No. 105 Mercer Street. Completed in 1820 it shared the Federal style elements of many of its neighbors—Flemish bond brickwork, prim dormers within the pitched roof, and a shallow brownstone stoop above an English basement. The builder distinguished No. 105 with especially fine details. The carved brownstone lintels of the openings and entrance altered plain panels with decorative vermiculated blocks. An extremely finely-leaded fanlight over the door radiated delicate spokes within an intricately carved frame. Fluted Ionic columns flanked the paneled door.
|Along with the delicate molding and lacy iron fan light, close inspection reveals carved rosette panels on the underside of the arch -- photo by Alice Lum|
While the house was by no means a mansion, these features elevated it beyond one intended merely for a working class family. Mary Boddy, who was the original owner, was listed as a “seamstress.” More likely she was a dressmaker, unless she were married to a successful merchant or craftsman. There were numerous seamstresses at the time. Needlework was among the most common professions for women and seamstresses most often worked at home or for a dressmaker, earning scant wages.
Dressmakers, on the other hand, were experienced and accomplished. They were responsible for producing (and often designing) an entire garment and the best dressmakers were paid handsomely. Only a dressmaker could afford to purchase and maintain a handsome home like No. 105 Mercer Street.
The neighborhood would enjoy its respectable nature for three decades before its homeowners moved northward. In the 1850s commerce had caught up to the district; but not in an especially good way. It not only became the center of entertainment; but many houses became boarding houses, often with shady character. Greene, Mercer and Crosby Streets during this period constituted New York’s most notorious red light district.
Current writers continuously brand No. 105 Mercer Street as one of these brothels. Reports of police raids and arrests do not mention the address. However the suicide of a young woman who lived here in 1853 may support the theory. The lives of prostitutes more often than not ended tragically; often in suicide.
On Sunday June 14, 1853 the 19-year woman old left No. 105 Mercer with a friend, Grace Howard. They walked to the drug store at No. 125 Greenwich Street where she purchased “an ounce of laudanum and a shilling’s worth of vitriol,” according to The New York Times a few days later.
Disconsolate, she had “declared that she would destroy herself on more than one occasion.” She returned to the Mercer Street house where she drank the poison. Someone rushed to the home of a nearby physician, Dr. Chalmers, but he was not home. “Another physician was applied to,” said The Times, “who sent two powders to be taken in warm water. The powders were of no service, and the poor girl died shortly after.”
The newspaper’s reluctance to give the girl’s name—in view of the suggestion that No. 105 was a disorderly house—was summed up in the final line of the article. “The deceased…has highly respectable connections residing in the City.”
The dangerous and sordid character of the neighborhood was evident in February 1863. Two doors away, the house at No. 101 Mercer Street had been converted to a saloon, as had the neighboring house at No. 99. Edward Dodge lived at No. 105 and on Friday night, February 6, at around 8:30 or 9:00 he heard pistol shots coming from the rear yards.
Immediately after, Dodge heard the rapping of a policeman’s club on the sidewalk—the signal for additional help. Two days later he told a jury “I went into the street and followed the officer in No. 99 where I saw deceased lying dead in the bar-room.”
The “deceased” was a deserter from the Union Army named Reid. He had been tracked to the saloon at No. 101 Mercer by Clark W. Beach, a detective and Inspector of the Recruiting Department; along with Police Officer Brady. When they attempted to arrest Reid, he “started to run through the hall toward the back door,” according to Beach’s testimony.
Reid jumped the fence into the yard of No. 99 and was shot three times by the policeman. Reid stumbled into the backdoor of the bar and pleaded with Philip Loew, the bartender “Philip, help me, I am shot.” Loew testified “I handed him a glass of water, but before he could drink it he fell to the floor, and soon afterwards expired.”
The owner of both houses at No. 105 and No. 103 was Gustave Herter. In July 1864, the year after the shooting of Reid, he began work on enlarging the basement areas of both properties. “As is usual in such cases, an excavation was made under or near the sidewalk,” reported The New York Times on June 23 a year later.
At around 1:00 a.m. on July 13, 1864 Amos M. Butler was walking alone along the sidewalk and fell into the construction hole. Court papers would explain that he “was found in one of these excavations nearly suffocated, and survived only a few hours after being taken out.” A year later Herter was in court defending himself against the $5,000 law suit filed by Butler’s widow, charging him with neglect.
Mrs. Butler alleged that “there having been placed there no sufficient and proper guards, he fell into the excavation, and was, by the fall, so badly injured that he died in a few hours afterward.” Herter’s lawyer argued that Butler was simply drunk.
He told the jury that “the excavation was well and sufficiently protected, and that none but a very negligent or reckless person could have fallen into it.” He added that “at the time of the accident, deceased was grossly intoxicated, and that his death was caused by his reeling and stumbling through the guards which had been placed there.”
The Times reported that “Much effort was made by the defence [sic] to show that deceased was a habitual drunkard, and especially on the night in question that he was grossly intoxicated, and not capable of taking care of himself.”
The low character of the neighborhood was finally transformed by the 1870s. Metal ware manufacturer Cassidy & Sons had taken over both No. 103 and No. 105 Mercer Street by 1875. The company apparently dealt in affordable household items, for on March 1 of that year it advertised in The Sun for “a first-class spelter caster.” Spelter was an inexpensive alternative to bronze or silver.
|The roof was raised to a full floor. The dark scar is evidence of a missing cornice -- photo by Alice Lum|
It may have been Henry Scheib who raised the attic to a full floor, as evidenced by the change from Flemish bond to regular bond brickwork. For some reason the paneled lentils were carefully copied and the exact proportions of the openings below reproduced. (It is possible that two of the lintels are the originals from the parlor level.)
Scheib advertised as a “Printer, Stationer and Lithographer” and the 1891 History and Commerce of New York said “This gentleman is an expert…making a leading specialty of mercantile printing and account books to order and has been established in the business here since 1890. His business premises are thoroughly equipped and well stocked in all departments.”
The show window that replaced the parlor openings displayed “stationery of every imaginable description, including all the most recent novelties of home and foreign production, and the assortments are always full, complete and choice.”
Henry Sheib’s stationery store would not last another year here, however. In 1892 the former house was headquarters for Erdody and Gerhardt, furriers. Mercer Street had become, by now, the center of the fur trade. The firm not only manufactured its furs on premises, but sold them here as well. On January 13, 1892 a fire on the first floor resulted in its loss of $1,200 in merchandise (about $30,000 today); and $300 damage to the building.
Fur dealers continued to make No. 105 their home for years. In 1896 G. Margulies was in the building, employing three men; and in August 1898 H. Judenfreind & Son, “manufacturers of furs and fur trimmings” moved here from Great Jones Street.
For nine years starting in 1901 A. Halpern & Co., manufacturers of “hats and caps” operated from the building. Its five employees each worked an average of 59 hours a week. Then, in 1909, No. 105 Mercer Street was headquarters for the contracting company of C. J. Degurle. The Plumbers Trade Journal commented that year “C. J. Degurle…is very busy with several alteration jobs. He is doing work on the new bridge tunnel connections for the Bradley Contracting Company.”
The SoHo district suffered more than half a century of neglect. Small businesses and factories continued to use the buildings; many of which were abused and suffered decay. Change came again beginning in the 1960s when artists discovered the old lofts. In 1965 a 23-year old jewelry designer stumbled across the vacant, dilapidated No. 105 Mercer Street. There were no windows on the upper floors and inside chunks of plaster littered the floors. She rented the house for $150 per month after the landlord installed utilities, a toilet and a sink.
The designer stayed on for five years before marrying and moving on. In 1980 the building was converted to an “Artists-Conjunctive” dwelling. Technically a single-family home; the Department of Buildings called it “Joint living work quarters of and for artists.” The Department stressed “At least one (1) occupant shall be an artist certified by the New York Department of Cultural Affairs.”
|The former shop window had been renovated to a more residential opening -- photo by Alice Lum|