Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Much Altered Daniel M. Edgar House - 862 Broadway

New York City residents and doctors were no strangers to yellow fever in 1793.  The most recent outbreak of the disease, two years earlier, had claimed 100 lives.  Now Philadelphia suffered an epidemic that would grow to terrifying proportions.  Five-thousand people, one-tenth of that city's population, would succumb.

New York went on the defensive, refusing ships from Philadelphia into its harbor and placing 24-hour watchmen along the riverfront on guard against fugitives.  But the insidious disease found its way in anyway.  The first death came in July 1795.   Within about a one-week period in August twenty-one people died.

Those who could afford to leave the city did so, moving the fresh air of remote hamlets like Greenwich Village.  Some businesses moved north, following their patrons, or opened what were considered temporary branch offices.   Realizing that if the epidemic was not gotten under control it would have to move, in 1806 the Manhattan Bank Company purchased a rural plot of land, one acre square, from Edward Williams.   Facing Broadway at the southeast corner of what would become 17th Street, the land would remain vacant for decades.

By the 1830's the expansion of the city was nearing the area.  Another banker, Samuel Ruggles, spearheaded the creation of Union Square in 1832,  to be an exclusive enclave of upscale homes surrounding a tranquil fenced garden with a central fountain.   After the park was completed in 1842 the surrounding lots filled with handsome residences of moneyed families.

The Manhattan Bank Company began construction of four speculative brick-faced homes in 1847.  Completed the following year, the Greek Revival style houses were an ample 25-feet wide and four stories tall.  The southernmost, at what would be renumbered No. 862 about a decade later, slightly angled away from its neighbors, following the curve of Broadway.

It was purchased by Daniel M. Edgar in 1849.  Edgar had married Julia Lorillard nine years earlier, on December 4.  The socially-prestigious couple had six children.  Edgar's substantial wealth was hinted at by his subscription to John J. Audubon's Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.  On March 11, 1843 the New-York Daily Tribune had remarked "It is to be issued in about thirty numbers, at intervals of two months...Each number will contain five plates, and be sold for ten dollars."  The total outlay in today's dollars would be about $10,300 today.  (When completed the "numbers" were consolidated into three handsomely-bound leather volumes.)

The relentless northward march of commerce pushed the wealthy homeowners away surprisingly soon.  Around 1851 the Edgars were gone and the ground level of their once-elegant home was converted to a drugstore owned by Thomas Merceau.  The upper floors were conducted as a boarding house by Margaret Gombault and Sarah Monfort, two respectable widows.

The women's reputations became somewhat tarnished following the death of a boarder, James Bach on October 31, 1856.  Bach was not only advanced in years--his age was estimated at between 68 and 70 when he died--he was deaf and apparently suffering from dementia.

Following a fall in December 1855, he had been confined to the house.  On April 28, 1856 he executed a will which left his entire estate to his landladies.  Although Bach had no known relatives, the Public Administrator of the City of New York was suspicious of foul play.  He intervened, holding up the settlement of the estate until a hearing took place in March 1857.

The Public Administrator charged the women with "undue influence" and pointed out to the judge that Bach could "neither speak, nor write, nor signify his wishes to such an extent of detail as would seem reasonable."  In addition, he described Bach as suffering from "softening of the brain."

On the other hand, several witness spoke on the women's behalf.  They testified that Bach had been close friends with Mr. Gombault and had promised him on the latter's deathbed that he would see that Margaret was taken care of.  Several witnesses said he had told them that "Mrs. Gombault and Mrs. Monfort should have what he had to leave."  At the end of the case the judge ruled that the execution of the will "was a reasonable act" and the widows were vindicated.

In the first years after the end of the Civil War the Merceau drugstore had become home to Charles Cogneron's saloon.  Although the neighborhood was still upscale and the saloon was no doubt stylish, catering to a refined class of gentlemen, Cogneron continually disregarded the Sunday liquor laws.  The courts had had enough on June 16, 1868 when he appeared once again.  The following day The New York Times reported that his liquor license had been revoked.

The saloon was made over into a restaurant, Daprato & Gati's Eating Place, which remained into the 1870's.  Meanwhile, the second floor was home to the elegant millinery and accessories shop of M. Miles.  In 1871 the business was purchased by Imogene Walton, who renamed it Maison Walton.  Here well-to-do women shopped for the latest in European accessories.

Mme. Walton, as Imogene styled herself, routinely sailed to London and Paris to shop for the latest fashions.  Her advertisements stressed that her latest offerings were au courant.  On June 11 1871 she advertised "have just received a choice and recherche assortment of English Round Hats, imported expressly for the races; among them are copies of hats worn at the late Derby, received from Brown, 13 and 14 New Bond street, London."

Victorian women were expected to dress in black for a year following the deaths of a near relative, such as a father or husband.  "Widows' weeds" could nevertheless be modish and Imogene Walton offered "a choice selection of Mourning Suits received from leading houses" of Europe.

The New York Herald described the stock at Maison Walton on September 29, 1875, saying the display of fall fashions "was as complex as even the most variable feminine mind.  The head gear of the ladies being the principal question among the fair ones at present, a few specimens of the leading styles...will be of interest."

On February 14, 1880 an unusual paragraph appeared in The New York Times:

I bear testimony unsolicited to the wonderful curative powers of the Holman liver pad treatment.  Suffered years with liver complaint, pain in right and left side; have not had a good night's rest for the last year.  My little girl was cured from alarming symptoms of headache.  Both well.
H. A. Beach
No. 61 & Chestnut-street, Philadelphia

Exactly one month later another insertion appeared in the newspaper:  "No medicine, no bleeding, no torture, in the use of the Holman Liver Pad Company's remedies.  Consultation free.  No. 862 Broadway."

Dr. George W. Holman had established his firm just months before.  He advertised Holman's Fever and Ague and Liver Pad saying "Cures without medicine, simply by Absorption...The only true cure for, and preventative of Malaria, in all its forms.  Liver Complaint, Jaundice, Dyspepsia, Rheumatism, Yellow Fever, Sea-Sickness, Neuralgia, Bilious Disorders, &c., &c."

He boosted the effects of his panacea by plastering a shirtless picture of himself on the label and on the mandatory U.S. Internal Revenue tax stamps.  He also produced and sold "Spleen Belts, Abdominal Pads, Pectoral Pads and Absorptive Medicinal Foot Plasters."  The foot plasters, sold for 25 cents per pair, were promised to cure "cold Feet, Headaches and Sluggish Circulation."

Holman's tax stamp and label featured the doctor shockingly shirtless.
Newspapers in the 19th century were unapologetic in their political biases.  The New York Sun was vehemently pro-Republican and when Dr. Holman ran for public office in 1883 it attacked.  In a scathing editorial on October 16, it said the candidate "weights about 140 pounds," suggesting that his remedies did not result in the robust results he claimed.   Additionally, the newspaper dug up a photo of the Rev. Luke Smith, a Methodist minister who had murdered his wife about 15 years earlier, and passed it off as Dr. Holman.

The New York Times was quick to react, charging The Sun with purposefully derailing Holman's political chances.  Not only did The Sun mention his weight, but "It was unnecessary, and hence sheer cruelty, to publish an alleged portrait of Holman, which cannot fail to fill every beholder with a wild desire to vote against him at once and forever."

The article went on to say "Mr. Holman may not be as handsome as the published portraits of the inventor of the Holman Liver Pad represent him to be, but it really passes the limits of permissible joking to depict him as he is represented in the Sun's alleged portrait."  It called the photo "absurdly libelous."

Clearing snow in the 1890's was an arduous job requiring an army of workers.  In the background No. 862 sports a massive second-story show window and cast iron storefront.  photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1882 the newly-formed Germicide Company had moved into the building.  The firm made and marketing one product, described by Finance and Industry in 1886 as a "simple, effective apparatus for counteracting the poisonous emanations from sewers and the drainage system."  The Germicide Company did not sell its apparatus, but only rented it.  Its employees regularly maintained the devices, a service included in the rental fee.

The mechanism was attached to the toilet and when the lid was raised and lowered, it released a solution of chloride of zinc.  Finance and Industry stressed "at a mere nominal expense, without care or annoyance, the dwelling, store or office is effectually and permanently protected from that lurking, deadly danger, sewer gas poisoning."

The Germicide Company remained at No. 862 Broadway at least through 1888.  In the mid-1890's the store became home to Errico Brothers, run by Joseph A. and Vincent A. Errico.  Their gallery, established in 1859, catered to the carriage trade which still haunted the Union Square neighborhood shops.  One advertisement boasted that Errico Brothers "are now showing Italy's grandest productions in Marble Statuary, Glassware, Falence, Carved Furniture, &c. and an exceptionally fine and large assortment of Tortoise Shell goods.  This is the finest import that ever came to this country."

Oddly enough, in 1897 Errico Brothers moved the business almost directly across the street, to No. 867 Broadway.  The shop became home to a similar business, the antiques store of Herbert L. Greenbaum.

At about 6:00 on the evening of September 11, 1901--only about half an hour after firemen had extinguished a blaze in the Everett House hotel around the corner--smoke was seen coming from the basement of No. 862.  The New-York Tribune noted "the ground floor and basement of the building are occupied by Herbert L. Greenbaum, dealer in antiques, silks, embroideries and rugs."  Firemen rushed into the basement when suddenly "a gas pipe broke and gas escaped freely and mixed with the other odors in the cellar, overcoming the firemen."

Every one of the fire fighters fell to the floor, the last one being Captain Shea who was able to yell "Help us out!" just before he lost consciousness.   Police and fire fighters pulled out the half a dozen victims and laid them on the sidewalk while ambulances from the New York Hospital were called for.  One by one they came to.  But one, Francis McGuire, awoke irrational.

The New York Times reported "He went from unconsciousness into delirium.  He seemed to  believe that his mates had been killed and he jumped up suddenly, hit the fireman next to him in the face, and rushed to the cellar hole.  He peered down and cried out, 'Too bad,' and then ran up and down the street, shouting wildly."  Five fire fighters restrained McGuire while a doctor administered a sedative.  After the blaze was extinguished, McGuire was taken back to the fire house where he recovered.

The fire had reached to the back of the store, but never made it higher into the building.  Much of Greenbaum's stock was damaged or destroyed.  Losses were estimated at about $75,000 today.

The repaired building was barely changed in 1909. photograph by George F. Arata from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
When repairs were completed, C. E. Riker leased the store and basement in May 1903.  A manufacturer of surgical instruments, it would remain here until about 1910.

C. E. Riker sold an early cure for snoring.
In 1910 Peter M. Reilly rented the store for his cigar shop.  He subleased half of it to the New York Barber Co.  William Miller, a trunk manufacturer, leased the second floor by 1913.

After being in the family for 71 years, the Daniel M. Edgar estate sold No. 862 Broadway in February 1920.  The new owner, Benjamin Morse, made immediate renovations.  The storefront was replaced and the fourth story windows were enlarged.  A barbershop, possibly the New York Barber Co., took over the second floor and the street level store was leased to a men's furnishings shop.  The upper floors were used for light manufacturing.

Erma Kraemer was employed by the barber shop in 1927 as a manicurist.  The New York Times described her as "a former dancer" after she was questioned about a high profile burglary in Great Neck, Long Island in November the previous year.  Erma was involved with James F. Monaghan, alias "Boston Billy" Williams.  Police described him as an "alleged second-story man and society burglar."  

Monaghan had been in the process of looting the mansion of Nathan Jonas when the owner and his wife surprised him.  The Times explained "Mr. and Mrs. Jonas said that they were dining alone when they heard a noise upstairs, and when Mr. Jonas went to investigate he was confronted by Monaghan, who held him up with a pistol."

On July 13, 1927 Erma was summoned to police headquarters for questioning.  She remained true to her boyfriend; District Attorney Elvin N. Edwards saying she "did not divulge any information of importance."  She was nevertheless subpoenaed as a witness at Boston Billy's trial.
Photographed in 1935, the top floor windows are now noticeably larger and an unsightly fire escape has been added.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Depression years saw the Family Shoe Corp. headquarters in the building.  In 1934 the property was sold at auction.  It was most likely not long after that the brick parapet was installed, replacing the 1848 cornice.

The Depression Era parapet replaced the old cornice.
 Throughout the 20th century the building remained little changed.  By 2008 the top two floors had been converted to rental apartments--one per floor.  The property was offered for sale that year for $15 million.  The first and second floors at the time were occupied by a shoe store and a yoga studio.

Somewhat amazingly No. 862 and the other three houses retain much of their 1848 domestic appearance above the lower floors--their mere survival after 170 years nearly miraculous.

photographs by the author

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