Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Jennings Building - No. 10 East 14th Street

As the clouds of war formed over the South, Robert S. McCurdy hosted several political meetings in his handsome home on Union Square.  But not long after the end of the Civil War, his refined neighborhood was seeing the encroachment of commerce.   In 1877 McCurdy reluctantly abandoned his mansion.  The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide sympathetically reported, “Mr. McCurdy, being a man of years, showed considerable hesitation in moving out of his home; but the march of business was inexorable.”

Robert McCurdy leased his house to James McCutcheon, “the linen goods man” at $9,000 per year.  It was not long before McCutcheon began major alterations.  But disaster followed.

On September 14, 1879 The New York Times reported that at around 12:40 p.m. the day before Officer Kershaw was startled by a loud crash and “shrieks from ladies and other pedestrians.”  Looking toward the commotion, he saw a billowing cloud of white dust and panicked crowds rushing towards him.

“The officer ran in the direction of Fifth-avenue, and found that five floors in the partially-demolished McCurdy mansion, No. 10 East Fourteenth-street, had fallen on a number of masons and laborers, and that there was every reason to believe that many of them were buried in the ruins.”

Before long the site was besieged by police, firemen and ambulances.  The firemen enlisted as many of the workmen and bystanders that could be found to help in the rescue efforts.  When a count was taken of the McCutcheon workers, four were missing.

Immediate investigation put the cause of the collapse on the construction site next door at No. 8.  The Aldrich mansion there had already been demolished and Freeman Bloodgood was in the process of erecting a new structure.  “Motives of economy” had induced his builder, J. J. Marsh, to reuse old floor beams from the Aldrich mansion.  “It is pertinent to an explanation of the accident to say that the conditions of the floor-beams was considered unsafe,” said The Times.

Little by little the debris was cleared and workers paused regularly to listen for sounds.  “Then the rescuers listened and the voices of several men were heard underneath the rubbish. Axes and saws were plied with a will, scores of men removed timbers, bricks and laths and about 2 o’clock part of the body of John W. Carroll, a bricklayer…was seen.”  A bottle of brandy was sent for.

One by one the buried men were rescued.  Amazingly, none of the workmen was seriously injured.  The accident however, cost the contractors between $4,000 and $6,000.

Despite the major damage to the McCurdy house the alterations, designed by M. C. Merritt, went forward.  But the completed conversation would not last long.

On April 9, 1881 The Record and Guide noted “No street in New York has changed so radically as Fourteenth street within the last seven years…The person who has made the most changes and has taken advantage of the situation is W. Jennings Demorest, who has altered some fourteen private houses into stores.”

In fact, Demorest had been responsible for the first intrusion of commerce onto Union Square.  Years later he told a reporter “When I first moved to 14th street—about a quarter of a century ago—there was not a store to be seen.  The blocks between Broadway and 6th avenue were entirely given over to private residences, which were occupied by some of the best known of our citizens.”

He told of putting a show window into the parlor floor of a mansion.  “I shall never forget the consternation which this improvement made among the fashionable people who then resided in the neighborhood.  It was considered a sort of sacrilege.”

On December 20, 1884, the Record and Guide reported that Demorest “intends to alter No. 10 East Fourteenth street, by erecting two distinct stores in the first floor, and by turning the upper stores into offices and studios, for which there is a great demand in this neighborhood.”

The cast iron fa├žade of No. 10 was, when compared to similar iron-fronted buildings on Broadway, reserved.  No doubt chosen from the foundry’s design books, the central sections featured engaged Corinthian columns that separated the austere openings.  Along the sides, piers were decorated with more up-to-date incised stylized flowers.  Above it all a robust, complex cornice hogged the attention.

An exuberant cornice stole the show.  It is now topped by a spartan penthouse.

Among the first tenants in the renovated structure was silver dealer James F Barclay.   To his customers, Barclay would have seemed to be doing very well for himself.  In February 1885 Dr J. W. Johnson paid cash for $191.52 in silver items; then was back the following spring buying the exact amount.    Dr. Johnson’s cash purchases of $383.04 would be in the neighborhood of $11,000 today. 

But Barclay seems to have increased his profits simply by not paying his suppliers.  In 1887 he was sued by the Wilcox Silver Place Company for outstanding invoices totaling around $1,400.

Like Barclay, retailers on Union Square were high-end and in the building at the same time was J. H. Barringer, “dealer in gems,” which had been founded in 1856. 

The salesrooms of Metropolitan Manufacturing Company, a clothing firm, were here in 1886.  Around October that year Henry S. Tappan hired Daniel Galway (described by The Times as “a middle-aged widower") as a salesman.  Galway did not receive a salary, but was paid commission on the garments he sold.

Trouble came in January 1887 when one of Galway’s customers returned a cloak.  Because Tappan understandably did not consider the return “a sale” the $2 commission was suspended.  Galway, however, did not agree.

On January 26 he stormed into his boss’s office and complained about the $2 commission.  Tappan insisted the salesman had been treated fairly and, when Galway became verbally abusive, he was ordered out.

Galway pulled a gun and said “If I can’t get my money I can kill you” and fired two shots.  Tappan raised his hands and one bullet passed through his right palm.  The second shot struck a closet door.  As he rushed out of the office, he turned and fired another shot, which entered the wall.

Galway ran onto the street, pursued by an office boy, Frederick Bailey, who shouted “Murder! Police!”  The ruckus caught the attention of piano dealer C. B. Dickinson who joined in the chase.  The Times said Dickinson “reached the street quickly by falling down a flight of stairs.”

As they neared University Place, Galway pulled his revolver again and shouted “I’ll kill any one who interferes.”  The piano dealer threw his arms around the gunman, who was then disarmed.  “I only did what was right,” he grumbled as he was led back to Tappan’s office.  There he was locked in a room until a policeman came.

According to The New York Times, “He told him that Tappan owed him money, refused to pay him although he was starving, and was sorry he did not kill him.”

In 1889 other tenants included Gustav Cronmeyer’s toy shop, D. S. Elliot, "a hairdresser,” and Alexander Wright, manufacturing jeweler.
The maker of the "Perfection" air inhaler advertised in The Evening World on December 5, 1889 (copyright expired)
One of the studios was taken by artist Jeannette Thorp, who also taught painting.  She told a reporter from The Evening World on November 3, 1888 “Painting has become a fashionable craze among young belles.  It has taken the place of learning the banjo and other fashionable fads, but I think it is a nobler one and will be more enduring.” 

A few months later, in February, a reporter was back to “learn a number of interesting facts about fancy freaks of the brush.”  Jeannette told him “Baby faces on plaques are all the rage just now.  I have orders beyond number for them, from all the large retail drygoods and fancy stores.”

She explained that she had painted one around the holidays and put in on exhibition in a Broadway art store  “It was sold at a fancy figure, and the firm gave me a large order for more. Since then I have been overwhelmed with orders for the same line of goods.”

The resourceful artist branched out.  “Now I paint colored babes’ faces, white babes, cats’ and dogs’ heads, and really cannot furnish them as fast as they are ordered.”

By 1890 the retail silverware store of the Alvin Manufacturing Company was in the building.  The firm’s factory was in Newark, New Jersey and for two years was plagued with missing silver bars and sheet silver.   In November that year the company hired Detective Walker to find the culprit. 

Walker suspected 53-year old employee Frank Healey.  He marked some silver and waited.  On the night of November 6 the marked silver disappeared.  He arrested Healey, who had $15 worth of silver on him.  When Walker went to Healey’s house, another $150 worth of silver was found.  The Alvin Company estimated the total amount of stolen silver to be “several thousand dollars.”

In 1891 J. H. Barringer was still in the building.  Barringer’s business card listed “Purchase and Sale of Rare Jewels, Diamonds, Watches, Jewelry, Precious Stones, etc.”   His wife, Julia, used the office for her own side business; but it landed her in jail in December 1891.

Julia did business as a money broker.  In May that year a Spanish investor, Emil Castillo, told her he wanted to invest $100,000.  He proposed that she lend the money, charging 30 percent interest for amounts under $5,000 and 50 percent for anything larger than that.

Julia E. Barringer should have become suspicious when Castillo suggested that instead of using her own name she should call herself Rosa B. De Cazanova.  For some reason, Julia followed his instructions.

She loaned money to various people and received the interest.  She signed the receipts as Rosa B. De Cazanova.  And then Castillo’s scheme became obvious.  Mrs. Rosa B. De Cazanova came forward, charging Julia with forgery.   Julia was arrested and held at $1,500 bail.

While Julia E. Barringer tried to explain herself to the courts, Clarissa C. Lathrop was fighting another injustice.  She was fully aware that greedy persons would sometimes have family members committed to insane asylums in order to get control of their money.  On June 19, 1891 she opened the offices of the Lunacy Law Reform League and the Anti-Kidnapping Union in Room 6 of No. 10 East 14th Street.

She told reporters “Any one who believes that he or she is in danger of being imprisoned in an asylum may call at the society’s headquarters any day and have an investigation made.”  She added “Only last week we had a sane person released from the asylum…We have not more than twelve cases which we are investigating.”

Clarissa’s work was not limited to New York City.  Later that year, in October, she arranged the release of John B. Ransley from the Longview Lunatic Asylum, near Cincinnati.  A rich confectioner, he ran three stores and a candy factory and early in 1891 brought his mother and sister into partnership.

On a trip to New York, he became romantically involved with a woman and proposed to her.    When the couple quickly married, Ransley’s mother and sister jumped into action.   They restricted his income so he and his wife had to borrow money to live on, then had him kidnapped in Newark and committed to the Cincinnati asylum.  It was only because the bride went to the Lunacy Reform League that he did not spend his life imprisoned.

For the next several years, newspapers would report on “the perfectly sane people rescued by the Society.”

The inventor of the coin-operated newspaper dispensing machine, Milt R. Goodkind, was in the building in 1893.  His contraption was quite unlike today's metal newspaper boxes.  The Sun described it as a hard wood cabinet, 8 feet tall.  “At the top is an eight-day clock, a Sun thermometer, and an automatic calendar. Below these are the time cards of two railroads.  Then comes a French glass mirror and the slots for nickels…On one side of the cabinet is a directory of churches, balanced by a directory of theatres on the other.  Other conveniences are two attached desks with pen and ink, a letter box, files on which the papers of the previous day are kept, and a bulletin board.”

The Woman Suffrage Headquarters was opened here in January 1894.  That year the strong-willed women announced “It behooves all men who hitherto have not shown a proper regard for the cause of woman suffrage to focus their wits upon it speedily, for the fiat has gone forth that they, not the women, must put their shoulders to the wheel and carry to victory in the Constitutional Convention the cause of the woman suffragist.”

By now the Union Square neighborhood was seeing another change.  Where once only the most exclusive stores did business, now a more tawdry type of enterprise was going on.   Two artists, Ehrich Eaecke and Charles H. Higley, leased a studio here in 1895 and from their window they could see into the Florida Hotel on 13th Street.  What they saw was shocking.

On June 13, 1895 they testified in court that the Florida Hotel was, in fact, a house of prostitution.  “They described what they saw to the Commissioners, which was sufficient to clearly show the disreputable character of the place,” reported The Evening World on June 14.  “Within the last two months the witnesses said shades and awnings had been put up so that they could not see into the rooms.”

Higby went further, saying that “Every time he went through Thirteenth Street after dark, he was met by some of these women,” said The New York Times.
Ehrich Eaecke was gone by 1897, but his roommate stayed on.  He both lived and worked in the top floor studio and, by now, had developed a singular twist to his art.  Higby collected about 15 snakes which he allowed to roam free throughout the studio.  He fed them live mice and would twist them around models, creating unique paintings of the women and reptiles.  He earned the nickname “the snake artist.”

A problem occurred when Higby was taken to the New York Hospital on December 13, 1897 with an inflammation of the lungs.  Three days later, following an operation, his chances of recovery were not good—which presented the issue of the free-range snakes in the studio.

“Now that the young man is in the hospital, there is no one around the building who cares to show off the snakes or even enter the room where they are kept,” reported The Sun.  Who the brave person was who eventually cleared out the scaly livestock is unclear.

No. 10 East 14th Street continued to attract a disparate list of tenants.  Cranmer C. Langill, well-known photographer, had his studio here for years around the turn of the century; the American Painless Dentists were here in 1909 advertising “Teeth!!! Extracted without pain.  Examined and Cleaned FREE!!!”  And by 1930 the John Reed Club had its headquarters in the building.

The John Reed Club was an organization of writers and artists.  They fought ardently against what the deemed anti-Soviet propaganda and insisted that the widespread agitation “against religious persecution in Soviet Russian might lead to war.”  

 “There is no religious persecution in the Soviet Union,” its appeal that year asserted.   Members supporting the group’s drive included Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos.

During the 20th century the ground floor of No. 10 received a brutish make-over; however the upper floors remained intact, if neglected.  Then in 2006 the Core Development Group began a conversion, completed in 2008, that resulted in seven apartments within the upper floors.  Space where once Clarissa Lathrop worked to persons free wrongly committed to insane asylums and an artist’s snakes roamed free, now sell for about $4.5 million.

photographs by the author

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