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,%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 

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