Friday, September 23, 2016

The F. C. Havemeyer House -- No. 323 West 14th Street

In 1839 the first of the high-end homes to encircle the newly-established Union Square was erected.  Quickly the an upscale residential neighborhood spread westward along 14th Street.  About the same time that Andrew Norwood started construction on three brick mansions in 1845, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, the wealthy Havemeyer family relocated to the area.   Nearly half a century later, in 1891, The New York Times would remark “All the Havemeyer residences in this city have been for a great many years in West Fourteenth Street.”

Frederick Christian Havemeyer, Jr. and his wife, the former Sarah Louisa Henderson had 10 children.  They were living at No. 323 West 14th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues by the time Henry Osborn Havemeyer, their eighth child, was born on October 18, 1847.

Their handsome brick home was a mixture of Greek Revival and Italianate styles.  A brownstone basement supported four stories of red brick.  The sandstone architrave window moldings on tiny carved brackets at the upper floors contrasted handsomely with the red brick.  A cast metal Italianate cornice with scrolled brackets completed the design.

Havemeyer was born in 1807 to Frederick and Catherine Havemeyer two years after their marriage.  His father had arrived in New York from London in 1800 and opened a small sugar refinery, or “bakery,” on Vandam Street with his brother.   Little Frederick was privately tutored, The Times later recalling “Mr. Havemeyer as a boy studied under old ‘Joe’ Nelson, a blind teacher, who was a noted character in this city in the early days.”   Although he enrolled in Columbia College, he did not graduate, preferring to go into business with his cousin William as successors to his father’s firm.

The firm W. F. & F. C. Havemeyer was born.  It would become one of the largest sugar-refining companies in the world.  Frederick C. Havemeyer, Jr. earned the reputation of knowing “more about the sugar-refining industry than any other man in the world.”

By the time Sarah died on Tuesday morning, January 7, 1851 at the age of just 39, the family had moved about a block east, to No. 195 West 14th Street.   

No. 323 became home to Eugene Mehl, the highly-paid chef of the Windsor Hotel on Fifth Avenue, and his wife Gertrude.  European-trained chefs were in great demand in exclusive hotels and demanded enormous salaries--the means by which to purchase fine homes like this one. 

Mehl was both accomplished and fastidious in the kitchen.  On December 1, 1879 he made his opinions clear concerning the use of copper utensils.  When a reporter visited the Windsor kitchen, he was told “Dirt is poisonous wherever it is and copper is deadly if you put any acid in it or let anything stand in it after it stops boiling.  I remember twenty-five years ago some people died after eating oysters at the Metropolitan [Hotel].  It was all laid on the oysters and nobody found out what the poison was or where it came from, but we knew in the kitchen.  It was copper.”

Eugene Mehl was offered the position of managing the Hotel Lafayette in Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota in the spring of 1882.  The resort hotel could accommodate 1,000 guests and the opportunity was apparently one Mehl could hardly refuse.  The St. Paul Daily Globe reported on May 28 that he had arrived in that city “en route to his new charge.”

While Mehl’s son, Eugene, Jr. left New York to assist his father as Assistant Manager of the new hotel, it would appear that Gertrude may have stayed back.   A month before the men departed, Mehl transferred title to the house to Octavus B. Libby on April 1.  That same day Libby transferred the title to Gertrude Mehl for a “nominal” charge.

By 1887 the house was home to another chef and restaurateur, Leonard Gosling and his wife.  The elderly couple, who were married in Amsterdam in 1818, had had 15 children.  Forced to leave Paris in 1829 “because of an expression of opinion antagonistic to Louis Philippe,” according to a newspaper, Gosling arrived in New York in 1830.

The New York Times later related “At that time there were no cheap restaurants in the city, and he established one in the old church building at 64 and 66 Nassau-street.  The place jumped at once into popular favor, and the proprietor made money fast.”

Gosling’s success was partly due to his courtesy to his customers and his efforts to meet their wants.  An example was often told of a Greek gentleman who entered the restaurant in the days when raw oysters on the half shell were not served in New York restaurants.  He requested oysters on the half shell before his dinner.

Gosling sent a boy to a nearby oyster stall.  The pleased customer returned the next day. And again for several more days.  Finally he called Leonard Gosling to his table and said “You have very fine oysters, but I wish you would change the shells occasionally.”

It was most likely Gosling who gave the house a facelift.  The parlor floor was given a veneer of rusticated brownstone and Eastlake-style incised decorations appeared in stone panels and window details.
In February 1887 Gosling’s wife died in the 14th Street house at the age of 85.  He died there nine months late at the age of 93.  The New York Times noted “His death was due to old age, although he was a very vigorous man for his years.”  His funeral was held in the residence on the morning of November 20, 1887.

The house would see at least two more owners before the turn of the century.  Nationally-known organist and music publisher Augustin Cortada and his wife were here in 1889, and by 1896 D. Morrison, Jr. and his wife lived in the house.  By the time Mrs. Morrison donated material “for making skirts” to the Binghamton State Hospital for the Insane that year, the end of the line for No. 323 as a private home was nearing.

In 1901 the property was advertised at auction as a “brick and brownstone trimmed single flat.”  The description revealed that the house had already been converted to apartments, just one per floor.  Its tenants were still professional, like Dr. William P. Cunningham who lived here at least from 1914 through 1919.  He was the attending dermatologist to the Misericordia Hospital and provided medical articles to publications like the Medical Council.  In February 1917 that journal published his article “A Calm Survey of the Cancer Scare.”

The building was purchased in October 1920 by Vincent X. McGuire.  The new owner’s extended family moved in.  His mother, Mrs. H. McGuire still lived here in 1928.  The funeral of her son-in-law, Edward P. Mullen was held in her apartment on Thursday, September 6 that year.  Mullen had been married to Helen P. McGuire, already deceased.  Also living in the building at the time was Mullen’s widowed mother, Hanna Mullen.  Other tenants that year included William A. Stephenson, a supervisor for the New York Telephone Company.

When No. 323 was sold to an investor in April 1940, the broker announced it “is to be remodeled.”  The subsequent renovation, completed the following year, resulted in three apartments per floor. When E.B.B. Realty took over the structure in 1981 it added the innocuous if mysterious brownstone plaque “EBB 1981” to the façade.

The 1840s mansion, once home to one of Manhattan’s leading families, survives as a reminder of a much different 14th Street; when stylish carriages waited for wealthy Victorian ladies gentlemen on the quiet residential street.

photographs by the author

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