Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Henry J. Holbrook House - 437 Washington Street

Although only a block away from the riverfront, No. 437 Washington Street exhibited the elegant details of an upper middle class home.  The Federal-style house was 25-feet wide and two-and-a-half stories tall.  One or two dormers would have pierced its peaked roof.  A short stoop let to the entrance below a paneled, arched lintel.  Most likely fluted columns and leaded sidelights would have flanked the doorway and a delicate fanlight filled the transom.  The Flemish-bond brickwork of the facade contrasted with the paneled brownstone lintels.  According to the New-York American For the Country on February 9, 1830, it was home to Henry J. Holbrook.

The doorway would have been very similar to this one, nearby on Hudson Street.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Holbrook had just suffered a devastating loss a few days earlier.  He ran his "dry goods and cloth store" nearby at No. 427 Washington Street.  On February 5 the New York NY Spectator explained "The building was an old fashioned wooden one, with a fire place in the cellar.  This had been boarded up, and a quantity of soot from the other flues had collected there."   The previous Saturday "a hot fire had been kept in the store, and some burning soot had fallen down and ignited that in the cellar." Holbrook stored a large amount of stock in the cellar which was heavily damaged by "tumbling water, and scorching."

The following year Holbrook left No. 437.  An advertisement in the New York Morning Courier offered "to let the two story dwelling house No. 437 Washington Street."  It was leased by a Mrs. McCoy, who operated it as a boarding house.

If Mrs. McCoy attempted to run a respectable business, her miscreant son posed a problem.  On August 27, 1834 the Mourning Courier and New-York Enquirer reported "A Desperado by the name of William McCoy, well known at the Police Office as one of the greatest rogues about town, was brought up by Smith, the officer, who apprehended him at Corlear's Hook, and charged by Samuel Long with having robbed him of $32 in bank notes, together with several articles of wearing apparel."

Long was one of Mrs. McCoy's boarders.  While he was away from the house on Saturday night August 23, William McCoy entered his room and rifled through his trunk.  The newspaper reported "Circumstances which clearly established the guilt of the prisoner, induced the magistrate to commit him for trial."

Eight months later the McCoy family left.  An auction announcement on April 22, 1835 in the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer said the family was "breaking up housekeeping."  Everything was for sale, from the "carpets, sideboards, tables, chairs, [and] looking glasses" to the "beds and bedding, china, glass, &c. &c."

The house became home to Edward M. Hoffmire, the city's Superintendent of Repairs.  Hoffmire was also highly-involved in the Fire Department.  It would not be until 1865 that the Fire Department was organized from a collection of volunteer companies to a professional force.  The smooth operation of the loosely-connected companies relied on men like Hoffmire.  He was not only a member of Engine Company 6; but in 1835 was on the Committee on Donations for the Fire Department and on the department's Committee of Finance.  For years Hoffmire was, as well, a trustee of the New-York Fire Department Fund.  Its object was "to relieve the widows and orphans of deceased firemen, and to assist sick or disable members and their families."

It appears that Hoffmire took in at least one boarder.  In 1841 59-year old Samuel Matthus, a watchman (the term for a foot patrolman before the organization of the Police Department) died "after a lingering consumption," according to a newspaper.  His funeral was held in the house two days later.

In July 1842 Hoffmire was promoted to Superintendent of Buildings.  His former employees presented him with what The New York Herald described as "A large silver pitcher of beautiful fashion, chased and embossed in elegant finish."  The newspaper noted "It is a tribute from the hands of those who can appreciate the character of the gentlemanly recipient of their good feelings."

Hoffmire remained at No. 437 through 1847, after which he moved to West 18th Street.  He soon died there, on May 24, 1848, "of consumption" at just 47-years-old.

The change from a quiet residential neighborhood to a commercial one was hinted at in an advertisement in The New York Herald on June 8, 1853:  "To Let--The House 437 Washington Street, suitable for any kind of business.  Inquire on the premises."

It would be years, however, before it was converted for business purposes.  Nevertheless, the boarders who now lived here reflected the declining tenor of the area.

In 1860 the New York Morning Express reported "Patrick Kennedy, an errand boy 15 years of age, living at 437 Washington street, was arrested by officer Walsh of the Harbor Police, charged with stealing a new boat valued at $50."  The cost of the boat would translate to just over $1,500 today.

Nothing had changed to the house by the end of the Civil War.  When it was again put on the market in February 1864 it was described in The New York Times as a "two-story and attic brick building."  And following a small fire in 1867 the New York Fire Department called it a "two-and-one-half story brick boarding house."

On February 17, 1870 The Evening Telegram entitled an article "Capture of a Gang of Rowdies" and reported "A gang of roughs of the respective names of August Aitiag, William Derrick, Henry Black and Ernest Llandewn, all of them having a very rough, 'bad-egg' appearance, were brought before Judge Dowling, charged with assaulting and violently beating a man named James Cahill, and also cutting him with a knife."

Cahill, his brother Edward, and a man named Murphy were at the corner of Washington and Debrosses Street, steps away from No. 437, at around 11:30 the night before.  Suddenly they were surrounded by the gang and Cahill was knocked down, beaten and stabbed.  It was a senseless crime that did not appear to involve robbery.  The article noted that an hour after the attack "all the prisoners were found secreted at 437 Washington street, by officer Stein, of the Fifth precinct."

By the early 1870's the parlor floor had been converted to Henry Iblo's dry goods store.  It was probably at this time that the window next to the entrance was altered into a doorway for the shop.  Like all store owners in the neighborhood, Iblo had to be vigilant for shoplifters.  On November 11, 1874 the Evening Telegram reported that "Benjamin Davis, of No. 19 York street, was committed for stealing $20 worth of clothing from Henry Iblo, of 437 Washington street."

Major change came in 1907 soon after Arthur M. Bullows purchased the property.  On December 25 the New-York Tribune reported that plans had been filed "for making over the two story and attic two family dwelling house No. 437 Washington st. into a three story and basement loft building, with a two story rear extension."  The renovations cost Bullows the equivalent of $276,000 in today's money.

Architect Otto L. Spannhake's addition is evidenced by the change in brickwork.  The Flemish-bond of the original floors was contrasted with less expensive running bond; and the difference in brick color clearly marks the new construction.  As would be expected, there was no effort at matching the early, paneled lintels.  

The alterations were done for Bullows's new tenants, the Empire Ornamental Glass Co., which simultaneously signed a ten-year lease.  In reporting on the deal the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted "The company will occupy the entire building after it has been altered and enlarged."

The Empire Ornamental Glass Co. manufactured glass signs and other commercial items.  Among its clients was the Coca Cola company.  The company would remain in the building at least through 1918.

The Empire Ornamental Glass Co. produced this "coin changer" or plate, from No. 437 Washington Street around 1908.

By the 1920's the building was home to the American Fruit Growers' Association warehouse.  Among its employees was Patrick Powers, a middle-aged messenger who had worked for the firm since boyhood.  He was well-known along Washington Street, The New York Times saying "He had become a character in the neighborhood...and acquired the name 'Methodical Pat.'"

Pat went missing on November 20, 1925.  Detectives of the Missing Persons Bureau were called in, but no trace of the 65-year old could be found.  Then, on November 25 an employee discovered his body at the bottom of the elevator shaft.  The Times reported "The police believe he had fallen down the shaft on Nov. 19."

On November 1, 1936 the trucking and storage firm Beach Transportation Company leased what The New York Sun described as the "three-story warehouse."  

Seven years later John Wagner received his license for "on-premises consumption" of liquor.  It is unclear how long the bar remained in the first floor; but the Tribeca renaissance caught up with the address in 2008 when a conversion began that resulted in two residential units.

While the use of the vintage building as a 20th century warehouse is evident, it miraculously retains much of its Federal architectural detailing.  Little imagination is necessary to imagine Henry Holbrook dejectedly climbing the stoop after his nearby store was damaged by fire nearly two centuries ago.

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