Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Rentz & Lange's 1889 Nos. 519-525 Hudson Street

Architects Charles Rentz, Jr. and Rudolph L. Lange were busy in 1889.  The two had partnered only months earlier, in 1888, to form Rentz & Lange, and commissions to erect tenement buildings throughout the city poured in.  They included the project for developer Frank Schaefler at the northwest corner of Hudson and West 10th Streets.

It was a substantial commission--a total of six flat buildings, two on West 10th and a block of four facing Hudson Street (Nos. 519 through 525).  The Hudson Street buildings, which melded architecturally as a unit, would each contain a store at street level.  They were completed within the year and would be among the last the short-lived firm designed.    On December 21, 1889 The Record & Guide announced "The firm of Rentz & Lange, architects, has been dissolved, Mr. Lange retiring."

The firm went out with a bang.  Its Nos. 519-525 Hudson Street was a visually delightful blend of styles--Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival and Renaissance Revival--and materials.  Brick, limestone, brownstone and terra cotta created a contrast of color and texture.   Renaissance Revival window pediments and decorative panels coexisted with muscular brownstone Romanesque Revival voussoirs (on the 10th Street elevation) and an unrestrained Queen Anne cornice.  A make-believe turret that clung to the corner of the fourth and fifth floors sprouted a witch's hat cap topped with a cast iron weather vane.

The eye-catching turret managed to capture three historic styles.  Miraculously the Queen Anne weather vane survives.
The corner store, at No. 519, would be home to Albert Kramer's butcher shop for years.  In 1901 he branched out by adding a fruit stand out front.  He lived in the building with his wife Gertrude and her daughter from a former marriage, Evangeline.

Gertrude had divorced her first husband, named Prosser, but did not bother with those formalities in 1903 when she left Albert for a street car conductor, William Murphy.  She and her daughter moved to a three room apartment at No. 209 East 80th Street with Murphy.   As far as any of the tenants or the landlady knew they were Mr. and Mrs. Murphy.   Despite his wife's romantic rebuff, Kramer gave her $5 a week.

Trouble began in June 1904 when Murphy lost his job.  With only Kramer's $5 (about $525 per month today) to live on, things got tense in the household.  Sometime in the middle of July Gertrude and Murphy had what Evangeline called "a violent quarrel" which turned physical.  During the altercation Gertrude bit him on the cheek.

Evangeline, who was 12-years old now, would later tell police "He didn't say anything at first, but finally he said: 'I'll have a sweet revenge for this.'"

At around 9:30 on Monday morning, July 18, all three left the building.  Suddenly Murphy said he forgot something and turned back.  Gertrude followed, telling "Evangeline, run over to your grandmother's for a while."  (Gertrude's mother, named Herz, lived only a few blocks north on Third Avenue.)

After staying at the Hertz apartment until 11, the girl returned home.  She rang the buzzer to their apartment, but got no answer.  Another tenant let her in.  She found the door padlocked from the outside; so she went back to her grandmother's.  But throughout the day she returned to the 80th Street apartment, trying to get in.

Monday turned to Tuesday and the Herz family became worried.  The Sun reported on July 21 that Evangeline's two uncles found Policeman Mathew McGrath and related the story.  He said the room should be broken into.

"The Kramer rooms are o the third floor back," said The Sun.  "On the second landing McGrath stopped, almost overpowered by a sickening odor.  'Some one's dead,' he said, and he kicked in the door."

Gertrude was found on the couch.  The state of decomposition in the hot apartment testified to her having been dead for the full two days.  On the table near the body was a beer glass with a white sediment at the bottom.  Inspection showed that no one had come in or out of the windows.  "The last person who left the rooms had gone out by the door and snapped the spring padlock.  To fasten that lock from the inside was an impossibility," said the article.

Detectives quickly theorized that Gertrude had taken her own life.  The Sun reported "The police believe that she died suddenly or committed suicide; that Murphy came back, found the body, locked the room and disappeared to keep out of trouble."  They dismissed the purple bruising around her neck saying that may "have been due to decomposition."

While the police searched for Murphy as "a witness," The Sun reported "Capt. Stevenson is inclined to believe the case one of suicide.  Coroner Jackson rather disagrees with him."

Alfred Kramer would continue his butcher business in the Hudson Street building at least through 1912.  With thousands of doughboys returning home from the war in 1918 Kramer's former store was briefly home to the Government's Federal Employment Bureau.  It helped find jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers at no fee.  It was followed by Harry Nadel's grocery store, here until 1922.

In the meantime, the store at No. 523 held Meyer Waeldner's cigar store.  He had one employee and his cigars were hand-made on the premises.

Waeldner nearly lost his business on May 30, 1894.  Twelve-year old John Meyers lived nearby at No. 9 Cornelia Street.  He sneaked into the cellar at 9:00 that morning, carrying a lighted candle to see in the darkness.  A leak in the gas pipes resulted in an explosion and fire.  Firemen were able to extinguish the flames, but the face of the adventurous boy was badly burned.  "He was taken home," concluded The Evening World.

As would be expected, the apartments in the buildings were rented by blue collar families.  At the turn of the century two horse-drawn cab drivers lived in No. 521, Samuel Morse and Thomas Moss.  Both had problems in 1900.

Morse worked for the Frank Bros.'s stables on 24th Street.  On May 13 he was looking for a fare on Sixth Avenue near 8th Street when the breech strap (used as a brake of sorts to prevent the vehicle from moving forward) broke.  The cab pushed into the horse, spooking it and causing it to bolt.

Morse held on for his life, trying to control the animal, as it ran into Washington Square.  The jolt of the wheels hitting the curb nearly upset the vehicle, and threw Morse to the ground.  The New York Times wrote "Washington Square was filled with children and men and women who were enjoying the summerlike day, and all fled in terror out of the way of the on-coming runaway as fast as they were able."

Near the fountain three brothers, James, Anthony and Gaetano Ouletto, were walking hand in hand.  James, the oldest at 11, heard the hoof beats of the galloping horse coming from behind and tried to drag his brothers out of its path.

"But," reported The Sun, "it swept by, knocking them all down and the cab wheels crushing the life out of Gaetano."  The toddler was just one and a half years old.

Policeman Martin found Morse.  "His left arm was broken, his right foot crushed, his head cut open, and he was injured internally," said The Sun.  The New York Times added "His wounds were dressed and he was then locked up as being responsible for the damage done."

Thomas Moss had experienced a no less horrifying ordeal a few weeks earlier.  On April 20 he had picked up Marie Rosalie Dinse who gave him a Brooklyn address.  Unknown to Moss, she had tried her hand a running a boarding house and had failed.  For some time now she had suffered severe depression over it.

He had already started onto the Brooklyn Bridge when he asked her for the toll.  She said she had no money, but offered her moonstone ring as payment for the toll and promised her Brooklyn friends would pay the fare.  Moss later said "I should have been warned by this."  In fact, he tried to turn the carriage around, but hampered traffic and was yelled at by irate cabbies.  So he continued.

When his hansom reached what was about the highest point of the bridge, "there were sudden exclamations from people on the driveway behind it and from passengers on the walk above," according to The New York Times.  Moss turned to see Marie jump out.  The Times said she "went without faltering to the guard rail, climbed over the crosspiece with the neatness of an acrobat, and in six seconds from the time of leaving the hack was hurtling down to the water."

The newspaper viciously blamed Moss for the suicide.  "The driver, Thomas Moss of 521 Hudson Street, is lethargic and slow of observation, and did not remark much about his fare except that she spoke with a German accent."

The extended Moss family would experience tragedy two years later.  On Saturday afternoon, August 23, 1902, 8-year old John Moss was playing with a group of neighborhood boys on a Hudson River pier a few blocks west.  Three days later The Evening World reported that his father, also named John, "reports to the police of the Charles street station that his son...had been drowned in the North River Saturday afternoon and asked that the body be sought for."

While the majority of the tenants appear to have been hard working, John McGrath was an exception.  McGrath lived in No. 523 in 1902, as did his sister, Jennie Spring, and her husband.  On June 19 he was sentenced to a six-month term in the workhouse.

But when Magistrate Mayo received a glowing letter a month later from Jennie Spring, he reconsidered McGrath's fate.  Jennie's letter insisted that McGrath had been reformed and "had promised to mend his ways."  The prisoner was released on July 19, five months early.

In fact, Jennie and her married sister, Ellen Sipp, could not have been more surprised when they discovered their brother was freed,  After being told how his release came to be, they marched into the Jefferson Market police court, asking Magistrate Cornell to send him back to the workhouse.  "Mrs. Spring declared that the signature was not hers and insisted that a woman friend of McGrath has personated her," explained The Sun on August 7.  After 18 days of freedom, McGrath was shipped  back to the workhouse to fulfill his full six month sentence.

For years the ground for space at No. 525 was E. F. Donovan's Funeral Parlors.  The business would be a familiar neighborhood fixture into the 1920's.  Like Albert Kramer, Edward Donovan had domestic problems.

In 1907 his wife, Bridge, left him.  He agreed to give her $25 per week, or around $2,700 per month today.  But by the beginning of 1908 she complained that she needed more.  Edward's refusal to increase her support led to what The New York Times said was "the beginning of the quarrel."

The quarrel ended violently.  On January 23, 1908 Bridget waited outside the funeral parlor for two and a half hours.  Finally Edward walked out.  The Times reported that she "shot her husband, Edward, through the chin, wounding him painfully, but not seriously."  Bridget was locked up for felonious assault while Edward was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital.  There "it was found that the bullet had passed through the husband's chin and left cheek."

Following Prohibition the corner store was converted to a saloon, owned in part by James McCann.  He closed up early on the morning of September 16, 1935 and headed to his home on West 15th Street.  He never made it there.

At around 2:30 that morning he was found dead on the sidewalk in front of No. 700 Greenwich Street with a bullet wound to the head.  The police deemed it a suicide, The New York Times reporting "They were told McCann had been drinking heavily."

The first decades of the 20th century saw Greenwich Village become the epicenter of Manhattan's artist colony.  By mid-century No. 521 was home to several struggling artists who lived and worked in their apartments.  Among them was Virginia Admiral, who had divorced her artist husband Robert De Niro in 1945.  She moved in with their son, Robert De Niro, Jr.    The boy, of course, became one of the best known motion picture actors of all time.  According to Andy Dougan in his Untouchable: Robert De Niro: Unauthorised, he and his mother remained in "an unheated top-floor tenement" here for "a year or so."

Frank Serpico was a New York City cop in the late 1960's when corruption was rampant among the force.  His information led to corruption charges against 20 policemen and a clean-up of the NYPD.  In the summer of 1971, now a detective, he heard rumors that 46-year old Angelo Pacelli, a building inspector, was extorting money and taking bribes from property owners.

As it happened, Serpico was friends with Robert Shulman, who managed No. 525 Hudson Street.  He provided Shulman with marked bills and when Pacelli dropped by for his payment, the trap was sprung.  On June 17 Pacelli was arrested on "charges of extortion, receiving [a] bribe, and official misconduct," as reported by The New York Times.

By now the days of funeral parlors, butcher shops and saloons in the Hudson Street block were gone.  This section of Greenwich Village filled with antique stores, wine stores and cafes as a new wave of residents took over the old apartment buildings.

The stores at Nos. 519 and 521 were joined to become home to the House of Treasures antiques store in the late 1960's, then The Village Stripper in the 1970's.  The shop would strip off years of paint from old furniture using a chemical process.  It was following by the Yankee Peddler antiques shop in the late 1970's before becoming home to the Cowgirl Hall of Fame restaurant.

No. 523 was home to the Cadet General Store, Inc. in 1981.  The clothing store was the brain child of Joe De Filippis, who stood 5 feet, 5 inches tall.  It provided apparel to men under 5' 8".  He explained to The New York Times journalist Ron Alexander on July 19 that year "We short guys are neglected by stores."

For more than a decade, starting in 1990, Taylor's Prepared Food & Bake Shop was at No. 523, followed by Elixir, which sold healthful smoothies and juices, and then The Meadow where vegan chocolate can be had.

E. F. Donovan's Funeral Parlor had become A Pilgrim's Progress in 1973 where Dick Dulany and Philip Balestrino sold antique furniture.  It was followed by another antiques shop, The Salvage Barn, and in 1986 by the eccentric Statue of Liberty Gallery.  It sold only items relating to the monument, like vintage snowglobes and souvenirs.  Since 2009 the space has been home to Mexicana Mama restaurant.

Without the considerable talent of Rentz & Lange, the block of buildings could have been ponderous.  Instead, the visually entertaining structures continue to command attention.

photographs by the author

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