Monday, November 16, 2015

The Lost Brown's Coffee House -- No. 71 Pearl Street

sketch by Henry R. Robinson (d. 1850) from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The old tavern building, erected in 1641 and later converted to the State House, or Stadt Huys, was in disrepair in 1679.  Finally, in 1699 the now-British government abandoned the structure for a new City Hall on Broadway.  By November 1700 the venerable Dutch building was demolished.

On the site rose smaller brick homes, including No. 71 Pearl Street; two-and-a-half stories tall.  It made use of part of the surviving foundation.  The street, incidentally, was given its name by the British because of the crushed oyster shells with their glistening mother-of-pearl lining used as paving.

Following the Revolutionary War--at least by 1800--the house was home to Samuel Gale, an active member of the Free-Masons.  In the first years of the 19th century he was Treasurer of the St. Andrew’s Lodge, No. 3 which normally met at No. 66 Liberty Street.

Change came to the Pearl Street buildings in 1826 when the street was widened.  The new street line cut through the property at No. 71 at an angle, necessitating a new façade.   By now the street had seen the incursion of commerce, and so the old building was updated to a stylish Federal mixed-use structure.

Four stories tall, it was three bays wide.  The rusticated stone base featured three elegant arched openings.  Two appear to have been entrances to the commercial space and the other a window over the below-sidewalk door to the cellar.  Three tall arched openings at the second floor mimicked those of the first.  Most likely at this time the proprietor of the ground floor business lived in the upper floors. 

Alphonse Loubat ran his importing business from No. 71 Pearl in 1836.  He was gone by 1846 when Brown’s Coffee House and Dining Saloon opened on August 12.   The restaurant was apparently handsomely fitted up, prompting the New-York Daily Tribune to advise “Brown, 71 Pearl-st. opens his new and splendid Eating-House to-day.  You had better go and see what it is like.”

In 1848 Brown enlarged his restaurant, most likely taking over the second floor.  An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on October 24, 1848 read “This establishment has recently been much enlarged and improved and can now accommodate as many as any saloon in the city.  Strangers doing business in the lower part of the city will find this a very convenient place to get their meals.”

In 1871 Avery D. Putnam ran his wholesale grocery business across the street at No. 68 Pearl.  At the time O. R. Baker & Co. was doing business in No. 71.   Around 11 p.m. on Wednesday, April 26 that year Putnam was helping a lady friend off of a Broadway street car.  Suddenly and inexplicably he was verbally accosted, then assaulted by an unknown assailant.  The brutal beating ended his life.

On April 28, 1871 The New York Times opined “No human life was ever more wantonly assailed than that of Avery D. Putnam, and no lady in any civilized community ever had a more awful experience than Mme. Duval, who saw her friend and protector first insulted, then bullied and finally stricken down.”

In an act of solidarity the merchants of Pearl Street, including O. R. Baker & Co., closed their businesses to attend Putnam’s funeral.  Baker joined with the other businessmen to sign a letter which said in part, “We, the undersigned merchants personally acquainted with, and doing business in the neighborhood of the late Mr. A. D. Putnam, desire to express to the public our horror at the dastardly manner in which an amiable and peace-loving citizen has been stricken down, in the full flush of useful manhood.”

The upper floors were eventually rented out to roomers.  In 1876 two patrolmen from the nearby 1st Precinct, James M. Murphy and Patrick Scanlon, lived here while making $1,200 a year.

By 1893 the former restaurant on the first floor was home to the saloon of William Fricke, who lived upstairs.  On the night of Wednesday February 22 that year two men sat at a table in the saloon playing cards.  A dispute arose which threatened to get out of hand.  Fricke stepped in to separate them, when shipping clerk Herman Tappe pulled out a knife and stabbed him.  The New York Times advised “Mr. Fricke’s condition is dangerous.”

John Higgins lived upstairs, too, around this time.  The 21-year old was employed as a clerk.  On Sunday, June 24, 1894 he boarded the tugboat James D. Nicols for an excursion to Seabright, New Jersey.  In addition to her crew of five, the vessel was licensed to carry 65 persons.  That afternoon 135 boarded the boat with Higgins--twice the legal number.

Later in the day the sea turned violently rough.  A New York Times headline the following day read “Waves Claim Many Victims, A Day of Terrible Disasters on New-York Waters.”  Among those disasters was the sinking of the J. D. Nicols.  At the time of the Times report, 14 of the passengers were confirmed dead.  Listed among the missing was John M. Higgins.

Three days later The Times admitted “the true number of victims of the overturning and sinking of the tug James D. Nicol off Sandy Hook, N.J., on Sunday, will probably never be known.”  The number of confirmed fatalities had risen to 58 and 53, including Higgins, were still missing.  No report of his body ever being recovered was filed.

The third week of 1898 was a somber one at No. 71 Pearl Street.  On January 17 30-year old roomer Thomas Duggan died; and the following day William Frick, the saloon owner, passed away at the age of just 36.

The Harrison family lived in the building in 1900.  Joseph Harrison was 13 years old and on the frigid afternoon of January 7 he and two other boys, 12-year old James Dooling and 10-year old William Doran were playing near the docks.  Not far away were smaller boys who were engaged in far more dangerous play.  The afternoon would end with Joseph and his two friends being called heroes.

The following day The Sun reported “Small boys were skylarking yesterday afternoon on Pier 4, East River, and on the coal barges that were tied up to the pier, jumping from barge to barge and from the barges to the pier.”   Suddenly 9-year old Charles Tague slipped and fell into the icy water.

His playmates ran to the older group and told them what happened.  James Dooling led the rescue efforts, tying a rope under his armpits and jumping into the river.  Once he got his arms around Tague, he called to Joseph and William to pull them in.

“It was a tough pull for two small boys but they managed to get the others out of the water and held them there until some other boys came up to help.  Then Dooling and Tague were quickly brought up on the pier.”

The street-tough Dooling brushed off the episode.  “It was dead easy.  I’m a good swimmer and I knew that I could get him out.  The water was awful cold.  I’m feeling bully now, though.  Tague wasn’t hurt none.  We got him home and his mother put him to bed.  I went home and got some dry clothes and went back to the pier.”

The elevated train tracks run through the gritty neighborhood at the turn of the last century.  No. 71, however, is little changed since its 1826 make-over.  photograph by Robert L. Bracklow (d. 1919) from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Living at No. 71 at the same time was immigrant Fred Hoefer.  A month after the pier rescue he was searching for work.  His ad in the New-York Tribune on February 21, 1900 read:  Driver—German, married, well acquainted with Greater New-York and Jersey.”

The Pearl Street neighborhood was far different from the elegant residential enclave it had been in 1800 when Samuel Gale lived here.  As early as 1885 No. 71 Pearl Street was listed among the tenements deemed “a menace” by the City.  In 1926 Governor Alfred Smith’s Housing and Regional Planning Commission’s report listed the building as among those “declared a menace forty years ago and which still are in use.”

Nevertheless, little changed to the property until 1965 when it was restored to a reasonable copy of its 1800 appearance.  The building was reduced to two-and-a-half stories, with two dormers punching through the roof.   The remarkable restoration earned it landmark status from the fledgling Landmarks Preservation Commission, which noted “The muntins of the original round headed windows were reproduced with the addition of a transom-bar, and the eight over eight double-hung windows were replaced…This building has an air of great elegance and charm as it has appeared for over one hundred years.”                                                                                    

The LPC made special note that “It is the only known example of a building with arches at both floors of that period surviving in Manhattan.”

The Commission's glowing admiration for the building did not last very long.   In 1968 Lehman Brothers had acquired a group of properties along Pearl Street, including No. 71, with the intention of erecting a new headquarters.  The firm pleaded hardship to the LPC, which agreed to the demolition of the building as long as the façade was removed and Lehman paid for archaeological work on the site.

With no one opposing, the Landmarks Preservation Commission rescinded the designation of No. 71 Pearl Street.  But by now it was all formality.  The building had been demolished and its façade “carefully” stored away for reconstruction at the South Street Seaport.

In an ironic and somewhat cruel turn of events, just as the archaeological survey was nearing completion, Lehman Brothers decided to scrap its plans for a new building on the site.  It was paved over for a parking lot.

Adding insult to the injury, when Lehman Brothers sold the Pearl Street lots to the Dollar Savings Bank in the 1970s; it was discovered that the façade of No. 71 Pearl Street was missing.  No one seemed to know whether it was stolen, or simply discarded as scrap.

In the meantime, on the site of No. 71 and 73, where the old Stadt Huys stood, is 85 Broadstreet, a 52-floor tower completed in 1983.

1 comment:

  1. Another "lost facade" brought to you by another NYC developer. Reminds me of the "lost" Bogardus cast iron facade also given to South St Seaport which vanished or was stolen? Maybe somewhere in NYC there is a warehouse of facades, courtesy of all the noble developers, filled with architectural wonders from Penn Station, the Singer Tower, the Astor Hotel, the Helen Hayes theatre, etc just waiting to be erected somewhere?