Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Federal Survivor at No. 73 East Houston Street

photo by Alice Lum
When Mary Bayard married the socially and politically important William Houstoun in 1788, her father memorialized the match in an unusual way.  Nicholas Bayard III cut an east-west road through his country property and dubbed it Houstoun Street.  Later, as the city inched further northward, Houstoun Street was extended eastward and connected to the existing North Street—once the northernmost boundary of the city’s East Side.  There were now an East Houstoun and West Houstoun Street.

By the 1820s significant development was taking place in the area.  Federal-style working class houses appeared; many of them with shops at street level.  Among them was the row along East Houstoun Street (later the name would take on its repeated misspelling, "Houston Street") anchored by the little house at No. 73.  The brick building featured elements expected of the Federal style—two tall dormers on the peaked roof and simple stone lintels and sills.  Its corner location on Elizabeth Street offered a bonus—windows to the side for additional ventilation and light.  At the attic floor these took the form of a centered arched window flanked by two quarter-round openings.

photo by Alice Lum
At some point a veneer of brownstone was added to the front facade.  In the years following the end of the Civil War D. Haase and F. Koster ran their “horse, wagon, etc.” business here as documented in 1870.  In the meantime, Emma Everett ran a less upstanding business upstairs.

For at least a decade, the nearby area around Greene Street had been known for its “disorderly houses”—a polite Victorian term for brothels.  Emma offered the services of “five young lady boarders” in what A Gentleman’s Companion to New York City in 1871 called “a first-class place, quiet and orderly—comfortably fitted up with French mirrors, Brussels carpets, rosewood furniture and superb bedding.”  Emma accepted clients “by appointment only."  A Gentleman’s Guide masqueraded as a guide book but, as were so many publications, was in reality a source book for men looking for prostitutes or other seamy activities.  No doubt with some financial prompting from Emma Everett, it described her girls saying “The bewitching smiles of the fairy-like creatures who devote themselves to the services of Cupid are unrivalled by any of the fine ladies who walk Broadway in silks and satins new.”

How long Emma ran her brothel here is unclear; however by the beginning of the 1890s even notorious Greene Street had been cleaned up.  The ground floor in 1894 was home to William H. Smith’s saloon and restaurant fixtures store.  A year later he shared the space with Jennie Rooney who sold “household furniture.”

The neighborhood by now had filled with Irish immigrants.  It would appear that families now occupied the upper stories of No. 73.  In the summer of 1895 The Evening World initiated a fund-raising drive called the Sick Babies’ Fund.  With the money the newspaper hired steamboats, calling them “Floating Playgrounds,” and offered fresh air and amusements to the sickly children of the tenements.  On August 26 it described “its distinctive features for the amusement and entertainment of the little ones, baby scups, swinging cribs, hobby horses, baby rockers and the like; its first-class orchestra, under the leadership of Composer Flynn, and its hospital and dispensary service.”

In the same article was published a letter that accompanied a donation to the fund:

Inclosed [sic] you will find $2.25, the proceeds of a lemonade stand in front of 73 East Houston street.  We hope it will make some baby as happy as it has made us.

The endearing letter was signed by Tommy Moroney, 5; Marion Tighe, 10; and Annie Sullivan, age 11.

The saloon and restaurant fixture business would remain in the retail space through the turn of the century; although by 1897 it was run by J. F. Reilly and a year later by Thomas McKeos.  The entire row of houses from No. 73 through 79 was owned by Howard Conkling and in March 1908 he signed new rental agreements for each of them.  No. 73 was leased by Michael Casey.

Conkling retained ownership of the string of brick buildings until October 1920, when he sold them as a package to Vincenzo Cascale.  By now the last survivor of the original row was No. 73.  Cascale would be well known by the neighboring Italian community for his pastry shop, “La Bella Palermo” for decades.

In 1930 as the Great Depression forced men to stand in bread lines, hundreds were given work with
the ambitious project of widening Houston Street.  The humble cross street would become an avenue-wide thoroughfare with a boulevard.  The venture required that hundreds of century-old structures be demolished on the opposite side of the street.  Yet No. 73 would continue to endure the immense changes to the neighborhood that continued throughout the century.  In 1944 there were two apartments per floor upstairs.

Unbelievably, the little Federal-style house on the corner of East Houston and Catherine Streets sits alone among 20th century structures.  Home to a trendy clothing store at street level, its 19th century store front is relatively intact with at least one fluted cast iron column and its double shop doors.  Upstairs the brick and brownstone have been stuccoed over and the dormers covered with metal siding; yet the integrity of the original building shines through.

Much of the 19th century cast iron of the Victorian storefront survives; as do the panels and wonderful double shop doors.  photo by Alice Lum
The alterations to the building make its possible designation as a landmark essentially non-existent.  Nevertheless the little building is an astonishing relic of a long-forgotten era on Houstoun Street.

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