Monday, February 18, 2019

The Lost James Fenimore Cooper House 6 St. Mark's Place

sketch from Mary Elizabeth Phillips's 1912 "James Fenimore Cooper" (copyright expired)
The area north of Bond Street on Manhattan’s east side by 1830 was filling with stately brick Federal-style homes as New York’s wealthy sought refuge from the cholera epidemic and crowding further south. In 1831 real estate developer Thomas E. Davis lined the entire block of East 8th Street, between Second and Third Avenues with residences meant to appeal to these well-to-do clients.  At the time short sections of streets were sometimes renamed to indicate their elevated status.  Three blocks of 8th Street became St. Mark’s Place where Davis’s high-end mansions would rival any in the city.

His houses were exceptional.  Wider than most with a comfortable 26-foot frontage, their red Flemish bond brick facades were trimmed with white marble.  At the parlor level, floor-to-ceiling length windows opened onto elegant cast iron balconies and high wide stoops led to dramatic entranceways.

A view of the mirror-image house across the street No. 24, reveals the original basket newels, the areaway fencing, and the iron balcony.  photograph by Jacob A. Riis, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The doorways were framed in what is known as Gibbs surrounds – deeply carved stone with interspersed quoins of varied width and vermiculated marble blocks fashioned to appear worm-eaten. Such treatments were named after Scottish-born architect James Gibbs.

Among the row was No. 6 and like the rest, it sat upon a high English basement. Above the third floor an pitch-roofed attic featured two twin dormers.

The house became home to the James Fenimore Cooper family around 1833 when they returned from a decade-long residency in Europe.   Born in New Jersey on September 14, 1789, his wealthy land agent father, William, founded Cooperstown, New York.  The family's expansive home, Otsego Hall, was there.

Upon William Cooper's death in 1809, James had inherited a fortune.  He married Susan Augusta de Lancey on New Year's Day 1811.  They would have seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood.

By the time Cooper moved into the St. Mark's Place home, he was a literary celebrity.  He had already published three of The Leatherstocking Tales series--The Pioneers in 1823, The Last of the Mohicans in 1826 and The Prairie in 1827.

But not long after his return to America there came a change in public opinion--at least from several high-powered and wealthy New York citizens.  His 1912 biographer Mary Elizabeth Philips said "Cooper was ever a frank friend or an open enemy."  In the books he wrote within No. 6 he named names and bruised sensitivities and reputations.

In 1838 he published The American Democrat.  Then, as stated by Philips, "Homeward Bound, its sequel, Home as Found, and the Chronicles of Cooperstown--all came in hot haste from the author's modest three-story brick home in St. Mark's Place near Third Avenue in New York City.  In these books Cooper told his side of foreign and town troubles, and it was said that not ten places or persons could complain in truth that they had been overlooked."

A literary critic remarked "He had the courage to defy the majority and confound the press, from a heavy sense of duty, with ungrateful truths...However, this over-critical writing soon became newspaper gossip, and began for Cooper six long years of tedious lawsuits."  Among his new-found enemies were Horace Greeley, Park Benjamin and Thurlow Weed.

James Fenimore Cooper, from the collection of the Library of Congress.

His legal battles finally ended when Cooper made "a clear, brilliant, and convincing six-hour address before the court during a profound silence."  The speech was received with applause in the courtroom and the lawsuits were settled in his favor.

In the meantime, the population of No. 6 St. Mark's Place was increased by one when a stray dog became the family pet.  According to Cooper's grandnephew, George Pomeroy Keese, later, the dog named Frisk, was "a little black mongrel of no breed whatever, rescued from under a butcher's cart in St. Mark's Place, with a fractured leg, and tenderly cared for until recovery."

The Cooper family left New York to live in Cooperstown around 1840.  Their dog, of course, went along.  Keese remembered "Mr. Cooper was rarely seen on the street without Frisk."

The Coopers were followed in No. 6 by the John Ferris Delaplaine family.  John was born in 1786 to a wealthy New York shipping merchant, Samuel Delaplaine, and his wife the former Phila Pella.  In 1814 John married Julia Ann Clason, and they would have five children.

John Delaplaine from the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian.

When the family moved into No. 6, John was the head of his father's shipping business at No. 7 New Street.   His 1845 worth was estimated at $150,000 (more than $5 million today).   Although his sons John, Jr. and Isaac Clason were both educated as attorneys, they entered the family business.  They were both listed in the New Street office in 1848.

Delaplaine added to his fortune by a sordid side enterprise.  According to Timothy J. Gilfoyle's 1992 City of Eros, in 1848 Delaplaine was the owner (although not the operator) of a Walker Street brothel, and in 1852 was accused of supporting Maria Mitchell's Crosby Street bordello.  "When the district attorney prosecuted Delaplaine for running a Church Street brothel, the indictment charged that the wealthy merchant was no neophyte in the business and controlled several other establishments in New York."

John F. Delaplaine died on June 3, 1854 at the age of 68.  His funeral was held in the St. Mark's Place house three days later.

Although the family retained possession of the residence, they soon prepared to move.  On January 24, 1855 the contents of John F. Delaplaine's wine cellar were auctioned downtown.  The auction announcement reflected his vast wealth.  There were 280 bottles of March & Benson's madeira, vinage 1828; 516 bottles of old South Side Madeira; 16 magnums of E. Pell's brandy, "about 40 years old, sealed with the name;" 110 bottles "very superior brandy, vintage 1849;" and a cast of 1844 St. Julien claret.

The family's basement pantries were emptied as well.  Immediately after the wine auction, 200 cases of preserved fruits--cherries, peaches, raspberries, pears, and more--in quart and half-gallon jars were sold.

By the end of the year No. 6 was being operated as a high-end boarding house.  An advertisement on December 6, 1855 offered "Furnished rooms to let with board in the first class house No. 6 St. Mark's place."

In the years prior to the outbreak of Civil War the St. Mark's Place neighborhood remained upscale, as evidenced in its high class boarders.  When William Van Ness Livingston died on March 28, 1860 "after a long and painful illness," according to The New York Times, the newspaper noted that he was "son of the late Henry Livingston, of Livingston Manor."

But a decade and the influx of thousands of immigrants into the Lower East Side brought significant change.  Perhaps the first hint at No. 6 could be found in a December 2, 1872 advertisement:

Two large, furnished cheap upper rooms; gas, fire, &c.; one for two gentlemen; in spacious private mansion at No. 6 St. Mark's place.

The owners appear to have been reticent to renting to women--not wanting to attract disreputable types.  An advertisement in April 1874 offered "A furnished front hall bedroom $3.50.  In superlatively quiet first class residence...suitable for a gentleman only."  The weekly rent would be $78 today.

The once-exclusive St. Mark's Place block continued to change rapidly.  As wealthy families moved northward, shops were carved into the parlor and basement floors of their former homes.  

The basement level of No. 6 was converted for commercial purposes around 1877.  In April 1878 attorney Frederick I. King had his office here, advertising "Divorces speedily obtained--Terms superlatively reasonable."

He shared the space with Dr. H. Eickhorn, who established his office here around the same time.  Eickhorn, who specialized in tape worms, promised in his 1882 advertisements "Infallibly cured with two spoons of medicine in two or three hours."

The doctor's office was taken over by 1890 by Dr. Alois Schapringer, who graduated from the University of Vienna in 1872.

After ownership of half a century, on June 13, 1893 the Delaplaine family sold No. 6, still described as a "three-story and attic brick building with extension."  When the high bid was only $26,250 (about $741,000 today), the New York Times remarked that it was "regarded by some as rather low."

Any trace of refinement had disappeared from the block, and the basement level had been converted to a cafe.  The innocent-sounding business was anything but.  On June 13, 1894 The Evening World called its owner, Max Rosenthal, "one of the most notorious of the cafe proprietors." 

When he was appeared in court for selling liquor to an undercover excise agent on June 12, he had already been arrested four times for selling alcohol without a license.

"Did you have a license for your place?" he was asked.


"But you sold beer and liquors there?"

"Oh, no!  I only kept them for my friends."

When he was asked if he had ever seen Detective Whitney before, he claimed flatly "I never did.  I don't know him."

In the meantime, the upper floors continued to be operated as a boarding house; albeit not so high end as before.  The same year as Rosenthal's trial, one tenant, 19-year old Charles Shierer, also found himself in police custody following a petty incident.

Unable to come up with the money to rent two bicycles, he and his 18-year old friend, Sigmud Frangarten, pooled their money that April and hired one bike for two hours.  The Evening World explained "It was agreed that each should ride for one hour."

But Shierer either lost track of time or simply enjoyed his ride too much to return at the end of his hour.   He came back to an enraged Frangarten and "a row" ensued.  When Policeman Meehan came across the battling friends, he arrested them for disorderly conduct.  They appeared in the Essex Market Police Court the following morning.

The sheepish boys pleaded their case before the judge.  The Evening World reported "The young men promised Justice Hogan that they would never quarrel again and were discharged."

Rosenthal's trial marked the end of his running of the cafe.  It was taken over by F. Bruner in December 7, 1895.  As part of his lease he was given permission to put a pool table in the space.  His stay was short, and within a few months Louis and Louisa Feit were the proprietors.  Their rent on the cafe was about $1,000 per month in today's dollars.

To attract customers in the increasingly gritty neighborhood, the Feits came up with an innovative scheme--at certain points throughout the night their waitresses would break into the somewhat scandalous French can-can dance.  It was shocking enough to prompt a concerned neighbor to anonymously write to The New York Society for the Prevention of Children (often called simply the Gerry Society).  The letter alleged that the couple's six-year-old daughter "was living in immoral surroundings."

An agent named Deubert visited the cafe on Friday night, September 18 and reported "that the cafe waitresses gave exhibitions of high kicking and skirt dancing."  The New York Times reported "He seized the little girl and told the parents that he was going to take her away from them.  The mother screamed and there was an uproar."  

It was a bit more than an uproar.  The New York Times had begun its article saying "Louis Feit and his wife, Louisa, proprietors of a cafe at 6 St. Mark's Place, were the centre of a small riot in St. Mark's Place Friday night, in which Gerry Agent Deubert was roughly handled."  

Louisa Feit clung to Deubert's neck and begged him not to take her daughter.  He nevertheless, "after much difficulty," dragged the child outside.  And that's when things turned ugly.

Hearing Louisa's screams and Louis's angry shouts, a mob formed in the street.  Before two more Gerry agents and a policeman could rescue him, Deubert's nose was bleeding, his clothing was torn and his hat smashed.  The Feits were arrested.

Louisa protested to Magistrate Brann that she "ran a respectable cafe" and said the letter was written in "spite by an enemy."  Both parents were fined $5 and the girl was held by the Gerry Society pending further investigation.  The family was soon back together and the Feits renewed their lease the following year.

In 1910 owner Carroll Bryce leased an upper floor to the newly-established Ferrer Association.  On October 13, 1910 it held public meeting to mark the first anniversary of the death of anarchist pedagogue Francisco Ferrer.  The group had named its new headquarters the Ferrer Centre.

Eight months later, on June 26, 1911 The New York Times reported "A special meeting of the New York-Mexican Revolution Conference was held yesterday afternoon in the Ferrer Centre, at 6 St. Mark's Place, at which the final plans for the mass meeting at Cooper Union this evening were completed."  That meeting was intended to "arouse public interest in the revolution cause in Mexico."

Here the group hosted lectures, mostly related to radical politics, and avant-garde arts cultural events.  There was also the Ferrer Modern School, a libertarian day school.  The Ferrer Centre remained here until 1914 when it moved to New Jersey.

In the meantime, the same year that the Centre moved in, the Alexander Printing Co. rented what had been James Fenimore Cooper's parlor floor.   It was, in fact, a front for illegal gambling.

It was raided by police on April 2, 1912; but when information reached headquarters that the operation was ongoing, they hit again in May.  Police Lieutenant Becker and nine members of the "Strong Arm" squad drove up in a moving van and, according to The New York Times, "sprang from it, and ran up to the second floor of the house, where they found themselves confronted by an ice chest door.  While they battered at this with axes several shots were fired from inside the room and the detectives fired back."

The vault-like door would not give way so detectives went around to the back.  Climbing atop the one-story extension, they attacked the iron bars on the windows.  When they finally gave way, Detective John Bowers was the first to enter.

The Times reported "he was the target for chairs and everything else in the room which could be thrown.  Two hundred men were inside."  

The operation went beyond the second floor.  The Times reported "In a room on the third floor the detectives found fifty more men whose escape had been cut off by the presence of the police on the floor below."  Racing charts and "other gambling appliances" were found on both floors.

As it turned out, the den's operators had more to fear from other gang kingpins than from the police.  A "gambling war" was going on at the time, and it arrived at No. 6 St. Mark's Place on June 3 that year.

At 12:30 that morning a bomb exploded at No. 85 Fourth Avenue, waking tenants of houses for blocks around.  Ten minutes after police arrived another explosion occurred at No. 103 Fourth Avenue, less than a block away.  The entire front of the building was blown out.  The Sun reported "While the police were busy on that they heard another explosion, which came from 6 St. Mark's place, the first two floors which were occupied by the Central Cafe and the Alexander Printing Company."  The newspaper reminded readers that the address had been the scene of two recent raids and said police "think that a gambling war caused the placing of the explosives."

Major change would come after Carroll Bryce sold the building in January 1913 to David Wasser.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide commented "The buyer intends to erect a modern Turkish and Russian bath."

While Wasser originally intended to simply remodel the building (his architect, Jacob  Fisher, filed plans in February for "alterations"), he had a change of mind.  Two months later a demolition permit was issued.  On April 12 revised plans were submitted for a new structure to cost more than three-quarters of a million dollars in today's money.

Fisher's altered building as it appears today.

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