Saturday, December 16, 2017

The John & Hannah Burrows House - 112 West 17th Street

Originally a stone stoop led to the parlor floor.  Very close inspection reveals the scares of the openings just above the  storefront awnings.
On November 30, 1850 auctioneer A. J. Bleecker advertised the "private sale" of the property at No. 82 West 17th Street.   Included was "The Front and Rear House and Lot Ground."  Back buildings were common at the time.  Sometimes they were a small stable or shop; but in this case it was a two story wooden house with a brick basement.

Bleecker's announcement described the newly-constructed main house as "built of brick, 3 stories high, with basement and counter cellar, finished in good style, with marble mantels in parlor, &c."  It featured an attractive convenience--running water--described as "Croton water throughout."  Bleecker noted that the houses had been custom-built, stressing "both built by the owner."

The red brick main house, designed in the lately popular Greek Revival style, was trimmed in brownstone.  Its no-nonsense wooden cornice included a simple fascia board and blocky brackets.

The property did not sell until March the following year, bringing $6,000 at auction, just under $195,000 today.  It became home to John and Hannah Burrows, a respectable middle-aged couple.

Upon her husband's death in 1857, Hannah rented rooms for income.  Her advertisement on January 18, 1858 read "A widow lady, having more room than she needs, can accommodate a gentleman and lady with a neatly furnished back parlor; board for the lady; no other boarders taken."  Why Hannah offered to feed the woman but not the man is puzzling.

Her first boarder was "Miss Tice" who was possibly a school teacher.  She moved in at a time when New York City was plagued with a rash of burglaries.  And not long afterward, in May 1857, she became a victim.

Two months later, on July 25, The New York Herald wrote "Since the arrest of Cancemi, the Italian burglar and murderer, persons who have lost property within the last few months, have been besieging the property clerk of the Police Commissioner with description of their lost property and applications to see if any of it is among the articles found in Cancemi's possession."  Among those besiegers was Miss Tice.   Her list of expensive-sounding stolen goods was identified as Lot No. 56:

Miss Tice, 82 West Seventeenth street, lost about two months since: Red crape shawl, white [crepe shawl], silk velvet cloak, set of furs, tan colored silk dress, black silk basque, 3 mantillas, plain and figured; figured silk dress, 8 lockets, one with a likeness and chain; 7 breastpins, 3 pair earrings, 2 bracelets, cameo.

Hannah Burrows was 62 years old in 1858 and it appears she needed help now that she was taking in more boarders.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on January 26 that year sought "A girl to cook, wash and iron...must be cleanly and active."  Hannah offered wages of between $4 or $5, presumably depending on experience.  It was acceptable pay for an unskilled girl, equal to about $150 a week on the higher end.

The following year another widow, Mrs. Bloodgood, had taken rooms in the house.  On December 2 she suffered an emotional loss when she dropped her pocketbook in an Eighth Avenue street car.  Inside were a pair of gold earrings, $1.65 in change and "an old American silver dollar."  She placed a plea for their return in The New York Herald offering a $5 reward.  "The Pocketbook and silver dollar were the gifts of a deceased husband," she explained.

Hannah rented the rear house to black families.  There were four families living in the two-story building in 1861.  That fall a horrific accident occurred.

Peter Johnson and his wife lived in the second floor.  She was about 40-years old and severely afflicted with rheumatism.  Alone on the evening of September 30 between 8:00 and 9:00, she was carrying a lit kerosene lamp when she fell.  The New York Herald reported "One of the occupants of the lower part of the house heard Mrs. Johnson scream murder, and ran upstairs.  On entering the room witnessed [her] on the floor, in one blaze of fire, and the flames at the same time rushing out of the bedroom."

The unfortunate woman had already burned to death.  Fire fighters extinguished the blaze, but all the families were essentially wiped out.  The article said "The greater part of their household effects were destroyed by fire and water."  Saying the house was owned by "Mrs. Burroughs" [sic], the newspaper put the damaged to the little building at $500.  Hannah's losses were covered by insurance; but sadly "The tenants were not insured."

Hannah continued to hire young girls to help with the chores.  In August that year she advertised for "A smart, tidy girl to do general housework; must be a good washer and ironer, willing and obliging."  She made certain that applicants did not intrude into the marble manteled parlors.  "Apply at 82 West 17th st.; basement door."

In 1868 West 17th Street was renumbered, and Hannah Burrow's house became No. 112.  She died there on the morning of May 18 that year at the age of 72.  Her funeral was held in the nearby home of her daughter, who was married to John Roberts, Jr., at No. 205 West 18th Street.

The new owners continued to rent rooms, and like Hannah Burrows, were particular in their boarders.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on April 24, 1872 was clear;  "Desirable rooms--three, private house, gas and water, to a good party, without children."  And two years later a similar ad listed "Four cosey unfurnished rooms, on second floor, to a gentleman and wife; house private; no children; water, gas and closets; excellent neighborhood; rent $18."  The rent would equal a little over $390 per month today.

By around 1880 the house became the property of George D. Pitzipio and his wife, the former Adriene Owens.  The Pitzipio family was well-to-do and owned several other buildings throughout the city.  Adriene was the great-granddaughter of Lt. Jonathan Owens, earning her a membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

By now Sixth Avenue was a major shopping thoroughfare and the Pitzipios converted the basement level of No. 112 to a shop.  They leased it to George Meylan whose jewelry store lured female shoppers from the retail emporiums on the avenue.  But on Friday evening, March 9, 1888 it attracted a far different group.

Meylan was out and his wife was running the store when four men entered.  The New York Times reported "One of the men engaged Mrs. Meylan in conversation about repairing a clock, while the others remained outside.  When the man came out of the store, the others quickly tied the knob of the store to the railing and then smashed the window."

The crooks had only enough time to grab a single gold watch before being frightened away by passersby who heard Mrs. Meylan's screams.  Someone cut the rope and, with the thieves still in sight, the feisty Mrs. Meylan ran after them.  Undaunted by the breach of feminine decorum, she flew into a saloon on Seventh Avenue and 25th Street where they had disappeared.  By now she was accompanied by a policeman who arrested all four.

Mrs. Meylan was, as it turned out, lucky.  The police identified Willliam (alias "Mule") McGuire, John Redmond, Jame Donohue, and John Thompson as members of the "Rocky Road Gang."

The jewelry store was gone by 1891 when Madame R. Antoinette ran her dressmaking shop here.  Promising good wages, she was looking for a "skirt hand, one able to drape" that year.

In 1893 Madame Antoinette moved her business far north to West 124th Street.  The space was taken by another dressmaker, Madame Marie.  (Dressmakers, no matter how American, quite often gave themselves the fashionable French form of address.)   In May 1897 as the summer season was about to begin, she promised "Every description summer gowns; Paris designs exclusively; moderate prices; short notice."

In the meantime, the Pitzipios leased rooms in the upper floors to a less respectable grade of tenant than Hannah Burrows would have tolerated.  Perhaps the most colorful was Kate Kiernan who lived here by 1902.  Now 56 years old, she was well known to law enforcement on the Bowery.  The New-York Tribune later said of her "She first appeared there when a pretty girl of fifteen, and at once took her place at Suicide Hall, the Fleabag and the other dives."

In the week following Christmas 1902 Father Van Rensselaer of the nearby Church of St. Francis Xavier was at his wits' end.  He complained to the West 30th Street police station of "the practice of dilapidated women entering the church early in the morning and remaining there most of the day."  He told police that some of them begged among the crowds of shoppers on Sixth Avenue, "and made the church their headquarters."

In addition, according to The New-York Tribune, the "pastor asserted they littered the floor with the crumbs of their luncheons, and were uncleanly."  On December 30 Officer Neal Brown went to the church and arrested three women, including Kate Kiernan.

At the station house 70-year old Ann Cox told Sergeant Sweeney that she was homeless.  But when she mentioned that she had been born in County Donegal, Ireland, his eyes widened.  Not only was that the county where he had been born, but it was also the birthplace of Officer Brown.

As Kate listened, the sergeant chastised the arresting officer.  "What do you mean by arresting a girl from your own county, Brown?"  The policeman replied "Really, I didn't know her birthplace, sergeant."

The Tribune reported "Kate Kiernan proudly informed Sergeant Sweeney that she, too, was born in Donegal."

In a somewhat tragic sidenote, Kate Kiernan came to a gruesome end on December 26, 1915.  She was back on the Bowery, at the Tub of Blood Saloon, where, according to the Tribune, she often went.  The newspaper ran the headline "Belle of Old Bowery Killed by Trolley Car" and began the article saying "Faint echoes of the days when the Bowery was gayer than it has been for many years were aroused in the rum-ridden breasts of those who used to frequent McGurk's Suicide Hall, the Fleabag Saloon, and other notorious dives when the mangled body of Kate Kiernan, once gayest of the gay in the life of the district, was extricated from the tracks of a Madison Avenue car at Second Street and the Bowery last night.  The woman did not hear the warning bell."

Before then tailor Harry Feinberg had taken over the store space.  He advertised himself as "ladies' tailor and furrier; moderate prices."  But when he was arrested on August 29, 1906, he was less eager to disclose his profession.

It seems that Feinberg also had a nefarious side when it came to making money.  On that night William Cohen of Brooklyn was walking up Broadway near 29th Street when a gang of men attacked him.  He was knocked to the ground and the thugs began going through his pockets.  As he struggled, his watch was snatched from his pocket and a stickpin pulled from his tie.

His calls for help alerted Patrolman Landis who arrived just in time to see one of the thieves rushing away.  The New-York Tribune reported "He followed with a hundred men at his heels.  The cry 'Stop thief!' was raised and the crowd grew."  Calling the civilians "a large crowd, fresh from the theatres," the newspaper said they finally cornered him in a cafe on 29th Street near Broadway.

It was Harry Feinberg.   Although he admitted his address, he was creative in hiding his business.  "When captured the prisoner said...that he is a pugilist, and is known in pugilistic circles as 'Harvey Fern.'"

George Pitzipio died around 1886.  Following Adrienne's death in 1913, No. 112 was passed to Demetrius G. O. Pitzipio and his wife, Evelyn.   The couple converted the old house to a "tenant factory."  In doing so they installed an iron fire escape on the front of the building.

The Pitzipios' handsome iron fire escapes have a rather French feel.

Demetrius was gone, fighting for the U.S. Navy in 1917.  In his absence Evelyn received a notice from the Department of Buildings ordering that an interior stairway be extended to the roof as a means of escaping fire.   When Demetrius was called to testify in September 1918 as to why the violations were not corrected, the Board of Appeals seems to have been patriotically moved to excuse him.  Citing the facts that he had been serving his country, and that the building was "fireproof" and had fire escapes, the Board dismissed the violations.

When Selmar Pfieffer purchased No. 112 in July 1920, the front building was described as a three-story brick loft and store, and the rear structure as a two-story frame shop.  But it would not remain that way for long.

Pfieffer appears to have returned the building to rented rooms.  That year's census showed 30-year old actor Richard E. Cramer living here with his 32-year old wife, Hilda.  Hilda's occupation was listed as "Keeper--Lodging House."  A lodging house was the lowest form of rented accommodations where beds or cots were available by the night for a few cents.  Cramer's theatrical career finally took off and around 1928 he and Hilda moved to Hollywood where he became a familiar face as a supporting actor in Westerns.

In 1931 No. 112 was returned to factory space with a store on the ground level.  As the Chelsea neighborhood experienced a rebirth, so did that shop.  In 1988 it was home to the Chelsea Ceramics Gallery where children attended weekly classes and "let their imaginations roam free," according to co-owner Joy JanSan.

By 1994 the space was home to the Alley Cat Gallery, which also staged intimate theatrical productions.  Currently the shops on either side of the entrance contain Pippin Vintage Jewelry and Pippin Home.  Although the brick has been painted, the stoop long ago removed, and modern storefronts installed; it is not difficult to imagine the house as it appeared in 1850 when the block was lined with similar comfortable dwellings.

photographs by the author

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