Monday, August 31, 2015

Violence, Crime and Poverty -- The Lost No. 508 W. 38th Street

In 1938 residents gather on the porch.  What was possibly once a shop has been converted to a garage.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
On August 18, 1881 Mamie, John, William and James Wilson, ages 12, 10, 7 and 6, were “rescued from a place called ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’” by Officer J. D. Frederick, as reported in the New-York Tribune two days later.  The policeman had a warrant to remove the children from the care of a neighbor after both parents were sent to prison.

The Wilson children were found at No. 551 West 39th Street with “a Mrs. Fitzpatrick, a vicious woman living in a shanty.”  The newspaper said “The block in which this place is situated is considered one of the lowest and most dangerous localities in New York; across the street from ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ is ‘Battle Row,’ and not far distant is ‘Sebastopol,’ two notorious resorts for criminals.  It is made up of miserable huts and shanties built among the rocks…There was no doubt that if left to grow up surrounded by such influences and under the care of such guardians, these four children would soon have been initiated into lives of crime and vice.”

Many of the ramshackle wooden buildings, as noted by the Tribune, were given names by the locals.  Hell’s Kitchen where the Wilson children were found, would lend its name to the entire crime-ridden neighborhood from approximately 34th street to 59th, and Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River. 

That same year The New York Times called the area “one of the most miserable and crime-polluted neighborhoods in this City” and said “there is more disease, crime, squalor, and vice to the square inch in this part of New-York.”  Even the police were intimidated by the tough and dangerous residents.  Looking back on his time here, a police sergeant told a Times reporter on September 18, 1892 “You were always on the defensive and carried your life in your hand if you made the streets safe for decent people.  If you chose to skulk and let the hoodlums have their own way, you were a good fellow, and never wanted for a cigar or a drink, and I have heard that some officers profited to a greater extent by being discreetly deaf, dumb, and blind.”

Just a block south of the original “Hell’s Kitchen” building where the Wilson children had been was a similar structure at No. 508 West 38th Street.   Three stories tall, it was faced in clapboard.  Scores of impoverished tenants crammed into its filthy rooms.

The history of crime and violence at No. 508 West 38th Street extended decades before the incident with the Wilson children.  Poverty often went hand-in-hand with frustration, anger, crime and heavy drinking.  Two of the tenants at No. 508 in 1868 were 55-year old John Corson, a coal cartman, and his wife Rebecca.  Corson was crude, vicious and a heavy drinker.  The Sun, who described him as “a thick-set and repulsive looking man,” on November 23, 1868 reported that he “was in the habit of beating his wife, and he was doing so on Saturday night.”  This time, however, would be far worse than normal.

A newspaper later reported that on Saturday night, November 20, 1868 Corson “reached home late at night intoxicated.”  The door to the meager apartment was broken in; evidence that Rebecca had tried to prevent her drunken husband from entering.  The enraged John Corson flew into a violent, uncontrolled frenzy upon gaining entrance.  The Sun later said “without the least provocation, it is alleged, [he] knocked down and beat his wife in the most brutal manner.”  The scene was described as a “wreck” with the “stove pipe, a broken stove, pans, an old kettle, and a bundle of rags lying scattered around.”

Rebecca Corson tried in vain to escape from her brutal husband’s assault.  Police later reported that “the little furniture they possessed was broken to pieces, and the only bedstead they owned was smashed.”  Rebecca struggled and “It was said that he chased the woman from room to room of their narrow dwelling, and then knocked her down, and jumping upon her, succeeded in stamping her body and face to an unrecognizable mass.”

The shocking act was even more than Hell’s Kitchen residents would tolerate.  Tenants, drawn by the screams and commotion, held “the murderously inclined husband” until Sergeant James from the 20th Precinct arrived and arrested him.   The Sun noted “The husband was, of course, intoxicated, and when taken into custody pretended to know nothing of what had occurred.”

In the meantime, Rebecca lay unconscious on the floor on a pile of rags.  Her battered appearance was described by the newspaper as “a hideous spectacle.”  Police could piece together some of the happenings of that evening.  “The floor and walls of the room were sprinkled with blood, and a handful of hair lay on the floor near the stove, giving evidence of a terrific struggle.  The blood was traced into the inner room, where the fiend had evidently dragged his victim when the work had been finished.”

Rebecca had suffered not only serious cuts and bruises, but her skull had been fractured.  She died early in the morning the following day.  Three months later Corson was still incarcerated in The Tombs awaiting his murder trial.

Reformer Jacob Riis photographed conditions in a typical Hell's Kitchen flat around 1890 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Late on the hot summer night of August 23 1870 two tenants, James Keenan and August Boer got into an argument on the sidewalk outside the house.  In true Hell’s Kitchen manner, it was settled with a knife.  Keenan delivered a severe head wound to Boer who was given “surgical attention at the Station-house,” according to The New York Times.  Keenan was arrested and Boer was able to return home to No. 508 West 38th Street.

Blacksmith Peter White lived here in 1899 when a friend, Nathan Kronman, was arrested on charges of murdering his wife.   When Kronman’s case was adjourned on August 11 for further investigation—meaning that the accused man would sit in The Tombs for an extended period—White came to his aid.  With the help of fruit dealer William Young who lived three blocks away, he provided bail for Kronman’s release.

While other Manhattan neighborhoods changed—improving or declining—over the decades; Hell’s Kitchen remained essentially the same.  The dilapidated building at No. 508 West 38th Street remained the home of destitute tenants into the Depression years.  And apparently the drinking habits of the occupants did not change, either.

Early on the morning of February 22, 1932 Jacob Gredlinger opened up his small cigar making shop at No. 142 West 31st Street.  To his shock and surprise the stove was already burning, fueled by his cigar boxes, and a man was slumped in a chair, a burned-out cigar hanging from his mouth.

Gredlinger left the shop at a much higher rate of speed than he had entered.  He rushed to the West 30th Street police station, directly behind his shop, “and announced he had a burglar to deliver.”  The Times reported “Policemen surrounded the shop and entered cautiously with drawn revolvers.”

It took much shaking to rouse James McAvoy, who was still drunk.  The 41-year old, who lived at No. 508 West 38th Street, “could not recall how he entered the place, but it was evident that he had bent the weather-eaten bars and raised a rear window.”

Like so many of the occupants of No. 508 over the past 80 years, McAvoy was arrested.  He spent the next five days in the workhouse.  The history of crime and poverty at No. 508 was drawing to a close, however.

Cars, possibly taxicabs, used the adjoining lot for parking on July 21, 1934.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Within a few years the dilapidated structure was demolished to be replaced with the four-story Shubert Theatrical Warehouse.  Nevertheless, Hell’s Kitchen retained its seedy reputation until the turn of the 21st century when developers began transforming the neighborhood into one of expensive high-rise residences.  As trendy cafes replaced old shops, real estate agents, tried hard to disguise the area’s sordid past by marketing Hell’s Kitchen as “Chelsea Heights.”
In 2007 the entire block where No. 508 West 38th Street had stood was erased.  On the site, once part of Manhattan’s—if not America’s—most notorious district, rose the soaring luxury apartment complex named 505W37, designed by Handel Architects.


Saturday, August 29, 2015

The 1907 Hellmuth Bldg -- No. 154 West 18th Street

Wonderful Art Nouveau brackets flank the building's name spelled out in jovial turn of the century font.

For decades by the turn of the last century, the three four-story brick houses at 154 through 158 West 18th Street had suffered a chilling tradition of death and illness.  In the first years after the end of the Civil War, they were operated as rooming houses.  No. 154, in 1874, was noted by the Department of Health as having four cases of diphtheria—among the “largest number of cases” in the city.

The block--lined mostly with stables--housed residents with only the most meager means.  In 1904, James Bell and his wife lived in two rooms at 154 West 18th Street.  In June, the elderly woman became ill, but Bell had no money for a doctor.  When she died, he could not afford to bury her.  Unwilling to leave her body alone, he refused to leave his rooms to get food.

On June 26, 1904, The New York Times reported “James Bell, an octogenarian, was found last night so weak from lack of food that he was not able to walk in one of his two rooms at 154 West Eighteenth Street.  In the other room was the dead body of his wife, who was seventy years old.  The old man said that his wife died several days ago.”

A saloon operated from the first floor of No. 158 while rooms were rented in the floors above.  All three houses were owned by Arthur J. Collins; and the seamy conditions here would come to an end when, on May 26, 1905, he sold the properties to Charles Hellmuth.

Hellmuth was a highly-successful manufacturer of printing and lithographic inks and varnishes.  His company was also the sole U.S. agent for the Kast & Ehinger ink makers of Germany.  By now he operated a substantial factory and maintained a branch office in Chicago.  In reporting on his purchase of the three houses, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that he “will erect a new fireproof building for his own occupancy.”

Adolph Schoeller was a partner in the architectural firm of Forhling & Schoeller at the time.  But somewhat surprisingly, the Record and Guide mentioned only Schoeller's name on June 24, 1905 in reporting on the projected structure.  Estimating the cost of the Hellmuth Building at $250,000, it reported “plans specify a brick and terra cotta exterior, iron stairways, elevator, galvanized iron skylights, cornices, steam heat, electric lights, slag roof, etc.”

The reason for the omission of Schoeller’s partner became evident a little over two weeks later when the same publication announced on July 15, “The firm of Frohling & Schoeller, architects, has been dissolved.  Mr. Adolph Scheller continues in business at 31 Union Square West.”

Schoeller ventured into an area rarely visited by Manhattan architects—that of Art Nouveau.  While Paris exploded with the sensuous and—to some Victorian minds—startling curves and forms, Manhattan’s conventional minds seem to have disapproved.  While a few architects, like Emery Roth, embraced the avant garde style, most avoided it altogether or cautiously dipped into its more restrained sub-styles.

And so it was with the upper seven stories of the eight-floor Hellmuth Building at 154 West 18th Street, completed in 1907.  The more-or-less commonplace factory building was faced in tan brick.  Rusticated brick piers separated the vast openings, ornamented only by tepid capitals influenced by the Vienna Secession movement.

But the ground floor base exploded with elaborate Art Nouveau ornament worthy of the Champs Elysees.   The two entrances were crowned with elaborate cornices flanked by hefty brackets of swirling vines and lilies in full blossom—a popular Art Nouveau motif.   Terra cotta panels announced the building’s name in fantastic Art Nouveau lettering.

Acting as capitals, ornaments below the 8th floor cornice drew inspiration from the Vienna Seccesion movement.

Designed to house printing firms (the top four floors were relegated as leased space), the interior ceilings were constructed of robust brick barrel vaults—capable of supporting the heavy presses and other machinery.  The manufacture of printing inks required the use of highly flammable ingredients.  To reduce the possibility of catastrophe, a heavy brick vault was constructed in the basement where the mixing of volatile chemicals would take place.  In addition, a sprinkler system and automatic fire alarm was installed.

In December 15, 1906, the Record & Guide reported that 50,000 square feet “in the new fire-proof building in course of construction” had already been leased “for a long term of years at an aggregate rental of about $125,000.”

That unnamed tenant was most likely F. J. Emmerich & Co., dealers in “hanging papers,” one of the Hellmuth Building’s first renters.  Just weeks later, the building was ready for occupancy and Walden’s Stationery and Printer reported “Charles Hellmuth, manufacturer of inks and dry colors, has sent out a very pleasing removal notice, colored in brown and green, announcing the occupation of the new premises in the Hellmuth building, 154 West Eighteenth street.”

The Inland Printer September 1914 (copyright expired)

In 1908, F. J. Emmerich & Co. added 8,500 square feet to its lease.  Another early tenant was Henry E. Frankenberg & Co., makers of novelties.  The firm employed 9 men and 20 women in 1913.  A year earlier T. J. Hayes Printing Company had moved in with its staff of 27.  It would remain in the building for decades.

By 1915, the Albodon Company had taken the entire eighth floor.  Unlike the printing and paper industry-related tenants, it manufactured “tooth cream.”  A 1916 advertisement in The Evening World admonished readers that “your dentist is interested in the dentifrice you use.  He would like to have you try at least one tube of Albodon to see for yourself how much better it cleans.”

The firm marketed its product saying, “It is a cream, not a paste.  It does not melt or harden.  It has no grit.  It is not colored.” The consumer could purchase “a liberal tube” for 25 cents.

On November 27, 1916, the unthinkable happened.  A staggering 900 employees were at work in the building (“about half the number [were] women and girls,” according to The Evening World later that day).  Early in the afternoon a Hellmuth employee named Shanz went to the basement vault to mix chemicals, the main ingredient being benzoil.  Suddenly flames shot out and Shanz was burned about the head and face.

“For a few minutes employees of the company tried to fight the blaze, but, seeing they were making no headway, an alarm was turned in,” reported The Evening World.   In the meantime the automatic sprinkler system and alarm had been triggered.  The hundreds of employees “marched to the street in order.”

Firefighters responded to the smoke-filled basement.  As they fought the blaze, a vat of benzoil exploded, knocking the men to the floor and “painfully” burning them.  Other firefighters dragged the men to street and fresh air.  The brick vault did the job for which it was intended.  Fire officials reported “The fire was confined to the vault in which it started.”

As was the case with most firms owned or run by German-born Americans, when the U.S. entered World War I, the assets of the Charles Hellmuth company were confiscated by the United States Government in 1917.  Deemed “alien property” by the Trading With The Enemy Act of 1917, the assets were eventually repurchased by Bernard Richmond Armour who had taken over the Hellmuth presidency in 1919.

The T. J. Hayes Printing Company was still in the building when its founder died on August 27, 1925.  Having arrived as an Irish immigrant boy around 1855, the elderly Timothy J. Hayes had amassed sizable personal wealth.  The firm would continue to do business from the 18th Street location at least into the 1940s.

In 1935 80-year old Louis Kessell was employed by Charles Hellmuth, Inc. as its paymaster.  A veteran of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, he was still a feisty old soldier at heart.  At 5:00 on the afternoon of June 10, 1935 he was sitting in his small room on the ground floor.  On his desk was a metal box containing about $1,000 in cash.

Suddenly a “thug” rushed into the room, landed a blow on Kessell's head with a cloth-wrapped club, and grabbed the money box.   The elderly man, knocked to the floor, took a second to recover.  Then, according to The New York Times, he “rose to his feet, shook his head to clear it, grappled with the intruder, and began to pummel him.”  The shocked thief had not anticipated a fight from the spirited octogenarian.

“By the time help arrived the would-be robber had fled,” said the newspaper.  “The $1,000 was saved, although scattered about the compartment during the tussle.”  Louis Kessell’s injuries were a bump on the head.

Stanley Gould would be less lucky two decades later.  The 36-year-old salesman, less than half Kessell’s age, worked for his family’s Gould Offset Printing Company here.  On December 3, 1954, he entered the building’s elevator with the firm's payroll--$1,800 in cash.  Two men got in the cab at the same time.

Gould was later found bound and gagged in the elevator car.  The thieves escaped with the cash.

In 1973, the Hellmuth firm, now known as Sleight & Hellmuth, left their headquarters of nearly 70 years.  In 1988, the building was converted to 28 cooperative apartments featuring the wonderful scalloped ceilings originally intended to support printing machines.  The ground floor has been only slightly altered, leaving the Art Nouveau brackets and panels--rare and wonderful in Manhattan—as architectural eye candy.

 photographs by the author

Friday, August 28, 2015

Wm. Berick's 1839 No. 78 Washington Place

As Washington Square and the streets branching off it were developing in the 1830s, speculator William W. Berwick got in on the action.   Starting out as a mason, by now he was a builder.  In 1839 he completed two identical brick-faced Greek Revival homes at Nos. 15 and 17 Washington Place, just steps from the Square.

The style was just gaining a foothold, pushing out the Federal style used for the Washington Square mansions begun just a few years earlier.  Berwick’s new homes were accented with brownstone; found in the high stoops, the doorway surrounds including heavy entablatures and cornices, and the lintels and sills.  William Berwick and his family took No. 17 for themselves; while he retained possession of No. 15 and leased it as additional income.

The two handsome homes were, by no means, the builder’s last projects in the neighborhood.   The extent of his activities are evident in an advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on February 1, 1851.  He offered for sale “two three-story and attic brick houses fronting on Washington-square, corner of West Washington place and Macdougal-st.  Also, the two Houses adjoining 3 and 5 West Washington-place will be sold low.”  The ad promised “They are built in the best manner, under the superintendence of William W. Berwick, Esq. and have every possible modern convenience.”  Berwick was offering the most desirable houses—those facing Washington Square--at $13,000—about $415,000 today.

William Berwick, for some reason, eventually moved next door to No. 15.  It was here, on Tuesday, November 18, 1856, that the 70-year old died and where his funeral was held three days later.

In 1859 A. H. Emery, whose business card listed civil engineer, “inventor and patentee,” was living and doing business from a suite of rooms in the fashionable Astor House Hotel.   In August that year he advertised that “a rare opportunity to invest in two new and important inventions, patented June 21, 1859, will be found by calling…at his rooms.”

The two inventions Emery had come up with that year were the “New Anti-Friction Cotton Press” (both for packing and compressing), and the useful “Hay, Cider, Cheese and Tobacco Press.”  He especially was interested in Southern investors for these latest devices.

The inventor had moved to No. 17 Washington Place by 1863, and with the outbreak of Civil War he turned his focus on implements of battle.  While living in the house he filed for a patent for “a new and improved Projectile for Rifled Muskets and Other Kindred Arms.”

A. H. Emery’s stay here would be relatively short-lived.  By 1864 the Serrell family was in the house.  William Indigo Serrell was studying at the Free Academy of the City of New York at the time.  And by 1869 it had been purchased by James T. Derrickson.

Derrickson was the principal of the James T. Derrickson & Co., paper business.  The firm manufactured “fine note and envelop paper” and operated as a commissioner paper warehouse as well.  His wife sat on the Board of Managers of the Magdalen Benevolent Society.  Founded in 1830, its object was “the promotion of moral purity, by affording an asylum to erring females, who manifest a desire to return to the paths of virtue, and by procuring employment for their future support.”

On July 8, 1871 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that Derrickson was updating the Washington Place house.  Calling the 24-foot wide residence a “first-class dwelling,” it announced “one story with Mansard roof to be added.”  The completed alteration gave the nearly 30-year old house a touch of cutting-edge residential design.

Exactly one decade later Washington Place was renumbered and No. 17 became No. 78.   It was not the only change to come to the block, however.  While Washington Square remained an exclusive address; the side streets were less fortunate.   The brick and brownstone houses that had been “first-class dwellings” were quickly being operated as boarding houses.

The Greek Revival palmette motif of the stoop railings is repeated in the finials of the areaway ironwork (far right).  The stumpy newels are a late Victorian addition.
Such was the case with No. 78 Washington Square.  Now owned by John McCabe, an assistant chief of the Fire Department, his family lived here while taking in boarders.  On November 22, 1891 an advertisement appeared in The Sun offering “Nicely furnished small and large rooms, with or without board; terms reasonable.”

A defamatory circular had been distributed in 1885 that purported to list McCabe’s indiscretions.  “In 1869 he was indicted for shooting a man; that in March, 1870, he shot four other men, for which he was indicted, but the case was not prosecuted; that he was also indicted for assault and battery and was discharged in court, and that he was also arrested on a charge of highway robbery.”  

The New York Times reported “The circular also states that in September, 1884, a quantity of goods stolen from O’Neill’s dry goods street, at Sixth-avenue and Twentieth-street, by Agnes Francis, an employe of O’Neill’s, was found in McCabe’s house.”

It was “defective vision and a chronic throat trouble” that ended Chief McCabe’s career in January 1893.  Among his tenants around this time was an out-of-work nurse who sought employment through an ad in the New-York Tribune on April 15, 1894.  Apparently eager to find a job, she was willing to relocate.  “Medical and surgical nurse; first-class; city or country.”

Since his forced retirement, John McCabe had spent much time at the nearby Milholland Club at No. 111 Clinton Place.   He became troubled in the spring of 1895 after being notified that was being called as a witness in the investigation by the Special Committee of the State Senate into corruption within the Fire Department.  His testimony would require him to implicate good friends in illegal activities.

The Evening World, April 25, 1895 (copyright expired)
On the morning of April 25, 1895, the day before he was scheduled to testify, the 60-year old McCabe left the Washington Place house and went to the Milholland Club.   He got there about 10:30 “and chatted with those of the members who were in the rooms,” reported The New York Times the following day.  The other men recalled that he “was not in his usually cheerful mood, but was rather moody and appeared depressed.”

His impending appearance before the Senate Committee was weighing heavily on John McCabe.  By noon there was only one other person in the club and McCabe had been sitting by the window without talking for almost an hour. Suddenly he looked at his watch and said to George Williamson, “Why, it’s after 12 o’clock.”

They were the last words John McCabe would ever utter.  He walked into a small room off the back of the main parlor and within moments Williamson heard a pistol shot. McCabe had put a bullet into his right temple.

The now-widowed Jessie McCabe and 16-year old John McCabe, Jr. stayed on in the Washington Place house.    Jessie continued to take in boarders, like Waldo H. Richardson who was Chairman of the Public Schools in 1898.  She was determined that her son would succeed and by 1901 he was studying at Columbia University.  After John McCabe received his medical degree, he opened his practice at No. 78 Washington Place. 

In 1911 a boarder died and the McCabes generously permitted the funeral of Barnard Brown to be held in the parlor on October 2.   Only six months later it would be the scene of another funeral—that of Jessie McCabe.  She died in her bedroom on March 20, 1912.

John McCabe retained possession of the house, and continued his practice here.  In 1915, though, he updated and renovated the building as apartments.  On November 22 that year Domestic Engineering reported that John A. Scollay, of Brooklyn, “will install the heating in a new apartment block at 78 Washington Place, New York.”

The building attracted a wide variety of tenants.  In 1917 Texas-born Will Boaz lived here.  A contracting engineer, the 30-year old had an office in the Woolworth Building.   And in 1919 author Hart Crane moved in for a short time.  Crane’s biographer Paul Martani, in his The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane, noted “It was a larger apartment than he’d rented before and boasted all the twentieth-century luxuries: double bed, stove, closet, even running water.”

By now Greenwich Village had become the mecca for artists, poets, writers and musicians. On April 2, 1921 the Liberator Costume Ball was held, prompting the New-York Tribune’s headline “Bohemianism Runs Unbridled at Dress Ball of Liberator.”  In reporting on the event, the newspaper noted “Chase Herendeen, a dancer of 78 Washington Place, was accredited with being the most beautiful girl in the grand march.  She represented a slim pirate in a red silk cap set on top of her bobbed hair, a white waist open at the throat and a pair of black silk breeches.”

Mrs. J. B. Irwin lived in the building at the same time.  In August 1922 she made a bid for one of The Evening World’s $25 prizes for the best real-life story submitted by a reader each day.  She wrote about seeing a man and his little son enter Washington Square Park on August 4.  The boy carried a toy automobile.  When his father sat on a bench to read the newspaper, “a horde of bootblacks descended upon him and to git rid of them seemingly he chose one to shine his shoes—a little fellow.”

In the 1920s Manhattan streets were still filled with impoverished young boys trying to earn money as bootblacks and newsboys.  They were often homeless, living in charity-run lodging houses.  And they definitely had nothing like toy automobiles.

Mrs. Irwin related “The bootblack worked slowly, spending most of his time watching the child play with the toy.”  Exasperated, or possibly simply kind, the man took the brush from the bootblack and motioned him to play with his son and the toy car.  “The bootblack went to play while the man finished shining his shoes himself.”

By 1938 the apartments that Hart Crane found to have all the 20th century luxuries, were now described by the Department of Buildings as “furnished rooms.”

While its twin sister next door received an artist’s studio upper floor in the early 20th century; No. 78 is little changed since James Derrickson updated it in 1871.   It survives as a wonderful piece of the tapestry that comprises the block and catalogs nearly two centuries of residential architecture.

photographs by the author

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Engine Company 56 (now 74) No. 120 West 83rd Street

In 1895 The New York Times ran a three-page article on the Upper West Side with the headline “West Side Is Itself a Great City.”  The newspaper recalled “It will be seen that by 1882, when building operations began on an extensive scale, the State and the city and the individual property owners, singly and collectively had secured for the West End everything that would make it the most healthful, the most beautiful in its location, and the most comfortable part of the city in which to reside.”

This rapid development following the Financial Panic of the 1870s resulted in the need for new police stations, schools, and fire stations.  The City scrambled to keep up, as did Napoleon Le Brun.  In 1879 Le Brun became the official architect of the New York City fire houses.  A year later his son Pierre joined him in the business, creating the firm N.  LeBrun & Son.  Their fire house work focused as much on design as function and each one of the resulting structures was a visual pleasure.

In 1888 the firm began work on the station house for Engine Company 56 at No. 120 West 83rd Street.  The five-story firehouse was completed the following year—a masculine mix of Romanesque Revival and Renaissance Revival elements.  Typical of firehouse design, the truck bay was flanked by a door and a window matching in proportion.  Le Brun decorated the bay with medieval motifs and surrounded it with hefty brownstone blocks.

Two stories of red brick were separated from the fourth by a stone bandcourse.  Stone piers—like engaged colunettes--ran up the sides and curved gently into the brickwork.  Their rounded form was echoed in the bull-nosed bricks that softened the corners of the openings.  The fourth floor vied for attention with its single arched opening, accentuated by a lushly-carved eyebrow and broken cornice.  The top story hid behind the ambitious gable as a slate-covered mansard.

Captain Michael J. McNamara was put in charge of organizing the new Engine Company.  Born in Ireland in 1849, his family brought him to America when he was still an infant.  He joined the Fire Department in 1873 and had been promoted to Captain on December 1, 1886, just three years before the station was completed.

He filled the open positions with two engineers, James Claire and William Massey; and seven firefighters: Michael Dinan, Charles Calahan, Robert Geddis, Richard Hyde, William Lumbolster, John Linck and John Douglass.  Engine Company 56 and the other new Upper West Side houses helped out with blazes throughout the city.  The Times noted “They do not ‘run’ to every fire.  But a second or third alarm finds one or the other responding to it.”

Such was the case on the Fourth of July 1898 when, as reported in The Times, “The energies of the Fire Department were taxed to the utmost yesterday in answering the frequent calls to fires in all parts of the city, due generally to the careless handling of firecrackers or other explosives.”  The Lenox Livery Stable on East 75th Street was in flames and when the third alarm was sounded, Engine Company 56 responded.

In the 19th and early 20th century, getting to the fire was often as dangerous as fighting it.  Engine 56 would not make it to the Lenox Livery Stable that night.  Its horse-drawn truck sped through Central Park to the East Side.  “At Madison Avenue the engine got between two underground trolley cars and was overturned.  The driver was heavily thrown but not seriously hurt.”  Captain McNamara was seriously injured, including a broken left leg and was taken to the Presbyterian Hospital.  “The engine was disabled,” reported the newspaper.

McNamara recovered and returned to the job.  In 1905 he received the New York Daily News medal as the city’s most popular fire captain—receiving a landslide 800,000 votes compared to the second place 300,000.  The newspaper said “every man, woman, and child on the upper west side knew him and were fond of him, especially the children.”

A year later, William J. Sullivan was assigned to Engine Company 56.  On May 8 that year he and another firefighter, John J. Sheridan of Engine Company 39, were off duty and walking together along Third Avenue.  In the four-story building at No. 1224 was the bakery of John Storck, whose family lived in the apartment above.  Just before the firemen arrived, a breeze pushed a curtain into a burning gas jet, setting it on fire.

The blaze swept rapidly through the apartment, noticed by Sullivan and Sheridan from the street below.  They rushed into the building, saving at least six residents.  John Storck was asleep and Sullivan had to break into the locked door.  “Picking the aged man up, they dragged him into the hallway just as the flames broke through into the bedroom, and carried him downstairs into the street,” reported The Times.

Just as a fire engine pulled up, Mrs. Pollock, who lived on the third floor, implored Sheridan to “Save my baby!”  Sheridan ran back into the fire and smoke engulfed building.  On the third floor he found a fox terrier, which he grabbed up, then crawled through the smoke until he felt the body of an infant in a chair, wrapped in a blanket.  Just as the flames broke through the flooring, he “beat a retreat” to the street, cradling the baby and the dog.

Once on the sidewalk he realized that “my baby” was the fox terrier.  The infant he had rescued was a baby doll.  “That’s one on me,” Sheridan said.

In 1907 the City commissioned architect Edward L. Middleton to make “improvements” to Engine Company 56.  His updating was confined to the interior, leaving Le Brun’s fa├žade untouched.

After 22 years in command of Engine Company 56, Michael J. McNamara retired on February 1, 1911, the longest serving captain in the Fire Department.  A dinner in his honor was held at Healy’s restaurant, attended by the Fire Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo and other City officials.

At the time of McNamara’s retirement, an idea had surfaced to alleviate the boredom of firefighters sitting in their station houses with little to do other than wait for an alarm.  By 1912 a “traveling library” was instituted by the City that provided books to the station houses.  That year a report noted that Engine Company 56 had gone through 383 volumes.

The motorizing of fire trucks did not necessarily alleviate the danger of the crowded Manhattan streets in responding to fires.  The call to a blaze at 94th Street the Riverside Drive on the night of June 29, 1926 ended tragically.   Engine Company 56’s truck was speeding along West 83rd Street, its bells sounding, as Henry Nolan drove his motorcycle south on West End Avenue.

“Nolan did not hear the clanging gong of the fire apparatus in time to avoid the accident,” reported The Times the following morning, “although both he and the driver of the truck made valiant efforts to avoid a collision.”

Firefighters were riding on the sides of the truck.  As the motorcycle hit the fire truck, it became entangled in it and was dragged almost to Riverside Drive before the apparatus could be stopped.  The jolt when the truck hit the curb as its driver, Fireman Mathew Moran, tried to avoid the collision, sent the six firemen hanging onto its sides flying onto the pavement.

Fireman William L. Moran died in Roosevelt Hospital of a fractured skull.   Three others also suffered fractured skulls; Joseph Cunningham’s face was so badly damaged that he was removed to Reconstruction Hospital; and the others received serious lacerations and injuries.  The motorcycle driver received a fractured skull, as well.

With World War raging in Europe in 1940, the United States sought to beef up its military.  Frustrated Army recruiters found that a large percentage of New York City men were unfit for service.  On November 26 four Army induction centers examined 415 men.  They reported “nearly one-fourth of the selective service men from New York City and its environs examined yesterday for induction into the Army were found to be physically incapable of military service.”

Among those examined was 27-year old firefighter Arthur Papp of Engine Company 56.  He was fit; but Fire Commissioner John J. McElligott fought his induction.  McElligott filed a claim “for occupational deferment” saying Papp “was more useful to the community now as a fireman than as a soldier.”

Colonel Arthur V. McDermott, the director of the New York City selective service, was little moved.  He explained to the press “that nobody—not even men in services as essential as those of the fire and police—would obtain blanket deferments of service.”  Papp’s case was submitted to the local board for consideration.

Their decision did not take long.  On November 28, just two days later, it announced that Fire Commissioner McElligott’s request “has been rejected.”

By 1944 Engine Company 56 added another function when a Fire Department surgeon, Dr. Harry M. Archer, was brought on staff.  The Company now did ambulance runs as well.

The 83rd Street station became Engine Company 74 when that company moved from its old home at No. 207 West 77th Street.  The everyday valor of firefighters was tragically displayed when the Company lost six of its men--Matthew Barnes, John Collins, Kenneth Kumpel, Robert Minara, Joseph Rivelli Jr. and Paul Ruback--in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Le Brun & Sons’ charismatic firehouse survives on an architecturally eclectic block; a snippet from a time when the Upper West Side was considered by some as a “great city” in itself.

many thanks to Sean Khorsandi for suggesting this post
photographs by the author