Friday, July 7, 2017

Full Circle -- The James S. Rossant House, 114 Sullivan Street

The entrance to No. 114 originally mirrored the exquisite doorway to the right.

In 1832 wealthy bookbinder and real estate developer Charles Starr completed construction of a string of seven upscale homes on Sullivan Street, between Prince and Spring Streets.  Starr was obviously confident that the new neighborhood would flourish; for he moved into one of his new homes.

Like its neighbors, No. 114 was faced in Flemish-bond red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Its especially elegant Federal-style doorway reflected the financial status of the original family.   Three bays wide, it rose two stories to a peaked, slate-shingled roof with dormers.

It is unclear who the original family in No. 114 was; but by 1853 they were gone.  The house was being operated as an rather upscale boarding house.  An advertisement in December that year offered "Front parlor and bedroom; also bedrooms on third floor." The ad was quick to note "But few boarders in the house."

Among the boarders that year was Professor Marti, a Spanish instructor at Columbia College.  The enterprising educator teamed with an American-born teacher and opened a private academy.  In October 1853 he announced the new arrangement through an advertisement titled "Attention Spaniards."  The notice said in part, "As the true pronunciation of the English language can only be learned from a native teacher, this arrangement cannot fail to afford the very best opportunity for learning, not only to read and white, but also to speak the language with fluency."  Tuition was $4 per month "in advance."

By March 1854 the singer Mrs. Milner was boarding in No. 114.  The owner was apparently understanding, for she was allowed to receive pupils in the house.  Her advertisements throughout the spring that year described "Vocal and Instrumental Instruction--A lady of much experience in teaching, singing and music on the piano, is desirous of meeting with a few more pupils to take lessons in the above either at her own residence or otherwise."

Mrs. Milner's stay here was apparently not long before she went on tour.  In 1857 a newspaper noted that she was giving "successful concerts" at the Parodi Theatre in Baltimore.

But the Sullivan Street neighborhood was undergoing noticeable change by now.  Immigrants were pouring into the area and a few blocks to the north the Minetta Street section had become the center of the city's black population.

A shockingly brazen robbery took place in the house in October 1854 when a boarder, James Bertholf, lay down to grab a nap.  He was startled awake when an intruder snatched his $150 diamond breast pin and ran out.  The New York Times explained the robber took it "from his bosom while asleep."

Police stopped a suspicious man on the street and, according to The New York Herald, "The accused when asked about the property ran off, was pursued and arrested on suspicion of having stolen the valuable."  He was described by the newspaper as "a colored man, named John R. Freeman."  The reporter was astonished at the boldness of the crime, saying the theft happened while Bertolf "lay asleep on a sofa at his own house."

Despite the changing neighborhood, the house was still quite respectable.  An advertisement in 1855 read "To let, a large unfurnished room in a small genteel family, with board...Also accommodation for a young lady with board."

And when two of the servant girls looked for different employment in April that year, their joint ad reflected the character of those boarding in the house.  "Wanted--Situations, by two young American girls; one as lady's maid and seamtress, understands doing up muslins and French fluting, or as chambermaid and sewer; the other as waiter and to assist in chamberwork."

The family of John W. Sageman moved in about this time.  A retired merchant, Sageman was a director in the Pacific Fire Insurance Co.  In 1857 his son, William, was 14 years old and studying in PS No. 40.  The Sagemans were still here in 1862 when the boy enrolled in the Introductory Class of the New York Free Academy.

That year James H. Taylor sought a single family to rent the house.  He described it as a "modern built two story and attic house...with all improvements of gas, water, &c; reasonable to a good tenant."

Whether Henry Hughes rented the entire house or not is unclear.  But he was living here in the fall of 1865 when he supplied bail for Samuel Thompson.   Thompson was arrested between 3 and 4:00 on the morning of September 23 in the crib joint of a man named Allen at No. 638 Broadway.   Police described Allen's place as "a resort for tipplers, thieves, gamesters and pimps, and that it is frequently the scene of brawls and thefts."  

No. 114 was still outfitted with costly furnishings like the tall pier mirrors which adorned the spaces between the front and back parlor-floor windows.  But that was all coming to and end.   On March 2, 1868 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald.  "For Sale--two parlor looking glasses, large size, with velvet carpets."

The elegant private home turned boarding house now declined to a rooming house.  Its tenants were for the most part black.  One of them, Joseph Dillon, made his living as a truck driver; but he supplemented his income with burglary.

On March 1, 1879 the janitor of the Adelphi flats on 53rd Street was sitting in his apartment when he noticed two men on the roof the private houses across the street. The Sun reported "They crept around cautiously, and hid behind chimneys as if fearful of being observed."  Liscomb watched as they tried one, then another, and then a third rooftop scuttle before finding one unlocked.  They lowered a ladder into the opening and disappeared into the house.

The janitor rushed to No. 158 West 53rd where Mary S. Weatherspoon and her mother lived.  He asked "Have you any men repairing the roof?"  When he was told "no," he replied "Then they must be thieves."

A chaotic scene followed.  The Sun reported "Amid a chorus of screams Liscomb dashed upstairs.  The burglars had broken open two trunks, and were ransacking a trunk containing silver."  When they heard Liscomb's footsteps, they dropped their booty and scrambled up the ladder.  "An exciting chase over the roofs to Seventh avenue followed."

Joseph Dillon was the last of the crooks up the ladder and Liscomb caught him.  But Dillon "fought desperately" and called for his cohort to help him.  The pair overwhelmed Liscomb and dragged him to the end of the roof where they struggled to toss him over.  At that moment the feisty Mary Weatherspoon appeared and attacked Dillon.

The distraction was all Liscomb needed and he planted a fierce blow on the unknown burglar's face.  He ran down the ladder and out of the house, leaving Dillon on his own.  The Sun reported "Liscomb and Dillon continued fighting, and fought all the way to the Forty-seventh street police station, where the officers identified Dillon as an old offender."  The heroic janitor had been lucky.  Following his arrest Dillon growled "If that other fellow hadn't skipped, I'd have fixed you.  If I'd had a revolver I wouldn't have been in here now."

In 1881 New York City was struck with a terrifying epidemic of smallpox.  On January 20 The Sun reported "a month ago a ship load of Italians again brought the disease to us, and it is now more prevalent than we have known it for five years."

Within two months it arrived at No. 114 Sullivan Street. Then, on March 20 the patient's family reported on what the New-York Tribune called the "mysterious abduction of a smallpox patient from No. 114 Sullivan-st."  The patient had been bodily removed from the house.    Two days later the mystery was solved.  "It turned out that the Health Officers were the abductors," reported the newspaper.

In the meantime, the tenants continued to be on the wrong side of the law.  One was Edward Roberts, described by The Times on April 1, 1886 as "a young colored man" who worked as a janitor in the shoe store of John McGrandle at No. 463 Sixth Avenue.  Three years earlier McGrandle had been the victimized by a counterfeiter who passed him two fake $20 bills.  Perhaps as a reminder, he still carried the two phony bills in his wallet.  Or at least he thought he did.

On March 30 Roberts went into Mendelken & Buck's saloon on Sixth Avenue and 26th Street and had drinks amounting to 40 cents.  He paid the bartender, Henry Welsh, with a $20 bill and took his $19.60 change.  The Times reported "Soon after he left the place Welsh discovered that the bill was a counterfeit."

Following Roberts arrest, police visited McGrandle's shoe store and showed him the fake bill.  He recognized it as one of the two he carried in his coat, which was hanging in the rear of the store.  "When he went to look for it it was gone, and $55 in good money which he had in the same pocket."  In addition to the charge of passing counterfeit bill, Roberts now faced larceny charges preferred by his boss.

Moses J. Dillon may have been the father of Joseph Dillon.  But unlike Joseph, Moses made an honest living.  The New York Times described him as "a colored cook and caterer."  The 65-year old was still living here in the fall of 1888 when he was working at a barbecue at Morris Dock.  The Evening World reported on October 29 that while he was carving an ox "he was suddenly seen to fall to the ground.  He was dead when assistance reached him."  He had suffered a fatal heart attack and his body was brought back to the Sullivan Street house.  The New York Times was less sympathetic, running the rather unfeeling headline "His Last Barbecue."

The house was the scene of a political meeting on the night of August 1, 1892.  The Sun reported that "Delegates form the district organizations of the Afro-American Republican Association met last night at 114 Sullivan street to discuss ways and means for extending the association."  That newspaper reported only on the achievements of the group that night, saying "It was resolved to build up organizations in all the Assembly districts where the colored population is large enough."

The New York Times focused on another aspect, saying that only about 20 members were present.  "What they lacked in numbers they made up in wrangling, which lasted over four hours and ended in a row.  Two or three times fistic encounters were imminent and loud cried for 'Police' rang out."

Annie Runoss lived in the house on June 3, 1894 when she accused Maggie Murphy, "who said she had no permanent address," of stealing her diamond earrings.  According to Annie, Maggie had snatched the earrings from her on the street the previous Saturday night.  The alleged perpetrator was searched, but she did not have the earrings.

Annie's story was more than a bit suspicious.  The judge asked her what her diamonds were worth.  "Well, your Honor," she answered, "I don't know exactly what they would be worth these days, but they cost my husband $3.50 eight years ago."  Despite Annie's questionable story, Maggie Murphy was held on $1,000 bail.

By now the Sullivan Street neighborhood was filling with Italian immigrants who would soon displace its black residents.  On June 7, 1898 brothers David, John and Louis Cella purchased No. 114 from Mary A Goodspeed, who lived in Summit, New Jersey.  They paid $12,350--nearly $370,000 today.  It was described at the time of the sale as a "two-story brick dwelling."  It would not be for long.

The new owners raised the height to three full floors and remodeled the old lintels and sills to match the new ones.   The removal of the Federal entrance and its replacement with the brownstone surround we see today is included by some historians in the 1898 renovation.  But the Greek Revival style--out of fashion for nearly half a century--and the unnecessary expense to what was a rooming house suggests that updated doorway was more likely done when No. 114 was still an upscale private dwelling.

The Cello brothers purchased other houses along the street, including No. 116 and 111.   Jonathan and his family moved into No. 114 and it was here that one-year old Joseph, died on August 12, 1900.

Louis Cella sold his one-third part in 1902 and David sold his in 1910.  In the meantime,  Joseph and his wife Aurelia, had a serious problem with Lizzie Martin.  The 39-year old Irish women, who listed her occupation as "housekeeper," was either a roomer or employee in 1906.  Whichever, she was arrested "for setting fire to No. 114 Sullivan Street" that year.

The Cellas reared two sons in the house--Daniel and Louis--as they continued to rent rooms.  One of their tenants was Antonio Casini who had the dangerous job of extending the aqueduct shaft along Broadway in 1912. 

Antonio Casini was working at this construction site when disaster struck.  The General Worth monument, sitting in the small triangle between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, can be seen.  photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress.
On the afternoon of February 9 Casini and several other workers were 200 feet below the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street.  James Thomas had just drilled a hole in the bedrock and inserted a stick of dynamite when the charge prematurely exploded.

The Times reported that the blast "shook the earth so that tenants in near-by buildings ran into the street in terror.  James Thomas was was knocked unconscious and three other men were seriously hurt.  "Comrades carried them to the surface," reported the article, and then transported them to New York Hospital.  Casini was not expected to survive.

The post-World War I years saw the arrival in New York of Italian gangs like the Mafia and Costa Nostra.  Prohibition fueled their illegal activities and the lure of quick cash drew many young men from respectable families into lives of crime.

On May 20, 1922 a group of 11 officers intercepted two trucks in Jersey City.  Inside they found 6,750 bottles of whiskey worth $65,000.  The two drivers were arrested, one of them being Daniel Cella.  Both men protested their innocence, saying they believed they were hauling loads of meat.

Five years later both the Cella brothers were arrested and charged with "illegal handling of sacramental wine."    Daniel still listed his occupation as truckman, and Louis as a chauffeur.  They were both still living in the Sullivan Street house at the time.

How long the Cellas maintained ownership of No. 114 is unclear.   Nevertheless the tenant list continued to reflect the Little Italy neighborhood for decades.  In 1933, for instance, John J. Petrocelli called No. 114 home.  He was a voting inspector for the election district that year.

As gentrification swept over the neighborhood in the early 1970s esteemed architect and artist James Stephan Rossant and his wife, the former Collette Pallache, moved into the vintage house.  The upper floors were reconverted to a single family home and the basement level became a separate apartment. With them in the house were three daughter, Marinanne, Juliette, and Cecile, and a son, Thomas.

Among Rossant's work was the 1962 Butterfield House apartment building in Greenwich Village; and he developed the overall plan for Reston, Virginia.  Collette was a food critic and author.  Having an artist in the family was convenient and James illustrated several of Collette's cookbooks.

In 1972 Collette resigned her position as French instructor at Hofstra University and began teaching cooking to children in the Sullivan Street house.   The classes, called "Cooking with Collette," cost $60 for six biweekly classes.  Children between the ages of 9 and 15 learned to concoct French dishes like quiche Lorraine.

The couple's talents came together in two other projects.  In 1998 Collette consulted on the launch of Buddha Green, a Midtown restaurant featuring vegetarian "Buddhist" cuisine, and again for Dim Sum Go Go in 2000, a Chinatown eatery.  In both cases James helped design the restaurants.

With their children grown, the Rossants moved to France in 2002.  James died in 2009.  The house next became home to film star Sandra Bullock.

On a street lined mostly with late 19th century tenement houses, No. 114 Sullivan Street is a dignified reminder of a much different era.  Still a single family house, it has come full circle from the days of gilded pier mirrors and velvet carpeting.

photographs by the author   

1 comment:

  1. Collette Rossant also wrote a wonderful and poignant small book about her childhood spent largely in pre-revolutionary Egypt. I highly recommend it