Monday, April 2, 2018

The Lost John Ericsson House - 36 Beach Street

A Victorian cigarette card depicted No. 36 Beach Street as it appeared in the 1830's.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1807 Trinity Church completed construction of St. John's Chapel, designed by John McComb, in what had been a boggy, mosquito-ridden district north of the city.  It would become the focal point of a fashionable residential neighborhood centered around the private St. John's Park.  By the 1830's the enclave was among the most exclusive in Manhattan, with brick-faced Federal style mansions spilling over onto the side streets.

Among these was 36 Beach Street, home to Joseph Stuart and his wife, the former Anna Watson in 1839.  Three-and-a-half-stories tall, it boasted the architectural amenities of an upscale home--the stoop and lintels were marble, the doorway featured an elegant leaded fanlight and sidelights, and the arched openings of the dormers included intricate mullions.

Joseph, born in Ireland, had been associated with his brothers in the dry goods business Stuart Brothers in Philadelphia before moving to New York City in 1833.  Here he became the senior partner with brother John in the banking firm of J. & J. Stuart.  He and Anna had four children--Margaret, Annie, Joseph and Robert.

Anna Watson Stuart sat for this portrait by Daniel Huntington, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1850, Joseph helped form the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, taking the position of vice president.  It opened on September 30 that year at 51 Chambers Street (an address it would maintain until 1969).  In 1855, he became its second president.

It appears the Stuarts contemplated a move in 1843.  An advertisement by real estate operators Wilkins & Rollins on February 22 offered "The lot of ground with the elegant 3 story modern built brick dwelling house thereon, No. 36 Beach street, fronting St. John's Park, the lot being 27 by 100 feet.  $11,000."  Offered separately was "the lot in the rear of the above, fronting on North Moore st, being 27 by 100 feet, $3,100."  The combined price today would be about $482,000.

The family stayed on, however, until 1859 when they moved to 11 East 36th Street.

The same year that the Stuarts moved had moved into 36 Beach Street, John Ericsson had arrived in New York from England.  Born in Sweden, the scientist and inventor was already well known for his work on steam-powered locomotives, fire engines, and ships.  He quickly formed a close working and personal relationship with foundry owner Cornelius H. DeLamater.  Like most all of Ericsson's American works, his 1844 iron hull steamer the Iron Witch was constructed by Hogg & Delamater.

Ericsson and his wife, the former Amelia Byam Blackstone, lived initially in the Astor House hotel.  In 1843 they moved to 95 Franklin Street.  When they married in England in 1836 Amelia was just 19 years old.  It was a disastrous match and she soon returned home.

In a letter to DeLamater, Ericsson surprisingly poured out his grief.   He said in part, "It has been several months now since my wife, Amelia, left...Amelia's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Blackstone, are very wealthy Londoners, and I am afraid my constant work for little money drove her back to them.  She appears in my dreams, however, and I can't get her out of my mind."

The outbreak of the Civil War changed Ericsson's fortunes.  It was his Government contract to design the iron-clad Monitor and similar war vessels that earned him what The Sun later deemed "a fortune."  Now financially secure, he was prompted by friends in 1864 to purchase the former Stuart residence, available for $20,000 (about $322,000 today).  The deed was signed in April that year.

Ericsson kept detailed records.  His statement of accounts showed $1,749.26 for "cost to put 36 Beach Street in good repair," and $2,646.85 for furniture.  His biographer, William Conant Church noted in his 1892 The Life of John Ericsson, "The marble steps, the carved door-casings and fan-lights, the massive mahogany fittings of the interior, all bespoke of the state of earlier occupants."

Intricate basket newels sat on paneled marble pedestals.  from The Life of John Ericsson, 1892, (copyright expired)

Ericsson described the interiors in his letter to DeLamater.  "My parlor and dining room, dominated by heavy chandeliers and mantel mirrors, exude grandfatherly, old-fashioned dignity."

It was not long after Ericsson moved into No. 36 that the elegance of the neighborhood changed.  In 1867, Trinity Church sold St. John's Park to the Hudson River Railroad Company, which began construction on a freight depot.  The move sparked a panicked exodus of the moneyed homeowners.

William Conant Church noted "the owner of number 36 talked of moving, but he found it difficult to suit himself elsewhere, and with years came a growing horror of change.  Besides, he began to realize that he had found a good hiding-place, and, as he grimly said, the ladies ceased to visit him in that unpromising locality."

Engrossed in his work (he established a work room and observatory on the top floor) Ericsson isolated himself, rarely accepting visitors other than Cornelius DeLamater.  His determination that his work not be interrupted by outside noises resulted in some drastic and bizarre actions.

William Church wrote that his "antipathy to a crowing cock" led him to purchase "all the chickens in his neighborhood to secure the privilege of wringing their necks."  And when the daughter of his next door neighbor took to playing the piano (The Sun noted her favorite piece was "The Happy Farmer"), he paid to pad the walls of her music room with four-inch mattresses covered with fabric "to correspond with the furniture."

Ericsson's workroom.  from The Life of John Ericsson, 1892, (copyright expired)

Living behind Ericsson, at 37 North Moore Street, was Charles Herbert, whose yapping dog occupied the back yard.  To regain his quietude, Ericsson paid his neighbor to get rid of the animal.  Herbert signed an agreement on August 16, 1877.

I herewith agree to remove the dog now on the premises 37 North Moore Street, and further, not to keep any dog on said premises for the term of one year from date, for the consideration of five dollars paid to me by Captain John Ericsson.

With the warehouses that now accompanied the freight depot--many of them filled with foodstuffs--came vermin.  Ericsson's inventive focus turned to the "numerous horde of rats, who considered themselves tenants at will, and stubbornly refused to yield possession," according to Church.  The inventor devised a massive rat trap that consisted of a water tank beneath a mechanically-tripped trap door.  Rats lured by a chunk of cheese plunged to their watery deaths.  The rats, however, proved to be wilier than Ericsson originally gave them credit for and he begrudgingly co-existed with them for the rest of his life.

The inventor had one servant, his Irish housekeeper Ann Cassidy.  Their successful relationship was due to her ability to adapt to Ericsson's eccentricities.  He insisted, for instance, that his bed sheets were kept faultlessly smooth by a regimented row of exactly 240 straight pins.  Ann was not to tidy the rooms nor dust without her employer's direction.  He did not like fresh-baked bread and she knew exactly how many days to leave the loaves on the mantel before they were perfectly stale.

As the neighborhood outside his windows deteriorated, Ericsson's elegant interiors grew shabby.  Despite his substantial wealth, he became abnormally frugal.  "He was so opposed to newness, that the carpets in the rooms he occupied were replaced piece by piece as they wore out, until half a dozen patterns were to be found upon a single floor," wrote Church.

On August 1, 1883, the day after Ericsson's 80th birthday, The New York Times reported on his celebration--or lack thereof.
He rose at 7 o'clock and took his customary breakfast of eggs, bread, and ice water.  Between the hour of rising and breakfast he indulged in gymnastic exercises.  Then he went up stairs and engaged himself in his work until late in the afternoon, when a dinner was served.  Then came more work.  At 10 o'clock Capt. Ericsson took a walk for an hour or so and the day ended.  The same programme has been carried out every day for the past 10 years.  Indeed; it is not absolutely certain that he was aware of the fact that it was his eightieth birthday until congratulatory telegrams arrived as no one in the house made any reference to it, knowing from past experience that such reference would not be wise.

The only caller received that day was Cornelius DeLamater.  The New York Times noted, "Old friends know his habits and seldom trouble him in the hours set apart for experiments."  In fact, said that article, "Capt. Ericsson has preferred to live on in his house in Beach-street and refused to let the building of the freight station opposite drive him out.  There, he says, he has a safe retreat from fashionable callers who are ashamed to come to visit him."

In February 1889, Ericsson showed symptoms of kidney problems.  His doctor, Joshua C. Boullee, brought in a professional nurse, but within a week he was bedridden.  He instructed his doctor to keep his illness a secret "because he wished to avoid being bothered by visitors," according to The New York Times.  The newspaper described the house as "now shadowed by the gloomy walls of the freight depot of the New-York Central Railroad.  Its form, however, is the same as when Beach-street was one of the most aristocratic neighborhoods in the city."

Famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady produced this portrait of John Ericsson -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

At 12:39 on the morning of March 8, 1889, Ericsson died in the Beach Street house at the age of 85.  Calling him "one of the most remarkable mechanical geniuses of the nineteenth century," The New York Times attributed the cause of his death to "an affection of the kidneys, combined with a general exhaustion of nature."

Although he had lived and prospered on American soil for half a century, Ericsson wanted to be buried in Sweden.  "I know but one fatherland," he had said, and "I would rather that my ashes be reposed under a heap of cinders there than under the stateliest monument in America."

Having no relatives, his will dispersed his fortune among employees and friends.  And he did not forget his faithful housekeeper.   Ann Cassidy received $1,500--more than $40,000 today.

With Ericsson's death the anachronistic role of 36 Beach Street as a private home came to an end.  The house was sold in October that year to H. McArdle for $18,900.  The New York Times commented "As the house is of small value, the chances are that it will soon be torn down and replaced by a business structure."

The newspaper was mistaken.  Instead McArdle had bought the property for use as the Beach Street Industrial School of the Children's Aid Society.  The organization operated schools throughout the city in impoverished neighborhoods.  In 1900, Rufus Wilson wrote in his Rambles in Colonial Byways, "The house is now used as an industrial school, where the children of emigrants are given a training that in future years will make them useful and patriotic citizens--a fitting and worthy mission for the old home of one of the greatest of the adopted sons of the republic."

Children, mostly foreign-born, learn the American voting procedure in Ericsson's former parlor on November 2, 1891.  Note the handsomely-carved woodwork.  photo by Jacob A. Riss from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By 1910 the school was gone and No. 36 was being operated as "Italian tenements" as described by The New York Times.  The newspaper lamented its decline on August 7, 1914, saying, "It would not do to ask any of the present tenants about the man who revolutionized naval warfare during a critical period of the civil war, for they doubtless ever heard his name, and it would probably be equally as surprising to the merchants in the big warehouses near by to learn that Ericsson died there twenty-five years ago."

Despite a fire escape, a shattered fanlight, and ruinous shutters, the former elegance of No. 36 Beach Street could still be seen around 1913.  photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Within a few years, No. 36 had become what newspapers described as "a sailors' boarding house."  The seedy nature of the neighborhood was evidenced on March 22, 1919 when a terrifying robbery occurred there.  The New York Herald reported "Seven masked men armed with revolvers took part in the hold-up of the boarding house and robbed the nine occupants of various sums of money.  The robbers were in the room six or seven minutes and separated immediately after leaving."

Later that year, in June, The Sun described the lamentable condition of the venerable house.  "Many traces of its beauty remain, although its front is half hidden by the unsightly fire escape that marks it as a tenement.  The old fanlight over the carved doorway has been broken by young vandals, the wrought iron railings and newels have long since rusted into dilapidation, and the stone steps have been worn own by the thousands of thick soled shoes which have passed over them."

The article continued, "There is no tablet upon this building in memory of its distinguished occupant, who in 1889 passed from this life.  Several efforts have been made to have one placed on the outer wall, but the owner never approved of this sentimentality.  Four families live in the house, and the basement, which is boarded up, is used as a coal cellar."

A plaque would finally be cast, but not before the house was demolished for what The New York Times called a "modern business block."  On October 1921, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society approved the inscription for a bronze tablet to be affixed to the exterior of the warehouse on the site.

The Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1921-22 (copyright expired)

At the time of the unveiling John Ericsson got one more honor.  On May 1, 1922, Greater New York reported that the "portion of Beach Street running from Varick Street to Hudson Street, and including Number 36 Beach Street, which was the site of the house in which Captain John Ericsson, inventor and designer of the 'Monitor,' lived, [was renamed] Ericsson Square."

No trace of Ericsson's once-elegant neighborhood remains.

1 comment:

  1. Great story and awesome research on a long lost, but very important, historical house. Shame someone did not keep some pieces of it, what stories they could tell. I believe the plaque that was placed in 1921 was stolen, so maybe someone did keep a memento. Thanks for the great work on this article