Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Much-Abused Andrew Ackerman House -- No. 20 West 15th Street

Brutalized over the decades, it is now only the survival of the Ackerman House that is remarkable.

On March 16 1865 The New York Times announced “Among doubts, hesitation, delay and uncertainty about orders, the draft in the City of New-York was begun yesterday.”  Indeed this draft lottery--only the third since the bloody Draft Riots of 1863--was held as a last resort to bolster the number of Union troops.  Among those whose names were pulled that afternoon was J. D. Moody of No. 20 West 15th Street.

The Moody family would wait for him to return to the three-story brick house that had been constructed about two decades earlier.   Like many of its neighbors, the 25-foot wide home was clad in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  A narrow “horse walk” between it and No. 18 provided the luxury of windows on the eastern wall.   Most likely a shallow stoop rose to the parlor floor over a low basement.

By the early 1880s the house was home to the Andrew J. Ackerman and his wife, the former Katharine Clark.  Also in the house was their  grown daughter, Irene.    Ackerman, who came from an old Knickerbocker family, was a banker with the American Exchange National Bank.    Irene became an associate editor of the Union, a weekly newspaper published in the Mott Haven area of the Bronx.  Ackerman's brothers had both amassed sizable fortunes.  George Ackerman was President of the Tenth National Bank, and William K. Ackerman was President of the Illinois Central Railroad.  

It was in the first years of the 1880s that Ackerman showed signs of “consumption,” most likely tuberculosis.  He was required to step down from his position with the bank.  A few years later, on Tuesday, October 20, 1885 he died in the house on 15th Street.  Ackerman’s funeral was held at 1:30 on the afternoon of October 23.  The New York Times mentioned that William Ackerman “is seriously ill in Chicago and unable to attend the funeral.”

Katharine Ackerman remained in the house with her daughter and apparently took Colonel D. P. Holland as a boarder.  The retired lawyer was a widower.  Born in Ireland, he came to America as a boy and settled in Florida.  He obtained his rank while serving with the Confederacy and eventually earned the position of Florida State Attorney General.  He had moved to New York City in 1877.  On the afternoon of November 27, 1889 Colonel Holland was stricken with a fatal heart attack in the house.

Within a year the Colonel's room would be filled. George W. Ackerman had already died in Chicago when his widow, Eleanor, passed away on August 7, 1890.   Katharine took in their 13-year old orphaned daughter, Marie Louise Ackerman.  She inherited what The Sun deemed “considerable property from her father.”

There would soon be another Colonel in the house, as well.   Katharine married Colonel John Grigg Fay in 1891. Like Holland, Fay had earned his rank in the Civil War—on the opposite side.   He was 52-years old at the time he married Katharine and brought to the marriage an impressive pedigree.   The New York Times would say that he “was descended from Lord Pell of Pelham Manor, the holder of the Long Reach Patent, which he transferred to the Huguenots, giving them possession of New Rochelle in the early part of the eighteenth century.”

Katharine and Irene were ardent suffragists and brought Colonel Fay into the fold.  He, likewise, convinced the women to join his favorite cause: vegetarianism. 

When the famous suffragist and social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was honored with a reception at the Plaza Hotel, Katharine and Irene were in attendance.  When the luncheon was finished at 2:00, Mrs. Stanton spoke about the strides women had made in the past 50 years.  Then, according to The Times, “Mrs. Mary Seymour Howell spoke on ‘Columbia, the Republic Embodied as a Woman,’and Mrs Lide Meriwether made a fifteen-minute address on ‘The National American Woman Suffrage Association.”  Soon enough it would be Colonel Fay addressing crowds of women.

But for now he busied himself with the New-York Vegetarian Society.   On the day after Christmas in 1894 the group’s monthly meeting was held in the house.  Dr. M. L. Holbrook read a timely paper on the “Ethics of Vegetarianism and Christmas Cruelties.”  A newspaper report noted that Mrs. Catharine [sic] C. Faye [sic] took part in the discussion that followed.

Two months later, following a Society dinner at the Vegetarian Restaurant on West 23rd Street, the group again assembled in the 15th Street house where Dr. E. P. Miller read a paper. 

That same year, on June 27, the teen-aged Marie Louise attended the wedding of her close friend, Jennie Wells, to lawyer George E. Wentworth.   It was the first occasion that Marie Louise had the opportunity to meet Jennie’s new husband.  What had been a pair of close friends now became a trio.

In 1896 Marie Louise, graduated from the Normal College.  On July 4 Katharine threw a luncheon in her honor in the house.  None of the ladies at the luncheon table that afternoon, least of all Katharine and Irene, could suspect the scandal that 19-year old would bring to the Ackerman name and the 15th Street house.

But in the meantime the household went about their involvement with social and political causes.  In May 1897 John Grigg Fay addressed the New York Woman Suffrage League on “Women as Soldiers.”   Irene became involved in the New York Universal Peace Union.  The Spanish-American War was the topic of a meeting of the Union in the house on May 27, 1898.  The group resolved, among other things, that “peace must not be purchased with dishonor, but must come only with a guarantee of protection and freedom for the defenseless, non-combatants, women and children Spain has so ruthlessly starved and tortured, in total disregard of all laws of nations and humanity.”

With little warning Katharine Fay once again found herself a widow on Wednesday, September 14, 1898.  The 59-year old Colonel John Grigg Fay died suddenly in the house that day.   Once again No. 20 West 15th Street was a house of women.

In the meantime, Marie Louise had routinely traveled uptown to visit Jennie and George Wentworth at their Amsterdam Avenue home.  Katharine would later muse “She went there to visit very often and we never thought there was any cause for suspicion at all.”

One person who did think there was cause for suspicion was Jennie Wentworth.  In 1897, just three years into her marriage, she was positive that Marie Louise was having an affair with her husband.  Because she was afraid of losing George and hoped that he would “outgrow his affection,” she never mentioned anything to Katharine.

On December 28, 1900 Marie Louise left the house, telling Katharine she was going to visit her aunt, Lillian A. Clark, at No. 68 West 88th Street.  She never arrived at Mrs. Clark’s, nor did she return home.  Not coincidentally, George Wentworth left home that day and never returned.

On January 6, 1901 The New York Times reported the first hint of scandal.   It told readers that Katharine “received a letter from her on Thursday evening, in which she said that she had determined to live with Mr. Wentworth and was going abroad with him.”  Jennie Wentworth admitted to reporters that “she had been afraid that [George] would elope with Miss Ackerman for some time.”

The Times wrote about a possible lead.  “A Mr. Paoli, a Cuban, who was known to be a friend both of Mrs. Wentworth and her husband, it is thought, knows where the two are.”

Marie Louise received regular dividend checks from her large inheritance of railroad holdings.  She intended to live partially off his income.  “In her letter Miss Ackerman asked her aunt to give all her belongings to Mr. Paoli.  She also asked her to give all her checks to Robert M. S. Putnam, a lawyer, of 31 Nassau Street, in whose office Wentworth had desk room.”

When Paoli drove up to Ackerman house with a large horse-drawn truck “with two porters,” he was not prepared for the wrath of Irene Ackerman.

“I have called for your cousin’s trunks and I have brought this truck to cart them away in.  She said in her letter, I believe, that you were to give them to me.”

The Times said “This demand aroused Miss Ackerman’s temper.  ‘You know where my cousin is and you’ll have to tell me.’”

When Paoli insisted he was bound by an oath of secrecy, Irene slammed the door in his face, saying “Then you can’t have the trunks.”

The lawyer, Putnam, was of no help either.  “He disappeared a week ago, and I haven’t the faintest idea where he went.  The elopement was as great a surprise to me as to anybody.  Wentworth was a rising man and was building up a good business, but this step that he has taken was simply suicidal.”

Two years later, on January 21, Irene received a letter postmarked Chinatown, San Francisco.  It was from Marie Louise. 

“Don’t ever hope to see me again for George and I have gone to a foreign country to build up a new life.  God help Jennie!  We could not help it.”

She added that her dividend checks should be certified and sent to her.

The following month The Sun reported that Jennie Wells Wentworth had been granted an absolute divorce.  In reporting the decision, the newspaper felt obligated to add that Marie Louise “is a blonde and was a chum of Mrs. Wentworth, who is a brunette.”   Jennie was given the right to resume her maiden name.

With the ugly and embarrassing incident behind them, Irene and Katharine sold the 15th Street house and moved uptown.  The neighborhood had already become highly commercial and the Frain Publishing Company established its offices here.  The firm published and sold sheet music.

In May 1916 George Kean purchased the building for $14,025 at auction; then resold it within the month to the Bliss Exterminating Company.   The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on June 3 that the firm “contemplates the erection of a 4-story brick and limestone store and loft building.”

Although the other houses along the block met such a fate, No. 20 escaped. In 1920 it was converted to a store on the ground floor, with showrooms and offices above.  Seven years later owner Samuel Hatoff commissioned architect Morris Whinston to alter the upper floors to “studio apartments.”

Following the completed work, the store space became a bookstore owned by S. M. Abraham.  On May 12, 1928 an 18-year old boy staggered into the store and gasped “I’ve just taken poison.”  He collapsed on the floor.

By the time that Abraham carried him across the street to the New York Hospital, the young man was dead.   A search of his pockets revealed that he was a sailor, Benjamin Shor, from San Francisco.  He had been staying at the Seaman’s Church Institute at No. 25 South Street.  The last entry in his loose leaf diary read “bound for Hades on S. S. Poison.”

Upstairs the residents over the years remained respectable.  Martin Shea was a scientist working at the American Museum of Natural History in 1936; and artist Paul Raphael Meltsner lived here in 1945 when he nearly started an international incident.

The portrait artist had loaned a painting of Martha Graham to the Argentine National Museum in 1940.  But when General Edelmiro Julian Farrell became President in 1944, Meltsner changed his mind. In May 1945 he began writing letters “seeking the return of the painting as an indication of his protest against what he terms the Nazi character of the present Edelmiro Farrell regime,” according to The Times.

“His letters went to President Farrell, to the Argentine Ambassador and to Senator Robert F. Wagner, but until yesterday he had no response,” reported the newspaper on June 21, 1945.

A communication from John E. Lockwood, acting director of the Office of American Republic Affairs, was a shining example of diplomatic tact. 

“In regard to the painting which you donated in a praiseworthy effort to further the good neighbor policy I am inclined to wonder whether you may not feel the painting was in a sense presented to the people of Argentina.  To have the painting returned would, it seems, constitute a deprivation to the people because of some acts of those who at present make up the Government, which acts may not have the support of the people.  I hope that these comments may be of help to you.”

Meltsner was not moved.  He answered Lockwood saying “that the people of Argentina would appreciate his withdrawal of the painting, and that if it is returned he would donate it to the bond drive which has already benefited $3,000,000 from his paintings.”

In December 1949 The Creative Gallery opened on the ground floor with an exhibition of “ten new names” according to The Times.  The newspaper said “If any single common denominator could contain their sometimes raw exuberance, it would be fantastic expressionism.”

In 1956 the gallery was replaced by a restaurant.  At the time there were two apartments per floor upstairs.  Katharine Ackerman Fay would, no doubt, be shocked to find that her respectable residence became home to Anahid Sofian Studio by 1972.  Advertising itself as “good for body and soul,” it was a belly-dancing studio.

That a well-respected family once lived here is hard to envision.
Today the Ackerman house looks more than a little beleaguered.  The 1956 extension to the front has sprouted a pseudo-modern storefront and some of the tacked-on shutters on the upper floors have fallen away.  And yet the simple survival of the last house on the street is remarkable in itself.

photographs by the author

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