|Appearing as one sprawling structure, the buildings started life as five houses, then were remodeled as two commercial buildings.
In 1870 the eastern blockfront of Seventh Avenue between 21st and 22nd Streets was lined with four-story rowhouses. The immediate neighborhood had already begun changing as stores and businesses invaded the avenue. And that change was about to make its mark on five of the houses, Nos. 191 through 199 Seventh Avenues.
Brothers William and George Youngs operated as G. & W. Youngs. Acting as both builders and architects, they had been in business at least since 1846 when they were hired by the city to build a "Tower for a Fire-alarm Bell." In February 1870 they filed plans to convert Nos. 197 and 199 Seventh Avenue to "one brick factory." The plans to renovate the former houses included "one story to be added, and front and rear walls taken down and rebuilt, extension also in rear."
Exactly one year later, on February 14, 1871, an advertisement in the New York Herald offered: "To Let--The Five Story Building 197 and 199 Seventh avenue, suitable for manufacturing purposes." With that project completed, the Youngs brothers set their sights on Nos. 191 to 195. That work could not commence until the lease on the corner store was taken care of. An agreement had been completed by the following summer and on August 27, 1872 the owner of the "first class butcher and fish shop" offered his "horse, wagon and all the fixtures appertaining thereto" for sale.
The resulting alterations to the three high-stooped residences resulted a five-story loft and store building that perfectly matched Nos. 197-199. The two structures were unified by single cast metal cornice with the date 1870 painted within the centered pediment.
Both buildings were leased to furniture manufacturer and dealer G. Ebbinghousen & Co., operated by George Ebbinghousen, George A. Widmayer and John Bauman. Their lease cost them the equivalent of $53,200 per year in today's money. The firm used the northern section as its showroom and offices, and Nos. 191-195 for its factory.
|Commercial Register, 1872 (copyright expired)
G. Ebbinghousen & Co. manufactured office furniture as well as residential. In November 1875 the firm billed the Postmaster General "for furniture for the office of the stamp-agent at New York." The total cost was $245, or about $5,870 today.
On May 4, 1878 the Real Estate Record reported that Henry Widmayer had bought out his partners. He apparently thought it best to retain George Ebbinghousen's name which was synonymous with the business. Renamed Ebbinghousen & Widmayer, the firm relocated to No. 609 Sixth Avenue in 1879.
The buildings now filled with several tenants. W. Nelson, Jr. moved his furniture showroom into Nos. 197-199; and hat maker R. Dunlap took space in Nos 191-195. Many of the materials used in making millinery--like straw and glue--were highly flammable, and not long after moving in the new Dunlap factory caught fire. On April 21, 1880 the New York Herald reported "The hat manufactory of R. Dunlap, No. 191 to 195 Seventh avenue, took fire last night, and $50,000 worth of stock was destroyed...Hugh Golden, one of the firemen fell from a second story window, but, although picked up in an unconscious condition, his injuries are not considered serious."
The street level of Nos. 191-195 housed three separate storefronts. In 1881 No. 195 became the saloon of G. Dahl. While the saloon remained here for years, it would see a rapid turnover of proprietors. By 1883 it was run by Robert W. Murphy, whose attempt at helping an intoxicated patron was met with violence that year.
On August 9, 1883 a painter, Henry Collins, wandered into the saloon. The Evening Post claimed that he "had been drunk for three weeks." Collins had already been drinking when he arrived and, after a few more drinks, was severely drunk. Murphy took him to the basement "to sleep off his drunk," as he later explained. He settled Collins on the floor and was heading up the stairs when the inebriated customer pulled out a pistol and fired. The bullet hit Murphy in the jaw.
Bleeding, Murphy rushed upstairs and another patron ran into the street where he found police officer Morgan Thomas. The Evening Post reported "Securing a light, Officer Thomas went down in the basement, when the drunken man fired at him, wounding him severely in the left leg, below the knee." Despite the wound, Thomas overpowered Collins and held him until other officers arrived from the 20th Street station house.
Whether the incident had anything to do with Murphy's selling the saloon is uncertain; but a year later it was run by John Kurstenier. Burglars found the liquor stored in the basement a tempting target on the night of April 7, 1884; but they were foiled by a beat cop. Policeman McDermott noticed a man loitering around the entrance to the saloon. The man, Eugene O'Hara, spotted the officer and ran. "A moment later Thomas Henderson, whose real name is said to be McGibney...emerged from the cellar," reported The Evening Telegram. He was arrested for burglary. "An attempt had been made to steal $75 worth of property from the saloon."
But the determined McDermott was not finished. After locking up Henderson he demanded the address of his accomplice. (Police tactics in the 19th century could be quite persuasive.) But when he arrived at Eugene O'Hara's apartment on West 17th Street he was attacked. The Evening World explained "He says that Eugene's brother James tried to stab him with a fork, and he therefore arrested James as well as Eugene."
The saloon changed hands at least once more. In 1888 it was run by Adam Neumiller.
In the meantime, R. Dunlap & Co. continued making hats upstairs. The mostly-female staff celebrated the inauguration of President Benjamin Harrison in the factory on March 4, 1889. The following day The Press reported on the observances. "The female employes of R. Dunlap & Co.'s straw hat sewing department celebrated inauguration day at a meeting held at 191 Seventh avenue yesterday. The hall occupied by the ladies was tastefully decorated. Superintendent Elmore M. Clark delivered an oration on 'Our Country,' after which national airs were sung by the company." At the end of the meeting "three cheers for President Harrison were given with a hearty good will."
The saloon at No. 195 was replaced by Adolph Behnke's grocery store in 1893. And space on the upper floors was taken around the same time by paper box manufacturer Andrew W. Schlichte.
That entrepreneur was called for jury duty in the high-profile case against Police Inspector William W. McLaughlin in May 1895. McLaughlin was charged with extortion by a State investigative committee. He had forced shopkeepers and other businessmen to pay bribes to avoid being given fines for violations like blocking the sidewalk.
When interviewed by the attorneys, Schlichte was frank in his opinions of law enforcement. The Evening Telegram reported that he "said he had a prejudice against the Police Department as a whole, but he thought he could make a fair and impartial juror in this case."
Later that year Nos. 191-195 once again became a furniture factory and showroom, home to J. E. Pearce & Co. By 1898 the grocery store in No. 195 was run by Frederick Tonyes and at the turn of the century the store in No, 199 held Otto F. Klemmpt's barber shop.
|American Cabinet Marker & Upholsterer, January 23, 1904 (copyright expired)
Among the furniture firm's employees was Civil War veteran Major Frank E. Lowe. He was a boy when he enlisted in the Union Army and served throughout the war. When he fought at the Battle of Gettysburg he was just 16-years-old. He was twice wounded, once nearly fatally. One bullet entered his thigh; but another struck him in the stomach, passed through the liver and exited his back near his spine. He later posed for the statue atop a monument in Gettysburg.
Lowe refused to accept a military pension, opting instead to work as a salesman for J. E. Pearce & Co. Ironically, given his miraculous survival on the battlefield, Lowe's end came at the hands of a hit-and-run driver. He was struck in Brooklyn on May 9, 1903 and lingered for seven months before succumbing. On December 16, 1903 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the incident with virulent prose.
The cold-blooded carelessness of the man in the vehicle, whose identity was never discovered, was a singular feature of the case After the major was struck down the automobile did not stop or slow up an instant, but continued on its course, while the laughter of its occupants, who considered the affair a great joke, rang in the ears of the victim, who lay upon the pavement with three ribs broke.
J. E. Pearce & Co. remained in the building for decades. Then, on January 13, 1932, The Evening Post reported that "Pearce Upholster Shops, which have occupied the building at 191 Seventh Avenue for thirty-seven years" had leaded space on West 30th Street.
|The building as it appeared in 1931, just before Pearce moved out. In the foreground work is commencing on a modern apartment building. from the collection of the New York Public Library
Nos. 197-199 was the first of the two buildings to be converted to apartments. A 1938 renovation resulted in four apartments per floor above the ground floor stores. The southern building continued to house businesses and was home to the Presto Paper Company, Inc. in the early 1970's. The tradition of furniture continued at ground level with Allen Office Furniture's second-hand shop here in the 1980's.
Among the tenants in No. 197 in the 1970's was Edward Rodriguez whose job was conveniently close by. He was the manager of the Borinquener Cafe directly across the street at No. 200 Seventh Avenue. On November 21, 1976 he confronted a disorderly patron. As he attempted to eject the man Rodriguez was fatally stabbed in the doorway of the bar.
Nos. 191-195 continued to house small businesses and offices. The Fil & Video Production Co. was here in the mid-1980's, and a decade later the Young Socialist Alliance had its headquarters in the building. Finally a renovation in 2000 resulted in apartments in the upper floors.
The first years of the new century saw sprawling restaurants in the ground floors (although the longtime locksmith shop at No. 197 stubbornly hangs on as a reminder of less trendy times). In June 2005 Il Bastardo, described by The New York Times as "a Manhattan steakhouse," opened, joined by Bar Baresco in April 2008. The southern space is home to Arte Cafe today.
Above the shop level, the Youngs brothers' 1870's transformation of five brownstone-faced houses into a handsome factory building is little changed. And over the second and third story windows of Nos 191-195 the ghosts of Pearce's signage are almost legible, a faint reminder of the time nearly a century and a half ago when parlor furniture was made here.
photographs by the author