Friday, August 2, 2019

The 1854 Francis Alexandre House - 29 West 27th Street

Immediately after the elegant Madison Square park was officially opened in 1847 the surrounding neighborhood began filling with handsome, upscale homes.  In 1852 John S. Myers began construction of a 24-foot wide, brownstone-fronted house at No. 29 West 27th Street.  

Construction took two years to complete.  A high stone stoop rose above the English basement to the entrance which, most likely, included an Italianate-style pediment supported by scrolled brackets.  The single floor-to-ceiling length parlor window may may have held French doors which opened onto a cast iron balcony.  The bracketed cornice did not extend completely to the ends of the structure; preferring to stand apart from its flanking neighbors.

Rather unexpectedly, the carriage house was directly next door.  Most private stables were located to the rear, or even a block or more away.  This was because of their unavoidable odors and noises.

It is unclear whether Myers actually moved into the house; but the whatever family lived here in 1859 had two vacancies in its domestic staff.  An advertisement on September 8 read: "Wanted--A Cook and Waiter Girl in a private family; they must assist each other with the washing and ironing, and have good city reference."  Cooks were often the most highly-paid of servants and asking one to do the menial task of laundry may have prompted the upheaval within the staff and resultant vacancies.

By 1868 the family of Frederick Francis Alexandre lived here.  Alexandre, who went only by his middle name, was born in New York City of French parents in 1809.  The Evening World later explained, "Early in life he adopted the calling of a sailor, and in his early manhood visited nearly every quarter of the globe.  While a seaman before the mast his attention was attracted to the favorable opportunities for trade between Gulf of Mexico ports and the United States."  By the time he moved his family into the 27th Street house he ran the Alexandre & Sons steamship company.

Francis and his wife, the former Mary Civilise Cipriant, had four sons, J. Henry, Joseph James, John Ernest, and Francis Victor.  They were all involved in their father's firm.

On December 31 1868 the Louisville Courier-Journal ran an article entitled "The Fashionable French in New York."  In enlightening its readers of the city's wealthy French-Americans it noted "Among our leading French residents may be mentioned Mons. Francis Alexandre, of West Twenty-seventh street, whose wife leads a portion of our French fashionable population, and whose liege lord makes no secret of the fact that he commenced life as a cabin boy, their present success being creditable to all parties concerned."

In the second half of the century many of the wealthiest New Yorkers like would breed expensive racing horses.  Alexandre seems to have gotten into the sport early on.  On April 20, 1871 he ran an advertisement in The New York Herald offering:

Saddle Beast For Sale--Is a very fine three-fourths bred Kentucky mare, 6 years old, 15-1/2 hands high; perfectly sound and kind; is a superior horse for the saddle; has been driven in Tilbury.  Apply at 29 West Twenty-seventh street, and can be seen at private stable next door. 

The following year Francis Alexandre & Sons received a massively lucrative Government contract.  On February 23 the Postmaster General gave the firm a 10-year contract to carry the mails between New York, Cuba, the Yucatan and Mexico.  The deal required a ship to leave New York once every two weeks.  Each round trip voyage grossed the firm $5,000--in the neighborhood of $105,000 today.

The family suffered shock and grief when 34-year-old Francis Victor died on Friday evening, April 7, 1876.  His funeral was held in St. Francis Xavier's church in Greenwich Village three days later.

During the winter of 1882 Mary contracted pneumonia.  The 71-year-old died in the 27th Street house on February 13.  Her funeral, too, was held at St. Francis Xavier.

On May 30, 1883 the New-York Tribune reported that actress Mary Anderson had left the city for Europe on the steamship Arizona.  But the article devoted even more space to another passenger:

On the vessel also was Frencis Alexandre, of F. Alexandre & Sons, owners of the New-York, Havana and Mexican Steamship Line.  As the vessel passed down the bay he was greeted with gun-salutes from several yachts, and a gun-salute from Pier No. 3, North River.  

The fantastic show of esteem for Alexandre was not without one mishap.  One of the cannon wads--the material stuffed in front of the gun powder--flew out and hit a structure on the end of Pier No. 4, setting it on fire.

In June 1888 negotiations were completed for the purchase of the F. Alexandre & Sons business by the New-York and Cuba Steamship Company.  On June 23 the New-York Tribune explained "The members of the firm of Francis Alexandre & Sons will retire altogether from the steamship business, but will for some time carry on their commission business."

Francis retired to the family's summer home, described by The Evening World as "a valuable estate on Staten Island."   But he would not enjoy his leisure time for long.  The following year, on June 9, 1889, he died there at the age of 80.  His funeral was held at Calvary Church on Fourth Avenue (later Park Avenue).  The New York Times reported "Among the floral tributes was one reproducing in color and form the official flag of the Alexandre steamships."

The following year the Alexandre brothers sold off their father's properties on West 27th Street.  The once-exclusive residential neighborhood was by now mostly commercial.  In 1900 the new owner, apparently Maria L. Frith, removed the stoop and installed a storefront at the former basement level.  The upper floors were rented as apartments.

Maria Frith died around 1902, but her estate retained possession of the building.  In May 1905 a major renovation was completed which did away with any remaining interior details of the Alexandre house.  Architect M. C. Merritt's plans called for a five-story extension to the rear, installation of an elevator and vent shaft, new floor beams and windows.  The signification alteration, which cost the estate more than half a million in today's dollars, resulted in what the Record & Guide described as a "hotel and restaurant."  Just five years later, in January 1907, Merritt was called back to replace the windows and interior stairs.

Among those living in the renovated apartments in 1908 was importer George Zacuoff.  He found himself in night court on February 20 after having engaged in very ungentlemanly behavior on Broadway.

Deputy Police Commissioner  Bugher had happened to be at 41st Street and Broadway that night when, according to The Sun, "he came upon a man clawing another man's face while a crowd looked on.  Mr. Bugher blew his whistle and Policeman Van Delft of the Broadway squad arrested the men."

According to Henry J. Samson, the man "who had his face clawed," he had seen Zacuoff on 34th Street "annoying girls who were leaving a department store."  When he told him to stop, a quarrel ensued which continued up Broadway, finally erupting into fisticuffs.

Zacuoff's story was different.  He told the judge that Samson had started the fight "without particular cause" and he had defended himself strenuously enough to result in Samson's face being badly scratched and bleeding.  Both men were fined $2 (about $56 today).  "Zacuoff paid and hurried away," wrote The Sun.

The well-heeled residents in 1915 included real estate developer Frank Meserocchi.  He was busy erecting a hotel on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn that year.

No. 29 was still being operated by the Frith family as a residential hotel and restaurant in July 1919 when a new dumbwaiter was installed and the storefront extended forward.

The restaurant was gone by 1922, replaced by the Bell Skirt Company.  In 1933 Department of Buildings records showed a store on the first floor, caretaker's apartment on the second, and furnished rooms above.  In 1982 a renovation resulted in "first class" apartment on the floors above the ground floor stores.

Today the garish storefront draws attention away from the 1854 facade above it.  Looking up, and without too much imagination, one can imagine the wealthy Alexandres mounting the brownstone stoop to enter what were lavishly-furnished rooms.

photographs by the author

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