Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Gabriel Winter House - 242 West 14th Street




On February 4, 1848 The New York Herald reported that the "house and lease of lot 120 West 14th st." had been sold for $6,500.  The price, just over $200,000 today, reflected the increasingly fashionable tenor of the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.  Older buildings were being replaced with the homes of some of New York's wealthiest citizens.

The property was purchased by wealthy lawyer and developer Gabriel Winter.  His family's summer estate in Flushing, New York (a one-hour ride from Manhattan) was "well known and much admired," according to one newspaper.  The 18-room mansion, constructed for year-round use if necessary, sat on acres of manicured grounds and fruit orchards.  Winter imported "fruits, ornamental trees, flowers, plants and shrubbery" for its "beautifully arranged grounds" from nurseries in Europe, according to one description.

Recognizing the the potential of the bucolic Flushing area, Winter built upscale homes near his own estate.  On May 12, 1852 he advertised:

Country Residence--To Let or For Sale several new and beautiful Rural Gothic Cottages, of various sizes and prices, situated in the village of Flushing, L.I., with which there is communication several times a day, by steamboat and omnibus.  The beauty and salubrity of the village, and its proximity to the city, render it a very desirable residence, both winter and summer.

While he had worked on that project, Winter replaced the old structure at No. 120 West 14th Street with an imposing new residence.  Completed in 1853 the Italianate-style house was faced in brownstone and rose four stories above an English basement.  At 25-feet wide it held its own with the other fine dwellings in the fashionable neighborhood.

Also living in the house with Winter and his wife, Jane, were their adult son, William; their daughter, Mary Jane and her husband John Livingston; and the two Livingston boys, Mortimer and Henry.  Children within the house necessitated an extra servant.  On December 19, 1853 the family advertised for a "Protestant Nurse and Seamstress Wanted--American preferred.  One who can bring good reference, understands the care of children, and is a good seamstress."

Makers of patent medicines routinely called themselves "Dr." whether that title was earned or not.  And they often used the names of well-respected and known citizens to market their products.  And so Dr. Galutia B. Smith's advertisement in April 1858 for his "Electric Oil" (disguised as a testimonial sworn to before the mayor) certified that "John Livingston, Esq., No. 120 West Fourteenth street, New York,...was cured of a very painful illness by the electric oil."

Mary Jane Livingston died that year.  John and the boys remained in the house amid comfortable surroundings.  The Guide Book to New York City listed Gabriel Winter within its section "Wealthy Men in New York City" in 1860, reporting his fortune at $1 million--more than 30 times that much today.

Winter, described by The New York Herald as "a well known and highly respectable lawyer of fifty years's practice" 'died at the age of 79 on February 27, 1862.  His funeral was held in the 14th Street house two days later.  Almost immediately an ugly battle for his fortune ensued that lasted for decades and eventually exposed the villainous nature of his son-in-law.

Winter had executed a will in 1830 leaving his entire estate to his wife.  Jane remembered it well, but she was very ill at the time of her husband's death and was either unable to say where the will was hidden, or had forgotten.  Two months after her husband's death she died in the Flushing residence on April 19, "after a long and painful illness," according to The New York Herald.

Jane's will was clear.  Her entire estate was to go to her sister, Amelia Cornfield while she lived, and then to William Winter.  Upon his death, the estate would pass to the Livingston boys.  But, as explained by The New York Times, "The will of Gabriel Winter not having been found, Mrs. Winter's will became of no value."

William left West 14th Street immediately, moving full-time into the Flushing mansion.  Livingston and his new wife, Octavia, and the boys remained.  In what must have seemed a cold-hearted move to William, the Livingstons emptied the Manhattan house at public auction only four days after Jane's death.  The announcement listed costly furnishings "consisting of Parlor Suits in rosewood and brocatel, Parlor Carpets, French plate Mantel Mirrors" and "a very valuable Law Library, all belonging to the estate of Gabriel Winter, deceased."  The sale was apparently done so the Livingstons could redecorate, replacing the somewhat outdated appointments (albeit only about a decade old).

Four months later a son, John was born.  The family was still in the house in November 1865 when the toddler died of "congestion of the brain."

But before then Livingston, a lawyer, had seen an opportunity to provide for his sons (and himself, by association).  William, declared the sole inheritor as next of kin, was an eccentric.  Using his sometimes odd behavior as evidence, Livingston set out have him declared insane.  The New York Times explained it bluntly saying "the Livingstons attempted to shut him up in a lunatic asylum."  Had he been successful, the Winter fortune would pass to Mortimer and Henry.  But, after 35 hearings and 84 witnesses, William Winter was deemed "of sane mind."

So Livingston tried a different route.  William's attorney throughout that process was Daniel C. Birdsall.  The Times later explained "when the proceedings in court were over [Birdsall] became very friendly with Livingstone [sic].  He pretended to Winter, however, that he was still opposed to Livingstone [sic], who, he said, was determined to succeed in incarcerating the former in a lunatic asylum, and in getting control of his property."

Birdsall succeeded in convincing William to sign a deed of trust to protect his assets.  It gave the lawyer control over the estate, which he now co-managed with Livingston.  The agreement said that upon William's death, the property was to go to his nephews  Although William strenuously objected to the clause, since the only nephews he had were Mortimer and Henry, whom he intensely disliked, Birdsall cajoled him into signing.

By the late 1860's the Livingstons had left the former Winter home.  By now West 14th Street had been renumbered, giving the house the new address of No. 242.   Although the property was owned by William Winter, Livingston controlled it through his close dealings with Birdsall.  Perhaps his first tenant was John C. Hart, an officer in the New York Horticultural Society, and member of the American Art-Union.  He died in the house at the age of 50 on May 3, 1872.

Livingston next leased the house to a young couple, Samuel and Anna E. Crump.  Their tenancy would be short.  Shortly after the funeral of their infant daughter, Anna Riker Crump, a victim of cholera infantum, on August 3 1873, they moved out.

In December an advertisement in The New York Herald announced "To Let, unfurnished, the fine large house, No. 242 West Fourteenth street; in good order."  It was leased to a family who took in boarders, and their advertisements hint at the religious discrimination so rampant at the time.

In November 1874 they advertised "A Jewish family can accommodate those wishing double back Parlors.  Board unsurpassed; house first class."  And in September the following year an advertisement in The New York Herald read "A First Class Jewish Boarding House has now vacant splendid front and back rooms; excellent board."

Meanwhile, William Winter realized he had been hoodwinked all these years.  Following Birdsall's death, Samuel F. Webster took control of the trust; but he, too, seems to have been in cahoots with Livingston.  He was later deemed "unfaithful to his trust."  Webster resigned and was replaced by the courts with John H. White.  Now William sued to revoke the deed of trust entirely.

On January 25, 1879 The Times reported "An old man named William Winter, now almost 70 years of age, has, for more than 10 years been trying to set aside a deed of trust which he executed to Daniel C. Birdsall in 1863."  Winter told the courts the deed was procured by Birdsall by "deceit and fraud" and that the lawyer "was in collusion with John Livingston, who was desirous of depriving him of his property."

The Times said "Winter dislikes John Livingstone [sic], and he seems not to have any love for the latter's sons, and, as he considers that he has been very badly treated since he allowed the control of his property to go out of his hands, he is very anxious that the deed of trust should be vacated."

John Livingston appeared as attorney for his sons.  The trial began on January 24, 1879.  On February 1, The Times reported "Winter was on the stand for several days" and explained his story "with wonderful clearness."   Winter emerged victorious.  The verdict declared that the deed of trust had been obtained by "false representations, duress, and undue influence."

Livingston seems to have made one last attempt at revenge.  On April 1, 1881 he found Gabriel Winter's long lost will hidden in one of his law books.  He turned it over to the Surrogate Court with full knowledge that now Jane's will was valid and his sons would inherit William's entire estate upon his death.  The real estate alone included the 14th Street house, the Flushing estate as well as four "large residences" there, seven buildings on Greenwich Street, four on Sixth Avenue, and three on Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

William went back to court, pleading that the statute of limitations had passed and alleging that "John Livingston had unfairly concealed for many years his knowledge of the existence of the will of 1830."  Judge Donohue agreed and dismissed Livingston's case to reinstate the terms of the newly "discovered" will.

Around 1887 Mary M. Hungerford purchased the Winter house.  She leased it to The Arlington League, a social club organized several years earlier for men interested in the theater.  Appleton's Dictionary of New York and its Vicinity in 1889 placed it among its list of "Amateur Dramatic Societies," "some of which have considerable reputation for the excellent manner in which they produce standard plays."  The Arlington League, it mentioned, did not "give public performances in large places of amusement."

Although theatrical in its interests, the club was nonetheless exclusive and its members wealthy.  In reporting on the club's opening on the night of May 11, 1888, The Evening World reported "Silks and satins rustled, diamonds flashed, and fair faces were plentiful in the new club-house of the Arlington Leaague, 242 West Fourteenth street, last night.  For once ladies were allowed within the sacred precincts"

The article said "The new quarters are handsomely furnished and well arranged.  It has a billiard parlor on the second floor, and last night several of the pretty girls made desperate attempts to play."  The reporter listed the gowns and jewelry, one by one, of each of the women present, describing, for instance, "Mrs. J. D. Shaw, black silk, with a black lace overdress; the corsage cut in a wide V; a dog collar of black velvet, caught with a diamond lace bar."  An orchestra played music for dancing.

The Arlington League had moved on by 1890 and No. 242 was once again a boarding house.  Minnie Williams, described by The Sun as a "soubrette" (a music hall actress) lived here in August 1890 when she learned that her sister, Jennie (also a soubrette, according to The Sun) was to be married in England.

Jennie was 21-years-old and had been performing since she was 10.  In the fall of 1899 she was working at Tony Pastor's Theatre.  "She executed a skirt dance that caught the fancy of a London manager, and he induced her to cross the water."  Her mother went with her for respectability's sake.

One night, after her performance at the Alhambra Theatre in London, a bouquet was tossed to her from the audience.  "Among the flowers was a diamond necklace with pendant star."  It did not take the young entertainer long to discover her admirer, Laurence Joseph Petre of Coptfold Hall in Essex.  After a whirlwind romance that included many presents, including a carriage, the two were engaged.

Jennie's less-fortunate sister left No. 242 West 14th Street on August 13, 1890 to sail on the Germanic to attend the wedding.

Another resident,Frederick Weaverson, was given use of the parlor floor on February 12, 1891 for the funeral of James Redpath.  The noted abolitionist, journalist and author had been knocked down by a Fourth Avenue streetcar a week earlier.  Calling him a patriot, The New York Times reported that approximately 300 people viewed his casket.  "The body, in a simple black casket, rested on a bier in the drawing room."

His varied career and causes were exemplified in the range of mourners.  "There were a large number of negroes present, giving evidence by their tears and bowed heads of the obligation of their race to the deceased.  Men with strong sympathies for the Irish cause were present in large numbers in recognition of the service that Redpath had rendered Ireland.  There was a sprinkling of newspaper men and a general representation of the many 'advanced movements' which exist with the hope of some day bringing society to the ideal standard."

Mary M. Hungerford sold No. 242 at auction on March 31, 1894.  The Times reported "the price of $46,000 obtained...was far in excess of what anybody expected" and explained "a little quarrel between rival women bidders caused some undue enhancement of price."

Josephine A. Horandt was the successful bidder.  In 1897 she hired architect Frank Bayliss to renovate the lower floors for commercial purposes, including the installation of a two-story storefront.  While many domestic-to-commercial renovations of the time could be called slap-dash, Bayliss's cast iron storefront was striking--a hefty combination of shallow paneled pilasters, expansive windows, and handsome cornices.

In 1900 the architectural partnership of Newman & Duncan operated from the parlor floor, while Adolph Chobotsky ran a branch office of the Prudential Insurance Company downstairs.  Artist Jerome Myers had recently moved into a studio on the top floor, becoming the first of a succession of artists to call No. 242 home.  Associated with the current Ashcan School, he would become known for his empathetic depictions of city life.

Myers paid $7 a month for his room with its skylight (also part of the Bayliss renovations, no doubt).  Living in the house next door was painter Edward Adam Kramer, who was instrumental in Myers' discovery.  When an art dealer arrived to view his work one afternoon, Kramer told him to visit Myers' studio as well.  William Macbeth purchased two paintings and invited him to bring other pieces to his gallery.

Myers The Playground was painting around the time he lived at No. 242 West 14th Street.
In 1912 the parlor floor level was shared by dentists Guy Campbell and Samuel L Good.  A variety of small shops and businesses came and went over the succeeding years.

In the Depression years at least two artists lived upstairs.  Gaston Longchamp and Moses Soyer both worked for the Public Works of Art Project.  And both continued the tradition of the Ashcan School (in fact, Soyer had studied under Ashcan School masters Robert Henri and George Bellows).  They were among the group of painters later termed the Fourteenth Street School.

Moses Soyer painted Men at the Mission in 1935 while living here.  His works would eventually hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art among other esteemed institutions.

The artistic tradition continued when, in 1958, Franz Kline moved in to a second floor room.  He was a pioneer in Abstract Expressionism along with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Ann Douglas, writing in The New York Times in 1998 about Jackson Pollock's life, mentioned "[Mark] Rothko, de Kooning and Kline were all alcoholics, but Pollock was in a class by himself."  The Morgan Library & Museum chimed in concerning Kline's drinking problem in a 2011 press release regarding a new exhibition.  It said in part:

"Lists can be telling, as in Franz Kline's receipt from John Heller's Liquor Store in Greenwich Village, dated December 31, 1960.  Presumable purchasing booze for a blowout New Year's Eve Party, Kline spent $274.51--an extravagant sum in 1960.  He had the liquor--red wines, Scotch, whisky, cognac, vermouth, and champagne--delivered to his loft at 242 West Fourteenth Street in New York City."

In the 1960's the store was home to Sansegundo, where up-to-date furniture like the $1,000 plastic dining table with a glass top could be purchased in 1968.  For more than a decade from around 1990 to 2004 motion picture buffs shopped at Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Material Store.


A renovation in 2014 resulted in four apartments--one per floor--above the basement store.  Although the architrave surrounds of the upper windows have been shaved flat and the brownstone covered with a stucco-like substance; the topmost floors retain much of their 1853 appearance, when one of New York's wealthiest citizens lived here.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. An amazing amount of history packed into one property! so many artists... I shall have to look up this address when next I go to NYC.

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