Saturday, November 16, 2019

The James Polhemus House - 96-98 Grove St (170 Waverly Place)

The original house was 2-1/2 stories tall and not as deep along Grove Street.

James Polhemus was born in September 3, 1792 on Long Island.  He grew up, however, in New York City  Identified in city directories as a grocer, he married Catherine Hadley on December 31, 1816.  They had one child, Catherine Ann, born in July 1819.

The elder Catherine died two months before her 27th birthday on September 10, 1823.   Exactly one year later, almost to the day, James married Mary Smith, on September 11, 1824.

The following year James began construction of a new home on the corner of Burrows and Sixth Street in Greenwich Village.  Completed the following year, it was two-and-a-half stories tall and faced in Flemish bond brick.  It is possible that the Sixth Street (later renamed Waverley Place) front always had a store in the ground floor.  Next door on Burrows Street (later Grove Street) was a wooden building, two stories tall, which may have been a stable or small shop.

When the family moved in its population had increased by one.  William S. Polhemus was born on September 7, 1825.  Another addition, James, Jr., came in October 1827.  The family Bible noted he was born "corner of Burrows and Sixth Street."  By the time John was born on December 3, 1829 the street had been renamed.  The Bible entry read "corner of Grove & Sixth Streets."

The street renaming came about after uproar from the residents, like James Polhemus.  The similarity between Burrows Street and the nearby Barrow Street caused great confusion.  In the summer of 1829, for instance, Polhemus was assessed $4.75 for the public well and pump on Barrow Street (about $132 today).  He protested to the Committee of Assessments asserting "that he has no front on Barrow street."  On August 9 the committee reversed the assessment.

The Polhemus family moved from Grove Street in the early 1830's.  For certain a store was operating from the Waverly Place front by the 1850's.   

In March 1869 Ann Martin sold the property, including No. 96, to James Green for $32,500, a substantial $618,000 today.  Within the year he had replaced the wooden structure with a two-bay extension and raised the entire house to four floors.  A bracketed Italianate cornice brought the building up to date; but the Federal style doorway, with its sidelights and transom, and the cast iron porch newels were preserved.

Green's expansion project was possibly in anticipation of operating the building as a rooming house.  Among the residents in 1874 was Civil War veteran William McCoy and his mistress.  McCoy made his living as a "journeyman jeweler."  The Wilmington, Delaware Daily Gazette noted on July 15 that year that "he had become a drinking man while in the army during the war, and on returning to civil life married."  Before too many years had passed, McCoy's eye wandered.  The newspaper wrote that he "abandoned his wife and two children to live with some one else."

Now living with the other woman in the Grove Street house, McCoy had turned to drugs as well.  Laudanum was a popular over-the-counter pain remedy which, because it contained opium and morphine, was highly abused and addictive.  The powerful drug was used not only for its narcotic properties but for its deadly ones.

The Daily Gazette reported that McCoy "was recently found dead in his bed at No. 96 Grove Street, New York, having taken poison...He began recently to take laudanum, which was the drug finally used for his exit."  His deathbed remorse was recorded on a note he left in the room:  "Good-bye wife and children.  You will soon forget me.  I feel the fatal drug working now."  

Another resident, 65-year old Catharine Jones, nearly met her death in a terrifying incident on May 30, 1883.  She was in line to cross the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian footway that afternoon, among an unusually large crowd.  The Paris, Kentucky Bourbon News reported that at around 4:00 the throng "thickened, swelled and stopped in its motion just at the stairs leading up from the concrete roadway to the bridge proper.  Strong men and feeble women, manhood and infancy, were wedged together in that jam by the fearful pressure of the crowd. which extended miles, one might say, on either end of the line."

Like the others, Catharine was trapped among the mass of humanity.  Unable to move forward or backward, scores of people fainted as the situation stretched on for an hour.  When bridge officials tried to alleviate the human jam by removing sections of the iron railing a stampede resulted.

Some, "weak and fainting as they were, immediately fell helter skelter, heels over head, down on the jagged, gravelly road beneath a mass of bruised, discolored human flesh.  Scores were trampled upon instantly, and to stumble was death.  Men were dragged out of that heap of helpless humanity with faced blue as indigo, and the life blood trickling out of their nostrils; children and women, pale, disheveled and dead."  Newspapers published long lists of the dead and injured.  Luckily for Catharine, she survived with head and chest injuries.

The rooming house was operated by what The New York Times described as a "pleasant-faced old lady" in April 1885.  At around 9:30 on the night of April 14 she answered a rap on her door to find John Henry McKenzie there.  He and his wife had rented a room looking onto Grove Street for two years.  The Times called McKenzie, who was 55-years old, "a tall, portly Scot, with a heavy gray mustache and partly bald head."   Originally from Prince Edward Island, both were considered "well educated and intelligent."

But two weeks earlier Mrs. McKenzie had thrown her husband out with all his belongings.  She had grown tired of his excessive drinking.  The New York Daily Graphic described her as "a sober, industrious seamstress," and added that on the night he knocked on the landlady's door he had been "drunk eleven weeks."

McKenzie had been there that afternoon, but his wife was out.  At that time, according to The New York Times, "The housekeeper saw that he was then decidedly under the influence of liquor.  When he called again in the evening he was still drunk."  When she told him she did not know if his wife was at home or not, he rushed up the stairs and banged on the door.  

Hearing him "storming and cursing," the landlady "threw her apron over her head and ran out through her area and thence down the street in search of a policeman," reported The Times.  In her absence McKenzie finally gave up, after getting no response from within the apartment.

But Mrs. McKenzie somewhat foolishly "softly raised the window and looked out to see if he were gone."  McKenzie, on the sidewalk below, raised his "seven-shooter Smith & Wesson revolver" and shot.  She threw her arms into the air, screamed, and disappeared back into the apartment.  McKenzie then fired another shot into his head behind the right ear.

Police rushed to the McKenzie apartment and "found Mrs. McKenzie in a faint condition sitting in a chair.  The right side of her dress was saturated with blood."  As she had thrown her arms into the air in horror, a bullet had entered her right armpit.  Within thirty minutes she was composed enough to walk to the ambulance outside.  John Henry McKenzie was not so fortunate.  He died on the sidewalk.

Among the tenants here in 1886 was vaudevillian Margaret Tennant, who was described as a "light and character comedienne."  

During the 1890's the storefront was home to a Chinese laundry.  It was the scene of a vicious act on May 4, 1898.  The New York Times reported "Some boys threw a beer bottle through the door of the Chinese laundry at 96 Grove Street last night, striking Chu Fon, the proprietor, on the head and fracturing  his skull."  He was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital.  

The rooming house continued to see working class tenants.  Michael Casey, who made his living as a street car conductor, lived here in February 1909 when he was involved in a fatal accident.  The mother of 4-year-old Helen Moytstack was watching from the window as the little girl crossed 23rd Street when Casey's street car ran her over.  "In her anguish at the sight Mrs. Moytasck made an effort to jump out of the five-story window, but was detained by her 16-year-old daughter, Mary, and some neighbors," reported The Times.

The newspaper dramatically noted that it "was one of the few times the little girl had been out alone.  She was on her way to buy some candy with a penny her mother had given her, and she also wore a new white dress and a red coat that had been bought on Saturday."  Her dead body was wedged under the wheels of the trolley.

Casey's street car was quickly surrounded by an angry mob who threatened both him and the motorman.  Police from the 22nd Street station house took the two men in, "followed by more than a thousand persons," said the article.  They were charged with homicide.

A most interesting tenant in the post World War I years was James Le Baron Johnson, the former assistant rector of Grace Church.  He had earlier been married to Mabel Van Rensselaer.  At the time he was also the fire chaplain, a position that required him to administer to the spiritual needs of fire fighters and their widows and children.  The massive June 1900 fire at the North German Lloyd piers in Hoboken put an enormous strain on him and he suffered a mental collapse.  Following his release from a sanatorium later that year, he informed Bishop Potter that he would leave the ministry.

As it turns out, it was not the strain of his job that prompted his resignation--it was love.  The New-York Tribune reported "Several weeks later it was discovered that he had eloped with Mary Hoffman, a nurse at Bellevue Hospital.  His wife obtained a divorce and he and Miss Hoffman were married."

The couple moved into the Grove Street building and Johnson was now in the insurance business.  His offices were on the 12th floor of No. 70 Fifth Avenue.  On March 3, 1921 the 51-year-old fell from his window to the courtyard below, dying instantly.

Unless undeniable--like a gunshot or slit wrists--suicides were routinely covered up.  An associate stressed to the press that Johnson "was in poor health...and probably had been stricken with weakness, and went to the window to get air, losing his balance and falling out."

The World War II years saw artist Saul Schary living here.  Born in Newark in 1904, the modernist painter produced a wide variety of works--portraits, still lifes and landscapes.  

Titled Untitled. this 1934 still life by Schary hands in the Smithsonian American Art Museum
A renovation completed in 1999 resulted in a restaurant in the shop space and two apartments each on the upper floors.

The triangular pediment over the door was part of the 1870 remodeling.
photographs by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment