Thursday, November 2, 2017

The 1831 Jacob Romaine House - 7 Leroy Street

At the time of the American Revolution Richmond Hill was the large country estate of Major Abraham Mortier, paymaster of the British Army. The mansion, which sat a mile and a half from New York City where Varick and Charlton Streets are today, was used by Sir Jeffrey Amherst as his headquarters in the French and Indian War.

Following the war it briefly became the official residence of the Vice President, John Adams; and in 1879 as the country home of Aaron Burr.  In 1820 John Jacob Astor purchased much of the former Burr estate and laid out streets and building plots.

In 1830 Jacob Romaine began construction of his home at 7 Burton Street, later to be renamed Leroy Street, on what had been part of the Richmond Hill estate.  Completed a year later, his chubby red brick house was two and a half stories tall with stylish wooden dormers in the steep roof. Plain brownstone lintels and sills complimented its clean Federal lines. Below the stoop a deep basement floor held the kitchen and work areas.

In the 1820s and 1830s row houses such as Romaine’s were built snugly one against the other, fully encircling the block. Within the circle of homes were rear lots that often held stables, workshops or smaller dwellings with no means of access other than “horse walks.”

Jacob Romaine included such a horse walk in his house – a plain wooden door opening to a passageway into the rear yard above which was a small four-paned window. Romaine either did not own a horse or stabled it elsewhere, because the building to the rear of his residence was a small house.

In 1841, when Romaine sold No. 7 to Jacob J. Moore, there were already four families living in the house, the men of the households being carters or draymen.   Just before the Civil War, in 1860, there were 12 people in the main house and a washerwoman and her sister in the back house.

Louis Clark lived here on August 19, 1863 when he was inducted into the Union Army.  The following day the name of another tenant, Joseph Bernarde, was drawn.  If R. Donaldson thought he had dodged a bullet, he was mistaken.  His name was drawn on March 16, 1865.  The next day yet another residence, A. Ellicott, was drafted.

The house was purchased in 1865 by Cornelius J. Van Saun.  The family would retain ownership through until 1911.  Following a fire in 1893 the it was made renovations, including adding a store to the basement level..

The tenants at the turn of the century included Henry Kingsley, a 49-year old lamplighter and 44-year old Josephine Hutchinson who earned a living as a buttonhole maker.    Among those living in the rear building was Hugh Mack who described his occupation as "a junkman."

Summer was a particularly dangerous time in the city for the young and the elderly.  While wealthy families escaped the stifling heat at seaside resorts, working class families suffered.   Such was the case for the Dunn family.  On July 18, 1902 their one-year old son Arthur died in the house, and almost exactly a year later, on July 3, six-year old Theodore Dunn perished.

There were three families living in the main house by 1906.  On December 17, 1911 The New York Times reported that, after having owned the property for more than 45 years, the Cornelius Van Saun family sold No. 7 to Antone Contino "for investment."  It was a short-lived investment.  Before the end of the year the title transferred to Thomas O'Brien, and to Marguerite M. Trail.

Alberto Barratta purchased the house in 1922 and returned it to a single-family residence in 1924 (although the store remained).  It was home to a Chinese laundry in the 1940s while the main house was occupied by Broadway theater director Brobury Ellis and stage manager Randolph Echols.

At mid-century No. 7 was home to Dr. Robert Chambers, who had held the post of Research Professor of Biology at New York University from 1928 to 1948.  His wife, the former Bertha Smith, died in 1946.  He married again.  But this union, to Karen Peterfy, ended in divorce in 1953.

Undaunted, the 74-year old scientist found love again the following year.  He and 73-year old Eloise Parkhurst Huguenin obtained their marriage license on November 29, 1954.

The property was purchased by William "Will" Steven Armstrong and his wife, Jo, in 1964.  A stage designer, he used his talents to transform the rear building into their home, which he called his "Venetian Fantasy."  The little building that housed a junkman at the turn of the century was now stuccoed and painted pink with green tile insets.  Armstrong told a reporter "When one can bring one's life and work together in a house, that's how an artist can function best."

He had won an Obie award in 1958 for his designs for Ivanov, and a Tony award in 1962 for Carnival.  Critic Brooks Atkinson had given Armstrong strong praise for his 1959 Lysistrata at the Phoenix Theater; and the following year said that his unorthodox stage design for Caligula, "thrusts Caligula's horrors in the faces of the audiences."

Armstrong's "Venetian fantasy" survives in the rear yard.  photo via Streeteasy .com

While on vacation in Mexico on August 12, 1969 the 39-year Armstrong died.

Through its 200-year existence the main house survived little altered.  Today the white frame dormers are crisp and while the fa├žade is, perhaps, a little less straight than it was in 1831, no major changes have occurred. The fine Federal doorway with its flanking wooden pillars and narrow overlight survives intact.  There are now one apartment to each floor.

Jacob Romaine’s two and a half story residence is a lovely survivor of the time when Greenwich Village was experiencing a population explosion and building boom.

photographs by the author