Designed as three sets of mirror-image homes, their brownstone-fronted facades included rusticated bases. The double-doored entrances were framed in particularly pleasing elliptically-arched molded surrounds with foliate carved keystones. Rows of quoins ran along the three upper stories, clearly distinguishing one house from the other. Although the residences offered appealing elements; at just over 16 feet wide, they were intended for middle to upper-middle class owners.
The most desirable of the row was No. 201 at the eastern end. Its location on the corner of Seventh Avenue provided additional light and ventilation. It also allowed the service entrance to be placed conveniently to the rear, at what would become No. 201 Seventh Avenue. The first owner apparently ran a private school in the basement level.
The family did not stay long, however. On April 29, 1852 everything in the house was sold at auction. The family had furnished their home with high-end appointments. Included in the auction list were expensive Wilton and Brussels carpets, "mahogany sofas, chairs and divans, in hair cloth," a six-octave mahogany piano manufactured by Pierson, "marble ornaments," along with center tables, mirrors and such. The notice also mentioned "School Furniture, Desks, Benches, Chairs, Black Boards and Mirrors."
The next owner seems to have been John K. Martin. He and his wife, Sarah, had one son, Charles. It was common for private families to rent out one or two rooms, and on February 11, 1853 an advertisement in The New York Herald offered "Furnished or unfurnished rooms, with full or partial board." (The option of taking one's meals elsewhere would have reduced the rent.) "The rooms are large and airy; the house furnished with every modern convenience." The advertisement pointed out that the house was "within a few doors of a railroad route and three omnibus routes."
Even families of moderate means had one or two servants. One of the Martins' employees was looking for another position in May 1858. It is possible that the family was leaving for the summer, for the split was apparently amiable. The woman could be interviewed at the house ("in the rear"). She was looking for "a situation as seamstress, to do chamberwork or to take care of children."
Charles Martin fell ill in December 1858, and died in the house on January 18, 1859. The cause of his death was pronounced "dropsy on the brain." His funeral was held in the parlor a few days later.
No. 201 next became home to William H. Bassett, a member of Holmes & Bassett. The firm manufactured "carriage trimmings and rosettes" at No. 92 Pearl Street. Basset had married M. Elizabeth Stratton in Bridgeport, Connecticut on December 6, 1853. She was the daughter of Sherwood Stratton; however newspapers were more interested in the fact that her brother was General Tom Thumb.
Bassett was just 38 years old when he suddenly died in the house on Monday evening, January 18, 1864. His funeral, too, was held here. His body was buried in Bridgeport; and it appears that Elizabeth returned to Connecticut soon after.
Within the year No. 201 was occupied by a new family. As had been the case with the Martins, at least one servant was needed to help out. On August 23, 1865 an advertisement sought "A girl as chambermaid and to take care of children, in a small family; must be able to sew."
Also like the Martins, the owners rented a room. An advertisement in December 1869 offered "A strictly private family have a very nice room they will rent, with good board, to one or two respectable gentlemen; house brown stone front; terms reasonable."
It was apparently the boarder who placed the very mysterious personal ad in The New York Herald three months later. "Will the lady from Washington call again. Sorry I was out. V. Clark."
The owners were looking for additional help in March 1873. They advertised for "Two young women, to do the work of a small family; one as first class cook, washer and ironer; the other as chambermaid and waitress; both must thoroughly understand their business."
By the fall of 1874 Dr. Justice J. Spreng was operating his medical practice from the basement area where the schoolroom had been. He had graduated from the New-York Medical College in March 1864; and now was as busy writing and selling medical pamphlets as he was treating patients.
|Rockland County Messenger, September 24, 1874 (copyright expired)|
Spreng advertised in newspapers throughout the country. By sending a dime in the mail, readers could receive a copy of A Lucid Description of Liver and Stomach Diseases, their Causes, Symptoms and Treatment; or Observations on Diseases of Women. Regarding the latter, the Medical Review opined "This pamphlet should be read by every lady."
In the meantime, the owners were transitioning from renting a room (in February 1875 it advertised "A private family will let a nicely furnished room, gas, hot and cold water, use of bath in brown stone house") to a full-fledged boarding house. By September the single room had become "upper part of nicely furnished brown stone house, consisting of four rooms, together or separately, private bath, southern exposure."
By the time Anna E. Smith purchased the house around 1880 Dr. Spreng had moved to No 143 West 22nd Street, half a block away. His letter to the S. B. Medicine Co. of South Bend, Indiana on September 5, 1889, however, is amusing to modern readers:
Inclosed please find $5.00 for which send me a dozen boxes Cocaine Compound Suppositories. Don't like to be without them.
Anna E. Smith owned investment properties around the city and she is most likely responsible for the updates to the building, including the first actual storefront on Seventh Avenue. New and attractive copper bays were added to the second floor on the Seventh Avenue side, and an updated cornice with neo-Classical decorations was installed.
In 1880 she leased the store to Georgeanna P. Marcelin, who dealt in "dentist fixtures, furniture, etc." Tenants upstairs included Dr. Albert W. Warden, who had been appointed Attending Physician at the New York Dispensary in 1880, only to resign the following year; and Captain Albert Maxfield, who had distinguished himself with the 11th Maine Infantry during the Civil War.
At the turn of the century the house once furnished with costly carpeting and marble statues was described as "a tenement." The former service entrance had been converted to the main entrance in order to accommodate a second store space on the corner. Roomers no longer included doctors and businessmen, but the down-and-out.
Early on the morning of July 28, 1903 the body of a woman was found in the hallway here. Police estimated her age at about 38. The Evening World reported that the police felt "there was nothing suspicious in the finding of the body and said that the woman had probably died of acute alcoholism."
|The metal letters on the facade announced Halpin's Hotel. photo from the collection of the New York Public Library|
By the early 1920s No. 201 West 22nd Street had become a fleabag hotel, named Halpin's. Tony Arditto called Halpin's Hotel home in 1921. He and two cohorts stalked banker William Weissman as he headed to his home in Brooklyn on the evening of December 22. Weissman carried a briefcase containing $700 in gold and $300 in bills--a considerable $13,200 today.
They hit the banker with a blackjack from behind and, as he fell, Arditto grabbed the briefcase. Weissman shouted that he was being robbed and a passerby, Jack Cohen, ran after Arditto. He was soon joined by a policeman named Porter, and then by an angry crowd of civilians.
Officer Porter overtook Arditto and, according to The New York Herald, "subdued him after a fight." The 22-year old thug soon realized his captor had become his protector. "Meanwhile the crowd gathered around and with cries of 'Lynch him!' tried to take the man from the policeman."
In 1925 35-year old Irish seaman Dennis O'Donnell abandoned his ship, the Transylvania, to start a new life in the United States. But he failed to apply for residency. Once he found a job, he sent for his wife, who arrived legally a short time later. She was working in Halpin's Hotel in 1929 when immigration officials caught up with her husband. She stood on the pier as he was loaded with other deportees on the White Star liner Baltic, headed back to Donegal, Ireland.
|In 1931 the houses on the southern corner (left) had been demolished for a new apartment building. The Halpin's Hotel lettering can still be seen. photo from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The property was sold in 1950 to George Shaffer. In reporting the sale, The New York Times diplomatically referred to it as a "three-story rooming house."
In 1992 Israeli businessman Ike Bova operated three "sex video stores" in Manhattan. But in the fall he opened three more, all in Chelsea. When he hung his "Welcome" sign at No. 210 Seventh Avenue neighbors had had enough. According to the newly-formed Chelsea Action Coalition, "seven new pornographic video stores have appeared in Chelsea" within the past few months. Area residents feared the neighborhood would become the new 42nd Street.
After locals picketed the store, Bova relented. Sort of. He told a reporter on December 12 that he would reopen the store the following week as a regular video store "with a very small porno section in the back."
Neighbors may have preferred the presence of the adult video store to its absence when a year later an never-ending nightmare began. In 1993 a permit was issued for the addition of two stories atop the brick and brownstone house. Construction began on the gruesome penthouse addition of glass and metal with nothing in common with the historic architecture. The 1840s brownstone front was veneered in brick, perhaps in an attempt to modernize its appearance.
But one violation after another--91 issued by the Department of Buildings, 70 of which remain open--were apparently too much for owner Erroll Rainess to deal with. He walked away from the vacant structure, allowing it to deteriorate. He carefully pays the property taxes so the city cannot take the building.
|Despite the inexcusable and possibly irreversible neglect and damage, the former charm of the 1840s house is evident.|
Nearly 15 years later the sidewalk bridge remains--shelter for homeless and a convenient spot for urinating. Repeated complaints to the city have resulted in no action. The tragically abused property, once a picturesque house, has become an eyesore and potential danger.
photographs by the author