Friday, June 2, 2017

The Chas. Miller House - 31 Jones Street

The original entrance was directly above the industrial lighting fixture.
In 1825 Charles Miller purchased the large house at the corner of Herring and Jones Streets from Peter and Diana Walker.  Diana's brother, John Brower, had built it in 1813.  If Miller lived in the house on what would later become Bleecker Street, it was not for long.  Around 1828, he completed construction on a more modest two-and-a-half story home directly behind, at No. 31 Jones Street.

Most likely faced in red brick, its entrance was above a stone stoop.  Two tall dormers, expected of the style, punched through the peaked roof and would have provided sleeping rooms for one or two servants.

In 1838 the family of Moses I. Quinby moved into in the house.  A Quaker, Quinby was born in Northcastle, New York in 1794.  He married Esther Field on October 19, 1814 and the couple had four children, Walter, George, Mary Jane and Aaron. 

Moses went into the dry goods business with his nephew, Josiah, in 1817 at No. 394 Pearl Street.  But he changed course in 1832 when he opened a grocery at No. 1 Morton Street, near Bleecker.

The Quinby family was listed in directories through 1841; but it seems they had moved away by the time Moses died of diabetes on April 6, 1843.  The house subsequently converted to a rooming house.

On September 26, 1843 The New York Herald reported that the Coroner had held an inquest into the death of "a colored man named Cesar Tredwell, a patent sweep, of 31 Jones street, who died in a fit at the corner of Downing and Bleecker Streets."

Slavery had been abolished in New York in 1827.  By now the city's black population was centered in Greenwich Village, and before long the Minetta Lane area, about three blocks east, would become known as Little Africa.  Tredwell's occupation of patent sweep was not a glamorous one.

Two patent sweeps, as depicted in the 1828 children's book The New-York Cries, in Rhyme. (copyright expired)

City law required that chimneys be swept once a month.  The job was done mostly, at least according to The U. S. Democratic Review in 1846, by blacks.  The filthy process made use of ropes and brushes and very often required descending into the sooty chimneys.

The boarding house had blue collar tenants of different races.  In 1855 painter C. J. Simmons and carpenter John W. Turhune roomed here.  Both were volunteer members of the Empire Hose Company No. 40, at No. 70 Barrow Street.   The Irish-born laborers were presumably white.

On November 26, 1874 a boarder was found unconscious at the corner on Bleecker Street.  The New York Times reported that the 52-year old Edward Bosworth was taken to Bellevue Hospital.   Whatever caused him to collapse, Bosworth did not survive it.  He died on December 1.  The New York Herald noted "Friends are invited to attend the funeral at 31 Jones street, on Thursday afternoon, December 3, at one o'clock."

By 1889 the boarding house was being run by Mrs. Fanny Washington, described by The Evening World as "a handsome mulatto woman" who was just 19 years old.  Among her boarders was Bertie Croker (also described as mulatto).  Bertie was carrying on a romance with Julius H. Carpenter and he moved into her room--a shocking disregard for social proprieties.

After six years of living together, Bertie tired of Julius and sent him packing.  Brokenhearted, the young lover set off on a determined quest to regain Bertie's affections.  Today it would be deemed stalking.

A telegram arrived for Bertie one night signed by a man named Singleton.  In it he informed her that Carpenter had died.  Carpenter apparently waited for a grief-ridden Bertie to come running to his home.  She did not show up.

The Evening World reported on July 11, 1895, "A few hours afterwards a letter was received from the alleged corpse denying the report, and assuring her that the writer was never in better health."

For Bertie and Fannie it was the last straw.  "The women decided that this strain on their feelings must cease, so they had Carpenter arrested," said The World.

Fannie told the judge that Carpenter had "caused her great annoyance through his persistence in forcing his attentions on Miss Croker after they were no longer desired."  The newspaper added "Miss Croker corroborated the testimony against her discarded lover."

The man who was arrested "for loving persistently" lamented to the police that he had spent $3,000 on Bertie since they met.  After promising the court that he would cease annoying the women, he was released.

It appears that by now the tenants here were mostly, if not all, black.  In the fall of 1902 the Rev. J. T. Jones came to New York City on behalf of the Georgia Colored Industrial and Orphan's Home near Macon, Georgia.  The facility was founded "for the friendless children of the colored race."  While some of its expenses were defrayed by the farm worked by the orphans; there was always a need for clothing and funding.  The New York Times noted "While in the city the Rev. Mr. Jones will stay at 31 Jones Street."

A significant trend was taking hold in Greenwich Village at the same time.  Artists, writers and musicians flocked to what was becoming Manhattan's Bohemia.  By the outbreak of World War I the residents of Jones Street once again were mainly whites.  In 1917 Rose Wilder Lane and Berta Hoerner rented rooms in No. 31 Jones Street. 

The daughter of author Laura Ingalls Wilder (famous later for her Little House on the Prairie books) and Almanzo Wilder, Rose would make her own way in the literary and political world.  She would later be credited as one of the founders of the American Libertarian Movement.   She and Berta, who was an artist, fit perfectly into the Greenwich Village milieu.  But both were in New York only temporarily and soon left Jones Street for California.

The basement apartment was rented by critic, author, editor and journalist Harold Edmund Stearns by 1920.  Author H. L. Mencken, in his 1992 My Life As Author and Editor wrote bluntly "Stearns inhabited squalid quarters at 31 Jones Street in Greenwich Village, and dressed so badly that he always looked dirty, but he somehow managed to keep himself supplied with the nauseous bootleg sherry that was his favorite tipple."

While Mencken may have thought Stearns's home "squalid," it was the scene of "discussion groups" that included some of the great thinkers and writers of the day.  Lewis Mumford said in his 1982 Sketches from Life that it was here that he had the "best sustained conversation" he ever participated in.  Sociologist, anthropologist and feminist Elsie Clews Parsons was a regular in the group.

It was while living in the Jones Street apartment that Stearns completed Civilization in the United States: An Inquiry by Thirty Americans.   When he turned the manuscript over to his publisher in July 1921, he left America for Paris.  Author David Reid explained in his The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire, that Stearns was "following the succinct advice he had given other young American intellectuals in a previous book: 'Get out.'"

Affie Hammond worked for the Welfare Department from 1934 until December 1939 when she was fired.  She had been a member of the Communist Party from January 1935 until August 1938 when, disillusioned, she withdrew.  According to Hammond, that cost her her job.

She was living at No. 31 Jone Street when she was a witness in the suit of another fired worker, social investigator Doris Stahl.  Stahl charged that her dismissal was the result of her anti-Communist activities.

Hammond's testimony before Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Church on January 29, 1941 was shocking.  She said that between 500 to 600 Communist employees in the Department formed a network.  "Through the Communist network," she said, "it was possible to inform members in one district of the status with relation to the party employees transferred into their district, so that those who were favorable could be helped and those who were antagonistic could be hindered."

By the time Affie Hammond lived in the building its appearance had been altered.  The stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to the basement, slightly below street level.  The brick facade was covered with a stucco-like substance which was scored and stained to resemble brownstone. 

Today the nearly 200-year old house is operated as the Jones Street Guesthouse.  The interiors have been sympathetically renovated.  Despite the 20th century alterations, it still retains much of its Federal flavor; including the miraculously-surviving dormers.

photograph by the author

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