Saturday, June 1, 2019

Soon to be Lost - The 1827 David Chrystie House - 25 Bleecker Street

Only close inspection reveals hints that this was once a refined, Federal-style residence.

Although Bleecker Street, which ran through the former Bleecker family farm, was deeded to the city in 1807 (the year it was officially opened), it had been an east-west road for decades.  Nine years later, in 1816, Elizabeth Street was extended north to Bleecker.  It all signaled the steady northward movement of residential development ahead of the expanding city.

The building plot at what would be numbered 25 Bleecker Street saw a rapid turnover of owners from 1816, when James Roosevelt held title, to 1825 when David Chrystie purchased it.  Around 1827 he erected a 20-foot wide frame house faced in brick.  Although little other than the paneled stone lintels survives of the original structure, an advertisement placed in the New York Evening Post in 1827 gives a splendid description:

To Let:  the new two-story brick House, No. 25 Bleecker street, between Broadway and the Bowery; it contains two parlours, six chambers with grates and bells, a good kitchen, a large vault for fuel and a smaller one for provisions; also, very convenient wardrobe, store rooms, closets and pantries; water good and rent moderate.  Apply at the premises which may be viewed between 11 and 2.

Above the two stories mentioned would have been a peaked attic with one or two dormers.   That the rooms were outfitted with service bells hints at the status of the intended occupants.

In 1832 when the "family of 11" which had been leasing the house decided to "remove from the city," as explained by their auctioneer, they sold off all their household goods.  Advertisements in at least three newspapers described the high-end furnishings, including "mahogany and fancy chairs, sofas, set of dining tables, 1 elegant French plate pier glass, 70 by 32, one superb 20 day mantel clock, mantel vases, plated ware, bureaus, mahogany and maple bedsteads, mattresses, basin stands, toilets, &c."

The family renting the house from Chrystie in 1848 was fewer in number.  An advertisement that year sought "A Protestant girl, well recommended, to do the general housework of a small family."

The neighborhood around No. 25 remained respectable in the years preceding the Civil War.  The family leasing the house in 1854 had apparently taken in a boarder and Chrystie seems to have been compassionate when the family had to quickly leave.  His ad on April 29 offered the house "excepting one apartment" and added "Present tenant unexpectedly leaving the city."

But the gradual encroachment of commerce into the neighborhood soon caught up to No. 25.   When Mrs. A. T. James moved in in 1856, she established her millinery shop in the parlor floor.  She announced her new location in The New York Herald on May 9:

Dress Caps and Head Dresses--Mrs. A. T. James has removed to 25 Bleecker street, east of Broadway, and has opened a large assortment of dress caps, head dresses, mourning sets, capes, basques, &c.

Mrs. James's business was doing well six years later when she advertised that she "now offers, at wholesale and retail, dress caps and headdresses, illusion and mourning goods, in great variety, of the newest styles.  Cash buyers liberally dealt with."

In 1864 David Chrystie sold No. 25 to Dr. James O'Rorke.  An esteemed physician he was superintendent of the hospital ships in 1867--two small steamers which held quarantined immigrants recently arrived in New York.  Although the doctor retained ownership of the property for years, it is doubtful that he ever lived here.

By the 1880's the once-refined neighborhood off the Bowery was seriously degraded.  The extent of the decline was vividly revealed in an article in the New-York Daily Tribune on November 28, 1883.  It described "A Scene In A Court-Room" the day before when warrants for the arrest of proprietors of "disorderly houses," or brothels, were issued.  Among them was "Katey" Scearz, of No. 25 Bleecker Street.  The house had been raided by Inspectors Murray and Thorne, but she had "alluded arrest at the time."

Dr. James O'Rorke died on November 30, 1885, but his wife retained possession of the house.  Although the brothel was gone, it was being operated as a low-rent rooming house.  The gritty surrounding district prompted the opening of mission houses along the Bowery and one, the Florence Midnight Mission, opened in the house next door to No. 25.

Typical of the roomers were Frank and Maggie Estrada.  Maggie, it seems, was a Bowery prostitute with whom Frank fell in love and removed her from the streets.  According to Maggie, Frank moved into her rooms after they were married in the Broome Street Tabernacle on December 23, 1888.  

His family members were not so sure the ceremony ever happened.  In 1886, according to his brother, he had "married a girl whom he met when he was making $20 a week as a collector for the Union Bottling Company.  He had trouble with his wife."  The couple separated after having one child.  But there was no evidence of a divorce.

Frank, who was born in Cuba, was now 22-years-old and still struggled to find himself.  Shortly before he met Maggie Wallace (whom the New York Press bluntly described as "a girl he had picked out of the streets")  he joined the Navy, but, according to his brother, "deserted after serving a month."  Depressed over his lack of money and inability to support Maggie, he turned to alcohol.

The New York Press wrote with a Victorian flair "Both had been flung out of the society of comfortable people, and so they joined their fortunes, and in her rooms on Bleecker street began life anew."  Unlike Estrada's brother, the journalist believed Maggie's story of a wedding.  "Everything goes to show that the woman foreswore all her evil ways on Christmas eve, when she became Estrada's wife...Their room was on the second floor of the house, but they passed much of their time in the room of a couple on the floor below."  That couple, the Dessers, reported that Estrada constantly lamented over his "fruitless effort to make a living."

On January 11, 1890, about three weeks after Frank moved in with Maggie, he came home at around 7:30.  She gave him some money, explaining to police later "I had to get something to eat."  Before leaving he vomited, but she assumed it was from drinking.   When he had not returned by 11:00 she looked for him downstairs.  He was sitting on the Dessers' sofa and told Maggie he was too sick to go upstairs.  She and Mrs. Desser laid him on the sofa to sleep.

The next morning Mrs. Desser found him dead.  According to The Sun "He had swallowed Paris green," a highly-toxic pesticide.  He had taken the time to scrawl a note, "Good-by, Maggie.  I am called away."  The New York Press dramatically concluded "Margo Wallace, or Mrs. Estrada, is now in the same position in life as before Estrada met her, and the people who saw her looking at the body of the man who had befriended her and struggled in vain to support her, wondered whether all the Christian and charitable societies in the world would prove as sacrificing a friend to her as the unfortunate she met a few weeks ago."

More problems came a month later after a young woman, 24-years-old, took a room at the end of February 1889.  She had left her parents' home to strike out on her own.  Her 52-year-old father, James Matthews, a blacksmith, tracked her down a few days later and on March 4 came to her room.  He, understandably, tried to remove her from the disreputable neighborhood.

The discussion did not go well.  The Evening Post reported "Early this morning the two quarrelled [sic], and the girl struck her father on the head with a water-pitcher, fracturing his skull."  Matthews was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital, and his daughter was arrested.  She told police "that her father was trying to force her to return home when the trouble occurred."

The James O'Rorke estate sold No. 25 to James E. Dougherty in 1890.  The neighborhood had continued to change and before he leased it to William S. Reilly that same year, it was converted for commercial purposes.  The renovations, which included raising the attic to a full floor, were well worth the cost.  Court papers in 1894 noted "Previously it was occupied as a home or residence.  Afterwards it was converted into small factory purposes; the increase of rent was coincident with the change of the use of the building."  The structure rented in 1885 for $900; and in 1890 the rent rose to $1,250.

The renovations included a storefront, cast metal cornices over the stone lintels, and a bracketed terminal cornice.  photo via NYC Department of Taxation and Information Services

The renovated structure held a surprising number of tenants.  In 1895 Philip Meyer's "artificial flowers and feathers" shop had 38 employees, including 16 minors, of which two were listed by the State as "children who cannot read nor write English."  Also in the building were Miller & Silverman, "fur and garments;" L. Peron's feather shop; Steiner & Miller, "fur trimmings;" and millinery makers Samuel Rosenberg and Rosenthal & Shapiro.  

Another tenant that year was the confusingly-named Lafayette Cigar Factory, run by Charles Nathanson.  An advertisement in the Syracuse, New York newspaper The Evening Herald urged potential customers to "Send 10c in silver and get sample box, fine cigars."   Unfortunately for Nathanson, his tenure here would be relatively short.  He was arrested in January 1896 for "illegal dealing in cigars."

The tenant list continued to include fur and millinery related firms for years.  In 1901, for instance, Cassileth, Robroff & Co., fur makers, moved in.

It seems that most of the factories had moved on by the end of World War I.  When architects Horenburger & Bardes filed plans for updating the building in March 1918, it was described as a three-story "store and storage building."  

Somewhat unexpectedly fur dealer Jacob Scholnick moved in in the late 1930's.  By now the fur district had been centered on the west side, in the 20's and 30's for years.  In 1945 he bought the building.

Scholnick and the Heyman Sewing Machine Co. shared the building into the 1960's.  By now the Noho neighborhood had once again changed as the Bowery, once Manhattan's most degraded thoroughfare, began sprouting cafes and trendy shops.

In 1984 the storefront was remodeled as the upper floors became residential.  The facade received a veneer of common-bond brick over the original and the Victorian cornice was replaced with a parapet.  In the process the 1890 window cornices were removed, exposing the 1827 paneled lintels.  Then, in May 2016 the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a plan to raze the 189-year-old structure and replace it with a six-story and penthouse mixed-use building designed by architect Michael Haverland.

The architect's approved rendering shows the two outside cast iron piers of the 1890 storefront, which will be salvaged. via New York Yimby, May 18, 2016 
Despite its age and history, there was little left of the original fabric of the Chrystie house.  On May 18 2016 Evan Bindelglass, writing in New York Yimby, said "A piece of old New York is set to be replaced by something new."

photographs by the author


  1. I love your blog and really appreciate all the time and effort that surely goes into gathering all of this for us.

    At the starting of this post, you had the 1827 newspaper describing the place that mentioned "grates and bells". So the bells were service bells for servants but what we're the "grates" ? Small fireplaces?

    Thanks again, your blog is fascinating and I read it every day. And since I only found it a couple of years ago, there are plenty of older posts for me to read.

    1. Grates were the cast or wrought iron "baskets" that held the coal in the fireplaces. Wood burning fireplaces had pretty much gone away, for safety and efficiency sake, a generation earlier. Having grates already in place was a cost savings to the potential owner

  2. Also, what a shame that such interesting buildings like these are being taken down. I guess nothing stands in the way of "progress" .

    I hope that NYC has good policies in place as to the dismantling and salvaging of all this cool old material .

    Thanks again !