Saturday, March 2, 2019

George Pelham's 1895 18 North Moore Street

In 1880 construction was completed on a five-story brick tenement at the southwest corner of Varick and North Moore Streets.  Built by developer Albert Block and designed by architect Frederick W. Klempt its ground floor contained two storefronts, the corner space operated as a saloon.

Following Block's death, his sons Richard W., John P. and Edward Block purchased the building from his estate on October 15 1886.  Three years later, on December 31, 1892, Matilda Klopenburg transferred title to the 25-foot building next door at No. 18 North Moore Street to the three brothers.  Only Richard and Edward, acting as R.  E. Block, went on with the project, however.

In July 1894 well-known architect George F. Pelham filed plans to alter the four-story building.  The significant changes included lowering the ground floor, changing the interior walls and flooring, removing and replacing the staircase, and stripping off the facade rebuilding it.  The cost of the alterations would have cost just under $300,000 in today's dollars.

The brothers rethought the project and on August 10 Pelham filed another set of plans, this time for a five-story replacement structure.  The change in plans brought the cost of construction up to the equivalent of $441,000 today.  While the official plans called for a "tenement house," the Real Estate Record & Guide preferred the term "apartment house" when it announced the project.  That may have had to do with some of the up-to-date amenities Pelham included: "dumb-waiter, electric bells, speaking tubes, door openers, concrete and pine floors, structural iron-work, skylight, and sanitary plumbing."

It may have been the Block brothers who urged Pelham to produce a near match to Kempt's earlier building.  Elements of No. 18 North Moore Street--the storefront cornice and the incised stone lintels, for instance--were all but duplicates of No. 16.  In fact, at a casual glance the two structures appear to have been built simultaneously and designed by the same architect.

Like its older brother, No. 18 North Moore Street became home to working-class residents.  One of them, Thomas Talbot, soon had the unpleasant responsibility of identifying the corpse of his friend, James O'Leary.   Around the 1st of November 1896, the 55-year old went missing from his home at No. 40 Beach Street.  On the afternoon of November 4 his body was seen floating in the Hudson River.  That night Talbot was called to the City Morgue and confirmed his identity.

Among Talbot's neighbors in the building were the Irish immigrant Cockerill family.  Their son, William, worked in the machine shop of A. K. Warren in the block-long Welsh Building on Greenwich Street between Desbrosses and Watts Streets, several blocks to the north.   A. K. Warren's operation was large, occupying the ground floor as well as the fourth through sixth floors.

On the afternoon of August 11 1896, fire broke out in a rubbish pile in the basement.  The New York Times reported "There was little warning to any that a fire which was to sweep the building had started."  According to witnesses, only a few moments after being discovered, the flames "seized on the hoistway shaft" and spread up to through the floors.

William Cockerill and another youth, Charles Combs, escaped to the roof.  From there they watched the crowds forming on the streets below.   Then they saw their 34-year-old foreman, William Gray, climb out a fifth floor window onto the fire escape.  Confused and panicked, he climbed the fire escape to the sixth floor, hesitated, then went back down.  The boys yelled at him to stay where he was, "as the flames were bursting out of the windows of the floors below him," according to The Times.  They found a heavy length of telegraph wire on the roof and lowered it down to him.

The article reported that from the street came "loud outcries, craning of necks to peer through the smoke at the fifth-floor balcony of the fire escape and exclamations of horror" as Gray became "enveloped in flames and smoke from both the window he stood at and that of the floor below."  He grabbed the wire, but was already too overcome by the heat and smoke.   The two boys and the crowd watched in horror as Gray collapsed, falling face forward to the street.  Because of the stubborn conflagration it was five hours before his body could be recovered, although it "was in full view of 10,000 persons whenever a gust of wind drove the smoke away."

Both William Cockerill and Charles Combs were rescued from the roof without serious injury before the entire building was engulfed and destroyed.

In 1901 Edward Block transferred his half of the ownership of the building to his brother, Richard.  The side-by-side stores were combined to form a single store space in 1908.  As the World War I years neared, the residents seem to have been working hard to improve their stations in life.  John J. Burton was living here in 1916 and doing well enough financially that he owned a seven-story factory building on Hudson Street.  And the following year resident George Deliga passed the State bar exams.

In 1957 the building underwent a renovation which resulted in two apartments per floor.  It may have been at this time that the neo-Grec cornice was removed.  At some point around this time the facade was given a slathering of white paint.

Seen here around 1983, No. 18 had lost its cornice and was painted white, its close architectural similarity to the corner building no longer evident.  NYC Department of Records & Information Services.

As the neighborhood lured artists and galleries in the third quarter of the 20th century, No. 18 became home to Joseph Nechvatal.  Born in Chicago in 1951, he studied at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Columbia University and Cornell University.  He arrived in New York City in 1979, becoming involved with the artist group Colab.  His work at the time was mostly post-minimalist gray graphite drawings.  An exception to that was highlighted in a 1980 issue of Umbrella:

Joseph Nechvatal, 18 No. Moore st., New York, NY 10013 is interesting in showing a very large, wall size temporary mural.  This mural is lit from below with colored theatrical lighting and a sound track.  Chairs face the mural.  He is addressing the threat of nuclear war in the current U.S.-Soviet cold war relations.

The joined storefront necessitated the two properties to be mutually owned, although the upper floors were never combined.  By the early 1990's the watering hole and restaurant Walker's opened in the ground floor.  A total of 18 apartments are in the two buildings.

In 2005 the facade of the building was restored and and a new cornice fabricated, based on its surviving neighbor.  The two structures were purchased March 2010; the matching cornices once again making them architectural siblings.

photographs by the author

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