Thursday, March 14, 2019

Charles Oakley's 1833 No. 264 Bleecker Street

Although he was educated as an attorney, when he married Margaret Roome in 1810 Charles Oakley was listed as "merchant" in city directories.  But the Greenwich Village resident would become best-known for neither profession, but for his prolific real estate development.

Well before the population explosion in Greenwich Village, caused by the 1823 yellow fever epidemic to the south in New York City and a cholera epidemic two years later, he was making his mark.  On October 5, 1819 he purchased 20 lots bounded by Herring Street, Jones Street and Cornelia Street, for instance. 

On March 9, 1829 agenda of the Common Council was "a Petition of Charles Oakley and others to have the name of Herring street altered to that of Bleecker street."  By now Oakley was responsible for the construction of scores of houses and shops in the district with no end in sight.

Around 1833 he completed a row of five brick-faced houses on the west side of Bleecker Street, between Morton and Leroy Streets.  Each was three-and-a-half stories tall with a shop on the ground floor.  Faced in Flemish bond red brick and trimmed in brownstone, each sprouted a single dormer perched above the roofline.  A plain wooden fascia board originally ran below the cornices.

Among them was No. 250 (a renumbering of Bleecker Street in 1859 would change the address to 264).   The store was leased to James Sinclair, a carpet weaver, who lived at No. 102 Barrow Street.  The upper floors were apparently divided to accommodate two tenants.  Living there at the time were the families of two carpenters, James Germond and Samuel Helmes.

As years passed the occupants in the house would continue to be working class.  In 1841 James Moore, a "newsman," and James J. Tompkins, a cart driver lived here. 

Shop owners came and went from the ground floor.  In 1848 Robert Chapman, who lived upstairs, ran his "fancy goods" store here; but the following year it was home to William Partridge's tea shop (he, too, lived above the store).  By 1852 George Creamer had opened his crockery shop in the space.  Sharing the upper section with him was William H. Hegerman whose barber shop was on Carmine Street.

In the late 1850's the Antioch Baptist Church was organized, led by the Rev. John Quincy Adams.  By 1858 it leased the basement level of the Bleecker Street building where the congregation not only worshiped, but ran a bookstore and published a newspaper, the Christian

By now Matilda McLaughlin's fancy goods and embroidery shop was on the ground floor, replaced by furniture maker Peter Schops's store by 1864.  He and the church were victims of an arsonist on the afternoon of November 30 that year.

The New York Herald reported that the fire occurred at around 4:00 in the basement under "the house furnishing goods store."  The newspaper said it "got under the flooring of the room used by the Antioch Baptist church" and spread upward.  Schops's loss of stock was about $300 and "damage to the church furniture will be slight," said the article.  "The fire, from appearances, was the work of design."

Schops had more problems in the summer of 1866.  He received his regular shipments of coal for his stove from Alexander & Co.  But when he ordered "one ton W. A. stove coal" on July 20 none arrived.  Five days later he ordered two tons.  That request, too, was unanswered.  As it turned out, none of the numerous customers of Alexander & Co. was receiving his coal.  The court case dragged on, unbelievably, until 1878.

All the while the subterranean church continued on.  The Christian, which sold for 10 cents per issue or $1 for a year's subscription, included the text of sermons.  That was apparent in February 1868 when an advertisement appeared in The New York Times announcing "Rev. S. J. Knapp has a sermon on the 'Beauty of Holiness' in the February number of the Christian."

Two years later, in 1870, the church ordained its new minister, Rev. John Love, Jr.  The Times remarked on August 5, "It is stated that Mr. Love is unusually popular with the congregation worshiping at the Antioch Baptist Church."

Rev. Love took the pulpit as the Franco-Prussian War was breaking out.  He spoke of the conflict in his sermon entitled "Martial Orders" on July 24 in dramatic Victorian prose.  The minister said in part, "The cloud of war, at first no larger than a man's hand, has spread until its pall is thrown over hundreds and thousands, and to-day many a blanched cheek and tearful eye betoken sad forebodings for the future."

A gruesome murder took place on the night of April 26, 1871.  Avery Putnam, a mild-mannered merchant, attempted to defend the ladies whom he was escorting to the theater from a drunk.  William Foster had boarded the streetcar they were on and acted "in a most offensive manner," according to the New-York Tribune.  It ended with Foster striking Putnam on the head with an iron took called a car-hook, killing him.

Again turning to current events for his sermon, Rev. Love vented his outrage from the pulpit on May 7.  And he did not hold back.  He called the deed "a tragedy which for atrocity and wanton cruelty has seldom if ever been equaled; a crime for which there can be no palliation or excuse."   He described Foster as "reeling out of a pot-house, swollen with evil passion, and grossly insulting one of the ladies."

Rev. Love's message was simple.  He quoted the Old Testament passage "The murderer shall surely be put to death."   The Sun reported "Mr. Love next spoke of the necessity of making examples of the perpetrators of great crimes and the good which would result from such a course, and at considerable length defended capital punishment."

Around 1874 Peter Schops started a side-line, repairing broken police station furniture.  In February 1874 he billed the city $21.97 for "repairing chairs."  The bill would be equal to about $488 today.

Somewhat surprisingly, an upstairs tenant at the time owned a piano--a pricey item given the blue-collar status of the occupants.  Her advertisement in The New York Herald on September 20, 1874 read: "A lady, painstaking and conscientious, will give piano lessons at her own or pupil's residence; terms moderate.  Call on or address Music Teacher, 264 Bleecker street."

James B. Miller not only opened his store here around 1879, he purchased the building.  On July 16 that year the Common Council agreed to permit him "to paint his name on side curtain of awning at No. 264 Bleecker street; such permission to continue only during the pleasure of the Common Council."

Miller and his wife, the former Fannie H. Cooper, owned two other properties in the neighborhood.  But a marital rift caused problems.  Following their divorce, Fannie's shares were sold to William H. Miller, presumably a relative of James.

By 1915 the ground floor was home to the Bleecker Cloak & Suit Co., Inc.  The clothing store would remain here at least through 1921.  Then in 1926 owner Benard Lafkowitz, who lived upstairs, made renovations.  The storefront got a make-over, the second floor was converted to an office and apartment, and the third floor and attic became a duplex apartment. 

The original dormer was intact in the 1940's.  The awning announced "Baby Store," quite possibly Klapper's Baby Store which had operated next door at No. 262 earlier in the century.  photo via the New York City Department of Records.
By the last quarter of the 20th century this section of Bleecker Street had changed.  Traditional Italian bakeries, coffee shops and butchers coexisted with trendier boutiques.  In the 1990's Aphrodisia, a spice store that had operated from down the street at No. 282 Bleecker, moved in.  It offered about 2,000 culinary herbs and spices sold from two-gallon apothecary jars.

Melissa Clark, writing in The New York Times on September 8, 1999 gave readers a hint for cutting costs when a recipe called for "the inordinately expensive saffron."  She wrote "One little-known substitute is dried marigold petals...Substitute marigold for saffron in equal measure.  The petals, called calendula, are 55 cents an ounce at Aphrodisia, 264 Bleecker Street."

Aphrodisia was replaced in January 2011 by Bar'rique, described by Florence Fabricant in The Times as an "elaborate wine bar."    It did not last.  A year later in July Fabricant was reporting on the opening of Murray's Cheese Bar.  She noted "Tia Keenan has plenty to work with in putting together a menu of cheeses and charcuterie here, considering that her pantry is the well-stocked caves at Murray's Cheese down the block."

Murray's Cheese Bar still occupies the ground floor and, as it was in 1926, the upper portion contains an office and apartment on the second floor and a duplex above.  A renovation completed in 2013 may have been responsible for the enlargement of the dormer.  Despite its significant alterations, No. 264 and its flanking neighbors are a surviving slice of a much different Bleecker Street in a much different time.

photographs by the author

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