Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Soon to Go - McMahon's Oyster House 499 3rd Avenue

Behind the orange-painted stucco is the 1850 clapboard house.

Broker E. H. Brown's office was at No. 71 Wall Street when he began construction of his rather modest home at No. 499 Third Avenue in 1850.   It was barely completed when he offered it for sale.  An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on January 21, 1851 said the 24-foot wide house "has Croton water throughout, and [is] in every respect well built."  The advertisement noted it had been "finished by the present owner for his own occupation, and sold because of a change in business."

The mention of "Croton water throughout" referred to running water; a significant convenience in the first half of the 19th century.  Whether Brown decided to sell because of a "change in business" is debatable.  He was still carrying on business in the same office for several more years.

The two-story wooden house was quickly renovated with a business on the ground floor.  George Ricardo was issued his innkeeper's license on July 21, 1857.   It cost him $30.

By 1861 the restaurant-saloon was called The National, run by John Sherman, who was also the secretary of the Empire City Regatta Club.   In reporting on the club's upcoming "rowing regatta" The New York Clipper added on September 7, 1861, "The club meets every Saturday evening at the National, 499 3d Avenue."

In 1875 the Coutant family--brothers John S. and Thomas J., and their sisters Emily T. and Elizabeth J.--purchased nearly the entire eastern Third Avenue blockfront between 33rd and 34th Streets, including No. 499.    Architect James E. Ware was commissioned to add a rear extension and alter the front.  It was most likely Ware's update--which cost the Coutants $3,500--that resulted in the Eastlake style window treatments and updated cornice.

The geometric, toothy decorations of the window cornices were up-to-the-minute in the 1870's.
A much more significant change was to come.  At the time Walter Silsbe and his son ran an oyster saloon at the corner of 33rd Street.  In 1880 Silsbe purchased No. 499, putting the title in the name of his wife, Hannah.  Before he moved his restaurant, he jacked up the wooden house and built an additional floor under it.  "I spent improving that property probably $1,200," he recalled in 1895.

Following the death of Silsbe's son in 1887, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that "Silsbe's Oyster Saloon" had been rented to Terence McMahon for $3,000 a year.   The McMahon family moved into the upper floors and little Willie was enrolled in P.S. No. 16.  Although the lease was for 5-1/2 years, an early agreement was reached and on June 2, 1890 McMahon paid the Silsbes $30,000 for the house and business--nearly $835,000 today.

The New York Times later described McMahon's Oyster and Chop House saying "The floor was luxuriously carpeted and the tables and chairs were of solid mahogany.  In the center of the restaurant was a large fish tank which usually contained about 200 fish of varying size and species."

A disagreement with a waiter landed an off-duty policeman in hot water in the fall of 1889.  Roundsman Thomas Cassidy of the 21st Precinct had dinner with a friend on the evening of Friday October 27.   He got into a quarrel with the waiter, Hugh Kane, over what The New York Times described as "a trivial matter connected with the meal."   After finishing he ordered brandy and, after paying for it, arrested Kane "for violation of the excise law on the ground that McMahon's license was only for the sale of beer and light wines."

Terence McMahon was close on the heels of the pair.  At the station house he not only provided his liquor license that proved Kane had done nothing illegal; but complained to the Inspector that his arrest "was actuated by malice" and described the argument that led to the arrest.  The tables were now turned and the Inspector ordered a complaint filed against the policeman.

In 1895, when Terence McMahon took the Manhattan Railway Company to court over the Third Avenue Elevated train, he gave a superb description of his property.  "The building has two floors over the store.  It is made of wood, except the extension...The back part, the extension part, the walls are brick; the front part is wood.  The ground floor is a store.  There are two stories over that used for dwellings.  I occupy those myself.  There is a cellar used for coal and stuff...The store is used for a restaurant.  The upper floors are used by myself as apartments for myself and my family."

McMahon's complaint with the Railroad was the platform it built directly in front of his oyster saloon.  He complained to the court that even on the brightest days he had to burn "from four to six, and sometimes twelve to sixteen lights in the middle of the day."  In addition, "Sometimes there is quite a bad smell.  If we leave our windows open there is quite a quantity of dust and cinders [which] blow in there."

Despite the cinders, noise and shadows of the elevated train, McMahon's Oyster and Chop House was a favorite meeting and dining spot for politicians and judges.  Mayors George B. McClellan and Seth Low were regulars, as were Tammany Hall bigwigs Richard Croker and Charles F. Murphy.

Terence McMahon died in 1900.  Although his will suggested that the property be sold, it gave his widow a life tenancy.  The family decided to continue the business until 1911 when the restaurant was leased to Peter and Ida M. Maucher.

McMahon's widow continued to live upstairs until her death in 1936, leaving the property to her four sons.  Through the years the old restaurant space had been used for a variety of different purposes. A layer of stucco now disguised the clapboards.  When the family put the property on the market in order to settle their mother's estate in 1938, Lee E. Cooper of The New York Times waxed nostalgic, saying it "deserves a bit more than cursory notice."

"For one thing," said Cooper, "the three-story building itself is of frame and stucco, and frame structures are becoming rare in Manhattan...But the history of occupancy of the building is of more romantic interest."

The article recalled how "the little structure was raised to three stories" by George Silesbe, whom it said "will be remembered by some old-time New Yorkers as the 'wholesale oyster man' who also conducted an oyster and chop house in the Third Avenue property."   Turning to the McMahon years Cooper added "Theodore Roosevelt is said to have been host at a dinner here to nearly a score of his Rough Riders shortly after the Spanish-American War."

The little anachronistic building changed hands several times over the succeeding decades.  The former oyster saloon was home to the Columbia Lighting showroom in the 1970's and '80's; then became Blockheads Mexican restaurant in 1997.  The eatery was a neighborhood staple until it was forced to close in 2017.

In July 2016  Extell Development had announced plans to build a 13-story mixed-used building on the site of No. 501 and 499 Third Avenue.   In March 2018 demolition permits were granted, signaling the end of the 168-year history of the little wooden  house.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Wow, the developers are really POS, to destroy a rare building like that