|The Flemish bond brick and the tidy dormers were typical of the Federal homes constructed on Spring Street at the time.
In 1817 William Dawes constructed a three-and-a-half story house at No. 129 Spring Street, just off the corner of Greene Street. The rapid development of the area, only recently still farmland, was evidenced two years later. In the single year of 1819 the entire south block front between West Broadway and Wooster Street, one block away, was filled with homes similar to Dawes’s.
Spring Street had originally been called Brannon Street, named for the landowner whose farm it ran through. But it was renamed for the underground spring that now supplied fresh water to the growing population. It was probably Dawes who constructed a deep brick cistern behind the house.
By the 1850s a shop had been installed in the first floor of the Federal style house. Here Andre Sabatier sold his varnishes and polishes. In July 1860 he advertised “Black French Varnish, suitable for varnishing all kinds of leather, such as boots, harness, metal; also, French Polish, for parlor and other furniture.” Sabatier offered the varnishes “at the loss prices of 30 cents a bottle.”
For those soldiers in New York’s volunteer regiments who preferred to avoid the labor-intensive job of rubbing the varnish into their leathers, Sabatier performed the service. “Military accoutrements renewed at $1 a set.”
Two years after Sabatier’s advertisement, on May 2, 1862, Spring Street residents were no doubt thrilled when the Post Office opened a station at No. 129 Spring Street for “collection and distribution of letters.” Postmaster Wakeman issued “instructions” that Station A was to open at 6:30 in the morning and would not close until 9:30 at night.
With the postal station in the former shop space, the second floor was converted to a leased meeting room. It was the regular meeting place of the Society of Soldiers’ and Sailors’ following the Civil War. It was here in 1871 that the group raised concerns over the revised Old Soldiers’ Bounty Land Bill.
The original bill was passed on December 24, 1811 and was amended in 1855. It granted 160 acres of land in the West—Arkansas, Illinois or Missouri—to men who had served at least 14 days in any war since 1775. The bill generously noted “The provisions of the act extend to Indians.”
But in the spring of 1871 a vote was scheduled in Congress to amend the bill again; requiring those receiving the free land to settle on it. The new provision would force New York veterans to move west. On March 9, 1871 the Society of Soldiers’ and Sailors met on Spring Street, complaining that the modification “it little, if anything, more than the homestead law.”
Within two weeks they had accumulated around 500 names on a petition to Congress. The group held a special meeting on March 21 to discuss sending the petition to Senator Fenton. The New York Times remarked “The bill as passed by the House is unsatisfactory to a large majority of the soldiers and sailors in the Eastern and Middle States.”
Also using the meeting space that year was the Hackmen’s Association. An early version of a labor union, the hired hansom cab drivers were well-organized. They had a delegate to the Mayor’s office who demanded “that the members of the Association be protected in their rights as citizens of this City.” Members wore metal badges which were recognized by out-of-towners disembarking from boats or trains. The New York Times remarked on July 8, 1871 “These members are recognized at all the depots and boat landings, and their cabs immediately engaged by passengers.”
The following year was a Presidential Election year. The George W. Francis Association, composed of African American Republicans, met at No. 129 Spring Street on August 16 to discuss its support of incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant. A “Mr. Myars” spoke. He stressed “the necessity his race had of standing up for the present Administration, and also conveyed some useful information on the subject of local politics,” reported The Times.
He was followed by George W. Francis, himself, who “expressed his sorrow in seeing a colored traitor at the Cooper Institute on Thursday night supporting the Greeleyite ticket.”
Equally concerned with a Grant victory was the ponderously-named Fifth Assembly District German Republican Grant and Wilson Campaign Club which met here that year. And a week before Election Day the International Working Men’s Association held a meeting. Following its report on the business transacted that night, The Times editorially added “A long, strong pull, and a pull all together on Tuesday, a legal holiday, will pull Greeleyism up by the roots.”
Among other political and labor groups renting the upstairs meeting rooms was the German Reformers of the Fifth Assembly District.
While the groups discussed their issues upstairs, Post Office Station A continued serving the Spring Street community. In 1891 a new clerk, 23-year old Richard Banse, was hired in the Money Order Department. Banse made a modest salary of $600 a year—about $16,000 in 2016 terms. But he found a way to augment his earnings.
On November 28, 1893 he was unceremoniously led out of the postal branch by police. Banse had a stamp of Postmaster Dayton’s signature which made filling out money orders payable to himself simple. The Evening World reported “There are charges against Banse of forgery and fraud and involving a multitude of offenses covering a period of several months.”
His ill-gotten money could not cover the $2,000 bail set by the Police Commissioner.
In 1954 the DaGrossa family purchased No. 129 Spring Street. A hero sandwich store opened in the shop space where Andre Sabatier sold furniture varnish in 1860. And the upper floor meeting rooms were again being used as a duplex living space. The Soho neighborhood was being rediscovered by artists and in 1961 the two-story apartment was home to struggling artist Miles Forst, his wife and two children.
Soho had not yet achieved its peak as a trendy and expensive district. Forst told a reporter his family lived here because, like some other artists, they “cannot afford to live in Greenwich Village.” The Forsts paid $50 a month in the house.
Eventually, of course, Soho did become trendy and expensive. The hero shop was converted to the Manhattan Bistro by the DaGrossa family; and in 2015 the entire building was converted to retail space for the women’s clothing store, COS.
In the 1970s a scandalous murder mystery from 1799 was recycled. The unmarried Gulielma Elmore Sands, rumored to be pregnant, was murdered. Her body was found in the well, recently dug by the Manhattan Company at 89 Greene Street. It was a sensational story which left newspaper readers nationwide enrapt.
In 1974 a Greene Street shop owner declared that his building was haunted by the ghost of Guilielma Sands. And when William Dawes’s cistern was unearthed under the Manhattan Bistro in 1980, the ghost story migrated south. As a result No. 129 Spring Street was included in The Travel Channel’s list of the 10 Most Haunted Places in America. Why the unfortunate Miss Sands would wait 181 years to appear; and why her spirit is more comfortable here than where the Manhattan Company well stood is unclear. But ghost enthusiasts nationwide happily accept the discrepancies and repeat the story.
|While No. 129 survived, it was hemmed in by taller commercial structures in the 19th century.
Even without a ghost story, William Dawes’s handsome Federal home retains its early 19th century charm, despite the modern storefront. And the stories that played out within its walls are nearly as interesting as the murder that occurred 18 years before it was built.
photographs by the author