Thursday, April 19, 2018

The 1891 Garfield Flats - 104 Forsyth Street

A coat of chocolate-colored paint covered the checkerboard terra cotta tiles and polished stone columns of the first floor.
A North Carolinian, Lt. Colonel Benjamin Forsyth was based in New York State during the War of 1812.  He was killed in action in June 1814 and became a hero in both his native state and in New York.  North Carolina named Forsyth County after him and in 1817 New York City changed the name of an eight-block stretch of 2nd Street to Forsyth Street.

The block of Forsyth Street between Broome and Grand Streets would be lined with prim brick-faced Federal style homes.  No. 104,  was a 25-foot wide, two-and-a-half story home with a wooden dwelling behind.  (In the rear yards of nearly each house on the block was be a small building--either a second house, a stable or a shop.)

The quiet residential block began to change in the years before the Civil War as thousands of immigrants poured into the Lower East Side.  Between 1859 and 1880 the number of Jews who settled in New York City had doubled--from 40,000 to 80,000.  Little Forsyth Street saw the construction of several synagogues, and private houses were either demolished to be replaced by tenements, or were converted to shops.

No. 104 had a store on the first floor in January 1890 when Albert Stake bought the property.  While he lived on Staten Island, he made his livelihood in Manhattan, buying and selling real estate as well as insurance.

Stake wasted no time in setting his plans for the Forsyth Street property in motion.  Twelve days after the purchase architect A. I. Finkle filed plans for a five-story "brick and stone flat" to cost $17,000, or about $475,000 today.

Mostly forgotten today, Finkle was busy in the 1880's and '90's designing, for the most part, tenement buildings.   Aimed at low income families, the buildings offered little in amenities but were often lavished on the outside with overblown ornamentation.  Finkle did not disappoint with his design for No. 104, and threw in a heavy splash of patriotism and sentiment.

Nearly a decade had elapsed since the assassination of President James A. Garfield, but public emotions were still strong.  Stake dubbed his building The Garfield and Finkle announced its name in a flowing banner in the pressed metal cornice, along with a patriotic shield.

A centered stone stoop let to the entrance under a portico upheld by polished stone columns.  A quilt of Queen Anne style terra cotta tiles graced the upper portion of the first floor facade.  Finkle did not hold back on the succeeding levels.  A burst of colors and materials graced the second floor--brownstone, limestone, terra cotta, and brick.  Winged faces upheld floating pairs of Corinthian pilasters, the tympana above the windows were decorated with delicate vines, and the spandrels were filled with multicolored tiles.  Carved Renaissance Revival panels formed the bases of the three-story piers above, which terminated in terra cotta Corinthian capitals.

Albert Stark was an operator, not a landlord, and as soon as the building was completed he sold it, in February 1891, to Frederick J. Seelig for $45,500--a hefty $1.25 million today.

The basement level contained two stores, one on either side of the stoop, with living space behind.  H. S. Eisler opened his "houshold furniture" store in 1891; and Victor Cohen moved his family and shoe shop into the other.

Colorful tiles and carved angel heads on the outside could not change the fact that life on the inside of tenements was often miserable.  Apartments were either drafty and cold in the winter or stiflingly hot in the summer.  There was no hot water if there was running water at all, and sanitary conditions were poor.  And landlords were notoriously cold-hearted.

The landlady of No. 104 in 1895 was Sarah Davis.  She grew impatient when Victor Cohen fell behind on his rent.  Cohen and his wife had five children, the youngest just a year and a half old.  After running his shoe store here for nearly four years, business had dropped off.  Sarah David ordered the family out.

She hung a "To Let" sign on the storefront and rented the space to another tenant.  Cohen was told he had to be out by February 1.  But his youngest child was seriously ill and a doctor warned against moving him.  When the family was still there on the first of February, Sarah was enraged.

What happened next prompted The Evening World to run the headline "DYING CHILD EVICTED / Sad Case of Victor Cohen, a Poor Cobbler."   The article told that Sarah Davis got a dispossession notice from the court giving the Cohens five days to move out.  Fearful of moving the boy and with nowhere to go, they stayed.  Sarah took her next move.

"The next day Marshal Hirschfield evicted him, although Dr. Shenkman said it would be dangerous to take the child out of doors," reported the article.  Neighbors took the family in until Cohen was able to find rooms nearby on Hester Street.

In 1899 Bennett & G signed a lease for one of the stores.  The firm ran a string of soda fountains around the city.  The Bennett & G soda fountain would remain for several years.

In the meantime, things had not improved for tenants who were paying about $13 a month rent (around $390 in today's dollars) for three rooms.  On May 4, 1900 the Tenement House Commission made an "inspection tour" of Lower East Side buildings.  The inspectors found that there were no hallway lights in No. 104 Forsyth Street, in violation of city law.  "Tenants have to grope along it and stumble as best they may up the staircase," reported The New York Times.

Among those who groped along the hallways was John Sullivan.  While others in the building made their living as blue collar laborers or tailors and such, Sullivan preferred an easier method--robbery.  Around 1:00 in the morning on November 13, 1901 he and two cronies, John Shea and Frank Lynch, saw a lone sailor at the corner of New Chambers and Oak Streets.  They attacked, knocking him to the ground.  While two held him down the other went through his pockets and took all the money he had--25 cents.  The New-York Tribune reported "They then gave him several kicks and went on their way."

The sailor, Swan C. Carlsen, did not call for a policeman (despite being only steps from the 5th Precinct Station House).  Instead he following the Irish toughs from a safe distance.  Just as they reached Catherine and Cherry Streets, Henry Moore walked out of Andy Horn's saloon.  He became their second victim.

"They knocked him down and were going through his pockets when his yells reached the ears of Detective Hahn and Patrolman Frank Sheridan," who were around the corner.  The officers ran to the scene where "a desperate struggle ensued."  The Tribune happily reported "The highwaymen were subdued."  Swan Carlsen went to the station house both as a complainant and a victim.  John Sullivan and his cohorts were charged with highway robbery.

G. Sucher moved his barber shop into one of the basement stores in 1903 and, like the soda fountain, would remain for years.

The conditions upstairs were no better, or perhaps were worse, than they had been.  In 1907 the owner was ordered to correct conditions which made the building a "public nuisance."  The catch-all phrase often referred to foul odors, garbage, rats and vermin, or other conditions that made the property a problem to the neighborhood.

Behind No. 104 was the Eldridge Street Police Station.  On the afternoon of Friday, March 12, 1910 officers were playing handball in the yard of the station house when a fire in Minnie Brennsilber's kitchen on the second floor erupted.  The men looked up to see flames licking out of the apartment window and jumped the fence.

Patrolman Martin Owen was the first to enter the burning building.  The New York Times reported "Owen rushed to the second-floor hall, and, bursting into the apartment of Mrs. Minnie Brennsilber, found her and her two young children cowed with fright."  The way down was blocked by flames, so Owen headed up.  He grabbed the youngsters and directed their mother to follow to the roof.  There he took them to the roof of the building next door.

In the meantime, Officer August Schimp had brought 60-year old Rose Flitzer to the roof.  The two policemen went back into No. 104.   On the third floor the heat burst a window and the resulting back draft overtook the men.  With their uniform coats ablaze they managed to scramble back to the roof where they fell unconscious.  They were found by other policemen who carried them to the street.

At the same time, a fireman from Truck 6 was "found staggering through a lower hallway, almost overcome by smoke, but was revived by an ambulance surgeon," according to the newspaper.  Another responder, policeman John Stanford, dodged serious injury when a blazing mattress thrown from an upper window landed on him.  Another policeman managed to push the mattress aside before it could burn Stanford.

Both Officer Schimp and Owen were honored for their bravery the following year by the mayor and police commissioner.

Close inspection reveals the once colorful tiles, now significantly damaged, and the quirky winged faces.
Hyman Grossman moved his grocery store into the basement of the repaired building.  He found himself in trouble in November 1911 when health food inspectors fined him $100 for violating the pure food laws.  The New York Times reported the fine was "for having bad milk."

World War I had a personal effect on at least one family in The Garfield.  Six residents of Forsyth Street were drafted on the same day in March 1918, including Samuel Wasserman who lived at No. 104.  The men were ordered to leave "for Camp" on April 3.

One tenant of The Garfield was not enthusiastic about his military service.  On June 9, 1921 the War Department published its list of "draft deserters."  Included was Leib Merkin of No. 104 Forsyth Street.

A grisly discovery was found in front of The Garfield on July 28, 1956.  Police had been looking for Frances DiZinno's 1955 Buick sedan since it was reported stolen the night before.  At around 8:30 Detectives Edgar Brennan and Joseph Byrnes spotted the car parked in front of No. 104.

"When the detectives opened the door of the car they were assailed by an unpleasant odor," reported The New York Times.  "On the floor of the rear seat was an unwieldy tarpaulin bundle tied with heavy cord in a way that indicated to them that it contained a human body.  When they opened the trunk compartment they found an even larger bundle, wedged against the spare tire."

Before long the street was filled with Homicide Squad detectives, the Police Department mobile laboratory truck, and officials from the Medical Examiner's office.  "Meanwhile crowds of excited residents of the densely populated area made Forsyth Street impassable," said the article.

The bodies were identified by fingerprints as two of the three men wanted by the FBI for jumping bail in a fur hijacking case.   James Joseph Roberto was a former prizefighter known as Jimmy Russo, and the other was Richard Michael Langone.  Both had been killed by ax blows to the head and had been dead for as long as three days.

As the search intensified for the third defendant, Louis Joseph Musto, a shocking twist in the case came to the surface.   James T. Ryan had joined the New York Police Department on February 1, 1947 and was promoted to detective in January 1949.  Then, in November 1955 he was demoted to patrolman "for the good of the service."  Now, three days after the bodies were discovered, he was pulled off his post and arrested for receiving stolen property in connection with the fur heists.

By the last quarter of the 20th century the Forsyth Street neighborhood, once filled with German Jews, then Italians, was increasingly becoming part of New York's Chinatown. 

Nevertheless, Seymour Anczelowitz operated his store, Sy's New and Used Clothing, at No. 104 here in 1982.  Just before 1:00 on the afternoon of January 31 that year a man and a woman came into the store and told the 47-year old he was being held up.  Whether Anczelowitz fought back or not is unclear; but the crooks shot him in the head.  They escaped with as much as $2,000 in cash.  Anczelowitz was taken to Bellevue Hospital in critical condition, where he later died.

Despite its often sketchy history, the suffering of its early tenants, and the unfortunate coat of brown paint on the stone and tile of the first floor, A. I. Finkle's patriotic and exuberant Garfield is still an attention grabber.

photographs by the author

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