Friday, April 19, 2019

The Levi Onderdonk House - 90 Charles Street

Although city directories listed Levi Onderdonk as "carpenter," he was in fact an established builder, or contractor, and well-respected citizen.  By 1843 he was a manager of the New-York City Tract Society, a position he would hold for at least a decade; and was repeatedly re-elected as Assessor of the 9th Ward.

In 1847 Onderdonk erected his own residence at No. 78 Charles Street, a handsome 25-foot wide Greek Revival frame home with a brick front.   The iron fencing that protected the areaway in front of the rusticated brownstone basement, and the newels and railings of the stoop were engaging examples of the Greek Revival style.

Stylized Greek key designs decorated the areaway fencing.  Note the boot-scrapers on either side of second step of the stoop--installed to prevent mud being tracked into the house.

Onderdonk embellished the single-doored entrance with sidelights and transom, and paneled pilasters with Greek neo-Classical capitals.  The openings most likely were originally trimmed in brownstone, and a simple, dentiled fascia board ran below the cornice.

Onderdonk included his residential address in his advertisement.  New-York: Past, Present, and Future, 1851 (copyright expired)
Levi Onderdonk's second job as Assessor added significantly to the household income.  His "officer's fee" in 1853 was $575--or about $19,300 today.  He additionally served on the board of the LaFarge Insurance Company.

Onderdonk and his wife, the former Catherine Stevens, had a daughter, Maria.  The family maintained a summer home in Rockland County, New York.  It appears that the Onderdonks decided to move there permanently in 1853.

In March that year Onderdonk placed an advertisement in The New York Herald offering "the three story brick house and lot No. 78 Charles street" for sale.  A buyer seems to have been found by summer's end.  With her position coming to an end, the Onderdonk's servant began job-hunting in October.  "Wanted--By a respectable steady woman, a situation as cook; is a good washer and ironer.  Can produce excellent testimonials as to character.  Please call at 78 Charles street, in the basement, for two days."

The family's decision to relocate to the country may have been prompted by Maria's health.  She died in the Rockland County house only a few months after the move.

By the early 1870's No. 78 was home to William and Jane C. Little.  They too, apparently, had a country house, theirs in New Bedford, New Jersey.  It was there on Saturday, August 31, 1872 that the Littles' youngest child, Mary Maitland Little, died.  Her funeral was held in the Charles Street house on September 3.

It is unclear if was the Littles who were leasing rooms in the house the following year.  In any case, a couple renting here was looking for new accommodations in October 1873.  Their ad read "Wanted--By a gentleman and wife, a second floor, unfurnished, in private house, suitable for housekeeping; location between Fourteenth and Thirty-fourth streets and Sixth and Ninth avenues.  Address, stating terms, G. C. C. No. 78 Charles street."

The roomers in 1878 included Agnes Atkinson, who taught in Primary School No. 11 on Vestry Street.  It was about this time that the house was updated with pressed metal cornices above the windows, and another above the doorway which was upheld by up-to-date neo-Grec brackets.

The cosmetic updates did not extend to the handsome Greek Revival entranceway.  A 20th century veneer of brick covers the original.
On February 20, 1897 The New York Times reported that architect Charles Rentz had purchased the "old frame building" at No. 78 Charles Street.  The same day the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide added that he bought it "for improvement."  The term routinely translated to demolition and replacement; but in this case that did not happen.  Instead the No. 78 continued to be operated as a rooming house.

Among the residents in 1916 was the Saigat family.  Early that summer cases of polio, or infantile paralysis, were diagnosed in Brooklyn.  Within weeks it exploded into an epidemic.  Vacationing employees of the Health Department were ordered back by telephone or telegraph.  The scourge took more than 6,000 lives before the end of the year, and left thousands more paralyzed.  On August 28 The New York Times listed Paul Saigat among the new cases.

John R. Williams and his wife, the former Esther M. Tucker, were living here around the time.  John died here on January 7, 1920 and his funeral was held in the house before the casket was taken to nearby St. Joseph's Church on January 10.

Two unmarried women, Margaret Hollingshead and Peggy Darling, rented rooms in the house in 1928.  Margaret was an aspiring graphic artist and Peggy described herself as a "mind reader and model."

Peggy suffered a terrifying incident early on Saturday March 10 that year.  She entered the Charles Street police Station and reported "that a man had forced his way into her apartment at 78 Charles Street and, after threatening her, taken $8 and escaped," according to The New York Times.  Her report was taken by Detective Joseph Sheldrick.

Later that afternoon Sheldrick purchased a new derby; in fact, the first derby he had ever owned.  He was wearing it two days later at the corner of Charles and West Fourth Street when Peggy Darling spotted him.  "She at once screamed for aid and insisted to Patrolman James Lundbergh that Sheldrick was the man who had forced his way into her apartment," reported The Times.  Her loud shouts and her refusal to stop screaming resulted in her arrest for disorderly conduct.

Later in the Jefferson Market Court she admitted to Magistrate Brodsky that "it was the detective's derby hat that had misled her."  She apologized to Sheldrick and her charges were dropped.

Less embarrassing press was earned by Margaret Hollingshead two months later.  Margaret attended Illustration courses at the Cooper Union and on May 23 she was awarded first prize for "design for a booklet" in the school's annual art exhibition.

Despite the hardships of the Great Depression, the house continued to be home to middle-class residents.  Its owner, "Mrs. Montante," took out a second mortgage in 1931 to keep the property.

In 1941 the house looked little different from today.  photo via NYC Department of Records
In 1936 the Charles Street block was renumbered, giving the house its new address of No. 90.  It was owned in 1945 by real estate operator Conrad Bell, Jr., who also lived here.  Bell owned a significant number of properties in Greenwich Village.

Following his graduation from Princeton University in 1945, John Reeve Bermingham rented an apartment in the house.  Known popularly as "Jack," he remained at least through 1952.  Bermingham would go on to be senior management consultant with Lambda Technology.

In 1954 the house was converted to one apartment per floor, including the basement level.  In 1970 the lower two floors were combined to a duplex apartment.  It was most likely at this time that a veneer of unconvincing fake brick was affixed to the real thing.  The brownstone of the basement and of the stoop were faced with a chocolate colored concrete substance.

photographs by the author

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