Thursday, September 6, 2018

Unlikely Relics Soon to Go - 254 and 256 West 14th St

The row of three-story brick faced dwellings on the south side of 14th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues might have seemed doomed in the early 1850's.  Although fine homes themselves and only about a decade old, the neighborhood was luring wealthy citizens and by the mid 1850's the street would be lined with fashionable, high-stooped brick and brownstone residences.

Nos. 132 and 134 had no such stoops.  Nor did they overtly announce the high status of their owners, as the new homes did.  Trimmed in brownstone they were a comfortable three bays wide.  And while not so ostentatious as their newer neighbors, they were home to upper middle class families.

The unnamed lady who lived in No. 132 in February 1859 placed an advertisement in The New York Herald after she arrived home to find she had dropped an expensive veil.  "Lost--in going from No. 132 West Fourteenth street to the corner of Seventh avenue and Thirteenth street, or in a Seventh avenue omnibus, a black lace veil.  The finder will receive the above reward and the thanks of the owner by leaving it at 132 West Fourteenth street."  The $5 reward offered would equal a little more than $150 today.

It may have been Mrs. Charles Minton, Sr. who dropped the veil.  The Mintons were living in the house in the mid 1860's.  Like most well-to-do women, she was active in charities and for years served as a manager of The Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females on East 20th Street.

She was looking for a personal maid in 1864, one with broad talents.  Her advertisement read "Wanted--A woman as seamstress and lady's maid; must understand dressmaking and hairdressing, and come well recommended."

In the meantime the Mintons' next door neighbors at No. 134 were the family of James Breath.   Breath was a member of the St. Nicholas Society (its membership was limited to descendants of families who had been in New York prior to 1785), and the New-York Historical Society.

Like his neighbor, he was involved in charitable work and served as treasurer of the Sheltering Arms.  More than an orphanage, the institution took in children whose mothers were jailed or whose parents could no longer care for them because of sickness or other reasons.  He was also a trustee of the public schools and in 1856 had been elected a director of the Sixth Avenue Railroad.

By the mid 1870's West 14th Street had been renumbered, giving the two houses the addresses of Nos. 254 and 256.  No. 254 was being operated as a respectable boarding house.  Among those renting accommodations in 1875 was Miss Ella A. Toten, who taught in the Primary Department of Grammar School No. 35 on 13th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

The Hammel family, who boarded at No. 254 before long, had a problem child on their hands.  After Margaret Hammel did not return home in December 1880, the 17-year old was found in the home of Frank Day on West 53rd Street.  Day was arrested "on the charge of having enticed [her] from her home," as reported in The New York Times.

On December 16 all parties appeared in court.  When it was Margaret's turn to testify, she shocked everyone present.  The Times reported "The girl having said that the accused had not abducted her, the prisoner was discharged.  The wayward Margaret was taken home by her parents."  One can imagine the dialogue between the "wayward Margaret" and her parents when they arrived back at No. 254 West 14th Street."

At the time of Margaret's indiscretion the 14th Street block was rapidly seeing change.  The sumptuous parlors of the brownstone houses were being converted to shops as one-by-one their moneyed owners moved northward.

The ground floor of No. 256 had been converted to a store by 1888 when John Loschiavo received his permit to keep a fruit stand on the sidewalk.  The family run grocery was still here in 1900 when Giovanni Loschiavo operated it.  Edward Giraux ran the store next door at No. 254 at least by 1895 when he got his own permit for a sidewalk stand.

The 20th century saw more change come to the block.  Old brick and brownstone houses were demolished to be replaced with apartment buildings.   The site of Nos. 254 and 256 was ripe for development, sitting only steps from Eighth Avenue.  Yet they remained.

In 1931 the ground floor of No. 254 became a pharmacy, while upstairs was a meeting room.  It was used by their American Graphological Society for its monthly meetings.  The drugstore was replaced by Pappas Restaurant in the early 1940's.

Founded and run by Paul G. Morfogen, it was a popular spot for years.  Morfogen had to answer for his pricey menu, however, in 1944.  On June 1 The New York Times reported that the Office of Price Administration had issued an injunction on the restaurant "against alleged violation of ceiling prices."

Patrons were forgiving, however.  As the retirement of Captain Duncan Cook, master of the Grace Line passenger vessel Santa Barbara, neared in 1953 the officers and staff of the steamship threw his farewell dinner here.  The restaurant was still going strong in 1955 when Paul Morgofen died.

Next door at the time the International Brotherhood of Teamsters had offices.   As the century drew to a close it was home to a liquor store and later a bodega.

Now vacant, the two venerable and beleaguered former houses await demolition.
And then, what had seemed inevitable more than a century and a half earlier finally came to pass.  In October 2017 permits "for full demolition" were issued on the properties.

photographs by the author


  1. Thanks for keeping vigil on the tragic disposability of old New York. The corner place was near work, some years back, and I used to get lunch there. I walked past that little brick edifice hundreds of times without considering its history - probably because 'old' typified so much in that area, creating a kind of settled-in comfort. Now it is being sacrificed to a developer's mentality, which is always profoundly terrifying.

  2. I realize these little relics approaching 180 years old, are not individual landmarks, but it is extremely disheartening to know that today's developers and communities don't comprehend the lasting loss to the neighborhood when historical buildings like these are bulldozed. Goodbye to your sense of place, the local flavor, the streetscape, some sense of human scale to the pedestrian experience and the history of the street itself. All is lost. It is a shame someone isn't savvy enough to incorporate them into the new construction. Since discovering your blog a few years ago, it is sad to know that a number of gems you have highlighted have already been demolished.