Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Federal Survivor at No. 37 East 7th. Street

By the 1830's attorney and banker Thomas E. Davis had become perhaps more interested in real estate development than his primary professions.  He would become a major player in the East Side north of the exclusive Bond Street neighborhood; as it transformed from farmland to residences.  Beginning around 1831, he erected rows of speculative brick homes in the area.

Partnering with Louis Wilcox in 1832, he began construction of one such row on East 7th Street, which included No. 37.  The handsome Federal style residence was completed the following year and was valued at $6,000—about $165,000 today.

Clad in warm orange brick laid in Flemish bond, it rose three stories high above an English basement.  Diminutive carved brackets supported the stone window sills and a prim denticulated cornice capped the facade.  The major hint that the home was intended for a financially-comfortable family lay in the intricate doorway.  Here the round arched door surround with its faceted keystone featured delicate carving and suggested upscale interiors behind its double doors.

The interior of the entrance was paneled and a delicate egg-and-dart molding runs below the fanlight.

As the decades passed, the neighborhood changed.  The Lower East Side saw the influx of immigrant families following the end of the Civil War and tenements soon outnumbered private homes.  Nevertheless 37 East 7th Street held out and in the 1890's was the home of Dr. Milo M. Duncan (sometimes spelled Mylo) and his wife Rebecca.

While Dr. Duncan may have led the respectable life of a neighborhood physician, Rebecca was somewhat of a bad girl.  On February 13, 1896 she found herself on the wrong side of the law.

According to a nameless young man, he was leaving the Star Theatre when he saw Mrs. Duncan.  “She was there with a crowd around her when I came along and I asked her what was the matter.  Then she caught hold of me and accused me of stealing a diamond ring.”

The Sun reported on the incident the following day saying “A fashionable dressed woman, who appeared to be intoxicated, collected a crowd about her in Thirteenth street, near Broadway, a 11 o’clock last night.  She had caught hold of a good-looking young man and clung to his arm, shouting: ‘You stole my ring!’”

Rebecca’s version of events was quite different.  According to the newspaper, she told police “that she had visited friends up town, and had started to go home at 8 o’clock...she rode down on an elevated train to Ninth street.  Then she had met the young man, and had a few drinks with him.  He afterward took her ring and refused to give it up, she said.”

The policeman on duty outside the theater corroborated the young man's story.  He was released.  And when Rebecca was questioned at the police station, her story fell apart.  “She could not remember where she had been drinking, nor could she say how many drinks she had.  Her forehead was cut, and she did not know how she had been injured,” said The Sun.

Worse, when the station house matron searched Rebecca’s pockets, she found a $20 pawn ticket for her diamond ring.  "She was locked up."

A year later Dr. Duncan had apparently had enough.  In May 1897 he sued Rebecca for “absolute divorce,” claiming she had been intimate with Henry White on April 15.  Rebecca Duncan vehemently denied the charge and blamed their differences on the doctor.

“She says her husband preferred the society of his servants to that of his wife, and played cards with them; furthermore, that he continued to be on friendly terms with a doctor who, as she had told her husband, had made improper proposals to her,” reported The Sun on May 22, 1897.

Justice Andrews of the Supreme Court put an end to the couple’s differences by granting the doctor his divorce.  He was directed to pay Rebecca $150 in legal fees and $20 a week alimony.

As the turn of the century arrived, most of the houses along the block had been altered or demolished—but not 37 East 7th Street.  By 1904 the Independent Order B’rith Abraham of the United States of America was using the basement and parlor floor as its headquarters.  Max Schwartz, First Deputy Grand Master of the Order, owned the building.  The upper floors were apparently leased to The Baker & Taylor Co., booksellers.

Baker & Taylor ran its wholesale book company here in 1906--The School Journal March 17, 1906 (copyright expired)

Organized in 1887, the “fraternal beneficiary order” was composed mainly of Russian, Polish and German Jewish members.  The group maintained a cemetery fund, administered donations for charitable causes, and provided relief to indigent families. 

While the Independent Order B’rith Abraham focused on Jewish tradition; it also stressed the importance of learning English and becoming Americanized.  Within a very few years this stance would be vital.

On March 7, 1912, the New-York Tribune noted that Max Schwartz had renewed the lease for the “parlor floor, etc.” to the Independent Order B’rith Abraham of the United States of America.  The lodge would pay Schwartz $2,600 for the 15-year lease.  Quickly, however, the Order rethought the arrangement.

A report dated March 24, 1913 said “Upon recommendation of the grand master, the last convention authorized the executive committee to purchase the property at 37 East 7th street, New York City, for the sum of $19,000, plus the cost of alterations.  This building has been used by the Grand Lodge as its headquarters for a number of years.”

The total sum paid by the Order to Max Schwartz was $29,373.39.  The immediate alterations included returning the upper floors to a single residence for the Grand Secretary, and the replacement of the stoop which was described as “worn out.”

In 1916 additional interior changes were made when the Order commissioned architects Sommerfeld & Steckler & Samuel Cohen to “erect walls and rearrange rooms” according to the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide on March 11.

By the time the United States entered World War I, the German population of Manhattan had greatly abandoned the Lower East Side for the Yorkville area.  Nevertheless, the neighborhood around the Order B’rith Abraham still had a noticeable German-born population.  Now with Germany the nation’s enemy, German-speaking New Yorkers were eyed with suspicion and fear.

In February 1918 every German in Manhattan was required to register as an “enemy alien.”  The New-York Tribune reported on February 6, “The Eighty-eighth Street station, in the most populous Teutonic district in the city, had registered exactly 501 out of its estimated total of 3,000 aliens by 5 o’clock last night.”  Each registrant was fingerprinted and his personal data recorded.

“Next Sunday, after the close of the registration period, each policeman will start out to investigate and verify the information given by the registrants on his beat.  If everything is found correct, registration cards will be issued within a fortnight,” said the New-York Tribune.  “Wrong addresses or misinformation, will result in turning the case over to the Department of Justice.”

Those Lower East Side residents with Germanic surnames lined up outside 37 East 7th Street.  Somewhat ironically the majority of the lodge members were of Germanic descent.  From its inception, however, the order had been outspokenly patriotic. 

Later that year, on October 1, The New York Times reported that “The New York branch of the Independent Order of B’rith Abraham subscribed $50,000 yesterday to the Fourth Liberty Loan, the announcement being made in connection with the raising of the order’s service flag, containing 8,460 stars, in front of its headquarters at 37 East Seventh Street.”  The generous subscription to the Liberty Loan would translate to about $725,000 today.  Before the war’s end the order would sell $5 million in Liberty Bonds.

It was around this time that the organization added a masonry parapet above the building's cornice.  But as other houses on the block continued to be drastically altered, little else was changed to the Federal style building.

Somewhat surprisingly, the end of the war did not bring an end to alien registration.  On December 19, 1922 the Executive Board of the Grand Lodge of the Independent Order, B’rith Abraham, held a meeting in the 7th Street headquarters.  Wartime registration was one thing, felt the members; but registering aliens in peacetime was not what the United States was all about.  A resolution was passed ‘denouncing” the alien registry bill.

“The resolution declared that any law requiring aliens to be photographed and registered annually was un-American,” reported The New York Times.

Living in the house at the time was Max L. Hollander.  He had been Grand Secretary since 1909.  Born in Czechoslovakia in 1870, he arrived in New York as a child.  After a 23-year career as a tailor on the Lower East Side, he devoted himself to B’rith Abraham.

The socially and politically involved Hollander went to the White House to appeal to President Theodore Roosevelt for financial aid for survivors following the massacre of Jews during the Kishinev pogroms.  A founder of the American Jewish Congress he twice served as grand secretary at its World Conventions in Geneva and Washington, DC.

The 73-year old Max Hollander died in the house on the afternoon of February 20, 1943 after being ill about five months.  Three days later The New York Times said “The synagogues of Manhattan’s lower East Side went into a week’s period of mourning yesterday, and 1,500 persons attended a funeral service in the afternoon for Max L. Hollander.”  Following the service the cortege was escorted by 40 automobiles to the cemetery.

The Independent Order B’rith Abraham remained in the house for decades.  Sometime around mid-century the parapet was removed, making the building appear even more frozen in time. 

In 1981 Princeton architectural student Kevin Lippert and his classmates struggled with the large French drawing books from the turn of the century.  Lippert’s idea was to create more easily handled, reduced-format editions.  The Princeton Architectural Press was born of his idea.

Lippert graduated in 1983 and two years later moved his publishing firm into the East 7th Street house where it remains today.  Because of its good fortune of being the home of a fraternal organization for many decades, then to an architectural publishing firm, 37 East 7th Street has survived as a nearly-intact example of Federal domestic architecture. 

photographs by the author


  1. It appears an unfortunate sandblasting occurred somewhere in its 180 years.

  2. Well sand blasting, horrible replacement windows, even uglier exterior lighting........why do people treat their properties so poorly?

  3. Yes, the person doing the sand blasting must have been nearsighted and got a bit close with the hose and nozzle.

    Maybe those 2 prison lights didn't cast enough light on the sandblasting job on overcast days?