Thursday, July 28, 2016

No. 20 Jones Street

In 1794 Dr. Gardiner Jones laid out a short lane in Greenwich Village.  The block-long road took his name, becoming Jones Street.  Half a century later, around 1844, developer George Schott completed a row of stylish Greek Revival rowhouses on the block.

Like its neighbors, No. 20 was faced in brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Three bays wide and three stories high over and English basement, it was intended for a financially-comfortable family.  But this section of Greenwich Village would quickly decline.  By 1857, when William M. and Eleazar B. Brown owned the building, it was already being operated as a boarding house.

Greenwich Village was the center of the black community in the 19th century.  Nearby Minetta Lane was familiarly called Little Africa.   When Jacob Ramsey, Jr. moved into No. 20 Jones Street around 1880 the tenant list was racially-mixed; there were two other white families in the house.  

Ramsey was going through difficult domestic problems at the time.   He took rooms in the house when he and his wife, Vandalia (called Vannie by friends) separated.  Vandalia suspected Ramsey of cheating and sued for divorce in July 1880.  But when she could produce no evidence, the case was thrown out.

Jacob then sued Vandalia for divorce, claiming that it was she who was unfaithful.   But she was intent on proving her case and preserving her reputation.  She hired a private detective who, unfortunately for her, was not an accomplished sleuth.  Ramsey complained that the detective “has been dogging his footsteps night and day,” according to a newspaper.

It culminated in a confrontation in the Jones Street house at 11:30 on the night of Sunday, October 31, 1880.  That night, after the downstairs doorbell was repeatedly rung, a boarder went to the door.  Two women and two men insisted they needed to see Ramsey.  The boarder was reluctant, but “after some urging,” opened the door and pointed the way to Ramsey’s rooms.

In the group was Vannie Ramsey; her sister, Annie Weller; the private detective, Edward R. Scott; and a friend, Frank Sleeper, a pump manufacturer.  They were positive they would find Jacob Ramsey in a compromising situation with a woman.

The four quietly moved to Ramsey’s door and one of the men knocked on it, saying that “a gentleman wished to see him.”  When Jacob cracked the door open a few inches, the group rushed in, knocking him against the bed “violently,” according to The New York Times.

Ramsey was wearing his trousers, shirt and slippers.  Before he could get to his feet he was threatened with physical violence.  “Sleeper was armed with a formidable looking walking-cane, which he brandished over Ramsey’s head,” said The Times.

As the two women searched the rooms, Scott “then struck him with a club and Sleeper hit him in the stomach with a cane,” reported the The Sun.  Ramsey later complained that when he demanded to know by what authority they had burst into the house, Scott shook the billy club in his face and replied that the weapon was his authority.

Ramsey had all four arrested for assault.  At a hearing on November 5 they pleaded not-guilty and a trial date was set.  Justice Smith instructed Sleeper and Scott to “bring when them the weapons with which they were armed when they broke into the room.”  He also advised Jacob Ramsey that “If you are troubled again in this manner, defend yourself.”

Ramsey’s landlord, Willard C. Hunter, lived in the house.  In October 1882 he demolished a similar house across the street, at No. 17, and hired architect C. E. Hadden to replace it with a three-story brick stable.

Although the S-shaped iron shutter dogs, used to prevented exterior shutters from banging in the wind, appear original; they do not appear in early 20th century photographs.

By 1893 all the tenants in No. 20 Jones Street were black.  Most had come to New York from other areas, looking for a better life in the North.  In 1889 Douglas M. Berwick arrived from Jamaica, leaving his wife and three children behind.  Berwick had been an attorney in Kingston before coming to New York.  Now he worked in a jute factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The former lawyer’s hopes never came to pass.  On July 31, 1893 The Sun reported “Douglas M. Berwick, a middle-aged man and a native of Jamaica, was found dead in his bed yesterday morning at his boarding house, 20 Jones street.”  The coroner attributed his dead to a stroke.

There was another death in the house later that year.  Even in the North, most people of color could find jobs only as servants, laborers, or other lowly positions.  Edward S. Taggart was a porter on New York Central trains.  The 28-year old shared a third floor room at No. 20 Jones Street with another porter, named Elliott.

In November Taggart became ill, and his condition worsening to pneumonia.  Around 4:00 on the morning of November 28 Elliott was awakened by the sound of the window being opened.  He looked around just in time to see his roommate jump to his death.  The Evening World remarked “It is thought Taggart was crazed from fever.”

A resident named Taylor was searching for work in May 1902.  He was careful to identify his race in the advertisement he placed in the New-York Tribune.  “Useful Man – By colored Southern man; experience in gardening, coaching or horses; good reference.”

A year later neither Taylor nor his wife was working.  In April 1903 he placed another advertisement: “Gardener—Cook.  Southern couple, colored; man thoroughly understands gardening coaching and care of horses; wife good cook or houseworker.”

Another couple was looking for work that year.  On June 13, 1903 a tenant named Birchard placed an ad; and like Taylor combined his wife’s abilities with his:  “Coachman and Gardener—Colored; wife good cook; private or hotel; reference.”

A year earlier the Greenwich Settlement House had been organized in a renovated house at No. 26 Jones Street.  The Settlement House movement sought to improve the lives of the impoverished by training them in domestic arts and income-producing trades. 

The conditions of the poor on Jones Street exemplified the desperate need.  In 1902 the infant mortality on Jones Street was, according to The New York Times, “125 to 1,000, more than twice what it was in other parts of the city.”

In 1910 Greenwich House purchased Nos. 18 and 20 Jones Street for use as low-income housing.  Indigent tenement dwellers had little opportunity to enjoy the out of doors; and their children’s play and exercise was limited to the dangerous streets.  The rear yards of the Greenwich House properties were renovated to resolve the problem.

The New York Times announced on May 16 “At 18 and 20 Jones Street a basket ball and handball court has been fitted up for boys, while in the yards back of the Settlement, at 26 and 28 Jones Street, a small park is to be opened for the use of mothers and small children.”

A decision was made in 1918 that the houses at Nos. 18 and 20 Jones Street should be rented not to the needy; but to more affluent tenants to increase the funds of the Settlement House.   A renovation costing $7,000 was initiated that provided “steam heat, electricity and plumbing.”   Completed in December, the new apartments were quickly rented and The Sun listed the eight females who had signed separate leases in December. 

The following month The New York Times remarked on the upgrades to the apartments.  Each house previously brought in a total of $70 per month.  “The results are $310 per month for each house and all the apartments were rented on long leases.”

Although a spacious new settlement house was erected on Barrow Street in 1917; the growing work of the organization taxed the space.  The Jones Street properties filled the need for spill-over work like pottery making, metal work and cabinetmaking.   In 1927 No. 20 Jones Street was renovated and in December The Times noted “The new Crafts Building at 20 Jones Street is taking shape; there the handicraft operations will have more room to develop.”

In 1927 the house at No. 16 had been demolished, to be replaced by the Greenwich House Workshops. Two women shop workers in No 22 take a break to get fresh air.   photo New-York Historical Society
 On November 18, 1929 the Settlement House added another feature to No. 20 Jones Street.  It opened a tea room “where luncheon, tea and dinner will be served every weekday.”  The Times explained that “The purpose of the tea room is to provide a workshop for girls in connection with the Domestic Science Department of Greenwich House, and to offer training both in business and the dining routine of the home.”

Through the tea room girls learned nutrition, cooking skills, serving, the handling of money and accounting, and social skills through interacting with the public—all important abilities in making one’s way in life.

By 1941 No. 20 Jones Street had become the Artists and Writers Kitchen.  The venue staged art sales to benefit struggling artists.   In December that year a “Christmas portfolio” sale was held “to raise funds to provide free meals and other aid for indigent artists and writers,” announced The Times.  Among the nationally-recognized artists who donated works were John Sloan, Arthur William Brown, DeHirsch Marguiles, Peggy Bacon and Gordon Grant.

In 1947 architect Henry T. Howard and his wife, Jane, purchase Nos. 18 and 20 from Greenwich House.  They renovated the two buildings to modern apartments, and removed the outdated stoops.   Skylights were punched through the roofs to provide studio lights.  The renovations were completed in 1949 and two years later the Howards sold the buildings as a package to Tyte-Hanfield Co., Inc.

At some point during this time actor Kirk Douglas lived in a top floor apartment, according to his autobiography The Ragman’s Son.  It was apparently a short stay, since his film career had already begun to take off.

Architect Harley Jones purchased the house in 1994 and rebuilt the lost stoop.  He sold it to Jacinta Orlando and her lawyer husband Gus Samios in 1988.  They did a gut renovation in 2004 that resulted in a basement apartment below a single-family triplex.  Their celebrity tenants in the basement apartment was singer-songwriter Steve Earle and his wife, Allison Moorer.

In September 2010 the house was put on the market for $7.9 million.  The listing created an oddity in real estate offerings.  The owner of the house next door, No. 18—which had been for so much of the 20th century handled as a package with No. 20—decided to sell; but only if it were sold together with No. 20.  The combined offering was $16.5 million.

No. 18 (left) still manages without its stoop.
Although the Greek Revival doorway to No. 20 Jones Street was long ago lost, with its restored stoop it retains 1840s appearance.  The brownstone sills and lintels and dentiled fascia board survive after a long and sometimes harried history.

photographs by the author

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