Friday, December 14, 2018

Waring's Building - 117 Varick Street

The four cast iron piers are the only surviving remnants of the original storefronts.

The brick-faced house at 117 Varick Street sat among other respectable residences in the 1830's.  Located just north of the fashionable St. John's Park, it was home to Dr. James Vere.   But significant change to the neighborhood came in 1867 when Trinity Church sold the land around St. John's Park to the Hudson River Railroad Company.  The firm immediately laid plans to replace the private park with a freight terminal.

Well-heeled homeowners fled from the noise and dirt of the rail yards.  In 1869 William E. Waring purchased the 30-foot wide house at 117 Varick Street and in December filed plans to replace it with a "5 story tenement."  The term tenement at the time covered all multi-family buildings other than hotels.

Waring was a well-known architect of commercial and tenement buildings.  This time he acted as the developer as well.  Completed the following year, his five-story brick building was designed in the highly-popular Italianate style.  The centered entrance was flanked by two shops.  The segmentally-arched openings of the identical upper floors sat on bracketed sills and wore graceful molded cornices.  The elaborate cast metal cornice could have as easily sat upon a commercial building.  Its arched pediment announced "WARING'S BUILDING 1870."

Rust is seriously attacking the northern end of the handsome cornice.

There were two apartments per floor, each separated by a central stair hall, which became home to working class tenants.  The ground floor spaces held William Adler's dry goods store and William Elling's tailor shop.

Adler opened his store on the morning of Friday morning February 24, 1871 to a shocking scene.  The New York Times reported "The premises had been feloniously entered during Thursday night, and the entire stock of the occupant carried off."   The perpetrator did not get far.

That afternoon Isaac Payor, whom the newspaper deemed "a man of suspicious character," was arrested six blocks away on Clarkson Street.  He still had $300 worth of goods stolen from Adler's store with him at the time--a haul worth a little more than $6,200 today.

At least two of the tenants used their apartments to make extra income.  The occupant of apartment 6 seems to have been running a small apparel shop.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on July 22, 1872 sought "Two First Class Operators on Wheeler & Wilson or Elliptic Sewing Machines."  And to years later, on May 15, 1874, an advertisement appeared in The Sun.  The occupant of apartment 9 looked to rent her spare bedrooms.  "A respectable woman will furnish board to a few young ladies."

A gas street light sits in front of the building in this undated photo.  Note the exterior shutters on the windows.  William Elling, the tailor, lived next door to the right.  original source unknown

In 1877 William V. Elling still ran his tailor shop on the ground floor.  It was a convenient location, since he lived next door at No. 119.  William Adler's former store was now John C. Downey's bakery.  It, too, was convenient--Downey lived upstairs.   But Downey seems to have run afoul of his landlord that year.  On May 30 William Waring placed an advertisement in The New York Herald "To Let--Old established bakery 117 Varick st., near Broome."  The men apparently worked out their problems because Downey was still operating the bakery the following year.

Meantime, the baker's neighbors in the building represented a variety of blue collar professions.  In 1878 the tenant list included John Bennett and James Collins, both bartenders; policeman Martin Cooper; Christopher Kevin, a horseshoer; printer John T. Hushman; and Henry Farley, a "driver."

William E. Waring died in October 1882.   He left his widow, Fredericka, a massive estate valued at nearly $12.5 million by today's standards.  Included was 117 Varick Street.  But Fredericka wanted one more thing, her husband's married cousin William H. Harrison.  Shortly after the funeral he moved in to her mansion at 273 Lexington Avenue.

Scurrilous details of the scandalous romance were spread in the newspapers after Sarah B. Harrison appeared in Fredericka's parlor in 1884 demanding her husband back.  When the wronged wife was ejected from the house without her husband, she filed for divorce.

On February 19, 1892, following Fredericka Ware's death, her estate sold 117 Varick Street to Katharine G. Secor for $42,000--about $1.17 million today.  Amazingly William Elling's tailor shop was still here, as was the bakery which was now owned by George Zoeller.  For years, at least through 1898, the tailor shop was used as a polling location on election day.

The modest means of the tenants was clearly exemplified by Nora Nethercott.  The widow of a policeman, she lived here with her 20-year-old son in 1900.   She received $100 per year from her husband's pension, and another $100 as guardian of her son.  It made for a meager existence, equaling about $6,000 today.  Things got worse the following year when her son became 21 and was no longer eligible for his $100.

Katharine G. Secor had lived less than two years after purchasing 117 Varick Street.  Her estate sold it at a loss in April 1895 to Emma C. Bodhe.  Emma, too, would not survive many years after the purchase.   In the summer of 1907 the Bodhe estate hired architect William S. Boyd to upgrade the aging building.  The renovations, costing nearly $11,000 in today's money, included replacement windows and some new interior walls.

The renovations, while no doubt improving the living conditions of the tenants, did not change their economic status.  James G. Cotter, for instance, who was living here in 1916 was making $600 a year as a junior clerk with the State Civil Service Commission.   His salary would translate to about $1,150 per month today.

The 1867 upheaval in the neighborhood caused by the construction of the freight terminal was more than equaled in 1920 when the massive Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel (later renamed the Holland Tunnel) project was begun.   The entire St. John's Park Terminal was demolished and replaced by a nearly-seven block configuration of ramps and accesses, the northern point of which was Freeman Plaza.  The plaza, which nearly edged up to the southern wall of 117 Varick Street, brought with it traffic congestion and honking car horns.

But William E. Waring's venerable tenement building continued to be home to blue collar families.  In 1977 the two stores were bricked up in a rather brutish remodeling and converted to three apartments.  There are still two apartments per floor above.

Other than the slapdash renovation of the ground floor and a coat of paint, little has changed to the nearly 150-year old tenement building.

photographs by the author


  1. The geography as described herein is unclear.

    This building and Freeman Plaza, an entrance to the Holland Tunnel, are *north* of Canal Street.

    St. John's Park and the railroad terminal were formerly located on the site of the current exit from the Holland Tunnel, which is *south* of Canal Street.

    1. The wording was unclear. The Holland Tunnel project engulfed several blocks north of the old depot. I reworded that paragraph, which hopefully clarifies the confusion.

  2. I very much enjoyed reading this. I lived in this building in the late 90s/early 2000s. I always wondered whether it was some kind of early industrial building because of the cornice, but it seemed too small, and bears little resemblance to the industrial buildings a few blocks east in SoHo. When I lived in it, the unit I rented with three other women had not been renovated since the 1970s. The floor sagged, there were half-abandoned paint jobs in loud colors throughout the unit. I like to think it kept the rent reasonable. You could not beat the location, and the view in the morning was gorgeous as long as you have a high tolerance for noise, which I do. Those were some golden years. Thanks for taking the time to research and post this.

  3. My great-great grandparents lived here in 1880 according to the Census. MY gr-gr grandfather was a baker. I wonder if he worked in the bakery from the article?

  4. I lived in this building from 2003-2011. What a fantastic place!! The building was sold in 2009 or 2010 and up until then hadn’t been renovated at all, but shortly after I left they began gutting and renovating apartments as they turned over, roughly doubling rent in the process. The area (Hudson Square) flew under the radar for a really long time but after Google and other companies moved in nearby, things changed quickly and the neighborhood began to turn over. I’m sure the building is still a wonderful place but not quite the bargain it used to be. Thank you so much for taking the time to research the history of the building!