Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The 1850 Rudder-Lyons House - No. 7 West 19th St

In 1846 Livingston Satterlee owned the property at No. 9 West 19th Street.  Four years later, two mirror image Italianate-style houses were constructed at Nos. 9 and 7.  Documents listed the owner of No. 7 as "M. L. R. Latterly"; almost certainly a clerical mistake in recording "Satterlee."

At the time the mansions of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens were inching up Fifth Avenue, just steps away.  Three stories tall above an English basement, the twin homes were trimmed in brownstone.  The details were were those expected in an Italianate-style residence--they shared a wide, high stone stoop, and had bracketed cornices and elegant cast iron parlor floor balconies, for instance.

But the treatment of the top floor openings was anything but run-of-the-mill.  The segmental-arched lintels followed the shape of the windows, and their projecting drip moldings created the appearance of slightly raised eyebrows--an unusual and wonderfully distinctive feature.

The windows, of course, were originally arched to match the lintels.  The rectangular replacements diminish the effect.  (The bracketed cornice is a sympathetic and laudable 1998 reproduction.)
Whether the mysterious Mr. Satterlee (or Latterly) ever lived at No. 7 is unclear.  But by the outbreak of the Civil War it was home to Jacob R. Nevins and his wife, the former Sarah Bache.  Nevins was a member of the Produce Exchange and listed as a "corn merchant."  He was also a trustee of the Sun Mutual Insurance Co.

Sarah was the daughter of Andrew and Charlotte Bache and her privileged upbringing included private school education before attending Troy Seminary in 1829.  She married John D. Klendgen in 1832.  She was widowed in 1847 and married Nevins in 1852.

While her husband attended to business downtown, Sarah was involved in an array of charitable institutions.  She worked for the Female Benevolent Society of Calvary Church, with the charity work of Ascension Church, was vice-president of the Ladies' Depository of New York, and was president of the New York Lying-in-Woman's Hospital.

Sarah's sister, Catharine, was married to the Rev. William Rudder, rector of St. Stephen's Church on 46th Street.  She was visiting on May 24, 1866 when a peculiar accident ended in tragedy.  A notice in The Anglo-American Times a month later gave few clues.  It briefly noted that Catharine had died "from the effects of a fall from the window of a room in the house of her relative, Mr. Jacob R. Nevins."

Jacob Nevins died in 1868; but he and Sarah had already left West 19th Street, possibly due to his health.  A one line advertisement in The New York Herald had announced that the furniture in the house would be auctioned on April 23, 1867. 

In 1860 the new synagogue of Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, was completed next door to the former Nevins house.  In his 1897 The Congregation Shearith Israel, H. Taylor Phillips noted "In 1868 a house for the minister, adjoining the synagogue in 19th Street, was purchased."  That minister was Rabbi Jacques Judah Lyons.

The rabbi and his family lived directly next door to the synagogue.  When this photo was taken around 1890 the balcony and areaway railings were intact.  No. 9 has gained a shallow fourth floor.  photo from Early New York Houses, by William S. Pelletreau, 1900 (copyright expired)

Lyons had been the congregation's minister since 1839.  A scholar, philanthropist and historian, he would help found The Jews' Hospital (renamed Mount Sinai), the Hebrew Free Schools and the Jewish Board of Delegates.  Ardently concerned with the history of Congregation Shearith Israel, which dated to 1654 in America, he collected a library of documents, letters and "minute books."  Later known as The Lyons Collection, it was published in 1913

Lyons had married Grace Nathan in 1842.  The couple had three children, Julius, Sarah and Alfred.  Grace's brother was the immensely wealthy stockbroker Benjamin Nathan.  When the Lyons family moved to West 19th Street, Benjamin Nathan's family was living in a mansion was nearby at No. 12 West 23rd Street. 

Rev. Lyons and his family lived well in its handsome home, with a small staff of servants.  To protect the family and its valuable possessions, a burglar alarm was installed on the roof--the most common means of access for burglars.  The somewhat primitive device consisted of trip wires connected to bells.

Around 9:30 on the night of Wednesday March 13, 1873 the family was in the dining room when "they were startled by hearing the burglar alarm attached to the upper windows of the building ringing loudly," reported The New York Times the following morning.  Alfred, who was 23 and a lawyer, went to investigate with his brother.

Before searching the darkened rooms, Alfred armed himself with a revolver.  Finding no one in the house, they went to the roof via the scuttle--the hatchway built into every house for access to the roof.   Minutes later, according to The Sun, "The neighbors say that they heard a shot, a crash, and a fall, and saw a man in light clothes run down Fifth Avenue."

The stairway of the house, as with almost all similar residences, was illuminated during the day by a skylight.  Distracted in his search, Alfred had not noticed the skylight and stepped through it, falling two floors to a landing.  In his fall the revolver discharged.  "On reaching the first landing they found young Mr. Lyons bleeding and insensible," said the newspaper.

The Sun reporter, who by chance was in the neighborhood and heard the commotion, found Rev. Lyons "overwhelmed in grief setting on the stairs."  He told the reporter "he thought that his son was shot."

Directly across the street at No. 10 lived Dr. Beales, who rushed to the scene.  Alfred was unconscious, but not shot.  The Times explained "It was then ascertained that his right hip was fractured, and that he had sustained internal injuries of a very serious nature."

Nevertheless, rumors flew.  Servants whispered that a burglar had pushed Alfred through the skylight. A reporter asked Rev. Lyons "It is rumored that there has been an attempt to commit suicide.  Is there any truth in the statement?" and neighbors repeated the story of "a man in light clothes [running] down Fifth avenue."

When the hysteria settled own The New York Times reported "It is supposed that the burglar-alarm was sounded by a cat jumping on the wires, as not the slightest trace of any intruders could be discovered."

Rev. Lyons died at the age of 63 on August 12, 1877.  Congregation Shearith Israel would move north to West 70th Street in 1897; but before then they leased the house at No. 7 to divorced contractor Henry C. Comegys, formerly a partner in the firm Comegys & Lewis.  In 1875 he had married Malinda Grove, described by The New York Herald as "a Baltimore belle."  His firm had "performed large and profitable contracts with the Peruvian and Chilian [sic] governments" constructing water works, according to the newspaper.

Trouble had come for the couple when Malinda visited her parents in Baltimore in the spring of 1885.  She returned home to find that Henry and a "niece" had taken adjoining rooms in a hotel; and according to Malinda's attorney he "had been too familiar with his alleged niece."  Malinda sued for divorce, and was granted $100 a month alimony.

But by the time Henry moved into the 19th Street house he had stopped paying and owed his ex-wife $1000--nearly $27,000 in 2017.  On January 2, 1891 Malinda obtained an order for his arrest and, according to the Herald, "a deputy sheriff hung around his home, No. 7 West Nineteenth street, for a week without finding him."

Henry's attorney could explain that.  Comegys, he said "was suffering from vertigo and neurasthenia and couldn't go outdoors unattended or on foot."  And, he said, his client was "bankrupt and dependent upon friends for his living."

Malinda's attorney was doubtful.  He pointed to the $100 a month cab bill Henry carried at the Miles' Stable, on 19th Street.  And there was the matter of his frequenting the race track and his interest in the race horse Juggler.  Malinda added through her lawyer that "he maintains the house No. 7 West Nineteenth street in a style as fine as that he affected before his alleged failure."

While Justice Andrews mulled over the case, The New York Herald offered its own thoughts.  "Comegys is known to men about town as a good liver and a fairly high roller--not too high, but just high enough.  His horse Juggler won several good races at Guttenburg last winter."

It was possibly the unflattering publicity or the judgment against him that prompted Comegys to leave West 19th Street later that year.  Congregation Shearith Israel next leased the house to "Miss E. B. Smith," who operated it as a boarding house.  According to The Times, she "supplies lodgings to a restricted few."

Never married, Miss Smith had relied on her chihuahua, Tony, for companionship for years.  She had a little "lounge" constructed for him which sat at the foot of her bed.  Tony rarely barked, owing to the fact, according to his mistress, that "He is too well behaved."  She told a reporter "Tony never barks unless something very horrible has occurred."

And something very horrible occurred only a few months after Miss Smith leased the house.  Around 3:00 on the morning of December 1, 1892 Tony jumped onto her bed, barking and pawing at her furiously.

"And I knew at once something was wrong," Smith later said.  As soon as she was fully awake, she realized that smoke was pouring into the room from the floor register.  She grabbed up the dog and, as explained by The Times, "aroused the household, and all, clad in night garments only, fled hastily by way of the roof to the adjoining house.  The smoke and flames made the stairs impassible."

The newspaper wryly added "Miss Smith had also the presence of mind to turn in an alarm for the fire.  This is the one thing that Tony omitted to do."  Fire fighters responded from Engine 14 on 18th Street.  The Times blamed the firemen for "doing $3,000 worth of damage to the house and furniture," most likely referring to water damage.

But if the newspaper was hard on the fire fighters, it could not praise the chihuahua enough.  "Tony is only a dog, and one of the hairless Mexican breed at that...Tony, whose mission had been supposed to be purely artistic, had suddenly developed a heroic side to his character."  The headline above the article read "ALL HONOR TO TONY--He's A Hairless Dog Which Saved A Houseful From Burning."

Congregation Shearith Israel hired architect John Sexton, better known for designing schools, factories and banks, to repair the burned structure.  Then, seven years later, it commissioned the firm Stein, Cohen & Roth to design an extension to the rear and a two-story storefront at the basement and parlor levels.

Unlike some commercial renovations that raised the basement floor and moved the entrance to street level; Stein, Cohen & Roth retained the brownstone stoop and the walk-down basement.  The new storefront extended several feet forward and provided expansive show windows.

The upper two floors continued to house boarders.  One of them, accountant William B. Turnbull, found himself locked up in the Tombs in December 1897, charged with attempted blackmail of Don Eugenie Faria Ganzales de Teixeira, Marquis of Aguila Branca.   The wealthy Brazilian had arrived in New York a year earlier and lived in a lavish mansion at No. 918 West End Avenue.

On November 13 the Marquis had received a letter from Turnbull, applying for a position as his private secretary.  He ignored it.  Four days later he received a second letter.  The New-York Tribune said "It was dated from No. 7 West Nineteenth-st., and was written on Turnbull's monogram paper."  This one was less friendly.

I regret not seeing you when I called to-day, and write to suggest in your own interests that you communicate with me at once informing me when you are at home that I may see you without delay, as I have information which concerns you most vitally, and delay might make it too late to save you much annoyance and disgrace."

 In reply de Teixeira sent Thomas O'Connell "a large, well-built man," to visit Turnbull.  According to the Tribune, he "told him that if he wrote any more such letters he (O'Connell) would knock his head off his shoulders"

Rather foolishly, Turnbull wrote a long letter, saying he had merely tried to protect de Teixeira from unwanted publicity.  But "You have now by your conduct put it out of my power to help you, and your life's history can be known by the public as you yourself know it internally."

An undercover detective arrived at No. 7 West 19th Street posing as a friend of de Teixera.  After several days of negotiations, Turnbull agreed to exchange "notes and papers" for $2,250.  Around December 3 the detective brought de Teixeira and an interpreter to the 19th Street house.  When Turnbull had sufficiently incriminated himself, Detective Vallely identified himself and took Turnbull to the Centre Street Court.

By 1903 Ward & Drummond ran its religious bookstore downstairs.  The publications it sold were targeted to "juveniles."  One of its employees that year was an accomplished athlete.  Using his initials W. C. S., he placed an advertisement in The Evening World on April 29.

A semi-professional pitcher would like to play with a strong team.  The representatives of the book trade preferred.  Can pitch with either hand.  Uniformed team preferred.

Responses, he noted, would be received at "Ward & Co."

Considering that there was a bookstore on the lower two floors and that the neighborhood was decidedly more commercial than residential now in 1916; it would have been surprising that Hetty Green lived in a single room here were not for her infamous miserliness.

Although her worth was estimated at between $100 and $200 million (in the several billions today); she frequently moved between rooming houses.  On Monday, June 26, 1916 The Evening World reported "Mrs. Hetty Green, considered the world's wealthiest business woman, is confined to her room at No. 7 West Nineteenth Street, as a result of a cold contracted while motoring last Thursday."

Her son, Edward Green, told reporters "My mother had a slight stroke a month ago, and since then has had to be moved in an arm chair.  A few days ago she caught a cold, so we are taking good care of her.  You'd think she was able to manage her own affairs, if you heard the way she puts me over the jumps."

Hetty Green's "slight cold" did not improve and Edward moved her to his residence.  The 81-year old eccentric died there on July 3.

On May 24, 1919 a massive explosion at the "case and can" factory of the Standard Oil Company in Bayonne, New Jersey left that building in ruins.  The Sun reported "Employees came tumbling from blazing doors and windows with their clothes on fire.  Thirty were severely burned."

Plant officials used payroll records to try to ascertain if any workers were missing.  Shortly after the multiple explosions, they were "inclined" to believe everyone had escaped.  Twenty-seven men were taken to the Bayonne Hospital, where it was reported "that several of them might die."  Among them were Wasyl Pariprotki and Nick Wrublowsky; both of whom rented rooms at No. 7 West 19th Street.

The block of West 19th Street saw the rise of large loft buildings which dwarfed the stubbornly-surviving 1850 house.  At some point in the 20th century the brick was painted, the cornice removed and a brick parapet installed.

Then in 1997 a sympathetic make-over was initiated.  Completed the following year, the near renovation re-exposed the brick facade, removed the parapet and replaced it with a reproduction cornice, and installed a handsome iron stoop railing that recalls late 19th century examples.  Its unassuming presence gives no hint of the colorful history that played behind its doors.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this. I am the current owner of the building and you taught me so much. I really appreciate the time and effort that went into your research.