Monday, October 1, 2018

A Lost Vestige -- 21 Pearl Street

Its shutters battered and the clapboards rotting, No. 21 Pearl Street sat among modern business buildings when this shot was taken in the 1890's.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The Continental Army had abandoned New York City prior to the British landing in lower Manhattan on September 15, 1776.  On the night of September 20 fire broke out in the Fighting Cocks Tavern, near Whitehall Slip.  Fanned by strong winds, the fire grew to an inferno, spreading north and west and burning throughout the night.  By morning between 400 and 1,000 buildings were destroyed--upwards of 25 percent of the city's structures.  The British blamed the patriots of arson, the revolutionists accused the British of the same.

Whatever the cause of the devastation, a massive rebuilding effort was necessary following the Revolution.  Pearl Street, always a high-end residential neighborhood, continued as such with handsome Georgian and Federal-style brick-faced homes lining its sidewalks by the 1810's and '20's.

Among them was No. 21 Pearl Street, just west of  Whitehall Street.  Its architect handled the awkward plot by angling one of its four bays, so the house followed the contour of the street.  The red brick was trimmed in stone, possibly marble, and two dormers originally pierced the pitched roof.

It is unclear who originally owned and lived at No. 21, but by 1835 it was home to the Consul General of France, Adel Charles Lacathou de la Forest.  Its parlors would have seen receptions for visiting French dignitaries and American diplomats.  But moneyed homeowners would soon be leaving Pearl Street, relocating away from the bustling seaport and new commercial buildings rising all around.

By 1845 No. 21 was used as the offices of The General Mutual Insurance Co., underwriters of sailing ships.  Among the ships it insured was the St. Patrick, whose owners had taken out $10,000 coverage on December 18, 1844 on "the freight of goods, laden or to be laden on the ship."  It was a significant amount, equal to about a third of a million dollars today.  A clause in the policy, "against total loss only," would cause problems later.

The St. Patrick left New York bound for Liverpool on October 6, 1846 with a full cargo (including bales of cotton, barrels of turpentine, half-barrels of beef and barrels of pork among other commodities).  It ran into "repeated storms and hurricanes, was rendered leaky, and was so badly strained and injured as to be obliged to seek a port of necessity," said court papers later, "and the master put her back for New York."  In order to make it home, the crew tossed cargo overboard.

On November 5 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald.  The General Mutual Insurance Co. asked that "The Passengers and Crew who were on board the Ship St. Patrick on her late unsuccessful voyage, hereby call upon the Underwriters connected with the Insurance of said Ship and Cargo."  The firm promised that any "testimony they are able to give respecting the disaster" would "prove to their advantage."

The ship's owner, David Ogden, went to court when The General Mutual Insurance Co. refused to pay.  The cargo was not a total loss, it said.  The implication was that the terms of the policy would only be in effect had the crew dumped the entire cargo into the sea.  The jury disagreed and awarded Ogden the $10,000 payment.

But General Mutual appealed, necessitating a new trial.  The case dragged on until May of 1853.  The award was overturned since the voyage was deemed "completed," once the ship was repaired and replacement cargo delivered.  Ogden was awarded $2,495.81--a fraction of his loss.

By the time the case was finally settled, the insurance company had moved on, replaced at No. 21 Pearl Street by auctioneer John Fishblatt.  The location near the docks made it convenient for his selling what appears to be wide variety of unclaimed freight.  On June 15, 1852, for instance, he auctioned "21 chests of Tea; 20 barrels of Paints; 156 cases of Claret; 20 cases of Sherry, of 1842; 20 cases of Madeira, of 1836; 40 cases Champagne; 30 M Segars; 4 patent Wagons; 4 Buggy Wagons; 6 Pianos, &c, &c."

Fishblatt moved to Nassau Street in 1853, replaced by J. St. C. Queen who dealt in industrial hardware.  On November 19, 1864 he advertise a new shipment of mill picks--the devices used to chisel ridges into mill stones.  "To Millers--Superior mill picks, manufactured from the best cast steel, weighing two, two and a half and three pounds.  Warranted to give entire satisfaction."

In the meantime, rooms on the upper floor were rented to sailors.  In 1868 a cabin boy named Wallace took a room here.  The young man's romance with a neighborhood girl was thwarted by his life at sea.  But within 15 years he would rise to captain of the ocean-going square riggers.

In 1882 John Gatjen and Henry Oest formed Gatjen & Oest here.  A Souvenir of New York's Liquor Interest described it as "a reputable and ably conducted wine and lunch-room in the lower end of the city."  The article noted it "is largely patronized by first-class business men."  The swanky lunchtime restaurant was successful enough that Gatjen & Oest moved to the Exchange Hotel in 1886.

The last vestiges of the elegance at No. 21 Pearl Street went with it.  One of the last relics of the 1820's on the street, it became headquarters for contractor John C. Anderson.  Highly successful, he was responsible for renovations for building owners and architects as well as erecting entire buildings.  The old brick stable which still stood in the rear yard was converted in part to a carpentry shop.

Ironically, the man who was responsible for handsome renovations of other buildings ignored his own.  No. 21 Pearl Street was given no outward maintenance, becoming more and more dilapidated looking.

Then, in 1908 the venerable old house was sold at auction.  It was purchased by Thomas J. Dobbins for $25,500--about $695,000 today.  Dobbins was not paying for a historic house, but for the valuable property it sat upon.  It was quickly replaced by a five-story commercial building.

An ironic twist in the story occurred just after the new building was completed.  A grizzled old sailor was puzzled when he turned onto Pearl Street to see the old house gone.  The New-York Tribune reported "The old skipper had not been to New York for forty years, and he thought it strange that new buildings had sprung up in the streets."  He was the former cabin boy, Wallace.

He had returned in search of his former love.  So, according to the New-York Tribune, he did not mind so much that No. 21 Pearl Street was gone, "as his inability to find 'that old sweetheart of mine' whose married name he could not recall."  The newspaper said "The old skipper wore good clothes and apparently had plenty of money."  He headed off to a Whitehall Street restaurant hoping to dig up a clue for his quest.

"In the restaurant he asked about the merry widow who lived before they were born, but they could throw no light on the mystery."  Determined, he then said he would check at the Statue of Liberty, since "he knew some soldiers stationed there before he left New York who could perhaps tell him where his old sweetheart was.  Before leaving the restaurant he told the waitresses that he could buy the restaurant, building and all."

The bend in Pearl Street marks the location of the old house.


  1. Replies
    1. Glad you liked it. This particular building fascinated me

  2. This was a great entry.

  3. Very interesting. Thanks for the research, Tom.
    The juxtaposition between the dilapidated century-old (?) building, and the newer one to its left in the 1890s photo, is remarkable.

  4. Very interesting info of old New York. love hearing about the old patriots.