Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Clarice -- No. 739 Ninth Avenue

Striker added the name CLARICE in a panel below the cornice.

Elsworth L. Striker came from an impressive background.  An ancestor, Jacobus Van Strycker had arrived in New Amsterdam in 1651.  In the decades before the Revolution, Jacob Stryker was a magistrate in the Court of New Amsterdam.  Through various marriages the Striker family would become connected with New York’s preeminent families, the Motts, Hoppers and Van Rensselaers among them.

John Hopper “the elder” acquired an estate in 1667, known as Hopper Farm.  It comprised 80 acres and spread from about Sixth Avenue to the Hudson River, and from approximately 48th to 55th Streets.  He built a house on the land for each of his sons.  His own house, Rosevale, sat near what is now 53rd Street.  When James Striker married Mary Hopper, they moved into the house built in 1752 for John Hopper, Jr.
Part of John Hopper’s land was relegated to a family burial ground, at what would become the southwest corner of Ninth Avenue and 50th Street.  When Hopper died in 1778, his will made his intentions for the graveyard clear.  It instructed that each descendant who took possession would preserve it “for the above-mentioned laudable purpose of burying.”  Each subsequent owner was directed to maintain “all that burying ground now in fence, consisting of 48 feet square parcel of said lot of land and commonly called the ‘family burying ground,’ with free ingress, egress, and regress into, on, and from the same, to bury the dead.”

The John Hopper house passed on to General Garrit Hopper Stryker, who died in 1869.  The land was passed to his son Ambrose Kingsland Striker (who continued to live in the old Hopper house).  The New York Times described the anachronistic cemetery on May 18, 1879.  The article explained that the elevated train station at Ninth Avenue and 50th Street was called the “Grave-yard Station” because of the Hopper burial ground.  The Hopper-Striker land was now part of the depressed and dangerous Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.

By now only two sides of the cemetery's six-foot high stone wall remained.  The other sides of the graveyard were enclosed by the blank wall of a store on one side, and on the other by “a wooden tenement-house, from which a door opens upon it, and to which it makes a convenient front yard.”  The indigent Hell’s Kitchen residents apparently cared little about the sanctity of the graveyard.

“Near this door some of the mounds have been leveled, and a patch of ground a few feet square has been dug up and raked over so as to form a bit of a garden.  Dirty children tumble and play over the other graves, and among the tottering stones, and, above all, lines of newly-washed garments are blown about in the wind.  No tender recollections appear to cling to the spot, and its appearance is pathetic.”

When Ambrose Striker died a bachelor at the age of 50 in 1883, The Sun mentioned “The residence is said to be the oldest in the city…Old paintings adorn the walls of the mansion, and the collections include animals and minerals.”

Now this portion of the old Hopper Farm passed to Elsworth L. Striker.  The property once described as containing a garden “noted for its roses, its massive box hedges, its beautiful parterres laid in irregular shapes, its fruits and nuts,” was filled with dilapidated wooden houses and warren-like buildings.

Elsworth Striker lost no time in developing his inherited property.  Almost immediately he began erecting tenement buildings at a dizzying rate.  For example, on April 9, 1887 the Record & Guide announced that George B. Pelham was busy designing “forty-two brick and stone tenements and four flats” for Striker.  But two years before that project was underway, Elsworth had dealt with a problem—the family burial ground.

The graveyard as it appeared a year before its removal.  The New York of  Yesterday, 1908 (copyright expired)

The New York Times made an interesting observation.  “The lower side of the plot was reserved for the burial of the negro slaves of the family, and the last interment with its walls was that of a body of the last of these slaves, an old negro aunty who died some 30 years ago.”

Whether Elsworth L. Striker was aware of the covenants of John Hopper’s will or not is unclear.  Nevertheless in April 1885 he ordered all the graves exhumed and the remains moved to Woodlawn Cemetery.  Within a month the architectural firm of A. B. Ogden & Son filed plans for a “five-story brick store and tenement” to cost $35,000 (about $890,000 in 2016).

Elsworth's rapid development of his property resulted in improved housing for the destitute Hell’s Kitchen residents, as dilapidated wooden buildings made way for modern tenements.  (Unfortunately, so did a colonial graveyard and an 18th century country mansion.)  The completed structure on the Hopper burial ground site was an eclectic mixture of styles—neo-Grec, Eastlake, and a generous splash of Queen Anne.  The building called the Clarice took three addresses.  Residents of the apartments upstairs entered through 400 West 50th Street; the corner store space was a saloon, numbered 739 Ninth Avenue; and a second, smaller grocery store was at No. 737.

A. B. Ogden & Sons designed the exterior chimney backs, which appear to cascade down the facade, as an important part of the design.

Striker’s tenants were almost exclusively Irish immigrants.  While some were hard-working, others were involved in the many forms of crime for which the neighborhood was so notorious.

But before long Elsworth L. Striker would have other things to worry about than the lifestyles of his tenants.  In March 1890 the Hopper family, enraged and indigent over the destruction of the cemetery, sued Striker, “believing that they held the title to the old burying ground,” according to The New York Times.  The family claimed ownership of the apartment building and filed for “ejectment against Mr. Striker and his tenants.”  The newspaper valued the property at between $75,000 and $100,000.

It may have been the legal problems, or simply that Striker had overextended himself with his extensive building projects; but for whatever reason he lost the building in foreclosure on April 23 that year.  The successful bidder paid the bargain price of $68,875.

Residents passed through an attractive stone entrance on West 50th Street.  Note the faces peeking through the foliate capitals.

In the meantime, police paid attention to the goings-on at 400 West 50th Street.  On December 1, 1889 Policeman Riley followed two teens, William Finnegan and Daniel Donohue, into the cellar.  There he caught them with about $200 worth of stolen electrical goods “packed and ready for removal,” according to The New York Times.  The boys, 18 and 19 years old respectively, were held at a staggering $1,000 bail.

Other residents found themselves behind bars throughout the next few years.   In September 1894 43-year old Charles Haldane, who listed himself as a lawyer, was arrested for larceny of trust funds; and in 1899 Michael T. Murphy, a streetcar conductor, was arrested for receiving 25 cases of stolen liquor.

In the meantime the saloon on the corner went through a succession of owners—all Irish.  Originally owned by Peter Doolan, who also lived upstairs, it was operated by John McCabe in 1898.  By 1914 the liquor license was held by Mary A. Kiernan, and in 1918 and 1919 by Jennie E. O’Keeff.  Because Prohibition began that year, she would be the last saloon owner at 739 Ninth Avenue for some time.

While the Irish saloon operated next door, Germans Koch & Feldscher ran the grocery store.  Frederick Feldscher was still at 737 Ninth Avenue in 1900 when he received approval to erect a sidewalk fruit stand in front of the store.

The apartments continued to be home to Irish-named residents into the 20th century.  In 1901 Edward Murray’s name was published by the city when he was arrears on personal taxes.  Timothy Rooney lived here in 1905 when he was hired as a dock laborer, and Cornelius O’Leary earned his living in 1907 as an electric taxicab driver for the New York Transportation Company.

O’Leary had to appear before Judge Wahle in night court on October 19 that year after being arrested for driving his taxi at 20 miles per hour.  The Sun reported that he told the magistrate he did not believe he was driving that fast.  In response, Wahle began reading from a letter he had received from another taxi driver.  In part it said “I personally know fifty chauffeurs, and every one of them is a liar and brags about it.”

The New York Times reported “O’Leary did not protest his innocence, and Magistrate Wahle let him off with a $5 fine, the usual tax in such cases being $10.”

Other residents were Morris Mahoney who was seriously injured when a freight car crashed into a passenger train in Brooklyn on March 7, 1913; and retired policeman John H. Conran.  Born in County Kildare, Ireland, Conran died in his apartment here in July 1919.

The following year George Walz found himself in trouble with the law.  He was working as a truck driver for Louis Mouquin, Jr., who ran several restaurants in the city.   Prohibition did not quench his patrons’ thirst for alcohol, and when the threat first loomed, Mouquin had amassed an enormous stockpile of liquor and wine. 

On May 8, 1920 George Walz was stopped while driving his employer to his summer estate.  The following day the New-York Tribune reported “To Louis Mouquin jr…goes the distinction of being the first citizen to be arrested for transporting liquor from his city home to his country residence.”  When Walz was pulled over police found 105 cases of vermouth in the truck.  Both men were arrested for Prohibition violations.

By the midst of the Great Depression the complexion of the neighborhood, although still gritty, had noticeably changed.  In 1933 Arnold Lindstrom opened his ladies’ accessories shop in the former grocery store at 737.  With Prohibition ended that same year, 739 was quickly reestablished as a bar.  Once the watering hole of Irish laborers, it now served a mixed crowd.

On June 15, 1936 The New York Times reported “After a fight in a bar and grill at 739 Ninth Avenue, at the corner of Fiftieth Street, three Arabs were treated for stab wounds early this morning…Three other Arabs, who were with the injured men when the fight started with other customers, were not hurt.”

In 1951 737 became home to the Garden Delicatessen.  But traces of the old Hell’s Kitchen still remained.  On New Year’s Day 1957 40-year old Clarice resident Thomas Walsh and his “long-time partner” John Harty were arrested at 4:10 in the morning attempting to “roll” a sleeping man on the subway.  Police said their criminal records stretched back decades and both had served a four-month prison sentence for the same offense on New Year’s Day 1953.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of change in Hell’s Kitchen here occurred in 2011 when the space once home to Peter Doolan’s rough Irish saloon became Flaming Saddles—a cowboy-themed gay bar.     Ironically, 737 is now home to an Irish bar with a fake pub entrance replacing the former storefront.

The Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, once dangerous, impoverished and crime-ridden, is now trendy.

Above street level little has changed to Elsworth L. Striker’s 1885 tenement.  The Ninth Avenue storefronts have long ago been obliterated; however much remains of the original street level design on 50th Street.  And no one living in the building or grabbing a slice of pizza downstairs can imagine that the building caused such immense trouble when it replaced a colonial cemetery.

photographs by the author


  1. Flaming Saddles has been at 793 9th Ave since it opened in 2011.

  2. I may have lived in one of Mr. Elseworth's tenements. No 442, down the street, was built in 1887. Nothing special, save for the front doors which I believe are still in place. In the mid-80's the area still had its "hell" chiaroscuro layer, but there were local delights, eats, people, and nearby jaunts. The building you describe still had its barber shop even then. As I remember it, the owner would secure the place after hours with a single tiny padlock and place a full page or two of newspaper under the original wooden doors to keep the cockroaches and other vermin out.

  3. At a guess, the building was named after Striker's firstborn daughter, Maria Clarice, born 1880.