Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The 1868 Leonard Street Police Station -- Nos. 19-21 Leonard St.

By 1862 Nathaniel Bush had achieved the rank of sergeant within the New York Police Department.  That year his responsibilities were expanded when he was made the official architect for the force.   Bush’s station house designs were attractive but no-nonsense.  Repeatedly working in the popular Italianate style, he followed a tried and true plan—a symmetrical façade featuring a centered entrance, Renaissance pediments over some openings—both triangular and arched—and molded lintels.

In 1867 he began work on another.  The Fifth Precinct had been located at No. 49 Leonard Street for years and its station house was outdated and inadequate.  Two old buildings at Nos. 17 and 19 Leonard Street were demolished and construction begun on a new station house and jail, over 50-feet wide, for the Fifth Precinct.

The building was completed in June 1868, according to the Record & Guide.  Police historian Augustine E. Costello, in his 1885 Our Police Protectors, History of the New York Police, described the precinct as embracing “nearly all the dry goods district” including the Hudson River Railroad depot, “the large grocery houses, the public stores, Chambers Street Hospital, much of the produce business, and several bonded warehouse.”

The 97 officers assigned to the new building fought a different type of crime than those in the notorious Gaslight or Tenderloin areas.  In the “dry goods district” downtown there was little problem with prostitution, illegal saloons or gambling; but there were plenty of con artists and robbers.

On November 15, 1868 The New York Herald reported “The confidence operators of New York being stimulated by the unparalleled boldness of bank burglars and check forgers in their games of late, are and have been maneuvering recently with a vim and action that remind the police authorities of days long passed.”  The newspaper pointed to scam committed in the Fifth Precinct.

The day before a Canadian, William McDonald, walked into the station house.  He had arrived in New York that morning.  For two decades thousands had headed to California to strike it rich and now the Transcontinental Railway was nearing completion, making the trip decidedly more convenient.  McDonald, described by the newspaper as “a man of modest demeanor and unsophisticated ideas,” intended to join the migration.

At the ticket office on Canal Street the clerk refused to accept his Canadian gold coins.  He was instructed to go “up the street” and exchange his money for American currency.  On the way he was stopped by a “well dressed man who asked him if he was going to San Francisco.”  One thing led to another and before too long the con man had convinced McDonald to allow him to exchange the gold for American $20 coins.

After the fast-talking New Yorker was gone, McDonald had the sinking feeling that he had been duped.  He showed the coins to a few people and “found that he had been swindled, and the result is that he is now a stranger in New York penniless and without friends.”

In addition to handling crimes like fights among the sailors who arrived on ships docked at the nearby Hudson River piers; the officers of the Fifth Precinct also dealt with more humanitarian issues.  Insufferable summer heat coupled with layers of Victorian clothing was a deadly combination.  On August 14, 1872 alone three victims of heat and sun stroke were carried into the station house.  One of them died there. 

The living conditions of the poor, too, were sometimes the concern of the Fifth Precinct.  On June 12, 1871, for instance, The New York Times reported “A horror tottered into the Leonard-street Police station yesterday morning, in the person of Eliza Gamble, who had come from No. 29 Hubert-street, carrying her week-old infant in her arms.  Both were plainly dying for want of proper nourishment, and appealed without a word for succor.”  The starving woman and her baby were taken to Bellevue Hospital.

The Fifth Precinct had, of course, its share of more serious crime.  On September 9, 1881 Thomas Quinlan walked into the police station and informed Sgt. Doran that his wife, Julia, had died during the night.  Quinlan, who was a longshoreman, lived with his wife in a tenement building at No. 78 Watts Street a few blocks north.

Quinlan explained that his wife was “an industrious and good woman, but was of extremely intemperate habits.  For nearly a month past, although sober during the day, she was drunk every night.”  He told the sergeant he was willing to sign an affidavit that “she had not gone to bed sober one night in three weeks.”  He said that when she was drunk she would often threaten to take her own life. 

That night, when he got up around 4:00 in the morning, he said, she was lying on the floor.  He assumed she had left the bed because of the heat, so he did not disturb her.  When he arose at 6:00 to go to work, she had not moved.  When he tried to arouse her he found her dead.

According to The Times “The case was regarded by the Police as one of ordinary nature, and it was not until a rumor reached the station-house that the woman had not died a natural death that any action was taken.”  Only then was an officer dispatched to the apartment. 

The body of 45-year old Julia Quinlan was still on the floor after so many hours.  She had a large bruise over her left eye and a strip of calico, torn from her apron, was bound so tightly around her neck that it was removed only “with much difficulty.”   When it was removed it left what the coroner described as “a broad, deep mark in the flesh.”

Quite astonishingly, although the Deputy Coroner thought “it impossible for her to have tied the strip of calico about her neck herself,” and was led to “suspect that she may have met her death at the hands of her husband,” The New York Times reported “All the indications were that Mrs. Quinlan had committed suicide.

The newspaper added that Quinlan “bears an excellent reputation in the neighborhood.  He had been married 10 years, and the only child of the couple is a bright girl about 6 years old.”

Nathaniel Bush’s station house buildings were functional, but they were most often poorly ventilated and lit.  In 1881 the Fifth Precinct Station House was deemed “unsafe” by the Bureau of Inspection of Buildings.  The City budgeted $5,000 to bring it up to standards on March 20, 1882.

In the meantime, the precinct continued operating as usual.  Capt. Joseph B. Eakins was commanding officer at the time.  Augustine E. Costello said of him “At one time no precinct was so overrun with burglars as this, and some of the depredations were serious, but Captain Eakins has been singularly fortunate since he has been there, and a burglary is a rare occurrence.”

At around 11:00 on the night of July 12, 1883 Capt. Eakins was sitting on the station house steps, no doubt to escape the heat inside, when a young man walked up and bowed.  He was about to give Eakins a startling confession.

Police had been looking for Aleck Boyer for about three days.  During the weekend of July 7 he and another man got into a vicious argument which would later end in death. 

The New York Times explained later “Robert Simpson, a truck driver, was living with a mulatto woman.  He and Boyer, a boatman, got into a quarrel over the woman’s slapping a boy for striking her with a stick.  Both were drunk.”  The disagreement ended with Simpson knocking Boyer over the head with a cast iron stove lid, and with the woman threatening revenge.

Robert Simpson was married, although he had been living with the woman involved in the conflict.  On Monday night, July 9, he went to the saloon at No. 2 York Street to meet his wife “and make up with her.”   Aleck Boyer had trailed him and while Simpson and his wife were talking in front of the saloon, Boyer rushed up and stabbed him in the head.  “Simpson ran into the saloon, came out again, fired off a pistol, and fell dead on the walk,” wrote The Times.

Now, on Thursday night, Aleck Boyer introduced himself to Capt. Eakins.

“The man who stabbed Simpson?”

“Yes.  I knew you were looking for me on account of that fight, so I came to give myself up.”

It was an easy conclusion to manhunt.

Not technically prisoners, these men attempt to sleep on a wooden pallet or the floor in the Precinct's "lounging room" around 1890.  They have all hung their hats tidily on the pegs provided.  photo by Jacob Riis, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
There were occasional murders and serious incidents in the Fifth Precinct.  It was the here that the notorious con artist “Tom” Davis was murdered by James T. Holland, a Texan who had paid him $500 in exchange for $10,000 in counterfeit bills.  When Holland discovered the bundles were composed of bills on the top and bottom, and blank paper inside, he reacted by returning and firing a bullet into Davis.  The trial was a national sensation.

But as the 19th century drew to a close, highly-publicized crime in the Fifth Precinct came from within the Leonard Street station house, rather than from the streets.  Graft and corruption were brought to light in 1891 when neighboring businessmen finally revolted against the extortion practices of Captain Thomas Stephenson, whom The Evening World described as tall and handsome.

On August 30, 1894 the newspaper reported “After many days of waiting, Police Captain John Thomas Stephenson was to-day placed on trial before the Commissioners at Police Headquarters of several charges of bribery.”  Testimonies throughout the day revealed the scheme by which the Fifth Precinct police, most notably the Captain, received money and goods. 

Martin N. Edwards, for instance, ran a fruit store on Duane Street.  The Evening World said that on September 12, 1891 he sent Stephenson “$38 in cash and $12 worth of fruit, making the $50 agreed upon for a year’s immunity from arrest for ordinance violation.”

Edwards testified “In the early part of March, 1891, a police officer came to my store.  He said the Captain used a great deal of fruit, and if we had no objection he would accept some fruit for the protection of us in the use of the sidewalk.”

The trial dragged on for months, until unexpectedly on December 15 Police Officer Augustus J. Thorne “under indictment and under arrest for perjury and bribery, confessed and was released and restored to duty, having implicated eight Captains or acting Captains, who had commanded him in that precinct, in bribetaking and protecting crime.”

With its honor restored, newspaper accounts regarding the Fifth Precinct again turned more positive.  None more so, perhaps, than that of Policeman Norman Sheldon and a “big, shaggy, tramp Newfoundland dog” on August 1895.   

Officer Sheldon was about a block away when he saw the massive canine running wildly down Chambers Street, followed by a mob of men and boys.  The Times reported that it was “given a wide berth by pedestrians, who ran into stores, cellar-ways, and hallways to get out of his path.”  As the beast and his pursuers neared, Sheldon ran into a store and got a rope, which he quickly tied into a slipnoose. 

He emerged just as the dog reached his location.  Like a Texas ranch hand, he lassoed the dog, then held him until it quieted down.  The Times reported “Shortly afterward he led the dog to the station house, where Sergt. Blair consigned him to a cell until the arrival of a wagon from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.”

Blair, in the meantime, sent for some meat for the dog.  By the time he was taken away he was as “quiet as a kitten.”  The sergeant initially wanted to keep the dog as a station house mascot; but “owing to his advanced age,” decided against it.

On May 1, 1898 the station house was renumbered, becoming the Eighth Precinct.   It was here that a Bureau of Investigation was established on October 29, 1900, just hours after what The Evening World called “The most terrific and disastrous explosion ever known in New York.” 

Fire had broken out at 12:18 that afternoon on the third floor of the Tarrant & Co. building at the northwest corner of Warren and Greenwich Streets.  The wholesale druggists stored large quantities of chemicals.  According to The Evening World, the flames reached the chemicals within four minutes, resulting in two “terrific explosions” which blew out the front of the building.  They were followed by three others “which completely wrecked it, along with the structures adjoining.”

The number of killed or injured topped 400.  Members of the Bureau of Information pulled together the information and witness accounts here regarding the disaster.

Eight years later the officers of the Eighth Precinct would deal with a different type of explosion.  On March 28, 1908 a Socialist protest which drew about 7,000 participants to Union Square threatened to get out of hand.  The Eighth Precinct was called to help control the unruly mob.

The New-York Tribune reported “Cards and circulars and pamphlets in Yiddish and the other polyglot dialects of the East Side were waved exultingly and defiantly in the faces of the men. ‘We will fight until we die!’ ‘We demand work!’ and demands for the over-throw of every one with the clean collar habit were passed about.”

By about 2:30 the park and the plaza were nearly cleared.  Captain Miles O’Reilly then began gathering his Eight Precinct officers at the east of the fountain to head back to Leonard Street.  The Tribune wrote “Up behind them ran [Selig] Silverstein to throw the bomb.”

Selig Silverstein, who also went by the name Cohen, was a well-known Russian born anarchist.  His hatred was aimed mostly at police.   At least one innocent bystander was killed and several police were injured, including Eight Precinct officers Patrick Hanan, who was struck by a piece of brass shrapnel, and Nicholas Conroy, whom the Tribune said “was bowled clean off his feet.”

By the time World War I had broken out the old Leonard Street station house was decidedly obsolete.  On March 24, 1917 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the City was “nearing conclusion” of negotiations involving the liquidation of several properties, including Nos. 19-21 Leonard Street.

In June 1918 the building was sold for $45,000 (a little over $700,000 in 2016) to Texan Robert E. Paine, owner of Standard Rice Company, Inc.  Two months later The American Contractor announced architect Charles Schaefer, Jr. had been commissioned to convert the building for “storage and loft” purposes.  The renovations, which cost $2,000, included the installation of a loading platform. 

Standard Rice Company would occupy the building several decades.  In 1941 it was home to the Semer Hardware Company.  Other tenants included the Ronald Paper Co., the Hailer Elevator Co., and the Empire Elevator Corporation.  Then in 1999 as the Tribeca neighborhood was rediscovered, it was converted to five apartments.  

photographs by the author

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The 1914 Spreter Dept. Store -- Nos. 2220-26 Broadway

Robert E. Dowling was 48 years old in 1902.  He had opened his real estate office at Columbus Avenue and 104th Street in October 1885.  By now he was a real estate mogul, having co-founded the New York Realty Company and built the Sherman Square Hotel along with dozens of other Manhattan buildings.  In addition he was a director or officer in several corporations.

In April 1902 Dowling purchased the large property at the northeast corner of Broadway and 79th Street from the Blodgett Estate.  The developer paid a significant $175,000 for the plot—just under $5 million in 2016 dollars.

It would be two years before Dowling developed the site.  Early in 1904 he signed a 10-year lease with merchant Anton J. Spreter which, according to the New-York Tribune, “provides for the construction by Mr. Dowling of a modern and up to date department store building to cover the entire plot.” 

Spreter had chosen the location wisely.  The new Broadway subway station had just opened directly across the street, providing easy access to shoppers.  His lease, which ran from September 6, 1906 to April 30, 1915, totaled $10,000 for the ground floor and basement.  Dowling would include a second story for additional rental income.

On December 14, 1904 the Tribune noted “The building will be one of the show buildings of upper Broadway.  Mr. Spreter will conduct his retail drygoods and department store business on the premises.”

By the time of the Tribune’s article construction was well underway.  Foundations were begun in October and the department store, designed by John H. Duncan, was taking shape.  Were it not for the fact that Dowling routinely used the services of Duncan, the choice of architects might have been surprising.  John H. Duncan was best known for designing mansions (in 1905 he would design Dowling’s own mansion on Riverside Drive); and for monumental works like Grant’s Tomb and the Soldiers’ and Sailor’s Memorial Arch in Brooklyn.

Spreter’s Department Store was completed by the fall of 1906.  Duncan’s design was as much plate glass as it was masonry.  Vast show windows on both floors allowed for abundant display as well as the admission of natural light.  A cast iron and glass storefront wrapped the corner, extending down 79th Street and along Broadway almost to the northern end of the building.  The upper floor and the northern entrance were clad in creamy terra cotta.  The deeply overhanging cornice was supported by scrolled and wreathed brackets.  Terra cotta bell flowers dripped down from each bracket onto the blank panels below.

In December 1906 Dowling leased the entire second floor to Madame Yale “for the manufacture of toilet preparations.”  He sold the year-old building in November 1907 to Archibald D. Russell.  Unlike Dowling, the new owner would maintain ownership for decades.

Despite its 10-year lease, the Spreter Department Store was gone by 1913 when the Oliver A. Olson Co. department store took both floors.  Olson Company called itself “The Store of Service” and offered everything from apparel to furniture and draperies.

Difficult to see, the name OLSON & CO. appeared below the cornice, along with "Furniture" and "Draperies"  from the collection of the New York Public Library
When Oliver Olson decided to expand the corset department and move it to the second floor in September 1917, the department’s manager, Miss Henry, searched out a new type of fixture “that would overcome the difficulties of proper display in the corset department,” according to The Corset and Underwear Review.

She convinced her employer to install what the journal deemed “the most modern and withal the most common-sensible method” of displaying corsets and brassieres.  The magazine reported “Leaving the elevator of the attractive store…the visitor steps directly into the corset department and is struck immediately by the attractiveness of its arrangement and display.”

Noting that the store was “located in the heart of one of the most exclusive residential districts of the city,” The Corset and Underwear Review mentioned that “Immediately adjoining the corset department is a most attractively furnished fitting room, where Miss Henry herself looks after the needs of those customers who desire to have their corsets fitted.”

Oliver A. Olson & Co.'s displays for women's unmentionables was considered "the very latest idea in arrangement and equipment."  The Corset and Underwear Review, March 1918 (copyright expired)

Miss Henry’s customers could expect to pay from $3.50 and up for the latest in Spring corsets that year.

In May 1930 Louis Barnet resigned as executive vice-president of R. H. Macy & Co. and purchased “the business and good-will of Oliver A. Olson & Co., Inc.”  Now president of Olson & Co., Barnet immediately announced that he had signed a 21-year lease on the corner of 74th Street and Broadway as the new site for the department store.  After being a 79th Street fixture for 13 years, the department store was replaced by an F. W. Woolworth store.

On August 14, 1930 The Pittsburgh Press announced that the Woolworth Company had signed a 63-year lease on the two-story building “having a total rental of approximately $5,000,000.”  After renovating the store the Woolworth branch opened around November 1 that year.

Woolworth stayed on in the building that seemed nearly custom-made for the five-and-dime.  It was not until 1945 that the estate of Archibald Russell sold the structure for about $1 million to Frederick Brown.  He resold it five years later.

Following the expiration of the Woolworth lease, No. 2220-26 Broadway became home to a Filene’s Basement store.  It held a going out of business sale in 2011.  Today the low-rise department store building is home to a shoe store.  The cast iron and terra cotta ground floor has been annihilated in favor of insipid granite panels.  The second story, thankfully, survives mostly intact; a reminder of a time when female shoppers browsed among the latest styles in corsets.

 photographs by the author

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Lost Germania Theatre -- Fourth Avenue and 8th Street

The altered facade still smacked of a church building.  To the left is the 1891 Clinton Hall.  photograph from the collection of the New York Historical Society, Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection

In 1852 Bishop John Hughes established the Roman Catholic parish of St. Ann’s in the upscale Astor Place neighborhood.  At the corner of Fourth Avenue and Eighth Street stood the former Third Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church—an exquisite Georgian-style structure designed by John McComb, Jr. and completed in 1812.  The building originally stood on Murray Street, but was astonishingly moved uptown when the congregation relocated

photo by Ewing Galloway, original source unknown
Now the Presbyterian church moved uptown again, this time deciding to leave its building.  It was sold to the Catholic Church to become St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church.  On April 23, 1852 an advertisement in The New York Herald read: “All persons desirous of securing seats in this church are invited to attend at the church, on Tuesday next, the 27th inst., at one o’clock, P. M.”

Although the majority of Manhattan’s wealthy citizens were Episcopalian, St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church filled with fashionable parishioners.  In April 1865 the well-dressed worshipers would listen especially intently to the words of their pastor.

The New York Times reported “Rev. Dr. Preston read the circular of Archbishop McClosky, and delivered some remarks on the untimely death of Mr. Lincoln, in which he rebuked the spirit of the assassination and wickedness which prompted the murder, and which if allowed to prevail, would destroy the Republic.”

The Rev. Thomas Scott Preston was a fiery, opinionated preacher.  On March 20, 1870 he focused his sermon on “Catholic doubters and offending journalist;” saying that they were “erring, if not positively unclean.” 

And later that year, after the Italian Army stormed Rome and stripped the Pope of his temporal powers, Father Preston had much to say on the matter.  On November 27 The New York Herald reported “Last evening St. Ann’s Catholic church, Eighth street, was crowded with an attentive and respectable congregation, who assembled for the purpose of hearing the eloquent and gifted pastor, the Rev. Thomas Preston, deliver his promised lecture on the temporal power of the Popes.  Before the doors were opened crowds had collected outside, and in five minutes after ingress into the sacred edifice had been allowed there was not a single vacant seat.”

The priest began his lengthy speech saying that all assembled were aware of “the circumstances in which the Holy Father was placed, and the fact that he had been deprived of his temporal power.”  Father Preston was convinced that a higher power would correct the situation.  “How long God would allow him to be deprived of it nobody knew; but at this time the faith, love and devotion of the entire Catholic world should rally around the standard of St. Peter.”

At the time that Father Preston was discoursing on Papal powers, the parish was busy contemplating a move to East 12th Street.  On month earlier The New York Times commended “The old church, in Eight-street opposite Lafayette-place, has, for some time past, been much too small to accommodate the rapidly-increasing congregation which worships in it, and it was therefore decided to build a larger and more pretentious [church] in Twelfth-street, near Fourth-avenue.”

The new church was dedicated on New Year’s Day, 1871.  The previous day the Catholic Church had petitioned the Supreme Court for “an order granting leave to sell St. Ann’s Church…together with the parsonage and school-house adjoining.”  The petition pointed out that dry goods mogul Alexander Turney Stewart had agreed to buy the property—paying $75,000 in cash of the $125,000 selling price.

Alterations were made to the building and Stewart used it for the manufacture of bedding.  Nine years later the Stewart Estate leased the building to theater manager Jacob Aberle.  The once exclusive residential neighborhood had changed much and was now part of the northward moving entertainment district. 

On September 9, 1879 The New York Herald announced “The old church edifice on Eighth street, between Fourth avenue and Broadway…after having suffered many changes in the past few years, has finally been remodeled into a theatre, and under the management of Mr. Joe Aberle it was opened to the public last night, when an elaborate programme was presented.  In seating capacity, at least, this new house is a prominent rival of all the other east side variety theatres.”

To create his Tivoli Theatre, Aberle had lopped off the steeple and transformed the façade from Georgian to Spanish Colonial—a toned down version of Spanish Baroque.  The building still retained a churchy appearance, nonetheless.  Two days after opening night Aberle placed an advertisement in The New York Herald applauding the “overwhelming success of this New and Grand Theatre.  The Greatest Attractions in the World.  American’s Best Star Artists.”

For New Year’s Eve that year Aberle staged a special attraction, a “modern drama” entitled The Poor of New York.  The New York Herald wrote “It is based upon scene in New York during the financial crisis of 1837-38 and is a story of fraud and its victims, with the usual accompaniments of wealth, luxury, destitution and misery.”   Jacob Aberle was no doubt especially excited about the staging of this new play, because it would be the debut of Miss Laura Aberle as an actress.

The “story of fraud and its victims” was especially appropriate, considering that less than a week later Aberle received a restraining order which prevented his giving any further presentations of the play.  “The proceeding is taken on behalf of Francis Mayo, who claims to be the owner of the piece,” explained the New-York Tribune on January 11, 1880.

It was just the first of problems for the theater owner.  On May 13, 1880 The New York Times reported “A number of unruly boys nightly congregate in the gallery of Aberle’s Tivoli Theatre, in Eighth-street near Fourth-avenue, and render themselves a nuisance to the more respectable portion of the audience by their antics.  They are extremely disorderly, and in guying the actors use the most obscene language.”

The evening before, the boys had been especially problematic.  John Reilly, 17-years old, “made himself conspicuous in the disturbance,” and lit a cigar in the balcony.  He refused to put it out when ordered to do so by the door keeper.  It was only after considerable wrangling that Police Officer Golle got Reilly out of the theater and onto the street.  But then, “the friends of the young ruffian assaulted the officer with a shower of stones, several of which struck him.”

Reilly broke free and ran off with the officer “in hot pursuit.”  The delinquent teen quickly discovered that assaulting a policeman in 19th century New York came with its costs.  “When the fugitive was brought back he was bleeding profusely from a wound on the right side of his head,” reported The Times.  The boy had to be taken to the station house on a stretcher.  He complained that Golle had whacked him on the side of the head with his club, knocking him down.

“The officer said that Reilly, while running across Fourth-avenue, stumbled and fell on the car-track, cutting his head.”

On New Year’s Day 1881 the theater was inspected by Fire Department Battalion Chief Bresnan.  The chief did not hold back in his assessment of the place.  The Times reported “Aberle’s Theatre…in the opinion of the Chief is a rookery that should be closed until it is so far rebuilt as to be in some measure safe.”  He called it “one of the filthiest places in the City, the galleries being, as he expressed it, ‘as dirty as the streets.’”

He was mainly concerned with the safety of the building—the number of exits, for example—and pointed out that the employees added to the problem.  “The employes about the theatre, he says, spend most of their earnings in the bar-room connected with and adjoining the theatre.  Being constantly more or less under the influence of liquor, he says, they should not be trusted in such important places, for in his opinion they would add to instead of preventing a panic in case of a fire.”

Aberle’s problems only increased when he staged The Boss; or, Waiting for Vengeance in February 1883.  One of the actresses was an eight-year old girl who went by various names including Lillie Atkins, Petite and May Atkinson.  In the audience on Tuesday night, February 6, was an officer of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

The New-York Tribune reported “He observed that the child seemed delicate, that she was poorly clad and that she was suffering.”  The girl appeared on stage three times during each performance, which did not conclude until around midnight.  The following day Aberle was informed that she must be removed from the cast.

An officer checked in on February 8 to make sure the order was being obeyed.  To his surprise (or not) the little girl took her place on stage exactly as before.  Not only was the girl’s father arrested, but so was Jacob Aberle.  He was held at $500 bail—a significant $12,000 in today’s dollars.

photograph by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Years later The New York Times recalled a humorous story which centered around a crooked ticket seller.  A patron wanted to see the play The Forty Thieves and passed a $10 bill to the cashier.  “Upon receiving $5 in return he returned the tickets, at the same time saying he did not want to go in and see the other thirty-nine thieves.”

Jacob Aberle sold the theater to actor John Thompson, deemed by The New York Times as “the eminent tragedian.”  When Thompson produced and appear in On Hand here, in what was now called the Eight-Street Theatre, the newspaper said it was “considered one of the most sublime creations ever produced.”

Thompson did not rely only on dramatic presentations to ensure success.  On October 24, 1884 the theater was the scene of the Jack Dempsey-Tom Henry boxing match.  The Times reported “Every grade of society was represented, from swell young men about town who wore evening dress, crush hats, and opera coats, down to dance hall bouncers and Bleecker-street ‘statues.’  All the evening cabs and carriages were driving up before the theatre, and men and women were crowding through the throng about the steps and taking their places in the boxes, while Bowery roughs and prize fighters from the dives were making efforts to pass in unobserved or begging admission from the doortender.”

The Eighth Street Theatre suffered scandal when actress Lillie Ellis committed suicide “in the saloon” of the theatre two weeks later.   According to testimony the following week, she was infatuated with a man named James Ryan.  On Wednesday night, November 12, 1884 the two apparently had words.  Ryan told Coroner Martin that he “was leaving the room when she shot herself.”  Another actress, Minnie Western, testified that Lillie was intoxicated and the matter was closed.

Like Jacob Aberle, John Thompson found himself on the wrong end of the law.  He was arrested for serving liquor in the theater without a license; and also for “assaults and brawls at the place.”  But things got serious in 1885.

That year all of Paris was enthralled by the Can Can.  Lines of synchronized dancers kicked their legs high, revealing stockings and petticoats; and at one point in they bent over and brushed their skirts above their pantaloons.  Paris may have been ready for the Can Can, but New York society was not.

In the early morning hours of February 22 Police Captain John J. Brogan “made a descent” on the theater where, according to The Times, he “surprised about 120 persons of both sexes, who were taking part in or spectators of a degrading exhibition of the can-can.”

The raid revealed that the respected tragedian was running more than a theater.  “There were nine rooms and apartments near the stage termed actress’s dressing rooms.  The boxes were the scenes of orgies, and liquor was served in the theatre during variety performances.  At late hours the can-can was danced in the wine room, and each woman endeavored to be more indecent that the others.”

Nineteen women and 45 men were arrested.  Police searched the theater for Thompson, who was finally found trying to hide in a heap of coal in the cellar.  He insisted he was in the engine room “bathing a sore eye with warm water.”  He was held in $1,000 bail for running a disorderly house—the polite 19th century term for a brothel.  John Thompson’s Eighth Street Theatre was closed down.

The beleaguered theater was reopened as the New Eighth-Street Theatre by John F. Poole on August 3, 1886.  The Times noted “The first play will be ‘Shanema Lawn,' with Mr. W. J. Scanlan, a very interesting comedian, in the principal part.”

Poole faired only slightly better than his predecessors.  In 1889 the theater was raided for serving liquor without a license.  Within months it was under new management.  On April 26, 1890 The Evening World reported “The Boston Howard Athenaeum Company begin a week’s engagement at Harry Kennedy’s new Eighth Street Theatre.”

The vaudeville show format included “Little Ida Heath, a clever child artist in the lightning change line; Baggesen, the human corkscrew; Ella Wesner, the Wems Brothers and Coyne Sisters, Prof. Harry Parker and others.”

Kennedy’s managerial term, too, would be a short one.  When comedian Gus Bruno opened the season here in 1890, The Evening World tried to keep the tangled history of the theater straight.  “The Eighth Street Theatre, formerly Poole’s and Harry Kennedy’s was opened Saturday night by Gus Bruno, in a musical burlesque called 'A Queen Family.'”

And once again the notorious venue was shut down.  On June 15, 1891 The Evening World announced “The Eighth Street Theatre has been closed by order of Mayor Grant, who was notified Saturday that the theatre had been running since May 1 without a license.”

After serving as a boxing venue again for awhile, Adolf Philipp leased the theater in July 1893.  The Times reported “New-York is to have a German Harrigan’s.”  The article said that Philipp proposed “after renovating the house and making needed improvements, opening it with a German company of selected artists…The house will be known as the Germania Theatre and will be open about Sept. 16 at popular prices.”

Later the newspaper would remind its readers that the building “was at one time a church of considerable importance.  Although the exterior has been changed a little, there is still a distinct church effect noticeable in the architecture…It became a concert hall of fair reputation, then a dance hall of the Bowery type, and finally a dive of the most notorious character.  In these various roles it failed to pay, and the property was finally sold to a company of Germans who tried to make it at least a respectable place for light theatricals.”

A group of Germania Theatre stage hands pose for a photo in front of a stage set of a cut-away tenement.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Adolph Philipp, too, had some run ins with the law.  He was arrested on January 24, 1899 when he decided to resolve a problem with Gustav Amberg, who had leased the theater from him briefly, by punching him in the nose.  And a week later the theater was briefly closed when detectives felt that the “sacred concert” being staged on a Sunday night was in fact, an entertainment.

Actually, the detectives were right.  Jaegerblut was a German comedy; however Captain Cooney decided not to interfere.  “Besides,” explained The Times, “the players talked the Bavarian patois, and the detectives could not make out a word of it.”

Despite the minor problems, The New York Times noted on February 10, 1901 “the Germania Theatre has partly redeemed the building form its one-time unpleasant associations.”  But in April 1902 Adolf Philipp announced his intentions to construct a New Germania Theatre on East 14th Street which would be “built and ready to be opened by May, 1903.”

The theater's fate was already sealed when, on October 21, 1900, the New-York Tribune published this photo of the building "and the adjoining property which will be condemned for the rapid transit system."  (copyright expired)
Shortly after the Germania moved out, the entire block where the old theater stood was demolished to make way for the new subway.  The John Wanamaker Department Store's 1906 extension rose over the site of the old theater.