Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Half-Hidden 1844 No. 46 Commerce Street

photo via
Alexander Turney Stewart opened his first dry goods store in 1823, selling Irish lace and linens.  His success would skyrocket and by 1848 he was known as the "Merchant Prince of America" and ran the largest emporium in the world, with branches in 12 countries, and before long was among the richest men in America.

Stewart's wealth did not come solely from dry goods.  Early on he invested in real estate, much in the Greenwich Village and Tribeca districts.  In 1844 he erected two brick houses on Commerce Street on land he leased from Trinity Church.   His choice of plots--sitting within the elbow of the street's sharp turn--is somewhat surprising, since it necessitated Nos. 46 and 48 Commerce Street to be built at right angles to one another.

The three stories tall, the brick Greek Revival style homes sat on brownstone-faced English basements.  Both three bays wide, they were intended for financially comfortable, although not wealthy, tenants.

Seen at the bend of Commerce Street, to the right, No. 46 was still three stories tall and retained its stoop and entrance when this photo was taken.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1876 Stewart made a significant change to No. 46 when he hired builders James C. Hoe & Co. to add a fourth story at a cost of $300--in the neighborhood of $7,000 today.  The plans were submitted on March 24.  It would be, perhaps, the last noticeable transaction in the millionaire's illustrious career.  A week later, around April 1, Stewart contracted a cold.  He died in his marble mansion on Fifth Avenue on April 10.

Stewart's wife, the former Cornelia Clinch Stewart, inherited his vast real estate holdings.  Following her death in 1886 her nephew Prescott Hall Butler filed suit to have the will dismissed.   A well-heeled attorney and partner in the "white shoe" law firm of Evarts, Choate & Beaman, his battle proved profitable.  He received a large portion of the Stewart real estate, including the newly-remodeled No. 46 Commerce Street.

In the 42 years since the house was erected the Greenwich Village neighborhood had changed demographically.  It was now filling with immigrant families like that of Gottfried Mieling who lived at No. 46 when Hall took title to it.  Mieling, it seems, was involved in the brewing or saloon business.

In the spring of 1900 Hall began selling off much of his real estate holdings.  On March 9 alone he sold Nos. 53 and 55 Morton Street, and Nos. 46 and 48 Commerce Street.   He died in his Park Avenue mansion the following year, in December.

John Blesch, Jr. purchased No. 46 (his brother, Charles D. Blesch bought No. 48).   As had always been the case, the new owners were landlords, not residents.  And both buildings would remain in the Blesch family for years.

John Moriarty and his wife lived here in 1922 when they received devastating news.  Their son, also named John, was a detective in the Safe and Loft Squad (the team tasked with investigating commercial burglaries).  On Saturday night, June 24 Detective Moriarty was among the team of seven who had been staking out Nos. 306 and 308 Fifth Avenue.  When two burglars were seen entering the building they jumped into action.

The crooks fled onto the rooftops, followed closely by Moriarty and his partner, Detective Charles Schauss.  In the chaos Moriarty was struck by a bullet--fired not by the crooks, but tragically by Schauss.  The New York Times reported "One of the bullets struck a galvanized iron skylight...and, deflecting it, struck the neck.  As Moriarity reeled toward the top of the stairs another detective saw him and helped him down."

Both of the perpetrators, Joseph Morris and John Behrmann, were caught; but Moriarty's condition was grave.  He was removed to Bellevue Hospital, there two days later it was said he had "slightly improved."  Despite that hopeful announcement, Moriarty died a week later on July 2.

John Moriarty went to the morgue to retrieve his son's body, but, according to The New York Times, "was informed that the body could not be removed until Dr. Charles Norris, Chief Medical Examiner, had performed an autopsy, as is the custom in cases of death from gunshot wounds."  Upon hearing that news, the detective's wife, already grief-stricken, could take no more.

An hour later she demanded that her husband's body be released.  "John gave his life for the City of New York and now it denies me his body.  They will cut and disfigure him against my wishes and against what I know his would be.  There is no excuse for cutting under the circumstances.  We know how he died," she pleaded.

Her father-in-law came to her support.  The New-York Tribune, on July 3, reported "John Moriarty, father of the dead detective, who lives at 46 Commerce Street, also visited Police Headquarters seeking assurance that no autopsy would be performed on the body."

The young John Moriarty left not only a widow but four children.  original source of photograph unknown

Detective Moriarty's funeral, held on July 6, was impressive.  His body was escorted from his home to the Church of St. Alphonsus on West Broadway by 100 detectives and 150 uniformed policemen.  The headline in the New-York Tribune the following day read "Detective Is Pallbearer For Comrade He Shot."

John Moriarty and his wife may have shared No. 46 with another family at the time.  But certainly in 1926 there was more than one family living in the building.  A restriction by the Department of Buildings that year read "not more than 2 families cooking, independently, on premises."

Among those renting part of the house were actress Elsie Rizer and her husband, maritime insurance broker, Aage Woldlike.  The couple was secretly married in Grace Church on November 21, 1925; however (unbeknownst to the minister, Rev. Eliot White), they had built an escape clause into the arrangement in case things did not work out.  On December 21, 1926 The New York Times explained "They agreed that for a year they would consider the marriage 'temporary.'  They told only one friend of the compact."

They had had wedding announcements printed, which they stashed away until the year had elapsed and they knew whether the marriage was a success or a failure.  It was a success.  And so in December 1926 the cards were mailed to their surprised friends:

The experiment having proved successful thus far, Miss Elsie Rizer and Mr. Aage Woldlike desire to announce their marriage Saturday, the twenty-first of November, one thousand nine hundred and twenty-five.  Grace Church, New York.

In 1928 Carlton A. Shively purchased what was described as "a five-story remodeled house."  The building had been sold three times within the past few months.  The stoop had been removed by now and the building contained four apartments and a studio.  The artist studio had been installed in the top floor which Alexander Stewart added in 1876.

Shively announced that the purchase was "for an investment."  Nevertheless, he moved into the house before very long, most likely prompted by his separation from his wife, the former Marie Wilson.  The couple was married on March 26, 1927, a year before Shively purchased No. 46, and had a son.  But on August 28, 1930 they were divorced.

Born in Kansas in 1891, Shively was a well-known financial writer, stock-market analyst and author.  Following his duty with the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I, he came to New York City, joining the financial staff of The Evening Post in 1920.  In 1925 he moved to The Sun, becoming its financial editor in 1930.

Carlton A. Shively (left) as he appeared in 1946.  from the collection of the University of Texas at Arlington Libraries
In 1950 The World-Telegram acquired The Sun and Shively became an analyst writer for the merged newspapers.  He divided his time between the Commerce Street house and his home in Riverside, Connecticut.

Shively lived quietly here until his death on July 8, 1952.  The New York Times reported that he "died here Tuesday night, apparently of a heart attack.  His age was 61."   Three months later his estate sold No. 46 to the Truckee Holding Company.  The Times commented "Mr. Shively, a financial writer, had occupied the building as his residence until his death a few months ago."

No. 46 is nearly hidden in the sharp turn of Commerce Street.  photograph by the author

Tenants in the apartments came and went through the subsequent decades, drawing little or no attention to themselves.  But then in 2004 a gut renovation of the third and fourth floors created an upscale, 1,200-square-foot duplex apartment for the less low-profile Carly Simon.

The famous singer-songwriter, children's author, and musician lived most of the time in Martha's Vineyard, using the two-bedroom, two-bath Commerce Street co-op as a pied-à-terre when in town.  Four years after the renovation, she put the property on the market for $3.8 million, her sister Joanna Simon explaining to the New York Post "She's selling mainly because she lives nearly full-time in Martha's Vineyard these days."

Perhaps unexpectedly, the duplex did not sell.  It was not until November 2013 that Carly Simon sold it for a reduced price of $2.32 million.  Curbed New York commented "at long last, the apartment has found someone to appreciate its wide-plank flooring, two fireplaces, and bathtub in a non-bathroom (always a highlight)."  That "non-bathroom" was, in fact, Ms. Simon's living room.

Carly Simon's decorating taste included an antique French mantel and, unexpectedly, a bathtub in the living room.  photo via
It was one more page in the ever-changing history of the 1844 house squeezed into the hidden corner of Commerce Street, and of Greenwich Village in general.

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