Thursday, July 21, 2016

Chelsea Survivors -- Nos. 256-262 West 21st Street

Breaks in the cornice define the four original houses.

In the first decades of the 19th century the land north of 14th Street was being transformed.  The country estate of Clement Moore, “Chelsea,” and the farm of George Rapelje, the southern boundary of which was around 16th Street, for instance, saw the laying of streets and avenues and the erection of private homes.

By the mid 1850s a striking row of speculative homes was completed at Nos. 180 through 186 West 21st Street (later renumbered 256 to 262), between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.  Their Ango-Italianate design was the cutting-edge in residential architecture; and the commodious three-bay wide homes, five stories tall, were intended for moneyed occupants.  Clad in brownstone, they sat upon two-story bases.  Rows of architrave openings lined up in a regimented order until No. 186 broke ranks with a jutting angled bay.

The western-most house, No. 262, featured an angled bay and extra interior square footage.

By 1862 No. 180 was home to a “Mrs. Lawlin.”  When Abby Jane Creemer, the widow of Francis W. Creemer, died at 2:00 on the morning of Friday, July 11, 1862, Mrs. Lawlin stepped in to offer her home for the funeral the following day at 1:00.

Mrs. Lawlin was soon gone from No. 180.  In her place was Charles Pope, Sr., who was less well-known than his famous son, Charles Pope, Jr..   The New York Times deemed the actor “well esteemed” on November 21, 1864.

At the time of the newspaper’s comment, the Leonard family was living two doors away at No. 184.  As the family prepared to close the house for the summer in 1864 one of the servants looked for a new position.  On May 24 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald: “Wanted—A situation as chambermaid and waitress or nurse, by a capable girl; will go in the country.  Can be seen at her present employer’s who will give three years’ recommendation.” 

As the season drew to a close Mrs. Leonard began her search for a replacement.  On August 25 her ad appeared.  “Wanted—A girl to do general housework; a German or Protestant preferred; must be a good washer and ironer, and come well recommended.”

The Civil War soon disrupted the family routine at No. 184.  In March 1865 A. H. Leonard was inducted into the Union Army. 

The Leonard family was followed in the house by A. A. Hall, his wife, Eleanor, and their daughter Mary Kate.  Tragedy struck on Sunday, July 14, 1867 when 9-year old Mary Kate died of gastritis.  Her funeral was held in the house the following Wednesday.

In 1865 West 21st Street was renumbered.  The row of houses now bore the addresses of Nos. 256 through 262.  It would not be long before even greater change came to the residences.

The year following Mary Kate Hall’s death No. 260 (formerly No. 184) was being operated as a boarding house.  On May 27, 1868 an advertisement in The New York Herald offered “Elegant front room, with hot and cold water, large pantries, &c., to let to gentleman and wife or single gentlemen.  Terms moderate.”

Maintaining a reputable boarding house required a staff and on April 6, 1869 another ad sought “Two good girls; one to do washing and ironing and assist in cooking; the other as chambermaid and waitress.  Apply at 260 West 21st st.”

It would appear that not every one of the tenants at No. 260 was impeccably respectable.  On Tuesday, December 8, 1875 Patrick McGagney was arrested and “held to answer for pointing a loaded pistol at Gesene Marshall…with felonious intent.”

A boarder in No. 262 was involved in a late night incident in Central Park on Friday May 12, 1877.  Why Ferdinand Imhorst was there that night is unclear; but police routinely contended with a problem which was succinctly described by The New York Herald: “A number of idle and bad characters frequent the bridges in the Park after nightfall.”

That night Officer Russell had driven several men from one of the bridges.  When he came back on his rounds, he saw a man “who appeared to be one of the crowd, return.”  The night was so dark, according to the newspaper and “apprehensive of assault,” Russell grabbed Ferdinand Imhorst from behind.

Imhorst, apparently believing it was he who was being assaulted, responded by landing several punches on the officer’s face.  When Officer Russell pulled his club and hit Imhorst over the head, his prisoner cried out “Police!”

“Why, I’m a policeman,” said Russell.

“The devil you are!” replied Imhorst.

The Herald reported “There was an attempt at explanation, but it resulted in the citizen being brought to the Fifty-seventh Street Court yesterday.”  The policeman charged Imhorst of assault and he, in turn, filed a complaint against Russell.

In January 1888 Margaret. Mahoney, who ran the boarding house at No. 260, took in 50-year old Richard B. Carter, a former sailor.  She could not have imagined the drama that would follow.

Carter had taken a furnished room at No. 477 West 22nd Street in the autumn of 1887.  His landlady was Teresa Adams, the widow of George Adams of Salem, Massachusetts.  Telling Mrs. Adams that he was a widower, he courted her.  The quick romance resulted in their marriage on December 14.  The New York Times later noted “Carter soon changed from a meek, industrious suitor to a domestic bully, and would not even look for employment.  He was constantly grumbling at her because she would not let him control her little fortune.”

The domestic problems boiled over in January, just six weeks after the wedding.  A young woman with a baby in her arms appeared at the boarding house and claimed to be Mrs. Richard B. Carter.  The Times reported “The incident provoked a serious family dispute and Carter went to board at Mrs. Margaret Mahoney’s.”   His domestic abuse, however, continued, in the form of stalking and threats.

The New York Times wrote “He there entered on a campaign of annoyance and bullying by letter, waylaid his wife in the street, and then had recourse to cajoling and piteous appeals for a reconciliation.”

In the meantime, Teresa Adams discovered she was not merely the victim of bigamy—the woman who appeared at her doorstep in January was not the only other wife.  She found out Carter had a wife in Valparaiso and one in Jamaica.

Richard Carter disappeared from Mrs. Mahoney’s boarding house for a period, and then reappeared toward the end of June 1888.  The stalking began again; and on Tuesday night July 10 he confronted Teresa on the street, abusing and threatening her “so violently that she took refuge in a neighboring house.”

Two days later he sent Teresa a “civilly worded” message asking her to meet him at 5:00 at 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue to “talk over their differences.”  The two met, but the conversation did not go as Carter had hoped.  A witness saw them at 5:15 on West 22nd Street walking rapidly and “conversing earnestly rather than excitedly.”

Suddenly Carter pulled out a 32-calibre handgun and fired it at Teresa.  She screamed and ran towards Sixth Avenue.  Carter fired again, this time missing.  The astonished witness reported that Carter then pointed the weapon to his right temple “and he fell insensible on the sidewalk.”

Teresa had run into McLaughlin’s stable at No. 106 West 22nd Street where Dr. A. B. Tucker, whose office was on the same block, examined her.  The bullet had been stopped by her whalebone corset.   Richard Clark was far less lucky.  He was taken to New-York Hospital where he died at 7:35 that evening.

Margaret Mahoney operated her boarding house to accommodate her working tenants.  On January 16, 1889 she advertised “A large and small room to let, with excellent board; table boarders accommodated; meals to suit business hours.”

Ella Goodacker boarded in No. 260 in 1893 with her husband, a speculator in horses, and their baby.  When Goodacker left for Philadelphia on business in March, Ella’s mother, Mrs. Lemline, came for a visit.  During her stay, Ella received news that her brother, Jack Lemline, had committed suicide in a Jersey City hotel.

In his room was a letter from Ella dated December 7, 1892 inviting him to visit and saying he “will be surprised to see how big the baby is.”  Despite the seemingly warm invitation, Ella was not overcome with grief at the news of her brother’s death.

She told an Evening World reported “that he was a shiftless fellow, who had been driven from home by his father when he was sixteen years old.”  The World reported “She expressed no sorrow at her brother’s act, but said coldly that she had not seen him in months.”  She was more sympathetic with her mother, of course, and had not yet told her about the suicide.

A few months later the proprietor of No. 260 was looking for help.  Her ad on May 11 read “Wanted, a girl to wait on table and assist with chamberwork in private boarding-house.”  The potential servant would earn $12 per week—about $325 in 2016 terms.

In the meantime, the other houses in the row were also boarding houses by now.  In June 1893 No. 262 offered “Elegant large and small rooms to let, with excellent board; terms moderate.”  Their once upscale tone was much less so as the 19th century became the 20th.

Among the boarders at No. 258 West 21st Street in 1904 were Frederick J Wyle and William J. O’Donnell.  On the evening of May 3 they sat down to a dinner of prunes and hash.   Wyle watched, offended, as his landlady dished out “the choicest prunes and the most appetizing portions of hash” to O’Donnell.  Irate that O’Donnell received preferential treatment; Wyle stormed from the table and went outside.

There he fumed until he scratched a note and gave it to a passing boy to take inside to O’Donnell.  It said that Wyle needed to speak to him.  When O’Donnell walked out, a fistfight ensued during which Wylie produced a jackknife and stabbed O’Donnell five times in the back.

According to The New York Times the following day, at the station house Frederick Wyle explained to police “that O’Donnell was served with an especially sumptuous supper, while he had to be satisfied with scraps.”

And so it continued for the four formerly-elegant homes.  In 1922 Ray Monohan was living at No. 256 when he was arrested for Prohibition violations; and three years later, on April 22, 1925, the landlady, Mrs. James Forbes called police concerned about the welfare of 50-year old widow Emily McGuiness.  Mrs. Forbes had noticed Emily “was not well” the day before and brought her a cup of tea.  She now appeared so sick that she felt help was needed.

Indeed it was.  Patrolman James McKenna called Dr. Jaeger of the New York Hospital, who diagnosed Emily as “suffering from starvation.”  Despite the alarming diagnosis, The New York Times reported “he did not take her to the hospital, but made arrangements for notifying the Department of Charities.”

The family of Philias La Chance was living at No. 262 in 1928.  With La Chance and his 33-year old wife were their three sons, five-year old Arthur, two-year old Philias, and John who was just one year old.   Life was hard for the family, especially when Philias lost his job that year and could not find employment.

Driven to desperation, on the afternoon of September 21 his anxious wife dissolved moth balls in hot water and flavored it with cologne, then drank the poisonous blend.  “She fell to the floor screaming,” reported The New York Times.  Her suicide attempt was thwarted at the New York Hospital when Dr. Baker was successful in reviving her.

During the 1870s and ‘80s operatic prima donna Mme. Caterina Marco was, according to The New York Times decades later, “the toast of Europe and America.”  After a brilliant career which included being the leading singer at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, she retired.  The Times noted “In later years the earnings of her operatic career dwindled to almost nothing” and by the early 1930s the destitute former star “resided in a cold-water flat at 260 West Twenty-first Street.”

Even this became too costly for Mme. Marco and around 1934 she moved to a furnished room on West 23rd Street where she died penniless at the age of 83 on February 3, 1936.

That year artist Archibald McKeown was rooming at No. 256 West 21st Street.  He ran into problems when he set up his work at Washington Square’s ninth annual outdoor art exhibition on May 29, 1936.  Two tax collectors arrived in the park on June 7, the last day of the show, to collect the city sales tax. 

While other artists begrudgingly forked over the levied amounts, McKeown refused.  The artist who called his pictures “the world’s cleanest paintings,” countered that “he had paid his taxes when he bought his materials.”  The tax collectors did not agree with his argument and ordered him to report to the central office.

In 1967 Nos. 256 and 258 were combined, resulting in four apartments per floor.  The following year Nos. 260 and 262 were similarly converted to a single apartment building.  Other than the joint ground floor entrances and replacement windows, the handsome row retains its pre-Civil War integrity.  Their colorful stories are a fascinating archive of the chapters in the ever-changing Chelsea neighborhood.

photographs by the author
many thanks to Burt Schein for requesting this post 

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