Monday, September 23, 2019

The Lost Anthony Post House - 76th Street at the East River

photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the first half of the 19th century Anthony Post was a director of the Phoenix Bank, one of the city's principal financial institutions.  His enchanting Italianate-style summer house sat on extensive grounds and was surrounded by landscaped gardens girded by a prim white fence.  The estate sat at the edge of the East River and stretched approximately from what, still on paper, was East 76th and 84th Streets.

The New York and Harlem Railroad had been extended along what would be named Park Avenue in 1837, making travel to the rural district more convenient.  Post's wooden villa was constructed a few years later, around 1840.  

The simple residence stressed charm over grandeur.   Two stories tall and three bays wide, its wide veranda sat above a high porch--no doubt a defense against spring flooding.  A deeply overhanging cornice supported the shallow hip roof.   At the western elevation was a glass conservatory.  The architect added the romantic touch of diamond-paned windows throughout.

The three sets of French doors provided cooling breezes to the interiors.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As most wealthy families did, Anthony and Mary Post brought servants from their city house each season.  As the summer drew to a close in 1858 Mary Post discovered some of her jewelry--worth nearly $63,000 by today's standards--was missing.  On November 1 The New York Herald wrote "Suspicion rested upon the servant girls, Isabella Kenny and Letitia White, and after being watched some time they were arrested."  

Under the pressure of early 19th century interrogation techniques, it did not take long for Isabella to confess.  She "stated that she had tied up the stolen jewelry and sent it by a strange boy to her sister's house in Eleventh street, near avenue C."  Investigators went to the Lower East Side address and recovered $1,200 of the loot--a little more than half.  "The rest could not be found, and the girl says she thinks the boy stole it," explained the newspaper.  Even though Letitia "is supposed to be innocent of the theft," she was held along with Isabella in jail for further examination.

At the time of the theft the district around the Post estate was changing.  The Yorkville neighborhood just to the north filled with German and Irish immigrants hired to construct the Croton Aqueduct; and in 1858 streetcar lines were extended along Second and Third Avenues.

The Posts may have already been anticipating liquidating their estate in the spring of 1863 when an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald.  "For Sale--An altered goat, sulky and harness; drives by bit, well trained and gentle; price $30.  Can be seen at the foot of Seventy-sixth street, East river.  The man will show him."  The price of the two-wheeled cart and goat would be equal to about $620 today.

A fieldstone retaining wall ran along the riverfront.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the summer of 1865 East 76th Street was "regulated and graded."  It symbolized the end of the era of summer estates in upper Manhattan.  On October 17, 1869 the Post estate was advertised "for sale cheap in single lots or plots, on very easy term."    The buyer was Hamlin Babcock.

Babcock moved into the house, but quickly began partitioning the land into lots.  He advertised in The New York Herald on November 19, 1870: 

UP TOWN LOTS FOR SALE--At reasonable prices and on very easy terms.  Owner, Hamlin Babcock, Seventy-sixth street and East river.

Babcock continued selling off the property and by the fall of 1871 had reduced the estate to the point that the plots now included former Post outbuildings.   He marketed the river-front location of four lots, saying they were "suitable for stone, coal or lumber yard, with Stable Sheds, Smith's Shop, &c."

The carriage gates were far to the rear of the gardens.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Despite the appearances, Hamlin Babcock was more interested in politics than real estate.  On October 27, 1876, for instance, The New York Times reported that the Republican Convention of the Tenth Congressional District had "amid much enthusiasm, nominated Mr. Hamlin Babcock to represent the district in the House of Representatives."

The decline of the neighborhood was clearly evidenced in 1881.  Babcock was leasing the house that summer when it became central to a murder investigation.  On August 4 The New York Times began an article saying "At the foot of East Seventy-sixth-street is situated the residence of Mr. Hamlin Babcock, and the grounds surrounding the residence slope down to the river and form a favorite bathing place for the people living in the neighborhood."  (The term "bathing" did not mean swimming, but quite literally, taking a bath.)

At 8:00 on the previous morning a number of boys were bathing in the river when they noticed the body of a man floating in the water.  One of the boys, James Donohue, "horrified at the discovery," ran to the Babcock house, which was "temporarily occupied by Detective Samuel Campbell."  Campbell went down to the riverfront and with the help of the boys, pulled the corpse to the shore.

Born in Germany, Samuel Alt was a 62-year old "peddling butcher," who lived with his family at No. 202 East 76th Street.  Alt had left home the day before to buy calves and therefore had $50 in cash in his pocket.  It was missing from the body as was his double-cased silver watch.  There was a wound on the side of his head.

The Times said "The place where he was found is very lonely and unfrequented.  The street ends in a bluff, which on the other side slopes down to the river.  On the south side of Seventy-sixth-street is the boundary wall of Mr. Babcock's premises, which extends out into the water."  Despite the missing money and jewelry, police theorized that Alt had come down to the spot to bathe and before he could undress was "either seized with a fit or stumbled and fell into the water."

Investigators changed their minds when the autopsy was completed.  The following day The Times reported "The post-mortem examination of the remains of Samuel Alt, the aged Hebrew who was found in the water at the foot of East Seventy-sixth-street...showed that death was the result of violence."  Alt's skull had been nearly fractured by a blunt blow and he died from a concussion of the brain.

The newspaper noted "It is known that a gang of young outlaws infest Avenue A [now York Avenue] and First Avenue, and they have been a source of great annoyance and trouble to Mr. Hamlin Babcock, the owner of the grounds and residence at the foot of East Seventy-sixth-street.  His grounds have been frequently invaded, and his orchard and flowerbeds devastated out of sheer malice, and the Police have been, in the past practically powerless to afford him protection."

Babcock's flowerbeds, orchards and his well-kept house were an exception in the neighborhood.  The New-York Tribune said the area was "regarded as a very bad one, several of the blocks being occupied only by hovels on the rocks."  Ironically, many of those ramshackle houses were built on land originally sold by Babcock.   The grim environment was most likely responsible for Babcock's closing the house shortly after the murder.  With no renters, the building sat vacant for years.

The Settlement Movement took roots in America around 1890.  It stressed education over charity so that impoverished children and women could independently make their way in the world.  In 1891 Babcock sold the house to a newly formed organization, East Side House Settlement, which opened on June 5.  The organization's first Annual Report described it as "an old country residence" without "a pound of plumbing in it."  

A substantial renovation went beyond what the Report called "a thorough cleansing from top to bottom."  A cast iron range was installed, as well as indoor plumbing.  When the East Side House Settlement opened it had an acceptable library and what passed for a gymnasium.

Alterations included bricking up the former conservatory (left).  A somewhat scary-looking swing set was erected in the yard.  East Side House Annual Report, 1892 (copyright expired)
The need for the settlement house was obvious.  On December 19, 1893 The Evening World wrote "The territory bounded by Third avenue, Sixty-eighth street, Seventy-sixth street and the East River, has a dense population.  It contains a score of factories, in which at least 2,000 persons are employed."  

Maintaining the settlement house required generous donations.  On April 23, 1897 a reception and ball was held in the Central Opera House on East 77th Street near Third Avenue for the benefit of the East Side House.  "The affair was largely attended by friends of the association and the dancing was kept up until a late hour," said the New-York Tribune.

The wooden house could not serve the needs of the exploding population for many more years.  On April 22, 1900 the New-York Tribune reported "Drawings have been made for the proposed enlarged building of the East Side House Settlement...on the river bluff at East Seventy-sixth-st."  The newspaper printed renderings by architects Howells & Stokes.

New-York Tribune, April 22, 1900 (copyright expired)
Within the year the old Anthony Post house was gone.  The replacement structure was demolished during the Depression years for construction of the FDR Drive.

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