Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The 8th Ward Mission House - 49 MacDougal Street

The late Victorian double doors were added about the time that the Eighth Ward Mission moved in.
Fully aware that the bucolic days of country estates in the area around Greenwich Village were coming to an end, in 1788 the Bayard family hired Theodore Goerck to map out streets and building plots on their land.  The western boundary between their estate and Richmond Hill (the house on which would become the vice-presidential mansion the following year) was called MacDougal Street.

It was named for patriot Alexander MacDougal (who at some point dropped the second L from his family's surname, MacDougall).  Fervently anti-British, he was a founder of the Sons of Liberty, along with activists like Samuel Adams, Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry and Paul Revere.  During the war he rose to the rank of major general and succeeded Benedict Arnold in commanding West Point.

Given MacDougal's anti-royalist sentiments, it is ironic that the street named in his honor terminates at its southern end at Prince Street.

By the 1820s Georck's streets and building lots had moved from paper to reality.  The plot at No. 49 MacDougal would not be developed until the early 1840s when a row of brick-fronted homes were erected.   The 21-foot wide houses, built as speculative investment, were intended for well-to-do families.

Unlike the Federal style houses erected nearby a generation earlier the attics of which featured peaked roofs with dormers, the Greek Revival homes had full-height third floors (albeit slightly shallower than the lower levels).  The steep brownstone stoops, tall parlor windows, and severe stone pilasters and entablatures of the entrances were expected in the style.

The upscale tone of No. 49 MacDougal Street was reflected in what may have been its first tenant, the celebrated actor Edwin Forrest, who moved in in 1843.

By now the Shakespearean actor, whose career started in Philadelphia at the age of 11, had also made his mark in Europe and London.  While touring in England in 1837 he married Catherine Norton Sinclair.  Trouble soon followed.

Famed photographer Matthew Brady made this portrait of Edwin Forrest.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Soon after returning to New York, Forrest embarked on a road trip.  When he returned he found his home filled with in-laws and his housekeeper complained that "the place had been filled with scenes of revelry and disorder during his absence."

To distance himself from his overbearing relatives, Forrest leased and bought a succession of residences--sometimes, but not always, living with Catherine.   When he testified in their widely-publicized and scandalous divorce case (Catherine was accused of numerous sexual affairs) in 1850, he recounted his string of homes.

Among the addresses, he said that after residing two years on Broome Street, "in 1843 I resided [at] No. 49 MacDougal street; after that I resided [at] No. 284 Bleecker street."   His stay in the MacDougal Street house was at least two years, because he later produced a lease dated February 1844.

The house was sold at auction on April 6, 1869 with John Cohen placing the winning bid of $12,600.  The price would be equivalent to about $226,000 today.  Cohen apparently overspent because four days later an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald announcing No. 49 MacDougal would be re-auctioned.  "The above sale will be made for the account of N. Cowen [sic], a former purchaser, he having failed to comply with the terms of sale."

The house became home to the John Dunn family.   Dunn's wife, Eliza, was a dressmaker and his daughter, also named Eliza, was a teacher in the Primary Department of Grammar School No. 30 on Baxter Street, near Grand Street.

It appears that Dunn died around 1873.  That year on April 19 Eliza placed an ad in The New York Herald:  "A Dressmaker wishes a few more engagements by the day or week; best references."

The following year, on June 25, Eliza died in the MacDougal Street house.  Eliza E. Dunn remained in the house, unmarried.  But her school teacher salary was, it would seem, not enough to maintain the property and she came up with a creative solution.

Following the Civil War the neighborhood had seen drastic change as freed blacks and waves of low-income immigrants moved in.   Missions cropped up in an effort to help the impoverished new residents.  One of these was the Eighth Ward Mission, founded by Mrs. Mary Laidlaw in 1877.

Her focus was on orphan boys too old to be accepted into orphanages but unable to support themselves.   While Eliza Dunn still lived in her house, Mary Laidlaw opened her Eighth Ward Mission House here, accepting up to 14 teen-aged boys.

A reporter from the New-York Tribune explained "At that age, she says, boys are more in need of a guiding hand than when younger, as they are then ambitious to be manlike and they imitate alike the good and the bad.  She found that boys of fourteen who were at work seldom received more than two or three dollars a week which was barely sufficient to rent a small, ill-ventilated room, to say nothing of their board."

Mary Laidlaw's venture was highly successful and soon the MacDougal Street house was being used only as the Mission's offices.  A mission house and school were erected on Houston Street.

On July 22 1883 the New-York Tribune noted "Ten boys live in the mission house and a class of seventy, composed of bootblacks, newsboys and street boys, meets there for study and instruction.  In addition to this work there is a sewing-class for women, meeting once a week and numbering forty, while a similar class for girls has sixty members."

Through the sewing classes, women found a means to add to their struggling families' incomes; while girls were trained for a job.   The Directory of the Charitable, Eleemosynary, Correctional and Reformatory Institutions pointed out in 1892 that the "industrial school for poor girls from 8 to 15 years of age" which was opened on Saturdays had more than 75 students.  "The garments made by the children are distributed among them."

The Directory added "In addition, the poor families of the neighborhood are visited and assisted in cases of necessity."

Although the Eighth Ward Mission accepted private donations and City help (in December 1878 the Board of Apportionment granted $400 to its operation), the wealthy Mary. Laidlaw paid almost all the operation expenses herself.

In November 1890 the Eighth Ward Mission received an unexpected and generous donation--a millionaire's summer estate near Ossining, New York.   "It consists of a comfortable and spacious home, which was recently the country house of a benevolent gentleman who came to the conclusion that the best he could do with it was to place it at the disposal of Mrs. Laidlaw in aid of her generous work," wrote The Sun on November 9.

Mary Laidlaw explained "There will continue to be an office in New York city for the reception of such orphans or other boys as may be entrusted to the institution by their parents or guardians.  The effort will be to fit these boys for self-support, and to obtain for them permanent employment."

The New York City office of the Mission continued to operate from No. 49 MacDougal Street for several years.  When exactly Eliza Dunn left is unclear; however it was purchased in April 1892 by Francis H. Leggett, apparently as a gift to the Mission.  He spent $13,800 on the property; more than $370,000 in today's dollars.

The down-and-out condition of some of district's tenement dwellers was evidenced on January 18, 1894 when Eighth Ward Mission distributed food as part of the New-York Tribune's Coal and Food Fund.  On that frigid winter morning 20 families lined up to receive a package of hominy, a bag of beans, one package of codfish, a package of oatmeal, one of rice, one of tea, and two cans of condensed milk.

In some cases, the food was taken to the families.  The New-York Tribune described some of the heartrending cases.  In one basement apartment, "a family was found without food or fire.  The older children in this family have brought the younger children to school this winter barefooted.  When their mother took the groceries tears came to her eyes, and she kissed the hands of those who gave them out."

And, the article went on, "Perhaps the most pitiful case there was that of a family whose mother died yesterday morning.  The father has been out of work for a long time, and none of the nine children can earn any money.  The oldest girl came to the school crying bitterly.  She said: 'My mother has died, but can I not get the food?  We need it so badly."

The Eighth Ward Mission offices left MacDougal Street around the turn of the century.  By 1902 it was being run as a rooming house.  William B. Stoops died there at the age of 50 on January 7 that year.  Later, in September, James Lynch was arrested for committing voter fraud by misrepresenting his address and, thereby, his election district.

The neighborhood soon gained the moniker of Little Italy and the tenant list of No. 49 MacDougal Street filled with Italian surnames through most of the 20th century.  Perhaps the first glimmer of change came in 1952 when two young men moved into an apartment here together.

One of them, who went by the stage name Tish, soon became a Greenwich Village celebrity of sorts.  The female impersonator got his first job at the Moroccan Village.  Silvia Sanza of The WestView News interviewed Tish 60 years later.  "That's where he started wearing wigs and exquisite gowns," wrote Sanza on May 3, 2017.  "He sang French standards in the style of Edith Piaf and 'Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair' as Mary Martin from South Pacific."

The houses to the left, built simultaneously, were originally near matches to No. 49.  The Greek Revival ironwork of the stoop and areaway of No. 49 survive intact.

Although the orange-red brick has been painted gray and the windows replaced; little else has outwardly changed to No. 49 MacDougal Street.  Its quiet presence successfully hides its remarkable history.

photographs by the author

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