Friday, July 31, 2015

The Alfred E. Smith House -- No. 25 Oliver Street

In the first years following the end of the Revolutionary War, the Rutgers and de Lancey estates abutted one another.  As the city encroached on their lands, the families named new streets for themselves, including Rutgers Street, Henry Street (for Henry Rutgers), and Catherine Street, for Catherine Rutgers.  Division Street marked the line between the two estates.  And little Oliver Street was named for Oliver de Lancey, brother of James de Lancey, for whom Delancey Street was named.

By the 1840s the streets were lined with what were mostly working class homes.   Among them was No. 25 Oliver Street, a 23-foot wide, two and a half story house clad in Flemish bond brick. The neighborhood was populated by Irish immigrants, and the Federal style house was owned by Thomas Coman.

Coman brought his family from Ireland to New York in 1838 when his son, also named Thomas, was just two years old.   He was determined that his son would succeed and while other boys in the neighborhood left school early to work, young Thomas not only stayed on but was later enrolled in the New York City College.

In 1847 Florence McCarthy was living across the street at No.22 Oliver Street when she fell behind in her personal taxes by $10.53.  By 1853 it appears she was renting a room from the Coman family.  She was, by now, a trustee in the Fourth Ward School District. Florence was still living here five years later when she had risen to the position of commissioner.

Young Thomas Coman graduated from City College in 1856.   That same year he joined the volunteer Eagle Engine Company No. 13.  He briefly worked for The New York Herald, and then at the age of 26 he took a job as clerk in the Post Office.

But Thomas Coman was politically motivated and in 1866 he was elected to the New York City Board of Alderman.  It was the beginning of a long political career marked by a meteoric rise.   Only two years later he became President of the Board of Alderman and, that same year, when Mayor Hoffman resigned, Thomas Coman stood in as Acting Mayor.  He held the position for about a year.

In 1871, the same year that Coman was re-elected to the Board of Alderman, he filed plans to enlarge the Oliver Street house by adding a third floor.  Although his intentions, as described in the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide on July 8, included a mansard roof; the completed renovations stopped short of that.  It was most likely at this time that up-to-date Italianate railings were added.

The Tammany Hall Democrat would sometimes find himself embroiled in the scandals that became the organization’s hallmark.   The New York Times—notoriously anti-Tammany—initiated an investigation regarding the $31,730.15 bill presented to the City in 1872 by the J. McBride Davidson safe company.

The Times insisted that the bills “were very heavy, and that the goods for which he charged could not be found in the public offices.”  The newspaper proclaimed “We have also intimated that many of the safes charged for were supplied to private persons!”

Thomas Coman -- Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York 1869 (copyright expired)
On February 1, 1872 the newspaper published a list of the safes, their costs and where they were delivered.  “This account is as clear a proof of barefaced swindling as any which could possibly be laid before the public.” Included in the list was the $650 “Secretary Safe” delivered to Thomas Coman at No. 25 Oliver Street on October 11, 1871.  The equivalent cost of the Coman’s safe today would be around $13,000.

In 1873 he was indicted, along with other Tweed Ring conspirators, for corruption in the construction of the Courthouse.

In 1881 Coman’s wife, Martha, sold No. 25 Oliver Street to the Church of St. James, located just a block away.    Almost simultaneously the Church purchased No. 21 Oliver Street for the same price.  Before long it would acquire No. 23 as well.

When St. James Church purchased No. 25 Mary and Sarah Corrigan were living at No. 135 Henry Street.  The sisters taught at Primary School No. 12 at No. 83 Roosevelt Street, along with Mary G. Meagher.  At the time Mary L. Corrigan was earning $600 per year and Sarah made $516.  Mary Meagher was earning $636 a year.   Even though she was earning more than the Corrigan sisters, it appears finances were tight.  That same year Mary Meaghan borrowed $327 from Jordan & Moriarty, using her furniture as collateral.

By 1883 all three women were living at No 25 Oliver Street, renting from the church.   The following year, in April, the church announced its intention of combining Nos 25 and 23 Oliver Street for use as its rectory.  Although the plan was never carried out, it was most likely at this time that the two houses acquired their matching cornices.

While the houses were not combined; No. 25 did become the rectory of St. James Church and it was from here on April 6, 1902 that the Rev. James B. Curry described the gritty 5-Points neighborhood.  “This district is a very rotten one, and the people in it who are bad are about the vilest and most degraded in all the world.  At Chatham Square I was every day compelled to make my way through a crowd of bad women who infested the corners thereabouts.”

Little Oliver Street however, while humble, was respectable.  In 1904 an up-and-coming politician, Alfred E. Smith was elected to the State Assembly.   He and his family were living in a five-room, third-floor walk up at No. 28 Oliver Street.  By 1909 the apartment was too crowded for the family of seven.  When funeral director Henry McCaddin moved from the former rectory at No. 25 Oliver Street to No. 63 Madison nearby, Smith leased No. 25 from St. James Church.

Smith was wildly popular within the mostly Irish neighborhood.  He relentlessly worked for improvements of the Lower East Side, including rent control, tenant protection and low-cost housing.  In an effort to teach children to save money, he and Assembly Speaker Tom Foley (who also lived on the block) announced free gifts to neighborhood children.  On June 17, 1913 The New York Times reported that “Three thousand children gathered yesterday at the doorstep of 25 Oliver Street…The gifts were to be distributed at 4 o’clock, but the collection of humanity took so long to be sorted and squirmed and screamed so much and so mightily that it was an hour later before sufficient order prevailed to hand out the first present.”  Each child received a tin bank, painted red and green, with a key and a nickel to start their savings.

The ruckus was such that a passerby asked a policeman if a riot was happening.  He answered, “Naw, a nuisance!”

When Smith ran for sheriff in October 1915, the residents showed their support.  On October 28 The New York Times reported “The blocks bounded by Oliver, Henry, Catharine and Madison Streets were closed to traffic and the houses were festooned with Japanese lanterns, bunting and incandescent lights.  In front of 25 Oliver Street, the candidate’s home, there hung a great painting of Smith bordered with red, white, and blue lights.”

There were three bands in the street, and open-air movies.  Children, “some Greek, some Chinese and some Italian, but mostly Irish, in carnival costumes, performed folk dancing and sang.”

Alfred E. Smith and his wife, Catherine -- from the collection of the Library of Congress

By 1916 Oliver Street was popularly known as Politicians’ Row.   On April 21 The Evening World noted that in addition to Smith, “In the row are the homes of Clem Driscoll, Senator Reardon, Magistrate Nolan, Tom Foley and Former Coroner Hayes.”  But Alfred E. Smith was the most popular.  On November 7, 1917 The Sun called him the “idol of Oliver street” and said he was “pretty well liked wherever he is known, amateur actor, present Sheriff, and former leader of the Assembly.”  That same year Smith, like Thomas Coman before him, was elected President of the Board of Aldermen.

In 1918 he was elected Governor of New York—the first Roman Catholic to hold the office--and suddenly the Smith family was dividing its time between the Executive Mansion and Oliver Street.  The first rumors that Alfred E. Smith would abandon Oliver Street began to spread in 1922.   When a resident was asked about it, he said “He’d never leave here.  Why, the boys wouldn’t let him!”

But Smith did finally leave the Oliver Street house.  Somewhat ironically, it was leased by St. James Church to Henry McCaddin, who had preceded Smith here.   McCaddin moved his funeral home into the house once again.

In 1928, when Smith’s daughter, Catherine, was married, old Oliver Street neighbors were not forgotten. Among the 15 invitations to the Albany wedding that arrived at Oliver Street addresses was one for Mr. and Mrs. Henry McCaddin.

On March 30, 1937 Berenice Abbott photographed No 25 (middle). The pressed metal lintels on both No. 25 and 23 were still crisp.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Little by little the old Irish neighborhood changed.  In 1939 the Federal Works Project’s New York City Guide described the area around the old Smith residence.  “The population of this former Irish district is chiefly Italian and Russian; a Greek colony occupies the lower end of Madison Street, while a small group of Spaniards lives in the neighborhood of Roosevelt and Cherry Street.”

In 1941 the first of 18 American Liberty Ships was built.  The transport ships were initially intended to help replace the English ships torpedoed by German U-boats.   Construction on the SS Alfred E. Smith commenced on November 27, 1944.   Prior to its launch in 1945 a slab of the bluestone sidewalk in front of No. 25 Oliver Street was removed in an official ceremony.  The stone was placed within the new ship.

The metal window lintels and Italianate ironwork are gone.  The remaining lintel over the doorway is seriously rusting.

Although the house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and a plaque applied to its brick façade; the Alfred E. Smith residence is a bit worse for the wear.   The house that one of New York State’s most popular called home, and where throngs of New Yorkers and children forced the closing of streets, goes mostly unnoticed and shows serious signs of neglect.

photographs by the author

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