Saturday, November 30, 2019

The 1834 Survivor at 149 West 10th Street

Myndert Van Schaick was seemingly destined for a life of politics.  He was born on September 2, 1782 in Albany, where his grandfather Sybrant Van Schaick, had been mayor from 1756 to 1761.  In 1815 he married Elizabeth Hone, niece of New York City Mayor Philip Hone.  An apparent multi-tasker, in 1832 he was a member of the New York State Assembly, an Alderman in New York City, and the Treasurer of New York City's Board of Health during that year's terrifying cholera epidemic.

On January 1, 1833 he began his term as a New York State senator.  As if he did not have enough on his plate, he dabbled in real estate development as well, erecting full rows of houses in the expanding Greenwich Village district.  That year he began construction of eleven brick-faced homes on Amos Street between Waverley Place and Greenwich Avenue.  Completed in 1834, they were intended for middle-class families.

No. 53 Amos Street (which would obtain the new address of 149 West 10th Street in 1857), like its identical neighbors, was two-and-a-half stories tall.  Its Flemish bond brick was trimmed in brownstone and its stone stoop held handsome Federal-style railings with noticeable new Greek Revival influences.  

Van Schaick's tenants had a scare in the fall of 1846.  The Evening Post reported on October 2 that "a fire broke out yesterday afternoon at two o'clock at No. 53 Amos street, but was subdued with little damage."

In the 1850's Van Schaick modernized the house, raising the sloped roof and removing the dormers.  The resultant squat attic floor was typical of the Greek Revival style and made the space more usable.  The entrance was updated as well, with delicate rope moldings and an ample transom, also elements of Greek Revival.  It was possibly during this renovation that the simple brownstone lintels received pressed metal cornices.  (The architect was perhaps a bit carried away in designing the slightly out-of-proportion cornice over the doorway.)

The additional third floor space may have been done to accommodate additional occupants.  No. 149 was apparently being operated as a boarding house at the time, its tenants earning modest salaries.  Among them were delivery wagon driver Delancey Kennedy, and A. B. Rich, a customs clerk.

There were a surprising number of young women living in the house at the time, quite possibly Irish immigrants, looking for work.  On April 23, 1851 an advertisement in The New York Herald read:

Wanted--A situation by a respectable young woman, as Chambermaid, and to assist with the washing; is a good laundress; or is willing to do general housework for a small family; or would do chamberwork and waiting.

The term "waiting" referred to serving in the dining room, or in the parlor when the lady of the house had guests.  A "waitress" was expected to be more presentable in appearance and demeanor than the unseen servants.

The following year, in July 1852, three of the women shared the costs of an ad:

Wanted--By three respectable young girls, situations; one as Cook, Washer and Ironer; can give five years' city reference.  Two more want to do chamberwork, and washing and ironing; or chamberwork and plain sewing; or chamberwork and waiting; or one is willing to travel with a lady.

Three months later another tenant sought work.  Calling herself a "respectable Protestant young woman," she said she "is a first rate washer and ironer.  Has no objection to do the fine washing, or is willing to go as laundress, or to take charge of a child."

By the mid-1870's it seems that No. 149 was again a private residence.  It was home to James Muir and his wife.  It appears that his widowed sister-in-law, Isabella Farmer Ross, also lived here.  Her funeral was held in the parlor following her death on June 9, 1876.

By 1891 the Isaac Edisheimer family lived in the West 10th Street house.  Edisheimer was a vinegar manufacturer, one who meticulously watched his books.  That sharp awareness of his accounts resulted in a teen-aged employee being arrested. 

Samuel Pett was just 17-years old and was hired as a clerk.  He was responsible for collecting money from clients.  But on June 1, 1891 The Press reported that he "was held for trial at the Jefferson Market Court yesterday, charged with collecting and using for his own benefit $3.79 of his employer's money."  The embezzled funds would equal just over $100 today.

Before long journalist Joseph S. Tunison was living here.  He briefly acquired a roommate in the 1890's in the form of author Lafcacio Hearn who was visiting the city.  According to Hearn's biographer, Elizabeth Stevenson, in her 1961 The Grass Lark: A Study of Lafcadio Hearn, the writer was having a difficult time finding a room in Greenwich Village.  "Tunison said gruffly: come in with me.  And Hearn did.  He remained with Tunison at 149 West Tenth Street for the rest of his time in New York City."

It was a seemingly awkward relationship.  Stevenson writes "Lafcadio thought that Joe loved him as he loved Joe;" but Tunison refuted that following Lafcadio's death.   In a letter dated 1906 he wrote "I never pretended to be friend.  I was merely one to whom he resorted when all the rest cast him out."

Lafcadio was best known for his books on Japan, sometimes writing under the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo.  Mostly forgotten today, he was described by Andrei Codrescu in The Paris Review on July 2, 2019 as "one of America's best-known writers, one of a stellar company that included Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson."  Joseph S. Tunison left New York to become editor of the Dayton, Ohio Journal.

The house was owned by Frederick Warnecke by the turn of the century.   It was the scene of a wedding on December 19, 1900.  The New York Herald announced "Miss Lena Baumgartner, niece of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Warnecke, was married to Mr. Charles McCordell...last evening at the home of her aunt and uncle."  The Warnecke's little daughter, Nellie, was the flower girl and their son, Charles, was an usher.

The Warnecke family rented at least one room in the house.  Law student James P. Curren was here in the winter of 1903-04 when he could no longer handle his pressures.  On February 26, 1904 The New York Times reported that the 37-year-old "was found dead in a furnished room at 149 West Tenth Street yesterday afternoon.  According to the police, the man committed suicide by inhaling illuminating gas."  

At the time table or desk lamps were fueled by gas from the wall sconces by connecting them with a rubber tube.  Curren was found on the floor with the tubing in his mouth and the gas turned fully on.  "A blanket covered his head to prevent the gas from escaping," said the article.

Frederick Warnecke died in the house later that year, on December 30, 1904, at the age of 58.  His funeral was held in the parlor, where his niece had been married, on January 3, 1905.

On July 17, 1906 The New York Press reported that Mrs. Warnecke had sold the house, adding "It will be altered for business purposes."  But if that was the intention of the new owner, it never came to pass.

The house had another celebrated tenant in 1930 and 1931.  American comp0ser, lyricist and librettist, Marcus Samuel Blitzstein (known professionally as Marc Blitzstein) had shown remarkable talent at an early age.  At 7-years old he performed a Mozart piano concerto and he made his professional concerto debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was 21.

The tenants at the time Blitzstein lived here were struggling under the hard times of the Great Depression.  Among them was John Stuart, a newspaperman who had been out of work for a while in the winter of 1931.   On February 23 the Communist newspaper Daily Worker spat that "the capitalist press, which tells us every day that prosperity is just around the corner...had no use for its 45-year old slave."  Like James Curren had done nearly three decades earlier, he "committed suicide with gas at 149 West 10th street, New York City.  He left a note saying it was 'the only way out.'"

In 1940 No. 149 had successfully ignored the 20th century crowding in around it. photo via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services 
Interestingly, tenants Levier Thompson and Lewis Thompson were listed as signers of Communist Party petitions for state and city elections at least from 1936 through 1940.

The increasing desirability of quaint 19th century Village houses was evidenced when No. 149 was sold in 2004 for $3.1 million.  Renovations completed in 2008 returned it to a single family home with an apartment in the basement.  It was placed on the market in 2011 for just under $11 million.

It is the best preserved of the survivors of the 1834 row; a charming relic.

photographs by the author

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