Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Cross Hotel & Saloon -- No. 73 Eighth Avenue

By the end of the Civil War the street level had been converted for business purposes.

When James Wallace purchased the property at No. 73 Eighth Avenue from the Genet family in 1833, what had recently been farmland was quickly being developed.  Greenwich Village had experienced a construction explosion beginning in 1822 when the devastating yellow fever epidemic in lower Manhattan resulted in hundreds of new Village residents.   The growing population meant new homes, and new homes required lumber.

James Wallace owned a lumber yard on 13th Street, not far from his new plot.  The neighborhood would soon fill with lumber businesses like Wallace’s.   He completed his handsome Greek Revival home in 1834.  Its red brick, laid in Flemish bond, was trimmed in brownstone.   The new architectural style did away with the peaked roof and dormers of the Federal period.  Instead, attic windows punched through the wide fascia board.

Wallace apparently branched into selling coal as well.  He had retired by 1852, but in 1859 at least one city directory listed him as a “late coal” merchant.   The Wallace family remained in the house until around the time of the Civil War; but by 1876 it was owned by Margaret Le Comte. 

She had converted the ground floor for the E. D. Carpenter & Co. grocery store.  Elias D. Carpenter apparently did not live upstairs; but was tight-lipped about his home address.  When the New York City Directory listed him that year, it noted “home refused.”

Margaret Le Comte leased the rooms above over the Carpenter grocery store for both residential and business purposes.  Benjamin Princellis operated his “segar” making shop here; and editor Juan Ignacio de Armas, whose offices were at No. 21 Park Row lived in the spacious second floor.  Living in the attic floor was Caspar Castillo.  He was a “cigar-stripper” employed by Princellis and made extra money as a watchman for the property at night.

By 1878 the grocery store space was shared by the tea store of P. J. McDonnell.  De Armas had moved on and McDonnell and his cousin, P. E. Nagel, the Secretary of the New-York Press Club, lived on the second floor.  McDonnell had a bedroom just off the parlor and his cousin slept in a bedroom facing Eighth Avenue.

On July 8, 1878 McDonnell seriously injured his wrist.  The pain was such that he had trouble sleeping—a condition that saved his live two nights later.   Around 3:00 a.m. he was awakened by heat in the room and the smell of smoke which was wafting in through the doorway cracks.  The New York Times reported “He sprang from his bed in affright, and rushing back into the dining-room opened the door leading to the hallway.  He was driven back by the flames and smoke that enveloped the doorway, and slamming the door, he ran to his cousin’s bedroom.”

Nagle was deeply sleeping, partly overtaken by the growing heat and smoke.  McDonnell dragged him from the bed and managed to rouse him.  When he turned up the gas jet, he saw that the heat of the fire was peeling the paint off the door.

The men threw clothing and valuables out the parlor window onto the sidewalk.  Then they stood in the window in their night clothes deciding what to do.  A row of sharp meat hooks hung below the awning of the grocery store.  The Times explained that “To jump from the window was to run the dangerous risk of becoming impaled.”

Nagle had shouted “Fire!” to a passing policeman.  He threw the door keys to Officer Todd; but in his excitement the officer got the wrong key wedged into the keyhole.  The street door was now impassable.

Finally, the worsening smoke forced them out.  They dropped onto the awning and clung to it until it began to collapse.  Carefully they edged away from the meat hooks and dropped to the sidewalk.

Fire engines arrived just after 3:20 and the front door was broken down.  Nagle suddenly remembered he had left his treasured gold watch under his pillow.  He ran up the fire ladder, but was too afraid to re-enter the burning rooms.  A fireman came down with a bundled sheet, in which was Nagle’s watch.

The flames were, by now, spreading up the staircase.  Chief of Battalion Glaquel asked if anyone else was in the house.  In the excitement and panic, the cousins forgot about “the Cuban on the top floor.”  When firefighters broke open the skylight to release smoke, they looked in to see Castillo kneeling on the floor by the bed with his face buried in his hands.  “It appeared that he had rolled out of bed, but had fallen insensible from the heat while endeavoring to reach the window,” advised The Times.

Castillo was carried to the street where doctors tried to resuscitate him, with no success.  The following morning the New York Clipper flatly reported that “a Cuban cigar-maker suffocated to death.”  Fire investigators suspected arson, advising that the fire was most likely “the work of an incendiary.”  The blaze had damaged the building and its contents to about $2,000—in the neighborhood of $50,000 today.

Margaret Le Comte died later that year; however the family retained possession of the repaired building for a few more years.  In the meantime, George Hayes moved his Metallic Skylight business into No. 73 and into No. 71, as well.  In 1882 he won an infringement suit against Erickson & Gibson; deemed by Hayes as “a very severe and well-contested trial.”

The cornice of No. 71 still bears the name HAYES, a reminder of George Hayes's skylight business.
He turned the decision into a marketing campaign; placing long-running advertisements in The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide that announced that a “complete and perfect Skylight” could be acquired only through him.

In the 1870s Amos Byron Cross ran a saloon at No. 417 Bleecker Street.  But by 1885 he had moved it into No. 73 Eighth Avenue.  But he had bigger visions for the building.  On October 8, 1889 the Le Comte estate put the building up for auction.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported “There was some lively bidding for the four-story store No. 73 8th avenue…Starting at $19,000, bids followed quickly until $36,300 was reached, and the property sold to Amos B. Cross, the present occupant.”  The Guide noted “The store is occupied as a saloon, and the rental accounted was $3,000 per annum.”

While Amos Cross began conversion of the upper floors to Cross’s Hotel, business went on as usual in the saloon.  One patron was well-known in the area.  James Rigney was about 65-years old in 1890 and for many years was the “door-keeper” at J. H. Haverly’s Fourteenth Street Theater, where he was known as “The Major.”

Early in the 1870s Rigney had gone to San Francisco seeking his fortune.  He was made night watchman of Maguire’s Opera House and, according to the New York Clipper decades later, “While in ‘Frisco he speculated in mining matters, sometimes successful, oftener otherwise.”

When he returned to New York he took the job at Haverly’s, and added to his income by working as a clerk in a butcher store on 15th Street, directly behind the theater.  Despite his financial troubles, his warm personality made him a well-liked and popular character.  But his finances worsened when Samuel Colville took over the 14th Street theater.

Rigney lost his job soon afterward.  Now out of work, he got another shock following the death of his wealthy sister.  He learned that she had left her entire estate to a religious institution.  "This preyed upon Mr. Rigney’s mind, and he was never the same man afterward,” explained the New York Clipper on February 8, 1890.

On the morning of January 28, 1890 James Rigney walked into Cross’s saloon.  He had $3.92 in his pocket and inside his shirt he had pinned two $5 bills.  Also in his pocket was a card he had written out before leaving home:

1890 God bless all.  I forgive. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to keep and may He have mercy on all, everybody.  J Rigney January 1890

As he stood in the barroom, Rigney pulled out a pistol and placed it to his temple.  The shot killed him instantly.  The New York Times reported “It was supposed that he was despondent because of nervous troubles and erysipelas.”

The area around Amos Cross’s hotel and saloon was panicked by a small pox epidemic in 1893.  Along with other businessmen and neighbors, Cross was concerned when, on November 21 that year, Joachim Hein was diagnosed with the disease.  Hein lived and ran his cigar store directly across the avenue at No. 74.  Two other families shared the three-story building.

Although Hein was removed to North Brother Island and the house was fumigated and the bedding destroyed; his wife and children kept the cigar store open.  According to The Evening World they “continued to peddle out cigars to all customers who patronized the place.  In fact, Hein and his family are immensely industrious.  Two of his children, boys of twelve and ten years of age, respectively, utilize their after school hours in adding to the family income by selling papers.”

By December 9 The World reported that “In that part of quaint old Greenwich Village which is bounded by Jackson Square, Eighth avenue and Fourteenth street, the greatest consternation exists among the residents who fear, and justifiably so…an epidemic of small-pox.”

“Already four cases of small-pox have been reported to the Board of Health, three of which emanated from one house, 74 Eighth avenue and the other and latest one from 76 Eighth avenue.”  The newspaper was incredulous that the Hein family was allowed to go on about their business.  “The simple fact that their father had been stricken with small-pox and had been taken away did not apparently disconcert them to the extent that they refrained from mingling with the public, selling their papers here, there and everywhere in the vicinity.”

Amos Cross watched as the small-pox ambulance arrived across the street and took away 17-month old Gracie Weinhoff.  Then, a few days later, it was there “with its funereal trappings of black, backed up against the curbstone in front of 74 again, and in a few moments two attendants appeared with another victim on his way to North Brother Island.”  This was Frank Welch who lived in the Hein house.

As with the other businesses along this stretch of Eighth Avenue, Cross’s saloon and hotel business suffered as patrons, fearful of the contagious disease, avoided the area.  Amos Cross joined his fellow businessmen in demanding that Hein’s cigar store and the store in the neighboring house be closed “temporarily, at least”  They told reporters that “mere perfunctory measures, such as fumigation, could not counteract the effects liable to result” if the public was allowed to come and go in those shops.

The Evening World ended its article with the sensational question “Who knows where it will break out next?”

Around the turn of the century Amos Byron Cross took on Herman Kreyer as partner in the hotel and saloon.  It was possibly this fact that prompted Cross to transfer the title to No. 73 Eighth Avenue to Catherine M. Cross, his wife, as “a gift” in 1900.

Cross’s Hotel was, perhaps, not always as upstanding as it seemed.  On November 20, 1903 The Sun ran the headline “Nest of Con Men Turned Out” and reported on the raid of an illegal horse betting den—known as a poolroom--above Cross’s saloon.  Seven men, deemed by the police as “about as fine a bunch of grafters and flim flammers as have been got together in some time,” were arrested.

The detectives had been tipped off by a businessman who said he had been swindled out of $400 in the place “by a gang of fakirs.”  Detective Rochester went undercover, giving the name of Al Richter and a Brooklyn address.   He made an appointment with “R. C. McDonald” and, according to The Sun, “dressing up like a German farmer, he kept the engagement.”

“Rochester was taken to a small room over a saloon at 73 Eighth avenue, where there were five men counting money…The detective made a bet of $50 on Golden Drop, and was about to cash his winnings when Capt. Aloncle and the other detectives broke in.”

Every one of the hoodlums arrested (“after a lively fight”) was in the Police Department’s Rogues’ Gallery.  Also arrested was Cross’s bartender on duty, George Cudaback.  Police noticed that one of the men, who gave the alias George Munroe, carried a wad of Confederate bills.  When they asked him why, he responded “Oh, there are a lot of suckers in this town who don’t know that the war is over.”

Herman Kreyer and Amos Cross were about to close the saloon early on the morning of May 28, 1905 when a young man came in and asked for a glass of beer.  He placed a counterfeit quarter on the bar; but Kreyer was on to him and refused it.

The man left the bar; but either outraged at being found out or at not getting his beer, he returned.  Seeing Kreyer standing by the bar, he pulled out a long knife and stabbed him.   As the man escaped, Cross ran onto the avenue and shouted for police.  The New York Times later reported that Kreyer “will probably die of his wounds.”

In fact, Kreyer recovered and was back running the hotel a year later when Princeton University instructor Joseph Greenwood checked in on May 28, 1906.  Greenwood, who had graduated from the school a year earlier, routinely stayed the night when visiting his brother, Isaac J. Greenwood, Jr., whose pencil factory was nearby at 13th Street and Ninth Avenue.

The two brothers went bowling that afternoon, then Joseph went to his third floor room in the Cross Hotel early in the evening.  Two hours later he was found on the sidewalk with “severe contusions and possible internal injuries,” according to the New-York Tribune the following day.

The newspaper admitted that Greenwood “jumped or fell” but had its own opinion.  It ran the sub-headline “Supposed Princeton Instructor Tries Suicide from Window.”  The theory was bolstered by Policeman Spiess, who charged him with attempted suicide (suicide was a crime at the time).

But Isaac Greenwood and Herman Kreyer both came to the injured man’s defense, insisting the fall was accidental.  On May 30 The Sun gave their explanation.  “Greenwood was not feeling well when he went to his room.  The windows are of the old fashioned sort, extending down to within two feet of the floor.”  That newspaper’s headline read simply “Walked Out of Window.”

On April 2, 1916 John Farley leased the “hotel and cafĂ©.”   Farley moved into the hotel which he operated into the 1920s.  He was the brother of former Congressional Representative Michael F. Farley, who was the victim of a bizarre death on October 8, 1921.

Michael Farley had purchased a new shaving brush and, after using it a few times, noticed a rash had broken out on his face.  A week later his face was swollen and he could barely walk because of the pain.  The natural-hair brush, it turned out, was laden with anthrax spores.  When he cut himself shaving, he became infected.  By the time he was taken to Bellevue Hospital on October 8 it was too late.  John Farley was at his brother’s bedside when he died seven hours after being admitted.

The ground floor space where Amos Cross’s saloon had been was the Half-Past Nine Greenwich Club in 1928.  Prohibition was a problem for night clubs, one which the proprietors of the Half-Past Nine ignored.  But on the night of December 29, 1928 the speakeasy was raided.  The New York Times reported that the club faced “padlock actions” after being charged with Prohibition violations.

When this photograph was taken on April 17, 1937 the Half-Past Nine Greenwich Club had been replaced with what appeared to be a grocery store (under the awning at right).  To the near left is the entrance to Jackson Square park.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

In February 2016, little has changed.
When the old Cross Hotel building was sold in 1941 it was described as a “four-story apartment house” and was assessed at $45,000—about $725,000 today.  In 1996 the building was renovated with one spacious apartment on each floor above a restaurant.

With only moderate remodeling of the storefront, the Cross Hotel is remarkably intact above the first floor where it retains much of its 1834 appearance.  Its sedate countenance successfully masks the colorful history that has played out within its walls.

photographs by the author

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