Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Wm. d'Alton Mann House -- No. 309 W 72nd Street

At the turn of the last century the Upper West Side near Riverside Drive rivaled Fifth and Madison Avenues with its lavish mansions.  At No. 309 West 72nd Street, just around the corner from Riverside Drive, William E. Diller was constructing one more.

Begun in 1899 the house was designed by Gilbert A. Schellenger and was meant to hold its own among the speculative residences aimed at the very rich.  As construction continued in 1900, William D’Alton Mann added to his fortune and questionable business practices by founding The Smart Set magazine.

Willam D. Mann -- photo from the collection of the Library of Congress
The widely-talented Mann was born in Sandusky, Ohio on September 27, 1839.  Educated as a civil engineer, he distinguished himself in the Civil War not only for organizing the First Michigan Cavalry and the Seventh Michigan Cavalry; but for inventing “valuable accoutrements for troops” as described later by Who’s Who in New York City and State.

Following the war he settled in Mobile, Alabama where he manufactured cotton seed oil and ran a direly-needed railroad construction operation.  It was here that he first dabbled in journalism as the proprietor of the Mobile Register.

William D’Alton Mann’s business sense and inventiveness would have continued to garner him a significant fortune had he not continued in publishing.  In January 1872 he patented the “boudoir car” and spent a decade in Europe marketing it there.  Upon his return in 1883 he settled in New York City, sold his Mann Boudoir Car Co. to the Pullman Car Company, and in 1891 became editor and owner of Town Topics.

It was the beginning of the end of Mann’s respectability and reputation among society’s highest echelons.   The high-end appearing newspaper offered news, literature, sports and business advice as a clever disguise.  Its subscribers were, in fact, interested only in the social columns, which were in fact a gossip sheet.

In the Gilded Age of the 1890s when the wives of New York’s millionaires scratched their way to social significance, every scandalous word—true or not—printed in Town Topics was read with delicious zeal.   Those at the highest levels trembled in fear of  being mentioned in Mann’s scathing columns.   He rarely printed names; but gave tantalizing and obvious clues like “though unfortunately a woman, is not an American, but a specimen of British aristocracy.”

Millionaires with names like Vanderbilt, Gould, Morgan and Whitney met with Mann in the days just before Town Topics went to press—normally at Delmonico’s—and made deals to ensure discretion.   The amounts paid to bribe Mann were incredible; William K. Vanderbilt paying $25,000 (in the neighborhood of $715,000 today) and Thomas Fortune Ryan, for instance, paying $10,000.

Pleased with his successful newspaper, Mann founded The Smart Set in 1900..   By now he had organized a network of informants including household servants, hotel employees, telegraph operators, tailors and seamstresses who eagerly exchanged juicy overheard information for cash.  Even socialites, realizing Town Topics and The Smart Set were efficient means to achieve vengeance, sold secrets.

Late in 1901 William E. Diller’s speculative mansion at No. 309 West 72nd Street was completed.  Schellenger’s five-story Renaissance Revival design featured a two-story, three-sided bay at the second and third floors, supported by a columned entrance portico.  Clad in Indiana limestone and buff-colored brick, it was intended for a family of wealth, refinement and decorum.   Instead it would get William and his bride.

The exclusive nature of the neighborhood is evidenced by the surviving John S. Sutphen, Sr. house next door (left).

William D’Alton Mann had remarried not long before the completion of the house to Sophia (called Sophie) Hartog.   It was possibly William Diller’s advertisement in the New-York Tribune on April 28, 1902 that caught Mann’s eye.  Diller marketed the house as in the choicest neighborhood with “every modern convenience, including large electric passenger elevator.”

Diller's advertisement appeared in the New-York Tribune on April 28, 1902 (copyright expired)

Moving in with the couple was Mann’s daughter, Emma Mann Wray.  Not long afterward, cracks began to appear in the foundation of Mann’s scandal- and extortion-based empire.  In 1903 he was engaged in a lengthy libel suit.  But things deteriorated further after he scandalized Alice Roosevelt the following year.   Mann’s newspaper said she wore “costly lingerie” for the “edification of men” and was guilty of “indulging freely in stimulants.”  The article said rumors around Newport suggested she and a “certain multi-millionaire” engaged in “certain doings that gentle people are not supposed to discuss.”

Collier’s Weekly vehemently attacked Mann’s sleazy operations.  And when Mann announced in 1904 that he intended to publish Fads and Fancies, a book-form compilation of Town Topics, he went too far.  Mann offered the book at pre-publication subscription to high society folks.  On July 15, 1905 The New York Times reported “From Louis H. Orr of the firm which has printed the work to be published by the Town Topics Publishing Company under the title of ‘Fads and Fancies,’ it was learned yesterday that $1,500 was merely the minimum price set for that work, and that a large number of copies had been subscribed for at sums several times larger.”

The first person to purchase a subscription had been John Jacob Astor, on July 30, 1904, quickly followed by Mrs. Howard Gould and Clarence Mackay.   By the time of The Times article, well-known names as far-flung as Frank Tilford, Stanford White, Florenz Ziegfield, Isaac Guggenheim and Ogden Amour, the Chicago meat packing tycoon, had paid up.

But broker Edwin M. Post would not be intimidated.   He had Mann’s solicitor, Charles H. Ahle, arrested on charges of attempted extortion.

Mann attempted to deflect the controversy.   When a reporter from The Evening Telegram visited him at his West 72nd Street mansion on Monday, July 24, 1905, the publisher insisted “Fads and Fancies is to be a specimen of the highest art in printing, bookbinding, engraving and everything that pertains to the printers’ art, as a biography of the lives of one hundred of the greatest men who by their achievements are destined to mark the beginning of the twentieth century.”

He vociferously said “It is nobody’s business who subscribes to ‘Fads and Fancies.’ This thing is absolutely legitimate.  There is absolutely no blackmailing, or anything of the kind connected with it, and I defy any one to prove it.”

The courts decided to do just that.  On December 29, 1905 The Times reported “The methods used in obtaining subscriptions to ‘Fads and Fancies’ were gone into at length yesterday at the hearing before Magistrate Whitman, in the West Side Court.”  Among those who appeared as witnesses were Mark Twain, and Peter Cooper Hewitt.

Things only got worse about three weeks later when William d’Alton Mann was arrested for perjury.  His daughter, Emma Mann Wray, bailed him out by offering as collateral the property at 810-828 West 38th Street, where Mann was building his new publishing building.  The charges against him said, in part, “That the testimony so given by Mann was false and untrue, and that Mann willfully, knowingly, corruptly, and feloniously testified falsely.”

Years of litigation resulted in murmurs that Mann would walk away from his publishing firm.  On February 24, 1912 The New York Times reported “It was rumored yesterday that Col. William D. Mann was about to sell Town Topics and retire from newspaper work.  When he was seen last night at his house, 309 West Seventy-second Street, Col. Mann said:

‘I have been twenty-one years at the post of duty, and I hope I shall continue there for as many more.  I do not know where the rumor originated, but you can say positively that I have no intention of retiring or selling Town Topics.’”

Before 1920 William Mann left 72nd Street.  On April 20 that year The New York Times mentioned “Mr. Mann is now living on Madison Avenue.”  He had just purchased a ten-acre estate in Morristown, New Jersey and intended to make “extensive repairs” before moving in.   Four weeks later, on May 17, he was dead.

No. 309 West 72nd Street was for a time home to Miss Lucile Peterson.  Then in 1929 it was converted to a doctor’s office and “housekeeping apartment” on the ground floor and non-housekeeping apartments above.  The following year Beatrice Taylor leased the house for 21 years, with the intentions of operating it as “a furnished apartment house.”

The projecting bay provided a commodious balcony at the fourth floor, access through French doors.

The tenant list in those Depression years included some not-so-respectable characters.   On April 29, 1931, Lt. Walter Culhane of the New York City Police Department arrested Joseph Dinan, a Bronx gangster.  The New York Times reported on June 26 that a month afterward Culhane arrested “a confederate at 309 West Seventy-second Street.”

The humiliation of the once-grand home continued when in 1937 architect Roy Clinton Morris converted the interiors to 19 furnished rooms.

The building was owned by Samuel H. Hofstadter, Jr. in 1958 when in reaction to recent deaths the city instituted new fire laws.  They  required owners of multi-family buildings to install sprinkler systems.  Hofstadter waged a legal battle, suing the city and calling the law unconstitutional.   The courts did not agree and on March 28 that year he lost what newspapers deemed the “sprinkler fight.”

The interiors, once filled with costly furniture, carpeting and artwork, are spartan -- http://streeteasy.com/building/309-west-72-street-manhattan/3b?gclid=COqJ2eetwcQCFahZ7AodRQEA_w

With only minor changes the exterior of the Mann house is greatly intact.   The interiors have not fared so well.    There are still 19 apartments in the building that housed one of the early 20th century’s most colorful publishers--a man able to instill terror in the hearts of New York’s wealthiest citizens.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Lost 1846 St. John's in the Village

A bit soiled in 1930, the church building is no less impressive.  Directly behind (left) is the 1854 Parish House.  Down the block is the church and tower of the North Baptist Church.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

On July 3, 1850 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune announcing “For Sale—That valuable property known as 82 and 84 Nassau-st…formerly occupied by the South Baptist Church.”   The structure was no longer needed by the South Baptist Church as its congregation prepared to move far north to Greenwich Village.

In the two decades between the 1820's and 1840's Greenwich Village had transformed from a bucolic hamlet to a substantial community with impressive homes and thriving businesses.  In 1845, the Hammond Street Presbyterian Church erected a stunning Greek Revival structure at No. 20 Hammond Street (later renamed 11th Street) on the corner of Factory Street (it, too, would be renamed, becoming Waverley Place).  Costing the congregation $15,000, the wooden building was covered in stucco to suggest stone.  The church was entered through a monumental classical portico upheld by four Ionic columns.  The peak of its pediment rose above the three-story brownstone homes that shared the block.  Pilasters along the Waverley Place elevation separated the soaring windows.

photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.

The structure was completed before February 1846, and on February 7 the New-York Daily Tribune announced that “Rev. Gardiner Spring, D. D. will preach to-morrow evening at half past 7 o’clock” at the Hammond-street Presbyterian Church.

Reverend Spring and his flock would not last long in the magnificent new building.  In 1848 the church was sold at auction to the newly-formed Eastern Congregational Church.  The 1890 book Old New York recalled “In the Autumn of 1848, the new and elegant edifice on the corner of Hammond and Factory streets, New York, erected by the Hammond Street Presbyterian Church, was bought at public auction by Messrs. S. B. Hunt and H. C. Bowen, for about fifteen thousand dollars.”   That sale price would amount to about $457,000 today.

The deeply recessed entrance was sheltered by a monumental portico.  photo by Edmund V. Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/[St.%20John's-in-the-Village%20Church.]-24UAKVGX5MT.html

“Public worship was sustained in the house for several weeks under the direction of the proprietors; and in the month of November a church was organized under the name of the Hammond Street Congregational Church,” said Old New York.  The congregation was headed by Rev. Dr. William Patton.    Decades later the 1879 pamphlet “Honour they Father” would say of him.  “Anecdotes are abundant to-day in these parts of his strength as a preacher, and his rare gift of humor and geniality in conversation.  His commanding presence, together with his original way of enforcing the truth, gave his sermons a remarkable staying quality.”

“Staying quality,” however, did not apply to his position with the Hammond-Street Congregational Church nor to the congregation’s existence here.   When the South Baptist Church placed the advertisement in the New-York Tribune to sell its former building, it had already purchased the Hammond Street edifice.

On November 15, 1851, The New York Times reported “We learn that Rev. Dr. Patton was recently dismissed by a council, from the pastoral charge of the Hammond-street Congregational Church.  The church-edifice was sold some time since to the Baptist congregation of Rev. Dr. Somers.”   The newspaper noted that a special committee had been formed to find a replacement pastor for Dr. Patton.

If Greenwich Village residents thought that, finally, the exquisite church on Hammond Street had found a long-term owner, they were wrong.  

The one-year anniversary of the Baptist’s acquisition of the structure was celebrated on February 25 1852.  The New York Times reported “The Anniversary exercises (recently postponed) of the Sabbath School of the South Baptist Church, will be held at the Church corner of Hammond and Factory-streets, on Sunday morning, 25th inst., when an address may be expected from the Rev. Thos. Armitage.”

The church members, too, expected to be here for the long haul.  Two years later, in 1854, they constructed a harmonious Green Revival parish house behind the church at 224 Waverley Place Street.  But the end was on the horizon for the Baptists in their Hammond Street Greek temple.

On May 5, 1856, The New York Times reported “On Sunday, this Church, corner of Hammond-st. and Waverley-Place, bearing over the entrance a tablet, “Memorial of Bishop Wainwright, Church of St. John Evangelist, seats free, 1856,’ was formally opened by three appropriate services.”  Within exactly one decade the church had been home to a Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, and now an Episcopalian congregation.

The Rev. Dr. Vinton advised the congregation during his first sermon, “The church is opened, but is not yet consecrated until free of debt.  It has passed through several hands, and was last purchased by the Baptists, under the pastoral care of Rev. G. C. Somers, for the sum of $30,000, part only being paid.”  Dr. Vinton added “It is situated in a locality where an active minster may be very useful.”

The dignified church building had finally found a long-term congregation in St. John, the Evangelist.  The number of worshipers was increased when, in the 1880's, the congregation of the Church of St. George The Martyr was invited to share the sanctuary.  St. George The Martyr was organized in 1845 “to build a church and hospital for British immigrants,” according to The Centennial History of the Protestant Episcopal Church.     The congregation had sold its church building in 1865 and The Centennial History, published in 1886, noted, “The congregation has worshiped, by invitation,…with the congregation of St. John, Evangelist, in West Eleventh Street, corner of Waverley Place.”

With its guest parish sharing the church, St. John the Evangelist staged special services for St. George’s Day in 1902.  “The church was decorated with the flags and banners of the United States and Great Britain, and a big St. George’s standard hung above the alter,” said the New-York Tribune on April 21. 

“One of the stained glass windows of the church shows a portrait of Queen Victoria, and throughout the sermon all the lights were lowered, so that a lime light in the street without might show up to those within the colored glass.”

photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Rev. Dr. E. Walpole Warren took the opportunity to discuss the ongoing and controversial Boer War.   Newspapers related that “he hoped to be able to announce that peace had been proclaimed on terms so magnanimous to the gallant vanquished that all bitterness and race feeling would be obliterated.  He declared that the British soldiers had not been guilty of the cruelties attributed to them, and said that n a very few years the prosperity of the south African lands would prove that England’s advance meant, as it always had meant, the march of progress and liberty in the interests of the people and institutions concerned.”

Exactly a year later on St. George’s Day, The Rev. Dr. John T. Patey revisited the race issue.  “We hear a great deal to-day of the Anglo-Saxon race, its greatness and its mission.  The vast British empire, embracing as it does in both hemispheres controlling peoples of different races, habits, thoughts and principles, must remember that power means responsibility, that control means care, that might means happiness, that authority must be temperately exercised, and the welfare of the weak sought.”

By the time world war erupted in Europe, St. John the Evangelist had grown to 459 members.   The congregation would see immense changes in the neighborhood.  Greenwich Village became Manhattan’s Bohemia, drawing artists, poets, musicians and writers through the first decades of the new century.   But by the 1960's the area immediately surrounding St. John the Evangelist drew a more nefarious lot.

Thieves repeatedly broke into the church, and on March 7, 1971 Rev. Dr. Charles Howard Graf told reporters that thievery “has been a constant problem.”  The New York Times reported “Dr. Graf said that only a few weeks ago the church had replaced several chalices stolen from the sacristy.”

The exterior of the pre-Civil War structure was restored in February 1971 at a cost of $14,000.   Around midnight on March 6, two weeks after the renovations were completed, the night custodian telephoned police.  He reported that he had found a door of the parish house on Waverly Place broken in, giving the intruder access to the church building.

The magnificent structure was unchanged around 1970.  The spread-winged eagle had perched within the pediment for decades.  photo by Edmund V. Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/[St.%20John's-in-the-Village%20Church.]-24UAKVGX5MT.html

Around an hour later, at 1:15 a.m. the same custodian, Blair Schench, discovered fire in the church.   The New York Times reported “While hundreds of spectators crowded nearby streets in the early morning hours, 120 firemen using 22 pieces of equipment poured torrents of water on St. John’s in the village, a 125-year old Episcopal church.”  The newspaper said “Before the fire was declared under control at 3:48 A.M., the roof, west wall and interior of the church had been destroyed.”  The venerable wooden building was termed by Deputy Chief James Fogarty, “a lumberyard.”

The resilient St. John’s congregation rebuilt.  It spent $650,000 on a red brick structure designed by Edgar Tafel, completed in 1974.  The architect gave a nod to the lost Greek Revival masterpiece, suggesting columns with brick outlines, and crowning the structure with a modern interpretation of the classical pediment.   The church is protected by the noble 1846 iron fencing—the last remnant of a pre-Civil War treasure.


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Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Thomas S. Jaycox House -- No. 284 Hudson St.

In the first decades following the Revolutionary War, the land known as Lispenard Meadows on Manhattan’s west side north of what would become Canal Street, was swampy and mosquito infested.  But as the city expanded northward, the potential of the nearly worthless land increased.  In 1817 an ordinance was passed to fill in the marsh and two years later a sewer was laid along the length of Canal Street, providing improved drainage.

Streets were laid and Federal-style brick houses for working and middle-class families quickly rose.  One of these was No. 284 Hudson Street, built around 1820.   Like the hundreds of similar homes being constructed simultaneously throughout the city, it was two and a half stories tall and featured two prominent dormers that punched through the pitched roof.   Devoid of pretension, its brickwork forewent the more expensive Flemish bond found in the more upscale houses of the period.

The house became home to Thomas S. Jaycox, who was working for the United States Government by 1831 as a “clerk.”  His salary of $800 that year would translate to about $22,000 today.  Five years later he held the same position but was still earning the same amount.  Perhaps it was his static salary that prompted him to go into the dry goods business by 1841.

When Jaycox went into business for himself there were no standard regulations regarding bankruptcies.  It was sometimes a problem for merchants who extended credit, then found themselves battling any number of local laws in an attempt to regain their losses.

On January 20, 1841 Thomas S. Jaycox added his name to a long list of New York City tradesmen and merchants in appealing to the United States Congress to enact a “uniform bankrupt law.”   Among the occupations of the small businessmen “beseeching” the “honorable body” were fishmonger, auctioneer, grocer, hardware, butcher, oysterman, painter, and gun manufacturer.

By the mid-1850s the Thomas H. Sill family lived here.  In 1855 Thomas Jr. enrolled in Columbia College.  Before long actor, producer and lyricist James Seymour moved in.  A favorite at Niblo’s Garden, he wrote the words to “The Lads Who Live In Ireland” for the play The Duke’s Motto.  Its opening lines were:

My name is Ted O’Mannon, I come from sweet Killarney O,
Sure I can whistle, I can sing, sure I can plough, and I can sow;
And when I’m courting purty girls, I never use the blarney O.

Seymour also acted in the play, which was produced at Niblo’s; playing the part of Carrickfergus, after the original actor took a different role.  The Era Almanack blamed the play’s failure squarely on Seymour.   “Mr. J. Seymour was cast for Carrickfergus.  The change was fatal to the play, which afterwards ran but a short time.”

Seymour’s son was drawn into the acting profession as well.  When Edwin Booth staged Hamlet at his Shakespearean theater, seven-year old Willie Seymour played The Actress.  In casting the boy as a female part, Booth was being true to the historical Shakespearean practice.

On Thursday, September 22, 1864 James Seymour “late of Niblo’s Garden,” as reported in The New York Times, died at the age of 41.  His funeral was held in the house the following day, after which his body was taken to Greenwood Cemetery for burial.

The neighborhood was still mainly residential and mostly respectable.  Within months Dr. Henry F. Hessler had moved into the house.  His seemingly enviable office hours were between 9 and 10 a.m. and 7 to 8 p.m. daily.  The German-born physician would go on to be appointed Professor Clinical Midwifery and German Instructor in Obstetrics at the College of Midwifery.

The wooden dormers survive in fine condition.
But by the end of the Civil War the area had become decidedly more commercial.  The ground floor of No. 284 Hudson Street was converted to a saloon by 1876.  Its saloon keeper (who repeatedly changed his surname) was arrested on the evening of March 12, 1876 for violating the Excise law.  At the time of his arrest he gave his name as Adolph Midler.

The Excise law required saloon keepers and liquor dealers to purchase a license—an expense that many found burdensome.   On August 7 a year later, a New York Times reporter visited the office of the Excise Commissioners where crowds of recently-arrested saloon keepers applied for their licenses.  Among them was Adolph Miller (his last name had changed) who had been arrested again and charged with $100 bail.

“While they waited, they talked about the lookout, and consoled with each other on the ‘hard times’ on which the trade has fallen.  Several in the crowd had been locked up the night before, although they had already procured receipts, and these were loud in their denunciations and the shuffling police of the Police and Excise Boards…The Germans were especially loud in their abuse of [Tammany Hall], and many of them swore they would never vote the Tammany ticket again,” reported the newspaper.

Adolph seems to have been conscientious about renewing his license after the unpleasant affair.  On July 28, 1882 he spent $75 on his license, a significant $1,760 in today’s dollars for a small-time bar owner.  He now spelled his surname “Muller” on the application.

When Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Circular listed his business here in 1890, it spelled his last name “Mueller.”

By the turn of the century Mueller’s saloon was gone, replaced by the C & G Fina “barber fixtures” store.  Upstairs lived policeman James J. Lockhart, his wife Adelphia and their son Harry.  Lockhart had been appointed to the force as a patrolman on February 10, 1897. 

As the Hudson Street neighborhood became more industrial, the businesses on the ground floor followed suit.  In 1909 Villone & Co. sold “felt roundings” from here; and by 1913 L. Thomas ran the New York branch of the Chicago based Thomas & Smith, Inc.  The firm manufactured and sold the Thomas’ “Acme” air purifying and cooling system.  The company would remain in the building for several years, selling related products, like power pumps, as well.

As the decades passed, the small brick houses along Hudson Street were one-by-one demolished for hulking warehouses and commercial buildings.  Somehow, however, No. 248 Hudson held on.  In 1946 it sold for $7,300; about $87,000 in today’s dollars.

Today a neighborhood restaurant operates in the ground floor where Adolph Muller served lager beer to sailors and hard-working immigrants in the 1880s.  The upper floor and attic survive much as they appeared when Thomas S. Jaycox lived here; one more miraculous survivor from Manhattan’s post Revolutionary decades.

photographs by the author

Friday, March 27, 2015

D & J Jardine's 1873 No. 734 Broadway

Years after most of the vintage buildings in the Noho section of Broadway were restored, No. 734 is a rusting hulk.

In 1839 three of society’s most influential sisters moved into adjoining houses at Nos. 732 through 736 Broadway.  The property had been owned by John Jacob Astor since 1804.  Although some sources say that Rebecca Jones purchased No. 732 with her own money; most likely it was wealthy banker John Mason who presented the three houses as gifts to his daughters.  Sarah Jones moved into No. 736, Rebecca was at No. 732, and Mary Mason Jones took the middle house at No. 734.

Mary Mason Jones was the reigning sovereign of New York society.  It would be many years before Caroline Astor eclipsed her.  Mary's brick-faced Broadway home would be the setting of glittering entertainments.  The three houses were inwardly connected.  Their ballrooms could be thrown open into a single impressive space for the grandest of balls.  Mary had married her father’s business partner, Isaac Jones, in 1819.  Both families traced their roots in America to the 17th century.

Decades later Mary’s niece, Edith Wharton, would immortalize her in the form of the overweight dowager Mrs. Manson Mignott in The Age of Innocence.”  According to Luther S. Harris in his book Around Washington Square, 25-year old George Templeton Strong noted an evening at the “ball of the season” in the Jones house on December 23, 1845.  Strong was unimpressed with the “very splendid affair” at which two of the ballrooms had been thrown open.  He especially was displeased with a new dance, the Polka, which he described as “a kind of insane Tartar jig performed to a disagreeable music of an uncivilized character.”

Strong then turned his attention to his hostess, calling Mary Mason Jones “fat but comely; indeed, there’s enough of her to supply a small settlement with wives.”  All in all, George Temple Strong walked out of the Jones mansion feeling “Modern civilization has achieved thus much, that people making fools of themselves do it in an ornamental way.”

But the relentless northward tide of commerce eventually threatened the refined Broadway neighborhood.  One by one Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens abandoned the area.   Mary Mason Jones would surprise all of them.  Just as the character in Wharton’s novel had done, Mary selected as the site of her new mansion the rocky, undeveloped land far to the north that her father had purchased in 1823.  In 1867 she began work on a block-long group of white marble, French-styled mansions on the unpaved Fifth Avenue from  57th to 58th Streets.  Mary Mason Jones would move to No. 1 East 57th Street and wait for society to come to her.

The Broadway residence would not survive much longer.  In 1872 it was demolished to make way for a commercial structure in what was now becoming New York’s garment district.  On Saturday, July 6, 1872 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that architects D. & J. Jardine had filed plans for “one five-story cast-iron store” for owners G. & H. Rosenblatt.

The Rosenblatt brothers had emigrated from Bavaria and established their business importing silk and ribbons.  As Mary Mason Jones could attest, mid-Victorian fashions depended greatly on both items.  By now both men were wealthy and their operation successful enough to afford its own building.

David and John Jardine produced a dignified neo-Grec building.  The use of cast iron facades had become rampantly popular within the past decade for its fire-resistant properties, its cost efficient production of intricate designs, and the quickness with which the massive pre-cast parts could be bolted onto the masonry.  Completed in 1873, No. 734 Broadway mimicked its stone counterparts with rusticated piers, engaged columns with ornate capitals, and segmentally-arched windows.

Cast iron mimicked rusticated piers, intricate carved capitals and scrolled keystones.

The Rosenblatt’s apparently operated only from the upper floors.  In 1875 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide listed the James W. Meagher’s Hazzard & Co. restaurant here.  By 1884 Marcus Ward & Co.’s bookstore was here, creating competition for the E. A. Mac booksellers next door in No. 732.  Ward specialized in religious books and in 1884 introduced The “Bible Forget-Me-Nots” Series, described as “miniature text books by the Rev. J. R. MacDuff, D. D.”  An advertisement described “each tiny volume has an introduction and hymn by the author, and golden texts for every day.”

Founded by Marcus Ward in England nearly a century earlier, the firm’s American agent for years had been Alfred Ireland.  When it was incorporated 1883, Marcus Ward’s nephew, William Hardcastle Ward traveled to New York to set up the Broadway branch.   Ward was one of the corporation’s directors and among its largest stockholders.

On May 2, 1888 The Evening World reported “The business was carried on here in the large store at No. 734 Broadway under a lease which had been renewed from time to time and which expired yesterday.”  But suddenly Ward and Ireland found themselves the defendants in a lawsuit filed by their English parent company.  “The suit is one of a sensational nature, as it involves a quarrel among the partners of a great commercial house that has been in business for the best part of a century,” said The Evening World. 

William Hardcastle Ward and Alfred Ireland had planned to relocate the bookstore.  They were shocked to find that the parent firm was attempting to take over the lease on 734 Broadway and carry on the Marcus Ward & Co. bookstore itself.  Now, with the lease expiring, the two men scrambled to renew it.   “They will remain on the premises rather than let them fall into the hands of the new firm.”

The English faction accused Ward and Ireland of “secret maneuvers.”  On May 1 Judge Van Brunt of the Supreme Court issued an injunction restraining the two men from “interfering with the plaintiffs at their place of business, No. 734 Broadway.”

The Evening World reported “The original lease does not contain a renewal clause.  A bitter contest is expected when the matter comes up in court, as it will in a day or two.”

As the booksellers fought it out, apparel and millinery firms operated from the upper floors.  Louis Levy, “wholesale dealer in clothing,” was here at the time.  By 1895 hat maker Leman A. Allier had moved in.  And around this time furriers began to call No. 734 home. 

In 1895 J. Simmons & Co. was here, selling “an excellent line of fur garments, such as capes and jackets in sealskin, otter, mink, Persian lynx; also collarettes and boas, skins, trimmings, linings, ribbons; also 20,000 yards furniture and dress plush and 2,000 dozen ladies’ and gent’s underwear.”

By now garment workers were organizing into unions, to the disgruntlement of owners.  The cloak makers employed by Peller Brothers walked out in August 1897, complaining of low wages.  The New York Times reported on August 21 that they “returned to work yesterday, as the firm promised to pay union wages.”

The mix of tenants at the turn of the century included H. V. Allien “a dealer in military goods;” M. L. Cohen & Brother, who advertised for a “first-class salesman to handle our high grade furs as a side line” in 1904; and Gilroy & Bloomfield, cloak manufacturers.

At some point after 1910 the cast iron façade was “simplified,” although exact details of what that toning down encompassed seem to be lost.

The building continued to house clothing firms into the 1920s, including Blumberg Borland, even as the garment district moved past 34th Street.  Then in 1951 the Atlantic Luggage Manufacturing Company bought the building “for occupancy.”

The second half of the 20th century found No. 734 neglected and rusting.  An industrial fire escape zig-zagged down the face of the building.  By 1973 Samuel Weiser’s occupied by ground floor.  The New York Times said it “is known as the supermarket of the occult.  It is said to have the largest collection of books on mysticism, the occult and Eastern religions in the country, possibly in the world.”

Mysticism, the occult, and spiritualism blossomed in the 1970s as the hippie movement celebrated the coming Age of Aquarius.  Donald Weiser, son of the store’s founder, told a Times reporter in October 1976 that among of his biggest-selling subjects at the present were “pyramid power” items.

It was around this time that the upper floors were converted to apartments.  When the owner, Will Brand Corporation, disconnected electricity to the old elevator in 1981, the residents were forced to resort to the stairs.

With New York University expanding into the neighborhood around No. 734 Broadway, the retail stores reflected their new customers.  In 1979 Record City, a massive vinyl record store, replaced Samuel Weiser’s.  In 1985 Zoot moved in—a vintage clothing store that would remain for several years.

As the century drew to a close, the space became a Foot Locker store.  It was a scene of terror on August 29, 1996.  Around 8 p.m. on that Wednesday three men walked into the store, posing as customers.  They then pulled out guns and forced the manager to open the safe.  Locking the front door, they pushed eight people into a bathroom.

But one 18-year old girl was even less fortunate.  Before leaving with the cash from the safe, they forced the woman into another part of the shop where they raped and sodomized her.   She was later treated at Beth Israel Hospital.

In the meantime, residents upstairs had become tired of living in a walk-up and sued Will Brand Corporation in an effort to have elevator service restored.  In November 1997 work was still underway on the elevator.  While it was operational, none of its safety equipment had been restored and no light was installed in the cab yet.  Nevertheless, some of the residents took their chances and used the elevator rather than suffering the five flights of stairs.

One of them was 28-year old Heather McDonald, a NYU student.  Around 9:30 on Friday night, August 12, 1997 she stepped into what she believed to be the elevator car on the fifth floor.  Unable to see that the elevator was not at her floor, she stepped into the empty shaft, falling five floors.  One of her legs had to be amputated, the other was broken and she suffered a punctured lung.

Building inspectors noted that the owners had been cited for various violations concerning the elevator since March 1991.

In May 2014 the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved plans by restoration architects Beyer Blinder and Belle to restore the façade and add a two-story penthouse, invisible from the street.    

Then nothing was done.

The architects' before and after proposals.  photo http://ny.curbed.com/tags/734-broadway
The beautiful, vacant and rusting structure was purchased by Thor Equities in February 2015; the same firm that had bought No. 736 Broadway for $11 million in November 2011.  Joseph Sitt, principal of Thor Equities remarked that he was undecided as to whether he would proceed with the proposed penthouse.

non-credited photographs taken by the author
many thanks to reader Grace Buchanan for suggesting this post

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The 1843 Samuel Cooke House -- No. 60 W 11th Street

By the time speculative builder Andrew Lockwood erected the string of houses from No. 46 to No. 60 West 11th Street in 1843, homes had been appearing in the neighborhood for more than a decade.  Lockwood was one of the most prolific developers in Greenwich Village at the time.  His new row on West 11th Street was designed in the popular Greek Revival.

Like the other homes along Lockwood’s row, No. 60 was faced in red brick above a rusticated brownstone basement.   Instead of the dormered attic of the Federal style, it boasted a full third floor.  The hefty stone enframement at the top of the brownstone stoop embraced a more elegant entrance—carved pilasters flanked by sidelights, a generous transom, and handsomely-carved entablature.

In 1851, eight years after No. 60 was completed, the Rev. Samuel Cooke arrived in New York from New Haven.  He had been brought to the city by the congregation of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church at Lafayette and Great Jones Street.  Although West 11th Street was hardly near the church, Cooke and his family moved into No. 60.

The New York Times would later recall “St. Bartholomew’s at that time numbered among its parishioners some of the wealthiest men in New York.  Among the Vestrymen who encouraged and aided him in his undertaking were William H. Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt, C. G. Williams, President of the Chemical Bank; Alfred M. Hoyt, and William H. Appleton.”

Cooke came from a long and distinguished line of clergymen, going back to Milford Cooke who settled in what would become Bridgeport in 1650.   He and was married to the former Emma Walden.  Their eldest son, Samuel Walden Cooke enrolled in Columbia College in 1860; the same year that the 11th Street house was the scene of the funeral of Maria Pell, Rev. Cooke’s sister-in-law.

Young Samuel excelled in school.  In 1862 he was on Columbia’s list of “Honor Men.”  But tragedy would soon strike the Cooke family.  On Friday morning, December 9, 1864, the college senior died “very suddenly.”  Three days later relatives and the pall bearers gathered at the 11th Street house at 3:00 before heading to the funeral at St. Bartholomew’s Church.

Deemed by Norwalk, Connecticut historian Charles Melbourne Selleck decades later, “an excellent, highly rated and now venerable presbyter of the Protestant Episcopal church,” Rev. Samuel Cooke stayed on at St. Bartholomew’s until 1887, the year after his wife’s death.
The house was not church property; but was owned by James Gallatin, a wealthy property owner who also owned the abutting houses at Nos. 56 and 58.   When he died on May 28, 1876 he bequeathed Nos. 58 and 58 to his 19-year old grandson James F. Gallatin, and No. 60 to James’s brother, 27-year old Albert Lewis Gallatin.

Both young men were extremely wealthy.   When Albert died at the age of 31 on February 12, 1880, he left his widow, Zefita, $100,000—about $2.35 million today.  But the young man’s unexpected death seems to have triggered a battle over the property.  On April 9, 1881 The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that titles to all three of the houses were being contested.

On March 28, 1888 Zefita filed suit against her brother-in-law, James F. Gallatin, and mother-in-law, Harriet I. Gallatin in an attempt to prevent them from taking her inheritance.   The legal battle lasted until June 1895.  By now Zefita was the Countess Rohan-Chabot and lived in Europe.  The New York Times explained that she had “interposed objections to the return of the property to her brother-in-law, but she withdrew them when he signed an agreement providing that a sum should be set aside by which she would receive her income on $100,000.”

Despite the unfortunate choice of replacement door, the entry retains its glorious anthemion decoration.

The house was sold to Leocadie Farrell who, like the Gallatins, owned much property.  In 1906 she recorded the annual rent on the property as $1,400 “over all repairs.”   The landlady was charging a little over $3,000 a month in today’s dollars.

Mrs. Farrell’s tenant in 1903 was William L. Detmold, a woolens dealer; and by 1910 Edward B. Taber was living here.  That year he helped found the New York Advancement Company; organized to put together a 1913 World’s Fair.  The fair was meant to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the first European settlement on Manhattan Island.

The Farrell family held No. 60 West 11th Street until July 1929, when Leocadie’s estate sold it to Morris L. Florence.  He announced that he intended to alter the house for his occupancy.  The title was put into the name of his wife, Lee Florence.   But, like the previous owners, the Florences leased the house rather than move in.

In December 1933 Dr. Herman L. Kasha signed a lease on the first and second floors, paying $3,120 a year.  He opened his medical practice here; one that would find him in court in 1942.  In a sensational trial that year Kasha was accused of running an abortion clinic in the house.  Reportedly, from 1933 to 1938 physicians city-wide would send patients to No. 60 West 11th Street to have their unwanted pregnancies terminated.

Morris and Lee Florence sold the house about the same time that the ugly affair came to light.   It became home to the family of Alvin Udell.

The house with a brief sordid past received a restoration and renovation when Timothy Forbes, son of multimillionaire Malcolm S. Forbes, purchased it.   His renovations resulted in interior spaces that ran the gamut from Victorian, to Mid-Century Modern, to starkly contemporary.  In April 2012 he sold the venerable home for $11.5 million.

The house goes from starkly modern...

to 19th century.  photos http://www.corcoran.com/nyc/Listings/Display/2348527

Forbes’s careful attention to the façade, however, resulted in No. 60 looking much as it did when Rev. Samuel Cooke and his family moved in.

non credited photographs by the author

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Shea's Hotel -- No. 618 8th Avenue

In the mid-1870s, the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood around the corner of Eighth Avenue and 40th Street was no place for the timid or naïve.   On the morning of February 20,1876 Michael McCabe was standing on that corner when, according to The New York Times, “he was attacked by five of the notorious Eleventh avenue gang, who beat him, pinioned his arms, and robbed him of his watch and $3 in money.”

The street gangs that terrorized Hell’s Kitchen were ruthless and dangerous.  The following year Moritz Igel, “an aged gentleman,” was passing the same corner when he paused to buy an apple.  He took out his pocketbook, which contained $13.20, and “was immediately set upon by two desperate thieves, named Patrick McGowan and William Korn, who struck him on the face, and snatched his pocket-book.”

The old man chased the crooks a few feet; but they turned on him and threw him to the ground, beat and kicked him.  When a drug store clerk saw the commotion and the bleeding Igel, he tried to help; but he was no match for the street thugs and had to retreat.  The feisty Moritz Igel was not ready to give in, however.

The Times reported “although Mr. Igel was bleeding and badly bruised, he followed them until they were arrested by Officer Lavell of the Twenty-second Precinct.  The old gentleman immediately recognized his assailants and they were taken to the Station-house.”  They were convicted for “highway robbery.”

Around 1882 a somewhat surprising improvement came to the corner.  An up-to-date brick hotel and saloon replaced two of the three-story structures that lined the block.  Considering the gritty neighborhood, No. 618 Eighth Avenue was unexpectedly handsome.  The architect drew from the newly-popular Queen Anne style, embellishing the red brick façade with geometric designs, sawtooth brick panels, and sandstone trim.  Carved tympanum-like decorations embellished the Eighth Avenue openings at the third and fifth floors. 

A painted sign on the 40th Street facade announced "Shea's Lager Beer" in 1906.   Two sets of swinging saloon doors can be seen at the corner.  The building's very respectable appearance was anything but.  photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/Hotel%20Shea%27s,%20618%20Eighth%20Avenue.-2F3XC5K1J0R.html

The hotel entrance around the corner at 274 West 40th Street featured hefty stone stoop newels and a stone portico.  Its skinny columns were capped with fanciful carved capitals. 

An architecturally striking new hotel would not change the sketchy neighborhood, however.   As a parade passed by the building on August 12, 1895 a petty thief worked the crowd.  The following day The Times announced “John Taylor, a colored pickpocket, was arrested Monday night while he was following a parade.”  Three years later Henry Waters’ rooms in the hotel were burglarized on December 22.  The robber made off with $15 in cash and stocks valued at $8.25 and $23.25.

Carved stone, creative brickwork and up-to-date design set the hotel apart from its neighbors.

John S. Shea owned the building by the turn of the century.   Shea bought and sold real estate city-wide and operated several hotels and apartment houses.  Mary McWilliams ran what was now called Shea’s Hotel, while it appears Shea himself operated the saloon.  The residents and patrons of the building were no more respectable than they had been two decades earlier.

On October 13, 1903 The Sun reported on the raid of Sarah Williamson’s second floor apartment.  “Detectives Griffin and Kehoe were passing the house when, they say, they got a whiff of the opium and went in to investigate.”  Sarah was operating an opium den.  She had filled the rooms with the bunks necessary for the stupefied drug users and all the opium paraphernalia they needed.

“There were five men and one young girl smoking in the bunks.  The girl said she was Eva Wilson and that she lived in the house.”  The police said Eva looked 17 years old, although she claimed to be 20.  Two of the arrested men lived elsewhere; but 19-year old Launci Williamson and 23-year old Roy Williamson, like Eva, lived in the building.  That would be expected since they were Sarah’s sons.

Two weeks later the police were back.   Mary McWilliams rented an apartment to Morris Lupo and his wife, Della, during the last week of October.   Morris was a sewing machine salesman and his wife worked in a Broadway department store.  The Evening World said that “because of her beauty,” Della had “many admirers.”   Reportedly this resulted in jealousy on Morris’ part; but ironically Della was even more jealous.  She convinced herself that Morris was having an affair with another saleswoman in the store where she worked.  

According to Mary Williamson, on Election Night, November 2, “Mrs. Lupo told me that she had had trouble with her husband about the other woman in the store and that she was afraid something awful was going to happen.”  Della told Mary that she was very sick and asked her to go to the drug store to buy morphine or laudanum.  Mary refused. 

Della’s premonition that “something awful was going to happen” could not have been more accurate.   She and Morris argued so vehemently that night that other roomers asked Mary McWilliams to stop the noise.  The couple went out, but when they returned the loud fighting resumed.   Then, according to The Evening World the following morning, “The wordy argument was ended by two small explosions, which the residents then believed to have been exploding fireworks of the political campaigns.”
They were not fireworks.   Mary McWilliams did not see either of the Lupos leave for work that morning and when she heard groans coming from their door, she called police.

“Detectives McKenzie and Carmody broke in the door of the Lupo flat and nearly fell over the dead body of Lupo.  One bullet had pierced his brain and another had lodged in his breast near the heart.  He had been dead many hours.

“Investigating further they found Mrs. Lupo, clad in an Oriental wrapper, unconscious on a divan in a rear room.  It was evident she had taken poison.  By her side was a bottle which was said to have contained some kind of a strong narcotic.”

Della Lupo was revived at St. Vincent’s Hospital, then transferred to Bellevue Hospital where she insisted her husband had committed suicide.  When she found his body, she said, she was so distraught that she did not want to live.  Her explanation did not hold water with detectives.  “The police say that it would have been impossible for Lupo to have shot himself both in the head and in the breast,” said the newspaper.

Evidence supported the theory of murder and revealed that Della Lupo had suffered mental agony after slaying her husband.  Morris’ head rested on a pillow on the floor and “the condition of the room in which the shooting occurred showed the night of horror the woman had gone through.

“She had tumbled the bed and disarranged the furniture in her long vigil in the room with the corpse.  Then she had tenderly raised the dead man’s head and placed a pillow under it.  She opened the shirt front and attempted to staunch the flow of blood from the wound in the chest and she washed the blood away from the wound in the side of the head.”

Still in the hospital, Della Lupo was charged with murder and attempted suicide.

On February 3, 1904, the jury was on the verge of convicting Della for murder when they were surprised by a knock on the jury room door.  Della Lupo had changed her plea from not guilty to guilty of manslaughter in the first degree.  “She may be punished by imprisonment for not more than twenty years,” reported The Sun.

John Collins lived here around this time.  On October 17, 1905 he was arrested with three sidekicks after being caught in coordinated streetcar pickpocketing scheme.   Detective Sergeant King responded to a complaint of the men “being suspicious.”  Despite their being “all well dressed and apparently refined,” he followed them as they boarded a streetcar on Broadway at 23rd Street.

“He said they would push and jostle passengers, push papers in their faces and crowd about them,” reported the New-York Tribune on October 18.  After one of the thieves jumped off the car, the detective told the conductor to lock the rear door.  He then told the men they were under arrest and not to attempt to escape.  “They were all big men and did not obey,” said the Tribune.  King called upon any able bodied men in the car to assist him; but “the size of the three men impressed the passengers and none moved.”

The streetcar continued non-stop along Broadway, passing surprised people waiting at the stops.  Women tried to get off the car and found themselves locked in.  The thieves became more emboldened and King finally drew his weapon.  

 “If any one of your makes a move to leave this car or to make any trouble I’ll shoot.  Now I mean business,” he ordered.

“The sight of the pistol increased the panic in the car and many women became hysterical.  Men tried to hide behind their fellows and look small.”  King’s loud police whistle attracted back-up and two patrolmen boarded the car, arresting John Collins and his cohorts.

The experience failed to change Collins’ lawless ways.  He was still living in Shea’s Hotel on March 18, 1906 when he found himself back in police custody.  Insurance broker James F. Quinn and his wife left the New York Theatre on Saturday night, March 17 and boarded the Broadway streetcar at 44th Street.

“The rear platform was filled with a crowd of well dressed young men, who crowded us all as we entered.  I noticed one of them tug at the chain which held my wife’s lorgnette and I tried to warn her, but she was inside the car and one of the youths was between us before I could do so.

“I then felt certain that we were surrounded by pickpockets, and raised both hands to protect my scarfpin,” he testified in court the following morning.  “As I finally shook the last one of the crowd off I found that my pocketbook had been stolen from my hip pocket.  My wife’s lorgnette had also been taken.”

John Collins and his two confederates were arrested once again for their notorious streetcar pickpocketing, held at $1,000 bail.

The trend continued when another resident, Samuel Berg, was arrested on February 20, 1907 for swindling.  He and a group of con men preyed on naïve out-of-towners.  One was Morton Woodman of Fall River, Massachusetts, who had recently inherited $6,500—a windfall that would amount to about $166,000 today.   The New York Times reported on his unfortunate gullibility.  He was fooled by Berg and his gang into betting his money on a sure horse race scam.

“He had met a man in a cigar store to whom he told of his $6,500 awaiting to earn something.  His new acquaintance told him that he had tapped the wires and could always win on the races.  Woodman was taken to a poolroom where he played a dollar and won five.  Then, accompanied by friends of his first friend he went to Fall River, where he drew out of the bank his $6,500.  Then he went with the men to 123 East Twenty-sixth Street, where he lost his fortune.”

Woodman went to the police and brought detectives to the place.  They broke down the door and found five men, including Samuel Berg, “with racing sheets, charts, and a large quantity of ‘phony money.’”  Berg was arrested with the others for running what detectives called “the same old game.”

In 1910 James B. Shea leased the building to Harris Photios for two years at $480.  Sharing the upper floors with disreputable tenants over the years were hard-working blue collar tenants who simply could not afford to live elsewhere.  John Ridgeway was a 52 year old “laborer” living here when he was injured in a trolley wreck on July 19, 1921.  And in 1924 immigrants Joe Manes and Frank Bakerjis lived here.  They had been “two victims of the entry of the Turkish army into Smyrna two years ago,” said The New York Times.  “They ascribe their escape and the subsequent rescue of members of their families to the prompt relief rushed from America through the Red Cross.”

But then there was the problem of unsavory activities at street level.  With Shea's saloon shut down by Prohibition, Friedman’s Pharmacy opened on the the Eighth Avenue side, as did George Papageorge’s jewelry store.   On July 9, 1926 Friedman’s was raided by Prohibition agents who found the drugstore was also selling booze.  And on September 18, 1927 43-year old George Papageorge was arrested when two diamond rings in his store valued at $500 were identified as being stolen from Max Selsky’s jewelry store at No. 79 Nassau Street two weeks earlier.  When detectives checked his safe, they found a pistol—a violation of the Sullivan law.

In 1928 architect Samuel Roth completed a conversion of the hotel into "furnished rooms" on the upper floors.  The Department of Buildings cautioned "not more than 15 sleeping rooms in the building."

A year earlier Rose Janousek was 37 years old when she moved to New York from Lonsdale, Minnesota looking for work.  She moved into the former hotel and, like so many of the residents before her, found herself before a judge a year later on March 22, 1928.

Rose had become enamored with George White, a musical comedy producer.  The woman’s scheme to attract his attention was somewhat short-sighted.

The New York Times reported “Miss Janousek was arrested on Wednesday in the lobby of the Apollo Theater on the complaint of theatre employes who said she had asked John Brennan, a ticket seller, to deliver to George White a package which was found to contain a pistol and fifty cartridges.”

When detectives questioned her, she admitted that she owned the handgun and “said she gave it to Mr. White merely because she admired him.”

In 1930 part of the former saloon space on Eighth Avenue was leased to Sol Cooper for “the sale of cigars.”  Within three years the shop space on the 40th Street side was rented by Joseph Rousso as his tailor shop.  The building suddenly seemed to smack of respectability.  But that image was challenged when the 40-year old Rousso was arrested on Christmas Day, 1933.  He was held without bail for stealing the wallet of a subway passenger.

The former saloon and store spaces at ground level are home to a repellent mix of signs and shops today.  The hotel entrance was located on the 40th Street side through a shallow, columned portico, now gone.
One of the few residents to garner positive press was 30-year old Helmar Harback.  As large chunks of ice slowly moved down the East River during the frigid winter of 1934, Harback got into a two-week argument as to whether the ice was “of sufficient strength to carry a man across the stream.”

Finally Harback set out to prove his point.  The New York Times reported on February 20 “Equipped with a borrowed oar, and with the confidence of an Eskimo after a polar bear, he climbed down the Brooklyn anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge, picked out a good floe and began a perilous cruise south on the river.”

As he paddled his miniature iceberg down the river, tugboats and other vessels blew their whistles, and ships “berthed at piers on the Manhattan and Brooklyn shores added to the continuous salutation by much flag dipping.”

Harback succeeded and finally docked his ice floe at the foot of Wall Street.  He had attracted a large crowd of longshoremen and businessmen who shouted their praises.  He also attracted the attention of Patrolman Schecker who exclaimed “Great!” and added “But the drawback is that I’ll have to arrest you for causing this large crowd to gather, which comes under the head of disorderly conduct.”

Harback did not find anything disorderly in it.  “It was a most orderly voyage,” he protested.  And he repeated that defense to the judge.  Magistrate Erwin accepted his plea and suspended his sentence, but admonished him “not to cause large crowds to gather in the future when he ventures forth on an ice floe journey about the city.”

In 1936 small stores continued to operate from street level and the second floor was converted to a billiard parlor.  That year 25-year old George Paulas, a resident, was arrested for “compulsory prostitution.”  Early that year he and three other men grabbed 19-year old Vera Hudock and held her prisoner for several months in the apartment of James Pappas at No. 222 West 27th Street.

On Thursday, May 21 the terrified girl escaped and fled to the apartment of a friend, Josephine Marz, who lived at No. 322 Third Avenue.  It was Marz who notified police of the brutality Hudock had suffered.  Before authorities could arrest James Pappas, he found Josephine and “brandished a knife and threatened her with death for interfering.”

George Paulas and the other men were held on $10,000 bail for their heinous crime.

The brickwork of the chimney shaft was extraordinary.
During World War II there were approximately 40 tenants in the upper floors.  Joseph Saremsky operated a “restaurant and candy store” on the ground floor in 1945.  At the time patriotic citizens nationwide endured rationing and self-denial as everyday items like sugar, silk and tobacco became luxuries.  But 55-year old Joseph Samresky was more focused on his personal gain.

On February 1, 1945 The Times reported “The first retailer in this city convicted of black market dealings in cigarettes was sentenced to fifteen days in the workhouse and fined $75 by Magistrate Charels E. Hirsimaki in War Emergency Court yesterday.  The magistrate expressed regret that under the law he was unable to impose a more severe penalty.”

One reason that tobacco was rationed was so that soldiers on the front could be supplied with cigarettes.  The judge censured Saremsky, “because of black market profiteers like yourself who hold back supplies for illegal gains it has become almost impossible for our fighting forces to obtain necessary cigarettes.”

Neighborhoods in Manhattan tend to change.  But the Hell’s Kitchen area around Eighth Avenue and 40th Street seemed impervious to improvement as the decades passed.  The massive Port Authority Bus Terminal, engulfing an entire city block, which opened across the avenue from the former Shea’s Hotel in 1950 did nothing to clean up the sordid area.

By the 1970s the neighborhood was filled with prostitutes, drug dealers, and sex-oriented shops.  The former Shea’s Hotel was now the Traveler’s Hotel and its reputation had not improved.  On November 5, 1976 one person seems to have attempted to take on vice single-handedly.  That night a massage parlor called the “Pleasure Studios” at No. 632 Eighth Avenue was destroyed by fire.  At the same time someone doused the stairway of the Traveler’s Hotel with gasoline.   The fuel failed to ignite.

The hotel’s reputation may have had something to do with the attempted arson.  On September 6, 1977 the Midtown Enforcement Project helped close down Traveler’s Hotel.  The Times reported that “About 40 prostitutes had been convicted following arrests at the hotel over the last eight months.”

In August 1982 the old hotel was taken over by the West Side Cluster, an association of Manhattan settlement houses.  Four months later a syndicated UPI article announced “The Traveler’s is a miracle on Eighth Avenue: an old four-story brick hotel previously frequented by prostitutes that has been converted into a shelter for the homeless in a run-down neighborhood near Times Square.”

The article explained that the formerly-homeless women “come and go as they please, pay rent for their rooms from welfare or Social Security assistance, and abide by a few house rules: no liquor, no cooking in the rooms and an 11 p.m. curfew.”  Fred Greisbach, director of the group, noted “Most of them come in by 11 anyway because it’s a dangerous neighborhood.”

The Traveler’s Hotel still operates here.  It is accessed through an ominous looking side door that replaced the stone portico of the 1880s.  The ground floor, where tailor shops, jewelry stores and a saloon with swinging doors once operated, now houses a collection of gaudy shops with a mish-mash of signs and storefronts.  The cornice has lost its little parapet and the second story openings have been enlarged; but overall the Victorian hotel with its sordid past survives surprisingly intact.

photographs by the author